What Does ‘Underground Rap’ Mean Today?

The meaning of “underground rap” has changed over the years. This is the story of underground hip-hop’s evolution, and the shifting meaning of the term.

What does 'underground rap' mean today?
Complex Original

Complex Original

What does 'underground rap' mean today?

Have you ever had a moment where you’re trying to describe an artist, and you call them an “underground rapper,” only for the conversation to turn into a debate about what “underground” actually means in 2021?

Some people may call Westside Gunn “underground” because of Griselda’s gritty, lyrical style, but he’s not exactly under the radar. He’s a former Shady Records signee who’s sat front row at Paris Fashion Week and boasts close relationships with superstars like Jay-Z, Drake, Kanye West, and Tyler, the Creator. 

Jay Electonica’s music is considered to be in the lineage of underground cult heroes like Killah Priest and Dead Prez—but he just did a whole album with Jay-Z. MCs like R.A.P. Ferreira, Earl Sweatshirt, and Billy Woods create abstract, left-of-center work that would have found a natural home at a label like Rawkus Records in the ’90s, but the internet’s direct-to-consumer model now allows them to access millions of potential listeners in a way underground artists at indie labels have long had a hard time doing. 

At one point, the underground rap community was an easily recognizable scene of acts and labels that couldn’t get the same distribution for their CDs that major label acts could. But the internet revolutionized music distribution at the click of a button. The digital evolution allowed artists to operate with a direct-to-consumer model, eliminating many of the corporate barriers that kept certain acts obscure. And now artists who make music that’s unabashedly crafted for mass appeal are utilizing the same stratagem as avant-garde artists who don’t even put hooks on their songs. And they’re all a TikTok trend away from a platinum single. Are they all “underground” in the same way? It’s difficult to explain exactly what the phrase means today. 

Renowned A&R and executive Dante Ross thinks “underground rap means everything that’s not mainstream and has a somewhat determined ceiling.” Legendary indie rapper Slug says “the concept of underground rap is an identity thing [for] the advocate, the fan, all of us, to give us a sense of belonging.” Drew “Dru Ha” Friedman, co-founder of underground mainstay Duck Down Records, once saw the ‘90s underground scene as music where “you could just tell it wasn’t going to be mainstream.” Industry veteran Jonathan Tanners says underground rap was once “a cultural signifier of a code of conduct,” and believes now that the method of “how [music] reaches people has changed more so than some of the ideologies.” 

Rising Charlotte rapper Mavi feels that the idea of underground rap is a more “descriptive than prescriptive” notion, and a “judgment made on the mix or the reach or style” of music. Griselda signee Rome Streetz calls the underground “the purest form of hip-hop, because it doesn’t really have any of those industry politics with it.” But Spotify’s Carl Chery is unsure if there’s even such a thing as underground rap in 2021. “Because when I think about the original definition and all the raps that made up underground rap in the ‘90s and the 2000s, the structure doesn’t exist now,” he explains. 

The industry experts we spoke to mostly perceive the “underground” label as an ambiguous concept that refers to music outside of the mainstream—or what Google defines as the “general commercial canon”—but what does mainstream mean when unsigned kids can upload songs from their bedrooms, go viral, and reach millions on TikTok?

We can credit the internet with fueling the shift. The major barrier between mainstream artists and underground artists was once the mass distribution of physical units, but that dynamic is gone with DSPs, and smaller artists can find spots on playlists right alongside superstars. The internet allowed independent artists to gain worldwide notoriety through message boards, then blogs, and now playlists. It also allowed them to establish lucrative direct-to-consumer relationships on websites and social media.

“With the internet, you would go to blogs like Rap Radar or whatever, and you would see the biggest rapper in the world next to an artist that was unsigned or relatively unknown,” Chery says. “I think it’s kind of hard to call it ‘underground’ when everyone is basically sharing space.”

Slug of Atmosphere / Underground rap

It wasn’t always like that. In the ’90s, the underground rap scene was a network of artists, indie labels, DIY venues, zines, and college radio stations that operated below what Ross deemed the “ceiling” of mass distribution. 

“Back then, it was radio and video,” Dru Ha recalls. “Video consisted of MTV Raps or BET’s Teen Summit, Rap City, or something like that back then, and you didn’t have access to YouTube.”

But even if an artist was getting their video played, it was difficult for new fans to go and purchase their music. Dru Ha notes that getting one’s music available for sale at a big retailer used to be a major obstacle for indie labels that didn’t have the budget for co-op advertising, which is defined as “a way for record labels to pay for media ad space with product.” Those financial constraints created a clear division between artists on major labels and indies.

“[Retailers] ran a circular in every main newspaper across the country,” Dru explains. “They would have the record labels pay for the circular—advertising that you could get their CD at Best Buy—but that’s where it became super expensive. All of a sudden, if you want to play ball like that, your label had to believe in you, because now the retailer is saying this program might cost $50,000 to be in our national circular each week.”

He says he had “internal wars all the time” with Priority, Duck Down’s distributor, over the label’s releases: “They were our partner, but they were the ones that were on the front lines for us doing the pitches to retail.” He remembers that Priority was able to push heavy shipments for acts like Ice Cube and No Limit, but retailers would balk at some of Duck Down’s acts. 

”They would say, ‘Well, maybe you’re not ready for it,’ or ‘Smif-N-Wessun isn’t that yet,’” Dru Ha recalls. “That’s the back-and-forth for how the game worked, and some of that would come from what your publicity looked like, what your video plays looked like, what your radio looked like. All those things started to become factors. That starts giving you the label of ‘underground.’ It’s harder to find. You have to search for it, and your fanbase has to dig for it. Maybe you’re selling out your shows, but you’re in smaller venues.” 

Slug says things had “evolved” in the distribution game by the time Rhymesayers started dealing with mass distributors, and they didn’t have to be as involved in the process. They would still call independent retailers themselves, though, because they wanted to sustain the community. 

“There were some retailers that we still called ourselves, mostly because we wanted the relationship with those stores—we wanted to do in-stores, or we wanted to know every time I go to Chicago, I’m going to go to Gramaphone and try to sell them some tapes, because I know Gramaphone supports this shit. Any stores that I knew were really about that underground shit, we kept personal relationships with those stores.” 

“[Underground rap] is the purest form of hip-hop, because it doesn’t really have any of those industry politics with it.” - Rome Streetz

Independent stores were the main source for rap fans to get their fix of under-the-radar music. But even then, independent stores could only carry so many copies of an artist’s material. Rhymesayers opened up their iconic Fifth Element record shop in 1999, which closed in 2020. Slug says before Fifth Element, his experience working at independent record shops made him familiar with the bargaining process.

“We would have people come in and try to pitch to us how many CDs we should take. The thing was, we never listened to them. We were always like, ‘Yeah, no. We’ll take 10,’ or we’ll take what we think we could sell. But people always would be like, ‘Yo, you need 50, you need 100 CDs.’ And we would be like, ‘No, we’ll take 10. If we run out of those 10, we’ll call you and we’ll get some more. It’s not like we had infinite money to pick up CDs, right?”

Beyond CDs, Slug notes that pressing vinyl was the gateway to radio play. ”I got homies that only made tapes, and made careers for themselves in that moment,” he contends, ”but one of the things was, you would press vinyl, and you would get the vinyl in the hands of DJs. DJs would spin it and then you would reach out to promoters and be like, ‘Yo, the DJ in your city is spinning my shit. Can I play a show?’ And they’d be like, ‘Yeah, come play a show.’ And then you go and you just try to make people feel you. That’s kind of how it worked for us. And when I look at other people in my world: Murs, Aesop Rock, Def Jux, Living Legends, Rawkus, Stones Throw, Nervous, [they were all doing vinyl].”

There were zines and magazines like Moondog that highlighted the underground scene, but they had lower circulation. Chery recalls bigger magazines were less likely to spotlight independent artists in features. “Mos Def and Kweli would get covered, but some of the underground artists that were independent and lesser-known wouldn’t get a two-page feature,” he says. “When they did get covered, the feature wasn’t as long, or the review wasn’t as long. It was maybe 50 words instead of 400. People don’t talk about it, but the goal of these magazines is to sell as many [copies] as possible. So they probably featured artists that they felt would help them move the needle.”

Hordes of label execs, distributors, and magazine editors were telling underground rappers that they weren’t big enough to be highlighted. But how would they get “big enough” without distribution or press? It was a conundrum they solved by building community with each other. Artists had to rely on independent record shops, college radio, and extensive touring to build word of mouth. Slug says the Rhymesayers team traveled all over the country to shows and conventions—even when it wasn’t profitable. 

“Somebody would hit us up and be like, ‘Hey, will you come play a show in Dallas?’’’ he remembers. “And it’s like, ‘Well, we never played in Dallas before. They’re offering us $200 to drive all the way to Dallas and play a show. We’re going to spend $500 to do this.’ Yeah, we’ll go, because we felt like it was important to get out there and do it. I guess to put it bluntly, we went anywhere that allowed us to come. [We’d go anywhere] where people who might be into our shit were going to congregate. We’d go out there and hand our tapes out. If we saw an opportunity to get our shit heard, we would go, even if it was going to cost us some money.”

Slug’s experience is that of the typical indie artist of the era, and it instilled a fierce DIY ethos that’s a core tenet of the underground scene. They weren’t bonded just by being collectively rejected by the industry—it was also about why they didn’t always “move the needle” with the masses. As Dante Ross notes, the scene was, and still is, composed of dissentient music that isn’t interested in emulating the wide-appealing sonics that dominate the charts. 

“I think that [underground] has always been a wide lane and it continues to be a wide lane,” he contends, “but if I had to chalk [the term] up to one main thing, it’s usually skill-based, and also anything nonconformist that isn’t created to get on the radio necessarily and isn’t made to fit in with everything else.”

“Nonconformist” is an adjective that would describe many ’90s and ’00s underground rap stalwarts. Indie artists, devoid of major label demands to appease as many consumers as possible, had the freedom to shirk the conventions of pop music and create what they wanted. That dynamic engendered some of the boldest hip-hop music ever. New York boasted lyricists like Boot Camp Clik, the Def Jux roster, Pharoahe Monch, and Immortal Technique. Aesop Rock and Kool Keith told engaging stories with abstract lyricism. Rhymesayers was home to skilled storytellers like Brother Ali and Atmosphere, the duo of Slug and Ant. The California rap scene was bustling with talented acts like Hieroglyphics, Living Legends, Busdriver, Brotha Lynch Hung, and more. Slum Village put on for Detroit, backed by beats from iconic group member J Dilla. The well of underground talent goes on and on. 

Similarly heralded is MF DOOM, whose legendary second act represented a stand against the ivory towers of mainstream rap. In ’94, DOOM was going by Zev Love X and rapping in the group KMD, who then-Elektra Records A&R Dante Ross helped sign to the label. Zev Love drew a sambo figure on the proposed artwork for their Black Bastards album, which Ross remembers caused “an uproar from two reporters.” The furor caused their parent label Warner Records to reject the cover, shelf the album, and ultimately drop KMD. 

“My boss caved in under pressure from his higher-ups and gave [the label] back the record, much to my dismay,” Ross recalls. “DOOM wasn’t ‘allowed’ to reinvent himself. He reinvented himself out of necessity.”

Zev Love re-emerged several years later as MF DOOM and adopted the mic persona of a masked villain who sought to single-handedly take on the industry. But obviously, DOOM was no mere gimmick.

“A lot of people back then made underground records because they truly didn’t make music that was probably worthy of the mainstream,” Ross says. “DOOM, on the other hand, didn’t give a shit about the mainstream. He made music that was worthy of his own intellect. So, to me, that’s the difference between him and a lot of the other things that were on the wall of Fat Beats in 1997 or 1999.”

And DOOM’s legacy carries on to this day through artists like Rome Streetz, who notes, “When you make underground music, you’re not giving a fuck about [appeasing the mainstream]. You’re just doing what the fuck you want to do and how you feel it. You’re MCing how you want to be represented—like, ‘This is me. This ain’t none of that bullshit added on.’ Sometimes the industry can fuck up the purity of the art, because you have to conform to certain industry standards if you want to get to a certain level.”

What does "underground rap" mean today?

Rome Streetz, a recent Griselda signee, has been able to take advantage of a new industry model that uses the internet to cultivate a direct-to-consumer relationship with fans, putting his music on DSPs and selling vinyl online. That shift first started taking shape in the late ’90s, as indie labels embraced the internet. 

Ross credits Hieroglyphics as “the first underground rap thing to really grab internet nerd fans” with their website, which they launched in the mid-90s. He also credits Del the Funkee Homosapien and Souls of Mischief as acts that “lost major label deals and ended up putting out 3rd Eye Vision, which sold 200,000 copies, on their own. It was kind of a landmark record in that moment in time.” Instead of losing their deal and fading into obscurity, the two acts were able to maintain a relationship with fans, and build a larger audience, through their website. 

Dru Ha says that Boot Camp Clik was “early” on the internet because “when you’re independent, you have to find every avenue that you can to gain an advantage.” 

“I remember us just doing the shipping right out of the office,” he says. “We would find other ways, too, like putting advertisements into our CD booklets. So if it meant giving up two or three panels of pictures for the artist, [that was fine]. We would tell Heltah Skeltah, ‘We want to put a panel where we can advertise all the other releases [in your CD].’ The artists were cool with that, and each artist would help the other artist.”

The internet became an important avenue for indie artists to sell merch and gain visibility. Slug says he was initially skeptical about the internet, but began exploring it while he was at the Fifth Element record shop, “sitting there for hours at a time.” 

“I started exploring the internet via [Rhymesayer co-founder] Siddiq’s computer, and I discovered rap message boards,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, these fools are talking about us. What the fuck?’ So I started looking at UGHH and Hip Hop Infinity. Then Rhymesayers started a message board and I was on that shit all the time because it was ours.”

Even with their relentless touring schedule, there were scenes that Rhymesayers hadn’t yet become acquainted with. But a Fifth Element customer helped Slug learn about new music communities via the internet.

“There was a kid that used to come in and he would be like, ‘Yo, give me all your 4-track demos and I’m going to put them online. In return, I’ll bring you the music that I trade them for,’” Slug remembers. “So he would take Atmosphere 4-track demos and trade them with other fans around the country, and then he’d bring me dubs of whatever he got. And that’s how I found out about the Living Legends. I found out about Latyrx and Soul Side. That’s how I found out about, for real, the whole West Coast underground. I had no idea that there was a whole West Coast underground that was just similar to what I was doing. There were people in LA that were like me. That blew my mind, and also opened up doorways for me to make friends with people out there.”

Jonathan Tanners is a former journalist who, in his own words, has “woven in and out of being an A&R and working in publishing and management” through the years. He recalls visiting websites that became “economies for information exchange” in the early 2000s. 

“Oink’s Pink Palace was very specific and interesting because there was a communal dynamic,” he says of the invite-only torrenting site that ran from 2004 to 2007. “You had to upload as much as you downloaded in order to stay in the mix. And that was a place where I would learn about a ton of music I’d never hear. But also, because of sites like Soulseek, if I liked an artist, or liked an album, I could be like, ‘Oh, cool. I want to download the discography,’ or ‘I want to get this one song.’ And on top of that, those communities introduced you to other people who knew more than you do.” 

Suddenly, the cross-country trip that cost Rhymesayers more than they earned was no longer a necessity to reach new fans. And Slug, like millions of other people online, was able to access music that was previously difficult to find in the physical world. Things were shifting in the favor of the independent artist. 

“[Underground rap] is anything nonconformist that isn’t created to get on the radio necessarily, and isn’t made to fit in with everything else.” - Dante Ross

Several of the figures we spoke to credit different people and trends with helping amplify underground rap during the ’00s. Tanners mentions video games like the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series for exposing gamers to left-of-center sounds. He also shouts out Murs’ Paid Dues Festival for putting together bills full of underground rappers from all over the country. Figures like Kanye West and Alchemist were championed for bridging the gap between platinum artists and acts with lower visibility. And later on, Nipsey Hussle had all the appeal of the mainstream rappers with whom he collaborated, but he was adamant about staying independent until he saw fit. 

Nipsey had the apparatus to do that successfully, with services like the iTunes store. Apple found a way to corral the free-for-all of file-sharing entities like Napster and Limewire into an MP3 marketplace where songs and albums could be purchased digitally. Dru Ha says the MP3 took away the headache of paying retailers to take CDs that weren’t guaranteed to sell. 

“The risk of going out with a product was, not only that you paid for the product and the promotion to get it out, you also had to bear the risk of it not selling and being returned, because music and CDs were sold on consignment. When iTunes really got going, the MP3 game leveled [the game], because all of a sudden you didn’t need 500 copies in a store,” he says. “Now, it’s just a matter of, can you be discovered on iTunes?” 

Dru Ha saw a dramatic shift in Duck Down’s company model. “We literally watched it go from downloads representing 10 percent of our overall sales. Then we watched it turn to 20 and then 30, to the point where it was 50/50. It’s half physical and half digital, and when it started to shift even further to the download side, a lot of us were ready to move our attention away from the physical side happily, because now we’re doing numbers.”

A major barrier for underground artists used to be distribution, but by this point, Boot Camp Clik, Rhymesayers, and other indie acts didn’t have to haggle with distributors to get their CDs in stores anymore. They could upload their music and be just as immediately accessible as a mainstream artist like Jay-Z or Kanye West. Lack of circulation had been a basis for being deemed underground, but that issue didn’t exist anymore, which was the first moment that muddied the term “underground.”

That trend continued when blogs like 2DopeBoyz, Illroots, FakeShoreDrive, Fader, Pitchfork, Rap Radar, NahRight, Smoking Section, Ruby Hornet, Pigeons & Planes, and more began posting artists of all kinds on a daily basis.

“I would say the blogs were a descendant of the magazines,” Slug contends. “Magazines were the gatekeepers early on, and you could only get talked about in an actual print magazine if you had a publicist. Well, that shit was wack. People were like, ‘Why the fuck I got to pay somebody $2,000 to get myself a couple of write-ups? It’s like, ‘OK, so how about this? With these blogs, I could send my shit to the blog directly. If they like it, they can pub it. Dope.’”

The blog era made Chery feel like the term “underground rap” wasn’t as applicable as it had been in previous years. Instead of music consumers having to search far and wide for certain rap music, they were inundated with it. Because blogs shared all kinds of music, there was less of a perception of status difference between an experimental artist on an indie label and a polished, major label aspirant like Wale or Kid Cudi. For young people especially, who were unaccustomed to the previous industry model, it was all just good rap music. 

“I remember one of the first things that I thought [about the blog era] was that the ‘underground artist’ didn’t feel as underground anymore, because if you talk about Blu & Exile or U-N-I, you were finding out about them through blogs,” Chery says. “Those were the same blogs that introduced you to Wale. Then, the volume wasn’t as big as it is now. But I think for me, it was the beginning of feeling like there was a lot more music available. It was so much. There’s so many more options. I’m not accustomed to having to keep up with that many releases at once.”

Many credit the blog era for changing fans’ relationships with artists. Back in 1995, when a CD from an indie artist was only shipping 30 copies to an entire market, some of its buyers felt the very human desire to keep the artist for themselves. An obscure artist was a fan’s beloved secret. But that dynamic faded with a generation of fans used to almost all music being immediately accessible.

“That moment in time was actually an inversion of the underground philosophy of the previous era,” Tanners says. “You rooted for the artist you love. You wanted people to know about Kendrick Lamar. You might have wanted to know about him first, but when he started to pop, you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s happening.’ ASAP Rocky, I was psyched when people started learning about his music, because I knew it represented a shift.”

Not only did fans have more access to music than ever, but aspiring rappers were also exposed to a range of influences in a way that previous generations of artists couldn’t be. “I remember driving around the suburbs in 2011 listening to Underground Vol. 1 with one of my friends, and just thinking about how it was so cool that ASAP Rocky listened to the beginning of Three 6 Mafia’s career and worked with SpaceGhostPurrp, like, ‘I’m going to take this sound and try and make it mainstream,’” Tanners says. “That didn’t feel like a perversion to me. It felt like reverence.”

Now, these artists share real estate on DSPs and playlists like Spotify’s RapCaviar, which was created by Tuma Basa in 2015 and is now followed by over 14 million fans who long to hear artists from all over the country. Current curator Carl Chery credits RapCaviar for highlighting under-the-radar artists from the so-called “SoundCloud rap” era, alongside mainstream stars. 

“RapCaviar typically features some of rap’s biggest stars, but it has a history of supporting emerging artists and helping turn their songs into hits,” says. “It’s supported artists who were considered underground—in the more modern sense—during earlier stages of their career like Lil Uzi Vert, XXXtentacion or Juice WRLD.”

SoundCloud hosted a still-bustling scene of nonconformist, punk rock-influenced artists uninterested in appeasing the masses—it just so happened that some of them went platinum anyway. Many of today’s biggest acts are unabashedly left of center. Kendrick Lamar is one of the world’s top-selling rappers, and Dante Ross feels like he exemplifies the classic perception of an underground rapper. 

“If you think about the essence of what underground rap meant in the ’90s, Kendrick Lamar fits the bill,” Ross says. “He checks all the boxes: lyrical, not trap drum-driven, and skill-based. So he has more in common with the golden era than he probably does with a Southern trap rapper. So a lot of it is semantics to me.”

Tanners shares the same sentiment about Travis Scott, a Southern trap rapper who he feels exemplifies that, “in our lifetimes, the idea of something being counter-cultural has completely evaporated. Travis Scott is literally selling fries right now,” he says, noting his “dark aesthetic” would have been too abrasive for McDonalds at one point in time. “He is the prototype to me of someone that would have been an underground artist,” Tanners contends. “He would have been in Memphis making records with Juicy J and DJ Paul in 1996, and maybe he would have become a star accidentally.”

Dante Ross and Drew "Dru Ha" Friedman

There was a time when underground rappers scoffed at braggadocious mainstream rappers. Slug says, for him, it may have been in part a defense against being looked down upon by the industry.

“I think when I was younger, man, I probably looked at Puffy in his shiny suits and shit and was like, ‘Yo, what is that shit?’” Slug recalls. “But Puffy wasn’t actually doing anything wrong. I was judging Puffy because I was insecure myself. Once I got over that hump, I was no longer concerned with what other artists were doing and I realized that there was a place for me. But when you’re younger and you’re looking at the landscape, and thinking and looking at what other people got going on, it’s really easy to be like, ‘Yo, fuck them.’” 

Chery notes that the historic divide is changing now that the same battle lines don’t exist anymore. “The Roots had a video called ‘What They Do,’ where they made fun of people celebrating and drinking Champagne,” he says. “Those two sides were constantly shooting at each other. ‘What you guys are doing isn’t real hip-hop.’ ‘Well, you guys were doing real hip-hop. You’re all broke.’ And the fans had an adversarial relationship to a certain extent. But Freddie Gibbs was just in Miami, hanging out with Puff and Pharrell. Westside Gunn was hanging out with Coach and Pee, and Virgil had been involved with some of the stuff they’ve done in the past. You have these artists who are an approximation of what ‘underground rap’ is in 2021 sitting side by side with some of the biggest most influential figures in hip-hop culture.”

Griselda and Roc Marciano, the latter of whom Ross credits as “one of the backbones of the new so-called underground rap music,” rhyme about the same things Jay-Z was when he was selling 5 million records, while doing so over experimental production that harkens to Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., another brilliant work that straddled the lines of grit and glamor. While these artists may have found themselves at odds with their underground peers if they were doing such in 1996, Slug says the times have simply changed. 

“I think Griselda—even though they are successful, and they have a large audience, and they do discuss material items in their music—I wouldn’t use that to suggest that they’re not still underground royalty,” Slug says. “Because to me, they still represent how people on the surface see things and think. I think that the whole world changed—not the music. They’re still an example that this was going to happen for them regardless of whether a record label ever gave a fuck. They were going to do this—they were going to grind it out and get it done. To me, that is underground. That’s the same shit we did.”

Ultimately, more than being a sonic identifier, Slug now views “underground rap” as a do-it-yourself ethos. Tanners concurs, and credits labels like Backwoodz Studioz and Mello Music Group for making music that he says “traces back” to classic indie rap labels like Def Jux and Rawkus Records.

“Part of [being underground] is an aesthetic, and part of it is an ideology. And I think that's where people get confused.” - Jonathan Tanners

“I think part of what’s happened is the complete dissolution of the ideological notion,” he says.

“When you look at a group like Brockhampton—and they have big songs—their music is still kind of a free-for-all. When you look at someone like Pink Siifu, who was just in the New York Times, he could have been signed to Rawkus. He is eclectic. He’s pulling together all of these different threads of rap music, American music. So when you look at an artist like that, that feels underground to me. But I also could imagine that he could accidentally have a TikTok hit, and then what is it? So it’s not so much that the music has changed, but the methods of how these things reach people have changed.”

Tanners credited the late XXXTentacion for releasing music that’s “challenging,” but also being so versatile that his catalog creates a quandary for those looking to label him. 

“‘Look at Me!’ is challenging,” he says. “But then, by the time he gets to a song like ‘Sad!,’ that’s a pop song. It’s not even a rap song. So I think part of [being underground] is an aesthetic, and part of it is an ideology. And I think that’s where people get confused.”

The underground ideology is still reflected in the wave of artists who have taken distribution into their own hands by sharing music on platforms like SoundCloud, BandCamp, DatPiff, and others. Young artists have the apparatus to create music in bedroom studios and become independent distributors at the click of an “upload” button. Some of those artists may go on to sell platinum projects like SoundCloud alumni Juice WRLD and Lil Uzi Vert, but many more won’t, and their methods still ring true to the DIY methodology of the first wave of underground rap. Muddying the waters is the reality that, unlike the ’90s, these artists are united in ingenuity, but not necessarily by a nonconformist sound. 

Mavi says there is a range of artists who could technically be considered underground because they’re independent or signed to hybrid labels that help them distribute but don’t police their content or image. But he believes underground is a “loaded” word that causes people to overlook some artists.

“I feel like ‘underground’ is a judgment made on the mix or the reach or style,” he says. ”For example, there’s rappers like Mozzy or Ralfy the Plug or Almighty Suspect or even Fredo Bang—these niggas is huge. Even the Yungeen Aces, the Julio Foolios, the Kodaks. These are huge rappers in their cities for years before major deals bring them to the international stage. I think that ‘underground’ is a space to describe the listenership and the true excitement on the ground around the music, versus the excitement that might be a little bit differently manufactured.” 

While Mavi has an understanding of what people generally mean by “underground,” he doesn’t seem to subscribe to the idea himself. “Humans don’t work based on the lines that you draw in relative relation between people’s music,” he says. ”I think a lot of things about the transparency age has fucked that up, even for music publications. The underground is not a coalition. It’s not a union. That’s not how people work. It’s just new rappers or old rappers or medium, in-between rappers.”

And all those artists now have the same digital resources at their disposal to distribute their music, as Tanners points out. ”There has never, ever, ever been a greater proliferation of tools for independent artists or artists of any sort,” he says. “Because of that, the major label strategy is still kind of the same as it ever was.” 

Tanners adds, “The business model that most labels realized they had to pick up or do more of was distribution. Because it wasn’t that underground labels or independent labels were beating the majors in any one way or another. It was that companies like EMPIRE and Create and these distribution companies that also did YouTube revenue collection or whatever, these companies were eating the majors’ lunch in terms of getting to the punch early and getting to emerging talent early.”

Indeed, Mavi also speaks to the ease of today’s direct-to-consumer model. “Now, all the manufacturing power necessary to package your music for a consumer is to go on any of the beautiful aggregators, and it loads your Wav MP3 file up with a IFRC code—that’s it,” he says. “Or, even less than that, just shoot a video for it. Or don’t even shoot a video for it. Go to TunesToTube.com, like what I do, and put a fucking image as the shit and upload that shit. It’ll take two minutes. Tell people to look it up, and they’ll listen to that bitch.” 

It’s that simple to get your music out in the world in 2021. What used to be a tug of war between record shops and distributors can be handled in a matter of clicks. Artists were once pushed to the “underground” if their sound didn’t fit the rubric for mass appeal. But that’s not the case anymore. And while there are independent acts with sounds that cue to those who once ruled the underground, they have a much easier path to fruitful careers—and, in some cases, mass appeal. These factors have converged to make “underground rap” more of an idea that’s open to interpretation than a tangible space. 

In Slug’s opinion, the “underground” has actually become all-encompassing.

“Even mainstream rap is underground to me when it comes to ethos or in theory, because it’s coming from an underdog. It’s coming from people—people that the world is trying to hold down. And even when it’s a voice that’s being pumped by a label, that label doesn’t give a fuck about that voice or that human being. They care about the dollars. We’ve got to stop looking at them like they’re mainstream, because they’re all underground, bro. These are voices that people have put together whole systems to hold back. At the end of the day, when that budget is gone, that person is still a voice and people are still going to trust that person’s voice. If that person never misleads those people, they’re still going to trust that person’s voice.”

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