How Chance the Rapper became the gold standard for DIY music — for better or worse

Source: Mic
Source: Mic

Chance the Rapper is looking for an intern.

"Someone with experience in putting together decks and writing proposals," the rapper tweeted on March 27, in a moment of true celebrity surreality. This wasn't some gimmick, like the time Waka Flocka Flame was looking for a blunt roller. This is a Grammy Award-winning MC, "Kanye's best prodigy," with a social media following 3.6 million strong on Twitter creating a Gmail address to find the perfect lackey to help him manage his growing team.

It's simply a variation on an ask we see all the time on independent artists' social media accounts — for dancers, for "wavy film editors," for access to a pool to shoot a video — compounded by Chance's fame. Few things could have represented Chance's much-touted independent ethos more or personify how far DIY music has come.

In nearly every interview he's done recently, Chance has used the opportunity to address a very specific audience: other artists committed to maintaining creative independence. "You do need a manager; you do need somebody to book stuff for you; you do need an assistant; you do need video directors and an engineer and a tour manager and a production manager," Chance told Complex in early March. "But [when] you sign to label, you get a boss, and that shit's just fucked up to me. Why should you have a boss?"

He's become somewhat of an unofficial spokesman for the DIY community. Few moves he makes pass through social media without some independent artist chiming in to detail how much of "an inspiration" Chance has been, thanking him for "laying the blueprint." He's helped create a potentially game-changing inroad with radio through his independent Rapper Radio campaign. The Grammys may never admit it, but Coloring Book gave the award show an excellent incentive to finally change its submission policy to allow streaming-only mixtapes to be considered for awards alongside the biggest major label releases.

To be sure, his authority as independent music's golden child hasn't gone unchallenged — and for good reason. Many of the moves Chance has made have seemingly violated previously cherished aspects of DIY codes. After all, Coloring Book was on Apple Music, which Fact Magazine argued made Chance "not a truly independent artist." For Acid Rap, Chance signed with Creative Artists Agency, one of the most influential talent agencies in entertainment. Outstanding questions remain of how much of a role Chance's father — Ken Bennett, formerly an aide to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and previously an aide to Sen. Barack Obama and President Barack Obama — played in funding his first projects and booking his first shows. Spike Lee, godfather of independent black film, for one, has used this to try to discredit Chance's authority as an authentic, unbiased advocate for Chicago culture.

Rather than let these criticisms hang in the air like an asterisk on his achievements, Chance the Rapper clarified the terms of his Apple deal on Twitter in March, revealing he made half a million for allowing the service to host Coloring Book for two weeks as an exclusive. "I needed the money and they're all good people," he said.

This is how the biggest, most visible name in independent music conducts business: He both defends major corporate entities and asks for intern applications on Twitter.

While this 2017 hustle may look like a complete inversion of the values of the DIY culture of generations past, the differences are mostly superficial. In many ways, the strategies he's employing are updated versions of classic independent artist schemes and a natural response to decades of industry destabilization. In fact, Chance has made this ethos so newly attractive to the public and to artists that major labels have started working to co-opt its styles, while apparently actively looking to derail the careers of artists determined to remain their own bosses.

Chance the Rapper and industry icon Lyor Cohen
Source: 
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

A brief history of DIY

Audiences have demanded authenticity and a rebel posture from their musical legends long before the independent label movement offered a formal way for artists to defy the industry's standard operating procedure. It stretches back to the days of the godfathers like Chuck Berry — who will be eternally remembered for the way he captured the lightning flash of youthful revolt in musical form — up through artists like Fugazi, an independent act with significant mainstream cultural capital that became prophet-like in the eyes of fans for its deft rejections of political authority and the commercial music industry.

The first major burst of independent labels was born out of necessity. Late '70s punk and the hardcore acts of the '80s were too in-your-face, too brutal to earn major label attention. Rather than buffing out the rage, acts like the Buzzcocks, Minor Threat, Agnostic Front and other punk bands created their own means of distribution. Underground scenes utilized cutting-edge technologies, such as four- and eight-track recorders, to democratize home recording. As copy machines became available to the public in the 1970s, they allowed New York City's downtown artists to spread the word about punk shows and DIY spaces with ease, creating a new street art aesthetic through flyers, zines and mail art.

A selection of U.S. and U.K. punk zines
Source: 
Burn_the_asylum /Wikimedia Commons

The values of punk — commitment to truth, integrity and defiant self-reliance — carried over to hip-hop. Major punk groups like the Clash and Blondie obsessed over early hip-hop's lo-fi aesthetic, helping Fab 5 Freddy and other early stars get their first major looks. When New York City icons Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash started getting invites to play downtown punk clubs like the Roxy and Mudclub, the scenes exchanged devices and strategies. Graffiti and wheatpasting became a shared artistic challenge to authority and a means to advertise shows and releases. Both scenes utilized similar covert distribution strategies.

"These [rappers] would set up on the corner with a pop-up table and they'd have a cardboard box and they'd have their mixtapes," David Ensminger — punk historian, author and instructor of humanities, folklore and English at Lee College — said. "They were all homemade, unlicensed, do-it-yourself stuff, and that was completely within the spirit of a punk show ... where you'd do a show in a basement somewhere or you'd do a show in a skate park and then you'd bring this stuff and you'd sell it. You make your own T-shirts or you would make your own cassettes, if you make a demo cassette and sell it. To me, it's directly related."

"There's always been this convergence [between punk and hip-hop]," Ensminger said, "and I think it's a mistake if we think about it any other way."

'Hip-hop Family Tree' comic depicting the moment Blondie introduced Fab 5 Freddy to the Clash
Source: 
Ed Piskor/Boing Boing

Viewed from a certain angle, SoundCloud and transparent Twitter marketing — Chance the Rapper's chosen platforms — are digital incarnations of these past tools. However, the methods of communication and distribution are now so widely available and so advanced, they've effectively leveled the playing field between major and independent artists. The "mixtape," once an important reassertion of an act's street cred, is now more of a twist in semantics than a word signifying a product's intended audience or quality. The medium is now mainly a way for an artist (major or independent) to tap into the storied history of DIY, whether they're living out the rest of the values or not.

"Labels are packaging things as mixtapes now, pretty much because they have to," Kyle "K.P." Reilly — vice president of DatPiff, an online mixtape distributor where Chance hosted his first tapes — said. "They had to adapt five, 10 years ago to: 'OK, let's allow our artists to do mixtapes.' ... There's just always a different vibe and a different feeling with mixtapes than albums, where I feel like there's constraints. Labels have had to bite that bullet and work with the artist to get that vision out."

In other words, an "album" is a business play. There are compromises made for radio; there are spots reserved for key producers and features that'll bring ears and sales. Artists need to strike an indie pose to show their listeners they're calling the shots, whether they are or not.

The skepticism over the traditional label system

Audiences have long understood that signing to a major label comes with compromise. Prince made a show of that fact throughout the '90s, wearing the word "slave" on his face in public to signal to the world the ways he felt Warner Bros. was holding his creative vision hostage. Lil Wayne and the seemingly never-ending legal battle he's been waging with his label has felt like a similar warning to artists considering the strings that come with a major label advance. Labels seem to understand this skepticism, and as a result they've been going to great lengths to pass off their artists as independent, while operating as a shadow government behind the scenes.

In turn, it's one of the reasons why there has been this tremendous interest in putting a litmus test to the independence of artists like Chance the Rapper, Frank Ocean and others who wear the independent label like a badge.

"They're lying to the people," formerly independent rapper Russ told DJ Booth, discussing the way artists and major labels conceal their relationships, an echo of a similar conversation Mic had with the rapper Oddisee around his The Iceberg project in February. "They're using the narrative of someone like me to try and get fans. Fans want to root for the underdog. That's what hip-hop is about ... So it's like they're manipulating the people, finessing them. Controlling them using a false narrative to get the people to root for them. But you're signed, you have a label behind you, you're a weirdo industry plant, don't fucking lie."

At the same time, artists have said major labels have been actively trying to stifle and derail the careers of those seeking to maintain their independence. "It's not like a big conspiracy theory," Chance the Rapper told Complex in his March profile, explaining that labels have declined to clear samples or tried to muscle him from headlining spots at shows. "It's just like, niggas wanted to make money off me and I said no."

This meddling creates a spread of fallout. It skews young artists' perceptions of how to best build their careers. It confounds audiences' abilities to distinguish between truly trailblazing artists and those just going through the motions. Transparency will be key if 2017 DIY is going to become a shared and stable future for artists. 

But no matter how many political and cultural influencers worked together to build Chance the Rapper's profile, his career still exemplifies so many of the vital intangibles that have helped turn DIY artists into legends throughout history. Ensminger, for one, sees something punk about Chance's attitude toward snagging paychecks from corporate institutions, like Apple and Goldenvoice, only to turn around and use that money to support independent art or, more recently, challenge the government — as Chance did in donating a million-plus to Chicago's public school system.

"He's like literally, 'Do your job.' He's speaking to power," Ensminger said. 

In his challenge there are clear echoes of the political advocacy of punk bands like Fugazi, the Dead Kennedys, Minutemen and bands that contributed to tours like Rock Against Reagan using radical music to challenge economic and cultural status quo.

"This one act opens up the door for a whole critical way of thinking about: How does government fund schools?" Ensminger said of Chance's challenge. "What is the role of a school itself in a community? What is the role of music in a community? What is the role of an artist who comes from these communities to give back? ... That really comes from that '80s and '90s independent spirit that we grew up with, and they're taking that to the next level."

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Tom Barnes

Tom Barnes is a senior staff writer at Mic focused on music, activism and the intersection between the two. He's based in New York and can be reached at tom@mic.com.

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