Detroit’s name rings out in the hallowed halls of music history. Encyclopaedias and scrolls could be filled by chronicling the city’s influence over the way we think about music. Thanks to the first wave of the Great Migration, Black cultural tenets from the American South merged to create a deep well of genres that defined the sounds of a century. You couldn’t step outside without hearing the sweet soul of Motown, or venture into a seedy club, riddled with cigar smoke and velvet, without letting blues and jazz seep into your brain. Even as the preferred sound of popular culture changed with the passage of time, it’s always felt as if Detroit has its finger on the pulse of the nation.
So it makes sense that the Motor City would become a major player in hip hop as the genre made its ascent. Granted, in the search for national recognition, the city was delayed in comparison to places like New York or Los Angeles. But in typical Detroit fashion, the scene innovated in its own corner of the world.
There was a vacuum left in Detroit’s creative space after Berry Gordy moved Motown Records to Los Angeles back in 1972. In the early ’80s, the journey to reinvigorate the city’s relevancy began when a young emcee named Jerry Flynn Dale began rapping outside of Future Funk Records store in West Detroit, which eventually developed into him starting his own recording studio (Def Sound Studios) in 1985. Elsewhere in the city, artists like Nikki D, A.W.O.L., and Detroit’s Most Wanted were constructing the foundations of Detroit’s ubiquitous style, letting hard-knocking bass provide the backdrop to chronicles of the reality of surviving each day in the city. They rebuilt their musical identity, forming an incubator that allowed hip-hop to shift and mutate freely. It was gradual and flawed, but these building blocks set in motion a rich tradition, fueled by grittiness and unrivaled energy that now flourishes in the midst of a rap renaissance, here’s our pick of 20 of the best Detroit rap cuts.
Deciding to sample Parliament is a perilous decision, if poorly executed. But in 1988, Prince Vince was undaunted by the task, hopping on the timeless track ‘Flashlight’ by George Clinton’s Detroit supergroup. There’s an inherent joy as the iconic keyboard trills and guitar bound through space and time. Vince seamlessly joins in, boasting and bouncing over the vinyl scratches with an effortless cool. Amid the chaos that Clinton’s sample produces, Vince’s inherent smoothness stood out, creating a groovy foil that caught fire on the city’s airwaves in the late ’80s.
Four minutes of in-your-face, breakneck raps never go out of style, especially when accompanied by a blistering breakbeat that’s ripe for a mini-dance break. Pioneering emcee Smiley, born Lynette Williams, struck gold on her debut record in 1989 with this cautionary tale, ensuring that her moniker and looks were extremely deceiving. She doled out her deathly serious assertions and threats of violence with rapid precision, “I’m known around the hood for cracking heads,” giving the funky drum & bass beat a menacing register. In a consistenly misogynistic scene where female emcees had to fight for respect, Smiley made it clear from the jump that she wasn’t to be trifiled with.
A smart interpolation can go a long away. It can go an ever longer way if it forms an infectious chorus. Champtown’s 1992 ripped the famous phrase “Do-Da-Dippity” from Black Sheep’s ‘The Choice Is Yours’, and built around that. Following the rhythm of that one phrase, he tapped into a vein that toed the line irreverent and ridiculous over a beat that sounded like it was powered by a single guitar strumming. The premise may have felt silly, but the bursts of onomatopoeia and nimble spitting in between made for a fun ride.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more appropriate announcement of a return than Eminem’s “Guess who’s back” refrain, as his voice gets more garbled and distorted. It was a sign of things to come on the standout lead single from 2002’s ‘The Eminem Show’ — a further descent into sophomoric hilarity, delivered with an intoxicating flow that seems to bore into your brain. He takes aim at everyone from the FCC, Limp Bizkit, his mother Debbie Mathers, and to Moby, creating the funniest laundry list of enemies possible. It’s almost unfair that he’s armed with one of his best beats (non-Dr. Dre category), with a constant saxophone production that gives the track a fitting cartoonish feel.
This is the type of beat that feels like it would be blaring from a lowrider that’s riding realll slow around the block. The 2002 posse cut from the east Detroiters (who were beefing with rappers from the West Side about who was the rightful owner of the “Chedda Boyz” label) has an enthralling bounce that would be ripe for a breakdance battle. Paired with numerous references to their daily lives and drug-dealing exploits, the Eastside crew homed in on a hometown anthem that gave regular folks a set to claim.
Recognised as one of the first woman to be considered a gangsta rapper, the standout single from Lichelle Laws’ 1993 debut album ‘Born Gangstaz’ coolly lambasted men that would even dare to think about taking advantage of her. Her sauntering swagger was unmatched, dispatching insults at nameless losers and thirsty idiots with such a relaxed disposition that it almost felt second nature.
Boy bands were so in during 2004, so naturally D12 had to parody them in the most ridiculous way possible. The ingenious structure of the track and video almost felt too obvious — framing the megastar Eminem as an egomanic grating on the collective patience of Proof, Swifty McVay, Kon Artis, and Bizarre mirrored the same “tragic” way that most boy bands met their fate around the turn of the century.
Each time you listened to a Slum Village track, it felt as if the stars aligned to achieve the perfect synergy between melody and rhyming. The original group of rappers Baatin, T3 and legendary producer J Dilla zeroed in on a timeless three-man weave, as Dilla’s productions acted as dreamscapes for the talented pairing to nestle easily into. ‘Fall In Love’ is no different, with the saccharine sample being powerful enough to shield the listener from the stress and strife of the outside world, if even just for a brief moment. Baatin and T3’s musings fall right into place, getting to the root of what motivates them to rap and live their lives, reminding each other what’s important at the end of the day.
J Dilla was a master at conveying emotion with saying much of anything at all. He crafted meaning and feeling in the empty space, chopping arcane samples with an unmatched precision to breathe life into the simplest melodies. The penultimate track on the instrumental tape ‘Donuts’ finds astounding beauty in the smallest elements — a romantic violin loop and vocal phrase from a 1971 track from The Moments. The phrase “I give to you” repeats for just over a minute and a half, letting Dilla impart one last gift to the ones who loved and supported him.
Instead of gratuitous glorification of a drug-fueled lifestyle, Danny Brown elected to finish off his outstanding mixtape ‘XXX’ with a punishing excavation of the fears that come with the life he lives. The anxiety is ratcheted up with each line in the soliloquy — which he delivers in a singular verse in one take until it reaches a head. Frenetic horns and drums blare in the background as he screams out, “Doin’ all these drugs, hope an OD aint’ next,” calling out to anyone who dares to actually listen.
The deep history of Detroit rappers starting their careers off strong spans decades. And no matter how the rest of his career has panned out, Big Sean hit the ground running with his official debut album ‘Finally Famous’, displaying an uncanny aptitude for hitmaking from the very outset. He ran with the energy created by Mike Dean’s pounding hi-hats and hypnotic squeaks, letting the world know that a new star had entered the atmosphere.
The mid-2010s were flooded with fruitless attempts at making melodic rap stick in the mainstream, but Dej Loaf was one of the few to truly hit the nail on the head from the outset. She settled somewhere in the middle of a magical duality — the serene, almost dreamlike melodies from the DDS production provided a suitable match for Dej’s lovely falsetto crooning. But behind those angelic vocals were some of the most violent and depraved lines that you’d never expect to hear. It’s impossible to not hum along as she sings, “Imma get his whole motherfuckin’ family” on the hook, as millions proved powerless against her infectious voice.
‘Shotgun’ owes much of its allure to Quelle Chris’ methodical chaos. Through arcane Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle vignettes, he drops the listener into the seedy criminal underbelly at the drop of a hat. The city’s underground legend slowed the production to a crawling pace, centering on somber guitar strums and a drumbeat that makes it feel as if you’re about to witness a heist in a 1920s gangster film. The three veterans, armed with deep bags full of esoteric references (Rock of Gilbraltar, Scooby Doo, and Evel Knievel are all on the table) and grimy registers, put on a flawless display as masters of their craft.
There’s approximately a million ‘First Day Out’ songs in existence, but there’s something about Tee Grizzley’s that stands out amongst the fodder. After serving a three-year stint in prison for robberies at Michigan State and in Kentucky, he exploded back in a massive way in 2016 with a song was forged on his cell bunk. Helluva’s production was simple — a rousing piano key intro over which Tee delivers an emotional sermon saying, “These niggas prayed on my downfall.” But once the beat kicks, his recollections rise in fury, retelling the stories and lessons that got him to this point. It’s unrelenting, full of bars and disses that are inherently cathartic in nature to yell out, we can only imagine how it felt for Tee to deliver them.
The Detroit rap renaissance that’s been brewing since 2018 is marked by an infamous willingness to say the most vile phrases over a beat, with seemingly unbridled glee. Sada Baby and Drego’s bar-for-bar exchange feels like a devious game of “anything you can do, I can do better.” The groovy bassline and muted piano makes you want to get up and dance (as shown by Sada Baby’s glorious dance movies in the viral music video), but when you hear the line, “Pussy nigga got shot then he ran to the gram,” it becomes apparent that duo isn’t around to make friends. The one-liners are plentiful and punchy, like when Sada Baby compares a brick of cocaine to Brock Lesnar, or when Drego asks a girl if she believes in his dreams like Coretta Scott King. In consecutive lines, your expression while listening can go from horror, joy, and shock. Just what the doctor ordered.
Scam rap might be the funniest arm of the Detroit rap scene’s revolution, depending on whether or not you’ve been the victim of a credit card scam. At its head is Teejayx6’s step-by-step instruction manual on how to respond when the government cracks down on his dark web usage. There’s a general air of absurdity as a delightful steel drum pitter-patters on in the background as he recounts obtaining a VPN, downloading Tor Browser, and obtaining a BIN so that he can resume his scams as he heart desires. The ease and freedom at which he describes this process almost makes it sound too good to be true, making you feel like you could embark on your own scam journey if you so pleased.
Posse cuts didn’t die, they just multiplied. The peak of the modern Detroit group track arrived in the middle of 2020 over a bewitching Enrgy beat that masterfully uses a string section from a 1964 Charles Aznavour track. The summit between the four rappers over this beat more resembled a battle to determine who could lay down the unforgettable verse. The innate competitive nature brought the best out of each appearance, but few lines could compete the shocking comedy from BandGang Lonnie Bands saying, “This that ugly white bitch, I call her Mona Lisa.”
A decent portion of the new wave in the city adheres to a laid-back, effortless delivery, and that’s in no small part to Babyface Ray and his impact. It’s versatile, meshing well with a wide-range of styles — but at its best when next to a straight-laced, simplistic style. That’s what makes Vezzo and Babyface Ray a match-made in heaven on this 2019 collaboration, doling out boasts and threats with such a coolness that they almost go under the radar. The ability to make complex threats like “I heard he tryna shop, he ain’t gang? Get his ass taxed,” roll off the tongue over top a “We Are The Champions” sample should be illegal.
Boldy James had been paying his dues since 2011, serving time and working towards his breakout moment for the better part of a decade. The payoff for the Detroit veteran finally occurred on his collaborative album with The Alchemist, ‘The Price of Tea in China’, in early 2020. The standout track, dripped in melancholy and powered by haunting wails, lets him chronicle his drug-dealing escapades in an eerily methodical manner. Brutal honesty about the effects of his lifestyle on his family relationships and the fallouts on the streets hit harder than a brick, becoming one of the early signs that his renaissance in the coming years would be otherworldly.
It felt like the movement to sample cultural touchstones with reckless abandon for rap beats began to gain traction in 2020. Veeze’s submission into the absurd sample lexicon takes the iconic theme song from Dick Wolf’s Law & Order, giving the keyboard chords a new home. He capitalizes on the familiarity and dispels one-liner after one-liner in a such lackadaisical manner that he almost sounds bored. Stringing together references to the city’s crime legend Big Meech (of Black Mafia Family infamy), Jason Kidd, and Nickelodeon’s Kenan & Kel, he exhibits a steely disposition that many have tried to replicate sense.
The story of Big Meech and the criminal underbelly of Detroit hip hop business BMF Entertainment is told in BMF, a show prodiced by Lionsgate+. The first episode of Season Two premiered Jan 6 2023 on STARZ and can be streamed in the UK on the Lionsgate Plus app.
Matthew Ritchie is a freelance writer, follow him on Twitter
Written by: Tim Hopkins