Are you worried about the state of hip-hop?
Do you sit up at night pondering the many threats to the core pillars of the culture? Does Iggy Azalea's success make you uneasy? Do you express concern over dropping sales numbers, the harmful values propagated by club records, the hipsters documenting—distorting, even—the culture?
Or are you excited about the state of hip-hop?
Do you celebrate artists' increasing independence, the iconoclastic personalities, the Vine clips, GIFs, and social energy behind the hottest new singles? Do those who fear for the genre's health strike you as hand-wringing old heads who can't see what is so evident to your high school or college class: that hip-hop doesn't just exist in 2015, it thrives?
Maybe you feel both ways on different days. Maybe it's a generational thing; or maybe you feel out of place within your age group, a teenager with an old soul, or a middle-aged fan who still gets a not-that-guilty thrill from the music's irrepressible energy. Or maybe it's about personal temperament: If the glass is half full, why would you not see hip-hop the same way?
Whatever side you fall on in 2015, both of these groups—while not entirely wrong—are definitely asking the wrong questions. Those worried about the genre's direction seem right to be concerned: With a small handful of major releases and a smaller grip of genuine stars, the genre that once set the table for popular music is beginning to feel undernourished, and a few young, unproven memes don't make up the difference. Despite this, those who see hip-hop as a flourishing marketplace of ideas, art, and personalities are right, too: It remains a powerful vein of truth and creativity—one that has yet to succumb entirely to the smothering retro obsessiveness that marked the end of jazz or rock 'n' roll.
hip-hop remains a powerful vein of truth and creativity—one that has yet to succumb entirely to the smothering retro obsessiveness that marked the end of jazz or rock 'n' roll.
How do we reconcile these conflicting ideas, and what questions should we be asking? These arguments both resonate because together they strike on something that feels true: Hip-hop is very much alive, and the current system is failing it. A lot of questions on the table two decades ago are no longer relevant—the genre has long since proven it could blow up without going pop, to make America move to hip-hop rather than the other way around—and a host of new ones have come to the forefront. But to really understand the nature of the problem, a few questions remain constant: Who holds power? Who gets recognition? And where does the money go?
The cause of this upheaval is obviously the Internet. It hollowed out the industry, and slowly rebuilt it in a strange new shape. The practical effect was to further detach the culture from the culture industry. Hip-hop remains a core aspect of black popular culture. But what had been, from the 1990s through the mid-2000s, a major consumer product is no longer. It's not just that record sales are down (although they are). Major label albums aren't even being released. A new artist like Snootie Wild can have two hip-hop hits, and only be able to squeak an EP out through the system.
Which is part of why many artists are foregoing the system altogether. Macklemore famously crossed over on a major level with just a distribution deal. Artists like Chance the Rapper, Dom Kennedy, and Lil Debbie are following suit, ignoring big ticket major label deals to tour the country in an RV. Others, like Azealia Banks and Chief Keef, have been dropped from their deals and seem genuinely happier for it. (It's probably no coincidence that rappers who come from nothing—like Keef, Bobby Shmurda, and Young Thug—end up roped into major label deals. Those are the only outlets gambling on poor artists who need start-up cash, even if it ends up feeling more like a Payday loan.) With labels releasing less music than ever before, remaining a priority at a major label in 2015 no doubt feels like a major obligation, particularly for artists who haven't jumped wholesale into the star machinery. This is nothing new, as hip-hop has always had happily independent labels from E-40's Sick Wid It Records to Houston's Rap-A-Lot. But now artists often sidestep labels altogether because distribution is cost-free, thanks to sites like YouTube and SoundCloud.
For an established star, the Internet is all they need anyway: A direct connection between the artist and their fans eliminates every middle man. The "music industry" is, in essence, those middlemen, and interested in its own perpetuation. Last year, Steve Albini—a celebrated audio engineer (Nirvana's In Utero) and provocative raconteur—conducted an interview in which he celebrated the way that the Internet had revolutionized music, eliminating the jobs of all people who inserted themselves between the artist and the consumer. "In the end the bands operating under this system earned very little from their record sales, unless they were monumental stars," Albini explained. "Often enough bands would conduct their entire careers with a label and never reach the point where they had sufficiently recouped to get paid anything at all."
In the interview, Albini explains a lot of the understandable antipathy many musicians have for the record industry, where the money of the fans to buy the music of the artists ends up filling the pockets of a dozen people in between. The list is endless. To quote Albini: "Record store owners, buyers, employees, ad agencies, designers, club owners, label reps, A&R, producers, recording studios, publicists, lawyers, journalists, program directors, distributors, tour managers, booking agents, band managers, and all the ancillary services they required: banking, shipping, printing, photography, travel agencies, limos, spandex wardrobe, cocaine dealers, prostitutes."
Now, it's not just major stars like Macklemore who take advantage of a more streamlined relationship with fans, but artists who might not have gotten the support from a major in the old system. It's hard to imagine a place for acts like Joey Bada$$ or Big K.R.I.T. in the millennial moment when hip-hop ran pop music. In that era, perhaps, Joey would have ended up like Skillz—a talented writer who worked behind the scenes, writing hooks or verses for Bad Boy Records or Timbaland's Beat Club, but unable to get his solo career off the ground. (Skillz's From Where??? is a dope record.) Instead, in 2015, he's developed a niche fanbase much larger than those of the typical indie rapper of the early 2000s.
If all of these sound like good things, reasons to celebrate the Internet's shifting sands, it’s because they are. But Albini's approach ignores a few major stumbling blocks, particularly for new artists. Music writer Tom Ewing argued as much on his Tumblr: "Distribution is boundless, attention is not: Your music does not, in fact, magically arrive at the ears of its ideal audience." Ignoring this problem, Ewing argues, presumes that the cream always rises to the top—the kind of "magical market thinking" that ignores the set inequalities of the status quo. (Is a talented kid in the hood as readily able to reach a blog as a white suburban hobbyist with a PR budget?) Further, it's not as if the need for all those old industry jobs has completely vanished; they're just being done, increasingly, by the artists themselves, "who are all now their own publicists, promoters, researchers, distributors and increasingly funders too."
In hip-hop, it's not just what happens to the music after it's recorded that has been altered by the Internet. It's the actual process of recording, too.
In hip-hop, it's not just what happens to the music after it's recorded that has been altered by the Internet. It's the actual process of recording, too. Think back to Skillz writing for Bad Boy Records. When hip-hop was reaching its commercial peak, it may have been "riddled" with financial inefficiencies, but from a creative point of view, the profit motive was a very powerful tool. Funded by $18.99 CD prices, A&Rs conducted a symphony of songwriters, lyricists, beatmakers, and performers, connecting rappers to beats and hooks to songs. This was often to the music's benefit—just try to imagine a "classic" Biggie album without Puff Daddy's involvement. Labels were invested in artist development—not to look at the industry through rose-tinted shades, as many artists were left in label limbo during their "development." But this paid dividends for many other artists, who found themselves the centerpiece of an effective pop machine that sold not just to hip-hop fans, but to mainstream white America. Hip-hop's commercial apex coincided with the rise of the super-producer, as Timbaland and the Neptunes became household names. These producers took talented underground rappers—Mystikal, Bubba Sparxxx, the Clipse—and helped transformed them into pop stars.
As labels lost revenue in the mid-2000s, the hip-hop A&R became more of a memory. The artists who did generate significant attention after the collapse of the major labels all tended to work with low-profile, beat-oriented (as opposed to song-oriented) producers, often exclusively. And they'd be as cognizant of songwriting as they were of rapping. (Think Gucci Mane and Zaytoven, Max B and Dame Grease, or Drake and 40.) But for so many others, success and buzz proved elusive; to be a great rapper, one had to become a great all-around rap artist, and everyone wasn't built that way. But to celebrate independence from the industry structure also tends to mean distancing oneself from the A&R plugs such a structure brings.
With the collapse of the traditional industry, hip-hop as a local culture became detached from radio and the charts. Stars who originated in regional scenes around the millennium—think Nelly and Trick Daddy—could regularly score Hot 100 hits through industry pathways. Because so much hip-hop listening takes place off the grid—DatPiff, WorldStar, LiveMixtapes, and HotNewHipHop—regional stars could become popular many times over, with the depleted industry only taking notice if an artist happened to win the lottery of press buzz. The importance of "Artist Development" can be easy to overstate; rappers with genuine fanbases know what their audiences like, and often write great records without industry intrusion.
But let's not forget: where does the money go? Independent artists is a financial ideal, but the top-down, collaborative industry structure isn't going to disappear. One of the big old-school A&R success stories in 2014 was Iggy Azalea's "Fancy." After spending several years behind the scenes struggling to get her career started, it took a hook from Charli XCX, bars from Skeme, and a U.K.-does-Mustard beat to make the summer's biggest hit record. If independent regional innovators struggle to access radio, those with bigger budgets and resources will fill that space, building upon (and profiting from) the originators' advances. It becomes a catch-22; more visibility for black artists often means more money for white suits. Creative autonomy, and a higher profit margin, could mean abandoning higher gross profits—and the recognition of a much larger potential audience.
One artist, several years ago, made such a calculus and decided to buy in. Drake was a successful independent performer who accepted YMCMB's cosign in order to, per Tom Ewing, reach "the ears of his ideal audience." It no doubt meant sacrificing substantial portions of his income, but Drake—a star who understood early the importance of being not just a rapper, but a songwriter and all-around artist—sits at hip-hop's popular apex. Could he have made it without Wayne's cosign? It's impossible to say for certain, but he certainly doesn't need it today. Drake released only a handful of records on SoundCloud in 2014, and hip-hop fans, so thirsty for music from a genuine star in an era of diminished expectations, helped these loosies hit Billboard.
That wasn't Drake's only impact on the charts in 2014. Perhaps recognizing in them his own plight within the industry—although one can never discount financial self-interest entirely—Drake's social media cosigns paid more rigorous attention to hip-hop's underground topography than most in rap media. (A trusted "He's one Drake cosign away from being a star" is the new Source Hip-Hop Quotable.) Whether rapping in the club to Young Thug or Speaker Knockerz, quoting Dej Loaf lyrics on Instagram, or remixing Makonnen's "Tuesday," Drake seems to recognize hip-hop's widely varied potential for a more substantial, fully-realized cultural presence.
His approach is echoed by Lyor Cohen and Todd Moscowitz's 300 label. Although in its nascent stages, 300 operates on the premise that artists like Migos, Shy Glizzy, and Fetty Wap—local stars with bubbling popular singles—would be more successful given a larger push. Of course, 300 is still a label with a profit motive, so the potential for exploitation is there. But in attempting to bridge independent and the industry, Moscowitz and Cohen at least recognize the nature of the problem.
with Drake's co-signs and 300's signees, the chief challenge of the 2000s artist has been replaced by its inverse. Where the early struggle of Lil Wayne's ascent was whether or not he could craft a crossover hit after building a significant audience, today the hits come first.
But with Drake's co-signs and 300's signees, the chief challenge of the 2000s artist has been replaced by its inverse. Where the early struggle of Lil Wayne's ascent was whether or not he could craft a crossover hit after building a significant audience—circa Tha Carter II he admitted in interviews that he was searching for his "Hard Knock Life"—today, the hits come first. For the most talked-about new artists—from Dej Loaf to Makonnen to OG Maco to Fetty Wap—the hit provides a quick spotlight for the artists to show and prove they have what it takes to make a career. (For the record: I'm betting on Dej Loaf.) This instant notoriety doesn't give many artists the time to build up a catalog, to develop the crafted nuance of a more traditional ascent. (Kevin Gates is an exception to the rule, building buzz step-by-step towards radio, the old fashioned way.) In this environment, a group like the Migos—whose assembly line records are gleeful celebrations of a formula's endless potential for variety—best epitomize the era of a hits-first mentality.
Their work also sits in the shadow of a much stronger creative success, one which better reflects an old-fashioned tradition of industry arm-twisting collaboration. Young Thug may technically be a signee of 300 via Atlantic Records, but he seems not to acknowledge it. Instead, it was Birdman who corralled Thug, Rich Homie Quan, and London on da Track, crafting not just the best record any of the three had been involved in, but the most commercially accessible. Tha Tour Part 1 was just the kind of project that would sell an unconverted music fan on Quan and Thug. What's the trade-off? There's a long list of talented rappers who can tell you all about Birdman's business practices—beginning with Lil Wayne.
It's just facts that hip-hop has literally always been "in crisis": in '83 Malcolm Mclaren was a culture vulture, in '88 it couldn't get a Grammy, in '94 gangster rap was dragging it into 'the sewer,' in '96 it was 'the money', and by '03 it was the South. This is not intended to be dismissive: although some may seem quaint now, these concerns are, at root, the same ones America is wrestling with as a whole. But as long as new generations are born, hip-hop itself—or whatever form it takes years down the road, when hip-hop actually dies—is sturdier than people realize. Rappers are in danger, and always have been: their fight for creative autonomy, cultural recognition, and a piece of the pie continues.
David Drake is a writer living in New York. Follow him @somanyshrimp.