I’m a fan of Dad Bod Rap Pod, and have been for a few years, so when the Pod’s Nate LeBlanc offhandedly tweeted that he’d like to talk about underground rap and podcasting, I jumped at the opportunity. If you’re unfamiliar, Dad Bod Rap Pod is show where men of a certain age discuss hip-hop new and old, with a substantial dose of humor and a light touch, but also trenchant insight, all alongside interviews with artists of yesteryear and today. You may also recognize Nate and David Ma’s byline from this very site. What follows is our informal Zoom chat, where we talk about the current musical landscape, the perils of Twitter, aging gracefully in hip-hop, and how rappers seized the means of production. (This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.) – Son Raw
So let’s start super open ended: what is underground and/or backpack rap anyways? Because there are ton of great gangsta rap records from Houston or Memphis that were sold by independent labels (and that I consider great) but we’re specifically talking about a specific scene or scenes here today.
Nate LeBlanc: You don’t know at the time if you’re underground or unpopular, you could be one or the other. But the hindsight lets you know that you actually you were building with the right people. You were featuring on the right things. You were getting the right co-signs. You got in your little magazine or blog. You might not have gotten any money out of any of that, but you were making an impact, right? So that’s something that I think about when defining underground Hip Hop.
Demone Carter: When I think about these definitions – underground, backpack – I think they’re legacy definitions that we insert new things into just because it’s fun to have labels. I think once you’ve been on Jimmy Kimmel… is it underground anymore? But I would say, in terms of a sound and an aesthetic, I would still put acts like Griselda in the underground category because I believe initially, what we call underground rap was a reaction to what mainstream hip-hop had become. Because I’m old enough to have known that.
I remember hip-hop before that separation would have needed to be a thing, circa ’89 – it was all underground! And then it took on this pop veneer, which turned some folks off while other artists started deliberately doing things that were not considered mainstream, creating that underground aesthetic around things were that were not viable on a mainstream level. Relying super heavily on sampling of obscure breaks and such to be the backbone of your music. So things that rely on that tradition, no matter how popular they get, are still underground. I think that tradition is still alive and I think even though the lines are getting blurrier, you know it when you hear it. There was a time when we would have called a lot of A Written Testimony an underground rap record, it’s only because of the people involved that we don’t.
David Ma: I think it’s a bit of a lifestyle signifier. Not only in the style of dress which at one point was the antithesis of what was mainstream, but to follow Demone’s point, the beats emphasize a sense of obscurity through sampling. Funcrusher Plus doesn’t sound like anything on the radio. Slug is not on a Puff Daddy song. And yet it’s not super definable because somebody like Del, he’s on the Gorillaz, right? He’s on MTV, but we can pretty much safely say that he has been an underground rapper for his entire career.
And yet Ice Cube wouldn’t be put in that category despite being Del’s cousin. But like Demone said, he would have been underground before there was an underground.
Nate: The CIA 12’ probably would have been sold at the Slauson Swap Meet, but doesn’t sound underground the way we think of today.
Demone: Early on “underground” just meant you didn’t have a deal. I think we moved into a moment where I think of it in the same way I think of the term mixtape – nobody’s taping anything. It’s our Legacy term.
Nate: Can you be an underground rapper with a huge Jesus piece or chain or whatever? Whatever Westside Gunn wears around his neck? I don’t know the answer to that question, but if there is one person who can pull it off, it’s him. He’s indefinable in that way, and he seems to have done the major label thing and decided it wasn’t for him and went back to being independent, which is fascinating.
I can talk about Westside Gunn all night. He’s my favorite rapper right now, but I gotta keep things on track: let’s say rap is something you do, hip-hop is something you live. With underground more or less defined, are we in an underground rap renaissance? Can we draw a lineage from what’s happening right now to the mid-90s idea of underground rap? Because, I mean, obviously, there are some people, if you’re talking about a Roc Marciano, he was literally there. Backwoods, they were literally there. But some of the kids that came after Earl Sweatshirt may have been born after that, which is a freaky thing to think about.
Dave: I think there are certainly direct lines from those artists to now, Griselda specifically – they have a song called “94 Ghost Shit!” But I think that it is a bit of a renaissance and not to harp on the terms so closely, but I think that due to streaming culture, as rap splintered more than ever. There are sub-sub-subgenres of rap. All the spawns of Earl Sweatshirt and the continuation of what Backwoods does at it relates to Def Jux.
So I do think there is connective tissue there and I do think it’s a bit of a renaissance, only because there’s so much great music coming out weekly. I think that even if the streaming numbers continue to go into overdrive, that doesn’t mean that we’re going to keep getting great projects. So I agree. I do think that this is a bit of a second coming, and we’re here for it.
Nate: It’s a pet theory of mine that we’re in a golden age but no one is noticing. That’s what we’re trying to say with the show, and we have a modest but fervent fanbase to try to push this narrative. My whole thing is if you like A Tribe Called Quest, you should listen to billy woods and it’s kind of hard to explain why since they don’t sound the same. It’s not a one-to-one thing. You have to take 16 different steps to get from point A to point B but if you look back on some of our past episodes, some of our past guests and some of our past conversations, we’re trying to bring you along slowly.
You don’t take someone’s Midnight Marauders out of their hand and hand them Today, I Wrote Nothing. That’s not going to get you nowhere. That’s not the same thing, it’s not even the same universe… but it is. There’s a connection. The point to me is a lyrical and society-describing excellence. And that’s what makes it interesting. It’s not even the musical side of it so much because then you get into the whole drumless beat debate, which everyone wants to have every 20 minutes, and that’s not really productive. So, I think if you talk about it in terms of young(ish) Black men who are amazing writers describing the chaos and decay of American society, you can find a lineage from early backpack rap, the golden age of rap and whatever’s happening now. If you call it Art Rap everybody yells at you, but I don’t know what else to call it.
Demone: This makes me think of a question that Nate asked on an episode last year. Something on our Call Out Culture episode – did we waste our time listening to backpack rap? I think about that a lot, but I think about this particular era as being the era of postmodernism. Everyone is everything. Everything is accessible. A kid today has more access to know about A Tribe Called Quest than we had about the Cold Crush Brothers, and can readily grab from that. They have the tools, and can basically do anything they want. And I mention that to say that the sound and the aesthetic of the backpack era, you know, ’93 and forward, the sound of that era was just really good.
And so even if you didn’t grow up with it, it’s there for you to reach back and grab, just as Parliament was there for people of a certain age. I think that’s what we’re seeing from people that are much younger than us. I feel like because all that’s there and it’s so accessible and boom-bap is just a great fucking idea, it’s coming back and being used more because it stood the test of time. We’ll see If other things do that in 20 years. Will people be trying to recreate the vibe of a Lil Baby or Da Baby? I don’t know! But I do know that people are working hard to recreate the vibe of A Tribe Called Quest or Company Flow. So are we in a renaissance? Or are we just in a period where everyone has access to everything?
Nate: I was listening to someone else’s podcast, that Out The Box podcast, and R.A.P Ferreira was on there and he said he made Purple Moonlight Pages to make a Souls of Mischief record, so that proves my point basically. He was trying to make that record a 90s sounding record and I thought he succeeded and it ALSO sounds like now, and it’s also a great record.
The other part about having a renaissance, is you need a decline. And one of the things that I think about a lot was around 2006-2009, things got pretty dicey for underground rap. Part of that was down to music industry sales going down, streaming wasn’t there etc. But also, I spend a lot of time going back and rewriting my top whatever list of the year because I’m a nerd like that and from 2006 to 2009 there’s great music but very little of it is underground rap. So I ask myself: what went wrong and how did the scene fix it? What led to this renaissance?
Demone: I think for underground rap, things just got stale and I foresee this happening to trap in the not-too-distant future. It was such a durable formula for so long and it just got stale. I remember in that era looking a lot more at mainstream releases and artists that were considered not cool to listen to five years prior, because at least with Roc-A-Fella and things like that, there was a driving a push to do new stuff because it had to be commercially new and hot and different. At some point, in underground rap, it was just guys complaining and that got super stale.
You can’t make a movement based on things you don’t like. As a rapper, I think what ended up happening was that as underground rap petered out, a lot of underground cats and a lot of my contemporaries tried to do the thing that was hot. Then they realized that actually wasn’t for them either and I think rap came full circle. Rappers were trying to reconnect back with something that felt true and honest because for a while it was just about faking it. A lot of those records and a lot of the movements were just about how “fake successful” you could be.
And it was working! But then it wasn’t working, and I think part of the renaissance is that there’s practically 8 rappers who make real money and then everybody else just went “well let’s fucking make music again”. And if you’re going to make music again, you’re obviously going to look back to a time when there was more of a creative flourish. Nobody’s going back to recreate 06’. That’s how I remember it feeling. I think that’s what fuels this renaissance – the idea that something amazing was happening before we got stuck complaining about mainstream hip-hop.
Dave: For me, it’s an internal thing rather than an external thing. I’m not trying to check for Atmosphere’s 10th record, you know? I just think that the indie backpack thing was all about relatability and keeping it real, but then after a while it’s like: “dude, you’re just, crying over your own feelings for the umpteenth time.” I think it was just getting old at the same time as when Wayne and Kanye were going off. So, what am I going to do as a listener? So I don’t really know if it’s necessarily a big change in the art, I think it’s a big change in the listenership. I was 20 when everybody was wearing their backpacks and then I was 30, and so I’m not checking for that new Anticon record. So that’s my personal experience.
Nate: I have a slightly different, take then Demone’s, I think the beats got shitty. I was a record store buyer at this time, so I got promo’d out out on the Fat Beats and Traffic releases that came out and so many of them were terrible. They’re just forgettable. And I think it’s because people got so good at MPC finger drumming and the software got so good, that you could record all your ideas which resulted in this very specific kind of beat that I found to be boring and I don’t think it inspired good writing.
Then, the second thing of how we’re having a renaissance, is that the workers seized the means of production. They realized you don’t need to have a label to put out a record. You don’t need to have a tour manager to go on tour, and you don’t need a graphic designer to make your own t-shirt. People just started doing everything themselves, they became their own admins. That’s when music started getting good again. They started creating their own businesses for themselves and Backwoodz is an amazing example of that. Rory [R.A.P Ferreira] is a great example of that and talks openly about how hard it is: don’t expect your record the next day cuz I’m not shipping it, KA and Roc Marci Enterprises are a great example of this. Griselda is probably the most successful example. If you like $80 sweatshirts with 20 mixtapes a year, boy, do we have something for you! Those are my theories.
Demone: Is Master P Karl Marx in this analogy?
I think it goes back to work to a point that Demone was saying. One of the key differences in underground rap today is there’s less friction between what’s going on in the mainstream and in the underground. Lil Baby can be Lil Baby and billy woodz can be billy woods. You have sing-trap, or whatever you want to call it, and then you have rapping or whatever you want to call it on the other side. And based on the dynamic in the early 00s, you’d think they’d be at odds. But people are buying the same clothes and just trying to do their thing.
Nate: I think it’s part of the cultural reckoning around our speech and our behavior. Why would you make your career about hating someone else in this moment? That feels like an extension of how some comedians of a certain generation find it so hard to talk about anything now because you can’t make fun of everything. Similarly, I think rapping specifically about hating someone else or someone else’s style is both unsellable and a poor way to spend your time.
Demone: Go to Twitter! Maybe the tired, complaining curmudgeon just has a different outlet and doesn’t have to make songs about that. I’ve always felt since time immemorial that both sides of this coin – mainstream and underground – borrow from each other and pretend like they don’t, but now we got to the point where Westside Gunn doesn’t have to pretend that he’s not doing some artsy rap backpack shit – he can just do it. Now Roc Marci can say, “I’m going to rap about drug-dealing” and it’s fine. There was a time when that would have been frowned upon in the underground and I think we just reached the point where there’s more people who understand what rapping is, then maybe ever before.
Nate: I think that more people can rap better than ever before, and that people have a higher listening comprehension than ever before.
Dave: I do agree with that. The idea that the mainstream and the underground are very aware of each other but kind of act like they don’t. The lanes are more defined now but if Benny wanted to make a song about crying over his girlfriend, as long as he does it right over a good beat, that might be okay. It’s not like Slug brandishing guns, all of a sudden.
Hey, maybe Slug is like Wayne Brady on the Chappelle Show. The baddest rapper out here.
Nate: One last thing on this, there’s no such thing as selling out anymore. You’re happy someone got their song in a commercial.
Dave: I’ve always been of that mind though. I might have not like the 10th Grouch & Eligh album but I’m happy for them. Do you.
Nate: This creates an interesting paradigm because Drake set out to be Phonte and ended up doing something totally different. But they borrowed liberally from each other, especially in the personage of Drake, who borrows everything from everybody and he’s the most successful guy right now. He looks to backpack rap as a direct inspiration. I think that says something about our culture. Which is to say, if you like the mainstream, you might also like the underground.
That dovetails with one of my devil’s advocate questions. One of my only concerns that I ever have with underground hip hop is that sometimes it’s blinkered. For example, in the early 2000s you did have acts like Missy & Timbaland or the Neptunes, or Roc-A-Fella doing this really interesting stuff and it sucked up the momentum from indie rap, because it was just good music at the time, and people who didn’t have any ideological reasons gravitated towards it, which prompts a conservative reaction from the underground and so on. This time, I don’t see things going the same way, but…
Nate: I used to listen to a lot of LA underground shroomed out backpack rap. Like Shapeshifters and Orko The Psychotic Alien – 3rd and 4th tier Project Blowed dudes, the really weird dudes, right? In their music, they would always talk about how they were aliens but the beats, the soundscapes never sounded like aliens. It sounded like a bunch of high white dudes with four tracks.
Then the Neptunes come along and Timbaland comes along and now THAT’s what an alien sounds like… but they don’t rap like that. And thank God, right? We don’t need any 48 bar verses about like going to the zoo or whatever. Even though I love that shit. But you’re right: it sucked all the momentum out of the movement because the underground guys couldn’t do that. They couldn’t even afford a Triton, let alone know how to use it. So that stuff didn’t sound fun once Missy came out. It’s like, “she’s way better than you guys and much weirder and a better rapper. We’re done. We’re over you.”
Demone: I’m gonna pass on this one to gather my thoughts.
Nate: Now I’m wondering what happens when the current thing -the Vanguard – like how do you call Quelle Chris, billy woods, Cavalier, Denmark Vesey, all this messy artistic rap that we’re really into – what happens when these guys hit their fifth album and it sucks? I don’t know how I’ll react, I’ll probably be a die-hard fan saying “no, no! Listen to track 7!”
Dave: But we’ve already discussed a little bit of a Conway and Marci fatigue. It’s happening. It’s not that those albums are weak albums, but right now as the current listener, is it just more of the same? I mean, this is getting off topic and I probably…
Demone: Please, please. I don’t want Conway problems.
It’s very telling to me that West had this vision and the two guys he got to bring it to life were his family. And they’re like, “okay, I’ll do this” but as soon as they got a chance to pursue their own lane they said “no, I’m going to rap on trap drums because I don’t know what my cousin or my brother is on.” So West says “cool, I guess I’ll call Mach now, because he wants to rap over these beats.”
Dave: Back in the day technology didn’t move fast enough. You look at RZA with his cousins GZA and ODB, if Dirty was alive now and we switched the circumstances, maybe he would have dropped a Trap album.
Nate: I feel he’d have gone in the other direction and we would have gotten an ODB/Everlast type album. Where he’s on the porch with overalls and the acoustic guitar.
Demone: I feel like what could end this run that we are talking about would be club music making another leap. Because we framed it as mainstream but that’s what it was. It was club music. If we all run back outside after a year in our feelings…
If you were 18 or 19 in the early 90s, by the time all the Missy and Timberland stuff comes along, you’re in a different space. You want to go to a party that has women! The underground scene got stale and there were technical innovations that happened in the club space that just sounded better. Even sample heads: take a Kanye West or Just Blaze. They were taking things and making them, bigger, better, more interesting, and more accessible to more people. We’re not in a phase like that right now, I think music in general is more fragmented than it’s ever been.
But should there be some new innovation just like when Trap initially hit, I think there could be something like that to take the steam out of the current aesthetic. I always like to think rappers figure it out. They want to be popular, they want to be hot and I feel like in time they always figure it out. But there may be an end to the sweet spot that we’re in right now just because of the frequency aspect. I know 10 mixtapes a year is the way that you probably get over as a business model, but I think that’s what will run it into the ground. There are artists who I can’t check for everything anymore. It’s not event music. I think Rory has done an excellent job of balancing releasing material and giving you enough time to want some more again. Meanwhile, I can wait another year to hear another Roc Marci record. I think if anything that’s what is going to creatively peter this out. But right now, I think it’s still humming.
I’m going to pivot towards some blog questions. This one’s kind of on the line, but I’ll ask because you guys have spoken to so many new emcees and veterans. One of the things that I’ve actually been really happy about in terms of this moment and underground rap, is that there hasn’t been a repeat of the mid-2000s in that we haven’t had a wave of “safe rappers”. We haven’t had 25 million white emcees. Or as big a wave of white people that only listen to white people. Because that became something that the underground had to carry for a while. Instead right now, you’re getting a lot of Black kids and kids of color that are speaking truth to power and that are being either really personal, really political or more importantly, there’s no real difference anymore.
Dave: I don’t know if I have a straight awesome answer to that. But on your notion of the safe, white rapper, there’s Logic and Mac Miller.
Demone: I do think the arc of American music will bend back to the white kid. Black people, PoC and some white folk create a style. It gets really good, has this huge impact on fans and then those fans make their own music. So there’s going to be a white Earl Sweatshirt, it’s going to happen. And if he’s really good at it, he’ll have more access and more lanes then Mavi does. Action Bronson had more lanes than somebody else doing a similar thing. He had more lanes than Ghostface, nobody’s giving Westside Gunn a TV show. That’s just the way it works.
And so I feel like it is going to happen in these movements. But what I will say is that I feel that Black kids have more range and a wider palette to play with than ever before. I share Nate’s, approximation that there is a group of young dynamic, Black rappers who are bringing a different form of song writing that we hadn’t previously seen. They are aware of the street life narratives but not bound by them. There was just a time when if you weren’t rapping about selling drugs you were absolutely talking nonsense. Kanye really opened up a lot of doors in that respect and so I’m glad there are more lanes and opportunities. But I do think that just comes in waves it’s just that the suburban white kids haven’t caught up yet. And when they do… You know, whoever the white Armand Hammer is will be that, you know? It sounds nihilistic but that’s just how it works in America.
Moving in towards more Pod-specific stuff. We’ve discussed a whole bunch of concepts and ideas and every week, you guys go on and speak to different people and you end up crafting a narrative. So how do you guys go about doing that? How do you guys go telling that story of underground rap? Do you sit around and discuss it before? Is it just conversation like now? How does it occur for you guys?
Nate: I think the through-line that we’re talking about happened by accident because our first new rapper guest was Vic Spencer. Especially before we started this, we were classicists. We weren’t really been paying close attention to the new world of rappers, but I listened to Spencer For Hire 2 when we started doing the podcast and there’s a Quelle Chris guest verse on the song “Primal Rage.”
I fell in love with that song and I made these guys listen to it. I was like “I’ll bet that’s just the tip of the iceberg” so to speak. When we reached out to Vic Spencer on Twitter, he immediately said yes to come on the show, he had never heard of us and we only had 20 or so episodes. That’s when we found out something that Demone talked about earlier – these cats are accessible. If you have Instagram DMs, Twitter DMs, a regular tweet: just mention someone and they’ll start following you. So we started down this path of not just talking about old music, but talking about new music. It wasn’t planned.
Dave: It’s Demone’s line about how to age gracefully in Hip-Hop. That’s the ethos that we constantly carry. I think a lot of the narratives, especially for us, come from the historical background. But I think where we make the changes is that the narrative is ongoing. We just got off the phone with Ed OG and it’s really easy to Wikipedia some shit and then get two paragraphs on him. But we’re going to ask him about other stuff that will embolden the history and the narrative moving forward. So we’re not trying to change it, but trying to update it a little bit and connect new ideas.