From its origins as an outgrowth of block parties in the South Bronx to its current position as the most dominant and commercially viable musical genre, hip-hop has always highlighted the art (and commerce) of turning nothing into something. It’s a big part of what makes it so fun to root for the artists — many have overcome dire circumstances to become megastars who inspire people of all ages and races all over the world.
With perseverance in the face of steep odds in mind, here are three rappers who overcame rough backgrounds to live lavishly at the top.
The story of contemporary Detroit is well-trodden territory now: once the crown jewel of American innovation, it has since fallen on hard times as factories have closed, the city’s economy tanked, and hundreds of thousands of residents have fled.
On “Scrap Or Die,” the penultimate track on his album XXX, Danny Brown’s genre-bending 2011 mixtape, he sketches a vivid portrait of desperation caused by the economic downturn.
Looking at this crib for about a whole month
Family lived there they got put out last month
My uncle sniffing blow while I’m rolling up a blunt
His homie in the basement, smoking crack with my aunt
While Brown stated that the story he tells on the track isn’t directly autobiographical, he paints a lucid picture specific to his surroundings in Detroit, where those suffering from financial instability would steal and sell scrap metal to make ends meet.
Born to teenage parents in Detroit, Brown was one of the four children his father had before he was 20. He grew up in a particularly tough time for the city. “Detroit is really crazy. It was worse back then [regarding violence], but it’s more f*cked up now, economically,” he told Complex in 2012. “When I was a kid, it was a lot more money floating around, so it was just a lot more contract killing.”
Despite the city’s troubles, Brown’s parents did their best to shelter him from the streets. His father, a house DJ, educated him on a diverse array of music and both parents encouraged him to spend most of his time inside so as not to fall victim to the grim outside.
By 18, though, Brown had become a drug dealer, selling crack out of a home he lived in on the city’s east side. A year into that business, police arrested Brown. He spent time in jail but continued his life on the streets after he left, eventually being detained yet again for a marijuana possession charge and violating his probation. Brown subsequently skipped court and spent the next five years on the run. Because any arrest would result in an extended sentence, he eased up on the drug game and spent his time learning how to get into music.
“I had warrants so I couldn’t really slang like that ‘cause I didn’t wanna go to jail. I was broke in the hood,” he told Complex. “I had nothing else, so I just started going back to studying music and trying to become a rapper.”
Eventually, the police incarcerated Brown again, a situation he described as a “breath of fresh air,” resolving to himself that after this particular jail sentence, he would close the crime chapter of his life forever.
During that jail stint, his brother began sending his songs out on the internet, garnering press hits from various blogs, including influential ones at the time like 2 Dope Boyz and NahRight. Before long, those looks helped Brown get noticed by NYC based indie-label Fool’s Gold, who signed him to a deal. The resulting release, XXX, was a hit, landing on numerous year-end best albums list and turning Brown into a highly sought-after commodity.