Year’s Best: Top 11 Detroit (Long) Players of 2011

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

The city of Detroit has received many a mention on "trends to watch" lists over the last two years or so--mainly because everybody was watching to see how the bellwether metropolis would respond to the government bailout of the automotive industry and a housing crisis that trumped even Miami and Baltimore's. The Green Economy seems like the only intelligent response to both issues. But though it may be some time before Mayor Dave Bing's initiative to reclaim as much as a quarter of Detroit's urban prairie and convert it to urban farmland bears um, fruit, a very different kind of renaissance has taken place in the Motor City this year. In the absence of any kind of studio system or music industry--and in an era when regional scenes seem oddly absent from music--Detroit has emerged as an unlikely stronghold of underground rap, a kind of anti-Miami. Only fitting then that Okayplayer tapped frequent Metro Times (and LargeUp) contributor Jonathan Cunningham to run down the Detroit players (and longplayers) that defined this phenomenon--and  1/11/12 seems like as auspicious a date as any for the last of our Top 11s of 2011 (but stay tuned for the Top 12 upcoming artists to watch for 2012!)

11) Ro Spit - The Glass Ceiling Project

With a perfect combination of flashiness and grit, shoe enthusiast and former Subterraenous Records member Ro Spit’s long-awaited release is worthy of more national attention as well. If the name doesn’t immediately strike a chord, the music will and there’s a good chance that Ro Spit will have more listeners paying attention in 2012.

10) Will Sessions - Real Sessions

A full album of their best live session material backing up accomplished Detroit lyricists like Black Milk, Guilty Simpson, Elzhi and Phat Kat. Will Sessions cut their teeth playing soul music in the vein of the Dap Kings or Hagus Horns so when you couple that with gritty Detroit hip-hop riding atop an eight-piece soul/funk band, the result is a project that immediately makes one think of the term “Filthy McNasty.”

9) OneBeLo - LABOR

The veteran Michigan MC who many people remember from his Binary Star days pieced together a banger of an album that might not have gotten the national traction that it deserved. With top-notch lyrics and beats that compete to out-do one another, rap fans should always remember never to count out OneBeLo considering he’s the same laser-focused lyricist who exposed many music listeners to underground hip-hop in the first place.

8) T3 x Violator Radio– 3illa Madness

The other lynchpin of the Slum Village sound also made his presence felt in 2011 with the mixtape/free LP that in many ways parallels Elmatic, even without the concept: a reinvention of the purist East Coast sound of the early 90s with a post-apocalyptic Detroit 9000 mentality. The Violator Radio mix from T3’s collaborator Young RJ was no slouch neither.

7) Black Milk and Danny Brown - Black and Brown

It’s a short and sweet 22 ½ minutes but it features enough comedic punchlines and headsnapping production that it easily deserves a spot on this--and numerous other year-end music lists. In that sense, both Black Milk and Danny Brown have received lots of love from music critics this week for their work in 2011 and they deserve it. Even something that people could argue was a “throwaway” project like Black and Brown was smarter, funnier and simply better than the material a lot of artists work years to release.

6) Mayor Hawthorne - How Do You Do

Ann Arbor-raised crooner Mayer Hawthorne raised his stock considerably with this sleek and well-polished soul offering. It’s a tricky one to put on the Detroit list now that Hawthorne is based in Los Angeles and soaring on Stones Throw Records. Hawthorne recorded the entire project in downtown Detroit, however, and embraced the soulful spirit of they city with an album so Motown-inspired that it should make Berry Gordy blush (or cry, in the case of songs like "A Long Time").

5) Bad Meets Evil - Hell: The Sequel

Anytime you get two of Detroit’s most razor-tongued MCs on a combo album, the result is bound to be good. Similar to Watch The Throne, one can’t help but wonder if this collaboration album came a few years later than it should have, when both artists were in their prime but Royce Da 5’9” and Eminem are better lyrically than 90% of the competition. The production and rhymes are strictly elite with this one and the duo succeeded in making the international music audience turn their ears toward Detroit once again with this project. Notching 33 million YouTube views for the music video “Lighters” in only five months says it all.

4) Random Axe - Random Axe

This was one of the most anticipated underground albums of the year and the trio of Guilty Simpson, Black Milk and Sean Price managed to exceed nearly everyone’s expectations.  Now technically, only two of those artists are from Detroit but majority rules and the production of Black Milk and the gruffness of Guilty’s lyrics as a whole give this self-titled release a golden Detroit hue.

3) Dennis Coffey - Dennis Coffey

Arguably Detroit’s most legendary guitarist, Dennis Coffey re-emerged this year in a big way with new songs and new variations on old classics. He’d already solidified his rank as a guitar god by playing on virtually every Motown standard you can think of, but clearly he’s not ready to retire. Instead of resting on his laurels, Coffey has returned at the age of 71 to show not only that he’s still has skills but that his mix of traditional soul and funk licks with contemporary collaborators such as Paolo Nutini and Mayer Hawthorne is something that young music listeners are willing to embrace.

2) Danny Brown - XXX

Everyone thought they had Danny Brown figured out when he released his critically acclaimed The Hybrid LP in 2010. He was a clever hood rapper with a wiry voice and a nasty-mouth (on more levels than one) that made him a welcome addition to hip-hop. Considering Danny hates being put in boxes, it’s not surprising that he immediately signed to the eclectic dance/electro/everything label, Fools Gold Records, and released XXX--which instantly challenged genre classifications and forced him to write some of his most creative work yet. The critical handjob started with naming it the #1 hip-hop album of 2011 and debuting his “Monopoly” music video and hasn’t climaxed yet. They did so because XXX is one of the most innovative and forward-reaching projects of the year--in any genre.

1) Elzhi (with Will Sessions) - Elmatic

Even though this was billed as a free mixtape, the incredible work that Elzhi and Detroit soul/funk band Will Sessions put into recreating Nas’ classic Illmatic LP really should add up to Elmatic being deemed a proper album. It was a ballsy undertaking to begin with and while many hip-hop fans adore Nas’ inconic 1994 work, plenty of us openly wondered if Elmatic wasn’t the perfect example of the student surpassing the teacher.

Honorable Mentions: Big Sean - Finally Famous,

Quelle Chris - Shotgun & Sleek Rifle