Your Old Droog Performs in Public for the First Time
By JON CARAMANICA SEPT. 4, 2014
Your Old Droog performing at his sold-out debut concert on Wednesday night at the Studio at Webster Hall. Credit Chad Batka for The New York Times
In June, a rapper named Your Old Droog posted a self-titled EP on his Soundcloud page — no photos, no videos, just songs. The music was scratchy boom-bap hip-hop, in the vein of New York rap before the flash of the mid-1990s swallowed it whole. Your Old Droog rapped forcefully, in breathless complex rhyme, and with a sly, mildly scraped tone that to many, sounded a little too familiar.
Maybe Your Old Droog was Nas? Arguments began to rage online, with a vocal contingent of fans insisting that two decades after his debut album “Illmatic,” Nas would rise again — in disguise! — to rescue the genre anew. “Illmatic” remains a touchstone not just because of what Nas did — vivid narrative storytelling over immaculate sample-driven production — but because of what he failed to do: keep to that task, instead leaving behind a void that a certain strain of rap purists is still desperately trying to fill.
So the groundswell was a testament to the tenacity of nostalgia, and, as it happens, excellent publicity for Your Old Droog, who was of course not Nas, but instead a white rapper from Coney Island, and like plenty of white rappers before him, deeply reverent of hip-hop’s past.
On Wednesday night, he performed at a sold-out Studio at Webster Hall — his first proper concert — in a show that could have easily, apart from the odd Instagram reference, taken place sometime in the mid-1990s. Starting out the night in a Pete Rose throwback jersey, he talked of being advised to study Big Daddy Kane to learn breath control. He rolled dice. He rapped over drowsy, chopped-up soul. He incorporated an old Jerky Boys sketch into his routine.
And at one point he rapped over the instrumental of Nas’s “One Love,” because he had a sense of humor about what he called “the elephant in the room,” and then, reconsidering, called a “woolly mammoth.”
But Your Old Droog would have never garnered the attention he has, confused or otherwise, if he wasn’t an accomplished rapper. His EP and the sprinkling of songs that have followed it are uniformly sharp-tongued and clever, a blend of blustering tough talk and romantic self-deprecation. On “Nutty Bars,” in a line that probably had Nas acolytes salivating, he boasts, “I’m ’bout to bring back storytelling/I’ll bet money if your man get snatched up in that store, he telling.”
Onstage, Your Old Droog had a slight remove from the tougher parts of his oeuvre, stalking the stage with a jovial air and joking about his crush on Tamron Hall, the MSNBC host (who happened to be in attendance). At one point, he sang along to Next’s casually erotic “Too Close.” And he fretted just a little bit about what announcing himself to the world might mean. “Since the face been revealed, the game got real,” he said, laughing. (Maybe it’s noteworthy that among the sprinkling of industry figures in the room was Paul Rosenberg, Eminem’s manager.)
In the last couple of years, New York rap nostalgia has become its own ecosystem, from the flamboyant Action Bronson and the word-swallowing Joey Badass to artists like Roc Marciano and Ka, who make gloomy music as austere as minimal techno, which thanks to its brutal sparseness refines nostalgia into art.
Consciously or not, Your Old Droog is part of that movement, which also includes this show’s openers, Timeless Truth, a pair of Polo obsessives from Queens with a series of hardy releases that recall the early Loud Records days. The other opener was Michael Christmas, a promising and hilarious young rapper with an impressive mixtape, “Is This Art?” that’s maybe more reminiscent of mid-to-late-’90s Stretch and Bobbito-era independent rap. (He replaced Rast RFC, the onetime graffiti writer turned rapper who dropped off the bill, preventing the show from being a true nostalgist’s trifecta.)
By the end of the night, Your Old Droog had made his case — not just for his getting out from under the shadow of the Nas rumors, but for the continued potency of that brand of hip-hop, serving as a reminder that for some, the old New York isn’t a footnote, but the whole world.