-Joe Pitts (@headtowall)
News of the recent sale of Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia has solidified the slow churning death of one of the most famous recording studios in the history of music. Originally opened in 1968 by famed engineer Joseph Tarsia, the space played host to many famous soul recording sessions firmly establishing what came to be known as "The Philadelphia Sound". From Billy Joel's famous hour-long live concert (years before he would establish a national following) to Aretha Franklin, The Jackson 5, ZZ Top, Boyz II Men and the Roots, Sigma Sound Studios had no shortage of incredible talent working within its walls over its 40+ years of operation. With producer/songwriters Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, Thom Bell and production by Baker, Harris and Young, Sigma Sound became the perennial home base for Philadelphia soul, a sound that grew from its gospel and rhythm & blues roots eventually evolving into popular funk and disco. The prestigious history of such a landmark Philadelphia music institution is something to be celebrated, but what we ought not do is mourn the end of Sigma Sound Studios. Instead, we should recognize the end of its storied music chapter is simply the start of a new one. We must embrace the new generation of the Philadelphia Sound.
The state of urban music in Philadelphia is in a very peculiar spot right now. On one hand there is an emerging creative class producing great content in the city. From the revolving door of jam-packed and eclectic shows filling the calendar almost every night of the week to unique events like hybrid art show/music showcases, there is a definite resurgence in creative output in Philadelphia in recent years. But because Philadelphia is not a traditional industry city like New York or LA or Atlanta, there is a lot of uncertainty with regards to the direction of Philly's contemporary urban music scene. Take for example recent high profile Philadelphia music events. These highly publicized events from big festivals like the yearly Roots Picnic to local underground festivals to SXSW showcases are great for increasing outside attention on Philadelphia music in general. But a possible critique of these movements is that they lack a particular and identifiable sound (and in the case of this year's Roots picnic: there's barely any Philly talent on the bill at all).
There is little sense in putting teenage-demographic pop hip hop acts on the same bill directly next to hardened street rappers if not only for the simple goal of "putting on for Philadelphia". Let me be clear: I don’t mean to diminish the importance of these events which are intended to unite a city’s music industry; this is a vital step for the growth of our contemporary urban music community. Moreover, these movements are great for getting people to talk about the music coming out of Philadelphia in its most general form. But without an identifiable sound that we can succinctly share with the world, the success for this creative class as a whole becomes undermined.
The sound of Philadelphia generation in the 70's and 80's was hugely successfully because Sigma Sounds was able to cultivate a very specific sound for the city of Philadelphia. The layered horn instruments and soulful rhythm and blues influences created a unique vibe for Philly music that you could not get elsewhere and you had to come to Philly to get. If you were to ask a typical Philadelphian what is the sound of Philly urban music right now, you would get an array of varying responses, most of which would probably involve the name Meek Mill, but in reality, a new wave of Philly urban music is bubbling; it just hasn't yet had the exposure it needs.
We are now finally getting to the thesis of this piece. This article is about the New Sound of Philadelphia. This New Sound in Philadelphia urban music is not the soul funk of Sigma Sounds' yesteryear. It is not the neo-soul sound of The Roots Sigma heydays. But with any logical progression, the new sound of Philadelphia is most certainly influenced by these prior soul movements. It is not modern trap rap or trap soul or any other form of trap music that has been mercilessly mutilated by the unoriginal jocking EDM DJs from here to Hollywood.
The new sound of Philadelphia is eclectic and resists definition. It is organic. It is conscious. It lives and breathes, and it's rough around the edges, and it hasn't quite figured out all of its kinks just yet. In fact, it’s not so much a sound as it is a feeling. But most importantly, it has the critical soul element that will in due time solidify its rightful place in the annals of Philly music history. 2015 is the year for this new generation of the Philadelphia Sound. I have collected a list of Philadelphia artists who I believe fall under the category of this new Philadelphia Sound, and I am going to discuss them in attempt to make sense of this burgeoning creative music wave in Philadelphia that has until now resisted labeling and attention on the grand scale. I am undoubtedly going to miss some perhaps important pieces of this Philly puzzle, but I'm human. I think we can all live with one writer's inability to be completely comprehensive with a concept that is not yet even fully understood or matured (thanks for understanding). With that caveat on the table, I proceed.
When my business partner Anthony and I introduced the Three for 3 series of music shows 2 years ago under the Quite Hype music umbrella, our objective was to showcase the incredible musical talent the city of Philadelphia has to offer. Through that experience we have met some amazing creatives, and it is this loosely-connected community that is beginning to fully take mold as the city’s preeminent music movement. Let's explore these artists (and others) that are shaping the new Sound of Philadelphia
The Artists Creating the New Generation of the Sound of Philadelphia
We featured Theodore Grams on our first Three for 3 show because his philosophy behind his music is akin to that of Philly’s new generation of urban music. Grams not only wants success for himself but for his entire phraternity family. And even just a couple years ago in a time before it was “cool” to embrace hipster/art culture in hip hop circles, Grams was doing it first. Peep his Dogtown video where he and his team can be seen supporting young creative Philly fashion upstarts like Lavy Co and 777 Syndicate; he would later go on to do some dope shoots with us at Cult Classic as well as with our brothers at The Decades Hat Co.
I remember seeing Asaad shutdown the now closed Abakus Takeout streetwear store in Chinatown for the Decades/Najeeb Shiekh collaborative release event, and it was amazing. The energy in the room was insane, and something I’ve always liked about Asaad’s sound is his willingness to embrace the soulful side of Philly street music. This important characteristic is why Asaad is an important piece to this new wave of urban music coming out of Philly.
Grande’s track record for putting out quality Philly street music with a soul appeal has been on point. The Fools Gold and Rare MP3’s affiliated artist represents Philly rap storytelling at its best. Peep his recent record Make it Count which is truly a hit from the incredible production to the honest and gritty yet uplifting lyrics. And how can we forget his legendary set at Philly's landmark streetwear boutique Ubiq a couple of years ago?
When we put Worshyper on the Three for 3 series we were super excited because their execution beautifully embodies the modern trend of combining soulful hip hop/r&b with indie-electronic elements. The group has been relatively quiet recently, but I’ve been told they’ve been working hard behind closed doors to bring us more music and shows in 2015. Nice
Ill Fated Natives
Ill Fated Natives are another band who rocked the Three for 3 stage when we gave them the opportunity. While their inclusion on a contemporary urban music list might cause head scratching for some (they are after all a rocking modern reincarnation of the Jimmi Hendrix Experience), their vibe encapsulates everything about this new sound of Philadelphia movement; soulful, energetic, eclectic and not afraid to experiment. Look out for more from this promising three-piece.
A Few Dope Crews Worth Mentioning: What Scene / Sub404 / TheCrewDown
I’ve lumped these three loosely related camps/labels/groups together because they’re often seen together, and they make dope music with a similar aesthetic. I’ll get more specific into one of What Scene's songstresses below, but all you really need to know is that these kids are making some eclectic and soulful music right now. Some hits include Miles Chancellor’s recent record with Mike Wash - What I Gotta Do (sub404/crewdown) and Sincerely Tahj’s I Know and Champs - Pink Floyd (What Scene?)
When talking about the idea of cultivating a scene, community, movement or sound, there must be a nurturing element. Any music culture from the Motown ‘60’s to Atlanta’s modern day hotbed has required nurturing from its members and how can we talk about nurturing without acknowledging the critical role the female plays in that development? So with that, let’s discuss the female players in this growing Philadelphia conscious-eclectic art hip hop wave:
Tierra Whack is equal parts charismatic and enigmatic which is a big reason why we had to have her on one of the Three for 3 shows. She balances the delicate line between expressing her impassioned and gritty Philly attitude on one end and her inspirational drive to be a positive motivational force for the scene on the other. She is also one of the few individuals in this newly growing scene that has a direct link to the State Property era of yesteryear: under an old moniker Tierra created a buzz for herself in Philly when she dropped a big radio freestyle that got the streets talking (editor’s note: at time of publication we couldn’t find this freestyle anywhere—who has it? Dizzle where you at?!). Fast forward to 2015, and she’s found herself as one of the hottest features on Young Chris’ comeback tape Gunna Season. Perhaps her biggest inspiration is Missy Elliott, and as the only legitimate female MC right now in Philly, it shows. But what she specifically offers to this new sound of Philadelphia is her image and beat selection. She’s different. Her musical style is free flowing. Her tunes are not traditional verse/hook/verse/hook. She’s not afraid to flow on the track and I’m not talking about your traditional Philly freestyle flow either. I’m talking pure conscious thought spilling straight out of her head. In 2015 you will undoubtedly hear more from Miss Whack.
This young singer is soulful to the core with emotion pouring out of every beautiful note she puts on the track. We are proud to be able to say we put her on her first show as part of the Three for 3 series. What Andrea brings to the Philly scene is critical to the development of the new Philadelphia Sound because she is the closest modern manifestation of the soul artists who are responsible for the reputation Sigma Sounds has today. She is not afraid to experiment: not simply with her beat selection either but with her approach to recording, and her song structure and style, and this willingness to experiment is what separates this newly growing scene from the rest of the pack. If the new generation of the Philadelphia Sound is going to win over the ears of mainstream America, it must continue to explore the eclectic sounds that make it so unique and emerging.
We heard about Bristeves when she played the Frame of Mind Art Party a few weeks ago. Her style is reminiscent of the early 90’s groovy r&b/hip hop wave, that generation of music-makers being the closest relevant analogy to this new Philadelphia music scene. She is able to sway between spoken verses and sung hooks, another important quality in this post-Drake era of modern hip hop and r&b. Lastly, Bri is a woman of all trades from modeling to blogging to branding herself exceptionally. I believe our generation will be remembered for our mixed media talents, and Bristeves fits that mold to the t.
Anyee Wright as well as her What Scene team (including Champs and Sincerely Tahj among others) are making a name for themselves. Anyee’s debut single R.W.A.G.L.M. featuring Miles Chancellor is perhaps the most accessible song contribution from this new Philadelphia scene. Plus she just rocked SXSW at the What Scene x RecPhilly stage. Expect much more from her and the rest of What Scene this year.
I’ll close this piece with a couple more artists who might appear as if their sound doesn’t exactly mesh with this new sound of Philadelphia wave, but their stories and histories paint a different picture and show how they are important to the next generation of contemporary urban music in Philadelphia:
Lil Uzi Vert
Where does Lil Uzi Vert, the newest Philly sensation as-heard in recent high caliber collaborations like DJ Carnage’s WDYD, fit into all of this? First we must consider that there is really only one modern Philadelphia rapper that has solidified himself a position in rap world: Meek Mill. Meek’s come up at a time of the waning State Property era and his subsequent alignment with Rick Ross and MMG mark the end of one chapter in the anthology that is urban music in Philadelphia. As we turn the page to the next chapter that is new sound of Philadelphia, the focus on traditional Philly street rap is going to become less pronounced. But as Philly’s new conscious and soulful wave begins to crash into the mainstream media, we cannot deny the important street lane that Meek represents. And if Meek has found himself as the logical conclusion of the Beanie/Young Chris/State Prop era, Lil Uzi Vert is demonstrating what a kid from north Philly can do given these influences when combined with an internet-era appreciation for eclectic hip hop from the catchy vibes of the leaned out south to the drill attitude of Chicago’s heavy hitters. This is a prime reason why we had to have Uzi on our A3C showcase last year. Given Meek’s unrivaled charisma and tenacity in his world of street-hardened rags-to-riches records, it makes sense that a persona like Lil Uzi Vert is rising to such fame and will continue do to so in 2015.
Another rising Philly rapper whose street appeal may not immediately appear to conform to this new vision of the Philadelphia sound is Dizzy Santana. His comfortable flows, knack for hooks, and ability to cross-over via r&b singles as found on his debut project Judgement Day are qualities that make him stand out in this growing soul wave. Combine these elements with his ability to sway between street scenes and hipster crowds and educated listeners may be reminded of a once similarly situated larger-than-life persona: Biggie Smalls. As the more eclectic and conscious Native Tongue collective was dominating early-to-mid 90’s radio, Biggie made room for himself in the scene by bringing gritty street stories to popular culture. When all is said and done, this too might be Dizzy’s role to play for this new generation of the sound of Philadelphia.
I want to take a moment to shout out to some more artists who are still finding their sound and may solidify their place in the new sound of Philadelphia sooner than later: Mars Parker, Freshz and the rest of NOVO Gang, $wipe, Zah Garner, Milton, the Baked Life Recordings family, and much more. The Philly contemporary urban music community right now is truly vibrant as it continues to grow, mature and evolve.