“The most unique artists are efficiently promoting themselves and creating independent success.” – Shawn Gary, music enthusiast
“Everyone now wants to be heard, even when they have nothing to say. Sometimes this turns into quick but short lived fame. It can also generate big profit but the players are easily replaceable.” – Funkworm, http://www.indiehiphop.net
It all started when musicians and producers created their own labels instead of trying to get picked up by one of the Big Four: Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group and EMI Group. Once these independent labels were established and signed new artists, the rappers and singers became known as independent or “indie” artists. So literally, an indie hip hop artist would be one who is signed with an independent label or unsigned altogether.
Side note: For the record, there is a difference between “indie” and “underground” hip hop. Both are used to describe a group of musicians who are either signed to an independent record label or unsigned. While underground refers to non-commercial music, characterized by politically and socially-conscious lyrics, indie hip hop is characterized by the artists rather than the music itself. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to blanket both under the term “indie”.
But over time, the term has come to mean more than who an artist is signed with. It’s become more of an abstract idea chased by music enthusiasts who are looking for tunes beyond commercial, top 40 hits. Indie artists have a specific sound. It’s the same no matter the genre because it appeals to music lovers of all kinds. For example, Belong steadily streams artists like Bon Iver and Active Child from her Macbook. I, on the other hand, thoroughly enjoy independent hip hop.
Let it be said that some artists, even after gaining popularity and moving to major labels, are still respected as independent artists because of their beginnings and success.
To me, indie refers to an aura or essence of an artist. It relates to the sound produced. Indie artists might have a large fan-base and tour across the country, but they generally serve as openers to larger acts and perform in smaller venues and music festivals.
When you focus on the idea that an indie artist has to come from an independent label, things get a little complicated. Many artists, while not signed to one of the Big Four, are signed to subsidiaries or labels owned by the Big Four. I think what it comes down to, after labels have been determined, is the figurative, abstract idea of an indie artist.
For example, Freddie Gibbs is a rapper who’s been around more more than a decade. He’s not played on the radio, has put out at least ten mixtapes and performs at venues with other smaller-name rapper (The Cool Kids, Chip the Ripper, Big K.R.I.T.). He’s signed to a label called CTE (Corporate Thugz Entertainment), started by Young Jeezy and owned by Def Jam, a sub-label of Universal Music Group. But I have him pegged as an indie artist. He has that sound. He’s not all bells and whistles, not all synthesizers and autotune. He’s a straight rapper, reminiscent of Juicy J of Three 6 Mafia.
Tech N9ne was listed as an indie artist on Wikipedia (I know, it’s Wikipedia). After a little research, I found he belongs his own label (he’s the vice president) called Strange Music. It’s tied to RED Distribution, which is a subsidiary of Universal. That paired with his long-lasting career (25+ years) might speak “mainstream” but considering his lyrical content and lack of headlining major national tours, he’s pretty indie.
Backtracking a little to Freddie Gibbs, I mentioned how he put out several mixtapes. It is said that mixtapes are a sign of an indie artist, but MC Man says mixtapes are really the backbone of hip hop in general. (To get some yourself, register at datpiff.com).
So when it came down to writing this post—an inevitable topic—I had a hard time really honing in on the point I was trying to make. I’m still not sure if I really made that clear, but I’ll end this with a slice of how I started my research—iTunes. Please note, this list was created before any research and still no research took part in deciding which artists to post, it is purely based on my instinct. Warning: probably NSFW.
10 artists I thought might be considered “indie” in my iTunes:
3. Wale (and Miguel, featured in this video)
4. Frank Ocean
5. Iggy Azalea
7. Nappy Roots
8. Pigeon John
9. The Weeknd
10. Kendrick Lamar