The voracious appetite for ‘buzz’ on social media sites is taking its toll on hiphop artistry says Andrew Nosnitsky
Nine years ago I started a blog about rap music because I felt that interesting artists and scenes were not being properly represented in the media. (Also because I was incredibly bored, but for the purposes of this article we’re going to focus on the more noble motive.) It wasn’t the first hiphop blog, but I think it might have been the first to share hiphop MP3s on a daily basis. For a few years, that’s all any blogger did – we shared music and discussed. There were no goals or expectations or stakes or financial gain, and I think I learned more about music in those early blog years than I did in all the other years of my life combined. But somewhere between then and now the rap music blog circle became a self-contained industry. Money came in, perceived power bred and multiplied, influence was pantomimed to the point where it almost willed itself real and, of course, quality suffered. We toppled the old oligarchy of major label hype and lapdog, ad-courting print magazines, only to build an even faultier system in its place.
The principal currency in this new blog economy is buzz. Buzz is a thing that is almost completely imagined, which everyone desperately wants to have or be near. And this thing that doesn’t exist is most valuable if you’re around it before anyone else. Amateur and ‘professional’ bloggers alike fight to get in on the ground floor with the next Next Big Thing. In their rush, they tend to reward a strong narrative (a teenager on house arrest! An Australian immigrant who loves Tupac!), scandalous talking points (homophobia! Homosexuality?! White girls who say the N-word!) or superficial aesthetics (kids who are good at Photoshop! Kids who are good at Final Cut! White girls who may or may not say the N-word but who look like fashion models so either way it doesn’t matter!) over historically valued musical pursuits like hit records or good records or great records.
The reward in this game of firsties is one of bragging rights, mostly. Yet the theoretical perks can be very high. Attach yourself to the right act early enough and you'll be granted access and attention from the artists and their growing fanbase. Maybe you'll even get an on-record namedrop. Attach yourself to the wrong one and nobody is going to notice when they disappear.
The leeching is reciprocal. Artists presume that the fastest inroad to superstardom involves landing on the right blogs, and thus they spend their days bugging people like me to check out their demo rather than working on their craft, networking with peers and leaving their house to find real fans. But these days they might be right. Once decoded, the buy-in for blog love is ridiculously low, with savvy PR and management firms using their brands and the more established acts on their rosters to convince content-eager and often ill-informed bloggers to let the new ones in the door.
It moves upward from there. Either out of comfort or disorientation, established critics increasingly take their cues directly from these smaller blogs, to the point that the time between a blog premiere of a virtually unknown young rapper and a feature in GQ or the New York Times style section can now be a matter of just weeks. Many of these artists will have their face on the cover of a national magazine before the average rap fan can even recognise it. They might be mistaken for models, not musicians.
The perpetually disconnected major labels sit at the end of the buzz line, throwing money at anything that moves. The money almost never comes back. Rappers who sign multimillion dollar deals on the strength of just one or two well shot viral videos inevitably end up sitting on the shelf when they prove completely incapable of producing the type of hit records that major labels demand. The kind of record that can be played and enjoyed outside of a glossy HD YouTube clip. Even the artists who had commercial or creative potential to begin with tend to wither in the light of the ego boost that comes from being blog darling at the end of a bidding war.
Consider Chief Keef, the aforementioned teenaged house-arrest rapper who currently attracts a good deal of buzz. Over the last year, Keef has become a legitimate street star in his hometown Chicago and could have built up a national celebrity à la Gucci Mane or Lil Wayne. Instead, his narrative rushed his infectious but under-polished Waka Flocka-inspired local hits into the peak of the internet hype cycle. Unexpectedly, the gossip site Gawker descended from its great height to declare him (without a hint of irony) “Hip Hop’s Next Big Thing”. Then Kanye West recorded a half-baked remix of his signature track “I Don’t Like”, and now every major label is begging for facetime with the kid. By giving Keef this instant attention, we’ve all but frozen his talent in the moment. Any creative momentum or professional hunger he possessed at first will almost certainly dissolve because, in his head, he’s already made it. I’d like him to prove me wrong, but I doubt he will. Write any 16 year old a million dollar cheque and see if his motivations still lie with artistry.
But all is not lost. The old model still exists and thrives, just more quietly than it used to. Contemporary street-minded artists like Future, 2 Chainz and Meek Mill are bigger rap stars than the even most visible of these blog darlings. They earned their fanbase and, eventually, their deals the old fashioned way: over months and years, through word of mouth, hole in the wall club dates, high and low profile collaborations and regional radio hits. The internet has, of course, played a role in their respective rises, but they tend to flourish in its less fashionable corners – video sites like Worldstarhiphop, mixtape hubs like Dat Piff, late night Twitter exchanges, YouTube clips with the bulk of their views coming from mobile devices. These sources are less easily navigated by the uninitiated and are mostly unconcerned with tastemaking. Or taste at all. The fans sort out the stars themselves, forcing the rest of the industry – cool-kid blogs included – to play catch-up later.
For decades, hiphop has been saddled with the old ‘voice of the voiceless’ tag. In theory, the genre gave under-represented populations a platform to express themselves on, relatively untampered. I don’t doubt for a minute that the internet as it currently exists helps to amplify that voice. With or without the big dog bloggers on their side, a talented rapper in any niche can reach their audience with relative ease and the best of them will find genuine success. The unfortunate by-product of this democracy, however, is that it enables a fair share of fame whores and low level hustlers who exist simply to get attention and cash in on it as quickly as possible. This is inevitable. What’s frustrating is the hype cycle’s ability to turn a genuine talent into one of these shameless short money grabbers.