How Do Local Rappers Connect with Local Fans?

Since its conception, rap has existed as a reflection of the community. Although the genre has evolved into a worldwide phenomenon, localized rap is still thriving in countless cities across the country.

To find out exactly how rappers are cultivating a close-knit scene and connecting with local fans, we spoke to artists (Cali Kev, James Lopez), promoters, festival organizers (Cole Baker), educators (Chuckie Campbell), and underground leaders who are bolstering rap music in their local scene. From New Orleans to Detroit, from lo-fi raps to trap, rap lovers are keeping local hip-hop alive and well.

Believe it or not, the city of San Diego, California, has experienced much growth and cohesiveness over the past few years. Local rapper Cali Kev, 30, attributes the city’s increase in show turnout to rappers inviting artists from outside hip-hop to their concerts.

“If we get an eclectic artist, maybe a smooth jazz artist and a rock artist [at the show], you have so many different types of genres and fans there, that you might start picking up some new fans,” Kev tells DJBooth. “It’s beneficial to have that [assortment], rather than just the same [rap] cliques who have the same five fans.”

It may seem contradictory to extend invites to non-hip-hop performers, but this advice rang true for rappers across the country. Likewise, in Pensacola, Florida, longtime rapper and producer James Lopez, 37, says the city’s soul-infused trap, lo-fi, and experimental hip-hop shows draw the most massive crowds when merged with punk-rockers.

“One of the big things I’ve noticed with our scene is that mixed-genre stuff does really well,” Lopez says. “Especially punk and hip-hop mash-ups. I feel that both of those scenes have so much in common that it only makes sense that they vibe well.”

Beyond widening the appeal of a given show, rappers can connect with local fans by partnering with a non-musical outlet. In New Orleans—an underground scene currently defined by party-ready bounce and gritty street flow—area native and rap veteran Austin Levy, 36, says artists have found increasing success by associating with local lifestyle and clothing companies.

“All the artists are aligning with blog-style Instagram accounts and upstart clothing [and] lifestyle brands,” Levy says. “Lifestyle brands are the go-to right now. They’re part of all the festivals and have incredible followings.”

While Levy says the descendants of hometown heroes like Soulja Slim and Juvenile currently lead his local scene, the runners-up consist of loosely formed collectives backed by brands and record label crossovers, which offer new artists an immediate, built-in fanbase.

“Normally, it’s the opposite,” Levy explains. “Like, with somebody like Curren$y or Wiz Khalifa, they’d come out with clothing and sell it based on being a big artist. But [new rappers have] started using the influence of the clothing brand, with a record label, [to] finance their careers.”

Partnering with non-musical entities has worked in Buffalo, New York—Griselda’s home base—as well. Rather than aligning with brands, however, local artist, promoter, and hip-hop educator Chuckie Campbell, 39, credits his tight-knit turf to community-wide institutions that encourage hip-hop’s cultural avenues beyond the music.

“The hip-hop scene exists in a composite of the elements that make up hip-hop—graffiti writing, hip-hop dance, DJing, rapping/emceeing, and knowledge,” Campbell explains.

Community staples like monthly hip-hop breakdancing classes at Verve Dance Studio, graffiti workshops by revered street artist Vinny Alejandro and Bridge Studios NY—a collaborative rap mecca—offer a multi-faceted approach to keeping Buffalo’s hip-hop underground alive.

“These are educational springboards that cross-pollinate the Buffalo hip-hop scene, working to build a strong communal backbone for kids and adults alike who participate, give back, or contribute to the growth of the culture,” Campbell says.

Detroit native Royce da 5‘9” is fresh off the release of a new album, but his hometown is embracing hip-hop beyond household names. DJing, one of the five elements of hip-hop, has recently taken center stage. According to Motor City-bred rapper and producer Leaf Erikson, 43, monthly beat showcases have filled the spaces where rap battles once reigned supreme, creating a new place for hip-hop artists to network—and supplementing a new crop of potential local fans.

Cole Baker, 40, co-founder of the 2×2 Hip-Hop Fest in Columbus, Ohio, has been paying close attention to the non-rap aspects of hip-hop for as long as he can remember. Baker believes that setting a recurring stage for his city’s hip-hop heads has helped to create a sense of community in a divided scene.

“We saw a huge disconnect in our scene where not just rappers but beatboxers, breakers, writers, DJs, [and] skaters were all disconnected from each other,” Baker begins. “So, we wanted to throw [an event] where they were all in one place. The scene needed it. We made sure that not only did we have performances at 2×2, [but we also] had an area where MCs could grab the mic, throughout the day, to show and prove.”