Late last month, we set the internet on fire when we declared that hip-hop's underground has become the new mainstream. Responses ranged from "This is a great way of looking at how technology has changed the industry" to "You seriously don't know what the fuck you're talking about, please shut the fuck up and never speak on this topic again."
As always, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
While on-demand streaming platforms and social media have undeniably given artists greater access to the masses—especially compared to the days when radio was the only way to broadcast records to a large audience—artists who don't have a financial backer or access to capital are more than justified in holding onto and caping for the "underground." To them, having access to a mainstream audience isn't the same thing as being a mainstream artist.
During his recent appearance on Grass Routes Podcast, Los Angeles MC Hopsin, fresh off the release of his new album No Shame, was asked by host Erin Ashley Simon to weigh in on the underground vs. mainstream debate, specifically as it pertains to the position I took in our article.
"Underground is usually just a term for rappers who just haven't fully, fully blown up in the way that people may feel they deserve," Hopsin explained. "A lot of people consider me underground and there are some people who say, 'He's not underground anymore.' I guess I can qualify for the stereotypes of an underground rapper. I think I'm a 'super mega underground rapper.' In the underground world, there are certain rappers who are huge. I would say I am on the top [level]."
Shout out Meek Mill because, according to Hopsin, as well as several other MCs I had the great privilege of speaking with since our first article was published, there are levels to this (underground) shit.
According to Open Mike Eagle, who chimed in on Twitter shortly after our initial piece went live, the "underground" is defined as "reach relative to those with the most resources." Using this definition, an artist like Hopsin, who currently has greater access to funding (300) than Eagle (Mello Music Group) but still considers himself underground, would technically be considered mainstream—but only compared to Mike and others who are in the same position.
Currently, Hopsin is signed to a record deal with 300 Entertainment, the same label home as chart-topping stars like Migos, Young Thug and Fetty Wap, and he currently boasts 1.6 million monthly listeners on Spotify, a number that is on par with or greater than hip-hop household names like Earl Sweatshirt, Nipsey Hussle, Freddie Gibbs, Ab-Soul and Royce da 5'9", but still, he considers himself to be part of the underground. Why? Because there are plenty of artists—both signed and completely independent—who have a larger reach, a larger audience and even more financial support.
Obviously, this argument is a slippery slope, since it'd be hard for, let's say, Cam'ron, who is not currently signed to a major label and doesn't have the marketing and radio budget as, let's say, Big Sean, to make the argument that he is "underground," but this does give credence to the idea that, at least for artists, this is not a black and white issue. There are multiple levels that can be reached in both the mainstream and the underground, with other artists constantly raising or lowering the bar depending upon their own individual success and the opportunities that are granted to them.
While it's unlikely that all of us will ever be able to come to an agreement on the precise definition of what "underground" means in the context of 2017 and beyond, everyone—both artists and fans—should feel great in knowing that, no matter what type of classification is attached to artistry, more Americans are listening to new music now than ever before.
And yes, that includes the underground.