indie tortuga

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:

1. Afroman

2. Flypside

3. Wale (and Miguel, featured in this video)

4. Frank Ocean

5. Iggy Azalea

6. Murs

7. Nappy Roots

8. Pigeon John

9. The Weeknd

10. Kendrick Lamar

tortuga storyteller

Music is an expression of emotion, a mode of message deliverance. It can come in several forms: sung, rapped, spoken, rhymed, disjointed…with melody or beats, only melody or beats, a cappella… Take your pick.

Some may say a story can be interpreted from any form of music, and it’s true. But some songs require you to hone in on the lyrics, literally tell a story. Within the track, there is a clear beginning, middle and end of a tale. It has a message. It’s not just about someone. It’s not just a couple’s or group’s anthem, proclaiming one thing or another. It’s not a song describing any old generic situation any one in the world with feelings and experiences can relate to. It  tells the audience about a specific moment or collection of related experiences. It might include reflections or flashbacks, internal dialogue or between people or narration in the first-, second- or third-person. It’s descriptive and impressive and gets you to think about it.

Not everyone likes story-telling in music format. There are people in the world who flat-out hate musicals. But the truth is that stories have been around for as long as people could communicate. In a day and age when entertainers make more than teachers, there are quite a few songs created to tell stories of love, loss and life to the masses.

After scrutinizing every artist in my iTunes, I’ve compiled a list of songs that follow the aforementioned criteria. Before we get to that, I made some interesting connections in my search.

  1. I was surprised to see that artists like Akon, T-Pain and Lil Wayne consistently use the story-telling method in their lyrics.
  2. With this discovery, I’m beginning to realize I might be someone who likes that method.
  3. Taylor Swift is also a big story teller, something that I already knew, but never took the time to think about before.
  4. The most common forms of story-telling I found in my library are first-person narrative and chronological, which is also interesting because I’ve been told I tend to write essays in that format (something I’m having a hard time breaking out of doing).
  5. I think most artists tend to tell stories about relationships. Again, something I already knew, but by breaking down the list of story songs into subcategories of ‘relationships’ (and others), the trend was made even more apparent.

Now, here’s the list. Bombs away!

  • “Colt 45” – Afroman. In its extended version, it’s a compilation of 15 short, yet explicitly detailed, sexual experiences the narrator has encountered. (First-person)
  • “Lucky” – Britney Spears. It’s a story about a girl named Lucky. She’s famous and every one loves her but something’s missing in her life and she cries, cries, cries. We are left to guess why. (Third-person)
  • “Infatuated” – Christina Aguilera. That it’s about the experience of meeting someone knew and knowing nothing about them, yet finding them irresistible is obvious by the track’s title. X-tina is extremely drawn to a ‘full-blood Boricua’, and argues internally with her mother’s voice of reason. (Internal, first-person)
  • “Tom’s Diner” – Suzanne Vega and “Piano Man” – Billy Joel. Both narrations revolve around the singer’s surroundings. Vega comments on the mundane activities in a diner, much like someone with no life writes in a diary. Joel creates an atmosphere where people in all stages of life come together at a bar and turn to the pianist to cheer them up.
  • “Animal Style” – Murs. When a homosexual couple keeping their relationship a secret slips up, one of them feels confused about what to do and when they try to overcome the obstacle, he kills them both. (Third-person)
  • “What’s My Age Again” – Blink-182. It’s a run-through of a night a 23 year-old guy with ADD spent before getting dumped by his girlfriend for acting immature. (First-person, chronological)
  • “She Tried” – Bubba Sparxxx. The story of a remorseful man who describes the pain he feels at losing the one he loved after she caught him cheating with her cousin. He reflects on the day they met and the dreams they once shared. (Flashback, chronological, first-person)
  • “Regulaters” – Warren G., “It Was a Good Day” – Ice Cube and “Boyz in the Hood” – NWA. These three raps describe days in the life of a stereotypical gangster, brought straight to you from the mouths of some of hip-hop’s elite. (First-person)
The next four songs all use telephone conversations:
  • “Hey Ma” – Cam’ron. It’s every college partier’s goal (right?): to get picked up at a bar and have a one night stand. Cam’ron tells us about a time he scooped up a hottie and brought her back to his house to score. Then we hear a telephone conversation between him and his friend the next day where he dishes about what happened. (first-person, chronological, dialogue included)
  • “You Don’t Know My Name” – Alicia Keys. The more-than-six-minutes-long song focuses on having feelings for someone who doesn’t know you exist. The storyline comes into play about three minutes and seven seconds in, sandwiched between musical-esque harmonies, when Alicia Keys decides to call “Michael” and ask him out. (First-person, dialogue included)
  • “The Call” – Backstreet Boys. The song tells a story, but not a very long one. It’s a scenario of how a guy lied to and cheated on his girlfriend one night while he was out with his friends. (First-person, dialogue included)
  • “Marvin’s Room” – Drake. This song centers around a drunk telephone conversation between two people who were once together. Drake venomously croons that his ex still thinks about him because her new guy isn’t comparable. She repeatedly asks him if he’s drunk. (Dialogue included, first-person)

Here are a couple I found with post-abortion thoughts.

  • “Happy Birthday” – Flypside. In a rap-letter to his aborted child, Flypside apologizes, explains why the child wasn’t born and wonders about how the child might have been. (internal, first-person)
  • “Brick” – Ben Folds Five. A boyfriend takes his girlfriend to get an abortion the day after Christmas and keeps the trip a secret from their families. The secret tears them apart and kills their relationship in the end when it explodes. (Narration, chronological, first-person)
The following two songs happen to be about weddings.
  • “American Wedding” – Frank Ocean. Using the tune of The Eagles’ Hotel California, Mr. Ocean describes the excitement of getting married secretly with tattoo rings to his ‘teenage wife’ and then the sadness of her nonchalantly telling him they need an annulment ‘before it goes too far’. He calls this the American Wedding, because it doesn’t last. (first-person, internal)
  • “I’ve Got Friends in Low Places” – Garth Brooks. It’s a man’s drunken experience of sending off his ex with a toast at her wedding, which only served to let her (and all the guests) know how depressed he was, no matter how many friends he has in low places.
These two songs describe the satisfaction found in karma.
  • “Sk8er Boi” – Avril Lavinge. A relationship, beginning to end, is spelled out by someone who turns out to be the boy’s current girlfriend. (Third-person, chronological)
  • “Prom Queen” – Lil Wayne. Weezy gets revenge on a girl who snubbed him in high school by leaving her crying in the rain after refusing to let her in the house. (First-person)