On June 10 of this year, Hummingbyrd, the mind behind a blog called Model Minority (modelminority.blogspot.com), asked, “What if Rakim had the Internet?” Among the answers she provided to her own question, Hummingbyrd stated that if Rakim had the Internet in 1990, his Long Island–based DJ and producer, Eric B., could have e-mailed beats to West Coast fire demon Ras Kass; video-sharing site YouTube would have made MTV obsolete; there would be a Web-based distribution network for hip-hop artists; and hip-hop publications, such as the one you’re reading now, would not have become the premier outlet for rappers to air their grievances with their peers. “I think that people like us,” wrote Hummingbyrd, “who adore music from the backpack, boom-bap era, would have a constant cycle of music to listen to and tours to attend.”
It’s a decidedly utopian vision, but probably not too far from the truth. And despite the fact that Al Gore invented the Internet on Jan. 1, 1983 (with its roots going back as far as three decades prior), what the writer was referring to is what has come to be known as Web 2.0, which is defined by online encyclopedia Wikipedia as the “second generation of Internet-based services—such as social-networking sites, wikis, communication tools and folksonomies—that let people collaborate and share information online in ways previously unavailable.” In English, this means Web platforms that sample from and build on existing technologies and avenues—such as Blogger, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr and del.icio.us. When you factor in the proliferation of high-speed connections, Web-enabled cell phones and mobile game consoles, you’re looking at a world where plugging in is one click away on your hip. And counting the reality that the gamut of hip-hop consumers runs from program-writing computer wizards to guys who only have e-mail on their smartphones to thugs who think Google is a funny way of watching a nice derriere pass by, such advents inevitably impact the way that hip-hop artists conduct both business and themselves and interact with their fans.
To promote this year’s Fishscale, Wu-Tang veteran Ghostface, who has an ardent following among the types of keyboard cowboys who debate minutiae on message boards, teamed up with mix master DJ Green Lantern for Internet Invasion, an Internet-only mixtape available free at www.myspace.com/internetinvasion. “I want you to get your laptops ready, yunnowhamean?” Ghost said as way of an introduction. “Plug in your fuckin’ iPods, man, and log on, muthafucka. This shit ain’t never been done before, muthafucka—straight computer shit. We loggin’ on from the fuckin’ sky and all that shit.”
Ghostface is far from the only rapper leveraging the power of the World Wide Web to his advantage. Chi-Town’s Lupe Fiasco, who keeps a blog on hipster fashion site Hypebeast (hypebeast.com) and has served a guest stint on XXL’s Web site (xxlmag.com), has generated a large Internet following by immersing himself in virtual communities. The U.K.’s grime scene made the journey across the Atlantic electronically, through MP3s and pirate radio shows (grime’s breeding ground, akin to the U.S. mixtape scene) posted on blogs and Web sites such as Rinse.fm and Grimetime.de, resulting in a Def Jam deal for the diminutive Lady Sovereign. Niche artists such as North Carolina’s Little Brother, underground stalwart MF Doom, emo MC Sage Francis and the Baltimore club music–influenced duo Spank Rock have all been able to connect with listeners through online posts, interviews and digital treats—a more direct alternative to the scattershot, cookie-cutter tactics employed by large record companies.
That these smaller acts have been able to cultivate their audiences at a fraction of the cost required by the majors hasn’t stopped the guys in the big pond from going after little fish. Accomplished (and, presumably, filthy rich) artists such as Wyclef and Diddy have appealed directly to their MySpace “friends.” But where ’Clef did a simple freestyle, Diddy, the living embodiment of mass-market rap, went the extra mile in pushing his recent Press Play. He created his own channel on YouTube (complete with a Burger King tie-in), where he uploaded video clips of himself in a bubble bath and taking a leak.
Of course, Diddy’s presence on what started as a grassroots site is akin to Bill Gates copping free lunch from public schools during the summer. Some of his fellow YouTubers have labeled him a “marketing whore,” requesting that he go party in his “expensive clubs,” with grammatically averse user Perduke commenting, “diddys gonna start usin youtube for free promotion and paris hiltons gonna keep releasin her stupid videos for idiots and then more and more and more people are gonna start doin the same thing and then all the most viewed/most subscribed stuff on youtube is gonna be celebrities and the average joe wont be able to get any views and a lot of talented people are going to be overlooked and youtubes gonna become really commercial and it will suck.”
But another user, PorterMedia, commented, “If Diddy hadn’t done this YouTube channel, I wouldn’t even have known this album was out—now I know I’ll be buying it the day of release.” While such arguments are common on the Net, the winners in this situation are clear: Diddy, who came in at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and YouTube, which was recently acquired by search-engine giant Google for a cool $1.67 billion.
By most measures, hip-hop languishes far behind the mainstream when it comes to the Web. There have been songs like mixtape veteran Grafh’s “MySpace Jumpoff,” “MySpace Freak” by Atlanta’s C-Side (who have linked with the ubiquitous Jazze Pha since releasing the song), and full-length dedications like mix king Big Mike’s MySpace Massacre Volume One, but there has yet to be a breakout star from the Internet to get beaucoup bucks for a recording contract. In an article on CNNMoney.com, writer Marc Gunther noted, “The Internet is by nature a niche medium so it has not created any stars, and probably won’t.” Gunther’s assertion may not hold true in the coming months—MySpace pages are quickly replacing the mixtape as a shopping tool, much like the mixtape displaced the demo tape. But for now, the dominant aspects of online hip-hop are decidedly of the lowest-common-denominator variety.
Much like (and, perhaps, more than) other forms of media, the Internet is a haven for unsubstantiated gossip, and on this front, items of the sort once rumored to be urban legend are able to be either debunked or strengthened. Did Lil Wayne and Baby really kiss on the lips during 106 & Park? Not sure. But one day near the end of October, a picture of the Cash Money partners on the verge of touching lips made the rounds so virulently that the Birdman was on the air with a New Orleans radio station the same night, brushing off the haters and professing his love for Weezy.
Read the rest of our essay on the Internet’s effects in XXL’s January/February 2007 issue (#88)