Welcome to the Underground: The Rise of SoundCloud Rappers

A group of young men have burst on to the music scene: characterized by face tattoos galore, rainbow-colored hair, flashy clothing (“high-end streetwear meets high fashion”), and a statistically significant occurrence of the word “Lil” in their stage names. What is the unifying force behind this rag-tag group of young musicians: SoundCloud.

** Disclaimer: this blog will discuss rap, rap sub-culture, and the platform that is changing the game. I do not in anyway claim to be an expert nor understand the nuances of this genre. If anything I claim is wrong or oversimplified, please leave a comment! This is the most I could learn from observation and a google search. **

Welcome to Jackie’s second installment of “Everybody’s a Creator,” and this week we are tackling SoundCloud.

 If you haven’t read my first blog you can check it out here: https://isys6621.com/2019/02/04/suddenly-everybodys-is-a-creator/

SoundCloud is described as an “online audio distribution platform and music sharing website.” The basic idea is that artists can upload and share their music, and users can discover and listen to the artists. Artists can upload their music for free, and users can stream the music for free. SoundCloud is a Berlin based company, that was established in 2007. Its founders are Alexander Ljung, a Swedish sound designer, and Eric Wahlforssm a Swedish electronic musician. They launched the site in 2008. Their original purpose for the website was to “allow musicians to collaborate by facilitating the sharing and discussion of recordings.” However, due to the incredibly low barriers to entry, the site naturally developed into a “publishing tool,” where musicians with aspirations of getting discovered, distributed their music.

This has created a get-famous-quick phenomenon, where unsigned artists have amassed millions of streams and social media notoriety. They don’t need a record label to get famous. They simple rise to stardom, grow their fan base, and then sign. Without the “traditional gatekeepers,” these artists are rising to the tops of Spotify’s most listened to, selling out of merchandise, and going on nationwide tours. And the way they are doing it is through SoundCloud’s incredibly accessible platform, and of course social media virality. These artists have been known to quite literally turn themselves into memes. They “start shit and gain attention on social media.”

However, what is far more interesting then a platform aimed at musicians getting discovered, is the musicians that are utilizing it and the sub-culture and genre that they have created. “SoundCloud Rappers” as they have been dubbed, are a completely new breed of artists and the next generation of rappers.

Now if you are completely lost, and have no idea what I am talking about, here is a laundry list of artists to google that owe their start to the platform (and who optimize the genre)

  • Lil Pump
  • Lil Peep
  • Lil Xan
  • Lil Yachty
  • Lil Uzi Vert
  • XXXTentacion
  • 6ix9ine
  • Smokepurpp
  • Post Malone

Now as I was saying before, based on their appearance alone (see: the face tats, wildly-colored hair, and use of “Lil”), these aren’t your Daddy’s rappers, or even your older-cousin’s rappers, but something entirely new. It is not just their style and start that set them apart, but the music itself that is revolutionary. These artists, coined “mumble rappers,” have taken a major step away from the genre’s traditional lyrical rap. The genre has been described in many ways, some good and of course plenty of  it bad. Its roots are in “southern US trap music.” My google search turned up that many think it’s this generation’s new era grunge. And the music certainly has some grunge and emo inspiration. The concerts are known for being rowdy, characterized by moshing, and even fights breaking out. It’s sweaty and raw. My favorite description comes from Roger Gengo, who explains, “It sounds so unpolished, so youthful.” Which is not surprising when you consider some of the genre’s most famous artist were only 16 or 17 at the start of their career, most notably Lil Pump.

Previous Rap generation legends, such as J Cole and Eminem, have spoken out against these mumble rappers. (See Cole’s song below, 1985, which is a scathing review of the genre).

Nevertheless, fans and followers commend the rappers for their unique approach and ability to take on difficult topics. XXXTentacion and Lil Peep, who fall on the more “emo” side, have been praise for their discussions of depression and suicidal thoughts in their work. In the past these topics have been avoided, and considered “too weak” to discuss.

However, like any genre of music, where there are artist breaking new ground, there are also many who are just bad, and of course plenty of controversy. In many respects, it is rebellious music, and without the grips and controls of a major label, many of the artist have found themselves in difficult and heart-breaking situations. The genre has a heavy connotation to drug usage, in particular: Xanax, MDMA, marijuana, and codeine-based cough syrup (known as “lean” or “purple drank”). And whether the drugs are being referenced in song lyrics or used recreationally, their presence is undeniable. Artist Lil Peep, unfortunately died due to a Xanax-fentanyl related overdoes in November 2017. Many of the artists have also found themselves in trouble with the law in recent years.

Most Notably:

XXXTentacion:

Has had run-ins with the law concerning charges of gun possession, robbery and assault, and aggravated battery of a pregnant woman (his girlfriend). This was prior to his death in 2018, when he was shot and killed in Florida during at robbery outside a motorcycle dealership.

6ix9ine:

Has been accused of assault, is currently on probation for a sexual abuse case involving a 13-year-old girl, and is facing up to life in prison in relation to charges of federal racketeering and firearm charges.

There are of course exceptions. Many of the artists have managed to stay out of the lime-light for crime and drug-related incidents, and have found much mainstream success. The major outlier would be Post Malone. Malone, in my opinion, he can be described as the golden boy, rather than the poster child for SoundCloud rappers. He is a now incredibly successful mainstream artist with millions of streams and numerous nominations/awards. He got his break when his 2015 song White Iverson received over a million downloads in its first month on SoundCloud. He has the face tattoos, but in most people’s opinion would not qualify as a true “SoundCloud rapper.”

I cannot tell you why this new generation of rap became the defining feature of SoundCloud. Many of these artists are clearly very talented. They should be celebrated for their self-discovery, fearlessness when tackling difficult subject matter, and use of social media to make them standout from the crowd. However, I hope that in the future the downfall of these artists will not be the gruesome and disheartening stories we’ve been seeing in the news lately. Needless to say, platforms such as SoundCloud and Spotify are changing the previously label-dominated industry we once knew.   

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SoundCloud

https://www.afr.com/lifestyle/arts-and-entertainment/music/soundcloud-rappers-this-is-who-your-teens-are-listening-to-20180809-h13r3p

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/dec/20/death-drugs-and-destruction-the-troubled-year-of-soundcloud-rap

https://www.vulture.com/2018/12/the-gatekeepers-of-soundcloud-rap.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/22/arts/music/soundcloud-rap-lil-pump-smokepurrp-xxxtentacion.html

11 comments

  1. dilillomelissa · · Reply

    Wow, this topic was completely new for me. I knew what SoundCloud was, but had no idea that this trend of new rap or “SoundCloud Rappers” was even a thing! SoundCloud is clearly a platform that people feel allow them to embrace their true selves. It also allows them to put their music works out to the public in a way that has reach, clearly. While I completely give credit to artists who play on the street or in venues, sending your music out through digital technology is another very beneficial way in today’s world. I also hope that more rappers like Post Malone come from SoundCloud and the troubles with the law and drugs and violence stay behind. Like many industries with fame, these troubles are not new, unfortunately.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this blog! SoundCloud rappers sound like a whole different music world that I didn’t know existed. Your description of their music and their ties to breaking laws. I’m surprised to find that it hasn’t ruined their music careers. For example, Chris Brown and his fallout with Rihanna resulted in losing sponsorships and a huge dip in sales. On another note, I love the opportunities SoundCloud opens for musicians who are just starting out or those whose music doesn’t doesn’t fall into “radio appropriate” categories that many labels support. I recently read that SoundCloud started offering premium accounts targeted at artists. The accounts allow users to dig deeper into their data and upload to major music services. I think their revenue model is an interesting approach as well. Since they have a revenue-sharing program, which allows a lot of artists who are on SoundCloud to monetize even if they aren’t on major music services like Spotify or Apple Music.

  3. Interesting breakdown on SoundCloud. I used to be more active on it but did not realize it was a platform for “new” artists, specifically rappers to build their name and credentials. Most of my use was to listen to mash-ups in the EDM and techno category. In respect to the drugs and the inappropriate nature of the content artists are putting out on SoundCloud, it is a way to claim attention and drive instant recognition. Whenever there is word on the street about drug use and bad behavior from up and coming musicians, it is the first information to be hyped. Is this a healthy strategy for rappers to promote their work? I believe it isn’t sustainable and needs to be channeled differently in order for artists to maintain long-term fame and success.

  4. I’ve really liked your series on “Everyone’s a Creator” so far! This is a great example of a digital platform that reduces the barriers to entry such that anyone has an opportunity to be discovered. Granted your fame is also contingent upon your audio editing skills. I think SoundCloud demonstrates how creators’ platforms should be used. In fact, open source platforms like this are how I have always envisioned digital business: an open space for anyone to share their work and be discovered/earn profit from it. Its almost like crowdsourcing music for different record labels…. Can’t wait to see what you write about next!

  5. Yet another example of the core –> crowd idea we spoke about at the beginning of the semester. Sound Cloud is a strong company who saw the creative potential of the masses – those who don’t have a record deal. I also love the idea of your series, “everyone’s a creator”. This definitely has a strong connection to the digital business aspect of our class because it demonstrates how companies with the value proposition of giving everyday people a platform for creativity aren’t just possible, but successful.

  6. I think it’s interesting how they used this platform to become personalities as well as musical artists. For example, I’ve never heard one of Lil Xan’s songs but am consistently up-to-date on his drama with Noah Cyrus and his new pregnancy rumors with his fiance. I have friends uploading music on the sight who definitely fall under the “mumble” rapper category (love that descriptor!) minus the face tats and colored hair. In your discussion of the rappers who touch on personal issues such as depression and suicide I do think this, to a degree, is a good platform for this type of discussion. Stereotypical pop/mainstream singers are usually boxed into singing about happiness and breakups, nothing that really breaks the surface of human understanding. I think rappers opening the conversation, if they do it in a constructive way, is helpful for showing other people they too can use their voice and other people are struggling too.

  7. I like the idea of artists being able to share their content and gain recognition without the financial constraints of music production and the legal contracts of a record deal. It was pretty notable when Drake stood up in front of the entire music industry at this year’s Grammy’s and said “You’ve already won if you have people who are singing your songs word for word…you don’t need this right here”. Events like Kesha’s ongoing sexual assault case filed against her producer, Dr. Luke, and contract restrictions that prevent her from making music independently have resulted in an outcry from the music community and fans all over the world. It seems like artists on all ends of the success spectrum are in support of an industry that values content over fame, and are collectively rebelling against the way that record labels inherently limit the process of creativity and creation. I think SoundCloud in general as well as these SoundCloud rappers pave the way for all genres of artists to enter the music industry in a more organic and independent fashion.

  8. This was a really interesting read, especially since I’ve never really been a SoundCloud user. I was familiar with the basics of the platform and the ability for anyone to upload their music to it, but the way that artists are using it to create a fan base and hopefully launch a career is something that’s fairly new to me. The fact that some of artists using the platform have been able to create their own sort of sub genre of “mumble rappers” that is garnering millions of streams is also interesting. I feel that this is another example that goes to show that there will always be an unmet need in the mainstream, in this case a music genre, that consumers are looking for (whether or not they realize it).

  9. While I’ve heard of all these rappers and listened to a few, I honestly did not know that any of them had any relationship with Soundcloud, or that many new rappers are coming from SoundCloud. The only rapper I have ever associated with Soundcloud is Chance. That being said I found this article to be a very interesting read since I tend to associate SoundCloud with EDM versus rap.

    The music industry has been changing a ton over the years, especially with these new(ish) streaming services. In one of my other marketing classes, we recently did a case on Patreon, which is a platform that combines crowdfunding and Youtube style videos. Smaller or local artists can create a page and upload content, and their fans give donations (starting at $5 a month) to view their channel. A few somewhat famous singing groups and Youtube influencers have been discovered on Patreon. I would never pay to listen to music like this, but I guess there is something for everyone.

  10. I think what I would hesitate to say that soundcloud rappers or artists could be marred by controversy because of the nature of how they originated. We see many studio backed artists, rappers or not, with their own tragic stories: Disney backed Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain. Studio backed artists also have their own controversies as well, look at Tupac/Biggie, R. Kelly, Sid Vicious… the list goes on.

    I do agree with the points though that this helps break barriers on the genre to explore topics that maybe aren’t as studio friendly. Rather than have to market test content for artists, it’s enough that it’s gained a soundcloud following. The proof of public interest is already there rather than having to lobby for it with studio execs (I mean artist/exec disagreements are a huge reason why many are contractually bound and unable to release their music for years — breaking their opportunity to blow up). I’m not really a huge fan of any of the artists listed here but how much of J. Cole and Eminem’s critique is coming from the fact that these artists probably threaten their success?

  11. I always knew what Soundcloud was but had no idea we were in the era of Soundcloud rappers. Truly sad what happened to some of the artists due to drug or violence factors! I am surprised that Post Malone started out on Soundcloud as all of a sudden White Iverson just started playing over the radio and I figured that was the result of his record label paying radios across the country to play it. To me, Soundcloud had always been a place for people to share their music, whether it be originals or self composed instrumentals and I find it interesting that this platform now has the ability to jumpstart someone’s career. I’m definitely curious as to given the recent deaths and drug related events with some of these rappers, does Soundcloud have any sort of policy that either takes down the music of artists that have been in trouble with the law, or whether they care about that sort of thing. I’m also curious about their revenue cycle and how they actually make money off of their platform. I think more popular today would be people posting covers or originals on Spotify, but will definitely give Soundcloud a listen to possibly discover new artists!

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