Baltimore’s hip-hop scene has been slowly and steadily growing since the 1980s, and even the ’90s releases by local trailblazers like The Annexx Click are still traded widely online among aficionados of the genre’s golden age. But Baltimore rap really began to explode in a dozen different directions in the 21st century, from clubby local radio hits to virtuoso battle rappers to nostalgic, experimental and proudly underground DIY scenes.
Here’s a look back at 22 songs, one from each year since 2000, that help tell the story of where Baltimore rap has been — and where it’s going.
You can’t tell the story of Baltimore hip-hop without starting with Labtekwon, perhaps the city’s longest-running and most prolific MC. He’s released dozens of albums since founding his label Ankh Ba Records in the 1990s, ranging from punchline-driven shit talk to dance tracks, avant garde experiments, and Afrocentric conscious rap. “Ghetto Griot,” the opening track from his 2000 album “The Piankhi 7 Papyrus,” is a dense tangle of internal rhymes with bursts of jazzy crooning over the kind of woozy loop that would’ve made J Dilla proud.
2001: Tim Trees
Baltimore club music has often competed with local hip-hop as the city’s dominant musical identity since the ’80s, but in the 20th century, fusions of the two genres became more common. One of the first enterprising MCs who figured out an appealing way to rap over slowed-down club beats was Tim Trees, a 20-year-old from Northeast Baltimore in 2000. His debut single “Bank Roll,” produced by veteran club DJ Rod Lee, became a local radio smash, and Trees sold tens of thousands of copies of his 2001 album “Dalton, Vol. 1.”
2002: B Rich
Dukeyman was another Baltimore club producer who contributed beats to Tim Trees’s “Dalton, Vol. 1.” And Dukeyman took a beat that Trees passed on, featuring a memorable sample of the theme song from “The Jeffersons,” to another local rapper, B. Rich. “Whoa Now” became a charting Billboard hit, with a video earning airtime on MTV and BET. And B. Rich released a major label album, “80 Dimes,” on Atlantic Records in the summer of 2002 while Baltimore-bred singers Mario and Sisqo were also dominating R&B radio.
Ogun founded the label Real On Purpose Entertainment in 2003 and released his debut album “It’s Ogun!!!: The Movement.” And tracks like “Ask Yourself” helped established him as one of Baltimore’s best practitioners of classic East Coast boom bap, with a beat featuring a wailing vocal sample from Ike and Tina Turner’s 1960 hit, “A Fool in Love.” Both Ogun and the location where he recorded “Ask Yourself,” Architects Recording Studio, have remained pillars of the local hip-hop scene for the past two decades.
“Oh” (B-More Anthem)
In the wake of his success with Tim Trees, Rod Lee continued producing regional rap and R&B radio hits for artists like Nature’s Problem, Davon, and Paula Campbell throughout the 2000s. And one of Rod Lee’s most memorable tracks slowed down the ultimate Baltimore club breakbeat — from the 1972 Lyn Collins single, “Think (About It)” — to a crawl for Bossman’s hometown anthem, “Oh.” Bossman’s independent album, “Law & Order,” and a string of local radio hits grabbed the attention of Jermaine Dupri, who signed the rapper to Virgin Records, though a major label album was never released.
David Simon’s HBO crime drama “The Wire” helped shape Baltimore’s image in the popular imagination during its run from 2002-2008. And countless local musicians found inspiration in the show, perhaps none more successfully than Juan Donovan and Jamal Roberts, a duo better known as Darkroom Productions. Darkroom’s 2005 mixtape “Hamsterdam: The Best of Baltimore Vol. 1” features an all-star roster of rappers like Tim Trees, Ogun, Mullyman and Tyree Colion over their beats, and was named after a memorable plot point from season three of “The Wire.” And the people behind the series took notice of Darkroom’s music, incorporating it into seasons four and five of the show. Diablo’s gritty dance track “Jail Flick” appeared in an episode, as well as on an official soundtrack album, “Beyond Hamsterdam: Baltimore Tracks from The Wire,” that was released by Nonesuch Records in 2008.
2006: Young Leek
Khia “DJ K-Swift” Edgerton was one of Baltimore club’s most popular DJs and a ubiquitous presence on local radio station 92Q until her untimely death in 2008. K-Swift helped launch a few careers, including club producer Blaqstarr and a teen rapper named Young Leek. And Leek signed to Def Jam on the strength of his Blaqstarr-produced single “Jiggle It.” But once again “The Wire” helped etch the song in television history. In a season four episode, two soldiers in Marlo Stanfield’s drug-dealing empire, Snoop and Chris, tries to sniff out New York interlopers by quizzing them on local culture that only a Baltimorean would know: “Ask him, like, who Young Leek be.”
2007: Height featuring Bow’N’Arrow
“Smash Your Eyes”
In the grand tradition of the Beastie Boys, Baltimore’s rap landscape has always included white kids with one foot in the DIY punk scene and one foot in old school hip-hop traditions. Height Keech has been releasing albums, sometimes solo and sometimes with a team of collaborators as Height With Friends, for the last 22 years, touring the country so regularly that he’s played over 1,000 shows over the years. And one of his oldest friends and most frequent collaborators is Mickey Freeland, brother of Chris Freeland of the Baltimore punk legends OXES, who used to rap under the name Bow ’n’ Arrow before adopting the name Mickey Free. Height Keech recently announced that he’s moving to New York City, with a farewell show at Metro Gallery marking the end of an era.
2008: Smash and Yung C
“Too Much For Me”
The definitive Baltimore radio hit of 2008 was “Too Much For Me,” which features a raspy rapper named Smash, aka T-Mac, over drums sampled from the Lil Jon track “Get Crunk.” Smash was briefly a major local star, but his career was cut short by tragedy. In 2013, Smash (real name Terrell Taylor) died of congestive heart failure at just 31 years old.
Comp was just a teenager when he signed a deal with Def Jam, releasing a few singles on the label and landing a guest appearance in the video version of Ghostface Killah’s 2004 single, “Run.” But after his major label deal ran its course, Comp remained a tireless independent artist and made his most locally beloved music. There was a period of two or three years when it seemed like you couldn’t hold a hip-hop show in Baltimore without Comp showing up and tearing the place down with “Whole Lat,” the anthem from his 2009 album “The Man With The Hand.”
2010: Dirt Platoon
Dirt Platoon, a duo comprised of brothers Raf Almighty and Snook Da Crook, started making music together in the 1990s. But even on their 2010 album “Deeper Than Dirt” they were still mastering the sound of grimy ’90s hip-hop, evoking the glory days of Wu-Tang and Boot Camp Clik on tracks like “Almighty” with producer Tom Delay (no relation to the retired congressman).
2011: King Los
King Los earned his stripes as a battle rapper in Baltimore, recording alongside local stars like Skarr-Akbar. After Los auditioned for the MTV reality series “Making The Band 2,” Sean “Diddy” Combs wanted the Baltimore MC in his group Da Band, but Los declined the offer. King Los signed to Bad Boy Records as a solo artist in 2005, but eventually left the label and went independent. Los’ buzz peaked with the DJ Drama-hosted 2011 mixtape “The Crown Ain’t Safe,” and he went on to sign to RCA Records and released an album in 2015.
2012: Rye Rye
Rye Rye rose to fame as a teenager after rapping on Baltimore club producer Blaqstarr’s 2006 single “Shake It To The Ground.” The song won famous fans like Diplo and M.I.A., who signed Rye Rye to her Interscope imprint, N.E.E.T. Recordings. In 2012, Rye Rye released her debut album Go! Pop! Bang! with guest appearances from stars like M.I.A., Tyga and Akon. And this summer, Drake sampled the sound of Rye Rye’s voice from “Shake It To The Ground” on “Currents,” a Baltimore club homage from his dance album “Honestly, Nevermind,” although Rye Rye was not credited for the sample.
2013: Young Moose
Maryland is below the Maxon-Dixon Line, but for many years Baltimore hip-hop had more in common with music from New York than the insurgent Southern rap movement. That started to change with the rise of rappers like Young Moose, who’s heavily influenced by Louisiana rappers like Boosie Badazz, who eventually signed Moose to his label. “Posted” was one of Young Moose’s early breakout hits, but over the next few years his career was stymied by Baltimore police officers, including Daniel Hersl. In 2018, Hersl was convicted of racketeering and sentenced to 18 years in prison. And earlier this year, Young Moose sued Hersl for planting drugs on the rapper in a wrongful arrest and reached a $300,000 settlement from Baltimore City. Young Moose appeared as himself in the recent HBO miniseries “We Own This City” about the BPD corruption scandal.
2014: Lor Scoota
The rise of avian flu as a public health concern in the 2000s inspired a lot of wordplay around the word “bird,” drug dealer slang for a kilo of cocaine. Atlanta legend Gucci Mane made the first hit song called “Bird Flu” back in 2007. But Baltimore caught a new case of “Bird Flu” in 2014 when Tyriece “Lor Scoota” Watson created his own song with the title. “Bird Flu” was so popular that it spun off local remixes, one featuring Washington, D.C. rap star Shy Glizzy and another celebrating Baltimore’s hometown teams, the Ravens and the Orioles. Sadly, Lor Scoota was murdered in June 2016, with his killer convicted a year later.
2015: Tate Kobang
“Bank Rolls (Remix)”
Tate Kobang, who was just 9 years old when Tim Trees released his first album, had grown up in a Baltimore where “Bank Roll” was a perennial local standard. So when he decided to rap over the Rod Lee track for his own version in 2015, “Bank Rolls (Remix)” was initially just a brief freebie to promote his latest mixtape. It quickly overshadowed the mixtape, however, and Tate Kobang entered the studio with Rod Lee to extend the track into a full song, which got national attention far beyond what the Tim Trees original had achieved. Tate Kobang was briefly signed to 300 Entertainment, but in recent years he’s achieved serious success as a songwriter, with credits on two top 10 hits: 21 Savage’s “Mr. Right Now” and Nicki Minaj’s “Do We Have A Problem?”
“The 27 Club”
Barrington Hendricks grew up moving around from Brooklyn to Alabama to Louisiana before winding up in Baltimore in 2015, adopting the name JPEGMAFIA and getting involved with the city’s DIY rap scene. Though the rapper-producer was only Baltimore-based for three years, JPEGMAFIA became a critically acclaimed star in his time here, releasing wildly experimental albums and mixtapes with funny, provocative names like “Communist Slow Jams,” “Darkskin Manson,” and “Black Ben Carson,” which featured the gallows humor of “The 27 Club.”
2017: Creek Boyz
“With My Team”
Most of the notable rappers from Baltimore hail from the city proper, but in 2017 Baltimore County got a group to call their own. Turk P. Diddy, ETs Breeze, Young Fedi Mula, and J Reezy rapped together with singsong melodies like a new generation’s Bone Thugs-N-Harmony on their beautiful breakout single “With My Team.” By the end of the year, the Creek Boyz had signed to 300 Entertainment and Atlanta rap star Lil Yachty appeared on an official remix of the song.
2018: Bandhunta Izzy
“In Love Wit Da Trap”
Trap, the Southern outlaw rap offshoot popularized by Atlanta stars like Gucci Mane and Jeezy, has become one of the most dominant styles of hip-hop everywhere over the last decade, including Baltimore. And with Lor Scoota gone and Young Moose behind bars, Bandhunta Izzy emerged as Baltimore’s next trap star. “In Love Wit Da Trap” appeared on Izzy’s 2018 album “Code Blue” alongside collaborations with Atlanta’s Peewee Longway and Memphis’s Key Glock.
2019: Shordie Shordie
The Baltimore trio Peso Da Mafia’s 2017 single “Money Man” was a huge local radio hit. But when the member of the group that delivered that song’s melodic hook, Shordie Shordie, went solo, he reached greater national fame and achieved a new milestone for the city as a whole. His single “Bitchuary” was certified platinum by the RIAA in 2020, making him the first Baltimore rapper with a platinum plaque. The song has since been certified double platinum, and he released his fourth Warner Records album, “More Than Music, Pt. 2,″ last month.
“The Ballad of Dontay”
Emmanuel “DDm” Moss cut his teeth on Baltimore’s competitive battle rap scene, winning multiple local tournaments in the mid-2000s before linking up with the label Mania Music Group for a few years. Then DDm went independent and decided to come out, becoming Baltimore’s first openly gay rapper of note. In 2020, he reunited with Mania producer Dwayne “Headphones” Lawson for “The Ballad of Omar,” an album that paralleled DDm’s story with that of Omar Little, the iconic character from “The Wire.” The closing track is named for Omar Little’s boyfriend, but “The Ballad of Dontay” is a stirringly personal love ballad. “The Ballad of Omar” turned out to be one of the final projects produced by Lawson, who died in 2021.
2021: Yg Teck
Drill is the latest regional rap subgenre that has seemed to move from city to city around the world, picking up new sounds and accents as it travels. Drill began in Chicago before mixing with U.K. rap as London Drill, before winding up in hip-hop’s hometown as Brooklyn Drill, popularized by rappers like Pop Smoke and Fivio Foreign. And in 2021 and 2022, people rap on drill beats just about everywhere, including Baltimore, where Park Heights rapper Yg Teck raps over familiar halting drill drums on “Shootout.”
Al Shipley is a Maryland-based music and culture writer.