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Underground Vs. Mainstream

May 7, 2013
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real hiphop

Mr. Selwyn and PRO once joked around on a song called “Debate” from Mr. Selwyn’s award-winning album Formula. The song formed part of a debate between an underground and ‘commercial’ emcee where valid points were discussed. The song, is a very censored version of what really happens in the streets and social networks.

A number of emcees can attribute to street ciphers, battles and hip hop sessions as the foundation to their rap career. If you mentioned Le Club, Ghandi Square, Slaghuis and many more you will be flooded by reminiscent comments and often, the usual “That was real hip hop!” comment. The question beckons – what is REAL hip-hop? A variety of answers will spark from that question and yet there is no definition that will clearly define the genre to the culture. The ‘underground’ will point to the ‘commercial’ rappers and blame them for the demise of rap and the ‘commercial’ will point to the ‘underground’ saying the big terms used in their raps make it hard for people to relate to.

Hip-hop is a genre of expression and each person will relay their story the only way they know how. So why don’t the ‘underground’ and ‘commercial’ join hands and grow the WHOLE of hip-hop? The differences between the two are varied but the biggest one is exposure. Even that is debatable as you have artists like Ben Sharpa accumulating fame overseas more than on our South African shores’ radio stations. We now live in an age of real-time internet-messaging however, radio and TV is still the backbone of an artist’s popularity. This is achieved by radio charts, radio spins, music videos, even Twitter followers have come to add to an artist’s popularity.


Ben Sharpa

The pop culture thrives on relevance and popularity, and as a result, brands will associate themselves with the ‘popular crowd’ when it comes to endorsements; the more popular the artist the more exposure they get. To be frank, as listeners we are the ones who propel artists to stardom. whether it’s by requesting their songs on the radio or just discussions held on public platforms, we each have a hand in their rise as an artist. With that said, there is also two issues which segregate the ‘underground’ and ‘commercial’ even further.

The first issue is exposure. In the age of technology, and the media feeding us what is deemed hot, there are a large number of artists that go unnoticed; these are sometimes referred to as underground or indie. Most will not have an offering at your nearest music bars but are rising stars on bandcamp and among close friends. The second issue is taste. It is quite obvious that our favourites will differ from the next fan. It becomes imperative for media personnel to show no favour to anyone but put on the talent whether known or unknown.

I personally believe each stream can learn from the next. There are a few pointers that underground can improve mainstream and vice versa,  and instead of the segregation we have one hip-hop industry.

The ‘commercial’ side can teach ‘underground’ about marketability. Its pivotal that a rapper understands that he/she is a brand. To attract potential investors you need to treat yourself and talent as such. This is by no means a “you need to sell out” stance but originality is key and thus a rapper needs to be themselves and nurture their art. The ‘underground’ can teach the ‘commercial’ rapper about untapped markets. Take for example Scrambles4Money, this event invites rappers from across the country to battle. Admittedly you have a career and a battle loss is a deep scar but take part in hosting the event, be a judge, support the event even as a fan. The awareness it creates benefits the industry you love and stands to grow it. iTunes and music stores is not the only area of selling your offerings. Bandcamp, Reverbnation, street teams, and Soundcloud are among the avenues you can hit up. This way, not only are you ‘Google-able’ but your music can reach scores of new fans.

South Africa needs an amalgamation of the two lanes to make one strong hip-hop industry. Pointing fingers at the next rapper makes you even more vulnerable to criticism. We all love hip-hop and we believe in this culture, as artists showing support to the culture foremost, it’s a clear sign to listeners to believe in supporting you.

I’m tired of ‘underground’ vs ‘commercial’ debates – at the end of the day it’s hip-hop. Let’s have a playing field where everyone can play, THEN we can decide who we support and disregard.  We have birthed a whole sub-culture from this beautiful genre, and we just want to see it prosper.

Written By : @SDotJR_

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