Lost last week in the 45-post a day, ad impression shuffle was the video for Freddie Gibbs and Pill’s “Womb 2 the Tomb,” an instant-classic from Freddie Gibbs’ instant-classic mixtape, Midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmuzick. Directed by Skee TV go-to-director, Matt Alonzo, the almost five minute clip is a mini tour de force: a gothic, grainy, black and white blur of Gibbs and Pill stalking the badlands peripheral to downtown Los Angeles, shrouded by graffiti and conquered rivers, old aqueducts and faded tombstones. Their backpacks are bloated with drugs, and everything is swarmed by shadows. The clip derives a tremendous power from its solemn simplicity and concrete symbolism, particularly in context to Gibbs and Pill’s funereal ode to the art of hustling. Had it been released in 1994, it would’ve owned Yo! MTV Raps for months, earned terrestrial radio play, sold 250,000 cassingles, and won the duo face time in various rap magazines with a circulation hovering near half a million. It’s the sort of video that makes you remember why you loved hip-hop in the first place.
Instead, it was sandwiched between Teaser #2 for the next 48 Hours with Rick Ross and Triple C and pictures from a Sean Price video shoot, only to disappear from the home page of the major aggregators within the afternoon. Not to imply that Pill and Gibbs are exactly starving for media coverage. The New York Times and the New Yorker have devoted space to both, and I have a forthcoming feature in the LA Weekly on Gibbs. But despite the fourth estate attention, a salient problem persists–namely, how meaning and impact are perpetually blunted by the deafening babble of the Internet (and not in the good “perpetually blunted” way). It feels like very little matters, and when it does, it lasts only a news cycle. With listening patterns more diffuse than ever and even the most tin-foil hatted dissenters allowed a voice, there’s a sense of free-for-all, the atomization that Sasha Frere-Jones spoke of in his New Yorker essay, with rap fans clustering in like-minded hives, content to crown Wacka Flacka or Tanya Morgan the next to blow, depending on your acceptance or aversion to twang.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing–consensus is overrated. Plus, Gibbs and Pill are as close to universally approved as you’ll find, this year’s answer to Wale and Jay Electronica in 08. But what’s more troubling is how the contemporary environment has rendered it almost impossible for an artist to register any sort of cultural change. In my interview with Wale, he spoke about writing songs that felt like they had the ability to “move mountains,” and how disconcerting it was for someone like Lil Wayne to freestyle over “Swag Surfin'” and completely shut down the Internet the next day. Last week, Alec Henley Bemis wrote a sharp essay about former LA Times writer Robert Hillburn’s new memoir, contrasting Hilburn’s heyday with today’s dearth of “musical heroes.” The absence is particularly acute in rap, with the genre’s biggest star little more than a hyper-talented, hyperactive six year-old, and the other convinced he’s the lead guitarist of Staind.
Forcing fledgling artists to feed the limitless appetite for new content and stay “hot” not only devalues their output, but diminishes their desire to do it for free. Why should they sweat feverishly while writing a “Kramer,” when a tossed off 32 bars over “Ice Cream Paint Job” will yield the identical result: get them a post today, forgotten tomorrow, and if they’re lucky, help them get a major label deal where they’ll be proscribed from writing the sort of songs that got them attention in the first place. The problem mirrors the nature of the Internet, with advertisers and content providers narcotically lured by the ad impressions of short and frequent posts. Corporations like Buzznet don’t care that Maura was one of the last remaining bloggers able to cut through the hyperbole and bullshit, they’d rather install two ciphers willing to lob Molotov cocktails to stir up message boards, fan sites, and the other detritus mucking about.
You can sanctimoniously prattle about art for art’s sake all you want, but this is a capitalist society and people have Ramen and Swishers to pay for. At a bare minimum, everyone wants a roof over their head, a 40 in the fridge, and the ability to do their thing full-time. It’s like steroids in baseball. When the guy ahead of you is juicing, you have to do what you can to keep up. The next thing you know, you’re releasing freestyles every day for a month and dating Madonna. Worse is that there’s no money at all unless you get a big advance or can somehow eke out a steady touring lifestyle (of the latter, Oddissee’s plan seems to have potential). If you ever wonder why rappers these days seem to only rap about selling drugs, it’s because that’s the best way to earn a living without working a 9 to 5. Well, that and child acting.
Radio survived as the last bastion of the monoculture for three reasons: its sense of populism based on extensive market testing and listener call-ins, its persistent regional bent, and its ability to act as a filter on a widespread scale. For all the attention given the web hype machine, if you’re looking to parse the sales of this year’s top rap debuts, you can draw a straight line from the radio burn bestowed on their lead singles: Kid Cudi’s “Day N’ Nite,” owned radio in all regions and shifted 110,000; Asher Roth’s “I Love College” was noxiously ubiquitous outside of the south and sold 60,000; Wale’s “Chillin’ was largely a non-starter and despite the critical accolades and Roc Nation co-sign, he only moved 28,000. The larger and more intractable problem is that urban radio is largely a wasteland. When I was a teenager, I remember hearing “Nuthin’ But a G Thing,” “Cool Like That,” and “Crossover” in one great primetime stretch on Power 106. Go ahead and scan their playlist now: you’d be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of songs that couldn’t be characterized as “rhythm and bullshit.” I’m not saying that every Clear Channel conglomerate needs to spin Doom all day, but there’s something terribly wrong when “Womb 2 the Tomb” or a “Trap Goin’ Ham,” can’t at least run Atlanta.
In spite of the obstacles, between them, Pill and Gibbs have released four mixtapes that are probably better than anything released on a major label all year. Pill’s 4075: The Refill is the latest in the lineage, building off its predecessor to delve deeper into the psychic complexities and environmental obstacles of the protagonist. It’s a three-dimensional portrait of an artist trapped between the block and the bigs, haunted by the death of his mother, grappling with the sorrow and savageness of street life, and the burning desire to escape. You sense the redemptive power of hip-hop, with “Music” managing to wring new life out of a tired trope (the “rappers I came up on” song.) There are tributes to both Biggie and 2Pac and it seems fitting, considering Gibbs and Pill are arguably the first gangsta rappers to come up in their wake to offer a new prototype, a triangulation of 2Pac’s searing emotional tangents and Biggie’s cold-blooded New York City lyricism–adding the palpable influence of Scarface and UGK, evident from their weary fatalism, latent spiritualism, and conflicted morality.
Casual rap fans might trivialize these efforts because they’re unofficial self-released mixtapes, but with each passing month the gap between mixtapes and albums grows wider and more heavily slanted towards the former. But as much as it’s a boon for the small community of rap obsessives who receive free often-excellent content, it’s a hindrance for the artists themselves. What would have been canonized debuts now only exist as Zshare links, devoid of packaging and tangible presence. Like everything on the Internet, they feel significantly less real. And as much respect as the tiny Internet bubble accords them, these guys’ fan bases remain modest. To put it into perspective (and granted this isn’t the ideal arbiter) Pill has less than 1,000 Twitter followers, Gibbs has just under 1,500. By contrast, Wale, Roth, and Cudi boast well over 100,000.
To ascend to the next level before their window closes, Gibbs and Pill will eventually need the marketing muscle of a major label, since the world of indie hip-hop is only built for people who fit into the Stones Throw/Def Jux/Rhymesayers/Duck Down prototypes, or the major label fallbacks that populate the Koch roster. As instinctive as it has become to put Midwestgangsta and 4075 aside when the next mixtape delivery barrels down the blog assembly line, it’s more important to pay attention and reward them with repeat listening. Poignant, smart, and stone-cold gangsta rap records are all too rare these days (and according to GQ, they don’t exist at all.) While they might not unseat Drake from his dull dominance of the radio, Pill and Gibbs are quietly re-defining the gangster paradigm for their generation. Hopefully, a label snatches them up and lets them release a retail record free from corny contrived plays for fans they probably won’t win. That would be outrageous.