If you haven’t read the two articles we've already published about Biggie and Pac's death and the early hip-hop internet, I suggest you start there. If you have checked those out, you know how amazing Davey D’s Hip-Hop Corner was; hell, still is. In addition to diving into the site, I also tracked Davey down (which wasn't hard since he’s still an active member of the community) and got on the phone with him.
I’ve learned a lot about the hip-hop climate of the '90s from his site, but when I got him on the phone I felt like I was back in school. Davey is a pioneer, a godfather of hip-hop culture and the rap internet. He was there from the very beginning so he had some tremendous insight into the primordial stages of the internet. We often focus so much on where technology is now and where we are headed that we forget to take a look back. Chatting with Davey allowed me to get to know my roots as a internet-writer-type-person and reflect on what the climate is like now.
Class is in session...
Lucas: Can you tell me a little bit about the start of the the site?
Davey D: "The site has been around since ‘91 in its first incarnation and the one you probably see online came about in maybe '93 or '94. I was on pretty early. I had already been doing writing, we had a newsletter that I had done in the late '80s so the site was really just an extension of me putting out charts and writing about material that I was playing on the air. It was just another way to bring attention to the radio shows that I was doing."
When did you first realize the internet could be a medium for rap?
"That was never really a thought. I never looked at it in those terms. I think the philosophy is, I’m in the communications business and wherever people are, you try to figure out ways to reach them.
The website itself was just an extension. It wasn't like this is going to be a medium for rap. I think people often get confused because they don't think of hip-hop as being technological, but if you ask me hip-hop is in fact technological and has always been cutting edge, so of course if there's platforms that exist we are going to be there. At least I am going to be there. It was another form of meeting people and I could do it without the limitations in place when I was doing a newsletter.
When I was doing the newsletter I had to buy the paper, I had to lay out the copy, I had to write everything and had to write it in such a way that if it ran too long I had to shorten it. If it was too short I had to figure out what I was going to fill in. It was an arduous task, but the internet at that time allowed me to say what I wanted to say in as many words as I wanted to say it. I didn't have that limitation so that was an attraction. In a very practical sense this was an opportunity to do what I wanted to do without having to pay. The only limitation was not everybody I wanted to reach was on the internet.
People forget the music industry was very late to the party. Many labels weren't a part of it, radio wasn't a part of it. There were a lot of folks that said, 'I don't do that internet stuff.' I recall very vividly people who would brag that they didn't go on the internet. Industry folks never went on but there were fans that did and a lot of artists who were independent who had the same understanding about where things would eventually be at as I did."
It's incredible to hear people say, 'I don't do the internet stuff' because I think, now, the music industry are the ones changing technology with streaming and what not.
"Well, no. We can't give them credit for that. I won't give them credit for that. They didn't do that. It would be a mistake to give them that credit. There are some people in the music industry who did some things early on. I remember Harry Allen started rap.com, he brought a bunch of us together and he started talking about the powers of the internet. This is way back in the early '90s. I think he did a song on Public Enemy's album called "The Super Information Highway" where he talks about the eventual direction the music industry would be forced to take. So there were independent artists who really understood what this was about and they brought a lot of intuition and creativity and laid a lot of groundwork. I would argue a lot of the stuff I was doing laid some key groundwork for a lot of folks. Myself, ghettoblasters.com, supportonlinehiphop.com, came on a year or so after. Of course Public Enemy, Harry, Chuck D, we were all in the same crew so they were early on. Ice T too.
Many of these big giant companies resisted. They didn't want to have anything to do with the internet. Any of them that would sit up here in 2015 and say, 'Oh yeah I was there,' I'd give 'em a big middle finger. You weren't there. You didn't want to be there and you resisted it the way you resisted the transference from tapes to CDs and CDs to the digital space. They didn't want streaming. They fought that and made it so most people can't do it with the licensing and copyrights. So the Jimmy Iovines of the world had nothing to do with it. They came on and basically brought the music industry structure - that often times tends to be exploitative - to the table and then figured out how to make money by using brand recognition and muscle to position themselves as the cutting edge. They weren't on the ground floor when Apple was doing iTunes. They came late. When we were programming at AOL, doing music there, the industry wasn't there. They were like, 'What are y'all doing?' Then they saw value to it and wanted to bring their two or three cents in.
I think anybody who tells the story about what went on in terms of the music coming to the internet...it'd be a disservice to not look at those pioneering efforts by indie artists who found they were going to be shut out from the mainstream. Not because the music wasn't good but because they didn't have four and five thousand dollars to give for a spin to some two-bit mix show DJ or some program director who didn't really give a damn about their music.
We can talk about where things are now and what's happening but then we have to really be cognisant of what really drove this thing in the first place, what the foundation was, and where we are now. Now it's about getting clicks and views and satisfying Google algorithms so you don't often have a lot of people nurturing some of the things that need to be nurtured, in terms of growing the music business. In fact I would argue now that there are so many restrictions. 'Where's the licensing? Can you pay for the licensing?’ all that sort of stuff. For example, if I'm doing mash ups as a DJ and I want to put that mashup on and share with people, which could then inspire. Instead, you have all these take down notices coming from the very industry that never wanted to be on the internet in the first place. Then when they do come on, they want to come on in such a way that they dominate. So at the end of the day you wind up in situations where it becomes so costly to really explore the full range of music and artistic presentation that you wind up having to cut corners. You might cut a deal with a big label just to play their catalog, but it restricts you from using anybody else's because you don't know if they will let you use it. I see a lot of things that could have taken it to some new heights that are now being very limited.
I’ll just close by saying the best example is when you had Danger Mouse's Grey Album. Think of the innovation that came out of that when you had Jay Z release his a capellas from The Black Album and all these people, from 9th Wonder to Danger Mouse, they took those and essentially said, 'Let me take those. Let me produce.' You had these innovations in terms of how they were producing and the first thing you saw was how EMI came down on Danger Mouse and I think they sued him even though he didn't even sell it and they made it so, if I remember correctly, he couldn't even talk about it. He could never promote it without being sued. It’s that sort of chilling stuff that, I think, limited the technology. Instead of figuring out new ways to revenue share and discover new markets, they dominated this space and removed everybody else. That was really a reaction to the fact that they couldn't figure out this technology and how to swing with everybody."
When did you see that first begin to take shape?
"I remember being at a radio station or around someone at a label and it would be like, 'We're gonna get this internet thing and were gonna go out there and reach the kids.' That was kinda the attitude and once you started to see some people who had that mentality get in, I could see that was going to be the beginning of the end. What they were missing was that, this is something you don't just toss on the wall and it sticks. You have to take time, you have to engage. The beauty of it in the early days was that you had to be a participant and it leveled the playing field. It didn't matter if you were a Davey D or a Funk Flex or a Dre. We're all on [the] same thing, we're all one click away. But there were those who didn't see people as people but the potential to make money so you see those in tech world who thought they could be a part of this and you started to see those changes.
I think Napster and file sharing was a seminal moment in which the industry had to take this very seriously because the way that it was being presented they were losing a lot of their money...or at least they thought they were losing money because of Napster. I felt like they were putting out shitty material and people got tired of paying 15 bucks for a CD for really only two songs. So people were going online and sampling that music and said, 'I'm not going to pay 17 dollars for that album.' That was a hard pill for the industry to swallow. They could have found ways to be a part of what was happening, but they didn't want to do it. The unfortunate leaders of that were Metallica and Dr. Dre, but they were all represented by the same lawyer, and that lawyer came down and really found a way to get Congress and lawmakers to put the kibosh on something I think could have really democratized this industry and made it where all of us could grow and all of us could survive. But it would have meant having to abandon the old infrastructure, which eventually happened anyway.
They [large labels and artists] didn't want to see themselves on par with the very people they rejected or thought that they were better than because they had these platforms that were considerably larger but theie material wasn't necessarily better. That became an ego blow when someone on the internet suddenly blew up because he actually had good material and cultivated his or her fans. Whereas you had made the switch in the industry to not even making the artist the focus, but the platforms in which the artist existed. You were more interested in BET, MTV, the radio station and the concerts they threw than the artists.
If you don't believe me you can ask anybody to start naming off the top artist from four or five years ago and they would be hard pressed to do that. Even industry folks, and I know that from going on panels with them and asking them to do that, can't. You go, 'How come you don't know this when you are the ones promoting?' But ask anybody to name four songs off Wu-Tang's first album or Biggie's album or Pac's album and you have people who weren't even born who could do that, but can't tell you any of the songs on T-Pain’s last album, and you hear that guy [T-Pain] on the radio all the time. The point I'm getting at [is] there was a shift in terms of the music industry being a marketing operation versus being a music curation operation and eventually we start to see some of that reflected in the internet."
How did you measure who you were reaching and how many people?
"That's the whole thing, I never did that. That's what I'm saying. People today are like, 'I got 50 thousand followers.' Ok. You have 50 thousand followers. What does that mean at the end of the day? 50,00 people bought your shit? No they didn't. So what does that really mean? I avoided getting caught up in that. Most of us didn't even talk about that. I had a considerable advantage because the business that was being run at eLine paid for my site so I didn't have to get advertisement. So I never got caught up in the game because, if you recall, that game - the followers, the viewers, the listeners - lead to the first dot com bust.
I sat right up here in the Bay Area and went to million dollar launch parties. DJ's, caterers, 'We're gonna be the next iTunes!" Yadda yadda yadda. And people lost their shirts. They were caught up in the game of, what was the who...how many people were sticking, the eyes and ears and all that stuff, a lot which was artificially induced. I know it was artificially induced because I worked at AOL at one point and I saw some of the things that were going on there and I knew that game wasn't gonna be as accurate as we think it was. What that led to was an ongoing game of smoke and mirrors where many people played this game of trying to figure out how they can show numbers rather than be focused on telling the truth and really telling a good story.
Part of what I tried to do was, I look at my site and in the information I put on it as an archival thing. That’s why I never changed it. I wanted people to go back and look at the cheap animations or, the funny colors. I want people to be able to see that and go, 'This is what we did fifteen`and twenty years ago and here are some of the stories out at that time complete with typos and everything.' Sure I could clean it up, and some of those stories have been reposted on my other site hiphopandpolitics, but I wanted that to stand there so we know. That’s the original print as it was when it first came out. Those are important moments in history and I want to keep it the way it is.
So. Much. Knowledge.
I’m very proud to work for an outlet like DJBooth. I’ll not so humbly admit I think we are doing some of the most original, unique, and informative stuff on the internet, but of course pageviews are always on my mind. I want Reddit to pick up that piece and I want those retweets. It’s frustrating to see slideshows and listicles flourish instead of our content, but in talking with Davey, in seeing how his site has remained mostly intact (though it’s been hidden), it's a nice reminder to stay the course and to keep focused on what really matters.
As different as things are now, some things are remarkably similar - that whole platform over artist conversation rings pretty true with the streaming war. I don't know what the internet will be like in twenty years or if DJBooth will be around, but I know nobody will be looking at the Twitter beef slideshows. The great stuff stands the test of time and it’s inspiring to see living proof of that with Davey D’s Hip-Hop Corner.
Huge, tremendous shout out to Davey for sharing his story with me and paving the way for the rap internet.
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]