Hip-hop has always been about getting the word out, by any means necessary. In the past this meant dealing with all kinds of intermediaries — those gatekeepers at major labels, radio stations, video outlets and magazines who decide which talent rises from the streets to the mainstream. With the Internet, today’s hip-hop artists are taking the hustle into their own hands, finding new ways to connect their words and rhymes with potential audiences without interference or censorship.
When pioneering rapper Too $hort ended his business relationship with Jive Records, his home for 21 years, he decided to start his own independent label, Up All Nite. “I’ve been offered (record) deals,” he says, “but it feels really good to not be a part of the major label big pimpin’. It just feels good to say I don’t need a signature from a label to do a guest appearance on someone’s album.”
Up In Your Bits
This way of digital life might not last forever. Powerful companies that provide your Internet hookup (Internet Service Providers, or ISPs) are looking to alter the fundamental way the web works, by deciding the wheres, whos and hows of information exchange.That’s why public interest groups, technology experts, innovators and creative types are fighting to preserve net neutrality — the principle that protects the open internet.
If that sounds a bit confusing, you’re not alone. Look at it this way: net neutrality is what allows you to go where you want to go on the Internet, download or upload the legal content of your choice and say what you want to say without undue restriction. Basically, it’s the Internet as you know it.
But the ISPs want to charge those who put content on the web — artists, filmmakers, mix-tape DJs, etc. — an extra fee for speedy delivery of their sites and sounds. Those who couldn’t afford to (or didn’t want to) cut a deal with these huge corporations would be stuck in the slow lane. Currently, all users get equal access to the Internet, regardless of their corporate connections. Which is why the fight to preserve net neutrality is shaping up to be an epic battle for nothing less than the soul of cyberspace.
But Net Neutrality isn’t just about politics and technology; it’s also about artists being able to connect with fans, and vice versa.
“We’ve seen what happens when a majority of musicians have limited access to a communications medium — it’s called corporate radio,” says Michael Bracy, Policy Director for Future of Music Coalition — a Washington, D.C. non-profit that deals with musicians’ issues. “We can’t replicate the mistakes of the past when dealing with new technologies. Net neutrality ensures a level playing field for all musicians, and not just those with major industry backing.”
Eloise Lee is the Net Neutrality Policy Director at Media Alliance, a non-profit media watchdog organization who have been closely following the issue. She says the open internet is of crucial importance to musicians and the public. “If you have a MySpace account, if you rely on the Internet to share your work, Net Neutrality is your issue,” Lee explains.
“The U.S. is about freedom of speech. If Net Neutrality is not protected, all of that would fade. Those rights are under attack,” she adds. Immigrants, youth, people of color and other independent voices have been historically underserved and underrepresented, Lee notes — restricting Internet access would affect these voices disproportionately.
For that reason, it’s not an overstatement to say that the future of the Internet is at stake, and quite possibly, the future of cultural and musical expression as well.
Urban Music and the Internet
Because artists on alternative-leaning, underground-oriented labels have rarely enjoyed commercial radio support, they’ve had to turn to cyberspace to get the word out about their releases and tour dates. Blogs, chatrooms, and fan forums have allowed listeners to share music and interact with each other, and in many cases, with artists directly.
“The Internet, that’s ‘it’ for independent artists,” says Paul Porter, a former BET executive who now operates Industry Ears, a non-profit music business watchdog organization. With an increasing number of urban artists taking the independent route, maintaining access to the Internet becomes critical for long-term survival.
“The Internet is more vital for indie and underground artists in urban music than any other available media,” echoes Asya Shein, founder of urban culture site Fusicology.com, which operates in 17 North American markets through a combination of street-level promotion and online activities ranging from album reviews to event marketing.
The Internet, Shein says, “allows the artist to directly connect with their fanbase in a direct and inexpensive manner.” That’s important, she adds, “considering most music on the radio is neither indie nor underground — in the urban sector, especially.”
The Internet levels the playing field in very real terms for urban artists who face a significant barrier to entry into mainstream outlets. Examples include independent labels like Hieroglyphics, Quannum, Stones Throw and Rhymesayers — cornerstones of underground hip-hop whose Internet presence has been critical to their building a diverse, dedicated fan base over the years. All of these labels have featured unique content (i.e., music videos MTV or BET won’t air or exclusive freestyles) online, and their websites have been extremely important in their being able to brand themselves and create revenue streams.
“We’re the original Internet label,” says Tajai Massey of Hiero Imperium, whose Web presence helped the eight-member Hieroglyphics collective reinvent themselves way back in 1997 — long before YouTube or MySpace were even in existence — as an independent entity following stints on major labels.
“When we first came up, nobody had the Internet. It was a means of mobilizing our fans,” Massey relates, adding that Hiero’s online presence remains an integral part of their marketing and promotional strategy: “Nowadays it’s impossible to get the word out without the Internet.”
According to Lateef the Truthspeaker, a core Quannum artist who’s been putting out records independently since the mid-’90s, the Internet has become a tastemaker in and of itself: “Especially at a time when everything’s changing, the Internet influence just can’t be denied now.” He cites “the access that involves the youth, and the empowerment to the youth in deciding what is and isn’t successful… I think that that’s really big.”
Artists and fans aren’t the only people for whom the Internet is empowering. As urban music publications have fallen by the wayside, bloggers have picked up some of the slack, offering opinions, reviews, and commentary unfettered by the conflicts of interest with advertisers which have long been an albatross for urban media outlets.
“The blogosphere has reestablished a balance between what people want to see and read and what publications choose to omit,” says Adisa Banjoko, author of the “Lyrical Swords” blog.
There has been a dumbing down of hip-hop journalism in general over the past decade, yet urban bloggers like Banjoko, Jeff Chang, Clyde Smith and Matt Sonzala have consistently presented information unavailable anywhere else.
“What’s happening on the Internet is that’s the only place you’re hearing real music and real news,” Porter says.
Changing of the Guard: The Evolution of Urban Gatekeepers
Having an Internet presence is especially critical to urban music because of the frenzy of ownership consolidation that all but eliminated small, independent commercial radio stations. As a result, urban radio has become formulaic and bland, with the same 20 or 25 songs in heavy rotation all across the country, and has rarely been accessible to independent artists not affiliated with major labels. (See “The Effect of Consolidation on Urban Radio” for more info).
The past few years have also seen the shrinking of the retail market for CDs. Large music-oriented retailers like Tower have given way to “big box” stores like Best Buy, and digital downloading has also taken a bite out of the retail pie.
The effect of all these trends on the recording industry has been considerable. While the independent labels’ market share continues to grow incrementally, major labels have taken a huge financial hit. Faced with lower revenues, their cost-cutting measures have included everything from dropping artists who don’t sell a certain number of units, to underpromoting acts not deemed a priority, to layoffs and the elimination of traditional A&R departments.
At the same time, commercial radio numbers are down overall. Major players in the radio industry like Clear Channel have begun to target the online social networking market as their desired audiences have increasingly become accustomed to surfing the web in order to hear new music.
Meanwhile, multi-tasking sites like Fusicology and Okay Player have become one-stop multimedia outlets for urban audiences — providing a digital alternative to traditional print publications — while online stations like Breakdown FM have presented music, news, and information left untouched by urban commercial radio. And Vibe.com has featured important political coverage missing from the newsstand edition.
By the same token, popular sites frequented by the young urban demographic like YouTube and MySpace have filled some of the role once played by A&Rs – developing new artists. For instance, The Pack and Soulja Boy built up their online buzz to viral levels, parlaying YouTube views and MySpace hits into commercial success and mainstream radio and video play. These days, many new rap songs are leaked first to YouTube, leapfrogging commercial radio in the buzz-building chain. After Ludacris’ “War with God” was posted online, Luda’s label manager Chaka Zulu told the Associated Press, “It had the Internet going crazy… (YouTube is) a viable marketing tool for us now.”
All this has created a situation where the Internet has become a primary resource for the entire urban music industry – and a battleground where indie artists, major labels, radio stations, and telecommunications companies are all jockeying for position.
According to indie rap icon and label owner Paris, “The end result, in my opinion, will be that non-music retailers will soon become the new record companies…The main difference is that these new parent companies will treat their musical pursuits as advertising for the corporate entity, and will not rely on the revenue generated from sale of music at all. It will simply be used to generate interest in other products and services.”
“That’s why [the potential loss of] Net Neutrality is really scary,” Porter says. “Some of the things [telecommunications and cable companies] are trying to do is put a lock on musical freedom.”
He expresses concern that the same thing could happen to the Internet that happened to the radio industry. Urban radio was once “a beautiful thing,” he recalls, but “once consolidation hit, the variety went down, the quality went down.”
Davey-D — one of the few urban journalists who’s consistently covered net neutrality — predicts “a chilling effect” not just on artists, but also “folks gearing up to be their own media.”
He cites a recently announced merger between Clear Channel and Katz Media —which effectively consolidates over 1,200 online stations — as a revenue-siphoning move, which could result in a potential death blow for independent Internet radio. This development makes the fight to preserve net neutrality even more critical, since corporate-free online content is already being threatened.
At a recent panel discussion on the Future of the Independent Artist in San Francisco, Public Enemy’s Chuck D urged the audience to step up their Internet game: “When (people) talk about net neutrality and preventing online radio shows from happening, or three years from now each email you send out is gonna be taxed with digital postage attached to it… these things are realities if you don’t take advantage of what’s out there now.”
As the online landscape continues to be shaped, preserving Net Neutrality becomes tantamount to protecting Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Expression – probably the two most important principles of the Constitution and the First Amendment.
Enter the Message Police
Internet filtering techniques are standard practice in countries like Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam, whose governments “seek to curtail freedom of expression on the Internet,” according to Reporters Without Borders. Yet while the U.S. government has a responsibility to uphold the Constitutional rights of its citizens, telecommunications companies appear to have no such scruples.
This topic is particularly relevant, because censorship has always been an underlying issue in hip-hop and urban music. In addition to direct censorship (i.e. the PMRC’s campaign against explicit rap lyrics in the early ’90s), indirect censorship also exists, mainly in the form of exclusion.
For instance, mainstream rap is often taken to task these days for sexist or violent content, which reflects on hip-hop as a whole. Yet rap’s critics often fail to point out that what you’re not hearing on commercial radio or seeing on video outlets is hip-hop that promotes positive or conscious sentiments – the overwhelming majority of which is released on independent labels. The same holds true for socially-aware or political hip-hop. Ask yourself, when was the last time you heard dead prez, Immortal Technique, Paris, or the Coup on your local “hot urban” radio station?
Without Net Neutrality, the Internet could turn from a fun place where anyone can be a star to a place where only corporate-approved artists get to dance. It also could amount to an end-around run on the First Amendment, if telecommunications giants like Verizon and Comcast have their way.
Both companies have already shown hints of employing below-the-belt tactics with regard to Net Neutrality. Internet free speech advocates have likened Comcast’s “traffic management” tactics to those employed by the Chinese government. According to CNET.com’s Chris Soghoian, “the techniques used by Comcast are essentially the same as those used by the Great Firewall of China.” As Indiana University of Informatics Associate Professor Jean Camp noted, “When China does it, we call it ‘censorship.’”
The potential harm of these practices is considerable. “We have seen network operators block political speech,” Christian Coalition of America spokeswoman Michele Combs said during an April 2008 FCC hearing at Stanford University, a charge she repeated a few days later during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on “The Future of the Internet.” Combs (no relation to Sean “P.Diddy” Combs) was referring to the King James version of the Bible, but it just as easily could have been politically-explicit rap songs like Immortal Technique’s “The Fourth Branch” or the Coup’s “Captain Sterling’s Little Problem.”
On the bright side, an outpouring of public interest has made a difference on a Federal level, raising hopes that Net Neutrality will be upheld. On August 1, the FCC approved an enforcement order requiring Comcast to stop interfering with P2P files and to disclose its methodology for regulating Internet traffic. This provides some relief for, say, indie producers who send music tracks to artists via the Web, but is only one small victory in a much larger battle.
Making the Link to Urban Music
Net Neutrality is fast approaching critical mass, yet with few exceptions, the issue has flown under the radar of the urban community. As Banjoko points out, “A little kid who has a two-way isn’t thinking about how that content gets to him.”
However, because today’s urban music audience is so reliant on the Internet, Porter says, “I think this is the one time where hip-hop could have a large voice.”
Yet that voice has so far been largely silent, quite possibly because urban indie artists and labels have been more focused on the issue of illicit downloading than ISPs filtering online content.
“No disrespect, but the concerns of artists… are minimal compared to the much larger and more stifling effect on the general exchange of information,” remarked Davey-D, who adds that upholding Net Neutrality is in artists’ own interest, even if they don’t realize it yet.
To Banjoko, “The MP3 thing is a really big red herring. While everybody’s arguing about that, they’re gonna lock down the rest of the game” – ‘they’ being telecommunications companies and corporate media. Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA), who has introduced pro-net a neutrality bill, used similar language at a May 6, 2008 hearing on the issue. “This whole idea that this legislation helps piracy is 100 percent wrong,” Markey said. “It’s a red herring. We should put an aquarium out here because there are so many red herrings floating around to mislead about what the intent of Net Neutrality is.”
Fein says Net Neutrality has been overlooked by the urban community “because there hasn’t been proper education to the artists and their reps that can help them better understand the consequences of this very possible looming situation.” It’s important, she adds, to “keep the net free and open for all — censorship online conflicts directly with the Constitution. It would affect all music communities if we had to worry about a controlled Internet.”
What You Can Do, Now
- Take a few minutes to do an Internet search on “Net Neutrality” and read up on the issue.
- Join Future of Music Coalition’s Rock the Net campaign to demonstrate your support of the open Internet.
- Net neutrality is currently being examined at the state and Federal legislative levels; learn more at http://www.savetheinternet.com/
- Tell Comcast and Verizon that censorship is un-American.
- Attend an FCC hearing in your area.
- Forward this article to all your MySpace and Facebook friends.
- Record a song defending Net Neutrality, make a video of it and post it on YouTube.
- Write your favorite urban publication and ask them why they haven’t covered this topic in-depth.
- Support underground and/or indie artists by legally downloading their music.
About the author: Eric K. Arnold has been writing about urban music culture since the mid-‘90s, when he was the Managing Editor of now-defunct 4080 Magazine. Since then, he’s been a columnist for such publications as The Source, XXL, Murder Dog, Africana.com, and the East Bay Express; his work has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Vibe, Wax Poetics, SF Weekly, XLR8R, the Village Voice and Jamrock, as well as the academic anthologies Total Chaos and The Vinyl Ain’t Final. Eric began his journalistic career while DJing on college radio station KZSC, and remembers well the early days of hip-hop radio, before consolidation, and commercialization set in. Urban radio remains a subject near and dear to his heart; his recent SF Weekly cover story, “The Death of Hyphy,” touched off an impassioned debate about the role of commercial stations in local communities which continued in the streets and online for months after the article’s publication. He currently lives in Oakland, California.