Jay-Z comes from Brooklyn, 50 Cent hails from Queens, and Eminem claims Detroit as his hometown. Some rappers, on the other hand, do not come directly from the city streets, but from the hallowed halls of the Ivy League.
In the past several years, a growing number of Yalies have emerged as prolific rappers, emcees and hip-hop artists. By distributing their work over the Internet and through computer software like iTunes, these performers have amassed cultish followings on campus and, in some cases, garnered national attention.
Ameer El-Mallawany ’05 said he has seen a boom in Yale hip-hop music and culture during his time on campus. He said there were several experimental rappers on campus during his early college years, including Andrew Singer ’02, a gay Jewish rapper who will release an album at the end of this month under the alias Soce, The Elemental Wizard. For three-and-a-half years, El-Mallawany also hosted a hip-hop radio show on WYBC-AM with friend Jonathan Farmer ’05.
Still, he said, until recently the hip-hop community at Yale remained barely existent and hardly prominent.
“When I got here, there wasn’t much of a Yale rap scene,” El-Mallawany said.
Even El-Mallawany, who has experience rapping with his cousins as the group the Desert Crew, admitted he did not involve himself in hip-hop at Yale as much as he could have. It was not until the fall of 2004 when Peter Furia ’05, who performs under the name Furyus, and Matthew Fitzgerald ’04, also known as Fitzgeezus, released the song “BK2NIGHT” that rap took off at Yale.
“I’m confident saying that singlehandedly [Furia] is responsible for the hip-hop boom at Yale,” El-Mallawany said. “And I definitely appreciate that.”
Furia and Fitzgerald rapped about the difficulty transfer students face when attempting to eat at the Berkeley College dining hall and included lyrics such as, “So what if you found a hall that you like? / Fool, you can’t get into Berkeley tonight.” The song was an instant hit among undergraduates and were featured in an article published in the Boston Globe.
Furia and Fitzgerald met their freshman year and have been freestyling with each other ever since. The two recorded their first collaboration, “Pierson College,” with the help of vocalist Ranidu Lankage ’05, who is a prominent pop artist in Sri Lanka. The duo then moved on to pen “BK2NIGHT.”
Encouraged by the success of the two tracks, Furia and Fitzgerald enlisted the talents of Leveille McClain ’04, and the three recorded their first album “Fifth Floor EP,” which they named after the floor they shared together in Lanman Wright during their freshman year.
Unlike other hip-hop artists at Yale, Furia identifies himself as an emcee and not a rapper. He said while the music the two types of artists produce sounds similar, the message that each conveys may be quite different.
“The term rapper has been stigmatized because when someone hears the word rapper, they automatically think of more mainstream, commodified forms of rap music,” Furia said. “As part of a way to make a distinction, a lot of the artists that are concerned with the more uplifting aspects of the music have distinguished themselves as emcees.”
Victor Kwansa ’08, a spoken-word artist, echoed Furia’s sentiment. He said it is important to recognize what kind of message one’s lyrics might convey.
“If there’s a stereotypical rapper, think of what they might say: I would say the opposite,” Kwansa said. “Because that’s what really needs to be heard.”
Though Kwansa does not strictly call himself a rapper or an emcee, he said the pieces he performs at special events on campus, such as the African American Cultural Center’s 35th Anniversary Celebration, often draw similarities to rap.
Indeed, many Yale hip-hop artists have written music that adheres less to the mold set by mainstream hip-hop and instead takes a more political bent.
El-Mallawany said the music of his group, which bills itself as the first Arab-American rap group, often deals with introspective themes, such as identity politics. At Yale, El-Mallawany joined Frederick Sowah ’06, also known as St. Huxlay, in a collaborative track called “United Nations,” a project spearheaded by Furia. The song incorporated artists representing seven countries and rapping in four languages. El-Mallawany performed the Korean component of the track while Sowah represented his home country of Ghana.
Still, others at Yale rap about less serious topics. Gabriel Hernandez ’07, who raps under the alias MC Platano, said he prides himself on producing songs that do not carry the weight the work of other rappers might.
“Most of the music that I put out are real farcical s—,” he said. “There’s definitely the group of people that … let me know that they feel the music. On the other hand, I get the e-mails that I’m whack and enough of the bulls—.”
Hernandez first forayed into the hip-hop scene at Yale by provoking a “hip-hop rivalry” between Davenport and Pierson Colleges with “Pierson College Sucks Dick,” his response to Furia and Fitzgerald’s track “Pierson College”. This fall, he attracted controversy and anger with a track called, “Lickin’ a Bum,” in which he rapped about fantasies of engaging in sexual acts with the Flower Lady, the Shakespeare Lady and the Poetry Lady, New Haven women well-known to many Yalies.
Hernandez insisted that if the lyrics are taken with a grain of salt, his songs do have some entertainment value.
“If you put aside the political correctness that you got to live by as a Yalie for a hot f—ing second, then it’s funny,” he said.
While performers such as Furia hope to pursue hip-hop music after they graduate from Yale, Hernandez acknowledged that for him, rap is only a college pastime, at least for now.
“If I got that luckyass one-in-a-million shot, if I was about to graduate and someone offered me a contract, I would take it,” he said. “But I’m not a f—ing retard, I know that this is some college s—, and I don’t have any expectations.”
Though rapping at Yale might not lead to a life of fame, Sowah said that at the very least, hip-hop is an important element in the extracurricular life on campus.
“Rap is simply one of the main attempts by Yale students to show the world that life here at Yale is not all about CCL, WLH and Sterling Chemistry Lab,” Sowah said.