If you’ve ever frequented message boards, Twitter, Soundcloud, or well, anywhere else on the internet, then you’ve probably come across some salacious arguments on the artistic viability of say, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, or any other “mainstream” hip hop artist. The debate was once centered on the coastal axis of New York vs. Los Angeles vs. Atlanta, but has transcended geography in recent years. The proliferation of social media has removed the debate from the fanboy message boards of yore and taken it directly to the average music fan. You might not care about the early Def Jux years or what Fat Beats means to New York hip hop, but there’s definitely someone out there willing to rant about it. Profess your love for 2 Chainz or Chief Keef and prepare for a torrent of dissent. Walk on eggshells when you pass over Roc Marciano on your end lists.
You see I was one of those dudes for the entirety of my high school years, scoffing at the “lesser” hip hop the majority of my classmates indulged in. A firm believer in the underground, independent and DIY, I idolized labels like Def Jux, Duck Down and Rawkus, Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein and Madvillain’s Madvillainy. I still look back on that period of my music fandom with mixed feelings. I delved into a specific type of music like never before, but I also abandoned any semblance of self-awareness. In the end, I was just another abhorrently loud voice in a growing sea of self-important voices.
Like most of the internet’s debate arteries, “mainstream vs. underground” hip hop is acerbic as hell and leaves little middle ground or gray area to hold onto. The truth is that the Stones Throw devotees and Mike Will addicts aren’t so different after all. Due to a number of shifts in the hip hop landscape, some glacial and some instant, rappers and producers from distant backgrounds and with divergent sounds are increasingly coming into contact with each other. This collision has played out in many ways.
Hit the jump to read on…
After Soulja Boy’s initial rise to fame in 2007, the primordial Ice-T scolded the young producer and the dance craze he invented, going as far as to say the 17 year old “single-handedly killed hip hop.” Supporters and haters filed onto both sides of the aisle, mouthing off on blogs, Twitter and message boards. The “beef” was the boiling over point of a long-running dialogue between (mostly) New York rappers and hugely popular Southern MCs like Lil’ Wayne, T.I. and Young Jeezy. RZA once said that “the South has evolved later than us” while Bricksquad affiliate OJ Da Juiceman was booed off the stage during a performance at New York’s CMJ Fesival. The stereotypes about Southern rappers were simple: dumb, flashy and image based. Southern rappers supposedly lacked the complexity and work ethic of their Northern or West Coast counterparts. There were exceptions of course, Outkast and Geto Boys to name a few, but the large majority of artists from Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis and Houston were largely denigrated. Even UGK, who most East Coast fans have embraced at this point, were looked down upon in the 90’s. In the immortal words of Mr. Kate Rothschild aka Jay Electronica, “when New York niggas was calling southern rappers lame.” The New York attitude was surely elitist, but had some merit with regards to the hugely popular crunk and snap movements. That being said, those sounds were only tenuously based in hip hop’s original mold.
Part of the New York superiority complex probably had a lot to do with insecurity. Rap’s poles were changing and the South was the place to be. Timbaland and The Neptunes, while not technically from the South (Virginia Beach), had a stranglehold on the radio and guys like Wayne and T.I. were selling millions of albums amidst the record industry’s precipitous decline. New York rap, on the other hand, was in a confusing stage and some of its premier stars were falling off. 50 Cent was in a marked decline post-The Massacre, Dipset faced internal turbulence, while Nas turned out what might be his worst effort in Street’s Disciple. New York was in turmoil and the strip club anthems and nursery rhyme raps of the South were an easy target. While the North vs. South debate came to a fever pitch with the Soulja Boy/Ice-T scuffle, it was largely irrelevant only months later as record sales continued to decline and the internet increasingly democratized the music landscape. As the North/South divide slowly receded from hip hop’s conscious, a newly fabricated, and equally contentious dialogue was struck up that has generally pitted aging traditionalists against the millions of teenage fans that listen to rap radio, (sometimes) buy albums and make up the majority of the hip hop/R&B listening public.
The “death of the music industry” or whatever is usually taken as undeniable fact and while certain parts of the story are exaggerated, the decline in record sales and solubility of traditional labels in recent years cannot be overstated. The results and reactions of and to this vast decline are far more interesting to this discussion than the decline itself though. With the decline in record sales has come a realization that very few musicians will actually be able to make a solid living by solely making music. Touring and merchandising are no longer ancillary money making ventures and now often take the place of traditional label (independent or major) releases. As a result, Kendrick Lamar selling 241,000 copies of good kid m.A.A.d city in its first week in stores was a HUGE deal. Keep in mind that just four years prior, Lil’ Wayne’s Tha Carter III sold over one million times in its first week in stores.
Instead of going through traditional publicists, many hip hop artists are now utilizing the internet’s wide-spread reach to spread their music around to new fan bases. One consequence of this is that widely divergent artists from across the United States (and world to a certain extent) are essentially striving for the same fans. Heems and 100s are from opposite corners of the country and come from entirely different backgrounds, but are by and large covered by the same coterie of blogs and writers. While many “mainstream” rappers have six or seven figure deals and major label organizational backing, they’re often as reliant (or at least were previously reliant) on the promotional powers of the internet. It’s hard to imagine 2 Chainz and Danny Brown fighting for the same fans, but look back a few years and they’re not so different after all.
While it’s difficult to compare radio rappers with their chip on the shoulder underground counterparts, equality on the production side of things is fairly simple. Anyone, and I mean anyone, can be a producer these days. The effort and time it takes to download a cracked copy of Fruity Loops or Ableton is minimal and the amount of underdeveloped beatsmiths hitting Soundcloud and Bandcamp is often overwhelming. Nonetheless, the overall quality of hip hop production has risen as a whole in no small part because of the proliferation of cracked software. Large, expensive studios are pretty much obsolete in 2013 (and have been for several years), replaced by the “bedroom” setup of a laptop and (maybe) a keyboard. Whether your Jay-Z or obscure rapper _______, you’re probably rapping on at least a few beats made solely on a computer. In this vein, fans and writers who knock Lex Luger and Mike Will knockoffs need to take a step back and realize just how many mediocre J Dilla and DJ Premier stans have flooded the internet. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether someone is sampling The Isley Brothers or drawing stock hi hats from FL Studio, a producer either has it or they don’t.
While the production field has been generally leveled, antagonism between fans is still at a fever pitch and doesn’t look to be dying down any time soon. Amidst the vitriol, a fascinating phenomenon has arisen that belies all of the “end of regionalism” talk, a major theme in hip hop journalism over the past few years. A new category of rapper, unfit for the stodgy tastes of the “underground” and without a big enough hit or the label backing to garner attention from the “mainstream”. Artists like YG and Kevin Gates have been incubating in their respective hometowns of Los Angeles and Baton Rouge for years now and have massive local fan-bases. Neither has a major hit although the former’s “I’m Good” and the latter’s “Satellite” have come close. Gates is the biggest thing to come out of Louisiana since Lil Boosie, and before that Lil Wayne, while YG is the heir apparent to Los Angeles club rap. Instead of YG and Gates getting castigated like their more high profile contemporaries, they are largely ignored by the internet crowd. As I note above, neither has churned out a track big enough to reach the national stage although they clearly have the mic abilities, style and production to do so. They’re an anomaly in rap and play an increasingly important roll in grounding the genre in the locales from whence it came.
Stream: Harry Fraud – “Mean” feat. French Montana & Action Bronson
By my estimation, more and more collaborations between traditionally underground and mainstream rappers are occurring every year. Just take the recent Harry Fraud production “Mean”, which features Action Bronson and French Montana. Two artists who could not be more diametrically opposed appear on the same track and against all odds; Mr. Pop That and Mr. Duck Confit actually gel! Fraud falls somewhere in the middle ground between the underground and mainstream camps obfuscating the matter even further. To add to the confusion, the song was released as part of Scion’s A/V series, a development that should raise hair on any “real” head’s neck. Despite fears of the corporate overlords co-opting and succinctly destroying hip hop, it still exists! Amazing, I know. Which brings up the point of this whole convoluted essay: why are we all fighting?! If you don’t like a certain artist, that’s on you, but why do so many hip hop fans feel the need to verbally defecate on other fans because they listen to more party oriented music? This is the root of much of the antagonism in the rap community and often results in offensive (and sometimes racist) sentiments on both sides of the fabricated divide. This shouldn’t be necessary, but can’t we all just get along?
-A reformed hater