Hip hop is huge in Hampton Roads. How huge? Chart-topping hits. Some of the most legendary producers the genre has ever known. And don’t forget the world’s largest reinforced thin-shell concrete dome. Since the 1990’s, the region has had a hand in making some of the most successful hip hop, rap, and pop music made anywhere. Given the success of artists like Missy Elliott, Timbaland, and Pharrell Williams, it’s safe to say that just about any minute of any day, someone around the world is listening to a song crafted by a native son or daughter of Hampton Roads.
The tradition is so significant that William & Mary University recently founded a section of their library’s special collections solely devoted to the area’s musical tradition — billed as “the most comprehensive of its kind dedicated to Virginia’s hip hop culture and history from the 1980s to the present.”
Read on for an introduction to hip hop in Hampton Roads, as well as a few places you can go to experience the music culture for yourself.
Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, Melissa Arnette Elliott, better known as Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, ranks among the most successful and illustrious stars of the hip hop and R&B landscape. Elliott graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1990, concurrently founding R&B group Fayze (later called Sista) with two childhood friends and starting a musical partnership with neighborhood friend Timothy Mosley (you know him as Timbaland) that continues to this day. After moving to New York City and joining forces with the Swing Mob, a community of artists assembled by Jodeci member and producer DeVante Swing, Elliott and Timbaland broke through as a songwriting and producing duo, working with Aaliyah on her legendary 1996 album One in a Million. Elliot’s star rose even further as she embarked on a solo career that included a platinum-selling debut in Supa Dupa Fly and countless hits thereafter. She may not have a physical monument to her contributions yet, but given the enthusiastic support for a recent online petition, a statue might not be too far off.
Born Timothy Mosley, the hit-making producer you know as Timbaland was born in Norfolk and graduated from Salem High School in Virginia Beach. As early as high school, Timbaland was working alongside noted rapping collaborator Melvin (Magoo) Barcliff and future superstar Pharrell Williams, and along with Missy Elliott, he joined Jodeci member DeVante Swing’s New York City-based Swing Mob in the early 1990’s. His continued partnership with Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott made for some of the greatest songs in the hip hop and R&B canon, including “If Your Girl Only Knew,” “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” and “Get Ur Freak On,” and his extensive list of producing credits reads like a best-of list of popular music from the turn of the millennium on: Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Sam Smith, Justin Timberlake. He’s won multiple Grammys, most recently for helping to write “Drunk in Love,” a standout track from Beyoncé’s self-titled masterpiece. And he hasn’t forgotten his origins — he has a record of giving back to his high school, including surprise visits and grant money for technology.
Norfolk Scope Arena—Norfolk
Scope — officially known as the Norfolk Scope Arena — has been a defining feature of the city’s downtown since it was built in 1971. (It actually ranks as the world’s largest reinforced thin-shell concrete dome.) Scope has set the stage for some of the city’s biggest and most memorable hip hop moments. Did you know that Public Enemy headlined a 1990 show there, playing alongside Heavy D. & The Boyz, Digital Underground, Kid ‘N Play and Chill Rob G? Organizers asked Public Enemy to skip “Fight the Power” fearing upheaval, yet the group both opened and closed their set with the classic anthem. (CURRENTLY CLOSED DUE TO COVID-19)
American Oldies Records—Newport News
Located in Newport News’ Denbigh shopping center, American Oldies Records is a favorite spot for vinyl enthusiasts, including those crate diggers who are looking to find just the right drum break to use in their next beat. The store’s history goes all the way back to the 1970s, when the space was named Memory Lane Records. It became American Oldies in 1982, and while it does sell some new vinyl alongside CDs, the focus is on used vinyl, and the store is known in the region for offering an especially large used selection — perfect if you’re looking for an obscure record no other DJ has sampled from. And it’s a great place to celebrate Record Store Day, when special, limited-run releases of all genres hit the shelves. The early bird gets the RSD exclusive vinyl!
Pharrell Williams—Virginia Beach
The Neptunes. N.E.R.D. The Voice. “Happy.” There are so many reasons Pharrell Williams could be part of your musical orbit, from his distinctive falsetto singing to his Grammy-winning producing career, and it all started during his time growing up in Virginia Beach. He graduated from Princess Anne High School, but as early as middle school, he was collaborating with fellow Neptunes creative force Chad Hugo, whom Williams met in band class. The duo was discovered at a talent show by legendary Michael Jackson producer Teddy Riley, and the Neptunes continue to hold a vaunted place in the history of hip hop production, having helped to create massively successful tracks with Britney Spears, Nelly, Busta Rhymes, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Robin Thicke… the list goes on. Especially revered in the region is “Grindin,’” a track the Neptunes produced for beloved Virginia Beach rap duo The Clipse. Among Williams’ many awards and honors? A key to the city of Virginia Beach, presented by mayor Will Sessoms in 2014.
ViBe Creative District—Virginia Beach
The ViBe Creative District, Virginia Beach’s colorful hub for art and culture, is full of murals created by local artists on building exteriors and a 300-foot wall off 18th street includes 52 murals (and counting) from numerous artists in the region.
Though they were born in the Bronx, brothers Gene “No Malice” Thornton and Terrence “Pusha T” Thornton moved with their family to Virginia Beach when they were young — when No Malice and Pusha T were seven and two respectively. In 1992, they formed Clipse and soon began a partnership with Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of the Neptunes, frequently visiting Hugo’s house, where a home studio was set up in the attic. After a record deal with Elektra didn’t work out (debut album Exclusive Audio Footage was shelved), the duo signed to Arista Records and released Lord Willin’ in 2002, placing Clipse at the top spot on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart. Their follow-up, Hell Hath No Fury, was successful as well, widely considered to be one of the best albums of 2006 — and one of the true masterpieces of the genre.
Commonwealth, the renowned specialty boutique with a motto of “for the greater good,” has its roots in Norfolk, though its current location in the state can be found in Virginia Beach as part of Lynnhaven Mall. The purveyor of fine streetwear has opened stores in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles — not to mention Manila, the capital of the Philippines — spreading a crucial element of Hampton Roads’ influence around the world, showcasing some of the foremost artists, designers, and photographers in hip hop culture via in-store displays, events, and exhibitions.
Elevation 27—Virginia Beach
Elevation 27 is an intimate concert venue located in the Hilltop area of Virginia Beach where the Jewish Mother operated after it departed the oceanfront. The venue hosts all genres of artists and hip hop acts are regularly scheduled on its stage. (Due to COVID-19, all shows are fully seated at tables to ensure proper social distancing.)
Since 2000, the Norva has been bringing exceptional live music to downtown Norfolk, ideally situated on Monticello Avenue across from the MacArthur Center mall. The Norva hosts some of the hottest names in hip hop, with a 2017 schedule that included an appearance by Big Boi of OutKast, and 2018 performances by YoungBoy Never Broke Again, BIG K.R.I.T., Ty Dolla $ign, YFN Lucci and Tech N9ne. (CURRENTLY CLOSED DUE TO COVID-19)
Hailing from Norfolk, Dominick J. Lamb — commonly known as Nottz — commands tremendous respect for his classic beat-making style and extensive production discography, not to mention his skills as an MC. His first placement came in the late 1990’s, on an album called Lyricists Lounge Vol. 1, and his subsequent credits include work with the Notorious B.I.G., Busta Rhymes, Snoop Dogg, Rah Digga, Swizz Beatz, Method Man, and The Game, among others. He landed three tracks on Busta Rhymes’ E.L.E. (Extinction Level Event): The Final World Front, including an absolute classic in “Everybody Rise,” which fittingly shouts out the Virginia hip hop community. Nottz came from a musical family, with a father and three brothers who were all involved in DJing and making beats, and he’s stayed true to his love of old records, exhibiting a consistency via is sample-based approach.