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The New Online Rap Communities

Rap’s adaptability makes it perfectly suited to the online experience in 2020.

It’s 11:59 p.m. on Thursday, March 26, and California producer Knxwledge is about to release his sophomore album, 1988. After a long workday, I’m sitting in front of my twilit computer and waiting for the digital drop to hit DSPs. Spotify is taking too long, which is why my brain points me to a greener pasture: Bandcamp.

I rush over to Knxwledge’s Bandcamp page and quickly find out I’m not the only one waiting. There are already a handful of comments from early supporters underneath the project’s warped cover art. “You done elevated,” user darnell comments, followed by three facepalming emojis. “I love this Knx album 1988, and I want the whole world to know,” user mistertribune follows. The album hasn’t even been out for an hour yet. And yet the community is already rolling out the red carpet.

The social aspect of Bandcamp was secondary, yet became its own kind of surprise, a Wonder Ball for voracious music fans. “The people who use Bandcamp, no matter what style of music they like, they’re in it,” J. Edward Keyes, one of the site’s editorial directors, said via phone a few months after the Knxwledge album drop. “They read the liner notes, they love the artists, they wanna find all the tracks. You can always tell when someone’s deep into music, regardless of style, and that’s one thing I’ve seen with the Bandcamp community more than anything else.”

Bandcamp and its bustling community have a unique foothold in the world of music. The company, founded in 2008, is a streaming service, first and foremost. Unlike most streaming services, users are encouraged to interact with—and directly purchase music from—their favorite artists. Artists receive the lion’s share of the profits, and fans can opt to sign up for a newsletter that emails them every time said artist has new material to share.

The artist-to-fan relationship on Bandcamp is second to none outside of a direct social media post. Artists get money, and fans get the product and directly contribute to their fav’s livelihood. This exchange also trickles down to the site’s fan-to-fan experience. I once purchased a copy of Knxwledge’s beat tape, HX. 12.8, and, many months later, received an email that read: 

“Booyakasha! You just made something awesome happen. A virtual high five and/or fist bump to you, CineMasai. For shukki just bought the following item after discovering it via your recommendation.”

Unwittingly, I tossed Knxwledge an alley-oop. Not only did the user shukki buy the album after finding it in my collection, but Bandcamp also sent me an email to tell me so. Knxwledge uploads new music to Bandcamp at a superhuman rate—he’s dropped six more projects in the four months since 1988’s release. The steady drip of content has earned him a devoted following willing to shell out money for new beats.

A rapid release schedule alone isn’t enough to endear you to fans. You have to give fans music worth fawning over. Enter Brooklyn-via-Maryland rapper Oddisee, who last month released Odd Cure, his first project since 2017’s The Iceberg. Thousands of fans hungry for new content put their money on the table. R.A.P. Ferreira, the Wisconsin-born rapper formerly known as milo, has leveraged his Bandcamp presence to turn his Ruby Yacht record label into a beacon for heady raps he’s now able to sell at a premium.

None of this would be possible if fans didn’t support their favorites. Bandcamp’s artist-first mentality—boosted by their monthly Bandcamp Fridays, where artists receive 100% of their profits—trickles down to the zealousness of their userbase. Their comments and music collections are just as important as the money coming in, establishing a connection, and encouraging digital diggers to explore and expand their palettes.

Moreover, engaging with musicians breeds a different kind of intimacy. In a world kept separate by the still-raging coronavirus, I search for this connection every time I visit Knxwledge’s Twitch page. The Twitch streaming service is home to video game streamers from around the world, but Knxwledge keeps to himself. He streams games like Street Fighter and Ghost of Tsushima, soundtracked by a slew of old and new beats. On a good day, you might even hear some unreleased heat.

The primary focus on Twitch is gaming, but Knxwledge is still a musician and uses the service to show his range. Sometimes, he makes beats on camera. Other times, he plays fan remixes of his songs. It’s a soothing mixed media landscape for his 12,300 subscribers. I often wonder how many of these subscribing fans followed Knxwledge on Twitch after first experiencing his music on Bandcamp.

Twitch has seen an influx of producers and rappers on the platform over the last five years. Some are also gamers who use the platform to cross-pollinate their fanbases. Take Maryland rapper Logic, for example, who just signed a seven-figure streaming deal with the company two weeks ago in the wake of his retirement from rap. For a rapper whose brand exists at the apex where rap and gaming collide, the partnership makes sense.

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Other rap figureheads have made their way to Twitch during the coronavirus to connect with their fans in a strictly musical sense. Kenny Beats hosts beat battles and offers advice to up-and-comers when he’s not goofing around with friends. Producer !llmind and Linkin Park member Mike Shinoda have both created entire projects with the direct support of their Twitch following. New York production collective Satellite Syndicate recently hosted a mini-festival featuring artists like MIKE, AKAI SOLO, and Maassai, bringing live concert vibes to fans who need them most during the still-raging coronavirus pandemic.

With live streaming comes live feedback. Fans can both support and directly interact with their favorite artists in immediate ways. I’m never surprised to see the amount of “bits”—a form of virtual currency fans can buy to support streamers and use certain emojis—being thrown at artists in chat windows; it’s the experience of being a part of something bigger than yourself coming full circle.

Amidst all the buying and watching, sometimes you want space to shoot the shit about rap music. Discord, an instant messaging app also initially dedicated to gaming, founded by user Kim in 2016, houses its own hip-hop server. “I made the server after migrating a clique from KanyeToThe onto Discord, boycotting an admin who was clamping down on our chat clique and abusing power,” Kim explained during a visit to the server in late June.

Kim created Hip-Hop Discord (HHD) six months after creating his own Grand Theft Auto 5 server on the platform. After a week-long absence, Kim returned and noticed a few dozen users were keeping the server alive. His passionate fandom and small but vocal support group provided a base to build a rap community thriving where none had existed before.

“Discord contained a very gaming-only landscape in 2016,” Kim elaborated. “Cultivation of community, especially organic like us, is difficult in general. Hip-hop is a Black art form, and to form a community, without promotion, around something so raw and unapologetic makes it all the more difficult. It was an uphill battle, but... I wanted to create a space where users could express themselves and vibe with fellow hip-hop heads.”

The few dozen members eventually bloomed to 300. Four years later, in time for Discord to rechristen itself as a space for more than just gaming chats, HHD now boasts over 45,000 active users. “You might not know who is chiming in (though often not the case, we have regulars), but it turns every conversation into some sort of round table talk,” moderator Bob Botanist explains.

With its growing numbers, one of HHD’s biggest features has become its celebrity guest cameos. Artists from California rapper Dumbfoundead to North Carolina rapper MAVI have taken part in “ask me anything” sessions—AMAs for short—with fans. Pusha-T announced his upcoming collaborative album with Madlib during an AMA on the server this past March. Aminé is currently scheduled for an appearance on August 12.

HHD also contains several channels geared toward the many aspects of hip-hop culture. A handful of these channels are dedicated exclusively to breaking music news; one is used for impromptu freestyling sessions; another is reserved for broader cultural fixations like fashion and sports that tie into hip-hop. If any of these feel too focused, there’s a looser channel for general water-cooler conversation.

During our conversation, Kim repeated the importance of community to the server’s success. “Community has to be dynamic,” he stressed. “I am convinced large companies who attempt to make what we have here consistently fail because they do not understand this. When you chat live, it’s instant. People like to talk as if it’s a real physical conversation.”

Unlike the Twitch or Bandcamp communities, conversations feel looser on HHD. Talk can bounce from a new album to a meme to breaking news at the drop of a reaction. HHD is the equivalent to a barbershop or a local diner, a place for acquaintances to build community at lightning speeds.

The server’s hectic nature doesn’t distract from the fact that it exists thanks to a shared love of hip-hop culture. Kim and company staked their claim to space not initially reserved for rap and created a thriving community despite it.

At its core, hip-hop is about taking something established and remixing it. Hip-hop’s adaptability lends itself to any identity, a cultural heartbeat showing no signs of stopping. This ethos will continue to flow through spaces like Discord, Bandcamp, and Twitch as long as hip-hop remains entrenched in the online experience.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Hip-Hop Discord originated as a Grand Theft Auto 5 server.



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