Underground rap is not dead. It thrives with Bay Area imprints such as Interdependent Media (Truthlive's Patience) and national players such as Duck Down Records (Skyzoo & Illmind's Live from the Tape Deck) and Alpha Pup Records (Nocando's Jimmy The Lock). Some of these labels subsist on scattershot independent distribution. Others recruit majors to achieve wider market penetration, including Stones Throw and EMI Label Services (Guilty Simpson's OJ Simpson and Aloe Blacc's retro-soul gem Good Things), and Decon and E1 Music (Black Milk's Album of the Year). And who can blame them? These days, labels need all the help they can get. However, the principal philosophy of economic and artistic independence as an end unto itself has been forgotten.
In Robin D.G. Kelley's 2002 book Freedom Dreams, a rapturous appreciation of 20th century black intellectualism, he writes, "Unfortunately, too often our standards for evaluating social movements pivot around whether or not they 'succeeded' in realizing their visions rather than on the merits or power of the visions themselves. ... And yet it is precisely these alternative visions and dreams that inspire new generations." Kelley could have referred to the many critics that marked Little Brother as hopelessly elitist for insisting that hip-hop should address more than the spoils of drug wars; dismissed the late Eyedea, Sage Francis, and others as silly white boys for addressing suburban middle-class concerns; and buried Definitive Jux as a repository of uncool, impossibly dense super-scientific lyricism.
By many measures, the indie-rap scene has been a failure. Unlike the network of homespun labels built by punks in the 1980s, the indie-rap scene didn't create a thriving community without considerable financing from youth-targeting corporations, lifestyle brands, and advertising firms. And perhaps its denizens wrongly castigated dirty South rappers as ignorant, claimed that mainstream superstars like Jay-Z and Diddy were sell-outs, and turned the underground movement into a kind of purity test — all past conflicts that continue to bedevil it today. Yet these dreamers courageously imagined hip-hop culture as not only a way to entertain people and make money, but as a transformative experience that can help instill positive growth and change lives. They built a culture that holds key lessons for future rap generations.
The blog-rap generation doesn't hold any illusions of being alternative, unless it's manufacturing limp blasphemy like Odd Future's use of Nazi imagery. (As Anti-Defamation League spokesman Abraham Foxman told The New York Times in a story on the Holocaust documentary Shoah, "To most kids growing up today, Hitler could be Genghis Khan.") They'll use any trope to be successful, from falsely claiming that they're coke barons to bragging about their limited-edition sneaker collection and how much weed they smoke. There's a gleeful egalitarianism in their digital miscellany. The beats bang but are same-y and indistinct, and the voices are barely distinguishable. As Wiz Khalifa simply said on his breakout single, "Black & Yellow": "You can do it big."
Some critics separated wheat from chaff with technical criteria such as internal rhyme schemes and double-time flow, as if MCs were ice skaters or guitar wankers. But the best artists simply illuminated their money hunger by any means necessary, effortlessly adding interesting twists to tired rap clichés. When Drake crooned on Thank Me Later, "I want this shit forever, man," he evoked a poor man's Nat King Cole. And when Curren$y ranted, "A gee is what I am, a jet is what I be" like a Southern Popeye on Pilot Talk II, he was insistent enough that you almost believed him.