Show & Prove
Words: Paul Thompson
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
One of the most bracing, provocative acts in hip-hop is a two-man wrecking crew known as City Morgue, a group that runs counter to the looser, melody-first rap that has dominated radio in the last decade. SosMula, a Spanish Harlem native born Vinicius Sosa, who is in his mid-20s, though he gives his age as “300 years old,” is joined in City Morgue by Junius “ZillaKami” Rogers, a 20-year-old from Bay Shore, Long Island. The music they make together blends hip-hop with metal and other aggressive strains of rock, making for a sound that is immediately gripping while being at times almost comically abrasive. This abrasiveness is not a barrier to entry: it’s the point of the whole enterprise. Their work, especially on the caustic 2019 album City Morgue Vol. 2: As Good as Dead morphs the rap and rock from which it borrows into something vital and new—something that often feels as if it’s about to leap through your computer screen and grab you by the throat.
It’s tempting to talk about City Morgue as a phenomenon of the internet, and the group does indeed reflect many of the realities of an online existence. Zilla and Sos are both uniquely attuned to the kinds of phrasing and syntax that cut through the social media din; they understand what sorts of jarring images stand out from the crowded YouTube algorithm. (Speaking of YouTube, they also reflect the current online struggle in that some of their more provocative clips have been removed from the service.)
But each rapper is also committed to evoking the crushing truths of the real, unplugged world. Sos’ raps are littered with references to the kinds of neighborhood activities that landed him behind bars—but which are sometimes the only economic options for people from his block. And Zilla’s are the product of a suburban neighborhood where “a lot of young White kids and their parents using really deadly drugs like heroin,” says Mel Carter, the Senior VP of A&R at Republic Records, where City Morgue signed in 2018. “Nobody really knew what was going on there.” This marriage of the urban and suburban, like the meshing of rap and rock textures, makes City Morgue’s music a fascinating document of American life in 2020.
And where some modern rap groups, like Brockhampton, actually met online, City Morgue came together as the result of familial connections. When Sos was locked up on a 15-month bid following a house raid in 2015 (he says the police found “like 50 grams of crack,” along with various other contraband), he often called his friend Righteous P on the phone; P is Zilla’s older half-brother. “I already knew I was gonna fuck with him off the come home,” Zilla says of Sos, adding that he expected they would develop a social bond when Sos got home. But they quickly struck up a relationship that went beyond welcome-back daps and house parties. “I was a good kid, you know what I’m saying,” says Sos, “I wasn’t a bad person. I was just doing other shit.” That might sound coy, but it gets at the current that runs underneath City Morgue’s music: this is a group that is the product of kids growing up in vastly different, though similarly trying circumstances, filtering this hardship through the cultural instruments that were available to them, doing whatever was necessary to survive.
For a pair that had grown up gravitating toward Eminem and Slipknot, respectively, Sos and Zilla found they had an easy chemistry in the studio. “Anything we catch a vibe to, that’s the song,” Sos says. But the combined energies of the two rappers is anything but a natural fit in today’s rap landscape. Where the strains of hip-hop that have grown out of the Auto-Tuned Atlanta scene and the punkish one birthed on SoundCloud are less jagged and value negative space, City Morgue songs are serrated, nearly growling. They’re also wound tightly; while Sos and Mula have different backgrounds as music fans, each brings to his recorded material an eager verbosity, packing verses with carefully-timed syllables. Zilla’s background in punk—he previously played bass and sung in a band in his hometown and he apparently spent time ghostwriting for the loud, careening 6ix9ine—lays a natural bedrock for the controlled chaos that his music with Sos would become.
By the time City Morgue released the snarling “Shinners13” in the summer of 2017, the pair knew they had struck on a winning formula—and it wasn’t long before others took note. Mel Carter, who founded the record label Hikari Ultra with Righteous P before taking his gig at Republic, came across the video shortly after it was uploaded, when it still had around 20,000 views. “I remember looking at it, and it was one of the craziest things I’d ever seen in my life,” he says of the clip, which features children waving automatic weapons, flaming skateboards and cigarettes dipped in embalming fluid. “As I got to know them more, I got to know that one was really, really street—had been locked up, everything you could think of. And the other was completely opposite: grew up in the suburbs. There’s a lot of truth in their music. It’s just from two different perspectives.”
“Shinners13” did not have 20,000 views for long. Its music video currently rests just above the 10-million mark, and is included on their 2018 mixtape, City Morgue Vol 1: Hell or High Water; one that Zilla concedes was “thrown together.” Despite that, Vol. 1 suggests a sort of breathless forward motion that soon captivated a rabid group of young fans. Aside from racking up views and more than 660,000 monthly Spotify listeners, City Morgue has already gone on a raucous tour through Europe and just wrapped up an American swing. And Vol. 2 went straight to No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums chart and reached no. 16 on the combined Billboard 200.
As things stand right now, Sos and Zilla have a chance to join the rich lineage of aggressive, counter-cultural rap acts that capture the independent spirit of early rap and translate it for a broad audience. While most City Morgue songs resist the kind of linear, myth-building narrative that more conventional rap gravitates toward, there is an underlying complexity. “It’s a natural progression,” Zilla says of what he and Sos have learned from one another on the creative front. City Morgue challenges conventional ideas: about what rap can sound like in 2020, the way music can cut across lines of race and background, which images and ideas are considered offensive in a country that shows a cruel disregard for so many of its citizens. Zilla and Sos are not going to preach at you, dispensing answers from a pulpit; they’re going to smack you in the face with the questions.
Check out more from XXL’s Spring 2020 issue including our Future cover story, in which he speaks on his Life Is Good album, Lil Yachty discusses his new album, Lil Boat 3, and the respect he deserves, Van Jones talks about his love for hip-hop, the brewing, new hip-hop scene in New York, Show & Proves with Jack Harlow and Key Glock, YBN Cordae in What's Happenin, Rapsody talks about getting her flowers in an exclusive interview and more.
See Exclusive Photos of Future on a Yacht for XXL Magazine's Spring 2020 Cover Story