Beyond the city lights: How the rest of New York is stealing the rap spotlight

How the rest of New York is stealing the rap spotlight

Syracuse, Buffalo and Rochester artists are receiving more mainstream success and standing out from the rest of the industry. But who are these rappers?

Benny the Butcher, Conway the Machine and Westside Gunn attend Conway
Benny the Butcher, Conway the Machine and Westside Gunn at Conway’s “God Don’t Make Mistakes” album listening party in New York City.

New York. Most people who hear those two words immediately think of the major hub that sits at the bottom of the state. Dreams and careers are made in New York City – not to mention that it has produced some of the biggest musicians the industry has seen, as the birthplace of one of the largest genres in music, hip-hop.

Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z and countless others have made New York City a hotbed for rappers that have both already hit the spotlight or are in the underground scene making noise in different sub-genres.

With other major cities such as Buffalo, Albany, Syracuse and Rochester making up the rest of the state, some casual rap fans may not have recognized the emergence of Upstate, Central and Western New York rap within the past decade.

Adapting an original style that combines 90s boom-bap with modern production and lyrical delivery, the Upstate, Central and Western New York rap scenes have provided a fresh breath of originality to the East Coast.

In the past five years alone, New York State has been showcasing and introducing several artists whose styles range far beyond the mainstream, auto-tune heavy production style many rap fans have become accustomed to.

The pioneers in Buffalo, the hometown love in Syracuse and a mix of other central New York talent have made New York State an up-and-coming region within the past decade.

Alongside the historical context of this region’s rise in rap rankings, I talked to a few Syracuse students about their favorite artists from the areas mentioned; getting some feedback on why these rappers may stick out from the rest.

Foundation of Griselda

Perhaps the mastermind and main pioneer behind Buffalo and its rap scene is Westside Gunn, a performer whose career began in 2005. Entanglements with law enforcement pushed a majority of his success to 2012, making the 2010’s the recognized start of his hip-hop journey.

Violence towards Gunn’s family including the death of his older brother Machine Gun Blak in 2006, and his younger sibling (half-brother) Conway The Machine being left with facial paralysis following a shooting in 2012 only gave him more of an incentive to rise to the top.

The saga of his well-known mixtapes titled Hitler Wears Hermes would begin that year, serving as both a successful spotlight into the underground music scene and a platform to spawn a major following. 

Gunn’s high-pitched, raspy off-beat vocals became a signature sound of the Buffalo area and an outline for what other up-and-coming rappers from the region would create.

The artist’s first album release, Flygod, began his rise in popularity. He quickly followed with Supreme Blientele and Pray For Paris which received an 8.0 Pitchfork rating and gave him an audience beyond the Central New York landscape.

Seven more mixtape installments of Hitler Wears Hermes would follow the 2012 debut, creating a stacked discography that would pave the way for even more of Buffalo’s finest.

Conway The Machine’s start began around the same time as Westside Gunn’s. Conway released several mixtapes from the span of 2007-2012 while his older brother was serving time.

Permanent injuries to his face after the 2012 shooting left him with Bell’s Palsy, giving him his distinctive, yet signature slur in vocals.

Although Conway is more baritone and bass-heavy when compared to his brother, the artist holds many qualities in terms of style of flow, production selection and lyricism that connect the two in a very similar category of Western New York’s emerging rap sound.

Westside Gunn and Conway’s 2012 rap campaign exploded when the pair started Griselda Records, teaming up with Mach-Hommy, a Haitian rapper/producer who grew up in Newark, New Jersey.

Despite not having a connection with the state of New York, Mach-Hommy established a close relationship with Gunn at the time of Griselda’s founding, creating what would become a massive collective of rappers from across the state. 

Benny the Butcher, a cousin of Gunn and Conway, was also making waves with Tana Talk. He ultimately signed on with Griselda, attempting to create his group of Buffalo artists known as the Black Soprano Family, including Rick Hyde, Heem B$F and Loveboat Luciano.

Benny the Butcher brings a deep voice like Conway’s to the table, but with the ability to deliver lyrics faster than his family members. In terms of vocals, he raps from his chest; you hear every breath, shift in cadence and a deep, powerful voice, allowing words to strike harder than most in rap right now.

2018’s debut album Tana Talk 3 and follow-ups like Pyrex Picasso, Burden of Proof and Tana Talk 4 were the real fire starters in Benny the Butcher’s rise from the Buffalo street scene to mainstream recognition. For those unfamiliar with him, look for collaborations with Freddie Gibbs, J. Cole, Lil Wayne and other mainstream artists.

SU senior Jason Schwartz, who works as one of the hosts on Z89’s hip-hop radio show “The Juice,” lists Griselda as one of the most unique groups within rap, believing their style sets them apart from other record labels.

“I think the thing that makes them stand out among other artists is their deep, raspy, and strong-sounding voices, making every line hit hard,” Schwartz said. “It sounds like they are ‘trying to rap like rent is due’ every single song.”

Street life, violence, drugs, growing up in the neighborhoods of Buffalo and the rise to success make every song, album or EP a storytelling masterpiece for Westside, Benny and Conway’s catalogs.

“You can hear the strife and struggle they went through in their rapping style, which I highly appreciate,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz explains each of the big three has their respective areas of strength over one another, as each of them dominate certain categories within the components of a track/album.

“Best lyrically is Benny, best melodically is Conway, and best production, features, and overall body of work is Westside,” Schwartz said. “For Westside, Pray For Paris is one of my favorite albums of the past decade.”

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The Griselda Crew

The big three’s establishment of a platform for more local artists has created a whole sub-genre of hip-hop in the Upstate, Central and Western regions of New York.

Outside of Buffalo, rappers from Rochester and Syracuse have gone on to sign with the label, and the Griselda has widened their reach to welcome artists from Atlanta, London and Vancouver.

Griselda’s own Armani Caesar, Buffalo native and one of the top female rappers in the game right now, began experimenting with hip-hop at 12 years old.

Aptly nicknamed ‘Queen of Griselda,’ she is the only female artist who has been signed to the group – a deserving and understandable feat when you look at the music she produces.

Caesar’s first mixtape came out in 2009, serving as an introduction to her deep, infectious vocals resembling early Missy Elliot while using similar instrumentals to what was popular in Buffalo at the time. 

Songs off of 2009’s Bath & Body Work have uptempo beats that sparkle with lyrics and vocals that blend both late 2000s and 90s sounds. On some tracks like “Say My Name,” R&B also pokes through, giving audiences a mix of everything they may want from a lead rap artist. 

Her first Griselda studio album was released in 2020. The Liz, whose iconic album cover of the three-eyed Elizabeth Taylor, has become a popular symbol of the label. Short with soothing, levitating instrumentals, The Liz was a premiere introduction for her to enter the mainstream, and The Liz 2 only saw things soar from there. 

What sets Caesar apart from other female rappers is the Buffalo style. From the instrumentals to the head-bobbing, ‘take your time’ lyrical delivery, the Western New York roots shine bright. 

Buffalo-born Elcamino brings a similar “boom-bap” delivery, fitting in nicely with the Griselda crew. Elcamino has most recently released an album with the Black Soprano Family and LA producer Real Bad Man.

Elcamino has been lowkey since dropping his first EP in 2017. Whether posting Instagram stories asking to DM him for features, actively interacting with the fanbase and appearing consistently on other Griselda artists’ albums, he is a behind-the-scenes man with major talent. 

Fast-paced like Benny, yet higher pitched like Westside Gunn, Elcamino seamlessly embodies the signature Griselda sound.

Elcamino fans are consistently blessed with new music. Since his first studio album in 2018 he has released 22 other solo and collaboration albums, two of which are joint projects with the next highlighted member: 38 Spesh

Raised an hour east of Caesar and Elcamino, 38 Spesh takes pride in his roots in Rochester. Like many in Upstate NY, he, “had to like, stand in three feet of snow and figure sh*t out, naw I’m sayin,” – as is stated in the intro from his song “Goodfellas” with Conway and Benny.  

Starting on Sirius XM radio shows with fellow Rochester artist, DJ Green Lantern, 38 Spesh was able to gain national attention fast and also launch his entertainment platform Trust Comes First (TCF) in 2014.

Simply put, he is the face of hip-hop in Rochester; the only mainstream rapper to make it out of the city and make it big, especially with a label like Griselda. 

Unlike Elcamino, 38 Spesh’s vocal delivery is laid-back and conscious. Lyrically however, the two are similar; vividly storytelling the street life and hustle in the rise to success. 

Stabbed & Shot, the 2018 collaboration album with Benny the Butcher, Interstate 38, released in 2020 and 2023’s Speshal Machinery are three of the perfect Spesh albums to start on, displaying his remarkable storytelling that overlaps soulful production.

Bleeding orange: Syracuse’s budding rap scene

Over the past couple of years, Orange Nation’s music scene has taken major strides both in and outside of Griselda. The three major artists from Syracuse, Stove God Cooks, Scorey and Toosii each have their distinct styles: the melodic Buffalo flow and a mix between R&B and hip-hop in what is now a “trap-soul” sub-genre.

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Aerial view of Syracuse’s Southside and downtown.

Flowing right from Griselda, Stove God Cooks represents ‘cuse’s lone member in the label; additionally signing with the indie label Babygrande Records in attempts to raise his lyrically inclined approach to new heights.

The familiar face in the Syracuse area began working with Westside Gunn in 2019 and was named on Billboard’s Top 15 Hip-Hop and R&B Artists to Watch List in 2021. This exposure has only led to stardom and to working with those outside of central New York like 2 Chainz, DJ Drama and French Montana.

Stove God Cooks’ 2020 album Reasonable Drought is a joint effort with producer Roc Marciano, a veteran artist from Long Island. Across the album, the Upstate New York references are evident and shone upon by the ‘cuse artist – with a song on the album literally entitled “Jim Boeheim.”

Gritty, hard-hitting songs like “Rolls Royce Break Lights” and “Bread of Life” are among the many standouts on the project. Most of his recent success has spawned from new singles and features on other Griselda projects, with his biggest being “Kitchen Lights” off of Westside Gunn’s And Then You Pray For Me (2023). 

Stove God Cooks has not only made an impact on the Syracuse community, but SU students who have had the chance to interact with him such as senior Jordan Fritz, who has established a connection with the rapper within the past year. 

“One thing I notice under his Insta posts is that he likes almost every one of his fan’s comments,” Fritz said. “I wear his merch around Syracuse, knowing he’s from here. He immediately responded [to a message from Fritz] asking if I was from the area.”

Fritz, who works for the SU athletic department, has offered him tickets and other opportunities whenever he makes his way back to Syracuse because of how much his music has helped him, saying that it provided an escape from reality at many points in his life.

For Fritz, it is a friendship that is beyond music.

“I once mentioned that I liked his new single and he expressed his appreciation for my support, also asking small questions after games like ‘did they win,'” Fritz said. “We had genuine dialogue about more than just music.”

Stove God Cooks is one of Fritz’s favorite artists, and the SU student can list many qualities that separate the Syracuse product from the rest of the pack, even within Griselda.

What makes him unique is “his ability to treat his voice like an instrument, and turn catchy one-liners about substance I know nothing about into things I mutter to myself daily,” Fritz said.

“He raps about his tough past and illegal experiences in a way that sounds majestic and uplifting which is hard to do.”

Across Reasonable Drought and other singles, Stove God’s many recurring themes and his rap style fit right alongside Griselda.

“He knows exactly how to pattern his voice in combination with the production in nearly all of his tracks,” Fritz said. “Griselda does it better as they have a wider range of styles and experiment more.”

Transitioning to the more melodic rap scene is another artist who has deep Syracuse roots, quitting his summer job as a janitor at Green Lakes State Park to focus on studio sessions and going deep into his music.

Scorey caught fire almost immediately off of his single “Freddy Krueger” in 2019, attracting the attention of one of the biggest melodic rappers in the game, Polo G.

It was not too long after some of his first songs that Polo G took Scorey under his wing. With a similar style to his, it was a no-brainer to co-sign the ‘cuse artist to his startup label Only Dreamers Achieve.

Some of his biggest tracks have racked up over 25 million plays on Spotify, as he is known for his infectious upbeat vocals that mesh Polo G, Juice WRLD and Rod Wave into one unique performance. 2021’s EP Catch Me If You Can is where any new Scorey fan should start. “Love Letter,” “Dior You” and “Rock N Roll” are just three of the hits on the EP that put it all together; a constant whirlwind through his trials and tribulations with heartbreak.

Scorey’s first official album, Help Is On The Way, dropped the following year, and gave him one of his most successful tracks “Girls Love Rod Wave.” Because of Rod Wave’s prominence in the melodic rap sub-genre, the song, although not featuring him, attracted attention from many fanbases.

SU junior Sam Hirsch has been a fan of Scorey for the past couple of years and believes he is one of the current faces of melodic rap.

“I would pitch Scorey as a ‘melodic trap rapper,'” Hirsch said. “I’m a big fan of his songs with the guitar-based beats, a common feature with melodic flows and the genre.”

Hirsch listens to Griselda artists Westside Gunn and Benny the Butcher, yet prefers Scorey’s style and connection to Polo G more than he does the other artists.

If anyone knows Rod Wave more than Scorey, it might be ‘cuse-born artist Toosii, who has been on tour with Rod Wave and resembles his rap style more than most in the game right now.

Although Toosii moved to Raleigh, NC when he was a teenager, Syracuse is still deeply embedded into his childhood.

Toosii began writing and creating music in 2017, but gained most of his notoriety in the industry in 2019-2020.

Two drops in 2020, Poetic Pain and Platinum Heart introduced mainstream rap to his raspy, high-pitched voice – something that sticks out like a sore thumb in comparison to others in his craft. 

“Trap-Soul,” a sub-genre of rap that incorporates R&B, lofi hip-hop, and instrumentals that are soulful and sample-heavy is a space Toosii has nestled into over the years, hence his close relationship and similarities he shares with Rod Wave.

Toosii performs during Rod Wave Nostalgia Tour at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on December 18, 2023 in Jacksonville, Florida.
Toosii’s performance during Rod Wave’s Nostalgia Tour in Jacksonville, Florida.

The more he ages and gains experience in the music world, the better he seems to get as a lot of his newer pieces of work like 2023’s NAUJOUR and 2021’s Thank You For Believing are staple albums for those looking to experiment with the newer sub-genre of rap.

Not only may Toosii be the top rapper from Syracuse in terms of reception, raking in over 4.7 million monthly listeners on Spotify, but also leads all of those in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse in streams and listeners.

For students, Toosii is a popular choice when it comes to selecting their favorite rapper from outside of New York City within the state.

Pardison Fontaine

Right outside of Poughkeepsie sits the small town of Newburgh, home to one of the most popular songwriters between 2016 and 2018. Pardison Fontaine has written for Cardi B, Kanye West and a multitude of other rap gods – all within a two year window.

Pardison Fontaine, Pardi for short, co-wrote some of the biggest hits off of Kanye West’s Ye and major hits by Cardi B, including “Bodak Yellow,” and “I Like It” as well as G-Eazy’s “No Limit” in a little less than two years. Before and after this period; however, it took him some time to gain traction.

Not Supposed To Be Here, Pardi’s first mixtape, was released in 2015, shooting him up the charts and gaining him recognition in the music industry for both his bold, powerful vocal delivery and his massive talent for songwriting. 

Pardison Fontaine attends Megan Thee Stallion Plan B Hottie Party on May 07, 2022 in New York City.
Pardison Fontaine at Megan Thee Stallion’s event in 2022.

During his 2016-2018 period, Pardi was better known as a songwriter than for his discography – not releasing much of his own work in the Ye and Invasion of Privacy eras. To take advantage of his writing and one-of-a-kind vocal abilities, he linked up with Cardi B for one of his biggest hits, “Backin It Up.”

“Backin It Up” had 2018 rap in a frenzy. Who was Pardison Fontaine? Where did he come from? Both were popular questions as the single peaked at number 40 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming a party/club anthem for the entire year. The combination of a loud, bass-boosted instrumental meshed with Pardi’s baritone vocals was a match made in heaven.

His first studio album Under8ed followed in 2019, serving up a blend of songs chronicling his rise to the top from a small town. The artist begins calling himself underrated, and then teams up with a huge group including Offset, City Girls, Jadakiss and more. Under8ed is a compilation highlighting the artists lyrical ability, as he sees himself being looked at as nothing more than a songwriter.

Under8ed ‘s strong debut gave Pardi a leap in the industry, establishing a three-year relationship with well-known rapper Megan Thee Stallion from 2020-2023. The relationship ended with Pardi coming under fire, and his recent singles including “Thee Person” and his project Sext8pe are reflections of how he has communicated his emotions and dealt with heartbreak. 

“Run Run Run” is a perfect example of Pardi’s current growth, belting in the song that he is, “working on healing right now and I’m focused,” and that “good girls have never been good for me, bad luck is always on me.” It’s a bouncy track instrumentally, displaying to the listener Pardi’s positive outlook and how the artist plans on moving forward.

Pardi has not given up on songwriting, as he has continued working closely with Cardi B, and is credited with writing for other stars including Lil Nas X, Ed Sheeran, GloRilla and more. Pardi is only destined to go up from here, with Newburgh and the New York State rap scene cheering him on.