So you feel that you’re about to be hip-hop’s next luminary emcee? Well, before you allow your growing audience on Soundcloud to gas you even further, there are several things that artists need to take into consideration. Sometimes you might have to bend your ear toward someone who has made their bones and left some skin in the game; someone who can proffer applicable tenets of wisdom based upon their own hands-on experience.

Photo Credit: npr.org

One such individual who has proven herself to be an indelible figure behind the scenes of the industry that you strive to impact is the self-titled “Music Business Matriarch,” Sophia Chang. To describe Ms. Chang in a nutshell, she’s “Hip Hop’s Truth;” but that doesn’t even begin to detail the impact she’s had on the careers of several rap and soul music artists over the years.

Ms. Chang made her way to New York City by way of Vancouver, BC in 1987 to work for the legendary singer/songwriter Paul Simon. After her eye-opening educational stint working for Simon, she leveled up in the industry—providing her expertise to the Marketing department at Atlantic Records, the A&R department at Jive Records, and running A&R Admin and Operations at Universal. Those gigs in and of themselves are enough to solidify and garner respect across the industry, but Sophia’s grind was (and still is) quite perpetual.

She eventually went on to provide management services to artists, limited almost exclusively to male rappers save for a couple of R&B talents. So you already know that in this testosterone-soaked business that she forged her way through, she’s not one for the bullshit. Her former client roster reads like a who’s who of the Golden Era of hip-hop and soul: the RZA, the GZA, Old Dirty Bastard, A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip, Organized Noise, Blackalicious, Raphael Saadiq and D’Angelo. If those names don’t really resonate with you, up until 2016 Sophia was the acting General Manager of Cinematic Music Group, the label and management company for Joey Bada$$, Pro Era, and Mick Jenkins.

The multi-faceted executive has had her hands in everything from producing runway fashion shows [Vivienne Tam, Project Runway All-Stars] to developing projects for film and television [HBO copped a script from her]. Her radar is fine-tuned to knowing where the checks are and ultimately securing “the bag” for her clients. Her most recent executive role was as the Vice President of Business Development at MedMen—a leader in the medical marijuana investment industry. She currently has taken her foot off the executive gas pedal to sit back and pen her first book entitled, Raised By Wu-Tang—a memoir detailing her life and career in hip-hop. Sophia was gracious enough to break away from penning her upcoming memoir to discuss the things that she feels both aspiring and established artists need to center their business around. Here are her Ten Rap Commandments.

#1 All You Need to Know About the Music Business by Don Passman

The first advice I would give to any artist or manager that aspires to be in the business is to go buy the book, All You Need to Know About the Music Business. I’ll never forget seeing Daddy-O [Stetsasonic, Tommy Boy Records] on a panel maybe 25, 30 years ago and he said “Look, anything you want to do…you want to be an audio engineer, you want to go into publishing…someone has written a book about it.”

Don Passman’s book is exhaustive. It is very, very clearly written. It’s not dense and doesn’t feel like you’re reading a legal document despite the fact that he’s an attorney. When I was the GM at Cinematic [Music Group], I bought copies for the whole office and I made everybody read it chapter by chapter and we would have a class every week. It was literally like a class. That’s the first piece of advice I’d give to anybody.

#2 Your Manager is the Lock & the Key

Don Passman says it in his book: “Your manager is the most member of your team.”

Your manager will often hire the rest of your team. And if you already have those people in place, he or she—if they are a good manager—will make sure they are all communicating properly, that they are working in concert and will report back to the artist what is going on. The artist does not have time to deal with the quotidian minutia. It’s about creating a balance between being able to create and also just being aware. The person that will key you into your professional life is your manager.

First and foremost, you have to believe that your manager believes in your vision and is passionate about you. I think it’s very important that an artist feels like their manager feels as passionately about their craft and their vision as they do. You have to believe as an artist that your manager always puts your interests first, not theirs. Management is a service industry. It is not about and never about the manager. An artist can always survive without a manager. A manager cannot be a manager without an artist. Artists have to look for a manager that understands that this is a service industry.

You want a manger that can help expand your vision. To me they are the center of the wheel—all spokes feed into the center of the wheel.  If your manager does not know how to have a hard conversation with their client then…the famous lawyer John McLean said, “there are managers and there are damagers.”  In my opinion, if you don’t have the courage to have a hard conversation with your client, you’re a damager. You’re a liability. Not only are you not good, you’re a liability. You’re holding the artist back.

#3 Squad Deep – Your Entourage

When I talk about an “entourage” I mean more so your boys. I understand completely why someone would want their entourage around them. Again, if I was 18 and suddenly I am touring the world, I’d want my friends around me. [For example] “I never traveled to France before. I’ve never been to Japan. I don’t know the language. I don’t know the culture. I want a comfort zone. I want to have the comforts of home travel with me.” So, I completely understand it, but the problem occurs when they get out of control. It is always up to the artist to keep their entourage under control.

That’s one level of it. The other level of it of course is that it is extremely costly. The bunk on the bus, the hotel room, the food, and the flights; it costs a lot. I’m not saying don’t take out an entourage, but more mature artists really don’t. They do it when they’re young and they don’t do it when they’re older because they start to look at the numbers. Make sure you keep your crew in check. Have to.

The problem with artists when you think about the world that they are in is that they are the stars. The whole world treats them like they are the center of the universe.  Everybody is so obsequious; they are surrounded by sycophants. Do not hire sycophants!

#4 Do The Knowledge – Educate Yourself

Again, I would start with that book. He covers everything in that book. Everything. I would also ask questions. That’s how I got a lot of opportunities that came to me. I’m not afraid of being ignorant because there is so much I don’t know. You have to have a degree of humility and just ask a lot of questions. You can’t just act like you know everything all of the time, because first of all that’s preposterous since nobody knows everything all of the time. Second of all, you create an atmosphere that is more intellectually stimulating if you exhibit intellectual curiosity yourself. You get the book. You ask questions.

I also encourage everybody to take on mentors. I think artists would really benefit from having mentors and those mentors could be other artists. Like, if I were an artist I would want the RZA to mentor me. He knows so much, he’s so brilliant. He’s read probably 100 times as many books as I have. He’s traveled the world. He’s done so many things. He’s had so much success. He’s made many mistakes. He’s very, very honest. He won’t try to hide behind anything.

#5 Stay on Top of The Bag – Fiscal Responsibility

You have to find a responsible business manager or an accountant and you have to pay your taxes. I know so many artists who’ve gotten in trouble with the IRS because they haven’t paid their taxes. You cannot evade the IRS. [It was Ben Franklin] who said that the two things you can’t avoid in life are death and taxes.

I always break it down: If you make a dollar, consider fifty cents of it gone. Gone! Like really…if you make a hundred grand, you’re really making fifty grand.  So let’s say that you make a dollar as an artist. Fifty cents is already gone to the taxman.  Fifteen percent goes to your manager. You’re left with 35 cents. Ten cents goes to your booking agent. You’re left with 25 cents. Five cents goes to your [other] manager. You’re left with 20 cents. You’re left with 20 cents on your dollar. You should think that way. You have to be fiscally responsible. There are countless stories of artists that have gotten in trouble with the IRS.

When you are in a position that you actually have enough money to buy something meaningful, buy something with lasting equity—a house as opposed to a car. Look into investing. Look into the stock market. There’s money to be made there. At least look into it as an option.

#6 The Mind and Body Are ONE – Health Discipline

It’s a grueling lifestyle at best. You’re either in the studio and once you’re finished recording, you’re out promoting, you’re out on tour and then back into the studio. There’s very little respite. It’s not like a 9-to-5 and your body can get used to a certain rhythm. It’s so unpredictable and it has to take its toll on the body. It’s very hard to exercise regularly when you’re in the studio at all hours. It’s also hard to eat well. If you’re on the road you’re eating shitty road food, and I believe that your body is your temple. You have to feed it good food. It’s very hard to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Then again, it’s a social business—there’s drugs, there’s alcohol, there’s sex. This goes without saying: you have to protect yourself. Just be responsible for you and the other person.

I think that depression is rampant in hip-hop, and I think it’s an epidemic and nobody talks about it. It’s a really big f@$%!g problem. I feel like I’ve heard Kendrick Lamar talk about being depressed in his lyrics and if I ever met him face-to-face I would say, “I want you to come out and talk about this.” Kid Cudi is obviously depressed. There are many…Fat Joe talked about it on the [Spotify] Mogul podcast. Joe was depressed. If I had my druthers…what I wanted to do since I lost Chris Lighty was I wanted to have a forum around this, but it’s really hard to get people to talk about it publicly. So it’s this vicious cycle that happens.

And look, I don’t have a depressive nature, so I can’t speak to how hard it would be to talk about this and admit this. And I’m also not a famous person who is supposed to be impenetrable and be this warrior where there’s no crack in the veneer. I’m not saying that it’s easy to talk about something like this, but I’m saying that it’s necessary. I’m saying that people need to start coming out and talking about their own experience with depression so that we can lift the stigma off it. So rather than going out there and talking about Molly, Percocet, Lean, and all of the prescription drugs you take to get high, why doesn’t somebody start talking about why you need to get high all of the time? I have no judgment of doing drugs and getting drunk, I don’t have a problem with that, but the second it starts to affect you and those around you negatively and have a negative impact, you have a substance abuse problem.

You asked how do we make it better? For me, it’s everything. Racism, sexism, homophobia, depression, any of these things; it all starts with a conversation. I’m trying to have bigger conversations. I’m doing interviews like this, giving lectures. I’m getting out there and being public and speaking from my 30 years of experience in this industry and I’m talking about it. I’m trying to create a space where other people feel like, “Oh ok, you know what, we should be talking about this.”  Like 90% of the people in the room have thought about it, but haven’t talked about it.

#7 Be Gracious to Everyone

You know, everybody falls at famous people’s feet. It’s a cult of celebrity. They get whisked into doors. They never have to wait in line. They always get the corner table. Right? An artist lives this kind of unreal life, and I’m not saying that they don’t deserve it. I’ve enjoyed some of those benefits being with them. The whole world builds up this sense of self-importance that can be very hollow. If you are weak of character, you will allow it to make you think that you are better than other people; that you are entitled in a way that you are not. You have to say thank you to people because they are working their asses off for you.

#8 Thank Your Team

The problem is with artists [at times] they tend to be so narcissistic, so egomaniacal and so self-centered that they have a hard time thinking of people outside of themselves. They always have to remember that it takes a village. Nobody does it on their own! It takes a village and you have to acknowledge your team.

Now…the cynical side of me (the pragmatic, practical side of me) thinks you should also be nice to that intern because that intern could be running the record company in four years. And the difference between dropping you and supporting you might be how you treated them that one time.

#9 Play the Long Game

The long-game strategy is again to look into investments. A lot of artists just look for the fast money. Sometimes that makes sense. It often makes sense. Especially if they’re saying, “I want to buy house, Sophia. I need a down payment. Get me the cash.” I get it. And even that’s a long game strategy because you’re investing in real estate. I think it’s really important that—and I’ve only learned this myself in later years—that we need (and when I say “we” I mean people of color…and when I say “we” I really mean women of color) to start truly understanding our value of what we bring to the table and when appropriate, we should be fighting for equity.  

#10 Samples – If You Borrow, You Must Pay

You have to understand the science of sampling. There are whole industries built around catching samples [laughs]. There are companies salivating with every Def Jam release. They will comb through, listen, and look at the credits. Let’s say they hear whatever sample by whatever artist. They look at the credits and notice that the artist wasn’t credited in the publishing or in the songwriting. They will reach out to the artist and say, “We think there’s been an infringement on your copyright. Let us go after your money and we’ll get paid for it.” That’s one thing. There are industries built around catching samples. I’m not saying the publishing companies. I’m saying industries that go to publishing companies who are watching everything that comes out.

The other thing artists have to understand is that lyrical interpolations, although not technically samples, are copyright infringements. There are record companies and the majority of the claims against them are about lyrical interpolation as opposed to actual samples. So let’s say that a rapper says, “Cash rules everything around me/ cream get the money…” not as the chorus, but just as part of the verse. That’s a copyright infringement. They need to clear that. People do that all of the time.

See, back in the day when I was doing A&R and I was leading sample clearance for Jive [Records], there was this rule that rappers didn’t sue rappers. That’s not the case anymore because the music business has imploded; nobody’s selling CDs anymore, nobody’s selling music anymore. The business model has collapsed, and it means that record companies are looking for other sources of income. One of them is sampling. On the publishing side you interpolated or infringed upon my copyright. You have to be really, really careful.

I understand how essential sampling is to hip-hop. I get it. I talk to many producers about it. I’m never going to question that. The truth of the matter is that you should pay the people whose art you have used in your own. It’s just the right thing to do.

Sophia can be found dropping gems on her blog http: sophchang.com and on social media:

Twitter: @sophchang

Facebook: sophchangnyc

Instagram: @sophchangnyc

Speak your piece in the comments below or over at the UGHH Forums

 

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.