[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
Before blogs incubated buzz, the block was the most viable grassroots option for rappers barred from radio, retail and MTV. While New York lays claim to most hip-hop traditions, from the initial “Apache” sample to the first scratch, the modern street team started in late-'80s L.A., when marketing guru Steve Rifkind linked up with local indie label Delicious Vinyl.
Thanks to Rifkind's SRC squad, the logos of old Pharcyde stickers are more seared into my mind than pre-algebra equations. Before I heard Wu-Tang, their logo scarred notebooks at my junior high. It was branding at its best: mixing stark visual iconography and relentless promotion to build intrigue.
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It's been at least a decade since any L.A. street team scheme convinced me to check out a new artist. Outside of Venice Beach, you rarely meet a rapper passing out his mixtape or see their stickers plastered to bathroom walls. The street team has been replaced by the spam email, with rappers and their publicists attempting to stoke hype via a three-minute SoundCloud link. It's a top-down approach that contradicts the “started from the bottom” mythos often marketed.
This isn't the case in every American city. Spend three days in Atlanta — as I recently did for the A3C Hip-Hop Festival — and you'll be reminded of the rap marketing past. The bubbling Atlanta rap crew Two-9 had stickers on every lamppost and in every bathroom. There were cars towing Two-9 billboards. Other artists advertised themselves via picket signs and passing out innumerable self-pressed CDs and flyers. A Canadian rapper named Pimpton placed a flier underneath the doors of all 502 rooms of the Melia Hotel.
This behavior is endemic at South by Southwest and other festivals, but there's something about Atlanta that's reminiscent of pre-Internet L.A. For one, the city has three radio stations devoted to hip-hop and R&B. At any given moment, you hear local products Future, Rich Homie Quan, 2 Chainz, or Migos, blaring from a car stereo. Next year, it will be someone else. If Atlanta has dominated radio rap for the last decade, it's partly because of this desire to constantly crown new kings.
Aside from Kendrick Lamar, the Power 106 playlist is largely comprised of non-hometown rappers. Despite a Def Jam deal, a 'hood hero like Y.G. only occasionally cracks rotation. Schoolboy Q has earned more airplay from a guest spot on a Macklemore song than his own solo singles. Problem gets spun, but even then, his biggest hit, “Like Whaat,” samples a classic '90s song from Louisiana.
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Every DJ will tell you that they were down with Kendrick Lamar back when he was K.Dot, but they certainly didn't play his music. If you want to know what Power 106 was like in the early '90s when the Baka Boyz were in charge, just listen to 93.5 FM, with its emphasis on DJ Quik, Dr. Dre, The Dove Shack, and Domino. And that's just the D's. The late 92.3 (The Beat) is permanently missed. And it wouldn't hurt KCRW to devote more airtime to local hip-hop artists and producers who mesh with the station's aesthetic.
After a lengthy drought, L.A. rap has been steadily receiving national attention. But while Odd Future and Top Dawg Entertainment might produce qualitatively different sounds, they were both only widely embraced in L.A. after first breaking online. The reasons range from the city's decentralized and sprawling geography, to the demise of record store, street team and swap meet culture, to the reticence of L.A. radio to play L.A. rappers. But that doesn't have to be the case. “Locally sourced” shouldn't apply only to the menus of organic restaurants.
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