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.