YouTube is a fascinating corner of the internet. Although it’s doubtful uploading obscure records and tapes was part of the original business model, the video-sharing site somehow became a premier destination for hard-to-find bootlegs, cassette-only releases, limited edition vinyl, and all manner of other rare and addictive content for music junkies despite the often questionable audio quality.
As a byproduct of the ever-growing community of uploaders and viewers who crave this sort of thing, a surprising demand for obscure, indy-label rap singles from the 90s and early 2000s has emerged. And like many of the subcultures on YouTube, once you travel down the rabbit hole your quest to discover more can become all-consuming.
Scrolling through the endless list of forgotten/unheard of 12 inches is an interesting case study in the internet’s ability to breathe new life into almost anything. Widespread success may have missed these groups the first time around, but many years later it seems they’ve found more listeners than they could have ever thought possible. Take First World’s 1994 single “Mad Weed” as an example. Ever heard of it? Probably not. But this breezy stoner anthem is well on its way to 1,500,000 views, a rather staggering number when you consider that at most only a few thousand copies of this song were pressed when it was released.
The video-sharing site somehow became a premier destination for hard-to-find bootlegs, cassette-only releases, limited edition vinyl, and all manner of other rare and addictive content for music junkies.
And while 1.5 million may seem like the peak of the mountaintop, that’s nothing compared to Shadez of Brooklyn’s “Change”. Boasting some incredible mid-90s Beatminerz production, this single recently surpassed 3.1 million views. The number of views on its own is amazing, but even more incredible are the reactions in the comments section. Scroll through and you’ll see several moving stories about how the song has helped people maintain through tough times. “Just hearing the chorus makes it feel okay cause you’re not the only one that’s life changed for the worse and trying to stay sane. God bless this crew,” wrote user 91Definite in a heartfelt post. Even Shadez member Chocolate Tye, who seemed floored by the emotional response to his music, jumped in the comments section to say, “Thank you all , these comments are overwhelming.”
So what does all of this say about YouTube’s ability to give long-forgotten music a second act? Before services like YouTube, these tracks would have lived on in small groups on dedicated message boards and music blogs, never reaching anything close to 1,000,000 plus listens. And while there are plenty of sinister problems with the echo-chamber, rabbit hole effect created by YouTube’s AI and recommendation algorithms (for a fascinating read about this well beyond the scope of this piece see Guillaume Chaslot’s article), it seems like the YouTube recommendation system in this instance is creating a kind of multiplier effect for a certain underappreciated sub-genres of rap. Listen to a few of the tracks provided in this article and you’ll soon find a plethora of songs from like-minded artists that all have 400,000 or more views. For every “Change” by Shadez of Brooklyn there is an equally impressive “Correct Technique” by Basement Khemist (500,000 + views).
It’s great that these songs have found a new audience, but at what benefit to the artists? Like many instances of modern online culture, the YouTube streams will increase artist visibility, but unless the artist themselves uploads the songs, they won’t see a penny for their work. Many of them likely no longer have active careers, so their newfound exposure may be nice in theory, but it won’t help them promote a current project if there’s no current project to speak of.
Sample clearance laws and legal red tape often make resurrecting music from the past difficult and at times impossible.
It’d be great to see a current indy rap label follow the model of someone like the Numero Group and curate 12–15 of these cuts, obtain licensing, and put out a compilation that people could access through digital, streaming, and limited pressing physical copies. Some detailed liner notes with backstories for each song would make the perfect compliment to such a compilation.
This is a dream scenario, but it’s easier said than done. De La Soul, a well-known rap group with a recent Grammy nomination, have endured a never-ending battle to make their back catalog properly available on digital and streaming services. They have yet to succeed. This a painful reminder that sample clearance laws and legal red tape can make resurrecting music from the past difficult — and at times impossible.
So, what is the next step in the unexpected subculture of obscure rap songs going platinum on YouTube if a sanctioned compilation is unlikely? Only time will tell.