In an age where music piracy is the shit, and streaming services are in overabundance, independent hip-hop artists are on equal footing with mainstream artists to spread their work and gain popularity. Labels and distribution teams could gradually become a thing of the past, as the internet steps in to take their places in the industry. Some of the biggest names of our generation made their way to the top through streaming services, and an endless string of artists follow behind them. From Chance the Rapper, 21 Savage, and Noname Gypsy, to Topaz Jones, Mick Jenkins, and Goldlink, musicians are making their debuts on platforms like Soundcloud, Spotify, and Apple Music. In making their music available online, and in many instances, available for free, independent artists are able share their music with the masses without fear of copyright or contract issues. This gives smalltime artists a huge leg up, without having to sign with labels, or shell out huge amounts of money for distribution teams.
Honestly, I’m a huge fan of the independent hip-hop industry. It produces music with integrity and ingenuity, as artists step away from the mainstream music scene. In order to gain a unique “edge,” independent hip-hop artists often experiment with previously unheard sounds and samples. This potentially creates oceans of change, giving rise to new ideas and sub-genres within hip-hop itself. Take Chance the Rapper, small time independent Chicago-born rapper turned industry favorite. The man hybridizes gospel and hip-hop, producing uplifting, beautiful, and powerful tracks. Topaz Jones @TopazJones, the New Jersey raised NYU alum, fuses old school funk riffs with hip-hop beats, throwing lyrical flow over the top. If you’re still not convinced, think of GoldLink, who produces tracks of unparalleled quality, despite operating almost exclusively off of Soundcloud. The capacity for change within the independent hip-hop ‘verse knows no limits, due to the skills and innovation of independent musicians. Their abilities give them recognition, which gives rise to popularity, power, and visibility. Their stylistic differences bleed into the mainstream, and with time, change the industry.
Artists without labels, who have to spread their music through unique channels, are major driving forces behind change in the industry. Even before the internet, underground rappers who grew in popularity were ultimately able to revolutionize hip-hop during their time. Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, fucking Tupac; all started off label-less and underground. Their skills gave them the visibility they deserved, which allowed for them to be as influential as they were. Despite starting off underground, however, artists often sign with major labels once they have the proper financial backing. While this does have benefits, such as additional production resources, corporate reach, and financial access, it also brings legal responsibility and consequence along with it. Labels create hoops to jump through, quotas to meet, and people to please. They can dampen the creative capacity of an artist, especially if the label is full of assholes.
Underground artists therefore live in a delicate balance; juggling fame, fortune, and influential power. You can’t have them all, because sadly, we live in a world where the illusion of legitimacy is only obtained through corporate validation. You can’t be a good rapper unless everyone says you are. Your music doesn’t mean shit until everybody is buying it. Unless of course, you’re Macklemore or G-Eazy, who have somehow managed to become famous despite having little to no actual talent. Which fucking sucks for everybody. via NYULOCAL
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