Dan Kozerski, Underground Rap: Distribution in the Chicago Scene
A young man scratches his unkempt beard as he reaches for a tattered milk crate stuffed with old vinyl. He shuffles through its contents before landing on a particularly worn Al Green record. Carefully sliding the vintage masterpiece out of its cardboard dwelling he blows the dust particles from its surface and gently rests it on his turntable. The needle drops, snatching the groove and the raw, dirty sound of the old record woes. The young man finds complete focus as he stares blankly into the distance; it appears he is searching for something. As the vinyl rotates he listens to every millisecond of the song, analyzing each chord, each kick of percussion, and each vocal note, looking for the perfect snippet to loop. Something finally clicks; he drops his hand on the record and reverses back to the song’s bridge. He has found what he was searching for and prepares to work. This is the art of sampling, an extremely common practice of underground hip-hop, including the scene in Chicago. Sampling lays the canvas in which emcees paint their story upon. Young people across the city are closely connected with this movement, but how? How do they know where to find these rhymes? Where do they look for these beats? What does it take for an artist from the South Side to be heard on the North and beyond, and how has this process changed over the years? Distribution is the answer. However, the fluctuations of distribution have impacted the underground rap culture of Chicago.
I spoke with Michael Serafini, who works at Gramaphone Records, a record store in Chicago. Record stores have played a huge role in underground rap music, especially during its origin in the 80s. Unlike a Best Buy or an FYE, independent record stores will stock practically any artist trying to promote their music. As long as the packaging has a barcode and the artist is willing to give a small percentage of sales to the store, they will put your music on the shelves. However, since record stores are most known for their sale of vinyl, their stock of independent hip-hop as well as their sales of it have decreased with store popularity since the introduction of the CD-ROM and MP3. “Most of the underground rappers are paying for distribution themselves, and vinyl is much more expensive while not much profit is made back,” Michael explained. This truly showcases the DIY idea that we have been learning about all quarter. Underground artists do not have the support of a major label to pick up the bill so they are forced to cut costs wherever they can in order to continue doing what they love. However, Michael further explained that producers looking to use vinyl for sampling, the art I showcased earlier, are coming around their store more often. “We have began to stock good records for sampling, such as spoken word,” he told me. “These Chicago producers, as well as others, want that dirty, scratchy sound.” So underground rap has helped record stores in that light. Sales of the actual hip-hop records may be down, but as long as that underground hip-hop sound remains, funk, soul, and spoken word records should always sell. As far as the demand for underground rap in stores like this goes, it is much lower than it once was. In the past there were record stores everywhere, but now Gramaphone is one of the few in the Midwest. Many customers are willing to make a trek for the sake of the underground; however, the majority of people are turning to blogs and social networking sites for their musical fix.
While researching these sites, I stumbled upon a blog completely dedicated to underground rap in Chicago, Fake Shore Drive. Updated multiple times daily, this site is committed to promoting Chicago’s finest emcees. One can keep his/her ear to the streets with MP3s, studio footage, mixtapes, etc. This is how the Internet and technology is revolutionizing distribution in underground rap. Artists can make their beats, record their vocals, and mix their music all on their computer. When the product is finalized they can upload it to a blog (with consent of the owner) for all of its followers to hear. They can even create the artwork if they are talented enough. By cutting out all these middlemen, promoters, designers, engineers, etc., artists save enough money bypassing costs that they can give the music away for free if they want. On top of all that, bloggers maintain Twitter accounts so their followers know the exact time something new is posted. Essentially, if an artist has a good enough mixtape or single, they can blow up over night and have thousands of new fans by sunrise. It is the epitome of doing it yourself. With these new outlets, it allows Chicago artists to create a fan base nationally as well as internationally without even stepping foot outside the city. This then sparks overseas tours and possibly stock in overseas stores. Its crazy how fast everything can move.
In addition to blogs, the music sector of MySpace, a popular social networking site, is also helping these artists gain listeners. Through this website, artists can create and edit their own page, with the ability to upload a maximum of ten songs. MySpace has become an easy way to promote because one can just post his/her unique hyperlink anywhere they can. Artists can email the link to talent scouts at record labels and not have to deal with the hassle of paying for packaging, mailing the CD, waiting for the scout to listen to the music, which he may even blow off, and hoping for a reply. Every smart underground Chicago artist has his/her own MySpace page. It is one more way to gain fans without the backing of a major distributor. This segues me to the final aspect of underground distribution: independent labels.
I spoke with Tim Stroh, owner and founder of Gravel Records, an independent Chicago based rap label. He explained that his label is completely underground because they pay for everything out of their own pocket. “We recently spent the majority of our budget on a music video for one of our artists,” he told me. Gravel Records carries a roster of five artists/groups/producers. They are well known throughout the underground Chicago venues and can be found in surrounding record stores. However, it is not simple for an artist with the support of an independent label to find contacts in the industry. Artists must hustle and make contacts for themselves or they just will not have them. Tim used to intern at a major label and has several contacts from that experience that could assist with distribution, but he informed me that nowadays, with the state of the industry due to illegal downloads, it does not make much sense to follow that path. For example, the underground sound is not really marketable through a major label, so the deals offered provide minimal to no benefits for the artist. This is because the label is taking such a big cut. Illegal downloads are up and record sales are down. The label has to make up for its losses somewhere. Tim finds it easier to pursue another option, which heavily utilizes the Internet. Among the use of blogs and MySpace for distribution of intentionally free music, iTunes plays a huge role in independent sales. iTunes will take less of a percentage than a major label, and Tim’s Gravel Records can post the music themselves. He hires a publicist to advertise online at the most marketable websites with banner ads and what not, and he hires someone to help him book shows overseas. The rest is really just word of mouth. “I think that eventually everything will be digital in the music industry,” he explained, and I believe this is a very good possibility. Underground distribution has changed tremendously in the past decade or so, and with the continuous introduction of new technology it is only going to change more.
Throughout my journey into the world of underground rap in Chicago, I analyzed the aspects of distribution and its fluctuations as well as the effects that certain distribution mediums have on this unique culture. I learned from a local record store owner that underground rap is decreasingly connected to his cultural space. Large technological strides are powerfully forcing independent distribution towards the Internet, and blogs and social networking sites are surfacing as the new hotspots for underground Chicago rap information, providing updates at your fingertips multiple times daily. Independent record labels are hurting from these advances but discovering new light through iTunes. Record sales will never be what they once were, we know this, but is that really a bad thing for the underground? It was never about the profit before, why should it be now? The Internet has allowed these underground Chicago emcees to reach more listeners than ever with their music. In addition to that, the DIY mentality of underground culture has skyrocketed in the distribution process of this industry. As far as I’m concerned, the growth of this practice should give Chicagoans tremendous pride. They are participating in an uplifting movement of self-fulfillment that is sweeping our nation as well as others, which proves exactly why underground rap in Chicago is so important to this zine.