It’s been a central tenet of hip-hop’s philosophy since the culture and music first spread from the beaten-down blocks of ’70s Bronx, New York to take over the rest of the nation (and the globe): “It ain’t where you’re from; it’s where you’re at.” Rappers and their fans have long touted their regional loyalties, even from the very beginning. How could they not, with that trademark Big Apple territorialism baked in from the start?
Whether they were from the Bronx or Brooklyn, Harlem or Queens, rising artists proudly repped their borough. As hip-hop grew, rappers found pockets of the nation where people loudly proclaimed the cities and streets of their origins and declared lifelong fealty; New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Miami, Oakland, Houston, and Atlanta became the hotbeds of hip-hop activity, which each launching its own, discrete take on the genre, identifiable by regional movements like G-Funk, Hyphy, Screw, Bass, Crunk, Snap, and Trap.
One place you wouldn’t think to find hip-hop, though, is the city of Boise, Idaho. Until I was invited to attend the city’s Treefort Festival for this assignment, I didn’t even know what time zone it was in until I researched the area. While the Pacific Northwest does have its own rich history of hip-hop artists, from Portland, Oregon’s Amine to Seattle, Washington’s Macklemore, a hip-hop hotspot it is not — at least, that’s what I thought.
And so, my visit to this college town, with its semi-arid continental climate and greater national reputation for potatoes than famous musicians, came with a pretty clearly defined mission. I was going to find out if there really is hip-hop in Idaho, and if so, why it hasn’t quite garnered the same level of attention as its PNW neighbors — or even produced a single rap star of note since the genre’s officially recorded inception in 1979.
On my arrival, it was pretty clear that there was at least one, super-obvious reason why there might not be a huge rap presence in the city, despite the music’s popularity and the proximity of a pretty prominent state university with a student population that could at least provide an audience. Rap has long been associated with crime and hardscrabble living at the bottom of society’s proverbial totem pole. Boise, with an annual average of around 600 violent crimes total, is a pretty, almost alarmingly clean town overlooked by picturesque mountains to the north and a downtown you can traverse in pretty much ten minutes. “The hood” it is not.
Even so, a rough upbringing was never so much a requirement as a suggestion in hip-hop, as proven by pioneers like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Kanye West, and Drake. The demographics of rap performers and fans have begun to reflect that even though Boise is very white, so now is much of hip-hop’s sizeable audience — and stars. So the question remained: Where is all the Idaho hip-hop?