Indie-rap state of the union

A look at today’s most popular artists

Name that indie rapper …

Name that indie rapper …

So who are the 10 most popular indie-rap artists right now?

I decided to find out using Rhapsody’s internal reports. The music service (where, in the interest of full disclosure, I am employed on a contract basis as a content editor) generates a weekly spreadsheet that ranks artists according to the amount of “plays,” or the number of times the artists’ releases are streamed. The top 100 artists for each genre and subgenre, which number over 200, can be viewed on the Rhapsody website, including the main list, the “Rap/Hip-Hop” list, and the “Indie Rap/Hip-Hop” list.

Due to cataloging purposes, indie-rap artists aren’t only listed under the “Indie Rap/Hip-Hop” subgenre. Non-indie artists, like Drake, are listed under multiple subgenres, including “Hitmakers,” “Pop,” “Indie Rap” and “Contemporary R&B.” As a result, his releases skew the website’s “Indie Rap” rankings.

The “indie” term can be a catchall, it seems, not only referring to typical “backpacker” artists on independent labels but also “alternative” major label artists as well.

In order to develop a more accurate list, or at least one that’s more revealing in terms of the most popular indie-rap artists, I bypassed the website rankings and used the weekly spreadsheet.

Nearly all music databases are subject to tampering, and Rhapsody is no exception. Hundreds of musicians—mostly rappers, it seems—try to manipulate the system by using software to artificially boost their “plays.” I didn’t include these guys in my list, and I won’t give them any publicity by mentioning their names, either.

I used a January spreadsheet for my list. The report gives weight to artists who issued new work in the final months of 2010. However, January is the slowest music month of the year—January 11 was the first Tuesday when any recordings of note were released—so it was probably the best time to calculate who enjoys the most popularity at the moment. Quibbles aside, these rankings are a great indicator.

Atmosphere (rank: 441)

Immortal Technique (rank: 1331)

Talib Kweli (rank: 1429)

Jay Electronica (rank: 1632)

MF Doom (rank: 1730)

Jurassic 5 (rank: 1769)

Aesop Rock (rank: 2024)

Madlib (rank: 2261)

J Dilla (rank: 2273)

Jedi Mind Tricks (rank: 2304)

There are a few interesting results here. Only Atmosphere was popular enough to qualify for the top 500 artists. Immortal Technique, Aesop Rock, and Jedi Mind Tricks didn’t release albums in 2010, but their popularity remained strong enough to keep them in the top 2,500 artists. Jurassic 5 made the list even though it broke up in 2007; its last release, a two-disc reissue of its 1997 J5 EP, came out in 2009. Jay Electronica also has a relatively high ranking even though he has only released two official singles, 2008’s Exhibit A and 2009’s Exhibit C, in addition to various guest appearances.

The above list focuses on indie-rap artists with backpacker appeal and omits street rap artists entirely. However, to be fair, I created a second top-10 list featuring all independent rappers. Not surprisingly, the results changed quite a bit.

Tech N9ne (rank: 287)

Atmosphere (rank: 441)

E-40 (rank: 525)

Slim Thug (rank: 542)

Lecrae (rank: 711)

Mac Dre (rank: 827)

Z-Ro (rank: 837)

Afroman (rank: 1079)

Dorrough (rank: 1092)

Andre Nickatina (rank: 1094)

What’s up with Afroman? I kept out artists who are independent by necessity, and whose lasting popularity derives from their major-label releases. However, Afroman is a unique case. His biggest hit was 2001’s “Because I Got High,” yet he continues to sell a lot of new material as a novelty cult artist. Also, his 2006 album A Colt 45 Christmas may be a factor; artists with holiday releases rank high on Rhapsody’s January list.

Is it possible to create a pure indie-rap popularity sheet, one that features artists who not only have never been signed to a major, but also have never had a release distributed by a major? Not anymore. It’s nearly impossible for a rap label to reach critical mass without joining forces with one of the Big Four majors.

Atmosphere’s Rhymesayers Entertainment is carried by Warner Music Group’s Independent Label Group. Tech N9ne’s Strange Music is handled by Fontana Distribution, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group. Even Stones Throw Records (Madlib, J Dilla) works with EMI Group for certain releases. (Sony Music is the fourth major.) Industry observers consider E1 Music (Slim Thug, Dorrough) an indie, but it’s such a big company that mini-major would be a more accurate classification. The Big Four and E1’s distribution systems account for recordings by nearly every artist I’ve mentioned.

And then there is Lecrae. Last fall, the Christian rapper issued his fourth album, Rehab. It spent months in Rhapsody’s top-100 hip-hop albums, and his artist ranking is 711. His label Reach Records is handled by TuneCore, an independent distributor of digital music. Jedi Mind Tricks is another possible exception to the aforementioned “worked with a major” rule. The Philadelphia group spent years on Babygrande Records before setting up its Enemy Soil imprint, which uses independent distributor The Orchard.

And before you ask: Mac Dre’s Thizz Entertainment has a licensing deal with SMC Recordings, which is distributed by Universal.

What else do these lists mean? From a business standpoint, 2010 was a horrible year for “backpack” hip-hop, and a series of events, from the collapse of Definitive Jux to Fat Beats shuttering its brick-and-mortar outlets, raised questions on whether the indie-rap community is even viable anymore. However, many labels, such as Mello Music Group and Strange Famous Records, continue to survive without major distribution, although this seemingly dooms them to a niche status. A few breakout hits in 2011 could quickly change this impression.

Even though these top-10 lists emanate from a single source, they’re a good indicator of who’s on top of the indie-rap heap. More importantly, they hint at the myriad compromises that all musicians, including those who consider themselves entrepreneurs, must make to find an audience.