A lot of binaries we use are helpful; by placing parts of the world in opposing categories, we create order out of what is otherwise chaos.
In the same vein, a lot of these binaries are also bullshit oversimplifications that can be just as harmful as they are helpful. Gender and sexuality, for example, both exist on a spectrum, but throughout our lives, we’re taught otherwise. You either enter a men’s restroom or a women’s one. If you’re a guy, you either go to prom with a girl or (assuming you attend a progressive high school and feel safe enough to) a fellow dude. One or the other. No in-between. No overlap. And you’d better believe this logic is ever present in hip hop as well: The binary of interest is none other than underground vs. mainstream. I’d like to apologize in advance for writing about this — it’s always an annoying conversation because it’s always impossible to come to a resolution. But the fact that these conversations never result in an answer is the answer.
The guidelines determining whether much of hip hop belongs to the gritty underground or the glamorous mainstream are built on a weak foundation, and with just a few case examples, the binary comes apart at the seams.
“If skills sold, truth be told/ I’d probably be/ Lyrically/ Talib Kweli/ Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/ But I did 5 mill — I ain’t been rhyming like Common since”
In just a few bars in “Moment of Clarity,” Jay Z summarizes the entire supposed foundational distinction between underground and mainstream rap. Intricate rhymes that may take multiple listens to reason through, like Talib’s, aren’t found in the mainstream because they don’t have mass appeal. Nonetheless, they’re more impressive, so it’s likely that the most talented, technical MCs are down below in the dungeons of rap. But even the earliest rappers wanted to be able to eat off rhyming. And there’s no money in that complex, usually conscious and often political underground shit. That’s why Hov dumbed down his lyrics — to “double (his) dollars.”
There are categories spawned in academia that are relevant and actually line up really nicely here. Shorthose and Strange (2004) describe pure artistic work as that which is an “expression of one’s creative capacity through self-determined labor.” On the other hand, managed creativity is “alienated work within orthodox capitalist relations of production.” Regardless of which explanation you resonate with more, they both distinguish art in the same respect. The real, the raw, the good stuff is in the underground because it isn’t confined to commercial stipulations for success, which also means it isn’t going to pay any bills.
From Eyedea & Abilities and Big L, to MF Doom and Immortal Tech — yes, some of the most multifaceted rappers with uncanny abilities to manipulate the English language never breach the mainstream. But the most critically acclaimed and almost most commercially successful album of 2015 (behind only Drizzy in units moved) was from a rapper many would dub conscious, even if he denies it: Kendrick. An adequate account of the genius that is To Pimp A Butterfly requires an entire column of its own. Needless to say, it’s as intricate as it is intense, confronting still-unresolved racial skeletons lying in America’s closet. TPAB is bold, brooding and extremely Black — far from the “money, clothes, hoes” mantra so strongly associated with Billboard top charts. With topics as explicitly political as police brutality and Black power, complemented with a funky soundtrack fused with jazz and sprinkled with soul, the kid from Compton still went platinum. How Sway? Doesn’t that go against the guidelines?
This rule is often broken in the alternative sense as well — when underground rappers think they’re being revolutionary, key word think. Brand Nubian’s 1990 release One for All is widely lauded as being one of the coolest, most colorful and socially-conscious projects of its time. The biggest hit, “Slow Down,” may be accompanied with a melodic hook and hypnotic beat, but there’s nothing mesmerizing about the relentless misogyny, only growing worse from verse to verse. It culminates in Grand Puba expressing his anger at “stunts” [’90s for “hoes”] who like to have sex, maybe in exchange for “a forty and a blunt, that’s all she really wants.” He ever-so-intellectually ponders “what makes a bitch want to act in this way,” but, in the end, realizes he doesn’t care: “If you want to live foul and be a dumb diddy dumb dumb bitch/ Well go ahead.” He’s still not down with it though, and so continues to pass judgment and wants to make sure you know it through the use of redundant word choice: “You’re living foul.” Great, got it.
The underground can be just as regressive as the mainstream. But the mainstream can also be as monetarily discouraging as the underground.
“Y’all a disgrace to C-P-T/ Cause you’re getting fucked out your green by a white boy, with no Vaseline.”
Jerry Heller is the white boy Ice Cube refers to, infamously known for managing NWA and favoring some members over others while doing so. Though Eazy-E was best taken care of by Heller, it was Cube who was the best writer in the group and composed the majority of the lyrics heard on Straight Outta Compton, the group’s best selling release. Remember “Express Yourself”? Remember thinking, damn, Dre can really rap after hearing it? Yeah, Cube wrote that too. Eventually, Cube said fuck it and left. And understandably so. Though Eazy was something like the star of the show, the compensation simply wasn’t fair; in fact, E didn’t write much if anything at all. But it was Eazy who founded Ruthless Records with Heller, so it was Eazy who’d see most of the returns. Lesson learned: Just because you make it, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to make much anyway.
And NWA isn’t an exception to the rule. It actually is the rule: Specifically, “Industry rule number four thousand and eighty/ Record company people are shady.” There’s a long history of labels exploiting their artists. I’m not going to get into the TLC story because, honestly, it’s too sad. But read up if you’re unfamiliar. In this day and age, though, exploitation follows a perfected pattern: Sign the artist after he drops a dance hit that catapults him onto the scene, milk him for all he’s got, and either shelve any projects he’s interested in or release him soon after. Much of the exploitation — the only way you can get some dollars is if you dance for it — bears eerie resemblance to the legacies of slavery. So going mainstream doesn’t guarantee a steady income; in some cases, it can actually threaten it. Meanwhile, there’s a host of underground artists who release projects predominantly for free, yet are able to put food on the table through touring, merchandise sales and the like. And avoid dealing with any label execs along the way.
There are a lot of important conversations to have regarding underground vs. mainstream rap. Many have to do with the transition from the former to the latter and the stages artists go through, beginning with the humble come-up and ideally culminating in platinum plaques. In the Internet age, where so many have the ability to release music of their own, what implications does this oversaturation of talent have? In addition, there’s a lot of contention surrounding going commercial and it being equated to selling out; and in the world of hip hop, not much is more important than keeping it real. How is this assumption complicated by artists who maintain their artistic integrity and still manage to reach best-seller lists? And when artists evolve upon garnering mainstream attention, and their sounds change, is it unfair to get mad at them for not having a static identity throughout their career?
I don’t have the answer to many of these questions, but before we can really get into any of this, it’s important to complicate the underground vs. mainstream distinction. When categories are placed on opposing ends of a spectrum, they’re easier to understand but more difficult to work with. A little confusion can actually bring us some clarity. By accepting that there are a lot of exceptions to the rules used to differentiate between underground and mainstream, so many that it’s questionable to even refer to them as exceptions, there’s room for variation, for richer propositions. Finally, it becomes possible that the next time you do engage with this topic, you won’t end up wanting to hurt somebody.