The Cheeseheads have long been outspoken as a culture. Folks from the Dairy State talk and move differently than their neighbors, which is where the nickname comes from. But what started as a derogatory remark towards working class Wisconsinites, has since turned into a widely embraced nickname. A strong public school system has created many great writers, thinkers, athletes and artists. Commercial entertainment has never been a priority, though. Life is based more on a functioning community (the people are “nice”). The work ethic stereotype is very real, as is the activist and turn up nature of the Badger State. Wisconsin natives stand out in The Midwest and have thus become accustomed to forming a team of their own. Now, the cold Wisconsin soul is fighting for solidarity through an artistic form: Hip Hop.
The local music scene is a melting pot–vibrant but divided. Older generations were masters of classical, polka, jazz and blues. Liberace was a pioneer, as was Al Jarreau.
Les Paul had a hand in inventing rock & roll. The state has fostered big rock, folk and country fanbases over the years. Wisconsin is festival country. R&B singer Eric Benét is from Milwaukee, as are industry heavyweights Rico Love and Tony Neal. In the past few years, many new like minded emcees and singers have arisen in Milwaukee and Madison. The sound is eclectic and difficult to classify but the mindset is the same. I was born and raised in Mad City, graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Madison in 2013, have over 2.5 million plays on my own music, and run the top platform for Wisconsin Hip Hop culture–Basement Made–a name that reflects the come up for many our artists. Over the past few years, I’ve been grinding to bring it all together. Recently, I chopped it up with some of Wisco’s coldest talent for HipHopDX.
IshDARR provided a burst of youthful energy in 2015. The upbeat Cream City Motion emcee came outta nowhere after signing with The Agency Group. Atlantic Records flew him out to California to record. Then he debuted the masterfully crafted Old Soul, Young Spirit mixtape. Since, 19-year-young IshDARR and his multi-talented manager Mag have only been up (3 million total plays on SC). They just flew out again to perform and link with Arthur McArthur, Apple Music and The Grammys. Then they hit SXSW. This DARR is making no excuses. His team toured Europe this winter and shut it down! CCM is an exciting team and they always bring the hype no matter what the message of the song is. Ishdarr’s “Too Bad” video is fun, “Remember” is more serious. He’s a force on the mic, with a new flow that moves the masses. Ishdarr was the spark for The 4.
If IshDARR sparked The 4, Trapo (right) lit a fire in Mad City. “I go off pure emotion,” he tells HipHopDX. The artist strikes with an aggressive tone and then transitions right into singing the blues, pouring out his soul. Unifying under Hip Hop has been tough for the struggling rust-corn-frost belt state. Local 608 orgs UCAN and First Wave have tried to elevate the culture with mixed results. Still, Trapo said “I would much rather be in this situation than be comfortable.” Born Davon Prather, this young man is woke for 17-years-o. The artist speaks to the Southside streets of Madison but not in the prevailing Drill trend of the current. He sounds organic on the mic over the slow-moving “jazz and rock” production. Trapo’s innovative and emotional voice has drawn the attention of Allan Kingdom, theMIND and Kevin Abstract. He debuted The Black Beverly Hills tape last year and plans to drop the follow up SHE EP with Derrick Thomas soon.
Photo: Devan Marz
Ra’Shaun (pictured left above) has a catchy flow. He hails from the same side of town as Trapo and both were gifted with the gift of melody. The multi-talented artist can also spit. According to Chaos–the premiere Mad City freestyle MC–this young man can go for days with the raps. Ra’Shaun and 608 Music have come a long way for Madtown. The songwriter is mesmerizing many with his Midwest charm, and looking to alternative outlets in a town that offers little to no recording space, radio support or venues to the Hip Hop “genre.” Wisconsin Hip Hop artists are basement made. Sneaky Shaun has a good sense of humor too. The artist is serious on the mic but won’t hesitate to laugh about his shortcomings. Chloe Moretz is on board, as she was with IshDARR. Keep your eyes peeled for the artist’s ORANGE WALL and ParkST EP’s.
All of these artists can spit but Pizzle is a cut above the rest. “After ‘Doubts’ is when I really started to hit the triple time,” he told DX the other day. Triple time. Born Sharrod Sloans, Pizzle was raised in the Milwaukee Bounce and Jack Flow scenes, and cites Twista and Bone Thugs for their Midwest Chopper ways. He’s clean with the melody too. The competitive artist will hear someone on the radio and then try to one up them on his next single. “I like the challenge and the skill,” he tells us. The rapid-fire emcee is one of the first consistently dope Hip Hop artists out of Milwaukee, and the first to work with Gucci Mane and Rich Homie Quan. Pizzle is also a workhorse engineer. He’s a multi-plug and his network is growing powerful. “I’ve recorded over 60 songs for this project,” he says. With producer Honorable C.N.O.T.E. now in the picture, alongside the usual suspects Derelle Rideout, Bizness Boi, Cardo and Yung Dev, Pizzle leaves the competition reaching, gasping for air. His upcoming Grand Design album will impress, come April 11. His last tape Insomnia II was a critical achievement in continuing to gain exposure.
Photo: Kenny Hoopla
WebsterX and New Age Narcissism push a selfish school of thought. He and his lady Siren – along with founding members Lex Allen and Lorde Fredd33–all perform as a collective but Kid X has a mind of his own. Self-expression is key, as he explained to us in an interview. Also known as Sam Ahmed, the Milwaukee-native offers a confident and conscious voice during a dark time. For the past few years, Scott Walker has been running the state on a GOP agenda, which has brought Wisconsin working folk together similar to the Labor Movement. Sam has been critical in uniting the “Kinfolk” of the Upper Midwest through his music, and recently landed a performance and collaboration with the Grammy-nominated Northern Gentleman Allan Kingdom. WebsterX also did SXSW 2016. He started in ‘09, and picked up the name in 2013, but didn’t take off until last year’s “Doomsday.” Respect the shooters: both Cody LaPlant and Damien Blue are great Hip Hop cinematographers. Kid X gives some credit to Kanye West and Radiohead for his experimental nature but he too has an artistic eye. The vocal leader has also been inspired by Chance The Rapper to “just do shit.” He and Kane now help organize “Freespace” events in Milwaukee for local Hip Hop artists.
Wave Chappelle looks to make his mark like Dave Chappelle did in comedy. “Good People, that’s the movement,” he tells DX. The young king, born Radontae Ashford, grew up rapping with IshDARR in high school. Although it’s been struggling as of late, the state public school system has been solid historically. Wave then moved down South for a while to go to school and eventually partnered up with Yo Gotti. Now, he’s back to light the city up with an enlightened perspective, like he never left. Recently, the rapper has been working with Maajei Vu, who crafts a Brew City brand of synthy, heavily compressed Trap. “New Wave Hip Hop,” Wave calls it. Many artists in The Midwest are making a similar emotional and desolate R&B sound. “Overall it’s soulful music, real life music,” Wave says of Wisconsin Hip Hop. “We used to get overshadowed, people would just come to Chicago and stop there,” he says. Wave brings the energy too. The Milwaukee-native just got off a tour (and SXSW) with Yung Satori and Lucien Parker, and recently laced features with Earlly Mac and Lil Uzi Vert. The weather is changing and this emcee is brewing up a storm for The 4.
3rd Dimension brings life back to the American rap group. Whether it’s Spaz hitting ‘em with one of his merciless verses, Reeks lacing the melody, Half-Breed or Probs finessing a new flow, or Burn pumping out another jazzy masterpiece–this team is getting buckets. Ya have to go through hoops if you’re coming from Mad City. “There’s been this longstanding belief that Wisconsin venues don’t support local Hip Hop acts for whatever reason,” 3rd said in a chat with DX. “But the recent exposure to artists around the state is starting to force the hand of these places.” The crew keeps a low key demeanor but they go nuts on stage, moving their audience from introspective mood music to Madtown turn up. Madison, Wisconsin Hip Hop has been on rise since Zooniversity and Soldier Click united Madison and the larger Badger crowds in 2009. 3rd Dimension gained an early cosign from UW-Madison too. The capital city around campus is half the size of Milwaukee and surrounded by cornfields, yet 3rd is making Chicago-wide waves, recruiting Supa Bwe and Mick Jenkins for features. Respect the shooters: Niko Money has been building that pipeline for years with OG Esco. 3rd made first contact to The Go on the mic, though. Their album, Things Have Changed speaks volumes to their mission. Just Lust is icing on the cake. Peep this “Oracle” premiere from the young gods.
Photo: Jeff Dew
Von Alexander has made a noble name for himself as the voice of the North Side. After Von met Pizzle, he started to take music “seriously.” He and Dee Phresh! crushed it right out of the gate. Since, the raspy-voiced storyteller has gained a diverse following, delivering vivid tales of his neighborhood with intricate lyricism. The self-managed artist emphasizes the importance of the Internet in connecting the desolate “melting pot” of a scene to the national market. “I’m a real SoundCloud type of dude,” Von tells us. “I was huge on Tumblr,” he remembered while citing Nas, Bon Iver and N.E.R.D. as influences. He’s calculated and creative with the pen, methodical when picking beats. Von submerses the listener in low ends but illuminates his side of the heavily segregated Midwest city with brilliant artistry. Milwaukee is one of the toughest cities to survive in America and Von embraces that. “People just can’t be afraid here,” he says. See V O N and Memoirs.
Sean Smart is a rap professional. The University of Wisconsin alumnus has the vocabulary of a valedictorian and the flow of a seasoned Milwaukee emcee. He knows the utility of a strong network too. Sean Loughran’s graphic design work and VR company have brought more than paychecks, as he explained to DX. His people set up the 360 rig for Chance The Rapper at “Revelry Music Festival” last year. Then he dropped The Mixtape on November 25 with a massive Mammyth mix and a boatload of other new names. “I feel like I’ve figured out what I’m meant to do,” he tells us. Sean did SXSW, A3C, The Rave, UW and UWM with Higher Education but he always wanted to branch out more to the local scene. “Dana Coppa is the only dude that I knew or heard of when I came up,” the rapper said. Sean Smart plans to drop 3-4 videos and several standalone singles in the near future. In 2016, he believes it’s more efficient for the indie artist to push individual records and visuals than full albums. Sean was “Born Ready,” just take a listen to this HipHopDX premiere.
Photo: Weston Rich.
RahRah The Savage has a signature flick–an exceptional finesse–on every record he touches. Also known as Ryan Haller, the Cream City native began rapping in his teens. There, he picked up the name for his surprisingly forthcoming raps. You’ll hear the emcee in his flow. “A lot of our rappers use melody,” Ryan tells HipHopDX, but he now considers himself fully converted to singer. He found his lane after dropping an experimental project a couple years ago, and although RahRah still identifies as a hook killer, The Savage is dropping the name in this transition. He provides the silky melody to the hard hitting rap of Milwaukee. “This is a way for me to express myself and be tasteful,” he tells us. For now on, call him Rahn Harper. He used to listen to Job Jetson and Pizzle. Now he’s putting on for The Mil right alongside them. Look out for Rahn’s Damien Blue-directed video for “As of Late” by the end of March. Here’s his latest “PCB” record with Pink Slip.
Bankx recently signed to the same label as New York artist Skizzy Mars. He’s crafted his own experimental style, though. Bankx, or Carti Bankx, is on a new level of trippy Auto-Tuned R&B, one that has swiftly landed him on major platforms around the country including Complex, Pigeons & Planes and GoodMusicAllDay. He’s also a part of the 4sound clique with Cheap$kate and Kane, as he explained to DX. Bankx and his team tend to take drugs and then create drippy music out of the experience. Eminem kick-started the local drug culture in the early 2000’s. The most prevalent Wisconsin rapper drugs of 2016 are Xans, Flats, Tabs, Beans, Lean – and of course alcohol and heavy Indica smoke. Bankx and his squad drop a lot of music via the modern formula. Photo and video are more rare, but we’ll take whatever we can get from Bankx, he’s only 18.
Wisconsin Hip Hop artists are a wild gang, with a taste for intricate storytelling and experimental production. Most start in boom-bap and later get into a drill or conscious style. Many artists go for a mix of trap and R&B, others combine elements of classical, rock, folk and EDM. Some go for a drugged-out or clubby vibe. There are cliques from the 608 and 414 that live to get ignorant, while others look to compose an opus or speak on the politics of the divided Purple State. The one thing that every one of these MCs mentioned–being isolated. The Wisconsin soul embraces the cold struggle with a positive mindset. Now, the Cheeseheads are grinding harder than ever and the Internet is listening.
Prepare yourself, The North is coming…
Honorable Mention: Chaos NewMoney, Arcani, Klassik, Ted Park, Reggie Bonds, F. Stokes, Gerald Walker, Job Jetson.
Cliff Grefe was born and raised Madison, Wisconsin, graduated from UW-Madison and has built a large following as a writer, MC, producer, director and tastemaker. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of Basement Made.