No fear of an MP3 planet

As Public Enemy embraces new music technology and takes on the recording industry, it's also helping smash the Web's lily-white image.

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If the MP3 movement has a standard bearer, it is Chuck D, the opinionated rapper at the helm of influential hip-hop group Public Enemy. For the last few months, Chuck D’s quotables have been plastered across newspapers, magazines, radio shows and television. Wherever there’s a mention of the digital music revolution, there is Chuck D explaining how the Net is going to blow apart the music industry.

And Chuck D has made good on his word. Not only has Public Enemy posted previously unreleased songs in the MP3 format — and publicly battled its former record label, Def Jam, for the right to do so — but on May 18, it became the first mainstream group to release an album online. (A full month before its release in stores, “There’s A Poison Goin On” could be purchased as a CD or an MP3 download from the fledgling online label Atomic Pop.) And Chuck D himself is helping start an online radio station.

Is it a coincidence that one of the first big-name musicians to truly embrace the Web is a rapper? Not if you believe online hip-hop evangelists, who expect digital music distribution to empower the underground hip-hop scene, which many feel has been alternately commodified, overlooked, whitewashed and steered mainstream by the big guns of the recording industry. On the Web, hip hop — a youth culture built around the streets and urban lifestyles — is flourishing unchecked, and all kinds of hip-hop artists are finding a chance to flaunt their stuff without kissing up to the recording industry and its boardroom notions of hot stuff.

“The buyers of radio and television keep hip hop and rap from dominating those surfaces and only let a few [musicians] rise to the top. This is much more democratic in the world of the Net,” says Chuck D. “There is a changing of the guard as to how people will get their music.” It makes sense that hip hop would be at the forefront of digital distribution, since “hip hop and rap music has always run parallel with technology,” he adds.

While Chuck D may be the most visible rap musician to release music online, he’s certainly not the only one. Much of the No Limit Records catalogue is available on MP3.com and Ice T will release the first single off his upcoming album on the site. Soon, the eccentric rapper Kool Keith will release an entire album in the MP3 format on emusic.com. And the Beastie Boys have not only released several songs in MP3, but their record label, Grand Royal, produces an entire Shoutcast station online.

But these top-selling artists are just the most prominent examples of the burgeoning online hip-hop scene; independent artists and fans — long-time devotees of technologies like samplers, sequencers and mixers — have also discovered the synergy between hip-hop culture and the Web.

“Hip hop has grown up outside the traditional mainstream of pop music,” says Al Teller, CEO of Atomic Pop and former head of MCA Entertainment and CBS Records. “A lot of it never gets on radio; a lot of the music becomes popular by word of mouth and the promotion is done by street teens. It’s been on the outer perimeters of mainstream marketing in the music business, and because of that there’s been that rebellious adventurous ‘push out the boundaries of the system’ attitude in that community for years now. The artists do it on a musical level, and now they are doing it on a business level online too.”

While there are certainly notable examples of musicians from other genres pushing digital distribution — Alanis Morissette signed up MP3.com as a tour sponsor; artists like David Bowie and Kristin Hersh offer previously unreleased music on their Web sites; and innumerable producers distribute techno and electronica online — no other musical genre has moved its culture so fully online as hip hop.

“Hip hop in general is an innovative culture — it’s about making the best of what you have. You turn the turntable into an instrument, spray cans become graffiti art, and so on,” says Mark Kotlinski, one of the founders of the webcasting station 88 Hip Hop. When 88 Hip Hop began webcasting weekly radio shows in 1996, he says, no one believed that there was an online audience for a hip-hop show. Now, 88 Hip Hop offers six different shows, ranging from soul to “Queendom” — featuring women’s hip hop. Nearly 250,000 people tune in to the grainy videos every month to catch big name artists like the Wu-Tang Clan, Afrika Bambaataa and Wyclef of the Fugees.

But Kotlinski quickly points out that the show hopes to promulgate an alternative view of hip hop that you wouldn’t find on MTV or your local radio station. Rather than just pushing mainstream musicians, 88 Hip Hop also features lesser known artists, and devotes equal time to the “four elements” of hip hop — graffiti art, emceeing, DJ-ing and break dancing.

To wit: On a warm evening in early May, about 20 graffiti artists were packed into a stuffy studio on the top floor of 88 Hip Hop’s ramshackle office in New York’s SoHo. As a handful of puffy-jacketed onlookers peered in through a window, the artists schmoozed with the show’s hosts, signing T-shirts and posters, hamming it up for the camera and shooting the shit with their fellow artists. This was the first of a series of shows that 88 Hip Hop was producing in honor of “Hip-Hop History Month.”

“We’re actually showing respect to the culture not just on the Internet,” says Kotlinski. He explains the show’s appeal to popular hip-hop artists: “It brings you back to what hip hop was when it began. It forces you to reminisce about when you were first hungry. You see people really into their elements. It’s not about ego, it’s about making a difference.”

Felicia Palmer, cofounder of Support Online Hip Hop (SOHH), a community, news service and search engine for hip-hop lovers, agrees with this assessment. Palmer first conceived of SOHH after she was introduced to America Online’s “battle boards,” the hidden chat rooms where emcees would try to one-up each other’s lyrical rhymes while onlookers chose a winner. Today, the SOHH bulletin boards are packed with thousands of hip-hop aficionados not only warring with words, but offering feedback on rhymes, exchanging tips and techniques, placing personal ads and generally rattling on about their music and lifestyle.

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Support Online Hip Hop has grown to include over 20,000 members, and recently threw the first-ever Online Hip Hop Awards show, featuring celebrities like Canibus, Grandmaster Flash and, of course, Chuck D. The event, sponsored by companies like Trans World Entertainment and SonicNet (then owned by TCI Music), donated its proceeds to a nonprofit organization that provides Web access to inner-city schools.

“The industry doesn’t really understand rap music as a whole; they understand it in terms of marketing but they don’t respect is as a culture. And in hip hop, the culture is very, very important,” explains Palmer. “The industry is really interested in the emceeing and the rap artist because that’s what makes them money. On the Web, adversely, you have the culture component,” including all four of the hip-hop “elements.”

But it’s not all about culture; it can be about making money too — but money that flows into artists’ pockets rather than labels’ coffers. The popular group Hieroglyphics, for example, has used its Web site not only as a community area for fans, but as a place to distribute its music after being dropped by its record label. The Hieroglyphics’ new album, released last year, was self-produced entirely from the money the group made selling tapes of unreleased material on its Web site — a practice which is becoming increasingly popular with hip-hop artists. And the new album — sold primarily through online music stores — has turned a respectable profit.

“I believe the Net is hip hop’s fifth element — it combines the other four and allows the musicians to control everything from marketing to distribution to fan relations,” says Heiroglyphics webmaster Yameen Freidberg, aka Stinke. “The Net is putting the control back into the artists’ hands; whereas before you had to go through the label and it was all about politics and money and someone who doesn’t understand the music being in control.”

As up-and-coming hip-hop artists test the waters of the Net for independent business opportunities, many have been encouraged by Chuck D’s power-wielding ways. When he began posting previously unreleased Public Enemy songs in the MP3 format on his Web site without Def Jam’s permission in January, Chuck D began a very public battle with his former label. Def Jam, which owns the copyright to that material, yanked the songs down, so Chuck D posted something the label didn’t own: a hastily-written song berating Def Jam for its actions. In the refrain of that song, Swindler’s Lust, Chuck D spells out his advice to other musicians in similarly binding contracts: “If you don’t own the master, the master owns you.”

With his new label, Atomic Pop, Chuck D boasts that he will get a better deal. Not only will he be able to maintain control of the master copies of his recordings — a privilege rarely afforded by traditional record labels — but he’ll retain a larger percentage of revenues and won’t be bound by a long-term contract. And, best of all, he says, he won’t have to count on radio stations and MTV to push his record — he’s already started his own online hip-hop radio station called Bring The Noise.

“I can actually Webcast on my own and keep telling people about my zone [Web site], and eventually with the growing population and the technology bandwidth we’ll be heard. It will pretty much eradicate hip hop’s total dependency on radio and television,” he says. (Detractors of this strategy might point out, however, that Public Enemy already has an international reputation and a sizeable chunk of cash; a group starting from scratch using only digital distribution and online marketing might find things considerably more difficult.)

Despite the benefits of going online and independent, Public Enemy is still one of the few top-selling hip-hop acts that has dared to make its music available in MP3 format. “Hip-hop artists who are now emerging are aware of [digital distribution] because it is going to be their lifeblood,” says Chuck D, “but there are artists who are locked into their contracts and have to operate within their box; they can’t move laterally with a new distribution.”

But everyone in the online hip-hop world attests to the impact that Chuck D’s evangelism is having. As Atomic Pop’s Teller puts it, “He speaks with knowledge, passion and credibility. Artists are increasingly becoming more aware and sensitized to the fact that there are alternatives to the way their careers are dealt with.” Felicia Palmer, in turn, says that there’s been an upswing in SOHH membership since Chuck D began his crusade for MP3.

But for the musicians to be successful with digital distribution, there has to be a receptive online audience. Does one really exist? The notion that hip-hop fans come from deep within the inner-city ghettos and don’t hangout online is one mainstream media misperception that the brains behind both 88 Hip Hop and Support Online Hip Hop say they’ve been battling for years.

“Our membership is not that typical of what the media represents hip hop to be, the ‘black urban male’ that lives in the ghetto,” says Palmer. “The media is now figuring out that hip hop is international, it’s suburban and teen culture. We could have told them that years ago.” Palmer suspects that the numbers of ‘black urban males’ online is also quickly rising. Although she says that no one seems interested in measuring this demographic, she’s personally observed larger and larger numbers of urban kids coming online. After all, thanks to projects like Support Online Hip Hop, 88 Hip Hop or simply Chuck D’s public evangelizing, those hip-hop kids are now realizing that there’s good reason to come online.

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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