Jason Garske aka Jay the Echo is a Hip Hop artist and producer from the Bay Area, California. He is interested in the utilization of music and other media as a vessel for social change. Visit his website to see his work.
‘Told you we ain’t dead yet, we been livin’ through your internet’: The Evolution of Hip Hop
Hip Hop Thriving Through Digital Media
In the 1970s, New York’s poorest areas were afflicted with a shrinking job market, diminishing affordable housing, and declining funding for social services (Ross & Rose 73-74). At the same time, elite corporate developers were using government strategies for gentrification, intensifying a state of class and race unrest (Ross & Rose 74). Hip Hop was born in this climate and became a primary outlet for the expression for black frustration with corporate greed and the establishment (Ross & Rose 71). However, as Hip Hop was adopted by the mainstream, it became embedded within the very structures that it claimed to rebel against. Now with the advent of social media, Hip Hop has been given a real platform to remain independent from the corporate structures that it challenges. This digital space provides the opportunity for Hip Hop to revert back to its origin as a grassroots, independent, and community-oriented culture.
Hip Hop as a Culture
Originating primarily from the underprivileged communities in New York like the South Bronx, Hip Hop culture was born out of an appropriative innovation that required little resources or training in order to participate [Rose xi]. This accessibility and rejection of specialization defined Hip Hop as a very distinct community rooted in the rebellion against the status quo. DJs and Hip Hop producers revolutionized the use of samplers and beat machines, making the sample sounds the centerpiece of the song rather than using them as a supplemental sounds in the place of real instruments (Rose 73). Hip Hop producers also revolutionized the act of sampling, effectively recontextualizing and appropriating sound from a record or tape machine by looping and electronically adding sounds to it (Rose 73). Because of this tradition of sampling Hip Hop required no training in traditional music theory practices, and was able to be picked up quickly by simply learning the techniques of ‘cutting’ records (Rose 65). In this way Hip Hop established itself as a genre that rebelled against the dominant culture’s standardized musical practices, defining itself as independent from the establishment. Also, the act of rapping itself also doesn’t traditionally require training or much preparation. This immediate accessibility facilitated a culture of widespread participation, often drawing inner-city communities together for block parties, breakdancing, graffiti art, freestyles, and cyphers (Rose & Ross 79).
Hip Hop as a Commodity
As Hip Hop grew in popularity, it became institutionalized by a business mind-set and became commodified as a product. In 1979, Independent music entrepreneur Sylvia Robinson released ‘Rapper’s Delight’, which caught the attention of the commercialized music, fashion, print media, and film industries who would capitalize on its genre’s growing popularity (Rose 3). Coming primarily from underprivileged inner-city areas like the Bronx, rappers didn’t usually have the skill sets or educational backgrounds necessary to facilitate the marketing, distribution, and legal business of their own music, and therefore had to rely on corporations. This led to a shift toward the commodification of rap, which gave it a mainstream presence as the music ownership reached the hands of primarily white business owners who turned the music into a product of mass production and distribution (Rose & Ross 83). Because mainstream American culture perceived and packaged Hip Hop as a product (Rose & Ross 83), Hip Hop became a new spectacle for its consumption, controversy, and admiration rather than a culture of participation (Jenkins 457). The traditions of the Hip Hop community were not transposed evenly with the music as it shifted towards a more mainstream context, resulting in the dilution of Hip Hop’s participatory elements and community feel.
The Hip Hop Community Reclaimed by Digital Space
Digital media has allowed Hip Hop to reclaim its grassroots element by providing a platform where artists can single-handedly develop their public portfolios. Before the digital/social media era, rappers who couldn’t afford a mass media presence had to constantly prove their abilities in person in order to keep up a solid reputation. Now, rappers can pre-emptively display to the world every recorded song, video, or freestyle that they have ever participated in before they are even asked to prove themselves. Also, content can be removed if it no longer lives up to the qualitative standards that the artist hopes to be associated with. This is especially useful for new artists who don’t have large fan bases and wish to change their image or artistic trajectory. For example, a rapper formerly known as K.i.D took down most of his old content (he left some of the popular songs up) and changed his name to KYLE. The internet allowed KYLE to perform a strategically-selective identity recall while allowing him to keep his subscribers. The artist can choose to weed out the duds while leaving the content that has received the most positive feedback, creating an illusion of consistent positive reception in the online community.
By providing a culture of sharing, validation, and participation, social media has allowed Hip Hop to reclaim, extend, and diversify its community focus. In the past, rappers would convene and trade freestyle verses primarily in the inner-city community. However, this cypher culture that used to take place on the street or in the park is now extended to digital space on sites like Youtube, where even those located geographically outside of a ‘Hip Hop’ community can share their rhymes and receive feedback in the form of a ‘like,’ ‘dislike,’ or comment. The comments sections found on just about every internet platform available allow for the audience to articulate input and become a satellite participant in the performer’s evaluation. When coupled with the ‘like,’ ‘favorite,’ or any form of reposting on social and digital media, these features provide quantitative feedback that can only be dispensed by the community. Strangers, followers, subscribers, and friends alike have the ability to decide whether or not content is worthy of positive reinforcement and proliferation.
The community feel of Hip Hop is further bolstered by the provision of a convenient way to facilitate and perpetuate fan culture. This is can be accomplished by bridging the gap between artist and fan through social media. Social media sites tend to have personal messaging components that allow for a level of intimacy between artist and fan. This provides the artist with the means to easily interact with their fans from an appropriate distance which also allows them the option of privacy. Artists can also promote enthusiasm in their fans through simple and convenient actions of encouragement. By reposting or ‘favoriting’ promotional fan material on Twitter for example, artists can encourage fans to continue to promote them and create an illusion of intimacy and validation. Fans interacting amongst themselves in digital space can also add to the community feel. Covers, critical reviews, parodies, and music blogs all thrive through their presence on social media. The controversy often sparked by reviews, blog posts, and comment-section debates fuel the continuation of fan culture’s discussion of the genre. Digital media also provides forms of subscription (‘following’, ‘liking’, ‘subscribing’, etc.), which allow artists to secure and maintain fans who may otherwise forget about them in a sea of internet content.
Methods of Independent Promotion
The dawn of the digital media era also created many opportunities for self-promotion, circumventing the need for help from major labels. Many artists cross media barriers in order to acquire the exposure of multiple fan-bases that all serve to support the artist’s pop culture presence. Donald Glover, also known by his stage name Childish Gambino, is a prime example of someone who dominates entertainment mediums. According to Wikipedia, he is a rapper, singer, songwriter, television writer, music producer, television producer, actor, voice actor and comedian. His work is found on: social media sites, Youtube, Netflix, television, and on the movie screen. A fan of one of his talents is likely to stumble upon some of his work in other genres or mediums of entertainment because he spreads his presence across a wide variety of pop culture media that touch on almost every electronic entertainment device. This diversity of presence allows Donald to acquire fans of multiple media texts, and this potentiality for compound fandom allows fans to entrench themselves deeper in admiration of Donald’s talents. A diversity of mediums also keeps the artist in the discussion of multiple entertainment spheres. While Donald stays relevant within the realm of comedy, he is also relevant to Hip Hop listeners and respected in the acting community as writer, actor, and producer. This allows him to reach different demographics of fans and create a compound fan culture around his media presence. It should be noted that Donald has been signed by Glassnote Entertainment Group (according to Wikipedia), an indie record label, and had help from established corporations such as NBC, Comedy Central, and Netflix. However, the point is that his use of many media is a tactic that independent artists may use, as digital media provides a multitude of different exposure opportunities that are accessible to the average American. While this is true, there is a dilemma that arises: when transcending genres and media barriers, how should artists present themselves when all types of exposure can affect the artist’s image?
An opposing presentation of one’s image across mediums can serve to create a more impactful experience for compound fans by highlighting the one’s versatility. As a comedian, Donald Glover’s image is silly, crass, immature and upbeat. However, when one listens to his musical discography, there are many songs such as ‘Outside’ that display extreme emotional complexity and intensity. A fan can watch Donald rattle off several ‘dick jokes’, and talk about an incident of his friend pooping in a Home Depot on his Weirdo stand-up routine. That same fan can then play his song ‘Outside’ where he raps about his mother handling the emotional baggage of getting robbed at gunpoint and trying but failing to shelter her six children from threats of violence. Another example of this is Chance the Rapper, who presents a silly and fun-loving image through his music. However, he stars as an emotionally depressed young man in Colin Tilley’s short film Mr. Happy. The image dissonance that Chance and Donald create with different media displays their artistic control over their crafts. Their acting abilities are emphasized to fans of their other work because the expectation that the fan projects onto them is reversed so drastically.
Internet media is also a place where fandom of many subcultures is entrenched, allowing artists to appropriate them by associating themselves with subcultural practices. For example, in the ‘Under the Influence Tour Training Camp’ video (posted by The Influence Tour Youtube channel) marijuana and porn culture are clearly displayed as a central themes of the video. It portrays many scantily-dressed young women, are depicted as subservient or as a source of pleasure to the men. This depiction of women creates an illusion of a heterosexual male fantasy lifestyle, which appeals to internet porn culture and presents a glorified portrayal of the rappers’ statuses as alpha males. The video depicts the rappers as participants in weed culture, appealing to those who identify with marijuana use. It also encourages this kind of behavior at the tour that the video is promoting, knowing that fans commonly use marijuana to enhance the experience of Hip Hop shows. While these rappers are supported by major labels, it isn’t their affiliation to a label that allows them to participate in this strategy. All that is needed is an understanding of subculture and a Youtube account.
One independent rapper that uses this strategy is KYLE, who broadcast his own participation in videogame culture in his ‘Super Duper Bloopers: King Wavy Tour’ video (posted by SuperDuperCrewTV Youtube channel). The video shows him and his tour team buying video games in Gamestop, where KYLE gets excited over one game in particular saying, ‘look at this shit, know how rare this shit is? Try and find this shit on EBAY.’ This humanizes KYLE to the public by displaying his interests and gives his video-game fans some common ground. To those who don’t care about video games, it is just another humorous moment in the charismatic video. Fashion culture is another common subculture that rappers take advantage of by promoting online clothing lines. Online clothing lines give fans from all over a way to express their fandom while directly supporting an artist.
Rappers can also take advantage of specific traditions that have developed through Hip Hop’s presence in digital media. For example, today’s up-and-coming rappers now face a rite of passage called the ‘Five Fingers of Death’ on Shade 45’s Sway in the Morning interview show which is circulated through social media. The test consists of the artist rapping over five Hip Hop instrumentals in a row, without warning as to when the DJ will switch instrumentals. The test evaluates a rapper’s versatility of different tempos, rhythms, and ability to adapt to change in the middle of a freestyle under pressure. Tests such as the ‘Five Fingers of Death’ operate as quality checks for rappers who are gaining notoriety, so success on the show comes with a lot of respect from the Hip Hop community. There are also many other interview shows that follow a similar model, and may have rappers freestyle ‘off the dome’ (impromptu rapping without any writing or preparation).
Another tradition that Hip Hop culture participates in involves receiving extremely personalized gifts from an eccentric man referred to as Nardwuar, while being interviewed. Without fail, Nardwuar knows a disturbing amount of personal information regarding each artist’s past and personal tastes, and he forms his interview questions and buys his gifts with this information in mind. Watching Nardwuar interviews is a quick way to learn about the personal interests and experiences of musicians. This strengthens the bond between fan and artist as each artist becomes humanized. Cyphering is another Hip Hop tradition that a lot of independent artists participate in for exposure and respect in the digital Hip Hop community. Teambackpack.net is a Hip Hop platform that posts videos of independent artists cyphering (cyphering involves several rappers rapping on the same beat in succession). Because it holds auditions, Teambackpack is established as a reputable way for Hip Hop enthusiasts to find talented up-and-coming rappers.
The online Hip Hop community often capitalizes on the notoriety of famous artists for their personal benefit. Novice Hip Hop producers who post their beats on Youtube commonly name their instrumentals after a famous person. This practice not only makes the producer’s work more likely to be found, but also it aids rappers who are searching Youtube for a specific style of instrumentation. Hip Hop’s competitive nature also endorses the direct challenging of competition. Hip Hop ‘beef’ usually involves an exchange of any number of songs between two rappers (or groups of rappers) in which the goal is to assert dominance over the other. However, both rappers tend to benefit from the attention that conflict attracts. During the digital media age, much of the debate about the ‘winner’ of these exchanges takes place online. The quantitative nature of social media feedback also provides a more definitive evaluation of the public’s opinion. While the comment section of social and digital media sites facilitates much of the discussion, hashtag trends and memes have become a deciding factor as well. Richard Dawkins first coined the term ‘meme’, defining it as ‘small units of culture that spread from person to person by copying or imitation’ (Shiffman 2). In a recent 2015 beef between Drake and Meek Mill, the issue essentially became a social media war between fan bases. Drake is more commonly held to be the victor mainly because his fans heckled and trolled Meek Mill with a flood of insulting memes.
Capitalizing on internet and social media trends can lead to exponential exposure. Some artists attempt to make themselves meme-able in order to get this exposure. In Drake’s Hotline Bling music video, he wears a turtleneck sweater in some camera shots, and dances like an old man for much of the video. Soon after releasing the video, Drake’s silly movements became trending iconography that was meme-ified by countless internet trolls, and even got a parody response from Saturday Night Live. Some artists nowadays attempt to make their songs trend by naming the song as a hashtag. Remixing one’s own popular songs or covering popular songs is also a common practice that takes advantage of previous popularity. For example, Rick Ross crossed genres and strayed from his usual aggressive demeanor just to cover Adele’s piano ballad ‘Hello’, which is an extremely popular song in America. There are also some trends such as #Fourbarfriday, where rappers can release a short video on Instagram of themselves rapping four lines. Taking advantage of such trends allows rappers to take short cuts, and put the promotion in the hands of social media sites that thrive on the interception of highly spreadable material (Jenkins & Gren et al. 4).
While Hip Hop’s spread through social and digital media has made it highly accessible, much of the cultural context of its origin is lost in its translation into digital space. Fewer and fewer Hip Hop participants fully understand its history as an art form that was born out of a sentiment of frustration in the resistance of oppression. As this process continues, the Hip Hop genre distinguishes itself from Hip Hop culture, as its ownership is spread to anyone who has internet access. Digital and social media provide the opportunity for Hip Hop to reclaim its origins, but whether or not Hip Hop will take full advantage of this is yet to be seen. More than ever, Hip Hop is becoming a willing victim of Capitalism’s innovative exploitation as the genre is transformed from its original context in black culture into a facet of dominant American culture. However, Hip Hop artists as individuals have never been more empowered, independent, and self-reliant due to their strategizing on social and digital media. Ultimately, the wise rap artist understands that the fate of Hip Hop’s general representation in American culture is in the volatile hands of social media trends and internet trolls.
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