How the Rap War Is Manipulating the Rap Media War

In the middle of a rap war between Drake and Kendrick Lamar, artists are strategically aligning with podcasters, streamers, and YouTubers to control their own narratives.

“Somebody's lying, I can see the vibes on Ak,” Kendrick Lamar raps on his Drake diss “6:16 in La,” speculating that something funny is afoot in the house of hip-hop media personality DJ Akademiks. “Even he lookin' compromised, let’s peel the layers back.” 

If you follow Kendrick’s instructions, you’ll see he might have a point. Akademiks isn’t technically Drake’s DJ, but considering his close alignment with the Toronto rapper throughout the Great Rap War of 2024, he might as well be. Ak has been a mouthpiece for Drake, documenting the battle with the enthusiasm of a one-sided color commentator and sharing inside information from the Toronto rapper. 

Early in the battle, Drake included a clip of an Akademiks Twitch rant on “Push Ups” and sent the finished version of the song to premiere on Ak’s livestream. Before releasing “Family Matters” last Friday night, Drake even gave Akademiks a heads up so he could get home in time to gas the song up online as soon as it dropped. Up until this week, it would have been difficult for the layman to differentiate between Akademiks and any other member of OVO, as Ak had frequently taunted Kendrick through tweets and Twitch streams. Relationships like this one are part of an evolutionary symbiosis between rappers and new media figures. Internet personalities like Akademiks have assumed the war-time responsibilities of 2000s curators like DJ Kay Slay, who would back up rappers whose diss tracks debuted via their mixtapes. 

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The modern media landscape is splintered, leaving mercenary creators to fight for access to rap superstars. Meanwhile, artists like Drake have a clear understanding of the bubbling tensions between the faces of an adjacent hip-hop media war, so they’re allying themselves with podcasters and streamers to reinforce their own narratives.

Since the current back-and-forth between Drake and Kendrick Lamar began, folks have wondered who would respond to each diss track and when. Meanwhile, rap media pundits like Akademiks, Rory and Mal, and Joe Budden have been a collective fulcrum of the speculation. Rory Farrell and Jamil "Mal" Clay, two disgruntled former co-hosts on The Joe Budden Podcast, provided early updates on what to expect from Drake following Kendrick’s scathing “Like That” diss. Speaking on the matter in a New Rory & Mal podcast episode, released before the leak of “Push Ups,” both hosts alluded to the song, citing the “drop and give me 50” refrain in a way that made it clear they heard the track beforehand. From Rory & Mal’s subliminal preview to Akademiks’ eventual release of the track, it was clear that Drake had strategically tapped in with each of them as he began his “20 v. 1” crusade. 

Rory & Mal talking about Drake's diss track days ago 🤔

"Drop down and give me 50"

— Complex Music (@ComplexMusic) April 13, 2024
Twitter: @ComplexMusic

According to Ebro Darden, veteran Hot 97 DJ and Apple Music’s global editorial head of hip-hop and R&B, Drake’s info exchange is business as usual; only the offices have changed. “There's always been rappers having relationships with media outlets,” he says. “Everybody's in the same kind of scene. Today, they probably do it in the DMs or maybe they party together. Rappers know they have a captive audience and they want to feed this one or that one, for whatever their reason may be.” 

It’s easy to spot the motive for Drake supplying Rory and Mal with intel. For years, Drake’s had on-and-off issues with rapper-turned-podcast host Joe Budden, who’s continued belittling him through 2024, sharing raw critiques of the Toronto rapper’s music and maneuvers. Even in today’s media landscape, exclusives are a flex, and by helping Rory & Mal one-up Budden, Drake’s one-upping him, too.

“[With] Drake having an overt beef with Joe Budden, it makes sense for him to go and link with Rory & Mal,” says No Jumper founder and host Adam22. According to Ebro, doing so would just be the latest act in Drake’s long-running theater of petty: “If we're paying attention to how Drake has moved, he feels like the kind of guy that wants to have fun with that messiness.” 

If a DJ or reporter from the ’90s were to take a time machine to the present, they might be surprised to see media hosts that would hang onto a name like OVO Mal, even ironically. But today, it’s part of an arms race that runs parallel with the rap war. Independently, these new media figures can assume all the power of traditional media establishments as intermediaries and curators of culture (and tools in rap conflict). 

“[The streamers] are the ones who are creating the narratives,” says Adam22. And these storylines are increasingly unfolding outside of conventional media. It’s becoming that way for current events, too. According to a 2024 Pew Survey, one-third of adults under the age of 30 use TikTok to search for news, which is a 255 percent increase from four years ago. As Ebro points out, streamers provide rappers “with more instant gratification and feedback. You jump on Kai Cenat, and you see the people on the stream. There's that direct connection to them, and they see what it is. And it's also very young, very rabid, and very active. That's where the 15 to 24-year-olds are.” It’s a matter of functionality. Artists are meeting fans where they’re at, and oftentimes, that’s a DJ Akademiks Instagram post or livestream. 

Known for takes that range from crude and ill-informed to bits that can be genuinely funny, Akademiks has been a controversial social media fixture for over a decade now, moving from satirical YouTube videos to the veritable online empire you see today. There are polarizing attributes to dissect with Akademiks, but his general appeal stems from this: he provides the stories and commentary folks want to hear about, and he does it where they want to hear it. He’s got over 500,000 followers on Twitch and over 7 million across Instagram, X, and TikTok

By interacting with Akademiks, Drake is, as the casual Twitter skeptic might say, “controlling the narrative.” Ak has been one of rap media’s chief storytellers, with his most recent tale being the Gospel of Drake Versus Kendrick. Since the release of “Push Ups,” Akademiks kept a running tally of the days since Drake released “Push Ups” without a response from the Compton rapper. (He started a tally for Drake the day Kendrick dropped his “Push Ups” response, too). 

Akademiks shares the story of the night “Family Matters” and “Meet The Grahams” dropped.

— Complex Music (@ComplexMusic) May 8, 2024
Twitter: @ComplexMusic

To Adam22, who remembers exchanging DMs with Drake after they followed each other on Instagram, Drake’s situational partnership is a matter of marketing savvy, image management, and convenience. “In Drake's case, it's kind of obvious self-preservation shit, because if he develops a good relationship with Ak, and Ak is the No. 1 streamer who's guiding the narrative, then he has a lot to gain from that,” he explains. “Whereas if [Drake] gives that record to the radio, the look is going to be that of him being kind of corporate and cheesy.”

Meanwhile, Kendrick has taken a more grassroots approach to engaging new media. Rather than forging partnerships with A-list streamers, he’s engaging the online little guy. Last week, multiple YouTubers revealed that Kendrick had removed copyright strikes from YouTube reaction channels so they can make profit from their videos. The move has the dual effect of positioning Kendrick as a champion for authenticity while also granting increased visibility to their overwhelmingly positive reactions to his Drake disses. 

Kendrick isn’t hugging Akademiks, but that doesn’t mean he’s not working with him—or rather, off of him. It’s all tied to the streamer reactions economy. Just last week, Akademiks told Kai Cenat to stay on his livestream because new Drake was incoming. Kendrick seems to be tapped in, too. As Akademiks himself noted in a Twitch stream last weekend, “I believe the timing of Kendrick Lamar's drops have been predicated on our streams." He’s not the only one. Plenty of fans have noticed that Kendrick has released his Drake disses while Ak’s on livestream. His perceived motive? Giving fans the chance to see and repost Ak’s disappointment when he realizes Kendrick has eviscerated any of Drake’s momentum. Those viral reactions in turn get funneled into a self-sustaining hype machine for Kendrick’s diss songs, making Akademiks an unwitting pawn in a layered rap struggle.

Sometimes, rapper-media partnership could also simply be a matter of survival. “I'm in a position where I'm actively beefing with rappers sometimes, [and] if they see me, something's going to happen and vice versa, so for me, it's like a no-brainer: Of course I'm going to take sides with rappers,” Adam22 says. “But I'm not willing to have a relationship with a rapper if it's going to stop me from being honest about my opinion of what's going on.”

Sitting in a Manhattan pop-up shop for No Jumper in late April, Adam told me an unnamed industry figure has just unpromptedly texted him an mp3 of Kanye West’s “Like That” remix, accompanied by instructions that he’s forbidden to leak it. Adam eventually shared the song through his Twitter account the day after we met up, so something changed. Whether he thought about it this way or not, he’d just contributed his own small chapter to the media saga, even if the ’Ye remix was so terrible we collectively chose to ignore it. Adam’s industry interactions are perpetual, with exchanges like that one being a nearly imperceptible gradient in a colorful blur of DMs, texts, and requests. He says people pay No Jumper to post their content all the time. 

Outside of his own interactions, Adam22 remembers rappers telling him they’d paid a legendary mixtape DJ $20,000 just to have their songs plastered at the end of his mixtapes. And then there are more formalized utilities, like premieres and mixtape releases, a space Akademiks drifted into when he dropped the “Push Ups” CDQ. Years ago, it might have been DJ Clue or the late Kay Slay who premiered the record. 

Kay Slay’s mixtapes were once coliseums for hip-hop gladiators. Rap superstars regularly used his tapes to drop diss songs. a practice that bolstered the jockey’s well-earned Drama King alias. Back then, that sort of synergy was commonplace. Nas famously debuted “Ether,” his scorching Jay-Z takedown, through Kay Slay (according to Cam’ron, Hov once threatened to “slap the shit” out of Kay Slay because of it). Jay-Z used the Hot 97 Summer Jam stage to call out Nas and poke fun at Prodigy’s past as a dancer. A year later, Hot 97 halted Nas’ plans to lynch a Jay-Z doll during his performance, so he went to Hot 97’s rival Power 105.1 to call them out. DJs get active, too. Famously, DJ Funk Flex called out Jay-Z for making the mistake of sending him a text with his nickname in all caps. While he doesn’t have any special knowledge on the specifics of any potential Jay-Funk Flex feud, Ebro notes an ancient, philosophical and logistical power struggle between rappers and DJs. 

“The DJ versus the MC is a thing because, before the rapper was the face of hip-hop, the DJ was,” he says. “Especially in New York, the DJ had control of the festivities, and you had to have a great relationship with a DJ to even get on the mic as an MC. I don't know if that's what Flex and Jay-Z type of time is on, but I know that energy of Flex being like, ‘You're calling yourself Hov, I've known you since forever. What are we even doing right now?” 

Whether or not he was ever an actual DJ is beside the point; someone like Akademiks is a curator of the culture, and it’s not difficult to see how he might adopt the same mentality. “[Akademiks] has a huge following and platform,” Ebro says. “So, in his mind, he's like, ‘Yo, I'm me. Don't try to play me like I'm not me.’” 

It’s unclear if Kendrick has ever done anything to incite the wrath of Akademiks—he would be far from the first. But while Akademiks remains a visible Drake supporter, even he eventually had to admit that Kendrick was winning the conflict after an unprecedented barrage of Drizzy diss songs. The fact that people were surprised at his admission only speaks to just how far that connection extended. Of course, Akademiks reaffirmed his Drake Standom with a recent livestream rant, explaining that Kendrick doesn’t “deserve” rap’s No. 1 spot if he only drops every few years. Predictably, this reaction also went viral. Meanwhile, Budden Crip-walked to “Not Like Us” during an episode of The Joe Budden Podcast

On the Rory & Mal end of things, Rory used an episode of their podcast to suggest that it was Kendrick Lamar’s team that got Tupac Shakur’s estate send Drake a cease-and-desist order after the Toronto rapper used AI to rap in Tupac’s voice for his Kendrick diss, “Taylor Made.” They also shared the claim that Kendrick is supposed to drop a new album in May, intel that  may or may not have come from Drake. 

While Rory skews more neutral, Mal’s Drake fandom remains outward and unencumbered. During a Tuesday episode of New Rory & Mal, Mal served up an impassioned defense of Drake’s “The Heart Part 6,” a song in which the Toronto rapper says he purposely planted misinformation about an 11-year-old daughter for Kendrick to use against him. Raising his voice to a shout, Mal treats the claim with all the scrutiny of a middle school fan waiting outside the OVO store for an autograph. His momentary crash-out has become fodder for online roasting, but that only means more attention for their podcast. 

To older fans, the concept of podcasters and streamers becoming de facto mouthpieces for rappers is a new one. But if you let Adam22 tell it, it’s an innovative move that’s more than a long time coming. “If anything, I feel like it just took [rappers] way too long,” he says. “To me, it’s just the only logical thing to do and it would've made sense 10 years ago, during the Drake versus Meek Mill thing, if Drake had reached out to Akademiks and tapped in with him then,” he says. Through bouts of aggressive raps and psycho-social media warfare, it seems like Drake and new media figures are saying it’s better late than never—even if it’s just a remix of an old classic. 

“It’s really very similar to what was going on before,” Adam22 says. “It's just the people with power have kind of changed.”

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