Many of the personalities we spoke to credit different people and trends with helping to amplify underground rap during the 2000s. Little Tanners video games like Tony Hawk Pro Skater String to expose players to left-of-center sounds. He also shouts out at Murs’s Paid Dues to collect bills full of underground rappers from all over the country. Personalities like Kanye West and The Alchemist have advocated to bridge the gap between platinum artists and low-visibility works. Later, Nipsey Hussle had all the charisma of the mainstream rappers he collaborated with, but was determined to stay independent until he saw fit.
Nipsey had the device to do this successfully, with services like the iTunes Store. Apple has found a way to bundle free-to-all file-sharing entities like Napster and Limewire into an MP3 marketplace where songs and albums can be purchased digitally. Drew Ha says MP3 took the hassle out of paying retailers to take CDs that weren’t guaranteed to sell.
“The risk of going out with a product was, not only did you pay for the product and promote its release, you also had to take the risk of not selling it and returning it, because the music and CDs were being sold on consignment. When iTunes really took off, the MP3 game settled.” [the game], because all of a sudden you didn’t need 500 copies in the store,” he says. “Now, it’s just a matter of, can you get caught on iTunes?”
Dru Ha has seen a drastic transformation of the Duck Down company’s paradigm. “We literally watched it go from downloads which are 10 percent of our total sales. Then we watched it go down 20 and then 30, to the point where it was 50/50. It’s half physical and half digital, and when he started switching more to the download side, it was a lot All of us are happily willing to move our attention away from the physical side, because now we’re doing the numbers.”
Distribution was a major barrier for underground artists, but by this point, Boot Camp Clik, Rhymesayers, and other indie businesses didn’t have to bargain with distributors to get their CDs in stores anymore. They can upload their music and be instantly accessible like a major artist like Jay-Z or Kanye West. The lack of circulation was the basis for considering it underground, but this issue no longer existed, and that was the first moment that the term “underground” was reversed.
This trend continued when blogs like 2DopeBoyz, Illroots, FakeShoreDrive, Fader, Pitchfork, Rap Radar, NahRight, Smoking Section, Ruby Hornet, Pigeons & Planes, and more began posting artists of all kinds on a daily basis.
“I would say that blogs were a breed of magazines,” Slug asserts. “Magains were gatekeepers early on, and you could only be talked about in an actual print magazine if you had a propagandist. Well that shit was ridiculous. People were like, ‘Why damn I have to pay someone $2000 to get a few writings?’” written? He’s like, ‘Okay, so what about this? With these blogs, I can send nonsense to the blog right away. If they like it, they can post it. Tonic.'”
The blogger era made Sherri feel that the term “underground rap” wasn’t quite as applicable as it had been in previous years. Instead of music consumers having to search far and wide for some rap, they were overwhelmed by this music. Since blogs share all kinds of music, there was less awareness of the difference in status between an experimental artist on an independent label and a polished master like Wale or Kid Cudi. For young people in particular, who were unfamiliar with the previous industry model, it was all just a good rap.
“I remember one of the first things I thought of [about the blog era] “It used to be that the ‘artist working underground’ didn’t feel like working underground anymore, because if you talk about Blu & Exile or UNI, you’ll get to know it through blogging,” Sherry says. “Those were the same blogs that introduced you to Wale. After that, the volume wasn’t as big as it is now. But I think it was the beginning of feeling like there was a lot of music available. It was a lot. There’s a lot of choice. I’m not used to having to keep up with these releases.” many at once.
Much goes back to the blog age to change fan relationships with artists. Back in 1995, when a CD from an independent artist was only shipping 30 copies to the entire market, some of its buyers felt a human desire to keep the artist to themselves. The enigmatic artist was a secret beloved by fans. But that dynamic faded as a generation of fans used instant access to nearly all of their music.
“That moment was actually a reflection of the secret philosophy of the previous era,” Tanners says. “You are rooted For the artist you love. I wanted people to know about Kendrick Lamar. You probably wanted to get to know him first, but when he started showing up, I was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s happening.” As soon as Rocky, I was amazed when people started to recognize his music, because I knew it was a transformation.”
Not only did fans have more access to music than ever before, but aspiring rappers were also exposed to a range of influences in a way that previous generations of artists couldn’t. “I remember driving around the suburbs in 2011 listening to Underground folder. 1 with a friend of mine, and think about how cool it was that ASAP Rocky listened to the beginning of his Three 6 Mafia career and worked with SpaceGhostPurrp, like, ‘” says Tanners. “It didn’t feel like a perversion to me. It felt like a reverence.”
Now, these artists are sharing real estate on DSPs and playlists like Spotify’s RapCaviar, created by Tuma Basa in 2015 and now followed by over 14 million fans eager to hear artists from across the country. Current curator Karl Sherry credits RapCaviar with highlighting under-the-radar artists from the “SoundCloud rap” era, along with mainstream stars.
“RapCaviar typically features some of rap’s biggest stars, but has a history of supporting emerging artists and helping turn their songs into hits,” he says. “It supports artists who were considered underground – in the most modern sense – during the early stages of their careers such as Lil Uzi Vert, XXXtentacion or Juice WRLD.”
SoundCloud has hosted a still raucous scene of non-conformist, rock-influenced artists not interested in pleasing the masses — some of them just so happened to go platinum anyway. Many of today’s biggest acts unabashedly left center. Kendrick Lamar is one of the world’s best-selling rappers, and Dante Ross feels he embodies the classic perception of the underground rapper.
“If you think about the core of what ’90s underground rap was, Kendrick Lamar fits the bill,” Ross says. “He checks all the boxes: vocals, not drum-driven, skillful. So, he has more in common with the golden age than he probably does with southern rappers. So a lot of it counts as semantics to me.”
The Tanners share the same sentiments for Travis Scott, a Southern rapper who he feels embodies, “In our lives, the idea of something anti-cultural has completely evaporated. Travis Scott sells french fries right now,” he says, noting that his “dark aesthetic” “She would have been a severe scrape for McDonald’s at some point. “It’s the prototype for me of someone who could have been an underground artist,” Tanners confirms. “He could have been in Memphis setting records with Juicy J and DJ Paul in 1996, and he might have accidentally become a star.”