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City's diverse scenes can make breaking out hard

| Sunday, July 22, 2007

The sound of the summer in the City of Champions is "The Pittsburgh Sound," by Wiz Khalifa. In nearly every neighborhood, you can hear its sped-up soul sample, and the young rapper's laidback delivery:

"I got that Pittsburgh sound, I'ma always hold Pittsburgh down/It's Wiz Khalifa, man ... if you can't tell by now, Pittsburgh, I'ma swell my town, the Steel City -- damn!"

Given the short shelf-life of most hip-hop, the song is old, and Wiz Khalifa (Cameron Thomaz, 19), who just signed with Warner Bros. Records, has other singles. But as a Pittsburgher by birth and by choice, I can't help smiling whenever I hear its familiar refrain coming out of car stereos, on the radio, and spilling out of iPod earbuds.

Pittsburgh's planet-spanning party-starter Girl Talk even began his sold-out set at Mr. Small's in May with the sampled chorus from "Pittsburgh Sound." Climbing onstage, the skinny, shirtless Collier biochemist-turned-superstar DJ wiped off his sweat with a Terrible Towel, throwing it to the crowd like he just earned a big, fat gold ring.

The only problem with "The Pittsburgh Sound" is that there is no real Pittsburgh Sound. There are no instantly recognizable sonic signifiers, like the bellowed chants and innards-rattling bass of Southern crunk, or the euphoric, motormouthed silliness of hyphy in the Bay Area. The Pittsburgh sound belongs to Khalifa, mostly because he claimed it.

There isn't much common ground across the city's diverse, disconnected rock scenes, either. Plenty of others do Anti-Flag's political punk and Rusted Root's tribal drum-circle jams, though maybe not as well. The everydude rock of guys like Joe Grushecky or The Clarks was never a movement -- it's more like a special time and place, trapped in amber. Don Caballero invented entire genres of music, but they were too technically daunting for most others to build on. And so on.

Despite this, suddenly, it seems everybody's name-checking Pittsburgh. Or "reppin' tha 412," if you speak hip-hop. Considering how fractious and divided Pittsburgh's many music scenes are, this is a big deal.

R&B trio CRAVE has a new song called "Represent Your City." Mutant hip-hop weirdos Grand Buffet have an album named "Pittsburgh Hearts." Rockers Modey Lemon reportedly flew a Pittsburgh flag onstage at a show in London. A new hip-hop group with a live band calls itself Formula412.

Hey, everyone loves an underdog. In this strange new global economy, the Steel City is the underdog. We've seen the steel industry -- the arsenal of democracy that beat back the Nazis -- melted down and sold for scrap. We've seen our city's population cut in half since 1950. But all the predictions of Pittsburgh's demise have been premature. We're still here.

Formula412's take on the Pittsburgh sound is a product of this environment.

"It's based on coming from the underground, the Steel City, so it's kind of gritty, kind of aggressive -- sometimes it gets heavy," says guitarist Byron Nash.

Not everybody's on the pro-Pittsburgh bandwagon, of course. In May, a local band, Black Moth Super Rainbow, was interviewed in Rolling Stone as an "Artist to Watch."

"It's the opposite of a scene. People don't want other bands to get out of the city. They just want them to stay stuck, unhappy, in Pittsburgh," said BMSR frontman Tobacco (Tom Fec).

Maybe Black Moth needs to grow a thicker skin, or whatever moths grow. You're playing weird, challenging, original music: some people aren't going to like it.

Then again, that's so Pittsburgh, too. We love to talk trash about ourselves. And maybe they're partly right. Local jealousies and rivalries can seem like a big deal in a small city like Pittsburgh. Often, the various music scenes are entirely self-contained -- limited to a small group of enthusiasts in a particular neighborhood, or at a specific club.

Sometimes these rivalries aren't so friendly. Pittsburgh hip-hop, especially, seems to segregate sharply along neighborhood lines. You can blow up big on the North Side, and they'll have never heard of you in Lawrenceville, or Swissvale -- or actively hate you. The dark side of our wonderful old neighborhoods and their close-knit fabric of families, is that it can be tough going for outsiders, even if they're from just across the river. Luckily, Wiz Khalifa has lived all over the city.

So is Pittsburgh enthusiastic, supportive and inspirational -- or a snakepit of jealousy, rivalry and treachery?

Probably a little of both. If you can make it here, finding a way to navigate Pittsburgh's endless labyrinth of tribal codes and customs -- maybe you can make it elsewhere. Today the 'Burgh, tomorrow the world.

At heart, I think that's what representing the 412 is all about. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. We're still here.

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