A hip-hop rescue - how indie labels are giving the genre a fresh start

Recent years have been tough for rap music, with plummeting record sales and the rise of indie rock. But as the majors abandon all but the biggest artists, independent labels are providing a sanctuary
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The Independent Culture

At first glance, hip-hop circa 2008 seems a jaded and forlorn soul. Sure, its marquee names–Kanye West, 50 Cent, The Neptunes – still all eat well, but rap music as a whole has seen its mainstream profile eclipsed by a new crop of indie rock bands, a shift reflected in the much-quoted 20-plus per cent slump in sales of the genre between 2005 and 2006. Hip-hop’s major record labels – once guaranteed sizeable returns at the cash registers from their star rosters – are feeling the pinch and have promptly slashed promotional budgets, cut staff and dropped artists.

The music’s current public face meanwhile is that of a bloated, stifled scene, crammed with materialistic MCs decked out in oversized sportswear whose lethargic lyrics have become as flat as last night’s Cristal. In short, things aren’t too sweet.

But dig down deep enough, beyond the tales of pistols, pussy and the police, and you’ll see there’s a faint pulse still detectable within the recent output of many smaller, independent labels that don’t usually land on mainstream radars. In March, hotly-tipped Detroit rhymeslinger Guilty Simpson, a protégé of late producer Jay Dee, released his debut album, Ode To The Ghetto – which was one of the most anticipated rap albums in years – on cult California label Stones Throw.

The buzz generated by Brooklyn-based imprint Nature Sounds in the last year reached fever pitch with must-have releases from Wu-Tang Clan rapper Masta Killa and more recently the legendary producer, DJ and one-time Nas and Public Enemy collaborator, Pete Rock.

And then there’s UK-based Lex Records, which brought New York producer Danger Mouse – the brains behind the Jay-Z/Beatles mash-up The Grey Album and the gazillion-selling Gnarls Barkley – to mainstream attention. Later this year, the label will launch the latest project from US underground sensation MF Doom, whose mysterious metal mask and obscure pop culture-layered rhymes have brought him critical acclaim from far beyond the confines of the backpack-and-baggy-pants set.

“I think that it’s a good time for hip-hop in the sense that there’s great music being made by artists allover the world,” says Tom Brown, head of Lex, which is also known for its more eccentric, leftfield output such as Kid Acne and Boom Bip. “But it’s a bad time commercially. Hip-hop is on the dark side of the moon as far as the media is concerned. Sooner or later things will change and all this terrible haircut indie rock will vanish – but until then we’ve just got to hang in there.”

Sure, Brown’s notion of a flourishing, creative underground music scene ignored and marginalized by the commercial sector is not confined to hip-hop, and yes, the idea of railing against corporatism in music is certainly nothing new. Hip-hop itself has been here before.

Around a decade ago, as Puff Daddy, Lil’ Kim and others of their boastful, self-congratulating shiny-suited ilk were espousing their boozy, bling-bling agendas in clunky raps over chart-friendly re-heated disco hits – and clocking up sizeable amounts of record sales in the process – a small cluster of independent labels in New York sought to serve rap fans with a genuine alternative to the sugar-coated product peddled by the majors.

An independent-spirited and resolutely anti-commercial underground hip-hop movement of-sorts was born, led by the famed Rawkus Records imprint. Rawkus would go on to foster future stars such as Mos Def and Talib Kweli, who won critical acclaim with politically charged work which spoke of self-empowerment and individualism. Inevitably, though, Rawkus – and other like-minded labels such as Fondle ’ Em Records and Hydra Entertainment – would be gobbled up by the industry as hip-hop’s march was steered in the direction of the dollar and it stormed the pop charts, making wealthy global superstars out of Jay-Z, Eminem and 50 Cent.

The difference now, of course, is that even the most glossy, glitzy commercial rap isn’t shifting the kind of numbers it did in P Diddy’s late-Nineties heyday. Stacks of column inches have focused on the spiraling trend of illegal downloads and their impact on the music industry, but within hip-hop circles many see the major labels’ often ham-fisted approach to the music as another significant contributing factor to the current critical and commercial malaise.

Consider Jay-Z’s tenure in charge of US giant Def Jam, arguably the biggest and most important label in rap history. When it appointed the New York rapper as president in late 2004, the move was widely hailed in the industry as a masterstroke. But very quickly, rumours were spreading about how Jay-Z’s colossal ego was leading to other Def Jam artists’ projects being sidelined and delayed. While rap fans were clamouring for new music from Def Jam stars Nas and Ghostface Killah, their release dates were constantly changed or inexplicably put back by execs behind the scenes.

“Being independent allows the label to be dynamic,” says Tom Brown of the contrast between the major and indie strategies. “Indies can make quick decisions, and do much better deals with artists.” He adds that despite the majors’ larger budgets and a wider focus, they still lack the nous of the indies when it comes to understanding maverick artists. “If you have a good person fighting your corner at a major label then you can have a long career. The problem is that staff changes over fairly rapidly at majors and if the guy in your corner gets fired in a cost-cutting exercise that might well mean that your album gets shelved or doesn’t get the attention it needs.

“On-the-way-up artists such as Danger Mouse are huge creative talents and need the attention that an indie can give them. Later in an artist’s career indies provide a creative environment,” Brown continues, adding: “MF Doom’s next solo project, under his DOOM moniker, will be on Lex. A major label would probably never sign DOOM directly because he’s unlikely to deliver the pop success they need – but he is probably the most important creative force in hip-hop.”

A quick scan of the hip-hop rosters on both indies and majors seems to reinforce the idea that up-and-coming rappers who sit outside the comfort zone of mainstream hip-hop – as well as legends of yesteryear considered past their sell-by-date by most majors – are finding creative nourishment on independent labels.

“Indies are picking up a lot of acts that aren’t going to fit on a major label in 2008, and releasing records from a lot of acts who, even five years ago, would have been on a major,” says Phillip Mlynar, deputy editor of Hip-Hop Connection magazine, about the current environment.

However, despite their taking a more grassroots approach and, some would argue, a greater risk on maverick artists, Mlynar reckons the cachet and air of authenticity that once surrounded independent rap labels like Rawkus has long since ebbed away.

“There’s no championing of independent status by artists like there was during the mid-to-late Nineties,” he says. “No one’s coming out boasting about being independent – people just seem to accept that most rappers aren’t going to be given a chance on a major label, so being on an indie is a natural fit, and possibly their only real option.”

Yet for Brown, the current vitality within the indie hip-hop scene isn’t simply by default in a climate where majors struggle to effectively market and promote their hip-hop acts. “I think indie labels work with artists who genuinely push the envelope,” he adds. “Most indies will give an artist total creative freedom. So when indies ‘push the envelope’ it’s really by giving the artists room to make amazing records.”

Guilty Simpson’s ‘Ode To The Ghetto’ is out now on Stones Throw; Pete Rock’s ‘NY’s Finest’ is out on Nature Sounds; DOOM will release a new album later this year on Lex.