Social media is an excellent medium to connect, discuss and debate with our readers. Recently, DJBooth Editor-in-Chief Z took to Facebook and posed an interesting question: "If you were a DJ, what artist would you try to break into the mainstream?" An interesting response came from reader Daniel Butler, who answered, “None… Once they hit mainstream its all downhill from there.”
While his comment is rather harsh, he isn’t alone in the assessment. Many rap fans—and music fans in general—view the mainstream as treacherous waters, something like Styx, the river in Greek mythology that led spirits to the underworld. Daniel’s perspective views artists entering the mainstream as a doorway to doom, a casket for creativity, the beginning of the end.
Rap music tends to be separated by two specific spectrums: underground and mainstream. To be an artist in the underground means to exist beneath—artists in the underground stand on smaller platforms that tend to receive far less notoriety and recognition. What you lose by existing in a smaller spotlight and a smaller system of support, you gain in artistic freedom; freedom is often enough to lead artists to prosperity. To be an artist in the mainstream allows the opportunity to be above—major labels, radio, bigger budgets and bigger backing—but in exchange you risk losing artistic freedom by creating within a more conventional, commercial structure, with more voices dictating your work and also more hands in the pot of gold when the money does come.
The internet has been a major tool in leveling the playing field when it comes to allowing artists in the underground to reach massive amounts of people, but there’s still a huge divide when comparing the pros and cons of being an artist in the underground and being an artist in the mainstream. “Crossing over” is a term used to describe an artist who has made the transition going from beneath to above. Some fans rejoice, while others groan at the very rapper they supported at the bottom reaching new heights.
There’s this idea that the mainstream will change them, but also, a sense of selfishness having to share their secret with the world. It’s a rather weird perspective, but one that I’ve continued to witness in my days of watching artists blossom from the concrete. I’ve had countless conversations where people have denounced artists they once championed for becoming “too mainstream.”
There have been cases where signing to a label has had a deep impact on the music an artist makes. The major labels aren’t factories that are trying to build the next great rapper, they are businesses who make big investments, and care mostly about making a return on their initial investment. It’s a system built strictly for turning promising stars into household names or creating the next big star.
J. Cole has stated numerous times that “Lights Please” was the song that sealed his deal with Roc Nation—an introspective journey through the mind of a man juxtaposing his desire for depth with a shallow lover, and the inability to disconnect due to sex. The storytelling is great, the hook is simple, and the production is driven by the Dexter Wansel drum loop—the feeling is reminiscent of older times. When Cole released his first single through The Roc, it was nothing like the song that got him signed and was a bit different than his mixtape offerings that turned people into fans. “Who Dat” wasn’t a terrible first single, but unsuccessful by the label's standards. His approach to the record was with mass appeal in mind, a characteristic that was mostly missing from his mixtapes. When he failed to make "Who Dat" a popular single, his second attempt was "Work Out," a song that desperately cries for radio attention—artistically it’s one of the worst songs in his catalog, but it was embraced, became a top 20 single, and assisted in getting him enough attention to release his album.
If J. Cole stayed underground or signed to an independent label, a song like “Work Out” or even the Trey Songz-assisted “Can’t Get Enough” would likely never be born. The label needed a radio record, not a great rap song, but something that could hit the airwaves and clubs. He had no choice but to appease the label; it’s the kind of stipulation artists may face when crossing over, and I understand why hardcore fans aren’t receptive to their favorite artist creating under these requirements. We have seen time and time again how labels change artists—style, production, and content can all be altered if they believe it will sell.
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But J. Cole also further proves that if you work within the label system, if you find success playing their game, you can earn freedom. Once forced to make radio songs, J. Cole now doesn’t even have to drop a single; Cole's albums don't even have release dates. Cole has proven his madness has a method that can bring in results. Now, he's in the position to make the music he wants to make, to use the label's resources and still sell successfully. Hate the mainstream all you want, but J. Cole doesn’t go double platinum with no features if he doesn’t sign his deal if he doesn't make "Work Out." It was a long journey to the top, and the music wasn’t always excellent, but he had to learn the game to beat the game. Rap is better with Cole in the spotlight than hidden away in the darkness of the underground.
Vince Staples is another example of someone whose music changed once he crossed over into the mainstream, and many could argue it’s for the better. Vince was always raw with a natural talent for storytelling, and his ability to rhyme made him an underground darling, but it wasn’t until teaming up with Def Jam and No I.D. that he was he able to manifest that potential into a career. Vince has stated in past interviews that he doesn’t have any disdain for his label, it’s simply a business and Def Jam is his employer. It’s important to state that when Vince signed his deal to Def Jam, he took less money in his budget in exchange for creative control.
This is important for fans, and for rappers who look at majors as systems of control, let it be known that negotiation is possible. As the artist, they want you to sign, and that means you have some say in the rules. If creative control matters, make sure that’s stated early on. It could be the big difference between releasing a pop disaster or a classic rap album. Vince Staples may not be the biggest mainstream artist, but his visibility has never been so high, and it wouldn’t have happened this way without the label. He’s a perfect example of how you can sign to a major, and not get stuck chasing radio or watering down your artistry. It’s also worth noting that without the label, “Norf Norf” would never reach the radio, and that means we never get to see this.
At times, cheering for an artist in the underground can make rap fans jaded. You are so deeply connected to the art, and the system of support that crossing over is looked at almost as taboo. It's as if they will lose the very thing that you loved about them. It’s rather unfair, especially since each artist wants more money, more fans, and the ability to touch more lives. Once you’re able to reach the mainstream you are spotlighted, thus bringing more attention to you each time. This can be built in the underground, but you might not have the same resources. Mac Miller made history for what he accomplished as an independent artist, but what led to him signing under Warner Bros. was curiosity—he wanted to see what could happen if he had the backing and support of a major label. Not only did they award him with 10 million dollars, both GO:OD AM and The Divine Feminine—two albums released through Warner—are impressive bodies of work. The mainstream didn’t swallow Mac, he has only improved, and any fans who abandoned ship are missing out on an astounding, maturing artist who is only going to get bigger and better.
The reason why there's a rise in mindie artists is that the record labels want rap fans to believe artists are still independent—a white lie to keep us from departing due to their assistance. Not every artist is signed, but many have some kind of deal or connection to help garner more attention. Your favorite independent artist could very well be in a mindie deal right now and you don’t know it—does that change how their music makes you feel? Does it change your desire to support them? If fans didn’t have such a disdain for labels and the mainstream there would be no need to keep the signings secret.
We have to stop viewing artists graduating to the mainstream as a foreshadowing of their artistic deaths. I do agree that the system is flawed, and talent isn’t always awarded, but there have been cases like Kendrick, ScHoolboy Q, Anderson .Paak, GoldLink, Vic Mensa and D.R.A.M., where artists are maintaining artistic integrity and still prospering in the mainstream. On the flipside, while artists like Lupe, Big K.R.I.T., Lil Wayne and countless others have struggled with their label, that doesn’t mean it’s the case for every artist.
Whether major or independent, there’s going to be ups and downs, peaks and valleys, success and failure. If you truly care about the artist and their artistry you’ll be there until the wheel falls off, regardless if it’s 100 or one million people on the hype train. Fans have to understand that artists are trying to survive and make music that can hopefully reach the masses. This may not be every artist, but most care about expanding their following every chance they get. You can do a lot in the underground, but there are simply more opportunities after breaking into the mainstream. If you have a best friend, and that friend gets a thousand more best friends, are they still your best friend? I would hope so.
Let’s not hold our friends back from greatness, you never know who might need their music to get through this thing we call life.
By Yoh, aka YohStream aka @Yoh31.