Where were you when you found out SpaceGhostPurrp signed to 4AD? What did you tweet? Did you ponder the relative craziness of the label of Tune-Yards putting out an album by a guy with songs titled “Suck A Dick 2012”? Did you wonder how the advance money for 4AD compares to what Purrp could have gotten at a rap label?
I’m seriously asking. Because I spent my time wondering what the fuck took so long. For years we’ve watched some of our most artistically vibrant rappers burn off their best shit on free mixtapes they release to MediaFire, with very little hope of getting signed to the last two rap labels, Def Jam and Interscope, and their subsidiaries. We’ve also watched beloved mixtape rappers get signed up by majors, and then watched them bend over for insertion of pop credibility. We’ve been living in a world where we praise rappers for their achievements on free albums we can never pay for, and then shit all over the albums they make for actual remuneration. It’s a fucked up system, and indie labels like 4AD could end it.
Seriously, consider it: The indie rock label system was created because the major labels weren’t signing artistically interesting bands anymore, and were only looking for hitmakers. Labels like 4AD put out stuff that had no hope of ever reaching Billboard (until the label system collapsed entirely in the last few years, but that’s a different story all together), and that usually meant “weird” or “different” bands from New York or L.A. with guitars and songs about nothing and everything. This allowed artists and genres to come to the forefront that wouldn’t have even caught a whiff of major label attention—you think anyone at Universal has ever spent one minute thinking about fucking Chillwave?—and this system has worked for close to three decades.
And now there’s this huge well of really great music being created for free (or near-free) by rappers who are ready to at least move thousands of records, and indie labels are instead spending all of their time scouring Williamsburg and Silver Lake for the next Cloud Nothings and Yuck. Does anyone even like Cloud Nothings and Yuck away from the indie rock blogs of America? I still haven’t met anyone who legitimately does in real life. At a time when El-P is putting out records on Fat Possum, and Heems put out the album of the year (so far) on a Tumblr, why are indie labels still chasing Teen Daze? Why the hell isn’t Action Bronson on Matador yet? You know, the label that used to get the coolest New York acts?
Now, I realize there are mitigating factors keeping Secretly Canadian from signing Freddie Gibbs. “But rappers don’t make stylistic sense on indie labels, and indie listeners aren’t that into rap,” you’ll say. Except that’s bullshit. I refuse to believe there are people out there who listen to Bon Iver and are like, “I won’t buy albums from Jagjaguwar because they put out an album by Gunplay.” If they exist, fuck them. And I know for a fact that indie label owners aren’t that way either—I sat next to one on a bus at a music festival and we only talked about Big K.R.I.T. and DJ Quik. Not to mention the fact that music labels evolve. Columbia didn’t think it would have a rock arm, and I’m sure Universal never thought it would be bankrolling gangsta rap in the early ’90s. Sure, that evolution was commercially based, but indie labels aren’t about the dollars, they’re about the art. So again, why isn’t Action Bronson on a label, any label, yet?
Sure, indie labels would have to start worrying about clearing samples, or hiring producers making original material, while on mixtapes Big Baby Gandhi is able to sample Arcade Fire without having to worry about being sued. But again, I can’t imagine it would cost much to pay Mike Finito to produce the entirety of a Lakutis album for True Panther. It’s not like he’s getting paid much to do stuff on everyone’s mixtapes. And sure, the advances offered by indies might not be much (if at all), but when G-Side are saying they didn’t get offered enough from Def Jam to make them quit their day jobs, I’m betting Sub Pop can compete for rappers’ albums. And who in their right mind would take the nearly limitless artistic vista of being on an indie in exchange for having to do a song with Keri Hilson?
Just imagine the consequences of this, too. Consider Wale. How would we talk about him if he was able to make a living by creating album versions of Mixtape About Nothing for Carpark? Do you think he’d make something as embarrassing as his album for Maybach Music? Do you think we’d ever have a song by Wale featuring a hook by Lady Gaga? Do you think Wale would have that sad blank look behind his eyes all the time? Sure, commercially minded brand builders like B.o.B would still bend over to sell-out, but what would this mean for rappers who have to sell their souls to Jimmy Iovine?
So, congrats to 4AD for signing SpaceGhostPurrp. You’ve given a platform to a rapper making some of the most unique music out there. If only your indie label brethren would stop being afraid and follow suit.