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How Free Culture Saved Hip-Hop in 2012

Jay-Z / Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Back in June, when David Lowery, the guy from Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, took on the so-called “Free Culture movement”— mostly in response to a 21-year-old intern at NPR admitting that she, like most 21-year-olds, got most of her music for free — I kept thinking, “Where does rap music fit into all of this?” It’s no surprise that an aging-out rocker would not consider hip-hop in his missive, but Lowery also teaches classes on the music business at the University of Georgia. I would hope that something, anything, about rap’s top-down embrace of free downloading culture might’ve popped up on his radar. I waited for most of 2012 for the discussion to turn to rap, and it never happened.

Not that I need to tell anyone reading this, but the narrative of rap music, since at least the middle of the 2000s, has been all about free download mixtapes. With record sales cratering, the major labels put the squeeze on their artists, forcing them to produce singles or go into a permanent label limbo. In response, rappers began releasing music for free or via a quasi-legal mixtape network. This music often afforded the artists a second career, and in some cases, pushed them into the mainstream or, at least, helped them make a name for themselves on rap blogs. Nearly every mainstream rap star of the past five years or so has built his or her reputation on free downloads. You know all of this already, though, right?

Hip-hop is also a rarefied case study in file-sharing, song-stealing, and all that because it has been battling “free culture” for longer. Bootlegging was a genuine problem in rap music. Comparisons between hand-to-hand bootlegging and free downloading is dicey, because the accessibility of free music online is so much broader than on-the-streets, out-the-trunk bootleg sellers, but the effect of physical piracy was significant pre-Internet. It screwed up people’s albums. Nas’ 1999 album I Am… was supposed to be a double disc until it became an early victim of Internet leaking; from torrents to mom-and-pop stores to weird dudes on the sidewalk, so went the new Nas record; then he put out a different album altogether. 

Jay-Z’s Vol. 3…Life and Times of S. Carter, was bootlegged before its release, leading to changes in the American tracklisting. The spin by Jay-Z at the time was that he was taking on the bootleggers. He also infamously stabbed Lance “Un” Rivera, who he believed was responsible for leaking the album. In 2004, when Danger Mouse’s Beatles/Jay mash-up, The Grey Album, became a music-dork phenomenon, Jay-Z spoke kindly of the project and took it as a compliment. That speaks to hip-hop’s nuanced understanding of free culture, bootlegging, and sampling. Both Jay-Z and Nas provide pre-Internet examples of how to deal with the problems inherent in bootlegging and free culture. They did not ignore it or throw their hands up in frustration; they kept it moving, and adjusted their product accordingly. Though, yes, Jay-Z did stab a guy over bootlegging, which is far more noxious and childish than, say, Metallica suing Napster.

In November, at Pitchfork, Damon Krukowski of Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi, wrote “Making Cents,” a reasonable and numbers-based wake-up call to those unaware of how little an artist benefits from streaming services like Spotify. It was the piece that David Lowery should have written. And Spotify, perhaps the most interesting part of this free-culture debate, was something Lowery spent just a paragraph or so addressing, as if its corruption were self-evident. I wouldn’t take Krukowski to task for not crowbarring rap references into his very personal essay. However, I remain shocked that the numerous responses to Krukowski’s piece didn’t find a place for hip-hop in the free-culture debate, either.

Two of the smartest responses to Krukowski, though, do help unpack rap’s curious role in free culture. The “creative crisis” in electronic music that Philip Sherburne diagnosed in SPIN’s Control Voltage blog (“Dance Music’s Creative Crisis: It’s Not Just Streaming”) hasn’t happened in rap music. Actually, quite the opposite has occurred. And Maura Johnston’s piece debunking the “touring solves everything” argument, while important, doesn’t apply to hip-hop quite yet. I am certainly guilty of preaching the touring economy and free-culture gospel. But for good reason, I think. It is only in the past few years that rappers have been able to hop onto festival bills and play small rock clubs with relative ease. If you’re in your teens or early twenties, you may not realize how, just a few years ago, even a fairly “conscious” rap show often included a heavy police presence and pat-downs at the door. 

Another way to look at hip-hop’s savvy embrace of touring and the Internet: Rappers are more used to the weird contingencies of the music industry than rock musicians. That which white privilege affords many white musicians is generally not taken for granted by most black artists. Most rappers are thrilled by the idea of doing shows for a few thousand bucks and not having to depend on shady promoters who may or may not pay them, and will probably hold them responsible for every broken bottle in the parking lot. They are also creatively invigorated by the opportunity to release their own music, separate from bottom line-obsessed, often rap-clueless record executives. 

As for Spotify, you won’t hear rappers mention the service very much. Primarily because their audience doesn’t use it the way rock fans do. This relates to the problematic changes to the Billboard charts, which now consider Spotify plays and iTunes downloads. When it comes to rap, iTunes and Spotify are months behind the curve. Those chart changes do very little to help identify what’s hot in rap music, because rap breaks and thrives on the free side of the Internet. Similarly, Spotify is a nice place to check out certain older rap albums and hear new major-label releases, but DatPiff is a more common place to identify what’s buzzing in the world of hip-hop. Perhaps, the R&B/Hip-Hop Billboard chart should consider downloads and plays from DatPiff, LiveMixtapes, and others.

I also think rappers are less apt to worry about Spotify’s pay-out system because hip-hop has a long, frustrating, but ultimately productive history when it comes to cash-grabbing, couldn’t-care-less-about-the-culture schlockmeisters paving the way for money to be made later on. Hip-hop’s business is not something rappers are ashamed of, or are looking to downplay. As a result, hip-hop has not been infected by the third- or fourth-generation punk and rock’n’roll ethos that has to pretend like money-making isn’t part of the game. And so the idea of complaining about not being paid by a business that has yet to make any money off your services probably sounds a little petulant.

All that said, rap music is beginning to feel the repercussions of Internet free culture. Frustrating copyright laws, as they pertain to sampling, keep hip-hop within the orbit of free culture where deception and under-the-radar, legal gray areas are necessary to make their art. Last year, even the world of free mixtapes got hit by out-of-date ideas of ownership, enacted by labels for sure, but musicians as well. In June, Mac Miller was sued by Lord Finesse when the frat-rapper beat-jacked “Hip 2 Da Game.” In August, Curren$y explained that his collaborative mixtape with Wiz Khalifa was delayed because of sample clearance concerns. It still has not been released.

In a post-Mac Miller vs. Lord Finesse world, rappers now have to cover their asses for sampling on free mixtapes, even?! This could have terrible ramifications on hip-hop, which went through a creative renaissance during the past few years, because it was safe to assume that music given away for free confounded copyright laws, or didn’t seem like a legal battle worth pursuing. In terms of creative freedom for beatmakers, the years 2008-12 were like late-’80s hip-hop before Gilbert O’Sullivan went after Biz Markie and sample-clearance became mandatory. The Internet’s Wild West approach to copyright law may stick around, but it will get harder and harder for high-profile artists to get in on the anything-goes fun. The quality of their work will undoubtedly suffer.

Last year also marked the year that major-label rap albums started to feel like fully-formed expressions and not by-committee clusterfucks of crossover and fanbase narrowcasting. It seems like the hit-grabbing nature of major-label rap finally ran its course, as we received excellent albums from Big K.R.I.T. (Live From the Underground), Kendrick Lamar (good kid, m.A.A.d city), and Chief Keef (Finally Rich). All arrived fairly uncompromised, and were arguably improvements on the artists’ mixtape releases. All three sounded expensive and expressive thanks to big budgets for mixing and mastering. Outside feedback on sequencing and songwriting made them rewarding listens. Yet they were undeniably the products of the rapper whose name was stuck on the front cover.

In particular, the Internet-ish qualities of Finally Rich are worth noting. The pre-song rant about Chief Keef on “Love Sosa” is pulled from a YouTube video of a fan excitedly talking about the rapper. And mindbending bonus track “Citgo” was produced by a beatmaker named Young Ravisu who was discovered by Keef when he searched YouTube for amateurs aping his drill style. “Citgo” even sounds a bit like Keef is simply rapping over the beat as it plays from his computer. The song’s a sloppy mixtape experiment stuck onto a major-label album. That’s a fascinating victory for Internet rap cracking the mainstream. Problems with Spotify and people “stealing” music can wait. For now, at least, artistic autonomy on the Internet and on major labels, plus the ability to finally tour with comfort, supersede the concerns of some alt-rock veterans who maybe had it a little better than they’re willing to admit.