Knowledge Darts Vol. 30: Why Underground Rap Will Never Die

Recently DJ Z of DJ Booth wrote a piece titled “Underground Hip Hop Is Dead—Welcome To The Mainstream,” which had quite an interesting premise. He asserted that because of streaming services, real-time social media and the wide proliferation of the Internet that suddenly the concept and the reality of what is considered “underground Hip-Hop” no longer exists merely because you can possibly use these outlets to reach/build an audience without needing to sign to a label. Any “underground hip hop head” or “backpacker” can tell you this has been the case for 20 years now. The only difference was back in the days the internet used dial-up, so it was relatively slow and you could only be on for hours at a time without your service being interrupted.

Underground Hip Hop and the Internet went hand in hand. The emergence of sites/outlets like Sandbox Automatic, Underground Hip Hop, Fat Beats, 88HipHop, HipHopSite and others only helped to grow the reach of indie/underground Rap, graf videos, B-Boy videos, DMC/ITF/Vestax turntablism videos, mixtapes, Rap battle VHS tapes, graf magazines and underground Hip Hop magazines. The internet made it possible for people who didn’t live in metropolitan centers or college towns with places to experience underground Hip Hop culture firsthand to be able to find people with similar interests not only near them but across the globe. The underground grew and changed as the speed of communications technology increased exponentially with each passing year. Even as the P2P sites increased in number and everyone was burning CDs of mp3s they’d just downloaded, the major label system and the RIAA still managed to survive.

The DJ Booth piece maintains that because certain artists are able to maintain a certain reach without needing a major label or being tethered to any particular corporate entity that means they can’t be considered “underground” anymore. Problem is that’s not the case for everyone and the underground is still a very real thing regardless of how much the lines have been blurred by technology. The mainstream music industry is still a very real corporate machine that controls as much as it can and actively attempts to suppress what they don’t. In this space, things are so chaotic and up in the air labels rush to sign or latch themselves onto whatever is deemed “hot” even when they don’t know why it’s hot. Everyone not signed to a label isn’t necessarily “independent” and every undiscovered rapper that’s bubbling is making what can be considered “underground hip hop.” To make a blanket statement suggesting as much is ridiculous.

There are numerous emcees and rappers who—regardless of which publications herald them, no matter what kind of “mainstream” looks or gigs they get, no matter how many followers they have on Twitter, Instagram and Spotify, how many subscribers their podcast has on iTunes or how many people watch their vlogs on YouTube—will always be underground. I’ve been a backpacker since 1991 and I don’t give a fuck if I became the next Jeff Bezos, I’d still be underground like one of the motherfucking Morlocks.

Does the underground appear exactly like it did back in 1997, 2002, 2007 or 2012 in 2017? Hell no. We’re living in exponential times so that simply won’t be the case, but like Albert Einstein once said, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be changed from one form to another.” But if you look at the situation through numbers and statistics as opposed to using the tried and true eye test it’s quite easy to make such a mistake.

As someone who is deeply entrenched in underground Hip Hop and the indie Rap community, seeing an article state that the underground is the new mainstream gives me a hearty chuckle. There are outlets that flat out refuse to post or showcase certain artists because they won’t bring in a certain amount of traffic or viewership. This includes ones that supposedly cater to what’s “underground,” just because you can build your own audience independently doesn’t mean there isn’t still a huge corporate system that exists which you need to navigate. The sole purpose of these machinations is to make sure you stay “underground.” Whether it be because you oppose the status quo and the existing control system, or because your music isn’t whatever “they” consider “hot” now—you’re down here. Someone might occasionally break through and change the aesthetic but that doesn’t automatically change reality for everyone else fighting to break through the noise.

It doesn’t matter how much the Internet has supposedly democratized things, making it possible for people to get their art to the masses. Corporate entities will still be involved in some capacity or another at some point. What we considered being “independent” today has evolved to reflect the present state of flux within the music industry, but the underground can never disappear. And we can’t say the underground is mainstream now because that is flat-out bullshit. If the underground was truly integrated into the mainstream then there’d be no need for me to write pieces like “Fanatic Of The C Word” anymore. We wouldn’t be able to complain about year-end lists cherry-picking what “independent” and “underground” Rap albums fit their particular agendas to include versus the ones they completely ignored. You don’t get to police or decide who or what is or isn’t “underground” solely because a particular artist or group of acts found ears or eyes beyond the typical “underground” audience. That’s simply not the case for everyone else in their same (underground) space.

The internet can’t kill the underground. The underground existed before the internet, and in fact the underground is the reason hip hop as a culture still exists at all. When B-Boying was killed in the mainstream by one of the earliest incidents of “cool hunting” on record back in 1985, it had to go underground for a full decade before it exploded on the mainstream stage again between 1995 and 1997. As intrigued as the mainstream was with the DJ scratching records in the early ’80s, turntablism going underground then later re-emerging at the same time as B-Boying wasn’t by accident. It was largely due to the fact that Web 1.0 exploded between the years of 1995 and 1997 and began to evolve into the Web 2.0 model that further allowed the underground to flourish.

Anyone who thinks the underground can be killed by the internet clearly forgot the fact that without the underground there’s no creative advancement, evolution or growth happening—period. Both the internet and hip hop/rap depend on the underground. It’s a symbiotic relationship that constantly changes with the times. One will never kill or cancel out the other, no matter what happens externally.

DJ Z finished his controversial piece by writing: “This might be tough for many hip-hop artists and fans to wrap their heads around, but in 2017, the underground is the new mainstream. For those that have always pushed back against anything mainstream, this notion is certainly going to take some time to get used to, but trust me, the music sounds way better now.” Does some of the music sound better? Yes. Does the mainstream rap industry/machine still exist? Yes. Does it still suppress the overwhelming majority of what we consider to be indie/underground rap? Yes. Does the status quo seem to be dissolving any time soon? NO. Those facts alone render whatever DJ Z wrote null and void.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the spirit in which the article was written, and the hope that it would spark discussion/debate—which it did. But by using metrics and numbers alone to draw the conclusion that the underground and the mainstream are somehow melding together is akin to printing an article stating we’re in a “post-racial America” because a black man was elected President Of The United States for two straight terms. Racism still exists. The underground still exists. Neither one will never die. Remember this for the future. Are we finished?

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