Hip-Hop’s Underground Is Still Shaping Independence
(repost from 5/26/2020 from 3300+ Climbing)
It’s a no brainer that the sound of contemporary music is influenced by Hip-Hop music first and foremost, but the business side for generations, has been shifted by acts beneath the surface of what is now the biggest genre in music. Take for example the firefighter by day, poet by night, known as Ka. He’s one of Hip-Hop’s most talented writers, who has always found connections in history to relate to his life as a youth in the ’80s, in Brownsville New York. In his music he’s rapped tales of finding his way and becoming a man through figures like Orpheus or ancient samurai, and with his new album Descendants Of Cain he finds similarities between his life and the Biblical tale of Cain and Able. As much as his sonic footprint is indebted to the past, his business model is also a nod to the entrepreneurial spirit of Hip-Hop’s legends.
In the late ’80s, you could find the Bay Area trailblazer, Too $hort selling tens of thousands of copies of his early albums and custom made singles from the trunk of his car across California, eventually catching the eye of Jive Records. The early ’90s saw the rise of Master P and his No Limit label, which sold over an estimated 80 million records while maintaining almost full independence (while they owned the masters and total creative control, Priority Records took 20% off the top as the distributors). Though seemingly Too $hort, Master P, and Ka have little common musically, they do share a common thread. At the time, the world wasn’t ready for their songs to be mass consumed. Too $hort was vulgar in his language and treatment towards women on records. Master P was a born and bred southerner, who had no reservations in showing where he was from in an industry dominated by the East and West coasts. Ka raps over cold and barren beats, rarely raising his voice above a whisper. Making a sound that wasn’t the standards of their era meant no labels would come knocking and being independent was the only option. It also wasn’t until later years you get full-fledged indie rap labels like Rawkus and Rhymesayers, who were focused on keeping rappers who weren’t mainstream stars set up to still make a living.
There was almost no way in the early times of Master P and Too $hort to mass distribute CDs, vinyl, and other merch cross country if you were a one-man show. Now in 2020, you insert the internet and the beauty of digital commerce, and you get a new monster for indie rappers to live off of. Using these tools and following the path of those before them, acts like Ka and his frequent rap partner Roc Marciano have taken their fate into their own hands. With no label behind them, no distribution deal, a sound too off the beaten path to end up going platinum, and little corporate ties, they were forced to find a new way to earn money. You search Apple Music or Spotify for the release dates of each of their albums, you’ll be left fruitless. Instead of trying to keep up with major acts and how they release their records, Roc and Ka have both used their websites to go directly to consumers weeks before putting the album on streaming services. In a way to reward hardcore fans with first dibs, and show their appreciation for people willing to put $20+ of raw cash in their hands, they’ve seemingly cracked the code of being indie in the modern age. A mix of hand-to-hand purchases, providing high-quality physical records, and the still untapped potential of streaming side-by-side set them up for success in different ways. This same model for indie rappers can be seen in a wider range through the existence of Bandcamp.
Before Bandcamp became a mainstay, in years past the iTunes store was the central online music hub, but little acts would get drowned out by ones with major label backing. Then came websites like Datpiff and LiveMixtapes, a place to upload full projects for free download that became the springboard for the careers of J. Cole, A$AP Rocky and Wiz Khalifa among others, and gave new outlets for veterans like Lil Wayne and Jadakiss. The mixtapes were uploaded for a small fee and brought in zero revenue to these artists unless you were a known commodity that promised exclusivity to whichever site you chose. Yet what it lacked in revenue it made up for in full creative control. Due to artists typically seeing zero income on these songs, the need for sample clearances was unneeded, leading to acts releasing tapes full of freestyles over famous hip-hop and indie songs with no drawbacks. These sites all still exist, but major acts are re-releasing their fan-favorite tapes on Apple Music and Tidal, making the need for these sites limited to only those who can’t get around the legalities of clearing these samples.
Bandcamp now being an online flea market for music of all genres across the world has become the go-to site for Hip-Hops underground. On one end of the spectrum you see artists like the glitch-punk leaning JPEGMAFIA, giving the option for consumers to choose their price on each album download as they feel (and yes, you can choose to pay $0). On the other side, you get Mach-Hommy, the Haitian MC who caught the ears of Jay-Z and Cypress Hills,’ DJ Muggs by matching bar heavy raps and love of dusty yet warm beats, with a beautiful selection of vinyl that reached prices upwards of, at times, $1000 for one single album. Though now he has transitioned into nearly everything going through his website, he has also, in an action against the mediocre pay from streaming sites, withheld most of his catalog from these streaming giants.
Independence and owning the rights to your music has been a hot topic in the last few years. As the average act becomes more business savvy, these alternatives have and will become more the norm. Until consumers driving to a store to buy a physical CD decides to come back in style, those below the surface who think outside the box will continue to evolve music commerce and reap the greatest benefits.