All the way up: hip hop’s global emergence as the leading popular music genre in the age of digital streaming

This is the script of a paper I gave at the Climates of Popular Music: IASPM 2022 Conference, hosted online by Daegu University on 9 July 2022. It makes reference to the research published in my data-driven analysis of annual top 100 albums, Hip hop’s hold over Top 100 albums, 2000–2020.


Introduction

When, in 2016, the hip hop artists Fat Joe and Remy Ma repeatedly rapped the refrain, “I’m all the way up”, they could have been speaking for their genre as a whole. Since the mid-2010s, Nielsen Music, MRC Data, and Billboard have recorded hip hop above rock (which includes metal) and pop for on-demand music streams,[1] attesting to its status as a market leader among popular music genres. By the late 2010s, hip hop boasted a third of all music played in the U.S. using on-demand streaming services. In 2018, three in eight every streamed songs were hip hop, and all five of Spotify’s most streamed artists made hip hop or hip hop adjacent music.[2] Fans of hip hop’s dynamic beats, catchy lyrics, and striking cultural effects may not be surprised by these statistics, but one thing is clear: nearly fifty years on from its emergence in the Bronx, hip hop has claimed the top spot in the global digital music economies.

How did it get here? Hip hop’s rise to the forefront of popular music listening might be attributed to a range of factors, including developments in listening mediums and digital media technologies, successive changes to the ways charts aggregate streaming data, the emergence of a new generation of commercially viable hip hop artists, and a resurgence of popular interest in hip hop music and culture online.

In this paper, I particularly focus on data-driven insights gleaned from analysing national charts, revenue, and international streaming statistics. I applied a filter to revenue data published by MusicID, a music industry data aggregator, using tags crowd-sourced by users of RateYourMusic to come to an intersubjective genre classification for hip hop albums. This is interwoven with observations on technological developments and cultural shifts in music consumption over the last two or more decades. This paper is principally a chronological telling of hip hop’s ascent to top-dog among all pop genres in three stages: 1, pre-internet, 2, hip hop around the adoption of the internet, and 3, hip hop in the age of streaming. So, I’ll now backtrack to before the backpacks.

Hip hop before the internet

In recorded form, hip hop has always been a popular genre of music. As soon as R&B label manager Sylvia Robinson assembled The Sugarhill Gang in the studio to record ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and convinced national radio programmers to play it, the music gained a passionate audience:[3] radio stations and local vinyl distributors could hardly keep up with audience demand.[4] The 1979 single also rapidly travelled globally as a product of U.S. cultural exports, topping charts in Canada and several European countries.

Hip hop first broke into the top 100 best-seling albums five years later in 1984, making two appearances that succinctly show the variety of hip hop’s commercial force. The first was the soundtrack for the feel-good hip hop musical film Beat Street, a ‘breaksploitation’ film that offered a fictionalised version of the Bronx-born culture to large international audiences.[5] The second was Run-DMC’s self-titled debut record – the first Gold certified rap album – which marked a stylistic shift towards what is sometimes called hardcore rap music.[6]

Hip hop, fast becoming a major American media phenomenon, activated an an expressive awareness in marginalised and migrant cultures the world over. Scenes in nearly every major city developed their own take on hip hop with local inflections.[7] While vinyl records exported from the U.S. were still the main medium of listening, films like Beat Street encouraged viewers to dig deeper, and hip hop media on television – a mainstay of middle-class homes in wealthy Western countries from the 1960s onwards[8] – provided an important stage for hip hop as a visually striking art form.

The introduction of portable physical media formats shook up the recorded music market, and hip hop’s commercial success and global popularity shifted somewhat along the contours of changes in music consumption. The height of cassette tape’s popularity in 1988[9] and CD sales in 1996[10] were associated with celebrations of music listening’s mobility, suiting well the urban contexts with which hip hop has long been associated. These existed alongside vinyl, of course, although waning record sales saw new artists on new formats replace first generation hip hop stars. Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, NWA, and Public Enemy sold incredibly well on tape. The transition to CD went somewhat less smoothly for hip hop as a mainstream genre. The mid-’90s, when the CD superseded the cassette tape as the dominant recorded music medium, marked the apparent end of golden age hip hop.[11] This is essentially a stylistic judgement that suggests hip hop’s creative originality and groundbreaking political potential diminished around this time, giving way to tropes of commercial popular music and themes of conspicuous consumption. But hip hop was also slow to move on from rewriteable cassette tapes, given its rich history of bootlegs and mixtapes.[12] Moreover, breakers already owned cassette boomboxes and portable radios which were vital for reclaiming public spaces, alongside low-riders and other cars fitted with cassette players.[13]

Nonetheless, the late 1990s saw a revival in hip hop’s market popularity, associated with boundary-pushing artists like Lauryn Hill, radio-friendly approaches like P Diddy, and moral panic-worthy newcomers like Eminem. As CD players became increasingly affordable in less wealthy countries, as well as a by-now commonplace object in US and European homes, hip hop’s supposed shocking and explicit nature reached a new generation of international, adolescent audiences, popularly dubbed millennials.[14]

As households invested in home computers and internet connection became increasingly affordable – not to mention fast enough to download images, even audio files, in reasonable time periods – the internet became a major site for cultural practices and social activities associated with hip hop consumption. From the earliest days of the web, individuals were keen to discuss and share hip hop music, adding to a rich media ecosystem that had for years comprised magazines, radio shows, television, and cinema. Hip hop moved fluidly along the flows of media globalisation,[15] to radios and cinema screens and televisions and, later, internet-connected home computers the world over.

Hip hop and the internet

Hip hop’s eventual ascendance in the streaming era is predicated on its existing online popularity, so I’ll turn now to demonstrate the cultural and economic relations between the culture and early mainstream internet technologies.

The first hip hop websites mostly attempted to create digital alternatives or extensions of previously offline business and media ventures. Magazines published articles to be read in-browser; artists developed websites to promote their materials and tour listings; home video stores displayed VHS titles online for postal distribution. As internet speeds increased, the online sharing of hip hop media became more common, in forms such as engaging videos hosted on YouTube and WorldStarHipHop (launched months apart in 2005). Video sharing sites gradually drew viewers away from music video television channels like MTV, Video Music Box, and BET Hip-Hop. A larger public migrated from Usenet – text boards that are in many ways a predecesor to web forums – to online discussion boards like Mr Blunt with the launch of internet protocols and browsers. OnSMASH hosted popular forums for discussing rap, while independent blogs posting all kinds of opinion, review, and interview material rapidly blossomed. Soon, social media sites like MySpace and Facebook provided centralised platforms for hip hop artists and fans to connect via public profiles and share various digital materials, including music and video. Hip hop news and lyrics sites – such as Steve Juon’s Original Hip-Hop Lyrics Archive – set a precedent for more slick and commercialised websites like HipHopDX, DatPiff, and most notably Genius. By the late 2000s, the internet was fast becoming one of the main ways that people around the world first interacted with hip hop. They did not always do so on legal terms.

Ever since CDs could be ripped to computer storage, people have been sharing recorded music with each other online. File transfer protocols facilitated this process for early adopters of the internet, with dial-up modems straining to grab a couple of megabytes’ worth of compressed audio at a time. The popularity of music in digital consumption formats saw buyers gradually move away from single-item cassettes and CDs and towards computerised handheld devices, like the Apple iPod, launched in 2001, which was able to store a multitude of digital files. As internet speeds increased near-exponentially, software like Napster and Limewire turned digital file sharing into a quick and easy mass enterprise. Peer-to-peer technologies enabled an anonymisation of music distribution, allowing so-called piracy of vast stores of mp3s by users worldwide.[16] Seeking to provide a legal alternative to peer-to-peer file-sharing and beat online record stores for speed and convenience, iTunes and competing digital download stores offered standardised prices and easy access to an extensive archive of music.[17]

Despite the door opening to a world of online hip hop interactivity around the turn of the millennium, the recorded genre gradually waned in the popular music market. This original graph shows the percentage of hip hop albums in the top 100 best-sellers alongside the estimated revenue share of those albums, from 2000 to 2014. Rap superstars releasing hit albums around the turn of the millennium, like Jay Z, Lil Kim, Kanye West, 50 Cent, and OutKast sold well between 2001 and 2005, but there was a sudden decline in the mid-to-late ’00s, when digital downloads became the main source of revenue. Now, this may simply be down to problems of evidence: revenue statistics are difficult to align with recorded music format. But it may be that peer to peer file sharing siphoned off officially recorded revenue from the industry reports I sourced: hip hop is likely to be one of the main kinds of music transferred globally via Limewire, Napster, and torrents. However, we may also partially attribute this dip to a creative decline in the genre, what Tricia Rose refers to as hip hop’s ‘terrible crisis’ of the mid-to-late 2000s,[18] referencing anxieties around consumer-friendly hip hop selling the once-radical culture short. Successful artists in the late 2000s include hip hop’s elder statesmen (like Will Smith), one-off surprises (the Jay Z and Linkin Park mash-up Collision Course), and a small handful of fresh voices from the South (like Young Jeezy, Lil Jon) who charted poorly outside the US despite becoming wildly influential on the direction of hip hop in years to come.

Moreover, we should not forget the medium: the iTunes Store database, the acclaimed corrective to industry panic around file-sharing, provided music previews in a specific format best suited to the catchy choruses of pop music. Songs with snappy thirty-second previews excelled in this forum, which may not have suited hip hop’s carefully structured, often long-form narrative verses. ‘Explicit content’ tags and the domestic sharing of personal computers might have prevented younger listeners from purchasing hip hop in its newly digital form despite the genre’s large suburban audience. The revenue share of digital downloads grew steadily from the mid-2000s and finally overtook CDs in 2011,[19] though it began tailing off as a market leader almost immediately as a new economic and cultural paradigm grew in popularity to significant market dominance.

Hip hop in the age of streaming

In the mid-2010s, on-demand audio streaming became the dominant format of music consumption.[20] This period has been labelled the streaming era, marked by streams quickly overtaking digital downloads as the largest source of performance revenue.[21] In the most digitally connected countries, the main way of listening to music is using an internet-connected computer (including smartphones) and paying a subscription to access a centralised database of music owned by a platform.[22] As of 2022, the most-used music streaming services are: YouTube, in about half the world’s countries; Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Deezer, and Tidal predominantly in the U.S. and Europe; KuGou, QQ Music, Kuwo, AliMusic, and NetEase Cloud Music in China; Joox and KKBox in Southeast Asia; Boomplay across ten countries in Sub-Saharan Africa… and many more regional services [Melon and Genie in South Korea; Yandex in Russia and Eastern Europe; Anghami in the Middle East and North Africa; JioSaavn and Gaana in India; and Patari in Pakistan]. Much research on the streaming age has focused on Spotify (and a couple of other English-language services),[23] albeit for good reasons. The platform is highly prominent in media discourse and everyday interaction with hip hop music in the U.S. and Europe. Well-publicised statements by founder Daniel Ek and debates over artist royalties on Spotify often provide useful starting-points for academic investigation. Despite its prevalence in certain places, however, it is worth the reminder that Spotify and streaming are not synonyms. Many other streaming services provide national alternatives, offer varying functions, and are experienced differently by listeners. There are notable alternative services like Bandcamp and SoundCloud, which also have distinct genre relationships.

In the age of digital streaming, as I discussed at the start of this presentation, hip hop has climbed to the number one spot. While statistics indicate the hip hop listener base expanded during the period of streaming services’ growth, the gradual inclusion of streams in chart placement calculations may have affected the genre’s seemingly sudden prominence. In 2013, Billboard’s Hot 100 rankings blended sales, radio airplay, and streaming, with only around a quarter of the weighting allocated to the song’s streaming performance. By 2019, streaming carries the heaviest weighting, over a third (although some might argue it still underestimates the dominance of streaming, at least in Western music economies). In contrast with this calculation, however, Billboard and RIAA equate 1500 song streams with one album sale (implying that any purchased album will be listened to at least 100 times).[24]

Artists taking advantage of the consumer ease of streaming included Rae Sremmurd, G-Eazy, and Fetty Wap, who make pop-friendly hip hop targeted at large mainstream audiences. Each of these artists produced bestselling records for the first time in 2015, indicating a fresh generation of artists who marked a significant upturn in hip hop’s commercial success. We may also want to examine compositional strategies, as addressed in research on ‘writing for streaming services’, a well known facet of the platform revenue model being that a stream is counted after the first 30 seconds of a song is played. 2015 is the first year where over 20 hip hop albums placed in the top 100 yearly best-sellers. Notably, the next year saw the release of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip hop musical Hamilton. While it was a widespread cultural phenomenon, commentators have highlighted problems such as the show’s uncritical positioning of slaveowners.[25] These sound critiques have hardly dampened its chart success, with the soundtrack seeing one of the most sustained revenue runs for any album classified as hip hop since the turn of the millennium.

Alongside Hamilton – by far the most popular stage show incorporating hip hop elements – other media appearances of hip hop have helped to establish a larger listener base for the genre. The widespread influence of hip hop on digital culture, including social media dance craze, image memes, YouTube trends, Twitter beefs, video game concerts, and more, provide close proximity to streaming services as part of young internet users’ leisure and cultural practices. Such occurrences have cemented hip hop as, quote, “the world’s dominant youth culture”.[26]

Conclusion

If Nas was right to claim, in 2006, that ‘Hip Hop Is Dead’, it is evident that by 2020 it has been resurrected. While the song offered a critique of the genre’s commercialisation, it actually heralded a serious decline in hip hop’s recorded music revenues in the later 2000s. It has been a tumultuous period for music consumption technologies, with shifts taking place more quickly than throughout the 20th century. Despite popular narratives about a ‘Golden Age’ era and a corporate, mainstream ‘sellout’ period around the turn of the millennium, hip hop has never been as commercially viable as right now. In 2020, hip hop boasted over half of the yearly best selling albums.

Hip hop’s ability to adapt to new consumption mediums, to immerse itself in the contemporary online mediascape, to engage young audiences of new generations, to work within platform constraints, and to creatively innovate helped it soar to the commercial forefront of the popular music industry. I have focused on the relationships between hip hop music and music consumption formats, particularly streaming platforms. This has necessarily meant emphasising mainstream hip hop, especially in the U.S., at the cost of what hip hop means around the globe and beyond the most popular styles. Though the album revenue statistics I use encompass around two dozen territories, focusing on U.S. genre classification may slightly overstate hip hop’s prominence. IFPI’s 2019 survey of 34 thousand people in 21 countries reported hip-hop/rap/trap in fourth place behind pop, rock, and oldies (though around a quarter of young people across the globe report it as their favourite genre).[27] There are necessarily international fluctuations in the patterns I identify here. However, by drawing attention to the most visible, accessible, and pervasive instances of hip hop’s digital evolution, primarily in Western nations with high levels of internet use, I aim to highlight how these flows of culture are backlit by major forces of economic, technological, and social power.

It does appear that many regional streaming services are adopting similar principles modelled on (for instance) Spotify’s success in Europe and North America, even aside from the fact these platform giants are expanding to new territories. Spotify only expanded to India in 2019, and South Korea in 2021, which will undoubtedly change the field further: to what end is yet to be seen. China has a distinct system although, similarly, giant media conglomerates – with Tencent indisputably at the top – have concentrated significant power over national media consumption, tying hip hop inexorably to internet technologies with marketised and commercial relationships. In any case, it is clear that hip hop as a recorded genre of music has accrued major audiences around the world. It has retained (and gained) significant popularity alongside – and interrelated with – the growth of streaming as the dominant listening format.

 

References

[1] Nielsen Music, ‘Mid-Year Report U.S. 2017’ (The Nielsen Company, 2017), https://training.nielsen.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2019/04/music-us-mid-year-report-2017.pdf; Nielsen Music / MRC Data, ‘Midyear Report U.S. 2020’ (Nielsen Music / MRC Data, 2021); MRC Data / Billboard, ‘Year-End Report U.S. 2021’ (MRC Data / Billboard, 2022).

[2] Nielsen Music, ‘Mid-Year Report U.S. 2018’ (The Nielsen Company, 2018), https://www.nielsen.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2019/04/us-midyear-music-report-2018.pdf.

[3] S. Craig Watkins, Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2005), 10–21. See also William Jelani Cobb, To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 44.

[4] See Loren Kajikawa, Sounding Race in Rap Songs (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015), 19–48, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.33187.

[5] See Thomas F. DeFrantz, ‘Hip-Hop in Hollywood: Encounter, Community, Resistance’, in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen, ed. Melissa Blanco Borelli (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 113–131, doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199897827.013.001; Kimberly Monteyne, Hip Hop on Film: Performance Culture, Urban Space, and Genre Transformation in the 1980s (Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2013).

[6] Miles White, From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap, and the Performance of Masculinity (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011), 42–49, doi:10.5406/illinois/9780252036620.001.0001.

[7] Murray Forman, The ’hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2002), xvii–xviii.

[8] Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 32–35.

[9] Kyle Devine, Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019), 113.

[10] Devine, 114.

[11] Ben Duinker and Denis Martin, ‘In Search of the Golden Age Hip-Hop Sound (1986–1996)’, Empirical Musicology Review 12, no. 1–2 (September 2017): 80–100, doi:10.18061/emr.v12i1-2.5410.

[12] Jehnie I. Burns, Mixtape Nostalgia: Culture, Memory, and Representation (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2021), 113ff.

[13] James Braxton Peterson, Hip Hop Headphones: A Scholar’s Critical Playlist (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 6.

[14] Burns, Mixtape Nostalgia, 22.

[15] I. Condry, Hip Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006), 17–20; H. Samy Alim, ‘Straight Outta Compton, Straight Aus München: Global Linguistic Flows, Identities, and the Politics of Language in a Global Hip Hop Nation’, in Global Linguistic Flows: Hip Hop Cultures, Youth Identities, and the Politics of Language, ed. H. Samy Alim, Awad Ibrahim, and Alastair Pennycook (New York and London: Routledge, 2009), 1–22.

[16] Jonathan Sterne, MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012), 187–188, doi:10.1515/9780822395522.

[17] Jeremy Wade Morris, Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015), 146.

[18] Tricia Rose, The Hip-Hop Wars: What We Talk about When We Talk about Hip-Hop and Why It Matters (New York: Basic Books, 2008).

[19] Bill Rosenblatt, ‘The Short, Unhappy Life Of Music Downloads’, Forbes, May 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/billrosenblatt/2018/05/07/the-short-unhappy-life-of-music-downloads/.

[20] I base this claim on streaming revenues overtaking other digital formats and physical sales for the major labels Sony, Warner, and Universal. Sony Corporation, ‘Supplemental Information of the Consolidated Financial Results for the First Quarter Ended June 30, 2016’, July 2016, 11, https://www.sony.com/en/SonyInfo/IR/library/presen/er/16q1_supplement.pdf; Warner Music Group, ‘Warner Music Group Corp. Reports Results for Fiscal Second Quarter Ended March 31, 2015’, Warner Music Group, May 2015, https://www.wmg.com/news/warner-music-group-corp-reports-results-fiscal-second-quarter-ended-march-31-2015-20696; Vivendi, ‘Financial Report and Unaudited Condensed Financial Statements for the Half Year Ended June 30, 2016’, August 2016, 14, https://www.vivendi.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/20160825_VIV_PDF_Vivendi_Financial_Report_H1_2016.pdf.

[21] David Hesmondhalgh, ‘Is Music Streaming Bad for Musicians? Problems of Evidence and Argument’, New Media & Society 23, no. 12 (December 2021): 3593–3615, doi:10.1177/1461444820953541.

[22] David Arditi, Itake-Over: The Recording Industry in the Streaming Era, 2nd ed. (London: Lexington Books, 2020), 8.

[23] Lee Marshall, ‘“Let’s Keep Music Special. F—Spotify”: On-Demand Streaming and the Controversy over Artist Royalties’, Creative Industries Journal 8, no. 2 (July 2015): 177–189, doi:10.1080/17510694.2015.1096618; Robert Prey, Marc Esteve Del Valle, and Leslie Zwerwer, ‘Platform Pop: Disentangling Spotify’s Intermediary Role in the Music Industry’, Information, Communication & Society 25, no. 1 (January 2022): 74–92, doi:10.1080/1369118X.2020.1761859; Rasmus Fleischer, ‘Universal Spotification? The Shifting Meanings of “Spotify” as a Model for the Media Industries’, Popular Communication 19, no. 1 (January 2021): 14–25, doi:10.1080/15405702.2020.1744607.

[24] Steve Collins and Pat O’Grady, ‘Off the Charts: The Implications of Incorporating Streaming Data into the Charts’, in Networked Music Cultures: Contemporary Approaches, Emerging Issues, ed. Raphaël Nowak and Andrew Whelan, Pop Music, Culture and Identity (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016), 155, doi:10.1057/978-1-137-58290-4_10.

[25] Loren Kajikawa, ‘“Young, Scrappy, and Hungry”: Hamilton, Hip Hop, and Race’, American Music 36, no. 4 (2018): 467–486, doi:10.5406/americanmusic.36.4.0467.

[26] Kelefa Sanneh, Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres (Canongate Books, 2021).

[27] IFPI, ‘Music Listening 2019: A Look at How Recorded Music Is Enjoyed around the World’ (IFPI, 2019), 15, https://www.ifpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Music-Listening-2019-1.pdf.

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