Monday, June 20, 2011

When Did Pittsburgh Become a Rap Town?

In 2007, I wrote a post questioning when Pittsburgh became a country town. The Povertyneck Hillbillies appeared to be on the verge of country stardom, the Pittsburgh Pirates promotional schedule included several country acts following games and Kenny Chesney was about to sell out Heinz Field. Four years later, Kenny Chesney is still selling out Heinz Field, but there are no country acts on the Pirates schedule and the Povertyneck Hillbillies seem more like the answer to a trivia question than the next Sugarland. Instead, two of the biggest musical acts in the country, Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller, are rappers from Pittsburgh. How exactly did Khalifa & Miller become the most significant musical export from Pittsburgh since Rusted Root and Donnie Iris?

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette attempted to answer this question a few months ago in showing how Khalifa, Miller and Girl Talk (not a rapper but doing quite nicely for himself) got to where they are today. It’s a good article, but is missing one important part. In my mind, Wiz Khalifa truly hit the big time with “Black and Yellow” which became the unofficial song of Pittsburgh Steelers in their run to the Super Bowl last season. It even because the “official” song of the Steelers as Khalifa performed at Heinz Field prior to the AFC Championship game. The song was everywhere, not just in Pittsburgh, but across the country. Wiz hit the late-night circuit; Hoda and Kathie Lee used the song on the Today Show; and the song was used in dozens of parodies (my favorite was Sally Wiggin by the 96.1 Kiss FM Morning Freak Show). Eventually, it hit #1 and is still around today (see below), months after the song reached its peak.

Wiz’s follow-up song Roll Up may not match the success of Black and Yellow, but it is still a current top ten hit. Meanwhile, Mac Miller, a 19 year-old white, Jewish rapper has followed nicely in Wiz’s footsteps. Finding Miller’s videos on YouTube (many of which have over 10 million views), you can see how his songs have improved from just a few years ago to now. He may be new to me, but not to his thousands of fans, and likely the city of Pittsburgh. Plus, Miller gets huge bonus points for using the lyrics “keep a smile like an Eat ‘N Park cookie” in a song. Knock, Knock also features the best use of counting in a rap song Coolio's 1995 hit "1, 2, 3, 4 (Sumpin' New)." Check out Knock Knock for yourself below, but note that some lyrics may not be suitable for work.

Call it the magic touch of Benjy Grinberg, a former intern of L.A. Reid and the guy partly responsible for the success of Khalifa & Miller (and also a guy who went to the same elementary school and camp as me). What do Khalifa, Miller & Grinberg have in common? They all attended Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill. The fact that two of the biggest solo rap artists in the country went to the same high school is amazing. The fact that two of the biggest solo rap artists in the country went to Allderdice High School, a place where my aunt used to teach and where the majority of my fantasy baseball and football league attended, seems incredible (implausible could be another word to use).

Not living in Pittsburgh anymore, I’m guessing that Pittsburgh is still not a rap town. However, the success of Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller might make it that way someday.

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