For all its storage capacity, the Internet has a surprisingly short memory. New Internets turn over rapidly, outdating and devouring any recollection of its past iterations. Users might remember sites like AOL or AltaVista, or IRC chats, in name or as punch lines (“You’ve Got Mail!”), but we’re out of luck if we want to go back and revisit the content that was being produced and consumed under those shells. And so, present-day Internet users and the micro-communities they inhabit perpetually retrace the steps of their predecessors.
The hip hop Internet, if such a broad concept can be pared down to a single entity, is no different. On the whole, hip hop was pretty slow to the digital party in the ’90s (remember that Canibus, an artist who was considered something of a super-scientifical rap genius by some listeners, was rapping earnestly about putting his website’s URL onto a CD-ROM as late as 1997). Still, many of the same forms of rap conversation and commerce that are currently thriving were already bubbling up in small corners of the Internet as early as the beginning of the decade, predating the web as we know it.
The lasting, in-depth archive of this activity sits in the one corner of the old Internet that remains meticulously archived online: Usenet. Colloquially known as newsgroups, Usenet was a pre-web, text-based discussion service that has been in use since the early ’80s. Newsgroups operated somewhere between the way email and web message boards do today, as a series of running public conversations delivered directly to your computer. Fortunately, Google maintains an archive of all the Usenet conversations dating back to 1981. In the depths of that deep web sprawl sits the entire history of the Twin Towers of early-’90s rap conversation: alt.rap and its more respected successor, rec.music.hip-hop.
“A lot of the people I grew up with, their parents drove pickup trucks with shotguns in the back, so rap music was not exactly high on the list of acceptable cultures.” - Steve Juon
The first post in Google’s archive for alt.rap, dated March 20, 1991, is simply a transcript of lyrics to Technotronic’s cheeseball hip house hit “Pump Up the Jam.” The second comment reads, “This is the worst shit ever. That’s all.” The posts get more informative from there on out, mostly mirroring the type of content that fuels the current music Internet: record reviews, new top-ten lists, album release dates, show reviews, debates about authenticity (most revolving around Vanilla Ice), race-baiting trolls, etc.
This all might sound pedestrian, but remember that both rap culture and Internet technology weren’t even close to the global presences that they are now. It required a very specific blend of circumstances to gain access to either of these concurrently emerging lifestyles, let alone the sort of deep-end immersion that we take for granted today.
For many, the lack of access was purely geographical. In 1992, a high-school student in rural Iowa, Steve Juon, who posted under the moniker DJ Flash, would drive 20 miles to a local college campus just so he could post rap record reviews and lyrics using an email account he had swiped from his older sister. It was from there that Juon built a micro-empire of rap information, first with Usenet and the email-list driven HardC.O.R.E. newsletter, then with an FTP lyrics archive, and later with rap-reviews.com and OHHLA.com (the Original Hip Hop Lyrics Archive), an enormous database that would stand for more than a decade as the go-to Internet resource for rap lyrics.
“I was just looking for people I could talk to about rap music,” he says. “A lot of the people I grew up with, their parents drove pickup trucks with shotguns in the back, so rap music was not exactly high on the list of acceptable cultures.”
Still just a teen, Juon would serve as one of the most vocal activists in pushing for the eventual creation of rec.music.hip-hop, a parallel forum that promised wider reach (which seemed more symbolic in nature). As the readership of the two boards diverged, so did their tastes and tones: rec.music.hip-hop leaned slightly more toward exploratory underground tastes, while alt.rap favored the genre’s more mainstream channels.
“The first big social movement was trying to get everything going to rec.music.hip-hop,” says Ed Wong, another rap newsgroup regular. “Alt.rap was just an interest group, [it was as if rap] wasn’t even considered a form of music.”
While Juon served as Iowa’s chief importer of hip hop culture, Wong was operating as one of its principal exporters. As a freshman at NYU in 1993, he used his proximity to record stores to compile vast vinyl discographies of acts like Gang Starr and A Tribe Called Quest, and he cruised NYC’s premium radio waves to record short excerpts of local shows like Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito’s now-legendary WKCR weekly.
“On a modem it’d probably take like five minutes to download ten seconds of music.” - Ed Wong
Wong left Usenet culture behind early in his Internet career, instead redirecting his focus to his personal website, Mercer’s Sandbox (Mercer was his online handle). In an alt.rap post advertising the site he pitched it as such: “Anyone interested in visiting or studying in New York can see what Manhattan has to offer hip hop listeners, just by checking these documents.”
Getting the site up and running took a bit of legwork on Wong’s part. NYU hadn’t yet begun giving out personal webspace, so he and some friends had to invent a fake student group called Computer Advocacy NYU to host his discographies and accompanying uncompressed audio samples. Though just ten or 15 seconds in length, “on a modem it’d probably take like five minutes to download ten seconds of music,” he remembers.
As the site swelled in popularity, Wong began getting requests from readers overseas who were interested in buying the records he was listing. He began hitting the NYC crates hard, buying up rare promos by major-label artists and flipping them internationally at a wide profit margin.
“I was a college kid, working at Staples and making five dollars an hour,” he says. “I could buy these records for like five dollars and Japanese guys would be like, ‘Well, I’ll give you 20 for it.’”
“I don’t know who the buyer was [at Beat Street] but sometimes it seemed like they’d buy for me and no one else in the store.” - Ed Wong
Over time, local record shop owners caught wind of this market and began to mark those titles up themselves, but while that was happening, a different sort of rap record craze was beginning to hit globally – the boom of mostly independent and predominantly vinyl-centric labels, like Rawkus and Fondle ‘Em, which eventually spawned stars like Eminem, Mos Def and MF Doom.
Wong moved instinctively into this new market but his crate-digger’s hustle stayed roughly the same. He would price up retail titles by a dollar or two, buying them in bulk at budding Manhattan outlet Fat Beats or “hauling 30 to 40 pounds of records back from Brooklyn’s Beat Street,” which he says offered a more comprehensive selection of West Coast records.
“I don’t know who the buyer was [at Beat Street] but sometimes it seemed like they’d buy for me and no one else in the store,” he says. “No one [else] would be buying Swollen Members 12-inches. I would buy like 20 at a time.”
Not surprisingly, this business model was short-lived. “Joe Abajian from Fat Beats called me after maybe six months of doing what I was doing – pillaging the store – and was like, ‘Your store is great, we like what you’re doing but... that’s our stock,’” Wong says. “‘You can’t take all of our Mike Zoot 12-inches – we won’t have any for our customers!’” Fortunately, Fat Beats also had a distribution branch and helped Wong transition into a more traditional retailer model. Wong also hit on a unique marketing approach by bartering his web services directly to less-than-savvy labels as a means for promotion on Yahoo, the main search engine at the time.
“These guys didn’t have Internet presences,” he says. “Like Rawkus – they had the domain rawkus.com but nothing was on it, so the exchange was that I would do all the online upkeep and they would send all the sales to Sandbox.”
The often cerebral and proudly independent strain of indie hip hop thrived on the Internet, and probably because of it. Sandbox and a handful of similarly focused online shops provided an enthusiastic global outlet for a lot of inward-looking or forward-thinking rap music that might’ve otherwise languished in cut-out bins.
“The Internet has always been about what’s new and what’s next,” explains Juon. “These weird-as-fuck rappers who put 100 words into a line where there should only be 20 [could] sell a record and people would buy it. The Internet ate that up because everybody wanted the newest thing.” Sandbox, eventually rechristened Sandbox Automatic, capitalized on this hunger. It would continue to be one of the more dominant of a small handful of indie-rap exporters, its reign lasting well into the 2000s.
For many years this was how Internet rap empires were built – organically and from the foundation of casual online conversation. Hip hop was such an arcane subject that it was difficult for anyone but insiders of both rap and online communities to commodify. Juon chuckles at the memory of the rap sites that popped up during the first dot-com bubble of the late ’90s, like Russell Simmons’ quickly aborted venture 360 Hip Hop. “I just remember going to the site when it first launched and laughing at it like, ‘There’s nothing here!’” But this utopia – in which the information traded by well-meaning fans comprised the core of the Internet’s rap knowledge – wouldn’t survive the web’s next wave of innovations. Web 2.0 culture, and the corporations it engendered, has engulfed what’s left of the simpler rap Internet. Both Sandbox and OHHLA still exist in 2013, but with primitive layouts that make them look like they were beamed here directly from 1998 – heavy with text, default fonts, underlined blue links.
The Sandbox storefront is now CD-only; Wong stopped selling records there after the hip hop vinyl market declined in the middle of the ’00s. Recently, however, he started peddling new records under the Sandbox name. He’s now on Discogs, a gigantic discography resource that's gradually morphed into a sales site, much like Sandbox’s trajectory. The difference is that Discogs is a multi-dealer marketplace, its content and inventory culled from the global hive mind. Wong also moves CDs briskly on Amazon.com and is enthusiastic about his shift toward these larger sites.
“[Rap Genius] got rich off what I did.” - Steve Juon
“It’s more like a flea market now. As a small retailer, you set up your tent at one of these big sites and you try to price competitively and you try to be first to market and have good stock,” he says. “And there’s no advertising budget, they do everything.”
Juon’s transition into the user-driven Internet age hasn’t been quite as smooth. Though OHHLA is still operating, it has been almost completely pushed out of the market – or at least off the top of Google searches, which is the market – by a more modern and SEO-savvy lyrics depot, rapgenius.com. The site rewards user/contributors who “translate” rap songs on a line-by-line basis, a model that earned the site a highly publicized $15 million angel investment. Much of Rap Genius’ early archive bears a striking similarity – typos and all – to OHHLA’s, leading one to presume that the core of its content was copied wholesale from Juon’s site. He seems to have resigned himself to this reality. “Well,” he says with only the slightest hint of frustration in his voice, “they got rich off what I did.”
Alt.rap and rec.music.hip-hop still stand – or hobble, maybe. The majority of their readership had already flocked to blogs and web-based message boards around the turn of the century and today they mostly operate as spam graveyards – porn-site promos, struggling rappers pitching their demos, and behind-the-curve bloggers desperately hawking links to their rap content. This is what your Internets will look like when they die.
A version of this article appeared in The Daily Note, a free daily newspaper distributed in New York during the 2013 Red Bull Music Academy.
Header image credit: C. Godhand