Music News

Rapper Wiz Khalifa's at the Forefront of Rap's Internet Democracy

What if I told you that Cameron Jibril Thomaz (better known as oddball rapper Wiz Khalifa) was born in North Dakota, a state hardly synonymous with hip-hop? That he moved around Europe as a child, far from the American ghettos. That he had a goofy-looking short white friend named Mac who followed him everywhere. That he never sold drugs and that he wears skinny jeans. That as an MC, he just likes to stay positive, focus on wordplay, and let the other guys beef. That he once released a song ("Big Screen") entirely Auto-Tuned.

It doesn't really sound like the making of a rap superstar, does it? But that's exactly what 23-year-old "Black and Yellow" rapper Thomaz is. He's not alone. Increasingly, the trend in rap stardom is oddness.

It started with Soulja Boy hopping around on YouTube telling us all to "superman" our hos, and it recently culminated when oddball-rapper poster boy Lil B announced that his next album would be called I'm Gay. Odd Future frontman Tyler, the Creator swept the Internet last year with his dark, rape-y rap brand — I'm what the devil plays before he goes to sleep. Yelawolf, the trashy white skater from Alabama, released an album intended to accompany the movie Talladega Nights before signing with Eminem. It's hard to imagine that these guys could be so successful without Soulja's adolescent summer cranking it.

Of this new breed of Internet rappers, Khalifa enjoys the most commercial success. His latest album, Rolling Papers, peaked at number two on the U.S. 200 Billboard chart. "Black and Yellow" topped the singles charts during the Steelers' run to the Super Bowl and spent half a year in the top 100. Khalifa sells out most shows, including his last stop in Phoenix. He promptly sold out Tuesday's show at Mesa Amphitheatre after the promoters had to move the show because it sold out immediately in its originally scheduled venue.

But why, after a decade in which the genre was dominated by thugs and moguls, has rap steered away from the gangster image and found itself in a more eccentric place? Largely thanks to technology and a shift in marketing.

Twitter allows MCs to constantly and personally connect with their fan base. Every morning on Twitter, Curren$y pushes his brand, reminding fans (a.k.a "Jets") that he's "up getting high." The availability of social media, free media services like YouTube, and ubiquitous high-speed connections have all served these MCs well. It's estimated that in one year, Lil B released at least 1,000 songs and videos via MySpace, YouTube, and mixtape site DatPiff.

Now, instead of having to get signed to a label and conform to some suit's notion of rap music, MCs can release whatever they want, however often they want. This allows the musicians to get in more iPods, faster and more organically. Even when these artists eventually sign to major labels, as Khalifa did with Warner Brothers and, then, Atlantic, their free mixtapes far outnumber their official releases.

The volume of releases, fan sharing in online communities, and viral marketing pushes can turn the fans cultish fast. Curren$y has his virtual smoking session music videos for stoners. Khalifa's hit song adapts to any team in his hometown of Pittsburgh or any high school team sporting black and yellow. Odd Future turned 16-year-old member Earl Sweatshirt's uncool trip to reform school into a rallying cry for their angst-ridden fans — "Free Earl!"

The Internet has democratized rap. Khalifa's sold-out show at Mesa Amphitheatre despite only two major releases testifies to that. The guys who understand the tools, the game, and the hustle are getting paid.

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Chris Piel
Contact: Chris Piel