I recently rewatched the tape of the 1995 Source Awards, among the most infamous and important nights in rap history. At the time there were basically two major factions of mainstream hip hop in music’s two economic hubs, one representing Los Angelas and one representing New York City. That is not to say that rap was not thriving outside of these two locales, The Roots out of Philly had just released their now classic sophomore album, Do You Want More?!!!??! and Triple Six Mafia out of Memphis had just added Gangsta Boo and Crunchy Black to their crew and changed their name to Three Six Mafia for their album Mystic Stylez, pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable for hip hop and ultimately inspiring a generation of rappers. But in 1995 there just wasn’t a lane for them to get the buzz that Biggie and Tupac had. There was no A&R team in Memphis that was going to get Juicy J and the gang in every record store in America. Rap was either west coast G Funk or east coast Boom Bap, and there was little anyone outside of the coastal elites could do to stop it. Yet a quarter century later the most prophetic and well remembered moment of the evening didn’t come from the east west coast banter that made headlines the next day, but from a little known rap duo from Atlanta. Outkast was boo’d the second they won “New Artist of the Year”. The whole event felt like what twitter feels like every day, with a different person getting put on a podium to either get roasted or cheered for as they yell their thoughts for a minute and then fall back into the mess of the timeline. The crowd thought they had Outkast ready for a good old fashioned ratio-ing until Andre came forward with proclamation, that it didn’t matter what the crowd thought, the south had something to say that night, and was not going to be shutting up for a good while. Every year since 1995 the landscape has gotten more and more flattened. Atlanta, once the laughing stock of the Source Awards became the epicenter of hip hop, and every year since the internet connected the world a little more and where you came from mattered a little less.
It’s near impossible to imagine a rapper like XanMan in the context of the 1995 Source Awards. For starters XanMan was negative six years old when the show aired and grew up fully on the and under the influence of the internet which barely existed at the time. The structures that kept rappers down in the past are powerless on the world wide web where what’s hot will get the most clicks regardless of why or who it comes from. XanMan and his crew have rose to prominence with two or so years of consistent mostly self produced 5-15 song mixtape drops. It’s funny how a Gucci Mane like mixtape based rise to success can already feel a little old fashioned in an era where rappers can have more face tattoos than singles online. Had he come up with Gucci a decade ago a guy like Xan may have had to rep Washington D.C. to try and cling to a greater scene going on, but in 2019 he can proudly rep Brightseat Road, Landover, Maryland like he’s talking about growing up in Queensbridge or South Central. Where in 1995 a group like Outkast had to get a demo together, send it out to a bunch of different labels and keep their fingers crossed that somebody liked it enough to offer them a contract, there are pretty much no limits to how one can build a buzz in 2019, though a common formula has started to take form. Step 1: Get a crew of a couple likeminded artists together and get a local buzz going off of your collective output, going after high schoolers. Step 2: Make sure you have a hook that lets those high schoolers all go “no, these guys are different” (dying your hair and getting piercings, calling yourself a boy band, rapping while playing GTA on twitch, be emo or emo adjacent). Step 3: Have a galvanizing negative moment that the locals get a hashtag going for (Go to jail, have a dick pic leak, get murdered, start dating Blacc Chyna) and then BAM, there you are on the cover of Complex, getting shouted out by Zach Fox and in Pitchfork.
The one problem standing in the way of a promising young rapper is that in 2019 everybody and their grandma has a single and a face tattoo, so unless you personally know Young Thug you actually do have to do something relatively different to stand out. Xan and his crew, including his cousin YungManny and rapper Lil Gray have made a name for themselves in Maryland for their unique flow, generally lo-fi and hard hitting production, and endlessly quotable lines. The cadence, which has been referenced in interviews as “the DMV flow” has the choppiness of the bay area SOB RBE flow with the punchline power of the old Big Sean flow. Xan and the gang seem like they cannot be having any more fun shit talking and making references to old commercials and tv shows, and as long as you’re not an op they’re happy to welcome you to the party. Their twitter accounts are each fifty percent retweeting kids quoting their lines with some combination of laughing/crying emojis. Each line is indeed funnier than the last, though the funniest ones are accompanied by the correct gif and an “I’m sooo glad someone finally got that line” seal of approval. The majority of these songs have hard hitting bass that sounds like Xan robbed Kenny Beat’s Ableton, and a simple piano line. The youngins are at their best when they’re playing off one another trying to come up with crazier and crazier lines. Xanman’s galvanizing negative moment was his going to jail for six months last year while the #FreeXan hashtag went crazy on twitter. I knew the track him and YungManny put out to celebrate his release, First Day Out, was going to be an instant classic the second I heard them drop in a “Hamana hamana hamana, Squidward” as a punchline in Xan’s second verse. I exploded with laughter and just shouted “WHAT THE FUUUUUKKKKKKK”, as I wondered why Rodger Bumpass went uncredited for his feature. Much in the same way that every rapper was running around quoting Blueface in their instagram captions last year I can imagine the same happening for this Maryland cohort as rappers signed to the power structures that propped up the coasts in the 90’s try to keep relevant by riding the newest wave.
And that style really only accounts for half of XanMan’s output. Another law of the internet is “try it all and see what sticks”, and Xan has a separate lane of songs rap-singing to lost lovers. There is a strict dichotomy to his music: stick talk is rapped, lost lovers are crooned to. These tracks are as homemade as the rest of his output as Xan sings without any autotune in a way that feels like a DMV take on the melodic rap that the likes of Lil Uzi Vert and 03 Greedo have seen success with. While these tracks don’t generally have the same level of quotables that the stick talk tracks do, they’ve been just as if not more successful. The crooning Gucci Down is Xan’s most played song on Spotify and tapes like Luther Xandross 1 and 2. In these modern times it’s almost necessary to diversify your portfolio to try to give yourself a couple potential lanes to swim in, and Xan and his gang have already been able to do that before they even all turned eighteen.
The rise of XanMan and his Maryland team is starting to feel a tiny bit like what was going on in Florida in 2016-17. You start with one Soundcloud page or one Spinrilla link and realize that one artist is connected to a web of talented musicians, each with more YouTube plays than you’d expect for a kid from the “suburbs” who has barely ever played his music live in concert. Much like the Florida boys, the Maryland crew has been able to get this level of success completely outside the traditional power structures that were keeping OutKast down in 1995. XanMan is undoubtedly their ring leader, and I cannot wait to see what becomes of the circus they’re creating in the DMV.