Hip-hop and New York are synonymous with each other.
The genre was born in a Bronx apartment building in the early ‘70s, carried for years by New York greats in Nas, Jay-Z and the Notorious B.I.G. and found a fresh edge in newcomers like Fivio Foreign and the late Pop Smoke.
But recently, it isn’t just the city that never sleeps that’s bringing New York attention from hip-hop heads.
Out west, Buffalo’s brightest emcees have earned upstate some much-deserved love. Griselda Records, the Buffalo-based collective founded by Westside Gunn, has succeeded in its years-long grind to add a new layer of boom-bap production and flair to what’s happening outside of Manhattan or Brooklyn. Syracuse, too, is seeing some more buzz surrounding its rap scene.
But those in Schenectady’s hip-hop scene aren’t worried about being outshined by their neighbors. If anything, it just lit a spark.
“There’s a lot of different things going on with the whole state, but I think it’s our time now,” said Schenectady rhymer Lamech Stratford, otherwise known by his moniker Super Starr Gutta. “There’s artists out there really trying to play heavy production, really just going hard and dropping music videos. It’s the Capital Region, it’s a different mindset. Just like New York City is it’s own mindset, this region is it’s own thing. Buffalo is another thing. It’s bound to happen, there’s no way out of it.”
Gutta is just one of countless artists putting their truth on wax and plotting their ascent, while looking to put the city on the map in the process. Inspiration for Schenectady’s emcees and hip-hop creatives comes in many forms — life experiences, looking up to legends like Big Pun and Master P, and sometimes even familial ties — but one thing connects them all: They want to make Schenectady proud.
Gutta, for one, has been rapping for over a decade and first touched the mic around age 17. A student of Jay-Z and Jadakiss, he grew up in Brooklyn and made his way to the 518 in 2008. Throughout his four mixtapes and his two upcoming projects, including a studio album, he pulls at his lived experiences to get a message of love across.
“I’m inspired by real life, everything that’s going on,” Gutta said. “You listen to the music, anything that’s going on in the world is a piece of the music. If we start seeing aliens tomorrow, guess what? I’ll probably have aliens in my video. Might be a spaceship or something.”
Spaceships or not, Gutta’s videos have earned several thousand views to date. One of his recent clips “COLD SUMMER,” filmed by Breaz Filmz, features Gutta standing alone in the street with a microphone and a mask on as he touches on the feeling of uncertainty that many have felt throughout the pandemic. “I woke up in America and this s–t was on lockdown/I’m thinking to myself like, ‘What the hell we gonna do now?’”
“My music is about real life and we gotta pass more love in situations. If you hear the song, and I might sound really aggressive, all that means is I’m going to show people how much I’ve got to protect that positive energy and my love and anything good that’s going on,” Gutta said. “I want the listeners to get the positive information. Whether I get big or not, we’re still in the same type of struggle. The pandemic showed us that. This is the first time in history — poor people and rich people — that everyone’s at the same level.”
Breaz, the 30-year-old filmographer and creative behind many of Gutta’s music videos, knows how crucial it is to get his collaborators’ messages out into the world. Getting his start as an emcee in the Capital Region, Breaz — real name Darius Pearson — realized after a few years of grinding that he’d rather elevate others’ stories. Not only would it result in more of a reach, but it also was a promised gig — unlike selling guest verses.
“Pretty much, it’s people’s diary,” Breaz said. “People can come from trauma. Sometimes I let people vent because, based on statistics, people from my background may have trouble in a world that’s sometimes not best on their playing field, you know. So if I can create a space that people can tell their story, paint it on wax and give them hope the next day to be positive and keep writing music, they stay out the streets. That’s very important. We read the news like, ‘Oh, he was just at the studio, I didn’t know that he was going to this’ or ‘Oh my god, they killed him. We was just trying to give him hope to do this and stay off the streets and stop being a knucklehead.’ So it’s like, sometimes I feel like that’s everything for a person — to get their story up.”
Over the last five years since taking it seriously, Breaz has shot hundreds of videos for creatives in the Capital Region and beyond. Some of his collaborators have lost their friends to gun violence, dealt with life-altering diagnoses or fallen on other hard times, so he sees his position as crucial to pushing talent in Schenectady and propelling their journeys.
“I feel like there’s some light that’s being shed on this upstate region,” Breaz said. “There’s some artists making a name, doing numbers on YouTube, putting themselves around certain celebrities. We live upstate New York, a three-hour ride to the city, you can be somewhere else. I’m a person that moves around. I’ve lived in California, lived in Florida. So it’s kind of different for me to judge it, but I feel personally as far as the artists, it can be so hard to be heard.”
At 26 years old, Schenectady emcee Jordan Callahan, who goes by the moniker Touchmoney Cease, is starting to be heard a lot more than usual.
His clips have garnered tens of thousands of views on YouTube, featuring collaborations like with the late Bronx rapper Fred The Godson and Bay-area legend Lil B. A recent collab with emcee Telly Zelly, entitled “Surgery,” has earned over 20,000 YouTube views. But to Callahan, pushing out this much material means touching on more of the topics that are important to him — outside of just braggadocio bars.
“When you listen to my music, there’s different sides of the spectrum,” Cease said. “I have the party side, I have the pain side, I have the loverboy side, I have the flashy side. So I try to knock out all the pins on the spectrum.”
Cease started spitting in 2006, thanks to his father, who had some studio connections early on.
“I remember my pops bringing me to the studio,” Cease said. “And he was basically forcing me to rap. Like, ‘Oh, you don’t want to be good in school, see if you can do this.’ So I tried it. I actually liked it.”
Since that day, hip-hop has been Cease’s primary mission. When he looks at Upstate, he doesn’t see many from Schenectady making it yet. To him, that’s just added motivation.
“I feel like when you think of Schenectady you should think of Touch Money Cease. I’m the one holding it down… If I ever made it big, I definitely will always come back and not for any of my peers, because they really didn’t embrace me on the way up. But I would come back for that one dude that is walking through the halls of Schenectady High School and was like, ‘Dang, I went to the same school as Touchmoney Cease?’ I’d come back for him. And help him with his music or any field he wanted to do. Because I know what it’s like to be from here and having nobody believe in you.”
Other emcees, however, felt they couldn’t find that spark when they were in the city.
Hollyhood Shumpo, an artist now based in Arizona, has seen success with singles featuring Sheff G and a handful of clips surpassing 10,000 views such as “No Problems.” His main source of inspiration, he said, came from and still comes from his late brother.
“I find inspiration in my little brother who passed away,” Shumpo said. “He used to like my music a lot and really listen to it. He’d support it so hard. I always think about when he was supporting it and bumping it. He used to have people in Arizona listening to it. I still go hard for him.”
Staying in Schenectady, though, wasn’t an option for Shumpo. While he believed in a handful of local rappers, he felt like he’d find more success elsewhere, and with a few shows in the books and streams racking up, he said he’s found that.
“Location is very important,” Shumpo said. “Otherwise, you’re not able to do anything.”
But whether their finding success in the city that raised them or departing for some more exposure and new experiences, Schenectady’s top emcees and hip-hop creatives are bringing their own — and others’ — stories through life with art. And they’ve got big plans.
“I want to make history,” Cease said. “I want to touch different people around the world through my music. And I want to really make a stamp in the game and bring something new to the table that generations could really look up to. And years from now my legacy will continue.”