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How Virginia Beach and the DMV made rap safe (and profitable!) for eccentrics

As early New York hip-hop hits like "The Message," Kurtis Blow's "Basketball" and Run-DMC's "King of Rock" started to make their way down I-95, hip-hop was already storming over Virginia Beach.

A resort town seated at the northeastern-most edge of the Bible Belt, Virginia Beach was in many ways a fraught borderland, full of NAS Oceana lifers and Southerners born on the fringes of the Union, that couldn't have felt more different from the Big Apple.

In the 1980s and '90s, its suburban community was growing increasingly (and reluctantly) diverse, as its rigid base identity  struggled to adapt to its tourist economy.

Still, you wouldn't have bet on its boardwalk landscape to produce anything out of the ordinary.

All rap is local: A celebration of the genre from NPR

As it celebrates its 50th birthday, hip-hop is a global, mass-market phenomenon. But to map its true impact, you have to consider its music at city level.


Read more from NPR's Sheldon Pearce and stories from other regions

To celebrate hip-hop's 50th anniversary and chart its cultural takeover, we have decided to get granular, with 14 pocket histories considering different regions across the country — their styles and sounds, the ideas and aesthetics they brought to the wider rap ecosystem, the figures at play.

Individually, they examine the way that places shape plans and prospects. Threaded together, they explain how a supposed fad spread into a national phenomenon and rose into a commercial titan. We didn't pick just the biggest, most obvious or most important places; our selections represent how scenes developed and self-governed over time, with surges into the national spotlight that raised rap's collective profile.

The story of rap music is one of zonal identity becoming the pervasive atmosphere, over and  over and  over and  over and  over and  over again, until it seems as if there isn't anything its influence isn't touching.

A group of bold teenagers calling themselves S.B.I., or Surrounded by Idiots, had other ideas. Two of the hip-hop crew's members, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, had met at a summer camp for the gifted; the others, Timothy "DJ Timmy Tim" Mosley and Melvin "Magoo" Barcliff, were friends from their junior high.

S.B.I. would split into two factions before they even got to high school, without releasing the few tracks they'd recorded, but they seemed tied together by destiny. Williams and Hugo's group, The Neptunes, was discovered by new jack swing progenitor Teddy Riley at a talent show.

Mosley, meanwhile, was recruited to produce for an R&B group called Fayze, formed by the local singer Missy Elliott. After Jodeci member DeVante Swing signed the group and rebranded them Sista, Elliott took Mosley and Barcliff with her to New York City to join the superpowered collective Swing Mob, where Mosley was given a new name: Timbaland.

In the nearly three decades since, Timbaland and The Neptunes have dominated not only the rap world but the pop realm beyond, making both significantly weirder.

After revolutionizing drum programming in R&B with his hydraulic snares and sputtering kicks, Timbaland warped the dimensions of rap rhythm and sound, toying with air hockey-esque breakbeats and samples from North Africa and the Far East.

Using  baby coos as accents wasn't outlandish enough: His beats flipped  Egyptian belly dancing musicHindi dramas and " Double Dutch Bus" into alien transmissions. In Missy, he found the perfect partner — a bubbly performer with an elastic voice, an ear for the crags in his beats and an eye for the eccentric. She was the tongue-wagging, trash bag-wearing caricature at the center of a Hype Williams fisheye, the freaky, neck-extending exhibitionist, unconventional and effortlessly cool.

After working with Teddy Riley on Wreckx-n-Effect's 1992 hit "Rump Shaker" while still in school, The Neptunes broke through big with the Mase single "Lookin' at Me" in 1998.

The group's approach was simpler than Timbaland's. Songs like Noreaga's "Superthug," Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass" and Ludacris' "Southern Hospitality" all had an elemental formula — punchy, staggered drums, a soft, isolated melodic section and some kind of buzzing, persistent tone.

The bigger they got, they bolder they got (just consider the No. 1's: "Hot in Herre," "Drop It Like It's Hot," "Hollaback Girl," "Money Maker"). But they saved their edgiest stuff for another peer from their high school days — Gene Thorton, aka  Malice, who had started a rap duo with his younger brother  Pusha T, future Drake rival and Kanye enforcer.

Their first two albums as  Clipse are the stone tablets of Virginia rap doctrine: 2002's  Lord Willin' announces a drug family with squelching synths and lunch-table thumps; 2006's  Hell Hath No Fury builds a coke-rap epic out of woozy, wonky clamor.

Both The Neptunes and Timbaland were major factors in a demarcation of genre in the early '00s. The worlds of hardcore rap, sultry R&B and mainstream pop seemed to dissolve into one another, opening up space for guest verses on radio hits, bringing an edge to pop songcraft and making entry into the Top 40 significantly easier for the rappers who followed.

And even with the lines redrawn, they continued to color outside them in the years to come.

If Virginia Beach came to define the new millennium zeitgeist, the rap of the nation's capital — a three-hour drive away, close enough to share a musical lineage — was slower to catch on.

Even within the District proper there seemed to be less of a push for rap, perhaps because it already had its own sound: Washington, D.C., was a go-go town. There was, of course,  DC Scorpio, who in the late '80s brought boom bap and go-go together on an album called  Go Go Live at the Capital Centre, and  DJ Kool, who in the '90s married the bombast of the two sounds with "Let Me Clear My Throat." But the former was only locally relevant, and the latter operated on a different frequency than the commercial rap moving the needle in that moment.

Rap promoters  coined the term "DMV" in the early 2000s to mean the greater Washington area, specifically D.C. and its neighboring suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. (Many of that community's artists have lived in two or three of those letters, but it has long been a habit for fringe residents to tell out-of-towners they are from D.C.)

Dueling radio stations, 93.9 WKYS and 95.5 WPGC, carved out airtime for the sounds of the city. For some artists, like  Tabi Bonney, local airplay led to local celebrity. At the other end of the spectrum, alt-rap groups like  Panacea had meaningful runs making off-kilter stuff in the margins. Yet as with go-go, little seemed to connect beyond the turf of the National Mall.

It was the blogroll internet of the late 2000s that finally opened the door wide for an emergent spate of "backpackers": the slam poet  Wale, the grinders of  Diamond District (Oddisee, Uptown XO and yU) and the Lauryn Hill-sampling (D.C.-born, Richmond-raised)  Audra the Rapper.

The first DMV rapper to confidently define its sound, Wale mixed go-go drums, local slang and references to mambo sauce and the Wizards into his Seinfeld concept mixtapes and singles with Lady Gaga. 

Street rap largely took over in the 2010s, with  marble-mouthed droners like  Fat Trel and  Shy Glizzy performing over menacing synth arpeggios. But Wale's flowery mode of expression left an imprint on the artists who would really push DMV rap into the upper reaches of pop culture: the rapid-fire conceptual artist  Logic (Gaithersburg), who scored three No. 1 albums and a near-diamond single, and the old soul  Cordae (Suitland), who pulled a Grammy nomination for best rap album.

Elsewhere, the range of styles has spiraled outward, as different as the towns producing them: the bubblegum trap and mosh rap of  Rico Nasty (Largo), the future bounce and go-go cityscapes turned diaspora jams of  GoldLink (Bowie), the woofing, icy trap of  Xanman (Landover).

The DMV's eclectic array of promising young artists builds upon the legacy of the posse of legends from Virginia Beach.

The lesson of that breakthrough was that even the misfits can warp the dimensions of "normal," and acolytes continue to take note.

Wale  tapped The Neptunes for his debut album. Rico  flipped "Superthug" and has cited Missy as an influence on many occasions. GoldLink  covered "Frontin'." Logic brought Timbaland's  voice touch effects to early records. Pharrell produced a single for the rap-adjacent crooner  Brent Faiyaz, who  told Pharrell he'd been the inspiration for his own teenage swag — bikes and backpacks.

The two scenes, long subconsciously bonded, seem to still be communing with one another from across the Chesapeake. There must really be  something in the water.

The world changes fast.

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