The late ’90s and early ’00s were a booming time for indie rap, with labels Rhymesayers (Minneapolis) and Definitive Jux (New York) at the forefront of the cerebral, DIY movement. Def Jux experienced some tumultuous times and went on hiatus last year, but Rhymesayers keeps plowing along; the label’s Soundset Festival ballooned into a full-blown national event in 2008. Just a notch below touring hip-hop fest Rock The Bells in regard to star power, Soundset’s lineup continues to add big-name clout: This year’s bill sees legends Big Boi and De La Soul joining Atmosphere.
But the fest isn’t all industry greybeards; youngsters like Mac Miller and Mally will be performing alongside the vets. The dynamics of underground hip-hop were flipped on its head with the proliferation of social media and Pro Tools—the only reality a 19-year-old like Miller knows. As a study in contrast, we chatted with battle-tested Minneapolis MC Brother Ali and Philadelphia-based greenhorn Mac Miller separately leading up to Soundset 2011, held this Sunday, May 29. The results? A professorial warhorse in Ali, a career rapper ready to wax analytical about craft. Miller, on the other hand, is what you’d expect: an under-thinking teen enjoying the sensory thrills of Internet rap stardom.
Mac Miller: I’m not a person who likes to label different types of rap. If you say backpack rap is like indie, conscious hip-hop, then hell yeah, that was my shit—like your Talib Kwelis, Mos Defs. As a kid, I was a big fan of Common and stuff like that. I’m definitely a De La fan; that whole group is the shit. I’ve definitely rocked some De La instrumentals in my day. I’m actually a huge fan of Pandora, letting it take me on a ride of different types of music. I’ve been listening to the old school hip-hop stuff and rock like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Brother Ali: We all come from a time when hip-hop itself was a small community. And if you were a fan of hip-hop, you listened to every part—Big Daddy Kane, Public Enemy, Heavy D, Geto Boys, N.W.A. We also had better people to look up to; we had Run DMC and Public Enemy. And these kids have… I guess they have The Roots to look up to. Now it’s so fragmented; people listen to their little group of artists and they don’t even know anything about the other groups.
MM [who exploded on YouTube, with four videos approaching 10,000,000 views each]: I think that with the Internet, it has given a lot of people the opportunity to get themselves out there to the masses. But it’s easy to group everyone that’s on the Internet together. I try to cross and jump around between genres and different styles, kind of find my own niche. The blogs have been great and everything, but I think, for me, it’s better to have a central place on the Internet for all my fans to go and show their friends my YouTube, Twitter, and social networking sites. To have that spread all on its own and have a central station to get everything Mac Miller.
BA: We had different challenges. The challenge that we had was a lot more logistical—just getting your voice recorded was a lot more difficult. Once you had your voice recorded, to get that in the hands of people, there was a lot more physical activity involved. Like you had to save money and go to studio or save even more money and buy studio equipment—thousands of dollars worth of stuff. Kids now, they can do everything from their computer, they don’t even have to leave their living room. Your parents already have a computer; they understand why you need a computer. Try explaining to a single mom with two kids why she should buy you a $500 thing to make beats on—it’s not happening. Kids now, they skip all those steps, which is fine. In one hour they can record themselves and have it on the same YouTube that people are hearing the new Jay-Z song on. The same Facebook, the same Twitter. Their challenge now is that things are so much more flooded and oversaturated. Our challenge was logistical, theirs is more, “How do I get attention to what I’m saying when everybody else is rapping?”
Internet Rap Stardom and Odd Future:
MM [who has 393,000 Twitter followers]: On Twitter, I get the crazy stuff. It’s everything from awesome, positive things to people talking some crazy-ass shit. People have said death threats. It’s everything from dudes saying weird stuff—that they love me. And then girls saying… what they’ll do.
Who isn’t a fan of what Odd Future’s doing? They’re a bunch of cool-ass kids who are doing something completely different, which is always cool. I’m definitely a fan of that movement.
BA: The kids now are more productive than we ever were; they’re a lot more prolific and productive in the sense that they have to have music out all the time. And that’s something that we could learn from, me in particular. Mac Miller’s a great example of someone who puts out music regularly, puts out a lot of stuff. Now, is it all good? There’s a balance. There are people that put out music all the time and it gets boring. But he’s a good example of somebody—nobody got behind him, nobody co-signed him. I mean, eventually Wiz Khalifa did, but he was going before then. He just made music that his peers really felt like spoke to them and spoke to what they were feeling—something that they identified with. Atmosphere sold a few hundred thousand units before they ever made a video. I didn’t make a video until I was five years into my career, ’cause it used to cost thousands of dollars to do that. It’s not that we’re inherently better artists than [young rappers] are, but we were our video. Mac Miller has videos online that have millions of hits. We had to go out there and literally perform for those people because there wasn’t YouTube.
I think the nihilism in [Odd Future]—the anger and angst that they have—is just a reflection of how full of shit everything is in our society. It’s just kinda like, “Fuck everything ’cause everything’s bullshit.” And in a sense, they’re right. There is meaning in the world, but nobody’s showing it to them. I think that that spirit is good. If that spirit can be harnessed and funneled into something positive, that’s revolutionary spirit that every generation has. I really think they’re more fucked up than any generation, in terms of just being numb.
MM: The good stuff that I’ve read is that people understand that not only do I have a classic hip-hop influence, but also all different types of musical styles within what I’m doing. What I hate is when people take me and categorize me in that “frat rap” category. I don’t really feel like I’m that at all. Not that I hate on that, I just don’t feel that’s really me. I make music for everyone. I’m not just trying to appeal to college kids.
BA: I’ve never liked it that much, overall. I’ve always wanted to see someone really credible shedding light on the greatest parts of rap across the board. That’s my bias; that’s what I like. I would just like to see hip-hop journalism in general take a step up and match the artistry. There have been great writers in music who are the caliber of artist as a writer as the people that they’re covering.
MM: She loves it. Starting out, she didn’t know what to expect and everything, but now she’s a huge fan and really supportive. She calls me nine times a day to make sure I’m not killing myself or doing anything too crazy. I’m on some crazy rock ’n’ roll shit, too. She’s great, but she’s still a mother so she still worries.
BA: Nobody really taught me shit; that’s just the truth. I learned indirectly from watching other people’s moves. Me and Slug [of Atmosphere] have this slogan or motto between us, “self-taught,” where we would listen to music and try to figure out how they did it. It’s really just necessity. It’s the mother of everything we’ve done.
MM: Bun B [UGK member and southern hip-hop legend] talked to me about trusting myself and always trying to connect on a deeper level with my fans. He said have your party records, have records to have fun to, but always make sure you can connect to your fans on a deeper level than just that.
Advice for the kids:
BA: The key is always the actual art itself, the actual music. There are all these myths out here that like, if you do this little trick, if you use this little strategy, it’ll do it for you. Strategies are great, business models are great, but the reality is your music has to mean something to people. Especially because there kind of is no business model now. Talib Kweli said the other day it’s like the Wild Wild West now. There are no rules—there’s no structure anymore, really. It’s kind of just everybody for themselves.