What Makes an Indie Rapper?
  • TUESDAY, JUNE 26, 2012

  • Posted by: Andrew Gruttadaro

A few weeks ago at Hot 97's Summer Jam, DJ Peter Rosenberg was hosting a pre-festival that featured Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, and Big K.R.I.T. when he stated that the artists were "real hip-hop," adding that Nicki Minaj's "Starships" was "bullshit." In one swift statement he made Lil' Wayne really mad drew a bright line between indie rap and mainstream rap. He made it clear that for the first time the two are completely separate from each other. Kendrick Lamar and A$AP are "real," while Nicki Minaj and the others with club and radio sensibilities, are not.

But what does it mean to be an indie rap star? How are we supposed to define one? First of all, style cannot be an appropriate demarcation, because indie rap's styles are as numerous as indie rock's subgenres. Even using label affiliations won't do it -- A$AP Rocky is signed to RCA, Big K.R.I.T. is part of Def Jam.



What actually seems to differentiate between indie and mainstream rap is a more nebulous term -- aesthetic. And several different things go into a rapper's aesthetic. First, you need an organic origin story. You need to be discovered through mixtapes, YouTube videos, Tumblr pages, etc. Indie rap would not exist without the internet. Where would Das Racist be right now if they had to pedal "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" on the street?

Number two, you have to hearken back to a "golden age" of hip-hop. A$AP does it with the cough syruped-out production that permeates through his music -- a nod to Houston's iconic "chopped and screwed" hip-hop. Kendrick Lamar is the reincarnation of early Dr. Dre, and Big K.R.I.T. is getting back to the roots of Southern hip-hop, drawing more on UGK than T.I.



Thirdly, the music needs to carry a sense of genuine motivation. Listening to Pitbull, for example, is not the same as listening to Tyler the Creator. A mainstream rap song is created to be consumed by the largest amount of people. An indie rap song is created out of a desire of expression -- the desire to tell a story, express a lifestyle, release emotion. The desire for radio play is nonexistent in indie rap.

The bars need to be meaningful, and if they're meaningless, they at least need to be interesting. Here's an example in comparison (one that Peter Rosenberg would probably agree with) -- guess who wrote which:

Let's go to the beach, each
Let's go get away
They say, what they gonna say?
Have a drink, clink, found the Bud Light

vs.

Cristal go by the cases, wait hold up that was racist
I would prefer the Aces, ain't no different when you taste it
A 40 ounce to chase it, that's just an understatement
I'm early to the party but my 'Rari is the latest

Stumped? The first four bars are from Nicki Minaj's "Starships," the second four are from A$AP Rocky's "Goldie." I hope you can see the difference, both in content and in delivery. Generally, the content of mainstream hip-hop songs these days is light, shallow musing, while indie rap delivers fierce bars that almost always remind you that you're listening to an artist with passion -- someone who is trying.

Right now, indie rap is actually more of a subgenre of indie music rather than rap music. More Pitchfork, less BET. But that's what happens when a genre evolves. Punk music developed out of a rebellion against 70s stadium rock, grunge out of rebellion against hair metal. Now it's rap's turn to rebel. And with each day, the lines between mainstream and alternative rap become clearer and clearer.

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