For Free or Not For Free
Legitimate internet access to music is great, but the problem is: what’s the best way to provide access? Artists, in hip-hop as well as other genres, have approached the question in different ways. Some allow snippets and streaming songs on their MySpace pages and official sites.Others offer free downloads.
Although it’s not a directly related to hip-hop as a genre, Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want pricing scheme for their In Rainbows album highlighted the internet’s ability to challenge the traditional business paradigm. Poet and actor Saul Williams, with the help of Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor, originally marketed his The Inevitable Rise & Liberation of Niggy Tardust as a choice of five United States dollars or nothing at all. Obviously, downloaders would receive more for their five dollars than the free downloaders, but the choice was there.
Both albums garnered sales, with In Rainbows not surprisingly raking in more cash and then also selling as a special edition package and a physical in-store release. But neither strategy ended up with everyone downloading the albums for free. Somebody paid for the work, which says something important about what music lovers are willing to do to get what they want—and possibly to support an innovative effort.
An alternative strategy comes from Big Quarters, a Minnesota hip-hop duo I’ve been raving about since 2007. Big Quarters is not, however, a household name. Nevertheless, the duo (consisting of Brandon Allday and his brother Medium Zach) has been running a monthly subscription service through their website. For five dollars a month, subscribers receive five songs. In the days of old, five songs could have been an “EP” or a “maxi-single”.
I respect the Big Quarters hustle. It says the artists are confident enough in their work to expect consumers to pay for it and, more significantly, to want to pay for it. At the same time, they are asking consumers to expect a steady output of quality material to justify the price of admission.
It’s not my intention to rehash the Radiohead discussion. In fact, hip-hop artists tend to shy away from the pay-what-you-want technique. Instead, they’re often willing to give music away for free, usually in the form of mixtapes.
Now, free music isn’t a new phenomenon. Record companies have been giving away free stuff for years, setting aside album copies for promotional events, giveaways, music reviews, and the like. Free stuff doesn’t usually count in the artist’s royalty configurations. Sneaky, huh?
Mixtapes used to actually be cassette tapes. Now, you’ll find that many of them are legitimately available for download in digital formats. Mixtapes used to help rappers create interest in their skills, creating enough buzz to get a record deal and a debut album. This old function of the mixtape, to herald the arrival of new music, still exists and it’s probably more important than ever to the rapper’s promotional bag of tricks.
For some listeners, the existence of a rapper’s mixtape is the primary means of learning about new releases. A snack today (the mixtape) means a meal (the official album) somewhere down the line. If Chubb Rock and Wordsmith hadn’t put out a mixtape, A Crack in the Bridge and if Chubb Rock had done a guest verse on one of K’naan’s songs, I probably wouldn’t have heard about good ol’ Chubb Rock’s return to the recording scene.
When you think about it, mixtapes require quite a bit of effort as fans have come to expect a unique listening experience. As such, mixtapes mostly contain original production from the artist, providing more of a preview of the artist’s versatility and level of creativity than a sample of the finished product. Dude, that’s what leaks are for, right?
More and more, the mixtape itself is becoming the main event as it equals and sometimes overshadows “official” albums as the source of our listening pleasure. Not only was Lil Wayne’s mixtape hustle a defining moment in music, but rap mixtapes have earned spots on year-end “best album” lists. Lil Wayne’s Da Drought 3, Wale’s The Mixtape About Nothing, Little Brother’s Mick Boogie-assisted And Justus For All, Royce Da 5’9's Bar Exam mixtape series, and Joe Budden’s Mood Muzik mixtapes are just a few examples of mixtapes considered by fans and critics to be as good, or better, than “albums”.
Going forward, the difference between mixtapes and albums seems indistinguishable. Containing coveted guest spots, unifying concepts, and original production, mixtapes are frequently in high demand. At the start of Wale’s 2009 mixtape, Back to the Feature, in which every track contains a featured guest verse, he apologizes for taking so long to complete the project, noting that he was busy touring. That’s how much people like mixtapes. A brotha’s gotta apologize for not getting it out quickly enough.
Likewise, the buzz was so great surrounding up-and-comer QuESt’s mixtape, Broken Headphones, people were counting down the hours until its release. Love that title, by the way, for obvious reasons.
Mixtapes have also revitalized the position of the deejay. Once upon a time, hip-hop culture revolved around the deejay, as the record spinner was the prime mover of the crowd. Then, as the emcee became the focus, the record spinner receded into the background. But now, mixtapes are often hosted by respected deejays such as DJ Premier, Mick Boogie, DJ Soul, DJ Green Lantern, DJ Honda, and 9th Wonder. I spend an excessive amount of time hating on trends—like the use of Auto-Tune, for instance. The reemergence of the deejay, however, is definitely a good thing.
3. Themes & Concepts
Ideally, an album should, in general, probably contain songs that work well together and leave the listener with a cohesive experience. The songs should at least speak to the artist’s vision even if they don’t display musical or conceptual unity. Lately, the concept game has helped rappers set their albums apart from the competition. I’ve already mentioned Wale’s The Mixtape About Nothing, inspired by Seinfeld and drawing upon the show’s real audio and a badass near-rap cameo from Julia Louise-Dreyfus. It’s dope.
Rhymefest’s 2008 Man in the Mirror mixtape was ahead of its time in paying homage to Michael Jackson. With offbeat samples from Jackson’s tunes and snippets of his interviews, Rhymefest made it sound like he was right there in the studio with Michael Jackson. Mixtapes honoring greats like J. Dilla and the Notorious B.I.G. gain momentum from their cohesive focal points.
Themes and concepts need not be as dramatic as a tribute to a fallen icon. Serengeti’s Dennehy deals with characters and alter egos, along the lines of The RZA’s Bobby Digital persona and Kool Keith’s Dr. Octagon. Mixtapes can also be collections of an artist’s b-side material or unreleased tracks. Another way to go is to become immersed in the fantasy you’re creating. Tanya Morgan’s Brooklynati operates in a fictional world based on the combined strengths of the group’s three male emcees hailing from Brooklyn, New York and Cincinnati, Ohio. A rap group of three male emcees rapping under a female name is gimmicky enough, but there was even a funny website, Brooklyn Nati.com, detailing the fictional city’s hotspots.
Of course, a full blown concept can succeed on a less flamboyant level. In this regard, you might consider Black Milk’s Tronic as having a theme of musical and songwriting growth. There was also a futuristic quality about its sound.
An album with a concept comes across as being more focused, more inspired, and more thought provoking than the “average” effort. Whether that’s actually true or not is up for debate. The idea that Jay-Z’s American Gangster was inspired by the feature film of the same name worked as a big selling point, especially when you compare its reviews to the mostly lukewarm reception to American Gangster‘s predecessor Kingdom Come.
4. Group Dynamics
Just as the status of the deejay has experienced a surge through mixtapes, it’s possible that hip-hop groups are also reemerging. I’d like to think Wu-Tang Clan’s 2008 reunion with 8 Diagrams is partially responsible for this, but that might be a stretch. An easier argument to make is that super-groups may be putting the group dynamic back on the musical map.
The super-group is different than a regular group or band. It’s a lineup of stellar emcees joining forces for a recording. Okay, you could probably argue that Wu-Tang Clan fits the bill. No problem. But I prefer to think of a rap super-group as a collaboration between titans. Just put three or more emcees together that would complement each other, either by being so similarly dope or by providing contrast to one another’s style. Posse cuts give me good ideas of super-groups I’d like to see. Canibus, Royce Da 5’9, and Elzhi worked well together on one of Royce’s Bar Exam 2 tracks.
Back in the day, I liked Chuck D, Ice Cube, and Big Daddy Kane on Public Enemy’s Burn Hollywood Burn. Throw MC Lyte in there with those guys, hook ‘em up with a deejay, and I’d love to hear the results. I also wouldn’t mind hearing Andre 3000, Snoop Dogg, Devon the Dude, and Scarface working together on a regular basis, and I haven’t decided who should join her, but I think Missy Elliott would bring the noise as part of a collective.
In the real world, I think eMC truly sparked a renaissance in the group, or super-group, format. With a lineup of Masta Ace, Punchline, Wordsworth, and Stricklin, their album The Show melded the talents of these four emcees into an album loosely chronicling the lives of rappers on the road. In 2009, Slaughterhouse (Royce Da 5’9, Joe Budden, Joell Ortiz, and Crooked I) has emerged as the super-group to beat, while Detroit emcee-producer Black Milk joins with Sean Price and Guilty Simpson to form Random Axe. These types of collaborations raise the profile of the individual emcees, plus three or four emcees promoting a single project is better than one.
Oh, and another thing. I know this is a duo and not technically a super-group, but I’m fascinated by producer and rapper Madlib’s decision to work with rapper Guilty Simpson. Using the initials of Otis “Madlib” Jackson’s name, the two of them plan to be called “O.J. Simpson”. I don’t know. I’m fascinated to see how, or if, that’s going to fly.
5. Word of Mouth
One marketing strategy that never goes out of style: good ol’ fashioned word-of-mouth. There’s nothing better than a music lover sharing a good album with someone. Doesn’t matter if you email it, Facebook it, update it on Twitter, or blog it like they do in the PopMatters media center. Some things will never change.