The internet is the ultimate supercharger. In the 2010s, rap music was no exception. The days of file sharing on sites like Napster and MySpace in the 2000s gave way to mixtape downloads and, eventually, the streaming playlists of today. The advent of social media made sharing music even more relaxed, giving artists a bigger platform to connect with audiences.
Who wouldn’t want to connect with fans with the click of a button?
Through these platforms, several rap collectives rewrote the rules of chasing fame; so much so, they finagled record labels and contracts out of keystrokes. IRL grassroots branding is no longer the only way forward in the music industry. As the 2020s approach, let’s take a look back at 8 of the most influential internet collectives of the past decade, in no particular order.
Before we tap in, a few ground rules:
- The success of a chosen collective must be attributable to the Internet.
- The success of a chosen collective must have happened between the years 2009-2019.
- The success of a chosen collective must have resulted in some type of record or distribution deal, even if it’s independent.
Pro Era (Pro Era Records)
A surface-level reading of Pro Era would begin and end with the phrase “everything old is new again.” While the New York collective prided themselves on being golden age boom-bap enthusiasts in an ever-changing hip-hop landscape, the seven-man outfit was more than just a revival act. Formed in 2011 after founding members Capital STEEZ and Powers Pleasant played an open mic at a Brooklyn cafe, Pro Era started as a group of passionate friends ready to live the rap lives they’d spent years emulating. Their dream didn’t take shape until the YouTube nuclear warhead that is Joey Bada$$ and STEEZ’s “Survival Tactics.”
The fire in the duo’s voice is evident as they tear the self-titled beat from Style of Beyond to shreds. Two rappers under the age of 18 leaving a scorched Earth was a recipe for internet virality. The song, a single from Bada$$’ 2012 debut mixtape 1999, racked up millions of plays and attracted the attention of Cinematic Music Group head Johnny Shipes, who signed the group to the label later that year.
The unfortunate passing of STEEZ on December 24, 2012, sent a shockwave through the group—and the industry—one they knew they had to channel into something greater. Through various projects, tours, and one quasi-presidential endorsement, Pro Era eventually became New York’s stalwart collective of the Internet Age, celebrating the old guard while continuing to push it forward.
Most influential song: “Survival Tactics”
Most influential member: Joey Bada$$
Odd Future (Odd Future Records)
When they first arrived, Odd Future was menacing. The California collective traded in horrorcore lyrics and goofily abrasive production perfect for the hordes of teens shouting “Kill People, Burn Shit, Fuck School” from behind their three-ring binders. The group was composed of a murderer’s row of rappers, artists, and misfits who convened to make the music they wanted to hear in the world. As works like 2010s Radicals and 2012’s The OF Tape Vol. 2 began to pop, the Tyler, The Creator-helmed outfit used the reactive wind tunnels of the internet to turn controversy into clicks.
Tours sold out as parents clutched their pearls. YouTube videos of young adults drinking drug smoothies and eating roaches earned millions of plays. Moshpits were started, and tie-dye t-shirts adorned with cats were sold. Chants of “Free Earl” were shouted, even as his family began receiving death threats. Odd Future didn’t invent the idea of stoking controversy for attention, but they were among the first to amplify it through the Internet. Their firebrand attitude and rabid following caught the attention of Sony Music Entertainment, who absorbed their label Odd Future Records into its stable.
Though several albums would be released through the label—including two Tyler albums (2013’s Wolf and 2015’s Cherry Bomb) and solo albums from Domo and The Internet—every member of the group would eventually move on. Some of them, namely Tyler, Earl, and Syd, are among the most influential artists of their generation, with their hefty label deals to show for it. And it all started when a few California skate punks were ready to get odd.
Most influential song: “Oldie”
Most influential member: Tyler, The Creator
A$AP Mob (A$AP Worldwide)
Steve Rodriguez—better known as A$AP Yams—had a vision for Harlem in the early 2010s: to bring the sounds of 125th and Lennox to the world in a way hip-hop had never seen before. A former intern for Diplomat Records, Rodriguez founded the A$AP Mob with fellow members A$AP Bari and A$AP Illz in 2006. The group didn’t secure its footing until 2010, though, when Yams’ Tumblr page, called Real Nigga Tumblr, became a monument to rap history in general and A$AP members’ music specifically. The page’s reach eventually gave way to the first breakout song in A$AP Rocky’s “Purple Swag.”
“Purple Swag” is a mix of New York smooth and Houston-inspired chopped-and-screwed music, which, at the time, sounded like nothing coming out of New York. Pro Era, this was not. “Purple Swag” would lead to Rocky and the group’s imprint, A$AP Worldwide, signing a major label deal with RCA Records and Polo Grounds in 2011, followed by the release of Rocky’s debut project Live.Love.A$AP. The label deal provided a launchpad for the Mob as a whole, with the collective releasing their debut mixtape Lords Never Worry in 2012 to mixed reviews.
Rocky and Ferg would go on to become the group’s most successful members, but Yams proved to be the beating heart of the organization. This realization became all too clear when on January 18, 2015, Yams passed away from an overdose at the age of 26. Since his death, A$AP Mob has continued to move forward together, releasing two volumes of their Cozy Tapes series with a third on the way. While each member has remained busy as the decade comes to a close, Yams’ love of rap culture and exceptional curatorial skill across Twitter and Tumblr helped solidify the A$AP aesthetic across music, art, and fashion.
Most influential song: “Purple Swag”
Most influential member: A$AP Yams (RIP)
BROCKHAMPTON (Question Everything)
How far would you be willing to go for someone you met on an online forum? BROCKHAMPTON’s genesis is well-documented at this point. In 2010, leader Kevin Abstract posted to the KanyeToThe forum asking if any members wanted to form a band; he received over 30 responses. The group, originally consisting of Abstract, Ameer Vann, Dom McLennon, and MiC Kurb, was initially called AliveSinceForever and only released one EP (2013’s The ASF EP) before disbanding a year later. Members went back to KanyeToThe to recruit for the newly christened BROCKHAMPTON.
By 2015, the group had a core member base and DIY ethos pushing them through their creative process. They lived together in houses in Texas and then Los Angeles, creating in a home studio they dubbed the BROCKHAMPTON Factory. They released the single “Dirt” through Fools Gold Records before releasing their debut mixtape All-American Trash a year later in 2016. In 2017, the group released its Saturation album trilogy across six months, garnering heaps of critical acclaim. Like Odd Future before them, they used the internet as a tool to draw attention, but instead of controversy, they flooded an eager fanbase with more music than they could handle. Their approach worked and, in 2018, the group accepted a $15 million deal with RCA Records in cooperation with their label Question Everything Inc.
BROCKHAMPTON tapped into a misfit fanbase as enamored with Tyler, The Creator, as they were of One Direction. The band coming together in a comment section is just the icing on the cake.
Most influential song: “GOLD”
Most influential member: Kevin Abstract
Awful (Awful Records)
Members: Father, Playboi Carti, Abra, Zack Fox, Big Baby Scumbag, Danger Incorporated, Meltycanon, Richposlim, Archibald Slim, Stalin Majesty, Tommy Genesis, Quince, LUI, Ethereal, KeithCharles Spacebar, Micah Freeman, Dexter Dukarus, Slug Christ, Alexandria
Somewhere in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, GA, a group of friends came together to create something awful. Founding members Father, Archibald Slim, and Ethereal were roommates at Georgia State University when they first met and caught the bug to create music. “They were doing music, and I was doing graphic design, pretty much, and they got me started making beats,” Father told The Fader in 2014. Slim and Ethereal’s influence rubbed off as they began to recruit more Atlanta locals, eventually moving into a house and forming the Awfully Creative collective, later renamed to Awful.
The collective’s aesthetic is woozy and surreal, as best exemplified by Father’s breakout hit “Look At Wrist.” The self-produced track bobs and weaves through heavy bass and synths, its deadpan lyrics toeing the line between serious and irreverent. An atmosphere of collaboration informed the song’s woozy grooves, one involving music videos and graphic design. Every member is a cog in service of a greater whole. This DIY ethos attracted up-and-coming artists like Key! and Playboi Carti and a then-rising star named iLoveMakonnen into their orbit. “Look At Wrist” drew eyeballs to the collective, who began to flex their diversity by releasing the hazy R&B of Abra and the comedy stylings of Zack Fox, among others.
“Look At Wrist” was the catalyst for Awful’s brand of niche internet domination. A rabid release schedule and appealing visual aesthetic kept audiences tapped in, to the point where RCA Records took notice and signed the collective to a “creative partnership” in 2018. Going from creating in a college dorm to endorsement deals with Adult Swim and Foot Locker says an awful lot about the DIY strategy in the internet age.
Most influential song: “Look At Wrist”
Most influential artist: Father
According to Soulection, a groove is not bound by the physical. Founding member Joe Kay started the burgeoning company in his grandmother’s garage in Los Angeles under the name IllVibes, playing a rotation of songs from labels like Stones Throw and Brainfeeder. Co-founder Andre Power was a fan of his lo-fi startup and invited him down to San Diego to put his curatorial skills to the test as a DJ during an event Power helped organize. Fortunately for Kay, the event was a success, and after he began attending Cal State University and broadcast Soulection Radio (Show #1), the pair, along with visual artist Guillaume “96” Bonte, began to put the brand to work.
Kay and company posted mixes and compilation albums to streaming services like SoundCloud and Bandcamp, garnering a growing audience trusting of their tastes in atmospheric electronic beats. Through money from part-time jobs and Bandcamp funds, Soulection became a next-level music experience. The label was invited to Coachella to perform a DJ set in April 2013 before releasing albums from artists like GoldLink and Mr. Carmack.
Soulection now embodies all corners of the modern music industry: they have a radio show on Apple Beats 1 and a clothing line, tour the world over, release music through their Bandcamp, and have helped showcase countless artists across multiple genres.
Soulection is a unique entity on this list because it doesn’t have a set group of members or one particular song responsible for its overall aesthetic. Joe Kay just had a garage radio show and a dream to turn it into something bigger. With a little help from his friends, they brought the groove to the world on their terms.
88Rising founders Sean Miyashiro and Jaeson Ma brought their media company to life in 2015 with the intent of putting on for immigrants in the rap community, mainly Asian and Asian-American artists. Originally founded under the name CXSHXNLY, their roster included mainstays like Dumbfoundead and Okasian. When South Korean rapper Keith Ape released his viral music video for “It G Ma” in 2015, Miyashiro took it upon himself to reach out and offer the opportunity to remix the song. This relationship led to a remix featuring Dumbfoundead, A$AP Ferg, Waka Flocka Flame, and Father, extending the artist and the label’s reach even further.
What put 88Rising on the map was the role they played in spreading “Dat $tick,” a single by Rich Brian, formerly known as Rich Chigga. Brian’s monotone raps, sturdy flows, and goofy appearance made for internet gold, and 88Rising rose to the occasion to help promote it. The company published a video of stateside rappers reacting to the video on YouTube, which also went viral and created even more awareness. Miyashiro and company leaned into the criticisms they were receiving, minting a bonafide star in the process.
Hip-hop and R&B are hugely popular across Asia, and 88Rising’s roster has come to represent for immigrants and natives alike. Rich Brian, Joji, Dumbfoundead, and the Higher Brothers, in particular, are leading the charge for Asian representation in rap music as the decade draws to a close. “My goal is to go mainstream—partially because I really want to pave the way for Asian kids to be themselves,” Brian told SSENSE. As 88Rising’s biggest star, he and his labelmates aren’t too far off.
Most influential song: “Dat $tick”
Most influential member: Rich Brian
Ruby Yacht (Ruby Yacht)
Members: R.A.P. Ferreria (fka milo), Kenny Segal, Safari AI
If you’re an independent artist, you’re only going to get what you’re willing to take. Rory Ferreria, the rapper now known as R.A.P. Ferreria, formerly known as milo, took this advice to heart as he began making music in his hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin. His first two projects, 2011’s I Wish My Brother Rob Was Here, and 2012’s Milo Takes Baths, gained Ferreria a following, including rappers Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle. The three eventually joined the collective Hellfyre Club, founded by California battle rapper Nocando, before disbanding and each moving in their separate ways.
Ferreria took the opportunity to cultivate his growing internet following into two ventures: the Ruby Yacht record label in 2015 and Soulfolks Records in 2018. Ferreria has a unique perspective when it comes to being a label boss; he doesn’t sign artists in the traditional sense.
“In my mind, Ruby Yacht is a launchpad,” he told Quench. “I want all my homies to have their own labels. I want all my homies to be their own boss, I don’t [want] anyone looking to me for what to do next you know?”
Ruby Yacht has released music from various artists, including LA producer Kenny Segal, Pink Navel, and Safari Al, and the driving motivation comes back to serving artists in a tangible sense. Ferreria took the money he earned from his internet following and founded both a record store and a record label. Ruby Yacht is cultivating its digital audience through analog means. If that isn’t a progressive way of approaching rap as we approach 2020, I don’t know what is.
Most influential song: “Almond Milk Paradise”
Most influential member: R.A.P. Ferreria