The intersection of the internet and hip-hop is often credited for aiding the rise of young mavericks like Soulja Boy, Chief Keef, and many “SoundCloud rappers.” But it also provided a creative space for newcomers who are a generation or two older than them. Artists like Benny the Butcher, Conway the Machine, Westside Gunn, Freddie Gibbs, Roc Marciano, and Ka are winning right now, and they used the internet as their direct-to-consumer path to success.
In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about how legends like Jay-Z, Black Thought, and Nas have figured out ways to maintain successful careers into their 40s and 50s. They’ve sustained greatness and become “adult contemporary” rap for hip-hop traditionalists who plan to listen to rap forever. But nowadays, hip-hop heads who love gritty, soulful, boom bap rap don’t just have to listen to “classic” acts. There’s a whole scene of MCs in their 30s and above who are breaking through and forming their legacies in real time.
Before the blog era boomed, there was only one clear way an artist could achieve national acclaim: going through the traditional major label system. As the Game once rhymed, “Dre said ain’t no comin’ back from Gold.” New artists whose albums performed poorly had a difficult time getting a second chance, and labels weren’t giving new artists in their 30s a shot at all, leaving them on the outside looking in. Industry doors were often closed for artists who were in their 30s with no commercial accomplishments. But as the adage goes, that’s when a window opens. For many, it was an internet browser window.
Many successful acts in their late 30s share a similar story. They’re all industry survivors who were rewarded by their perseverance with a new business model that allowed them to circumvent labels. 2 Chainz toiled on Ludacris’ DTP, went solo, and began flooding the market with mixtapes. Currensy was a part of the pre-Drake and Nicki Minaj Young Money era, but it didn’t work out for him until he started Jet Life and became one of the game’s most prolific acts. Freddie Gibbs not only had an ‘05-07 stint at Interscope that didn’t work out, he eventually fell out with Young Jeezy at CTE. Ka rapped as a member of Nightbreed in the mid-’90s before leaving rap behind until 2008. Danny Brown was in the industry for years before finding his sound and breaking through in his 30s. Roc Marciano was a member of Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode, before leaving the crew in ’01 for his own endeavors, and he didn’t release his first solo work until 2010’s Marcberg.
All of these artists, besides 2 Chainz, left the major-label constraints behind for the liberation of independence. By 30, most of these acts were at a stage in life where they couldn’t afford to wait on the industry to see their brilliance, and independence offered them the chance to show it on their terms. Suddenly, they didn’t need permission to release their music. They didn’t have to worry about release dates being contingent upon pandering singles. They didn’t have to market themselves for mass appeal. They could just spit that raw shit and reach purists who wanted to hear it.
The blog era allowed artists to directly reach the people. Blogs like Nahright and 2DopeBoyz were equal-opportunity outlets. They were putting thousands of fans on to new music every day. The exposure served as a vehicle for aspirants like Wale, Wiz Khalifa, Kid Cudi, and others who wanted to use the net as a stepping stone to the majors. But they also represented a lane for artists over 30 who wanted to go at it on their terms. Major labels weren’t checking for them, but they knew they had the talent to gain fanbases. The rise of social media, iTunes, and later streaming platforms shrank the gulf between the mainstream and indie scenes and gave them that chance. The web was an ideal homebase for a direct-to-consumer mode.
A slew of acts have taken advantage of the opportunity. Freddie Gibbs left CTE and caught his own stride with projects like ESGN, featuring his melodic, double-time flow and Pyrex parables. Currensy began relentlessly dropping off projects which showcased his hazy, soulful brand of smokers’ rap. Danny Brown broke out at 30 as an internet darling with projects like XXX. Ka made an improbable post-40 return to rap with reflective, spiritually tinged projects. Flee Lord, who is affiliated with Griselda and the late Prodigy, has dropped a project a month since December 2019. 38 Spesh was one of the 2010s’ most consistent acts, with his unforgettable mic presence. Boldy James has had an incredible resurgence with 2020’s Price of Tea in China and The Versace Tape.
Major labels weren’t checking for them, but they knew they had the talent to gain fanbases. The web was an ideal homebase for a direct-to-consumer mode.
Forty-two-year-old Roc Marciano is credited as the godfather of a scene that takes it back to the mid-’90s Raekwon and Ghostface Killah era, cloaking luxury rap in distinctive New York lingo over soulful and sometimes drumless production. Roc’s retrofit opened a lane that acts like Griselda are parading through to critical acclaim.
Westside Gunn founded Griselda in 2012. He, Conway the Machine, and Benny the Butcher stormed out of the gates hard with projects like The Devil’s Reject and Hall & Nash. They became brand names with Conway’s Everybody Is F.O.O.D series, Westside’s Hitler Wears Hermes series, and Benny’s Tana Talk series. Westside is one of hip-hop’s most unique voices, while Conway and Benny are a pair of gifted MCs in the lineage of beloved ‘90s- and ‘00s-era spitters. They gave fans who grew up in that era a contemporary update on the sound at a time when there was a dearth in the mainstream. They arrived at an ideal time to fill a void.
Griselda ended up signing a distribution deal with Shady and 2018, while Benny signed with Roc Nation management earlier this year. They’re no longer traditionally independent, but they haven’t compromised the sound that their fans love them for. Conway spoke to Consequence of Sound about the Shady deal, telling them, “I was my own entity, and I really laid my ground, paved my way with my bars. My mind state going into it was, I’m just going to keep doing what got me to this point, and to let them work they magic and do what they do best.” It’s similar to what Freddie Gibbs’ former manager Ben “Lambo” Lambert told Billboard about Gibbs’ deal with Warner, predicting that the label “puts us in a strong position to build upon the work we've been putting in independently over the past decade or so.”
While a major label may not have seen the vision for these artists in the early 2010s, their results became undeniable. The internet gave them the lane to prove themselves free of constraints, and now they can talk to labels on their own terms. It’s a dynamic that previous generations couldn’t take advantage of. There was always an independent rap scene, but it never had the visibility or resources that today’s indie acts enjoy. They didn’t have the opportunity to sell $100 bundles on Bandcamp or brand themselves with brilliant merch like Griselda has. Many of these acts are actually bringing home as much (if not more) income than the average major-label act, especially when live shows were still a thing.
These days, fans entering their middle age don’t just have to new projects from “classic acts.” They can feel on the pulse of the now through the work of newer acts like Roc Marciano, Griselda, and Freddie Gibbs.
When Benny announced a mystery verse on Burden of Proof’s “Timeless” track, fans guessed that the likes of Jay-Z, Nas, or Drake would be in the spot that Big Sean ultimately held. Could anyone foresee a situation like that for an indie artist in 2010? It’s a testament to the ingenuity and skill of a whole scene of artists over the age of 30 who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
The moment is also reflective of rap’s widening listener demographics. The passage of time isn’t just a factor for artists, but for fans as well. The favorites of the ’90s golden era are still releasing good music, but rap fans in their 40s and 50s shouldn’t have to only rely on the likes of Jay-Z, Nas, The Lox, and Wu-Tang members. These days, fans entering their middle age don’t just have to listen to their canon or new projects from “classic acts.” They can feel on the pulse of the now through the work of newer acts like Roc, Griselda, and Gibbs. These artists have proven that gritty lyricism isn’t a classic sound, it’s an everlasting one.
Freddie Gibbs called himself the “best rapper alive” in 2018, and a hoard of supporters co-signed him. Everyone in Griselda is over 35 and having their “moment” commercially, collaborating with modern favorites like Drake, Tyler, the Creator, Big Sean, and others. Conway and Benny had two of the most anticipated rap albums of 2020 with From a King to a God and Burden of Proof, respectively. Boldy James’ work will be in best album of the year lists, as will Gibbs’ Alfredo.
Westside Gunn recently said he wanted to be considered for the Def Jam president position, calling himself “overqualified.” Maybe it would be fitting for an artist who is a modern-day purveyor of a classic sound to helm a classic label. And maybe he’ll offer a haven for the 2020’s generation of 30-plus acts who deserve another chance. Time will tell.
The next time you overhear a conversation about how the internet helped teenagers on SoundCloud and YouTube game the system, make sure you also mention a scene of acts over the age of 30 who defied convention. They all used the internet to build their legacy at an age that’s previously been seen as past its prime.