How Rappers Are Trying To Come Up With Innovative Ways To Distribute Music

Al Shipley

Al Shipley is a Maryland-based writer, producer, and musician. You…

Black Star with their podcast and Kanye West with his Stem Player are among the artists who are releasing albums in new ways. But do their experiences point to the future of hip-hop?

In the late 90s, Brooklyn rappers Yasin Bey (then known as Mos Def) and Talib Kweli united as a duo before one or the other released a solo album. The result, 1998 Mos Def and Talib Kweli are black starslaunched successful solo careers for both artists, a classic rap conscious resurgence that helped establish Rawkus Records as one of the most important labels of the time.

Over the next two decades, a long-promised second Black Star album seemed like an urban legend. But in 2021, the duo joined forces with one of their most famous friends and fans – comedian Dave Chappelle – to launch a new podcast, The Midnight Miracle. In April the following year, Black Star announced that their second album No fear of timeproduced entirely by legendary beatmaker Madlib, would be released exclusively through Luminary, the podcast network that also produces The Midnight Miracle. In a year that has already seen Kanye West release his 2 album exclusively on his own Stem Player device, and Dr. Dre releasing an EP that initially could only be heard by playing a Grand Theft Auto game, change is in the air as rappers continue to use alternative means of distributing their music beyond commonly used music streaming platforms.

Yasiin Bey is no stranger to disruptive methods of releasing new albums. His last solo album, 2019 Negus, was only available as a 10-week sound installation at the Brooklyn Museum. But it turns out that the idea for Black Star’s release was actually pitched by their non-musician co-host. “The idea for the collaboration was actually floated by Dave Chappelle on the first season of The Midnight Miracleexplained Rishi Malhotra, CEO of Luminary. Malhotra, who founded Indian music streaming service JioSaavn before joining Luminary, said he sees No fear of time as a natural extension of the company’s existing activities.

“Our shows are meant to bridge a variety of art forms – from communication art to music to comedy,” he said.

Of course, the podcast industry has been deeply tied to the music industry since its inception, with audio often being distributed through the same channels. There have been clashes between the two worlds, most notably in January when Neil Young pulled his music from Spotify in protest at the streaming service’s major investment in controversial podcaster Joe Rogan. There are many ways to hear No fear of time, but Luminary subscribers get the best deal. “On Luminary, it will be accessible as individual tracks. On Apple Podcasts, the album will be an extended podcast,” Malhotra said.

Arguably, Black Star is an ideal test subject for a release like this. The two rappers have never sold huge numbers, either together or separately – Yasiin Bey has two gold albums and Talib Kweli has one – but they have a big enough fan base to bring impressive numbers to a company with different expectations. And there has been controversy that could hamper the rollout of a more conventional album. Talib Kweli has been permanently suspended from Twitter since August 2020, after breaking the site’s rules of conduct in a long and ugly feud with a woman who criticized him on the site.

There is, however, a danger in an unorthodox, splashy release through a business partner. In 2012, Busta Rhymes released a star-studded album, The Year of the Dragon, exclusively through Google Play. A decade later, it’s as if it never existed. It left no imprint on the charts, and with the Google Play Music app unceremoniously shut down in 2020, you can only hear it via pirated copies elsewhere. Billboard generally refuses chart releases that are not available in standard formats, and the Black Star album will likely never appear on the charts. However, Malhotra shared this fixture”may publish data across the board that is relevant or important to the wider industry,” regarding the number of people listened to No fear of time.

Donda 2 and Stem Player

The stakes were a bit higher for Kanye West when he came out 2 in February. The album’s predecessor, 2021 donda, topped the Billboard 200 and gave him a total of ten consecutive numbers. 1 albums, a record he shares with Eminem. Had 2 conventionally released, he could have severed ties with Eminem and edged closer to his mentor JAY-Z’s record of 14 charts, the most for any solo artist. But with the album only available on the pricey $200 Stem Player, West sacrificed Billboard numbers in favor of both technical innovation and profit. “To earn the $2.2 million we earned on day one on Stem Player, the album would have had to be streamed 500 million times,” West proudly posted on Instagram.

The Stem Player allows listeners to isolate individual elements of West’s music – mute, raise or lower the volume of just vocals, drums or other instruments – to create a unique mix. This is how musicians creating a record have always been able to hear a song, moving faders up and down on a mixing board to create the ideal mix of sounds. But putting that kind of power in the hands of the public is a fairly new idea, and West isn’t the only one exploring it. A big player in this space is Moodelizer, a Swedish tech company that launched its “responsive music” mobile app Moodelizer a few months ago.

“I’m not surprised that Kanye West has done this stuff. There’s a logic to it,” said Mathias Rosenqvist, CEO and co-founder of Moodelizer, before detailing what reactive music is: a new sound format developed by Moodelizer over the past eight years that allows users to “interact with music on various technology platforms”.

“You can touch the screen and move seamlessly through the song,” Rosenqvist said, adding that cellphones are the company’s number one focus for the app.

For now, Moodelizer’s catalog offers hundreds of songs, as opposed to the millions of songs offered by traditional streaming services. But these pieces were designed specifically for Moodelizer to highlight the format’s fun and novel interactivity. “We have quite a large network of songwriters working for us, filling this catalog with responsive music,” Rosenqvist said, adding that he envisions a future where Moodelizer also has responsive versions of major label releases.

The music on Moodelizer spans different genres, with no particular focus on hip-hop. But Rosenqvist acknowledges that hip-hop pioneered the art forms of DJing, sampling and remixing that make technology like this possible and appealing to consumers. “Hip-hop is obviously a good breeding ground for anything that allows people to take something that’s out there and make it better,” he said.

Return from death row

Snoop Dogg's Death Row

Snoop pulled Death Row releases from DSPs like Spotify and Apple Music, announcing he would be launching his own streaming service. Photo credit: JC Olivera/Getty Images

Where inventions like the Stem Player serve as a complete alternative to music streaming platforms, some artists are simply trying to create their own music streaming service in hopes of not only having better control over their music, but also the income they derive from it. In February, Snoop Dogg announced that he now owned Death Row Records – the legendary label that rocketed him to stardom in the 90s – and it felt like a happy ending to the tumultuous Death Row saga. But reactions were more mixed when Snoop pulled Death Row releases from DSPs like Spotify and Apple Music, announcing he would be launching his own streaming service.

“I will always support an artist guiding people to their own platform and showcasing their value for music,” Michael “Big Sto” Stover, publicist, consulting artist and rapper, said of Snoop’s plan. “In Snoop’s case, I really want to see how it goes because when it was first announced, I thought that was a good thing…he completely owns his music.”

But Stover also worries that streaming music will become an expensive, fractured market like streaming TV is now, saying, “I think it’s going to hurt if it ends up being every label, every brand.”

Snoop’s move, however, feels like an inevitable pendulum swing away from everyone fighting for their little slice of the Spotify pie. “We have already seen what happens when everyone has access to music: profits go down and artists feel cheated. Now we see the other end: what if I completely owned what I have and could charge whatever I wanted? It has to fall in the middle somewhere,” Stover said. “I thought what Roc Marciano did with his last two releases is kind of the middle ground where you can have that exclusive – ‘OK, if you really want it, you can buy it from me for 40 to 50 bucks. And then when the products sell out, I’ll put them on stream and everyone will have access to them.

The ever-changing digital landscape can surprise even the most astute superstars. Beyonce’s 2016 single “Formation” was available exclusively on Tidal for three months, but Billboard did not consider Tidal’s streams on its charts until 2017. “Formation” eventually reached No. 10 on the Hot 100 once it hit other platforms, but we’ll never know how big the culture change stunt might have done.

“‘Formation’ probably should have been a bigger hit,” said Slate columnist Chris Molanphy. “Drake reportedly had his first No. 1 with ‘Hotline Bling’. It peaked at No. 2 because he made the video exclusive to Apple Music. Apple did not have the mechanism to report video views to Billboard, and Drake missed shot number 1.”

A decade after the last major paradigm shift to streaming, we could be on the cusp of new and better ways for artists to distribute their music. But whatever the next move is, it will need hip-hop’s huge following and the genre’s inherent sense of adventure and adaptability to make it happen.

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Al Shipley is a Maryland-based writer, producer, and musician. You can follow him on @alshipley.

Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer