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Hip-Hop’s New Business Model: Major-Label Rappers Stay ‘Independent’

Wiz Khalifa

With his independently released mixtape So Far Gone, Drake went from digital dynamo (2,000 downloads in ten minutes) to Grammy nominee all before he signed on any dotted lines. Or maybe not: While a major-label bidding war supposedly raged, rumor had it that he was already signed to Young Money/Universal. Either way, the excitement around his quick, seemingly unassisted rise translated into true stardom. And today, a number of up-and-coming rappers, eager to re-create his magic, are at pains to represent themselves as boot-strapping independent artists — even when they’ve got freshly inked major-label deals.

This phenomenon existed before Drake. “I was over at Interscope when we signed Souljah Boy,” recalls Archibald Bonkers, manager of Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs and A&R for HHH Artists from 2004 to 2007. “At the first radio meeting after he was signed, [the label decided to] do nothing. They didn’t want to mess with the grassroots.” But recent examples of rappers who have secretly signed to labels while continuing to market themselves suggest that the trend’s truly taking hold among those still trying to make their break. The idea is simple: Artists market themselves gradually, via social networks and blogs, avoiding oversaturation. They make their music using low-budget production techniques. And then, once their “indie” success wins notice in the mainstream, their label backers come out from behind the curtains.

According to industry insiders, Pittsburgh’s Wiz Khalifa has been signed to Atlantic Records for close to a month now. (You may have noticed Kush and Orange Juice, the title of his most recent mixtape, trending on Twitter and Google.) Asked about the signing, Khalifa said, “Whatever people want it to be, that’s what it is. I didn’t say yes, I didn’t say no.” Either way, he released Kush independently, planning, as he told VIBE.com, the publicity behind the project himself. “The mixtape was done last month, but I really wanted to do it up and make sure something like this [buzz] would happen,” he said. “I got some more tricks up my sleeve, too.”

Meanwhile, Atlanta’s Spree Wilson recently inked a deal with Jive records without disclosing it. “They want me to market myself,” he explains. “Mixtapes, pre-projects — all before the album, [in order] to create a buzz.” (Release dates for Spree’s upcoming projects have yet to be announced.) And Warner Bros. calls Brooklynite Theophilus London — who independently released I Want You in August April and counts Solange Knowles among his fans — a "new signee," despite the fact that it's known that he was signed late last year.

These marketing plans are meant to capitalize on, and strengthen, an artist’s independently generated buzz. Practical concerns aside, this carries the always-magical whiff of rebellion. “Rebel music always does well, because kids always want to rebel against something,“ says Archibald Bonkers. It’s the new hip-hop cred: succeeding without a record label. So why sign to a major at all? “Money. That’s the only thing,” says Khalifa. Rappers “have to start rolling the weed and sweetening the lemonade.”

Photo: Alexis Maindrault