Long Division: Exploring The Roots of Hip-Hop’s Commercial Vs. Underground Rift

In July of 1997, hip-hop forever changed. Read on as noted writer Jerry Barrow dissects that fateful era, fueled by schism of the Underground Vs. The Shiny Suit Era.

Hip-Hop has defied consensus since its inception; even about its inception.  For example, while most would stamp Kool Herc’s 1973 back to school jam in The Bronx as the genre’s official birthday, Kurtis Blow might tell you for that for him it was more like ‘72 when he hooked up two component systems to rock his friend Tony Rome’s birthday party in Harlem. Either way, once the street born art form migrated from rec center and park jams to traveling DJ tapes and recorded vinyl, it created vocal factions that were loyal to two goals: purity or profit. In the years after Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” broke the seal by giving the lyrics of an established MC (Grand Master Caz) to a neophyte (Big Bank Hank) to perform, an uneasy alliance was forged between the MC and the corporate entities that sought to profit.

There was still a vocal and consistent belief that “skills” and “paying dues” mattered even as rappers became the default voice of popular culture. The rebellious, youth-driven lifestyle that informed and inspired the music still held sway on what was placed on record for mass consumption. As hip-hop’s mouth pieces in the ‘80s and ‘90s enjoyed the spoils of Gold and Platinum plaques, daytime radio play and award show recognition, they stood on the shoulders of the giants from the ‘70s who simply wanted to be recognized as “the best.” So a humbling exercise was instituted. Mantras like “keep it real” and “no sellout” were repeated with fealty in the early ‘90s. Much like the dystopian film The Matrix, the underground was conceived as a place closest to the core center where those born free, unplugged from the machines, would continue the battle for autonomy.  

At times, some of the “hardcore” would become too hot to contain, breaking through the layers of bureaucracy, spilling above ground like magma. Lyricists that were more substance than style could still garner the elusive and coveted recording contract and ascend to new heights, but they rarely strayed TOO far. If the label wanted a “hook” for a song, you got your DJ to scratch it or got your boys hanging out in the studio to scream into the mic. Some still held on to traditions like having an actual DJ, dancers and the like to complete “the crew.” But this wouldn’t last.

Those appendages were sacrificed in the name of fiscal responsibility and duos and groups became increasingly less common (only to be later manufactured into super teams of solo stars to bolster rosters and marketability. What? You thought the NBA started that?)  The hip-hop star was adorned in flashy clothes and paired with a beautiful woman to either sing his hook, dance in his videos or raise his sex appeal with female consumers. This would most visibly manifest on July 2, 1996 when Nas’s It Was Written was released on the same day as De La Soul’s Stakes Is High. On the one hand you had the underground Prince who’d clearly bought into the champagne wishes and caviar dreams of the major label A&Rs. And on the other hand was the veteran group who was warning us all about what was at stake if we continued down that path. The purists and those for profit had their de facto leaders, but the schism wouldn’t reach its point of no return until a year later to the month in 1997.

In the world of music there was no more singularly impactful event in 1997 than the murder of Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace.  His March 9th death (a date branded into the collective memory of hip-hop fans thanks in part to an LL Cool J diss recorded by Canibus) was a right cross following the left hook of Tupac Shakur’s death just six months before on September 13, 1996.  It was a seismic event for those who knew and loved Biggie, but for one neophyte MC it had a particular resonance.

As a Philly born rhyme practitioner Tracey Lee was signed to Bystorm Entertainment and was part of the fraternity of Howard University alumni to find success in film, TV and music. His label owner Mark Pitts was managing The Notorious B.I.G. and his debut album “Many Facez” was one of the most anticipated debuts of the year thanks to his hit “The Theme (It’s Party Time).”

“It’s damn near surreal, man. Prior to his death it was sunny days, the weather’s perfect. The single is doing well, we got the record with Biggie,” Lee says of that pivotal moment in his career’s infancy. He’d recorded a duet, “Keep Your Hands High,” with Biggie for his debut and was with him that ill-fated night in L.A.

“But then March 9th comes and we walked out of that door of the [Petersen Automotive] museum together. For some reason I wasn’t feeling right and he asked me what was wrong because we were headed to an after party at the Playboy Mansion. ‘Put a smile on your face, we in LA. Let’s get it.’ So I perked up and we got in the car. Then like five minutes after, we get the call. Biggie got shot.”

Rapper Tracey Lee

Tracy Lee’s album Many Facez would be released on March 25th, 1997 the same day as Biggie’s Life After Death, the posthumous follow-up to the Ready To Die. If having to compete with that wasn’t hard enough, Lee’s heady, conceptual debut about navigating multiple personalities (ending with the murder of one) was a departure from his blithe and bouncy lead single, which leaned heavily on Malcolm McLaren’s “World’s Famous” for its infectious appeal. Where most MCs up to that point could get away with having a raucous lead single “for the radio” while satisfying the streets with album cuts, something was changing.

“Me being on the cusp of underground and commercial, I think it hurt [me],” Lee says in hindsight. “Back then people were so ‘You gotta be this way or that way,’ especially with the concept for the album. When people heard “The Theme,” this was the perception that you got. So anything following that record has to be in that same vein. [But] the rest of the album was very underground compared to the lead single. I had a song called ‘Repent’ that embodied the split.” The dark confessional opens with a preacher lambasting MCs who “make records for bitches” and scratched in a line from EPMD’s “Headbanger” (“To hell with the bitches and the so called fame!”) to underscore his point.

“I was a firm supporter of the underground and wanted to make a distinction between the commercialism side of hip-hop and the purity, as far as the music was concerned.” But Lee was stuck between a rock and a hard place, being held to the standards of the shiny suit soldiers but not benefitting from it. Puff had not granted him “sticker rights” to even advertise that Biggie was on his album, possibly fearing confusion since their releases were dropping on the same day. Lee was also slated to open for Biggie on his upcoming tour, which now wasn’t happening.

As Puff Daddy seized the Billboard singles charts from Toni Braxton and The Spice Girls by serving up sanitized versions of hip-hop classics like “The Message” and posthumous Notorious B.I.G records, veterans like KRS-One, The Lost Boyz, and the Wu-Tang Clan stood at the ready.  Balance was sure to be restored to the realm that Summer in ‘97, right?

Not quite.

The Blastmaster from The Bronx, KRS-One, borrowed from the Bad Boy playbook for his third solo release, building his lead single “Step Into A World (Rapture’s Delight)” on a mix of hip-hop nostalgia and pop appeal. Producer Jesse West layered The Mohawks “The Champ” with an interpolation of Blondie’s hit “Rapture” into an undeniable groove that was then remixed by Puff Daddy and Stevie J. The combo gave KRS the biggest single of his career, and his third album I Got Next peaked at #3 on the Billboard charts, becoming his highest selling album to date. The man who once rapped that “It’s not about a salary, it’s all about reality” had colluded with reigning avatar for excess in rap. And won.

It’s crazy to think that a rap group could out underground KRS-One, but 1997 was that kind of year. Two years prior, the son of billionaire Rupert Murdoch invested in a hip-hop label called Rawkus Records, founded by Brian Brater and Jarret Myer. After building a catalogue of 12-inch releases, they signed the New York based trio Company Flow (comprised of rapper/producer El-P, DJ/producer Mr. Len and rapper Big Juss) and released their debut Funcrusher Plus

If Puffy was hip-hop’s ringmaster—an accessible, charming crowd pleaser with a 1,000-watt smile—Company Flow was the drunken carny with elephant shit on his shoes banging the ringmaster’s wife.

Company Flow

Their sound was defiantly cavernous and muddy, the perfect soundtrack for anyone looking to take a hot, steaming dump on whatever was moving “above ground.” Intentionally or not, they became the vanguard of Rawkus’s anti-establishment rap brigade.

The group’s DJ Mr. Len cut his teeth interning for a management company whose roster included CeCe Peniston, DeVante Swing from Jodeci, and Poetical Prophets (who would later become Mobb Deep). That led to a gig at Jive Records in their dub room where Len got a crash course in record label politics. So—for better or worse—he knew what a major label was capable of when his group signed with an indie like Rawkus.  

“I remember having a meeting up at Rawkus about where they were NOT going to concentrate on pushing Funcrusher Plus,” says Len. “They were like, ‘We’re not going to concentrate on the urban market,’ and I was like ‘What the fuck?’ I’m from the Bronx and I live in Brooklyn. Why wouldn’t kids like me [be the target]? And that was a sign that there was a difference between what Puffy and Company Flow were doing. Puff had Stretch Armstrong do a mixtape, and I remember Stretch proposed to put a Company Flow record on there and Puff said no. It had nothing to with him being on some ‘Fuck Co Flow,’ it was him not knowing what we were about. This was like ‘95 or ‘96. I’m trying to remember which song. If it wasn’t “8 Steps” maybe it was “Corners” or “Vital Nerve.” He just wasn’t into it. I remember not taking it personally. I thought it was weird that Stretch wanted to try it but you gotta test the waters.”

When Funcrusher Plus dropped in late July of 1997, Puff’s “solo” debut No Way Out had already been out for several weeks and was marching towards 24 consecutive weeks of chart dominance. The “suit and tie rap” was in full effect for juggernaut visuals like “It’s All About The Benjamins,” but he still kept a pair of Timbs under the bed for album tracks like “Young Gs” and Black Rob’s “I Love You Baby.” But for those that slept in their hoodies and liked their “bubbly” brewed with hops, there was no compromise.

“I didn’t really know about the whole DIVIDE thing until way into it and the album was out,” says Len. “In the UK they were yelling at shows that ‘Puffy is a Poofter!’ Which is like calling him a f*ggot. People were like ‘Fuck shiny suits!’ But it was funny to me. If you saw me walking down the street in a shiny suit, you would laugh and ask ‘What are you doing?’ You talking about dudes from Harlem and The Bronx, hardcore dudes. So when you see them dudes in shiny suits you gotta laugh, whether you know them personally or not. That turned into ‘Fuck mainstream.”

The mainstream—what was easily identifiable, marketable and adaptable—fueled the entertainment economy. If something worked, you could best believe there would be twenty copies in the pipeline right behind it. But things didn’t always become popular organically. Some would even argue that organic popularity is a pipedream and that it’s ALL manufactured. While some form of audience manipulation has always existed in music, it seemed to come to a head in the late ‘90s.

Thanks in part to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which eliminated the cap on nationwide radio station ownership, one singular entity emerged as the dominant force in radio and music, Clear Channel, now known as iHeart Media. In 2002 The FMC (Future of Music Coalition) released a report “Radio Deregulation: Has It Served Citizens and Musicians?” which distills the impact of Clear Channel’s radio monopoly:

Consolidation is particularly extreme in the case of Clear Channel. Since passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Clear Channel has grown from 40 stations to 1,240 stations — 30 times more than congressional regulation previously allowed. No potential competitor owns even one-quarter the number of Clear Channel stations. With over 100 million listeners, Clear Channel reaches over one-third of the U.S. population…

Format consolidation leads to fewer gatekeepers. A small number of companies control what music is played on specific formats. Coupled with a broad trend toward shorter playlists, this creates few opportunities for musicians to get on the radio. Further, overwhelming consolidation of these formats deprives citizens the opportunity to hear a wide range of music.

In short, a paradigm shift in music distribution was occurring which would have an undeniable impact on a genre like hip-hop that was still growing. Payola was already choking out access, but now playlists were ensuring that only a limited number of artists would get played on the air regardless. This facilitated widening the chasm between “commercial” and “underground” hip-hop.

“Although looking back it would seem that the Telecommunications Act helped shift the power toward the majors in 1996, I must be honest to say that at that time, when I was an A&R at Profile, I had no idea it existed,” says Will Fulton, a veteran label executive who signed acts like Camp Lo and Smooth Da Hustler at Profile and Ja Rule and Mic Geronimo at TVT.

“It did seem like it was becoming more of an uphill battle for independent labels, though. There had been a number of labels in the early to mid ‘90s (Profile, Nervous, Select, Wild Pitch among them) that had been able to make an impact. The independents (and those independently controlled labels with P&D deals like Loud) could move faster, and were generally more in tune with the hip-hop fans. You know, a lot of larger labels fit that GZA line, “he don’t know the meaning of dope, when he’s looking for a suit and tie rapper that’s cleaner than a bar of soap.”

“They had people up there at the top who didn’t know what they were doing regarding hip-hop,” Tracy Lee says of his label’s distributor, Universal. “My man Garnett Reid, God rest his soul, was an integral part in taking Universal where they needed to be in regards to promoting hip-hop records. If it weren’t for him I can’t imagine where that place would’ve been.  They didn’t know what to do with ‘The Theme’ until Garnett got it to Red Alert. That was the tipping point because everybody followed suit.  We took the record to Flex and DJ Clue but none of them would touch it until Red Alert played it.  That was our gateway to the radio.”

But before long, the labels adapted. According to Fulton those “Mountain climbers playing electric guitar” realized they needed to bring the Garnett Reid’s of the world in-house to not just work the records, but to make them.

“A&R-producers like Irv Gotti figured out how to get the street and the radio. And of course, Roc-A-Fella and Bad Boy. The majors were making good records; Universal, Sony, Arista,” says Fulton. “I remember one day in 1996 or 1997, Profile president Steve Plotnicki was looking at Billboard, and he asked me and fellow A&R Chris Landry if we liked any records in the top ten. I don’t know what was selling at that time, maybe Fugees? B.I.G.? But I said, yeah, there’s a lot I like there. And his response was that meant it was time for independents to get out of hip-hop. That the only way indies could have a shot, he argued, is if people in our position hated the top ten. That stuck with me.”

Before long, many of those smart and agile indie labels were bought by the majors—who then consolidated the talent, budgets and influence. The music oligarchy had two dominant hands, the labels and radio, pulling all of the strings. In some instances, artists fought back. The Wu-Tang Clan released their long awaited group follow-up Wu-Tang Forever in June of 1997 but found themselves in a war with their hometown radio station, Hot 97. They were slated to headline the annual Summer Jam concert but were on tour in Europe with Rage Against The Machine—a paid gig. The radio station refused to fly the 9-member plus crew to New York for the show, so when they eventually touched the stage Ghostface Killah cussed out the station and on air personality Angie Martinez. This led to them being blackballed from the airwaves and the physical building for a decade.  While they had a hand in this, it became a rallying point for artists and fans who didn’t like the direction New York radio was going in anyway.

Adding to the anti-radio fervor was a KRS-One interview about his record “Step Into A World.” Despite boasting on the record that he was “relying on talent, not marketing and promotion,” he in fact did pay Funkmaster Flex’s Franchise Marketing company $40,000 to promote the record and play it on the air. The latter did not happen and he blew the whistle so to speak. But in a 2006 interview with writer Thomas Golianopoulos Funkmaster Flex flat out denies KRS’s claims: 

“You paid me to do something and the record didn’t play because I wasn’t supposed to play your record,” he counters. “That’s not what you asked me to do. You asked me to promote your soundtrack. You asked me to put up posters. I play too many nightclubs to take money for records. In a nightclub, you can’t bribe a guy to dance on the dance floor. I can’t have a record that I play on the radio that I won’t play in the clubs.”

So in essence, what got played on the air and in the clubs became synonymous. And what got played in the club in 1997? Lots and lots of Bad Boy.

Already scarred from the “East Vs. West” feud that resulted in the deaths of two mega stars, Puff Daddy went on the offensive against faceless “haters” who wanted to stop his ascent. It was a genius bit of gaslighting that underground fans fell for hook line and sinker.

“If I’m shadow boxing, I’m not fighting you. However, you’re now able to stand in front of me and say you dodged a punch and you hit me,” Mr. Len explains. “So underground heads, as we’re now known, we’re all shadowboxing. So Puff comes out saying ‘You guys are haters’ and we’re like ‘We’re not even talking to you, b.’ And then he adds, ‘Haha and you not makin’ any money! We ain’t never gonna stop!’ Stop what? What are you talking about? And you do end up hating these motherfuckers. You seriously gonna make a $500,000 video and wear a shiny suit and I can’t laugh at you? No one trolls harder than Puff, and it’s beautiful. No one rises to the top without some competition or drama. But you never heard Co Flow diss Puffy. If you heard me DJ a party you heard me playing Black Rob’s ‘Whoa!’ and Biggie records. There wasn’t a cat in the underground who could say they didn’t like ‘Unbelievable.’ That shit was incredible.”

Granted, there were definitely men like Jeru The Damaja and Suge Knight who took direct shots at Puffy and his ilk on and off record. It wasn’t all in Puff’s head. But he did masterfully manipulate the culture by taking away the ability to critique what he was doing. No one wanted to be a player hater.

Maybe it’s being a DJ and having a direct connection with audiences on a regular basis, but Len has a more pragmatic perspective on the rift twenty years later.

“The people could have revolted against the [Bad Boy] sound. But they didn’t. The underground embraces the elements of hip-hop more and are gung-ho about culture. But there are kids who just want shit that sounds cool and get amped to it. We got into this competition and two decades later you really start to understand the casualties of war. Most of the artists you looked up to and loved, they’re fuckin’ broke. That’s what that line did. You’ve got at least 10 years of songs about haters and can’t name one. It’s fucked up. Then you got a whole other half-decade of hip-hop songs about hip-hop. The shit becomes redundant. That’s what that separation did.”

But with the diminished utility and influence of both the major label system and the radio, where does this leave the “divide”? After two decades of war, do we even know who the enemy is anymore?

What exactly is ‘underground’ when Souls of Mischief’s ‘93 Til Infinity’ is being played in national TV campaigns to sell Gatorade and a Yasiin Bey instrumental like “Twilight Speedball” is used to promote hotels in Las Vegas? Sprite may have swapped Nas and AZ for Lil Yachty, but Kendrick Lamar is the voice of the NBA Finals. Run The Jewels—which features El-P, an alumnus of Company Flow—is being played in trailers for Marvel movies and video games.  The purists are more profitable than ever.

Between satellite radio and streaming services like Soundcloud, Pandora, Spotify, TIDAL and Apple Music you have to work to NOT find music you like, so we can’t place blame at the feet of the Funkmaster Flexes of the world anymore. However, with hip-hop’s continued splintering across style, age and sound we will keep fighting under various banners, because sometimes what we dislike defines us more than what we support. Plot twist. We’re all players and we’re all haters.

Take that, take that.