The Now of Rap Music and What it Means for the Rest of Us

Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, Lil B and Die Antwoord are all rappers who have proven that you don’t need the support of major labels or other industry figureheads to be successful. You can do it on your own; you just need to make your work visible online and collect the support of others. This is a radical idea and one that has important implications for the future of other artists on the web.

Odd Future is a young collective of rappers, singers and producers from Los Angeles. Over the past few years they’ve released several mixtapes and albums for free on their website and have, as of late, blown-up around the music industry. There are several reasons for this: their fresh style, which is highly confrontational; their raw talent, their punk rock-inspired live shows, which are all rowdy, all the time, and their effective use of the web.

For them, it came together wonderfully in an effort to spread the Odd Future name. Over a year ago they were relatively unknown; now, they’ve been tweeted by the likes of Kanye West (he called Tyler the Creator’s “Yonkers” the best video of 2011, so far), been featured on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and played large festivals such as Coachella … all without being signed to a label. (Of course, many of them now have contracts).

Lil B is a rapper from the Bay Area who is well-known for his crazy stream-of-consciousness freestyling (what he calls BASED freestyles) and for writing rhymes about anything and everything. He refers to himself as a faggot, a princess and a pretty bitch; he says that he looks like Jesus, Ted Danson and John Madden; he raps about Justin Bieber, turning into a vampire and wonton soup. Really, there’s nothing he won’t say, and that’s part of the appeal.

He’s also Soulja Boy’s protege; he’s using his massive web presence—at one point, he had over 150 Myspace accounts—to claim his spot in the industry. It isn’t just the ridiculous lyrics and relentless self-promotion that makes him popular, though. His recorded output is unprecedented: he has released several free albums and mixtapes (one released in February had 676 songs on it) and is constantly uploading new music to his website. He’s silly, but surprisingly talented with some unique flows and beats.

As with Odd Future, it seems that just over a year ago, no one was aware of Lil B; now, he’s everywhere, even making appearances on MTV. He now has a multi-album deal with Amalgam Digital, has played sold-out shows in New York City and, in what is a big win for him, recently released a track where he’s backed by hip-hop artist Jean Grae and producer 9th Wonder.

Die Antwoord are the odd-group out in this lot, but they still make sense to me in a scene of rap artists who have made an impact using only their wits, talent and the Internet. They’re from Cape Town, South Africa and are comprised of MC Ninja, hype girl/ backing vocalist Yolandi Visser and DJ Hi-Tek. When their introductory video “Zef Side” hit YouTube in 2009, people had no idea what to make of them. Who was the guy with the obnoxious tattoos and why was he talking about making “next-level beats” with a “PC computer?” What was with the girl’s fucked-up haircut? Was it a joke, an attempt at a meme, or something to be taken seriously?

After several million views of the video (and even more for their first single “Enter the Ninja,” which features Leon Bartha and his amazing artwork), it didn’t matter if Die Antwoord was a joke or if they were serious; it’s undeniable that, either way, they are talented. (For the record, they are a conceptual group, embracing what they call “the zef,” and they are to be taken seriously). Having stormed the Internet with their YouTube videos and 2009 self-released, freely available album $O$, they caused a bidding war between EMI Wordlwide and Interscope Universal over rights to the album. (Interscope won).

In the span of about one year, they went from total obscurity to having a major label record deal (the official release of $O$ peaked at 109 on the Billboard Charts), making their U.S. debut at Coachella and collaborating on-stage with Aphex Twin at the London Electronic Dance (LED) Festival in 2010. The personalities of Die Antwoord had been cultivated over years, the final result of several other music projects; it just took this combination of traits (and some great music videos) for the world to notice.

One of the ideas that ties these groups together is their bigger-than-life personas: kids from LA joyriding across the country, taking advantage of every opportunity; a guy from the Bay Area who thinks he’s the swaggest around; rave-rappers from South Africa who are ruled by “the zef” and tell naysayers to fuck off. Their success did not create these personalities, but rather, the personalities created the success.

The most important idea proven by these groups is that if you have good ideas, talent that others believe in and the ability to put your name out in the world, you can succeed with little outside influence. You can be yourself and be successful. That’s the difference between these artists and others who are discovered on YouTube/ the Internet.

To cite the obvious example, Justin Bieber the twelve-year-old kid would have never become Justin Bieber the seventeen-year-old pop icon without intervention by his manager and record executives. Odd Future, Lil B and Die Antwoord found their place in the industry on their own and could, if they wanted to, certainly continue on their own and maintain their popularity. There is no need for someone to push them a contract and say, “let me make you a superstar.” In rap music, there are many “rags to riches” stories, but few where artists can say they did most of it on their own.

Where do we go from here? The success of these groups has wide implications for artists—and not just musicians— everywhere. We’ll get more YouTube/ Internet musicians who can stand on their artistic values and laugh at record companies (if they want to), as long as fans are willing to back them. We’ll get writers who write what they want and how they want, as long as people are willing to embrace the work. We’ll get designers who create our world the way they would like to see and live in it, as long as the rest of us believe in their vision.

We’re living in a moment where the level of success can be determined almost solely by the artist; it’s a moment where one can create and, if they’re talented and wise, turn that creation into success. Now, for the first time, it is only a matter of wanting this type of success, as we all have the ability to achieve it. TC mark

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  • YO

    first

  • Uhnonnymus

    DIY is new?

    • http://twitter.com/joshliburdi Josh Liburdi

      not at all, but the type of success that is resulting from it is.

      • http://twitter.com/chantzerolin Chantz Erolin

        I disagree, Josh. I think there is something notable about these new DIY stories and the particular aesthetics they appeal to, but blogs were blowing up rappers on DIY before lil b/ofwg. Drake, The Cool Kids and all them made big moves without labels, too. They were probably on some blog shit in different ways than OF and Basedgod, though. And Die Antwoord really is the odd (pun?) one out in this, being that they're performance artists doing characters and this is just another act for them. The DIY rapper shit is unique in lilbandgolfwang in that they're (more or less) just sincere kids getting crazy shine.

      • http://twitter.com/joshliburdi Josh Liburdi

        thanks for the response, good input here. I suppose now the method through which this all happens is just much more transparent; one does not necessarily have to read blogs to be aware of some of these artists. I think we're at a point where people are able to embrace DIY on a mass scale with little effort, which is amazing.

        not sure I entirely agree with the example of Cool Kids (I don't think their level of success is on par with the rest mentioned, but we all define that differently), but Drake is a good one to bring up. sometimes I forget where that guy came from and that he wasn't always Young Money. although people were aware of him for other reasons (wheelchair dude in that one show).

        I guess, overall, the runaway DIY success story isn't new, but it seems like it's becoming more prevalent.

      • http://twitter.com/chantzerolin Chantz Erolin

        yes.
        I think the cool kids are important here, because they do exemplify a kind of failure in this new transparency of DIY. From what I understand, when they signed at the height of their hype, the label is what really fucked them in not letting them release music of their own accord. Which is probably another story entirely in terms of labels adjusting to the blogosphere hype-machine. XL seems to have it kind of figured out in signing tyler for Goblin, and JUST Goblin, and letting him do whatever he wants. I could see extremely short term contracts with little to no artistic control (on the part of the label) becoming what keeps these blown up DIY artists afloat and protects labels from the trend hopping of fickle internet fanbases.
        Not to say I think wolfgang's going to disappear after Goblin or that I predict its failure or anything.

  • http://jimmychenchen.com/ Jimmy Chen

    wonder if…nah…

    http://www.southdacola.com/blo

  • gb

    How dare you. Justin Bieber would never have even had a manager or record executives if it wasn't for youtube / twitter.

    • Charles

      Was going to comment on this. Alright, he might not be the biggest name in the world currently without the record labels, but his presence in the industry would still be fairly large and undeniable.

      • http://twitter.com/joshliburdi Josh Liburdi

        I think it's likely he would have been just another kid on YouTube who can sing really well and that's it; but really, there's no way to know. This is just how things have played out. I think Bieber is sweet, though. Next-gen Justin Timberlake in the making.

  • cooltop

    icp for hipsters

    • http://twitter.com/joshliburdi Josh Liburdi

      I would like to hear more on this.

    • Hotmail

      Thank god people insist on labeling things they don't like or understand. Insightful conversation enders like “icp for hipsters” is just the kind of gem that lets me know it's time to find someone else to talk to.

  • http://twitter.com/brownnnbear Jocelyn

    lil' b was part of the bay area rap group called the pack who had a pretty decent hit with 'vans' in like 2007. they were a huge success on myspace & b has ran with internet promotion ever since.

  • yrmomsbff

    To title this piece “The Now of Rap Music” is really overstating. OF, Lil' B, and (especially) Die Antwood are very specific niches of the rap genre. To say that they ARE rap music, is not only false but sincerely depressing.

    Rap and hip hop have been “grassroots based” since the very beginning. Freestyling at shows, selling mixtapes outside of car trunks…. the internet is just a second platform to market oneself

    And the reason OF and Lil B are able to do most of it on their own because they have the cash to blow. Not holding it against them or saying it diminishes their craft or anything, but having a lot of cash is makes it significantly easier for an artist to build one's own career

    • http://twitter.com/joshliburdi Josh Liburdi

      I don't believe that I said that “they are rap music”; these rappers are just clear (and interesting) examples of current artists who are gaining popularity in this way and on their own terms. they represent, along with the other rappers Ben mentioned, a new generation (the “now”) that can achieve these things in a different way, regardless of their niche.

  • Ben Leach

    The same could be said for Das Racist, Big Sean, J Cole, Curresy, Mac Miller, Wiz Khalifa. I think the internet is the only way to get popular anymore. Labels are only becoming obsolete which is cool in a way I guess. That's why we see so much more weird shit in “rap music.”

  • http://twitter.com/nathanwolfkahn Nathan Wolf Kahn

    ITS SUPER IMPORTANT TO NOTE
    that as rap music becomes more and more mainstream, its fanbase becomes undeniably whiter and more affluent. OF was first picked up by WIRED magazine. not some underground rap groundswell sort of thing. i saw them live and it was something two hundred white kids yelling out the word nigger every time tyler did. is it just me or is that a little reminiscent of black dudes performing jazz for white audiences at segregated clubs?

    • http://twitter.com/joshliburdi Josh Liburdi

      love this comment.

    • Hotmail

      I think this sort of thing constantly goes both ways. I live in a majority white neighborhood and about half the kids at my local skate park are black. They also subscribe to the skater lifestyle in its entirety (music/dress/language).

      • http://twitter.com/nathanwolfkahn Nathan Wolf Kahn

        this is totally true and i thinks its evidence of true cultural diffusion (like yoyoma playing for some black dude breaking in DC) but there seems to be more shitty ass racial mockery/copying a la mac miller.

  • dhth
  • http://staugustine2.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

    Even as you read this article, the Middle Men (aka record labels, publishers, etc) are conspiring to take it all back. The Internet which liberated the Talent from the Suits is not a forever thing. Download as much free shit as you can, as soon as you can, and hard-copy some of your chat logs and profile pages so you can tell your grandkids what this amazing free-for-all was like. Not that they'll believe you or anything…

  • http://hbgwhem.tumblr.com/ HBGWHEM

    these hip hop articles on TC are always a car crash.

    • http://twitter.com/joshliburdi Josh Liburdi

      why?

    • Suzanne Lindgren

      So write a better one.

  • Meanmoneymike

    Odd Future has two managers, both of which arewere heads of urban music at Interscope. Do some research. How DIY is that?

  • PKushY

    Uh, you basically summarized these groups careers, and failed to relate in any way “what this means to us”… wack writing if you ask me, BECAUSE there is MUCH better hip-hop music out right now at the moment, clearly you haven't heard it though.

  • Lindsey-lu

    hey josh – what about Johnny Polygon? thoughts?

    • Lindsey-lu

      just curious if you've heard of him. he did something similar to what you describe in your article

    • http://twitter.com/joshliburdi Josh Liburdi

      sorry for the late comment, wish there was a way to get comment updates for my articles. i haven't heard of johnny polygon, but i will check him out. is he worth listening to? what would you recommend?

      • lindsey-lu

        i do get comment updates for this article, wierd that you don't.  all you have to do is click the subscribe to comments box when you leave a comment.  anyway, johnny polygon is great!  he was indy, then he had a deal with green lantern, and now he's indy again.  he had a song on  the grand theft auto sound track, he's on nas's black president song (and preformed it on bet the night obama got elected), he's played sxsw the last couple years, he's in one of kid cuddi's videos and kid cudi is on one of his albums, he did a remix of an adele song… so yeah, he's makin it.  annnnnnd he's from my home town, so of course i love him :)

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