When people think of modern rappers, they often contemplate pink dreads, face tattoos, and wildly multicolored grills that adorn Generation Z’s recent contributions to rap’s ever-growing cast of characters, but what they miss in their complaints about hip-hop’s supposed lack of lyrics and fascination with drug culture is the fact that many of these new rappers are self-made successes.
Twenty years ago, a Lil Yachty, Lil Xan, Lil Pump, Lil Uzi Vert, or Lil Skies would not have been possible, not just because grumpy gangbangers would have booed them out of open mics or because they lacked sufficient respect for the legends of yesteryear, but simply because the infrastructure for creating a rap career didn’t exist. Today, almost anyone can “make it” in the music business because the music business is largely uninvolved with the process of making it.
Because of advancements in technology, including the advent of streaming, social media, and the mainstreaming of digital audio and visual recording devices, the average teenager with dreams of rap stardom can skip the search for a record deal, delivering music straight to fans and monetizing that attention almost overnight.
However, it takes the right kind of savvy to take advantage of that innovation, which is why Generation Z is uniquely suited to building and running their own rap empires from the ground up.
In 1991, Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, better known as The RZA of Wu-Tang Clan, was heralded as a business wiz for masterminding the successful label negotiations of separate deals for each of the 10 members of the group after signing the collective to RCA Records.
In 2018, Clifford Ian Simpson, better known as Kevin Abstract of Brockhampton, posted a calming reassurance to fans worried that the infamous 14-member “boy band” would have its DIY style and unfiltered aesthetic revamped after signing to the same record label that once housed the legendary Wu.
While RZA was considered a visionary, Kevin Abstract was just doing what kids do these days. At 21-years-old, Simpson is a member of a generation that has never known a world without high-speed internet, and his formative years were spent, like any other member of his generation, learning an increasingly complex but increasingly user-friendly succession of digital applications to socialize, produce content, and promote it online.
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hey how ya doin. just wanted to let you guys know that we have decided to partner with RCA and the next records will be released through those guys. i wanted to be very clear about this and let y’all know that nothin changes. videos still diy, music still made in our house, and we’re still gonna make the best possible product for y’all. they understood that we wanted to be the biggest boyband in the world and I’m a firm believer in not being able to do everything on your own. Find people whose morals and vision align with yours and follow that. Apple had to get out of the garage at some point. thanks for giving a fuck and thanks for my management for guiding us in the best possible direction yeehaw
By doing what came naturally to him, Abstract was able to build a loyal fanbase for himself and his 13 friends, successfully market and promote three albums in one year, and parlay that into a reported $16 million record deal that includes six albums over three years, all while protecting the band’s touring and merchandise revenue.
Similarly, 24-year-old Chancelor Bennett, aka Chance The Rapper, built his career from the ground up by self-promoting his self-produced albums with a strong social following that started in Chicago’s Public School system. While much ado is made of the groundbreaking nature of Coloring Book, his independent album that forced the Recording Academy to reconsider its rules regarding free music released directly to streaming services, it was his first mixtape, 10 Day, that kicked off Chance’s buzz and made him one to watch in Chicago.
Videos for songs like “22 Offs” and “Brain Cells” were filmed on the cheap equipment that is now readily available to any high school student — cell phone cameras — and edited on computer equipment Chance and his Savemoney crew grew up learning to use to amuse themselves. While the Wu-Tang Clan had kung-fu movies and comic books, Savemoney and Brockhampton had iPhones and MacBooks with iMovie and Garage Band preloaded on them, to occupy their time as kids.
While anyone who still remembers dial-up grouses at “kids these days” for being narcissistically obsessed with their social media profiles and Instagram follows, those follows are being flipped into genuine engagement with any art the followers deem worthy of support. The truly inspiring aspect as that the first follows often start out as classmates, or peers in the same systems. At a high school with 2,000 kids, if the average student managed a follow from each of their classmates, they’d enter college with more Twitter followers than some adult users who’ve been on the platform for years.
Those followers give new rappers like Chance and Kevin Abstract an audience, and it seems peers are more likely to support early, generating the needed critical mass to convert newcomers who want to know what all the fuss is about.
That’s essentially how Chance made the leap from local star on 10 Day to national success story after Acid Rap. By the time Coloring Book came around, Chance’s natural charisma and his entertainment value on social media had built so much buzz, he was able to turn an exclusive streaming deal with Apple into numerous corporate endorsements, a highly lucrative tour, and national name recognition, which is as important cultural capital in a digital world controlled by clicks and statistics as the revenue he makes from streams.
Chance and Kevin are by no means alone in this new business awareness. While prototypical “blog rappers” like Big Sean, Wale, J. Cole, and Drake have been leveraging online followings since 2008, it wasn’t until streaming became a thing that the last vestiges of major label influence were totally removed from the indie recording business. Early blog rappers still relied on professional budgets for everything from physical distribution to music videos, but since then, rabble-rousers like Tyler and Odd Future and ASAP Rocky and ASAP Mob, along with their offshoots like Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert, have turned no-to-low-budget into an aesthetic, foregoing million dollar video shoots for quick-and-dirty, guerrilla-style videos shot on iPhones and edited in-house.
Curated timelines have replaced catalog images, and slapdash Instagram posts are the new two-page spread ad in The Source. Everything a label can do, a post-millennial can also do with a fraction of the budget. Generation Z have become experts at organizing their online presence and using the tools that have been available as long as some of them have been alive to create all the success that Golden Era artists once relied on a small army of creatives to conjure.
While there are still benefits to signing a deal with a major record label, as evidenced by Kevin Abstract’s explanation for Brockhampton’s RCA deal, the fact of the matter is, RCA probably needs Brockhampton as much as Brockhampton needs RCA. In the old days, that contract might have looked utterly ludicrous, with its mandates for a pretty grueling touring and recording schedule. But Brockhampton and Kevin Abstract would have been doing all that anyway — just for fun.
And they would have found an audience, built their buzz and made some money along the way; the major label money just accelerates the schedule for something that would have happened all on its own, completely organically, because those kids would have kept creating and their fans online would have kept coming back for more. Because that’s just what they do these days, create, curate, and share their experiences online, which is where it seems everything is happening, whether we like it or not.
Contrary to popular belief, it would seem that the kids are in fact, alright.