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In October 2016, Detroit rapper Tee Grizzley was released from prison. On that same day he recorded “First Day Out,” a punchline-heavy marathon similar to the street rap that has flourished in Detroit since the emergence of the Eastside Chedda Boyz and Street Lord’z in the late ’90s and early ’00s. Produced by longtime Detroit maestro Helluva, Tee Grizzley reflects over a mournful piano instrumental. The music video was uploaded to the local curation hub 4Sho Magazine’s YouTube channel. The song’s growth was gradual, but eventually “First Day Out” reached No. 48 on the Billboard Hot 100, landed a remix from Meek Mill, and went viral with a video of LeBron James mean-mugging to the Detroit street anthem.
Babyface Ray was already years into his rap career when “First Day Out” took over Detroit. Like Tee Grizzley, Ray was making traditional Detroit hip-hop, though Ray’s flow was laid-back and conversational and his punchlines felt like motivational speeches. At the time, Detroit hip-hop was in a bubble, an underappreciated regional scene with a culture all its own. “I knew Detroit was hard, but I didn’t think we was hard enough for the world,” says Babyface Ray, tucked away in a booth in a dimly lit restaurant in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. “Then Tee Grizzley dropped ‘First Day Out.’ It was a Detroit beat, a Detroit flow, and everyone ate that shit up. Then I knew Detroit’s sound reaching the world was possible.”
Detroit hip-hop has been on a tear since that moment. “Detroit is becoming like the Atlanta scene,” says Babyface Ray, expressing so little emotion that you can tell he’s deadly serious. “It’s still in the process, but it’s in motion.” He’s right. Like Atlanta, Detroit has become its own fleshed-out ecosystem of rappers, producers, videographers, and YouTube channels. Every week new rappers emerge, and there’s so much output that it’s often overwhelming. Some of this increased visibility is thanks to streaming, especially given that until a couple of years ago the scene heavily relied on CDs. But much of the credit belongs to the consistency and the steady growth of cornerstones like Babyface Ray.