Harley Geffner doesn’t trust the process.
Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods. Due to its long history of immigration, each of its areas carries a distinct cultural flair and unique sonic underpinning that individuates its respective flavor of hip-hop. Up north, the Working on Dying crew is popularizing a form of up-tempo drill beats categorized as tread music. South Philly is better known for their ambient-sounding neo-soul raps. West Philly claims the hustling street raps of storytellers like Reef. But the sound of rap collective R1 Gang is a rare phenomenon in the Philadelphia rap scene, one that transcends neighborhood roots.
The Rare Boyzz, or R1 Gang, don’t claim any hood. They come from all over Philly and the surrounding areas. Just like the city, they bring their disparate sounds together to form one unapologetically brash conglomerate.
I first came across the R1 Gang when photographer and manager of R1 JamesLaFlame tweeted about a house party in North Philly. The animated flyer had a roster of 5 or 6 artists—some names I vaguely recognized from SoundCloud—and it said F1LTHY (of WoD) would be spinning. Little did I know that I was about to be introduced to a staple of the Philadelphia underground scene.
The smoke-filled apartment radiated a grimy energy, lit only by a rectangle of white bulbs atop a video camera. People sipped on 40s, ripped cigs, and crowd-surfed off of the couches. Every few weeks thereafter JamezLaFlame would tweet out another flyer with a different roster of artists, from BigBabyScumbag to Lil Xelly.
The R1 Gang started accumulating buzz with the rowdy footage from these shows, which attracted even more artists to their house parties. The group’s profile grew large enough in Philly to the point that they started to expand their reach into venues. Now, anytime an underground king like Lil Tracy, Chris Travis, or UnoTheActivist has a tour stop in Philly, you can bet R1 will be on the bill.
Assembled in early 2017 from the stoops of South Philly and the working class suburbs and fisheries of Kensington by JamezLaFlame, the Gang has always had a single, lofty goal in mind: to make authentic music. “I want people to feel me. I want people to feel themselves when they listen to my music,” said R1 producer/rapper Tethra 64.
Growing up playing video games in the ’90s, Tethra was intrigued by the fast-paced drum and bass sounds from the original Street Fighter 3 and Sonic Adventure soundtracks. At age 12, he bought a shitty mic to record a snippet from Street Fighter 3 and overlaid it with piano keys. He’s been making music ever since.
The racing and thrashing sounds from these video games were designed to keep the player engaged. It’s coked-up ’70s go-go music with rolling techno bass lines and airy synths. The sounds Tethra captures in his beats can be slowed and smoothed out for a mellow texture, or given an aggressive edge with some trap hi-hats and 808’s.
R1 rappers Cowboy Killerr and CoolAid Hippy were also raised on and influenced by the sonic palates of videogames and anime. Each brings a different interpretation of that sound to their music. Cowboy Killerr’s vocal range sits in the back of his throat. His words slip out of his mouth, but with a little extra oomph behind them. His delivery is reminiscent of the nauseating combination of sleep deprivation and a too-ambitious attitude towards a night out. By the end of the night, you’re so tired that you’re thinking in circles as you wander in and out of sleep. A drifting thought arises and you start to mumble it aloud, but it doesn’t quite make it out. Slumped over, the words sit in the back of your throat and it takes an extra push to get them through your lips.
Killerr plays around in that vocal space. He will glide over a beat with a nasally cadence, or plunge deep into it with a throaty growl reminiscent of Lucki, often within the same song. Killerr says his music comes from a dark place, “Like I’m in a basement or under some shit.” He takes us into his visceral underworld, drawing a picture of his insecurities about getting clean or of the satanic thoughts creeping through his mind.
CoolAid Hippy offers a different take on the arcade-inspired post-trap sound. He goes wherever it takes him: “When I’m in the booth, my emotions are bipolar. The beats really help out with how I come off on them,” he said. “Based on how a beat makes me feel, that’s how I rap, like a beat can make me feel very aggressive or very cocky.”
CoolAid’s music can be disorienting at first; Cowboy Killerr likened it to “taking a tab of acid.” He keeps you off-balance, inhabiting different nooks and crannies of a given beat, sharply punctuating crashing cymbals, or drawing out his words to fill the space between bouncing synths. It feels unstructured, but that, in and of itself, is emotive. Tethra highlights this as a key component to the group’s sound: “Comfortable with being uncomfortable in a sense. Like something is off, maybe a note, or a key, or maybe a beat, but that’s what makes the song unique, ‘cuz it doesn’t follow a certain structure of music.”
Balancing out the more drugged-out, spastic sounds of Cowboy Killerr and CoolAid Hippy, Dave Amigo brings a lighter flair to the group. His wispy auto-tune and floating melodies fit more squarely in Atlanta’s traditional soundscape than in any area of Philly’s. Amigo refers to Atlanta as his adopted city and works with some of the plug and hoodrich guys out there like DylVinci and CashBently.
But he credits his relationship with melodies to Chief Keef. Amigo wanted to start rapping to make people feel the way he felt at a party a few years ago, when the mood went from chill to wild as soon as an infectious Sosa hook pumped up the whole room up. “He got his point across in the catchiest way I’ve heard,” Amigo said. Striving to embody Sosa’s braggadocio in his tracks as well, Dave Amigo wants to make everyone who raps along “feel like the coolest person in the room.”
Because the individual members of R1 bring such different moods and sounds to the table, the group’s catalogue feels slightly disconnected, but ultimately relatable. We all experience a range of emotions, and their disparate sounds capture a wide gamut of them. Scrolling down the group’s SoundCloud page is a wild ride spanning Dave Amigo’s feelin-like-the-man auto-tune and the somber anxiety captured by the over-filtered groans emanating from Cowboy Killerr’s basement.
As with Philadelphia’s loosely connected attitudes and culture, one gritty collective mindset unites R1’s music: an authenticity in staying true to themselves. “People lose themselves in music trying to be the next biggest thing rather being themselves,” said CoolAid Hippy. “We fight, laugh, cry, all together and the music comes because…we’re all so comfortable with each other…[We] click cause we understand each other’s sounds.” Listening to R1’s music is one way to begin to understand the diverse cultures and emotions pulsing through the streets, fliting between the neighborhoods, and crowdsurfing through the basements, of Philadelphia.