Applied Science #10: Underground Hip-Hop Economics Pt. 1
“If you don’t dig me/ It’s no biggie, I’ma keep the faith” - Ka, “Day 0” from Days With Dr. Yen Lo
“So on the one hand there is music and on the other there’s the music business. I’m into music. If you’re into the business side, you better cater to what these people wanna hear. Music, on the other hand, is forever. That’s my opinion. I wanna do music that you could pop in 100 years ago and 100 years from now and still get that feeling. So there was a necessity for me to do my own thing. There just was no label going to sign me. I had to figure out how much money I needed to record. How much to pay artists to do my album cover, how much do I need to mixdown an album. How much money do I need to make CDs and vinyl?” - Ka, as told to Julian Brimmers of Passion of the Weiss (2015)
“You can’t measure yourself in a way to compare with anyone. You just have to measure yourself to decide where you want to go—not versus anyone.” - No I.D. in conversation with Andrew Barber for Red Bull Music Academy (2018)
Thanks for reading Applied Science!
I have blown my publishing once a month resolution, but I’m back with extensive thoughts on the economics and creative potential characterizing the (exciting!) current moment in underground hip-hop. I’m splitting it into two parts, the first more philosophical, the second a case study powered by CreateSafe’s Record Deal Simulator. I have also attempted to make up for February’s absence by writing a shit load of words. I apologize in advance.
Every year after Thanksgiving, time slows in the music business. Mariah Carey’s five-octave range overwhelms our collective spirit. Only a brave few artists dare challenge the crush of holiday classics (as SZA, Beyonce, and J Cole have proven in the past decade, the right project can cut through the jingle bell rock, but only leviathans need apply). Out of office messages pop up. Admin people at labels ignore invoices in hopes that managers will stop asking until the new year. The year end lists arrive en masse.
Something approximating winter tiptoes toward Los Angeles. Days grow cooler, never truly cold. The air clears. The city quiets. Traffic dwindles a bit, transplants (like me) heading home for the holidays. Nearly a decade removed from my life in New York, I look forward to this twilight time.
“I live in these bars, might be hard to find a better prison” - Ka, “Forgive Me”
After moving to Los Angeles in 2014, the year end slowdown enabled a ritual catch up and reset. I sifted through best-of lists looking for new releases I might have missed. I revisited albums I’d only given a passing listen. I cloaked myself in classics and favorites, refreshing my ears from time spent treating listening as work.
December 2015. I spent the entire month hypnotized by Brooklyn rapper Ka’s Days with Yen Lo (an album he released with producer DJ Preservation under the alias Dr. Yen Lo). I found a proper entry point to Ka’s catalog until Yen Lo, a concept album loosely inspired by the book and 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate. I sat in my apartment, sometimes for hours on end, parsing his dense creation—intricately woven underworld tales wafting over eerie production, an album that unfolds like a lost, surrealist crime saga painstakingly restored by an obsessed archivist.
Ka’s music is definitionally underground. Hypnotic, multi-layered, metaphorical, and often hushed, as much about negative space as tightly coiled wordplay. It sounds little like anything populating Rap Caviar or Hot 97. It belongs nowhere near a major label (fittingly, Ka is a major label expat, a former member of the group Natural Elements, signed to Tommy Boy Records in the 1990s). An album like Yen Lo invites uncommon patience. In 2015, Ka told Passion of the Weiss:
“[my music] is more cerebral. If you’re listening half-heartedly, you gonna miss a lot of things. I don’t want you to sit down every time you listen to a Ka record. But if you want to really absorb what I’m saying, you may have to take some time. If you just like the song, the pacing of it, the melody, you can do other things on the side. But on the initial, if you wanna know what I’m talking about, you might wanna fall back and chill for a second.”
Ka’s creative lineage takes root in the sort of music that inspired me as a teenager, sparking misguided designs on glory in this business: Hip-hop that didn’t need the validation of a Grammy stage. A devout student of the great rappers preceded and surrounded him, Ka cuts the figure of an esoteric Chester Himes type, a grizzled griot conjuring criminals and antiheroes through shadows of myth and memory. On each of his albums, he plays the steely, sorrowful narrator, stitching together haunted details and jagged landscapes. He carries the spirit of Wu Tang that mingled the symbolic and literal, colliding street tales with imaginative iconography, coded language, Eastern philosophy, and an unmistakable sense of New York noir. In his confrontation with death’s ripples, Ka often recalls MF DOOM on Operation Doomsday; the weight of loss transformed both rappers, spurring them to write their respective ways through mourning. Invisible grief architecture underscores Ka’s catalog. His albums embody acts of processing, seeking the best ways to live life compromised by tragic conditions beyond one’s control. He sifts grand traditions to grapple eternal questions, plumbing Greek mythology (Orpheus and The Sirens), Japanese history and philosophy (Honor Killed the Samurai), and the Bible (Descendants of Cain) for language to resolve ageless pain. Every couplet coils as smoke, heavy and hardly there at all.
The material conditions fostering a project like Yen Lo hardly seem the stuff of dreams—far from the romantic rap camp fantasies attached to major recording budgets that some artists crave. Ka works as a fireman by day and releases music on his own imprint; it is not a stretch to imagine that each project he puts out remains self-funded and constrained by tight budgets. The end product doesn’t promise explosive economic upside. Yet this music contains such imagination precisely because of its unique dominion.
An understanding of specific commercial avenues shapes Ka’s catalog—art that attracts die-hards, too barbed for the masses. Each album comprises a rich, sharply defined world, freeing itself by setting its own boundaries. Unmoored from the pressures of major label budget projections and shareholder expectations, projects like Dr. Yen Lo can struggle, succeed, or self-sustain on their own terms.
Ka sets high emotional stakes in his music with limited public expectation: It can connect with anyone who hears it, but its oxygen isn’t air time, billboards, or award show stages. The hit parade’s crushing burden has no bearing on the next Ka album. His only imperative: continue making art that is true to the talent and vision that first brought him niche attention in 2011. In Ka’s words: “There’s no star here, I don’t have no pixie dust on me, nothing. I’m just giving you exactly what I can give you, in the best way I possibly can. That’s it.”
Ka’s work is not easy, more difficult in some ways than following prescriptive pop formulas—it strives constantly for novel expressions of timeworn truths, new soundtracks scoring classic crime tales, verbal inventions that summons listeners to explore for hours on end. Perhaps most importantly, there is no major industrial infrastructure to finance its creation and amplify its release as there is with, say, the next Post Malone or Drake album.
Such discrete vision can often be framed as defeatist, somehow missing the lionized will towards stardom and spoils. In my mind, a work of art that immediately or eventually covers the cost of its own creation is a triumph. To stitch together a living across products that don’t compromise the artist’s integrity is a Herculean act. To build a dedicated fan base through a focus on quality craft is not some lesser path, just a different one.
We are living through a renaissance of underground hip-hop. Forget debates about quality; there has never been a similar moment for artists who exist outside of the mainstream sounds and major label aspirations—a time when costs have steeply lessened, ideological and genre boundaries have softened, and opportunities for discovery abound even amidst the flood of new releases each week. Ka’s creative output highlights five loose principles that define some of the best, most impactful music in the current generation of underground hip-hop.
[An important aside: There are numerous ways to define underground hip-hop. Here, I’m speaking largely about a hip-hop subset that grew out of certain early ‘90s classicist sensibilities—an often vocally anti-materialist, anti-capitalist, radical tradition that was crystallized by labels like Rawkus Records, Rhymesayers, and Project Blowed in the late ‘90s. Much of this music was understood by its audience as an antidote to the mainstream, a reductive view of artists like Mos Def who existed in multiple realms at once. You wouldn’t be wrong to question the absence of, for example, DJ Screw, Three 6 Mafia, or Mac Dre in a conversation about “underground” hip-hop. DJ Screw and early Three 6 Mafia often subverted mainstream capitalist norms more powerfully than underground contemporaries who sold fewer records, while simultaneously proffering inherently radical politics by creating space for themselves and artists like them to exist. That is, undoubtedly, a topic for deeper exploration elsewhere. The current underground crop seems less restricted by the ideological and sonic boundaries that formed sharp battle lines in the ‘90s and early 2000s.]
High volume and frequency
Ka has put out 11 albums since 2011. He dropped two in 2022 to follow albums in both 2020 and 2021 (defying his own prophecy in the POW interview: “I don’t give a lot of stuff, I might take two years to do an album”). The romantic logic of long stretches of time between albums doesn’t track with the history or nature of hip hop. Jay Z put out an album every year from 1996 to 2003. Several of those albums are considered classics. DMX put out his three seminal albums in a two year span—his debut, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, and its follow up, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, both coming during a legendary 1998 showing that fast cemented his superstardom. NBA Youngboy seems to put out a new album with every breath (he has released 5 albums and 26 mixtapes since 2015, which works out to an average of almost four a year through 2022). Nas—who seemed comfortable releasing a solo album once every half decade starting around 2008—has recently reveled in a more fluid, seemingly lower stakes mode of creation on his annual collaborations with Hit-Boy, starting with 2020’s King’s Disease (paradoxically earning his first Grammy win at a time when he seemed more concerned with the joy of creation than critical spoils).
Hip-hop has long been about innovation in speed. Constant release cycles don’t necessarily mean diminished quality. Examples abound from artists who could be said to be at the vanguard of the current underground: The annual evolution of Ka’s formula; the constant excellence of Boldy James and Alchemist’s frequent collaborations (2020’s The Price of Tea in China, 2021’s Bo Jackson, 2021’s Super Tecmo Bo, which were among the whopping 10 albums Boldy released between 2020 and 2023); the eclectic, bleeding edge output of Pink Siifu (nine albums since 2019, including two incredible collaborations with Fly Anakin as duo Fly Siifu’s, and a preponderance of lose singles, EPs, and stellar features); the genre-blending work of rapper/poet Moor Mother (five albums since 2019, including the uncompromising, unexpected rap rock hybrid True Opera as one half of duo Moor Jewelry). The list spills out from here.
This level of output was once more common of rappers like Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane, mainstream tentpoles using frequent mixtape releases to experiment with ideas, test tracks, toss out throwaways, avoid costly clearances, and otherwise feed rabid fanbases. Regardless of whatever legendary status either has attained now, the strategy was widely mocked by vocal detractors.
For many in the underground, this sort of rapid release schedule now provides a constant runway to experiment, explore the boundaries of formulas, and build clear aesthetics. Each release advertises everything that came before and sets the table for whatever comes after, creating feedback loops of fandom that invite new converts to explore the past and eagerly await the future.
The takeaway: More isn’t always better, but it can be when it comes to releasing music and trying to stand out from the clutter. A big catalog gives new fans and old lots to explore.
“I’m finna take my talents out to LA for a month/shoot every video for this mawfucka, what they want?” - Currensy, “Signature Move”
“Swore it wasn’t nothing that a grand couldn’t augment/ Good lawyers need a grand just to talk with” - Ka, “Day 13”
Wider access to recording, production, and distribution technology has made music far cheaper to create and disseminate than it was during the 1990s. While some might bemoan the ways technology changes and warps the creative fields (and, in some cases, perhaps rightfully so), this democratization buoys a surge in some of the most eclectic and interesting independent hip-hop in decades.
An artist can make a high quality album for $10,000-20,000, and market it effectively for around the same (or, in some instances, for no money at all). While that may seem like a significant amount of money for an amateur or working artist, it pales in comparison to the cost of most major label projects (which, for new artists, tend to have recording budgets in the $100,000-400,000 range, depending on the label’s commercial projections and the type of deal the artist signs).
What’s more, TikTok and YouTube Shorts point to the current efficacy of short form content in audience building. A music video can still be a great piece of art and a conversation starter, but longer video content has diminishing returns in the absence of the MTV monolith. Clever artists like Foggieraw have figured out ways to shoot stylish, slickly produced TikTok videos, showing the possibilities of the medium without spending in the extreme.
I don’t want to guess at the budgets for each Ka album, but a few key details imply their budgetary limitations. They are consistently the work of one producer (often Ka himself), suggesting some kind of enhanced royalty or net profit split in place between Ka and his collaborators in lieu of big track fees, or a combination of lower fees and larger royalties. The accompanying videos are straight forward, gritty, and lean, employing the streets of New York, high contrast shadows, and evocative but widely available props like books and chess boards to mirror the music’s messages (also worth noting Ka has written and directed many of his videos, another cost saver). Ka’s albums rarely sport featured performers—Roc Marciano is the only rapper to appear on any album in Ka’s catalog (and he only pops up a handful of times). Ka saves there. It all works within the limitations of Ka’s expenditure.
Of course, depending on the kind of music an artist makes, opportunities for spending over budget abound. Danny Brown notoriously went into personal debt on his 2016 album Atrocity Exhibition, one of his strongest, darkest, most esoteric bodies of work. Between samples, mixing, and mastering alone, Brown claims to have spent $120,000—$20,000 above the $100,000 budget allotted to him by Warp Records, and a figure which doesn’t include producer fees or features. Samples can be expensive. Features can be expensive. Clearing a beat produced by an established producer can be expensive. Cover art and music videos can be expensive even when they look simple.
It bears mentioning: I am not advocating for resource restriction as a nobler path to creative excellence. If you can’t fill your belly, you can’t create comfortably (or at least I do not subscribe to the myth that the starving artist makes the best art). I am also not hoping to usher in the Moneyball era of independent hip-hop in which strict budgets enforces aesthetic sameness; as Hitmakers author Derek Thompson wrote, Moneyball-ing everything in American sports and culture has led to dullness and predictability (summed up in one line: “Cultural Moneyballism...sacrifices exuberance for the sake of formulaic symmetry.”)
The takeaway: While a budget can be a ceiling that caps a project’s potential, it can also free an artist from the pressure of having to pay back big advances (and wait long periods to see royalties, if any ever come). Low cost doesn’t mean low quality.
Commitment to quality (The High Stakes/Low Stakes Principle)
“The reason I’m alive right now is because of hip hop. You hear people say that sometimes and you’re like ‘ah, that’s bullshit’. That shit is real. It made me want to be a smarter person. It made me want to read, so I would write better rhymes.” - Ka, as told to Julian Brimmers of Passion of the Weiss (2015)
“Ka says he’s spent days and even weeks crafting a single line” - The Fader
Quality is in the eye of the beholder, but Ka’s music stands on pillars of lasting art:
Attention to detail. Richness of imagination (both in the imagery of his lyrics and the cinematic production that sets the mood). Consistency. Timeless concepts explored in new ways, invention spun out of widely available raw clay (like Greek mythology, for example).
Commitment to quality can mean long periods of time spent on art, but sometimes contemplation melts into procrastination. Even an artisan like Ka has increased his output without wavering in his commitment to detail.
These sensibilities and dedication to craft in differing forms find varied expression in the work of many artists that constitute this current underground, younger and more established alike. The list below is neither exhaustive, but it is a good jumping off point for a curious listener (listed alphabetically):
All of these artists make music that is unencumbered (or lightly encumbered) by corporate expectation. While I never want to discount the weight of spending personal or limited funds on the creation of art, the less spent in absolute terms means the lower the stakes are for what needs to be generated to break even or turn a profit.
While it may seem paradoxical, financial barriers and more modest economic expectations can free creators from the ignominious crush of having to concoct vague, would-be universal statements. They can make whatever art they want—free to be as funny, joyful, dark, personal, profound, or silly as they choose. They can explore the depths of the human condition, or crack jokes like Bruiser Wolf (who, for all his humor, also has some devastating shit to say in his raps). Attempts at finding artistic truth can’t be bought by the biggest budget; they’re often a product of the right constraints meeting inspiration at brief, electric moments.
Returning to Days With Dr. Yen Lo as an example. Ka sets the emotional stakes early, rapping on the second track “Day 811”:
All get a life, not all gonna live
Some soar to the heights, some fall on shiv
Some are bored by vice, get torn by Sigs
Some wolfing rice, others supportless kids
That wasn't us
We from the dust
The whole album explores the quest for meaningful existence while buffeted by constant struggle and dangerous circumstance. In this sense, it is high stakes.
Dr. Yen Lo likely did not require a mega budget to bring to life. While every dollar is felt when it comes out of your own pocket and not out of, say, Sony’s coffers, the grim ghost of punitive debt doesn’t typically accompany smaller budgets (especially well-managed ones). In this sense, the stakes are lower than they would be if Ka had spent millions.
The takeaway: Artists can make grand statements and deeply impactful music, or just have a good time and experiment without having to break the bank.
Community (collaboration, cross-pollination, conversation)
In 2011, I interviewed underground legend Murs in 2011 (a play set up by my good friend Lucas Farrar, a photographer, documentarian, and writer). It was supposed to be for Respect Magazine's blog. We met up with Murs near Times Square and started walking. He'd never heard of Respect. Lucas showed Murs an issue of the magazine.
"Oh dope. So I'm going to be on the cover?" he asked?
"Well, not exactly," Lucas said. "We work for the blog."
"Blog?" Murs asked, incredulous.
"Yeah, Respect's blog," I said, sensing doom.
Murs pointed at me.
"This white boy is gonna interview me for a fucking BLOG?"
The interview improved from there. We went to a falafel spot and ate jam packed sandwiches. We spoke about race and economic freedom, record deals and diets. After our initial dust up, Murs was gracious and open, talking at length about every topic we touched. His knowledge of independent business could fill a book and his generosity with his wisdom felt boundless, considering I remained a white blog boy (though I did pay for the falafel and Respect did not reimburse me). The interview sprawled to about 7000 words and never ran; the most interesting detail likely would have been Murs’ glowing opinion of rising west coast Tyler the Creator (fresh of off eating a cockroach in the “Yonkers” video) and Kendrick Lamar (who had dropped Section.80 a few months prior). A year later, he would book both for the 2012 Paid Dues festival, the penultimate installment of the live property Murs conceived in 2006 with the express purpose of shining a light on underground rappers and rising talents. Murs’ commitment to platforming the next generation was admirable considering the cantankerous attitudes held by many of his independent peers (and especially in hindsight, as Tyler and Kendrick would both quickly leap out of the underground, onto major labels, and into superstardom). It is a spirit that courses through the current generation, whether because of incidental or direct influence.
Ka is a recluse of sorts, but he came into this particular corner of hip-hop through key collaborations with GZA and Roc Marciano—the former a legend and clear progenitor of Ka’s sound, the latter one of the more popular present practitioners of uncompromising, clever crime rap. These associations gave would be listeners a frame of reference as much as a gateway into a new catalog. The Alchemist, a west coast stalwart with hits to his name, has become a kind of underground guru, working closely with a younger generation of rappers like Earl Sweatshirt, Jay Worthy, Larry June, Pink Siifu, and MAVI, while crafting invigorating full lengths with established acts like Freddie Gibbs, Boldy James, Curren$y, and Marciano. In a sense, Alchemist has become a linchpin, connecting the dots between generations, his studio producing some of the most popular and consistently off kilter music in the last half decade.
Alchemist’s model of incubation and cross-pollination speaks to the vitality of shared locations in community building. I saw it first hand in 2013 at the old Disturbing tha Peace studio in Atlanta, a crossroads where on a weekend excursion with Take A Daytrip we encountered Metro Boomin, Childish Major, Raury, Earthgang, and Que all under one roof, all aware of one another and sharing ideas. We tried to replicate what we saw in Atlanta at Daytrip’s New York Studio, an affrodable, subterranean complex of rooms that played host to an eclectic, revolving swath of artists, producers, songwriters, musicians, and engineers.
Physical connection is crucial, but the digital is just as important. The merciless algorithmic gods of Spotify reinforce the importance of cosigns and collaborations, as artists working with one another and being tagged as primary or featured artists on one another’s releases helps buoy monthly listeners, follower counts, and, ultimately, fans. A quick look at any of Pink Siifu’s recent releases, for example, sports numerous featured artists and producers, pointing to the sprawling geography of his relationships as much as the diversity of his sound. Collaboration is inspiration, but in an era of noise it is an especially vital form of marketing.
The takeaway: Human connection typically cements reputations and fans. Cosigns still matter, even as algorithms power plays. The more artists connect with other artists or producers and put out collaborative work, the more opportunities arise for fan discovery.
Infinite Accessibility / Controlled Access
When I was a teenager, I had three options for acquiring underground hip-hop records:
Illegally download them on Soulseek or Oink’s Pink Palace
Buy them at Fat Beats or Turntable Lab in NYC and risk getting mocked mercilessly the second I stepped in the store
Go to Sandbox Automatic
Below is a screenshot of the Sandbox Automatic CD’s list for 12/6/2005 (courtesy of the Wayback Machine):
It leaves something to be desired in terms of...everything. Design, information, searchability—Sandbox Automatic provided none of it. Almost inspiring in its inscrutable bluntness, Sandbox Automatic perfectly encapsulates the “if you know, you know” attitude that pervaded independent hip-hop in the late ‘90s and early 2000s: A hardly styled website attached to a warehouse somewhere deep on the West Side of Manhattan. This kind of exclusionism naturally faded as the internet became the primary conduit for music discovery and consumption, with tools like Soundcloud collapsing the evident divide between underground and mainstream, viral songs crossing from one to the other often in a matter of weeks or months.
If I wanted to find an artist like Ka in 2002, I’d really have to know what I was looking for. The audience for underground hip-hop may not have grown in numbers, but the systems of consumption have changed. Hip-hop is littered with romantic stories of pressed up tapes and hand to hand sales. Def Jux, Rhymesayers, and Stones Throw formed the core of my teenage inspiration, labels that sold hundreds of thousands of records internationally, but undoubtedly racked up considerable manufacturing and distribution costs (and in some cases likely steep losses).
Now with on demand vinyl pressing, streaming services, and digital storefronts like Bandcamp, the tools and economics make far more sense for both beginning artists who’ve yet to build a dedicated fanbase, or artists that have built core following and want to sell directly to them constantly while capturing curious bystanders on occasion.
A mingling of die hard and opportunistic consumerism colors the current era: artists like Ka and Roc Marciano keeping their albums off streaming services for a time around release to push physical and digital sales; services like Spotify understand that something brews in the metaphorical underground and needs to be captured on playlists like Mellow Bars, Raw & Uncut, and the inspiringly titled Alternative Hip-Hop (the preponderance of these playlists isn’t a signal that Spotify wants to democratize hip-hop; it’s a sign that there’s enough algorithmic activity to justify increasing digital real estate dedicated to rap music on the margins). Artists like Mach-Hommy can create demand by keeping albums off DSPs to drive sales for a time, or flood Spotify and Apple with constant releases and accompany each with special edition vinyl and other assorted collectibles. It is this combination of broad access and controlled release conditions that best highlights the flexibility available to any developing artist now, levers only beginning to take shape two decades ago.
The takeaway: It is always difficult to cultivate an audience that will consistently purchase whatever an artist puts out, but the barriers to commercial experimentation are lower than ever. Distribution is now affordable in a way it never was in the previous 120 years of the music industry. In spite of the daily deluge of new music, discovery mechanisms are far stronger now than the classic combination of getting laughed out of a record store and inevitably going to buy what you wanted on Sandbox Automatic.
If I haven’t completely burned you out, stay tuned for next week’s case study, which will run an actual album I worked on through a few potential scenarios spun up on our Record Deal Simulator. And for your troubles as ever, here’s a playlist.
Thanks for surviving until the end of this edition of Applied Science.