YNW Melly, the syrup-voiced rapper behind the viral hit “Murder On My Mind,” was arrested in February of 2019 and charged with two counts of first-degree murder. After pleading not guilty, details about the trial became relatively scarce. Aside from him telling fans that he tested positive for COVID-19, the world was forced to sift through rumors of the death penalty or, on the flip side, being cleared due to ballistic evidence. The random reports that came out were pieces of a broader puzzle without the necessary context for many fans to monitor the situation from afar.
On May 31, the Trap Geek YouTube channel uploaded “YNW Melly: The Answers Are Coming To Light” which dug through videos, news reports, and theories to give the rapper’s fans hope that he could possibly be coming home—not necessarily because he’s innocent, but instead because the evidence couldn’t confirm that he actually shot his friends. That video has more than one million views so far and is an example of a growing subset of YouTube that’s part hip-hop history and part investigative reporting, sifting through the internet’s endless hours of rap-related content to cover the genre’s past and present.
With hip-hop being the biggest genre in the world, creating a culture that drives global conversation, people have taken to message boards and websites over the years to report on what’s happening with their own twist. Rap’s blog era of the late 2000s and early 2010s found many platforms reporting on new releases and rumors. The blog format has become mostly obsolete—younger audiences favor social media and video content for news consumption, blog posts about new releases have been replaced by playlists, and networks like Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok aim to keep users on their platforms, making it harder to drive traffic to outside websites.
In this Wild West, YouTubers have emerged as news sources for fans. You’ll find countless channels posting clips of Instagram Live footage featuring artists arguing or explaining their beef with some other person that’s on screen. Channels like The Needle Drop, run by Anthony Fantano, offer more in-depth music criticism for the latest releases. Publications such as GQ and Cosmopolitan have taken to the platform to host journalism-adjacent content that accompanies their written releases. Outside of these more well-known publications, other channels have found large audiences with the kind of videos more akin to the content found on platforms like Reddit, 4Chan, or video game console parties. Some of the largest channels dealing with rap news are run anonymously, with little regard for accountability or the traditional standards that come with running a news publication.
Some of the largest channels dealing with rap news are run anonymously, with little regard for accountability or the traditional standards that come with running a news publication.
To become an investigative rap YouTuber, you don’t need formal training or first-hand access to the culture you're covering: two things that made many hip-hop journalists respected voices of authority. The mysterious founder of Trap Geek tells me, over the phone, that he got into investigating rap because he saw room for this kind of content in the space. “I felt like most of the content that I saw was short form and very simple,” he explains happily. “There weren’t really deep dives, and as someone who looks for this kind of content, it was needed.”
Trap Geek’s content is a standard for the investigative rap YouTuber space: his videos, like most others in this lane, feature a hodgepodge of news clips, alleged surveillance footage, and screenshots taken from news forums. The clips analyze everything from rappers' violent histories to massive arrests related to artists. The channel’s first video told the story of No Jumper podcast host Adam22 getting robbed twice in three days and was only four minutes long, amassing 529,000 views. His follow-up about the photos from YNW Melly’s case jumped up to 2.3 million views and the content creator has focused on crime-related content throughout most of its most recent 23 videos.
Trap Geek looks at his videos not as journalism, but as informative sources for his supporters. “What I like to do is include as much a history that I can in my videos because I know that people have super short attention spans,” he says. “That was one of my first fears when creating these videos—I wondered if I was giving my audience too much information. But it turned out that that wasn’t enough and that I should never underestimate viewers because they’re very inquisitive and they want to know shit.”
The information he shares comes with an asterisk because it’s often unverified, and on top of that it can have potentially dangerous implications. In “Pop Smoke: The Hoovers Meet The Woo,” Trap Geek examines the late rapper’s killers and alleged enemies, calling out suspected gang affiliations of local rappers and detailing deadly rivalries. The video even points out Gucci Mane's signing of rapper Coach Da Ghost—who Trap Geek calls Pop Smoke's direct rival—to 1017 Records. In the comments section, one viewers speculates about why Gucci Mane signed Pop Smoke's alleged adversary, and another announces, "Well I listened to pop for months Gucci for years and it’s fk Gucci now."
His process for making videos starts with “basic research” which involves looking around forums and social media to see what people are talking about. “Once I do that, then I figure out how to frame the video in a digestive way,” he says. “I can do the intro, then get into the history of the people involved and find a way to transition to current events.”
At no point in the process does he attempt to speak to the parties involved or get primary sources who can verify the information he comes across. That’s one of the things that veteran hip hop journalist William Ketchum III—who was previously the Deputy Editor at Vibe, Senior Editor at Revolt TV, and has covered hip-hop for Complex, Genius, NPR, and more over the course of his 15 years in the industry—takes issue with. “I believe that they should be holding themselves to the same standards,” he says. “[You can't] share stories without the proper background checks to see if news sources are legitimate."
“Outside of traditional journalism, they simply don’t know what’s right and wrong,” he continues. “They’re sharing what they believe is true. If they’re going to have any credibility with this, they’re going to have to read police reports and legal documents, double check information with multiple sources, and do these kinds of things before levying accusations against someone. If they’re not doing it the right way, it’s a waste of time at best, and harmful at worst.”
Trap Lore Ross is another YouTube channel that focuses on hip hop stories, citing itself as a “Hip Hop Historian.” The channel’s videos feature its host, Ross, delivering an often comedic dump of facts about a popular situation—similar to Trap Geek but with more jokes. Ross’ channel has almost half a million subscribers, and over the past year 20 videos from the outlet have passed a million views.
“Ever since I was 9 years old, I aspired to rap,” Ross says via email about why he started the channel. “As the years went by and I got older, I found myself feeling less and less that being a rapper was a realistic prospect. So instead, I got into filmmaking and shooting rap videos for local acts in the South of England and London.” After several attempts at growing his audience, he found that detailing more popular historical and news topics in hip-hop got the most attention, so he pivoted to focusing on those.
“I believe that the most important thing is to be honest with your audience and confront the facts first,” says Ross. “I do the research so they don’t have to. And I try to be as meticulous as possible to get as close to the truth as one possibly can with internet research.” But internet research has its limits. Without verification, it’s like pulling from Wikipedia or fan forums and packaging it from an outsider's perspective. When the information shared is impacting people’s lives, that makes these videos potentially insidious.
Ross believes that he sidesteps this because he doesn’t consider himself a news source. “From the start, I’ve made an important distinction and seen myself as a hip-hop history channel,” he says. “Not to knock any of the dope channels that cover breaking hip-hop news really well, but my passion really lies in documenting history and things that have happened in the past. I think it’s really important to preserve these stories for the new generation of rap fans and performers to enjoy.”
The history that drives the most views to Trap Lore Ross' channel is mostly around violence, beef, and drama involving rappers' personal lives. Among the most popular videos on the channel: "How DaBaby Killed A Guy In Walmart (Legally)," "Why YNW Melly Did A School Shooting At Age 16," and "Why People Think Drake Killed XXXTentacion."
“YouTube is like the Wild West,” Trap Geek's founder says. “Next month, people could decide that they think my content is trash.” There’s also the fact that YouTube’s strict censorship guidelines can make it a hassle to upload videos. “It’s like a dance, like walking a tightrope,” he says. “There are very strict rules and I never want to censor the content so I can show the most stuff possible. Sometimes, I’ll upload 30 or 40 versions of a video that I have to delete once I upload because YouTube doesn’t like it. Then, I have to go through and figure out what isn’t suitable and re-edit it.”
So what’s next? For now, Trap Geek’s founder wants to keep uploading. “I have some interesting things outside of YouTube that I’m working on, such as getting my content on streaming platforms, so that’s a possibility,” he says. “I don’t really know what my future plans are but I’ve been hit up from various outlets to do some content for them. This has happened so quickly and I’m navigating this as best as I can because I have no clue about what’s going on.”
Ethical guidelines and journalistic integrity don’t equate to views, and these newer channels with nimble response times, sensationalized titles, and less regard for proper sourcing, fact-checking, and legal clearance of borrowed content are rising fast.
The success of these kinds of channels comes at a time when journalists have it harder than ever—within the last few months, Viacom, Fox News, and Buzzfeed have all announced layoffs or furloughs. Ethical guidelines and journalistic integrity don’t equate to views, and these newer channels with nimble response times, sensationalized titles, and less regard for proper sourcing, fact-checking, and legal clearance of borrowed content are rising fast and taking notes from the world of Instagram influencers. Trap Geek even runs a promotion that involves a “Song of the Day” that is presumably paid for by an aspiring artist. Advertisements in videos are nothing new—Adam22 of No Jumper frequently introduces sponsored products in his interviews—but the lack of transparency in these newer channels makes it unclear what’s paid promo and what isn’t.
Channels like Trap Geek, Trap Lore Ross, and dozens of other popular DIY reporters aren't getting hired by established media companies to create content or landing sponsorship deals or brand collaborations, but as they rack up more views, they can monetize their work. Trap Geek’s videos normally hover right around ten minutes, which was YouTube’s threshold for mid-roll advertisements until in July when it was shortened to eight minutes. Trap Geek earns its revenue from its monetization through ads and “Song of the Day” uploads while Trap Ross’ funding comes solely from the ads. For a video with over a million views, that ad money can equal thousands of dollars.
“I don’t see myself as profiting from particular stories,” says Ross. “I believe the monetization of the videos on my channel en masse is compensating me for the cost of making the videos. Me and my editor work on the channel full time. I invest a lot of what is left back into the videos. The channel as it exists and as people love it simply wouldn’t be viable if the videos weren’t monetized. The same way the news industry has only been able to survive for centuries based on news companies building a large audience through hard-hitting journalism. With advertisers funding the pursuit of that journalism.”
Ketchum says that there’s a reason for the existence of this hybrid form of journalism and its success as the industry itself continues to struggle. “I think a lot of these people have a craving for news, even though people don't know how they want it or how to do it,” he says. “A lot of these people want to capitalize on that but they don’t want to actually do the work that journalists know is necessary. They want to get a quick fix.”