Pittsburgh's Slim Pickins

As far as identity crises go, Pittsburgh’s could be a hell of a lot worse (which is to say, gentrification isn’t big in a city where a high rise compares favorably to rock bottom in not-so-far NYC).  But there are problems with it: chiefly, that its portrayal in popular media puffs up a smog crushed, blue collar, steel town signifier that hangs thick over the sociological complexities of a college town that lost nearly that entire industry more than thirty years ago. In 2013, Pittsburgh is, yes, still the Steel City to the manufacturing retirees and hardline sports fanatics who billowed out into Pennsylbama or elsewhere years ago, but is also: the cultural capital of Appalachia; a draw for elite foreign students and young workers; home to the world’s best doctors; host to one of the most Jewish neighborhoods in the country; and, increasingly, a weird battleground for the fight pitting hipsters against frat bros on weekends – a derivative probably of all the other things I just laid out.

Making it by in semi- or modest popularity are a few bands and artists, definitively associated with the city, who act on one or more of these substrates:

One-hit-and-a-handful-of-almosts-wonder Donnie Iris (pronounced: ‘Daw-nee Eye-ers’ if you’re saying it like you’re expected to) is just a little bit smaller than Jesus to old white suburban crowd, all of whom tune to WDVE daily for classic rock when it isn’t broadcasting Steelers games; some of the more progressive among them will even tap their feet to the neoclassicist Clarks, who’ve been about to make it big now for over a decade, but just landed a gig with Toyota – so, you know, it’s just a matter of time.

For the supposed learned class (read: wealthy old people, wealthy students, and wealthy doctors per its non-contract contract with UPMC), the city has one of the world’s most acclaimed orchestras, Manfred Honeck’s Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra – which puts on shows for the pope when it’s not moonlighting as a brass Led Zepplica or making bank with Pixar.

Strange to say, but Pittsburgh can’t really claim a country band of note – instead, denizens of Appalachia flock dahntahn whenever Kenny Chesney or someone just like him visits to fuck shit up. I guess it counts. Given the unique brand of tailgating that goes on at these events, we’ll go ahead and say this also phenomena absorbs a significant amount of the city’s frat contingent as well.

Probably the singular artist most representative of Pittsburgh’s cognitive dissonance is Girl Talk: his genius for sampling and his encyclopedic grasp of pop music are undeniably popular on campuses everywhere, especially those in his hometown; his iconography highlights an unrepentant affinity for the city’s sporting roots (as well as a nod to old school rap fashion that appeals probably to no one but me); and his liminal social status between goofy white boy, technically-gifted DJ, apparent fan of Rod Stewart, and genuine hip hop artist finds him at pretty much at the point where all rivers meet. So then, it may be an accident but it’s certainly fair that the youngest mayor in American history, no less a trenchant Pittsburgher with a sense of history, gave Greg Gillis his own holiday. All factors considered, Girl Talk would be a perfect cultural emissary if the largest criticisms directed at him weren’t at least partially true: that he makes every noise but doesn’t say much of anything. For all his theoretical kinships, Girl Talk has no stated-on-record claim to Pittsburgh - no rep-song.

And given that the only noises he’s to put onto record since the landmark Feed The Animals are stolen, someone else will have to rep it out first. Except – no one really has… at least not directly.

If you’re puzzled why I haven’t mentioned the city’s strict hip hop audience to this point, note that no one else has either. Not only has no Pittsburgh hip hop artist of substance ever dedicated a sustained shout out to his community, arguably the two most substantial (RZA and Lady Miss Kier of Deee-Lite) are unrecognizable as Pittsburghers. Granted, a medium-sized town like Pittsburgh isn’t exactly begging for an anthem on the order of Jay-Z’s destined-for-greatness Empire State of Mind, or any of more than a dozen Kanye West tracks about Chi-town, or even – aiming lower – Clipse’s great but suspect depiction of tame-ass Virginia Beach as the second coming of Detroit.* But, for a genre as community-centric as hip hop to have failed to yield even a passable lyric about a city of  2.5 million or its sizable 26% African-American population outpaces surprising and becomes full on disappointing. Let’s take a look at some near- and far misses.

Wiz Khalifa

I reject the most famous attempt, Black & Yellow, on textual and spiritual terms: he never mentions the word ‘Pittsburgh,’ discusses at no length the city or its people, and fucks up the color combination (it’s black and gold). 

Appeals to an obvious second choice, Pittsburgh Sound, are similarly discouraging. Wiz starts with promise, spits a little preamble about the area code (“It’s that 412 shit! / I got that Pittsburgh Sound / Let’s get it”), but then pops off with a treatise about cheese and spliffs that could be about any place, granted, except no one says ‘spliff’ in Pennsylvania. An errant reference to the ‘steel curtain’ is swallowed four lines later when Wiz insists he’s “from Pittsburgh where the green / And the eatin is good.” I mean – I guess he’s right about the food. Anyway, any of this could have been forgiven if not for the last couplet, “And I can’t beef on heaven, no throw shit / and that’s word to the Philly guys, spliff.” No – you’re not allowed to get all brotherly with Philadelphia, especially when you sound like you’re kind of afraid to get your ass kicked. And please stop saying spliff.  

Wiz mentions Pittsburgh only once more in his, I’m sorry, oeuvre. Tossed off, one presumes it earns the namecheck because it’s phonetically halfway between sizzurp and slizzard:

Ooo, we in the club goin’ bizzurk

My OG sippin’ on that sizzurp

I mix the OG with the pizzurp

I O.D. spilled it on my shizurt

Drinking Bombay so I’m slizzered

My diamond chain lookin’ like a blizzard

So many rings, my fingers startin’ to hizzurt

If you didn’t know me you’d swear I had that Wizard

And I’m from Pittsburgh

Slimmie Hendrix (née Pittsburgh Slim)

And here’s who could’ve been our Great Multiracial Heterogeneous Hope: Sied Chahrour, a man of tantalizingly uncommon Mexican and Algerian ancestry who fashioned his stage name in the spirit of his hometown and inked a five-album deal with Def Jam in his late teens after MEETING JAY-Z IN PERSON! I promise you he would’ve been Victor Vazquez before Victor Vazquez was Victor Vazquez if only his ideas about women were a little more complicated than, say, “I like when girls kiss girls.”

Or maybe not: spitting marginal over some genuinely goofy and often gorgeous Ski Beatz beats on his would-be breakout Tastemaster, Slim’s proves his ideas about everything else are also pretty goddamn stupid. And one of the only two ideas about his namesake is just flat wrong: “I’m Pittsburgh Slim and all the kids know / from out in Hollywood to motherfuckin’ Soho.” Nope – but they should’ve, homie.

His second idea about Pittsburgh? It’s actually kind of funny: “City of Steel / Emcees like titties – too many to feel.” …but still pretty goddamn stupid.

Anyway, he blew it hard, left Def Jam, and changed his name to Slimmie Hendrix. I’ve seen him out drunk on weekends, banging in the hipster/frat battleground clubs to other artists’ songs – some of which are about other cities.