50 Years of Hip-Hop: Influential albums From Washtenaw County


A collage of colorful boom boxes with the word "Washtenaw" across it to represent the recent 50th anniversary of hip-hop.

A salute to Washtenaw County hip-hop artists and some of the influential albums they've made over the years. Graphic by Nate Pocsi-Morrison.

Hip-hop started in the Bronx in 1973 and spread across the world to become one of the most popular and influential genres ever created.

There were numerous 50th-anniversary celebrations for the art form in 2023, and we're working on some articles about the history of hip-hop in Washtenaw County that we’ll be sharing soon.

But before that, we wanted to share some influential hip-hop records made by Washtenaw County artists—as identified through research and interviews with local creatives for our upcoming history pieces.

There were plenty of other important recordings that were cited, too, but we're highlighting these selections because they’re the only ones you can listen to online. (A broader list will accompany one of our upcoming articles.)

Read on and drop us a line at pulp@aadl.org if you want to share stories and memories about the Washtenaw County hip-hop community.

S.U.N., Shining Underground (1998)
S.U.N. (Scientific Universal Noncommercial) chronicles a spiritual and philosophical search for identity and growth on his debut album. Throughout Shining Underground, the Ypsilanti rapper born Santonio Hughbanks uses insightful lyrics, contemplative interludes, and throbbing beats to document his journey across 16 tracks. He also features a stellar collaboration with former Union of Brothers United (UBU) partner Brother Browne and Invincible on “Live and Direct” and offers up two compelling versions of the title track: “Shining Underground” and “Shining Underground (Reconstruction).” The album launched S.U.N.’s reputation as an independent, conscious hip-hop artist and helped him build a strong following in Chicago, Cleveland, parts of Indiana, and out West. Since then, he’s shared a catalog of releases, including 2020’s For You, Make Radiant Room, which he describes on his Bandcamp page as “a sonic landscape that’s soulfully political, personal, intense, inspirational and open.”


Binary Star, Waterworld (1999)
Binary Star’s debut album is often cited by Washtenaw County artists as one of the most iconic and influential underground albums in Michigan hip-hop. Released via Terrorist Records, Waterworld was originally recorded on a $500 budget by two friends who formed Binary Star while incarcerated. The album includes 17 tracks with MCs One Be Lo (Nahshid Sulaiman) and Senim Silla (Ross Rowe) reflecting on life, history, and religion through thoughtful lyricism and pulsating beats. It also features collaborations with Detroit’s Decompoze on “Freakin Flows,” “Indy 500,” and “Fellowship” alongside Athletic Mic League. (Two versions of “Fellowship” are included on the Bandcamp version of Waterworld.)

In 2000, One Be Lo rearranged, remixed, and rereleased Waterworld as Masters of the Universe through his newly created Subterraneous Records. Over the years, Binary Star has alternated between being a solo project for One Be Lo, aka OneManArmy, and as a duo with Senim Silla. A Pontiac native, One Be Lo lived in Ypsilanti and was an instrumental guide in the local hip-hop community by sharing the stage with Athletic Mic League, Invincible, Magestik Legend, and other Southeast Michigan artists. By 2007, One Be Lo relocated with his family to Cairo, Egypt. Last year, he released his album Songs of Songs with each track representing “a Celebration of Life in a different way.” 


Funktelligence, Until Now (1999) and Earthtones (2002)
Formed in 1996, the Ann Arbor funk/hip-hop band mixed elements of soul, rock, and jazz across two albums, Until Now and Earthtones. Funktelligence resonated with the local hip-hop community due to its two MCs fronting a magnetic live band. MCs Michael “IX Lives” Demps and Jackson “Jax” Perry, guitarist/keyboardist Topher Mohr, and bassist Joe Abrams served as the group’s core lineup along with a rotating cast of members until disbanding in 2004. Both releases feature infectious rhymes fused with melodic and fiery jams, which often expanded into lengthier versions onstage while playing live shows at Cross Street Station, The Blind Pig, Bird of Paradise, T.C.’s Speakeasy, and other local venues. The group frequently collaborated and shared the stage with Athletic Mic League, One Be Lo, DJ Graffiti, and Magestik Legend.


Athletic Mic League, Sweats and Kicks (2002)
The Ann Arbor hip-hop collective of Michael “Grand Cee” Fletcher, Jamall “Buff1” Bufford, Trés Styles, Kendall “14KT” Tucker, Wes “Vital” Taylor, Vaughan “VaughanTego” Taylor, and Mayer “DJ Haircut” Hawthorne keeps it real and casual on Sweats and KicksAthletic Mic League’s second album includes 15 songs filled with confident rhymes about authenticity, growth, and connection and features propulsive beats and innovative samples, including some from the group’s in-house production team, The Lab Techs. “The title Sweats and Kicks is about more than clothes and sneakers, though; it is a soundtrack to their lives and the lives of all hip-hop heads who have long been immersed in a culture of hip-hop and athletic synergy,” wrote Joseph Litman in an October 17, 2002 article for The Michigan Daily

That creative approach and mindset serve as a compelling throughline, especially on “The Declaration,” “Got ‘Em Sayin’” with Invincible, “F.E.V.E.R.” with Magestik Legend and OneManArmy, “Sweats & Kicks,” and “Trust & Believe.” By 2005, the members of Athletic Mic League focused on supporting each other’s solo and collaborative efforts and living life in general. The group reunited in 2020 to write, record, and release Playground Legends, Vol. 1 after doing a four-day studio retreat and followed up with Playground Legends, Vol. 2 in 2022. Bufford confirmed the group recorded new material, including four or five songs, at its most recent retreat.


DJ Graffiti, Bling FreeCertified Bangers, and other mixtapes (2002-2009)
DJ Graffiti, aka Martin Smith, released a series of highly respected mixtapes via his Bling Free Records label, including Bling Free Vol. 1 (2001), Bling Free Vol. 2: Wake Up! (2002), Bling Free Vol. 3: It’s Official! (2004), Certified Bangers Vol. 1 (2004), Certified Bangers Vol. 2 (2005), Certified Bangers Vol. 4 (Hosted by Phat Kat) (2006), Killin’ the Game (2007), Hipsters Need Soul Too (Hosted by Buff1) (2008), and A-Side Worldwide: We’re Winning (2009). The University of Michigan alumnus showcased emerging Michigan and Washtenaw County artists ranging from Athletic Mic League to S.U.N. to One Be Lo to Slum Village. He also co-founded Elevation, a weekly Sunday night hip-hop event and open mic in Ann Arbor that ran at the now defunct Firefly Club from 2004-2009, according to a May 10, 2009 article in The Ann Arbor News. Today, DJ Graffiti runs Overflow, a digital marketing agency, and performs sets at local clubs, concerts, and corporate events.  


Danté LaSalle, Roaming Empire (2006) 
Danté LaSalle, aka Danté Tucker, started as part of the Detroit hip-hop group Switch Stance in the early 2000s with Dirk Verbals and DJ Deck Master D. The MC and University of Michigan alumnus also served as a powerhouse booking agent, show promoter, and open mic host for underground and touring hip-hop acts in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Detroit. In 2006, LaSalle, who’s now based in Metro Detroit, released his debut solo album, Roaming Empire, which documents his background, thoughts, creative vision, and global travels through autobiographical lyrics and rapid rhymes.

The album’s pounding, danceable beats also bring his 13 tracks to life, especially on “Tucker Stomp,” “Winnie Cooper,” “Beat Goes On,” “Give Up,” “Bouncers,” and “Twisting Ghosts.” According to a 2008 article in Neufutur MagazineRoaming Empire peaked at No. 2 on the CMJ hip-hop charts and stayed in the top five for several weeks. LaSalle also embarked on the Warped Tour that same year and followed up with a three-part series of mixtapes called The FixTape (2007)The FixTape 2: Still Broke (2008), and Back in Blue: The FixTape 3 (2010). After doing DJ sets at Warped Tour afterparties, he started spinning tunes at different bars and clubs in Michigan, including The Last Word in Ann Arbor and spots around Detroit. Today, he still DJs and has started working on new hip-hop material. 


Abolitionist Projects, Free Music (2008)
Free Music by Ann Arbor hip-hop collective Abolitionist Projects features 15 tracks of sociopolitical lyricism and synthy chiptune and EDM-inspired beats from Brandon “Kadence” Mitchell, Scott “Tenacity” Martin, Charles “Charles Trees” Tillinghast, Damien “Shi Dog” Johnson, Joshua “S.A.” Castrejon, Loren “Lo Key” Rowry, Miles “Intricate Dialect” Lindsey, and Jay “Iggy Ignotius” Bodley. The songs reflect on removing societal barriers, overcoming obstacles, and celebrating creative expression and freedom. Standout tracks include “Free Music,” “The Man Sucks,” “It’s The,” “Is This Real,” “Theme From the Motion Picture Daily Drama,” “Modern Dream World,” and “Reason 4 Revenge.” Past and present Abolitionist Projects members continue to release new material under various solo monikers.


Invincible, ShapeShifters (2008)
Throughout ShapeShiftersInvincible—aka Ill Weaver and a member of Anomalies—reflects on sexual politics, higher education, gentrification, international conflicts, and other sociopolitical themes. Released via Emergence Media, a label Invincible co-founded, their debut solo album flows through 14 tracks, which include determined rhymes and thumping beats. 

According to a January 2009 article on Hip Hop Core, “Sledgehammer!” serves as an ode to their musical and political heroes while “People Not Places” features Palestinian rapper Abeer and focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Another standout track, “Spacious Skies,” reconciles childhood perceptions of living in the U.S. after relocating from Israel, and “Deuce/Ypsi” includes collaborations with Buff1, S.U.N., and PL about the challenges of local gentrification.

ShapeShifters showcases the growing talents of the former Ann Arbor MC who’s now based in Detroit. These days, Invincible works with Detroit Summer, a multi-racial, intergenerational collective that empowers local youth to improve their communities. They also partner with Detroit Future Youth to support social justice and media-based youth projects throughout the city. Outside of social activism, Invincible has released several singles and EPs, including 666 in 2022.


Tree City, Thus Far (2010)
The roots of Ann Arbor’s Tree City date to 2005 when its members met at Huron High School and started collaborating at The Neutral Zone. By 2010, the group gained a strong local following and released Thus Far, a cumulative and cohesive collection of songs from Mike “Man in Charge” Hyter, Kyle “G.P.” Hunter, Evan “Clavius Crates” Haywood, Charles “Cheeks” Cheek, and Jacoby “DJ Cataclysmic” Simmons. Tree City’s first full-length album features 18 tracks filled with revelatory rhymes, bouncy beats interspersed with jazz, world music, and soul samples, and personal outtakes “that often manifest into hypothetical discussions and trivial debates,” wrote James Dickson in a June 17, 2010 article for The Ann Arbor News

On Thus Far, Tree City makes an artistic statement on “Say It Again” with L05, and the MCs assert their courage, independence, and survival on “What I Gotta Do.” Other standout tracks include trying to find the right connection on “A-Muse-Ment” with Nickie P., relying on public transportation on “Transit,” and revisiting the group’s origin and evolution on the title trackThus Far also includes “production contributions from such diverse talents as Doc Illingsworth, Blaze One, L05, 14KT, Hir-O, and others … and shows Tree City exploring uncharted territory in both musical style and subject matter,” wrote Tree City on its Bandcamp page. Haywood recently confirmed the group is preparing to release its long-awaited Pure Levels album in 2024.


Seven Chakraz, Memento Mori (7 Deadly Sins) (2012)
The Ann Arbor hip-hop collective of Ian “Eli D” Rowlette, Harlin “Duke” Newcomb, Kevin “Esque Roxwell” Price-Wallace, Nicole “Nickie P.” Price Smith, Ron “Truck” Williams, Adam “A Bomb” Weiss, and Jeff “DJ Faded One” Ernst reflects on personal and spiritual interpretations of the seven deadly sins on Memento Mori (7 Deadly Sins). Whether it’s “Lust,” “Gluttony,” “Greed,” or another vice, Seven Chakraz (7C) brings all the cardinal sins and more to life through introspective lyricism, film monologue samples, thumping beats, ominous synths, and collaborations with Tre Nyce, JusOne, Illtext, and Taj E. on its fourth album. The group also explores the impact of sin on everyday actions, beliefs, choices, and relationships before searching for forgiveness and closure on “Truly Free” and “Veniality Options.” The compelling intro “Memento Mori Sintro” and the revealing outro “Immoral Vice” seamlessly bookend Seven Chakraz’s thought-provoking concept album. Today, Seven Chakraz’s Duke Newcomb and Nickie P. plan and host The Dojo, a monthly hip-hop open mic and live show, at The Blind Pig in Ann Arbor, The Regal Beagle in Ypsi, and other local venues.


Nickie P., The Triumphant Rise & Tragic Existence of Sick Nick (2013)
Whitmore Lake’s Nickie P., aka Nicole Price Smith, reasserts herself as a steadfast and autonomous MC on her sophomore release, The Triumphant Rise & Tragic Existence of Sick Nick. It’s the first album the Seven Chakraz member consistently built and released independently after debuting as a solo artist with The Glitter Wars in 2009. The Triumphant Rise’s 10 tracks feature empowering anthems about an independent woman taking control of her life and overcoming the obstacles in front of her. Tracks like “Triumphant Ones,” “Pissin’ On Me,” “Anything,” and “Se7en” strongly reiterate those themes through honest lyrics, earworm hooks, and funky beats. In 2021, Nickie P. followed up The Triumphant Rise with The Collective Thought E.P., which welcomes listeners into various parts of her life and features ‘90s-style, sample-based hip-hop production. Today, she helps organize local hip-hop programs and events, including The Dojo and The Amplify Project, and works as an event coordinator at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance.


Tru Klassick, Mastah Chief (2019)
Ann Arbor’s Tru Klassick, aka Taylor Michael, explores identity from a creative, spiritual, and holistic standpoint while tackling life’s obstacles on Mastah Chief. That overarching theme seamlessly coalesces with his thoughtful lyricism and palpitating beats, which reflect elements of gospel, soul, jazz, psychedelia, rock, and new-age music, across the album’s 10 tracks. Tru Klassick demonstrates and solidifies his craft as a hip-hop artist and beatmaker on tracks like “Follow Me,” “Am I a Good Man,” “Happy Trees,” “Einstein on Acid,” “God Rap” featuring Metasyons, and the title track. He also continues to share a compelling catalog of mixtapes and beat tapes, including the recently released Time Flies Beat Tape, which was made while waiting for flights or sitting on planes. Outside of releases, Tru Klassick hosts Bridging the Gap, a regular open mic and live music showcase featuring local and touring hip-hop artists, at The Regal Beagle in Ypsi and Corktown Tavern in Detroit. 


Various Artists, Formula 734 (2020) & Formula 734 Volume II (2022)
Executive producers Rod Wallace and Athletic Mic League’s Jamall “Buff1” Bufford assembled a local group of intergenerational men of color to write, record, and release two albums as part of the Formula 734 hip-hop collective. They created the two albums in partnership with Washtenaw County My Brother’s Keeper, the Ann Arbor Community Foundation, the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office, Project Plugin, and Creativity Fluidity Productions.

Released in 2020, Formula 734 serves as a historical document of living in Washtenaw County during the pandemic and responding to the societal unrest related to the death of George Floyd. The album features contributions from Tru Klassick, Sam Watson, Konphlict, King Ogundipe, and other artists as well as a companion documentary. In 2022, Wallace and Bufford followed up with Formula 734 Volume II, which chronicles the ongoing perseverance of local men of color in a post-pandemic world. Emerging hip-hop artists AnimeKing, Lil Jay, Mansa RR, NGF Treazy, Giovanni, and Seyno share their experiences alongside introspective rhymes, timeless boom-bap and trap beats, and emotive spoken-word segments. (Read our past interview with Wallace on Formula 734 Volume II.) Bufford confirmed Formula 734 Volume III has been recorded while work on Formula 734 Volume IV is just getting started.


Isaac Castor & Foul Mouth, The Rabbit Hole (2020) & The Rabbit Hole 2 (2023)
Detroit’s Isaac Castor honed his MC skills while growing up in Ann Arbor and hanging out at The Neutral Zone. That led to a series of local live shows and hip-hop EPs and albums under the Gameboi moniker from 2009-2013. Shifting to his given name, Castor continued to share compelling releases and joined forces with the hip-hop collective Middle Finger Music spearheaded by Detroit producer Shane “Foul Mouth” Webb. That collaboration has resulted in two concept albums—The Rabbit Hole (2020) and The Rabbit Hole 2 (2023)—that take a contemplative journey through Castor’s life lessons, experiences, and relationships.

The albums feature dark, personal lyrics about Castor growing as an artist and individual across 31 hard-hitting tracks, including the popular TikTok and Spotify single “Name 5 Songs.” Collectively, The Rabbit Hole and The Rabbit Hole 2 also offer fiery and chill sample-based production by Foul Mouth and flow through a sonic landscape of psychedelic, soulful, and jazzy beats. Standout tracks include “Retrospect,” “Regal,” “Headless Horsemen,” “That Ain’t Love,” “Green Pill,” “75 South,” “Admit It,” “Nosebleeds,” “Power of Mind,” and “Studio Vibe.” In December, Castor released a new EP, Algorithm & Blues, with Detroit producer Omari “Hir-O” Hall.

Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of strattonsetlist.com.