Is the Future Here for Brooklyn’s Live Rap Scene?

Brooklyn - Credit: Luis Nieto Dickens
Brooklyn - Credit: Luis Nieto Dickens

On Oct. 8, 2022, veteran MC Roc Marciano was onstage in New York, playing to a capacity crowd. It was a typical rap show in the city: overwhelmingly male, leathers and skullys and Timbs despite the late-summer weather, air laced with newly decriminalized smoke. Roc was there to celebrate his album The Elephant Man’s Bones, a neo-boom-bap collaboration with producer the Alchemist that was rightfully hailed as one of last year’s best albums. But the show wasn’t at S.O.B.’s, Webster Hall, Irving Plaza, or any of the other New York venues that have made their name in the last 20 years as places to see live rap. It was at Elsewhere, a cavernous, multi-chamber venue off Johnson Avenue in a part of Brooklyn that’s better known for artsy scenesters, trust-fund kids, and indie rock. How New York rap and its fans came here is a fascinating story of evolutions in nightlife, technology, taste, and politics.

Elsewhere’s story starts in the late 2000s and early 2010s, when New York nightlife-industry veterans and PopGun Presents promoters Jake Rosenthal and Rami Haykal primarily booked shows for two different venues. At Santos Party House, in TriBeCa, they booked a wide selection of rap acts like Mobb Deep, Big K.R.I.T., and Freddie Gibbs. At the DIY space called Glasslands, in Williamsburg, they mostly booked indie-rock and punk acts like King Krule, Dum Dum Girls, and Cloud Nothings. The two venues were only separated by the East River and a few stops on the J line, but they were worlds apart.

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In considering why this divide of genre and audience existed, and persisted for so long, you gain a sense of the large institutional forces stacked against rap in the live-music business — and how that historical injustice is finally being corrected.

In 2014, Vice Media bought the building that housed Glasslands. The owners at PopGun then started the process of opening Elsewhere, with the explicitly stated intention of booking more rap and moving beyond old models. And while Elsewhere has continued to host all kinds of rock bands and EDM parties, its offerings — along with those at Baby’s All Right, blocks away on Broadway — now regularly mix in a specific flavor of internet hip-hop, bringing live rap to the types of venues where it was rarely found a little more than a decade ago.

“Coming out of Glasslands, we had a vision for a much more inclusive space,” Rosenthal says. “And the style of music did not have to dictate the community that would show up as much. A throughline that has remained the same is how much of the Elsewhere project could be about breaking down some of the genre silos and mixing some of the music communities, and is that possible?”

You might wonder why this shift in thinking was necessary in the first place. Longtime DIY nightlife impresario Todd P, who owned and operated 285 Kent, located a couple of doors down from Glasslands in the 2010s, explains with regret that early on, he and his peers saw little room for rap in the grassroots anti-capitalist scene they were building. “Rap became a really commercial beast, especially in the Nineties,” he says. “It was the most profitable music in America, even more so than country. It became a machine that was repellant to me, even though I really liked some of the music that came out of that era…. It was easy to write that stuff off, even though there was evidence right in front of our faces that there was amazing talent coming out of it. People like myself just didn’t recognize it.”

But there are even deeper and more sinister reasons for the divide. Going back decades, Black nightlife spaces have fought the NYPD and any number of bureaucratic arms trying to shut them down (not to mention NIMBY types looking for reasons to lodge another noise complaint), while whiter spaces have historically faced less scrutiny. Cops have frequently gone after rappers as well, inserting themselves into programming decisions for live performances and pressuring venues — a practice that continues to this day, as seen with the NYPD’s repeated interference with Rolling Loud. These factors helped lead to the two scenes essentially self-segregating, with some venues seemingly unwilling to book rap due to the perceived risk.

Or, as Fatboi Sharif — an underground rapper who had the distinction of performing at Elsewhere more than any other artist in 2022, and who has witnessed the police presence at rap shows in the tri-state area for years — puts it: “I’ve seen the vibe and the energy they bring. It’s definitely bullshit.”

So what changed? In part, streaming has leveled access to music and arguably broken down some of the barriers that once existed between genres and their audiences. “The new world of virality deciding what makes things popular has allowed people to have broader tastes, independent of background and context,” Todd P argues. Rideshare apps have also been sneakily important, allowing spaces like Elsewhere to exist somewhat off the beaten path, and therefore less subject to neighborhood complaints and police attention.

Rap has shifted as well. Going back to the beginning of the 2010s, a new generation of rap stars like Lil B and Odd Future on the West Coast, and the A$AP Mob here in New York, embraced postmodern rules in terms of style, influence, and non-traditional fanbases. Suddenly, your rap show isn’t lit unless the crowd has opened up a mosh pit. It’s become harder to easily discern a rap crowd from an indie crowd. That multi-ethnic group of twenty-somethings in foamposites with Telfar bags and ALD Yankee fitteds? They could be headed to see YoungBoy Never Broke Again just as easily as they could be off to see Soccer Mommy or even Harry Styles.

Today, in a culture more cognizant of equity, venues do less gatekeeping and more collaborating. “A big theme of Elsewhere was that we are going to try to find younger people who are making real waves in real movements in a passionate and authentic way in New York, so we can give them a good shot at platforming what they’re doing and helping their community grow,” Rosenthal says. Venues like his are choosing artists to perform less and less — now it’s more about finding the right promoters and tastemakers within these scenes to collaborate with. It’s a sentiment that Todd P, who now books a wide range of acts at Market Hotel in Bushwick, echoes as well.

Which is not to say we have arrived at some utopian future of intersectional harmony. New York is still severely lacking in venues owned by people of color, and this past fall, Elsewhere was involved in an incident with rapper Pink Siifu that speaks to the kinds of disconnects, misunderstandings, and violations that can occur when diverse cultures are sharing space. “We fully recognize that we fell short on this night,” the venue wrote in an Instagram apology statement. (For his part, Sharif says, “Every time I go there, it’s always dope. From the staff going in, being professional, to just the overall experience, it’s just dope.”)

Progress is rarely a straight line; it can be a slow, awkward, even painful process. You can imagine a critic seeing what’s occurring in rooms like Baby’s All Right and Elsewhere as another step in the gentrification of rap — now reduced, along with every other genre, to a homogenous mood or tone to toggle between on your streaming app of choice. These days, for better or for worse, anyone following the right IG page can be tuned in to the live rap scene. But if you’re feeling generous, you could also view what’s happening today as a return to the chaotic blend of people and ideas that once commingled in the Bronx, decades ago.

“We’re dealing with an art form that’s literally coming up on 50 years plus,” Sharif says. “Back in the day, it was hip-hop in certain venues on certain nights at certain times, but now you’re not going to hear a song that doesn’t have a hip-hop influence. You’re not going to see something on TV that’s not hip-hop influenced. It crossed over into everything.”

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