Richmond, Virginia might be the most overlooked hip-hop hub in the country. With a population of just over 200,000 people, compared to New York City’s 8 million or Los Angeles’ 4 million, Richmond has produced more than its fair share of rappers who would be considered Virginia legends in their own right.
Hip-hop is not the only music that calls the city home; metal kings Lamb of God and shock rockers GWAR have both called Richmond home at some point, as has the legendary D’Angelo. With a legacy like this, it’s hard to argue with Richmond’s musical pedigree.
Richmond rap is in the midst of a renaissance, creating a new hip-hop oasis on the East Coast. The city’s prolific and under-appreciated scene has produced some of the most forward-thinking hip-hop out today, with a new generation of hip-hop artists galvanizing RVA’s local scene and creating a unique sound that’s all their own.
To help you get to know Richmond’s rising rap scene, here are a few of the city’s notable names you should know.
Related Reads: 10 East Coast Rappers You Should Be Listening To
Richmond’s Nickelus F is a prolific rapper and one of the best from Virginia. He’s released dozens of projects over the years, including early mixtapes like 2004’s B Stands for Burglars and 2009’s and R.A.R.E. (Reliving a Real Experience) — which was based on Portishead songs — alongside studio albums like 2018’s Stuck. Nickelus F rides the beat, and it always sounds right. He’s a sneaky storyteller and has punchlines that are as fast as they are complex, equally good at rapping slowly and smoothly as he is rapping quickly and passionately. Although early in his career he was featured in The Source and on BET (where he was crowned 106 & Park’s “Freestyle Champion” seven weeks in a row), Nickelus has also carved out a path outside of the mainstream industry by working with RVA underground rap legends like Lil Ugly Mane, Ohbliv, and Michael Millions, in addition to collaborating with Drake and others.
While Los Angeles has been at the forefront of hip-hop instrumentals for years — with producers like Flying Lotus and his Brainfeeder camp leading the way — Richmond is also a burgeoning hub for beat production. While driven by a similar DIY ethos as LA’s scene, Richmond producers have a distinct aesthetic identity. The city’s production scene is spearheaded by producer Ohbliv, whose lo-fi beats have been likened to kaleidoscopic soundscapes. Dubbed the Professor X of Richmond’s beat scene, Ohbliv’s beats merge hip-hop, R&B, jazz and ambient into a unique production style that’s both traditional and experimental, timeless, ethereal and cosmic. Ohbliv also frequently collaborates with emcees from Richmond’s local scene like Koncept Jack$on (one of the best rappers from Virginia and the East Coast).
You can’t discuss Richmond’s recent rise as a hip-hop powerhouse without mentioning Mutant Academy. Consisting of three of the best rappers from Virginia (Fly Anakin, Henny L.O., and Big Kahuna OG) and seven producers (Foisey, Ewonee, Tuamie, Unlucky Bastards, Sycho Sid, Graymatter, and the aforementioned Ohbliv), Mutant Academy have been called the Roc Marcianos of Richmond due to their grimy, lo-fi aesthetic. Mutant Academy were instrumental in building up Richmond’s house party scene from its humble beginnings. Their original mixtapes gained such a following in their hometown that they were able to generate a grassroots buzz for themselves without any help from big-name blogs or tastemakers. They’ve also expanded their reach nationwide, with the works of Fly Anakin and Ohbliv gaining wider attention in recent years.
DJ Harrison is a producer and multi-instrumentalist from Richmond VA. His sound is a blend of hip hop, jazz and funk that has to be heard to be understood. While his influences come from across the musical spectrum, his sound is “of the now”, with a nod to the past. His tunes are a melodic mix of laid back beats, smooth basslines and hints of samples that bring back memories of the 90’s R&B but also have a modern twist. Taking inspiration from the city’s diverse rap scene, Harrison has crafted a collection of beats that contain as much nuance and detail as the rappers he works with. The result is a body of work that shows off his versatility as a producer—and has also garnered him attention from major labels like Stones Throw, who he recently signed a record deal with.
Rapper, producer, and all around renaissance man Tennishu is one of those people who seems to have a bit of everything. Known for his versatility on trumpet and saxophone, as well as his ability to write lyrics and rap, Tennishu has never found a lack for projects or collaborators. Whether he’s in the studio or touring with progressive powerhouse Butcher Brown (a quartet which includes DJ Harrison), Tennishu delivers a powerful performance every time he takes to a stage. One of the best rappers from Virginia, Tennishu has been producing and recording music since the 1990s and has an extensive and stellar catalog of self-released recordings.
The rap industry can be a cold, unforgiving place. If you’re not signed to a major label, you’re most likely hustling for a deal that’s going to bring your talents to light. But if you’re signed, that doesn’t mean the grind is over. Case in point: Richmond native Michael Millions. He’s been grinding since he was ten years old, when his parents gifted him with a boombox and two cassette tapes. The gifts sparked a 20-year odyssey as a recording artist that saw Michael Millions become a pivotal part of Richmond’s hip-hop scene and one of the best rappers from Virginia. His passion for music extends beyond the stage and into the behind-the-scenes aspects of the business—he’s one of the most well-known producers in Richmond and has worked with some of the best artists in the city, including Nickelus F.
Lil Ugly Mane
Travis Miller, also known under the alias Lil Ugly Mane, is a Richmond, Virginia rapper with a cult following within underground hip-hop circles. A noise musician prior to becoming an MC, he initially rose to prominence via his Mista Thug Isolation, his 2012 debut album that featured Miller rhyming over a hazy, kaleidoscopic mashup of DJ Screw remixes and early Three Six Mafia horrorcore sounds. While he might seem like a simple-minded nihilist at first glance, Lil Ugly Mane’s verses are anything but. He uses humor to explore new territories and find fresh approaches to common themes, and his lyrics are sincere even when he’s being a smartass. He also dodges the trap of being too weird for his own good by being weird in a way that feels fresh and honest, making him one of the most interesting unique rappers from Virginia. Lil Ugly Mane’s latest album, 2021’s volcanic bird enemy and the voiced concern, proves he’s an artist who likes keeping fans on their toes as he branches into new sonic territory, blending indie sounds with her characteristic swagger.