Digital Underground
SoundCloud has become a launchpad for hip-hop wunderkinds like Lil Uzi Vert and XXXTentacion to become Billboard No. 1 stunnas. But can the streaming platform survive as its stars depart for more profitable pastures?
Words: Sowmya Krishnamurthy
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

There was a time when the Tunnel was hip-hop’s place to be. Like the Pantheon in Ancient Rome, the legendary New York City nightclub was the definitive spot where rap heads worshipped in the 1990s. There was no VIP section; fans co-mingled with artists. With Funkmaster Flex on the turntables, records like Nas’ “Hate Me Now,” Jay-Z’s “Ain’t No Nigga” and The Notorious B.I.G.’s “One More Chance (Remix)” were broken there for the first time. Before the radio, before the music video, you heard it there first. It was raw, exciting and exclusive.

It’s been 25 years since that first party at the Tunnel. While the club’s doors have long been shuttered, a new breeding ground has emerged for the next big thing: SoundCloud.

Originating on the streaming platform of the same name, SoundCloud rap is music’s most controversial, disruptive and successful subgenre in recent memory. Breakout artists like Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Pump, XXXTentacion and Smokepurpp have amassed millions of plays by uploading music on their own—often without cosign from the larger hip-hop industry—and have become cult heroes in the process. They are inextricably connected to their fans—and to each other—in this close ecosystem.

Tabatha Fireman, Getty Images

There’s only so long that a good thing can be kept secret. Launched in 2007, SoundCloud now houses more than 180 million tracks; hip-hop is the dominant genre. Nascent artists have become hit makers with crossover appeal. Lil Uzi Vert released his first track on SoundCloud in 2014. Four years later, he was nominated for the prestigious Best New Artist award at the Grammys, bolstered by “XO Tour Llif3,” which has amassed over 174 million plays on SoundCloud. XXXTentacion also began uploading to SoundCloud in 2014—some tracks were merely random snippets. His sophomore album, ?, debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 chart in March 2018. A&Rs were in a mad dash to sign the next ascendant star and all three major labels have inked licensing deals with the streaming platform. But as SoundCloud rap emerges from the fringe, what’s the future of this digital underground?

There isn’t a straight definition for “SoundCloud rap”—you just know it when you hear it. The music is lo-fi, inundated with unpolished synths and stripped-down beats. Much is created in a DIY fashion, pumped through laptops and makeshift studios from the bedrooms of rappers and producers, frequently male and well under the legal drinking age. The lyrics can be emo, with references to prescription drugs, psychedelics and nihilism. These artists are iconoclasts who defy traditional hip-hop nomenclature: Tatted-up and with a penchant for facial ink, multiple piercings and colorful hair, their I-don’t- give-a-fuck attitude is straight out of the pages of punk and grunge. Lil Uzi Vert rocks gender non-conforming fashion, Wifisfuneral has a septum piercing, Lil Peep was openly bisexual. These are the guys who stand for Marilyn Manson and Slipknot just as hard as Lil Wayne, Chief Keef and Kid Cudi. If the male angst of Gen-Z could be bottled up and put on wax, it would be SoundCloud rap. “It’s like lo-fi shit with new-age shit,” says rapper Ugly God, who has 564,000 SoundCloud followers and hit 105 million streams with his 2017 breakout, “Water.” “SoundCloud birthed streaming being the shit!”

“There’s a certain raw and edgy feel associated with the genre, thanks to the genre-bending that its creators engage in,” says Megan West, SoundCloud’s VP of Content & Community. “You can hear influences from Atlanta’s trap scene, emo and punk influences and throwback beats reminiscent of the 1990s.” Those blurred lines often come with criticism, of course. Some hip-hop purists scoff at the lack of traditional lyricism, cadence or rhyme structure. But the artists don’t seem to care. In fact, many embrace being weirdos and outliers. “I never wanted to be no rapper,” Lil Uzi Vert told XXL in 2016. “I’m a rock star.”

Spike Jordan

It’s unclear when SoundCloud rap originated—the phrase began popping up on Twitter around 2012—but its closest ancestor is Tumblr rap of the aughts, paved by artists like Odd Future, Lil B and A$AP Mob. A sonic pocket around South Florida generated the early wave of acts including SpaceGhostPurrp, Denzel Curry and the Raider Klan starting around 2012. Ronny J, an artist who has produced for many of those early adopters, joined SoundCloud in 2013, yet feels that he was already tardy to the party. “I was honestly late,” he says. “Denzel Curry, all those dudes I was fucking with, they were on SoundCloud before me.” It wasn’t just the platform everyone was on. SoundCloud numbers were bragging rights for unsigned acts. “Every artist that I met had SoundCloud and used it,” Ronny J continues. “That was everyone’s platform to show ‘I have numbers.’”

Keaton Brown

As of May 2018, Ronny J has numbers. His SoundCloud account boasts more than 85,000 followers, while several of his tracks have millions of plays: “Big Bucks” for Smokepurpp (10.7 million), “A Ghetto Christmas Carol” for XXXTentacion (38.9 million) and “Molly” for Lil Pump (54.8 million). “It got so crazy,” he says. “We got more plays than people signed to actual labels.” Ronny J working with the who’s who of SoundCloud rap is no fluke. The same names circulate in this close-knit world with some artists linking through the comments and messaging function. “It was all destined to happen—nothing was ever forced,” he explains. “I never asked these dudes to rap on my beats. It just happened organically.”

Ugly God, who says that SoundCloud has been “important as fuck” to his success, remembers joining the platform in 2015 after he saw Lil Yachty go viral. “I heard about it [prior] but I thought it was some fucking band,” he laughs. In addition to “Water,” many of his songs have broken millions of streams, including, “I Beat My Meat” (30.2 million), “FTBT” (11.7 million) and “Bernie Sanders” (11.3 million).

There’s a palpable sense of community between the rappers and their fans, too. Like old-school chat rooms and message boards, there’s something uniquely freeing about being a young fan behind a computer. There’s no hierarchy or velvet rope to make anyone feel less than; everyone is welcome.

Ben Porter Photography

Ohgeesy, of Los Angeles rap collective Shoreline Mafia, underscores the communal bond of SoundCloud. He joined in 2008 as a fan and commends the do-it-yourself technology as helpful to a budding artist. “When I was younger, I had no idea how to use YouTube or upload music,” says Ohgeesy. “I knew SoundCloud was a click away. You just upload an audio file. It seems so easy.” Until inking a major label deal with Atlantic Records in 2018, Shoreline Mafia had only uploaded music to SoundCloud. The group boasts nearly 100,000 followers. “I feel like SoundCloud is the reason for our career,” he adds. “Without SoundCloud, I would’ve never had a platform to put music on.”

“The hip-hop community has thrived on SoundCloud because of how quickly and easily creators can get started on our platform. With just a few clicks, an artist can create a profile, upload a track, and get their music in front of fans minutes after it was created,” says West. “With more than 10 million creators heard each month, SoundCloud also has a vibrant listener community that’s looking to discover the next big track or artist and help kickstart a career.”

“Anybody could be an artist,” says Nima Etminan, VP of Operations at EMPIRE. The low barrier to entry—all you need is a decent internet connection—allows even neophytes to share music with the world. It’s a step beyond the online mixtape circuit of say, Datpiff or LiveMixtapes, because there’s literally no red tape. No industry bullshit, no need to cozy up to a web editor or to play politics. Just one click. “You could have artists who don’t have presence anywhere else but who could sell out shows just based on their SoundCloud following, which is amazing.”

EMPIRE caught the wave early and discovered XXXTentacion, one of the biggest rappers who has originated on SoundCloud. Before his 2017 deal, he was a virtual unknown to the outside world. “When we found X, the only place he lived was SoundCloud,” says Etminan. “It was crazy because you have all of these songs with 20, 30 million plays. You have recordings of him talking for 45 seconds, without a beat, that had 10 million plays. It was like discovering a new world of fans with a cult-like admiration.” The 2015 song “Run Up On Me (Snippet)” is 57 seconds of the rapper yelling over what sounds like a blown-out speaker. By most accounts, it makes no damn sense.

However, it’s racked up more than 8 million plays and fans have offered plenty of positive feedback (“I need this,” “Hot fire,” “Dis shit lit”). “A Helping Hand, Not a Song.,” is a 2016 track that, as XXXTentacion put it, is “a conversation with my laptop.” He’s barely audible and the monologue is rambling. Nonetheless, it has been played nearly 4 million times.

Jack McKain

Fans have remained steadfast despite the rapper’s highly publicized legal issues and controversy. He was facing multiple felony charges for domestic violence, as prosecutors allege that the rapper abused his then-pregnant ex-girlfriend and tried to bribe her. He was on house arrest until March 2018. The larger world has in many ways branded XXXTentacion persona non grata. Media outlets covered him tenuously—some wanted him canceled altogether—but it didn't seem to faze loyalists. The ? album, which bypassed SoundCloud when it dropped, sold 131,000 album equivalent units in its first week and yielded seven songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The rapper’s day-one fans followed him from SoundCloud onto DSPs (or digital service providers) like Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music.

These days, SoundCloud rap is officially major-label rap. Ugly God is with Asylum/Warner Music Group. Ronny J and Shoreline Mafia secured deals with Atlantic Records in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Wifisfuneral signed to Alamo and Interscope Records, Lil Pump is with Warner Bros. Records, Ski Mask The Slump God has a deal with Victor Victor Worldwide with distribution via Republic Records while Lil Xan is under Columbia Records. They are just a few examples of a perpetual signing funnel from SoundCloud to major record labels. The industry is in a tizzy trying to keep up, paying big bucks to court the next big thing. “Anything that shows promise is being snatched up,” Warner Bros. Records chairman Tom Corson told Billboard in March 2018. “We’re definitely in the middle of a very competitive and expensive moment here with hip-hop acts.”

LOUIEKNOWS

With more attention—and money—coming at them, it’s interesting to see how SoundCloud rappers continue to embrace the platform that made them. XXXTentacion didn’t release ? on SoundCloud, opting for Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal and purchased copies. Etminan says that the rapper intentionally wanted to differentiate his album 17 as well to give it the gravity of a studio project. “We like to give artists the control they like to have,” he says.

Ronny J also wants to be selective with what he releases on SoundCloud now that he’s signed. He maintains that SoundCloud is great for one-off tracks (or “loosies”) but from a monetization standpoint, other streaming platforms simply pay better. “I feel like it’s very important to keep the SoundCloud thing going but SoundCloud doesn’t give artists the most money,” Ronny J says. “There’s other platforms that are better at generating more money. I still fuck with SoundCloud but I don’t really use it as much.” Etminan explains that streaming services with the most premium (or paid) users are more lucrative for the artist. “Their premium tier hasn’t necessarily grown to a point where it makes sense to push to it,” he says of SoundCloud, which currently offers three tiers: Free, the ad-free and offline-capable Go and Go+; the latter allows listeners access to premium tracks. “I can’t really speak on the specific payoffs but [with] Apple [Music] being premium only, obviously the payoff is higher.” According to West, SoundCloud does not publicly share its subscriber data.

Hammish Stephenson

There’s also the long-standing notion that rappers outgrow the underground once signed. “I’m not a SoundCloud rapper anymore—I’m off of that,” Lil Peep said during a show in New York City in April 2017, according to The New York Times. “You Call Me A SoundCloud Rapper Till All My Shit On Apple Music And You Got To Pay Lmfaooo,” Ski Mask The Slump God tweeted in April 2017, underscoring his affinity for paid content. “After we all got deals, we’re not really as interested as we used to be because you make more money on the other platforms,” explains Ronny J. “Honestly after me, X, Xan, people like that, I don’t really think SoundCloud will ever be the same. It’s dying out.” Some find the term “SoundCloud rapper” confining and want to break free. “You don’t want to be categorized as just one category of [a] rapper,” says Etminan. “You want to be an artist. ‘SoundCloud rapper’ devalues that. I don’t think any artist likes to be put in a category.”

Ugly God disagrees. “I still call myself a SoundCloud rapper,” he says. The rapper released Just a Lil Something Before the Album... exclusively on SoundCloud in April, two months before the EP was released to all DSPs in June. “SoundCloud is my core fans,” Ugly God says. “When I want to make them happy, I throw some shit on SoundCloud. I don’t care about it being monetized. I don’t care about it being [on] Billboard [charts].”

There are outside forces that may nudge artists back onto SoundCloud, though. In May, Spotify pulled XXXTentacion (as well as R. Kelly, Tay-K and others) from its featured playlists for violating its public hate content and hateful conduct policy—the rapper’s music remained on the platform but didn’t enjoy coveted placement on music discovery playlists like RapCaviar. “We don’t censor content because of an artist’s or creator’s behavior, but we want our editorial decisions—what we choose to program—to reflect our values,” the company told Billboard in a press statement about its policy. “When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful, it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator.” Spotify quickly made an about-face following backlash from the hip-hop industry and fans, restoring XXXTentacion to promoted playlists. (Of the policy, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek said that the company “rolled this out wrong and could have done a much better job.”). Yet, Apple Music and Pandora both announced that R. Kelly was also pulled from their curated playlists the same month.

It’s not known how SoundCloud will tackle such issues. At a time when brands are feeling the pressure to be woke, how will SoundCloud’s renegade rappers thrive elsewhere? As Etminan says, “It’s a platform where the artists feel they have the freedom to do what they want and how they want and you know, a place that felt like it was free of politics.” This no-strings autonomy attracts both outliers and outlaws. It will be interesting to see whether the artist playground ends up being policed.

For now, Ohgeesy is happy to be called a SoundCloud rapper. It’s home, the place that jump started his career and he isn’t going to forget it. “SoundCloud is always gonna be important—that’s where I got my first million plays.” he says. “I’ll always definitely want to keep SoundCloud.” Ugly God feels the same.

Check out more from XXL’s Summer 2018 issue including our 2018 XXL Freshman Class, interviews with Denzel Curry and Power star Joseph Sikora a.k.a. Tommy and more. 

See Photos of Lil Pump Behind the Scenes at the 2018 XXL Freshman Class Cover Shoot