The last American-born creative renaissance occurred over the internet in glorified message boards thanks in part to the U.S. government’s narrow-mindedness. On January 16, 2007, DJ Drama and DJ Don Cannon were arrested after the Morrow County Sheriff’s Joint Vice Task Force and the Clayton County Police raided their offices, confiscating 81,000 mixtape CDs in an effort to curb pirated music sales. What law enforcement either failed to realize or didn’t care for was the fact that DJ Drama built a legacy hosting his Gangsta Grillz mixtapes featuring artists such as Lil Wayne, Young Jeezy, and Pharrell rapping over beats from already released music, music for which they did not own the copyright. The government heard piracy; hip-hop heard culture.
No matter which side of the argument you stood on, one fact was immutable: The music released on blogs between 2007-2012 changed the face of popular music.
For ages, the music industry was a walled garden. Admission was granted to those with money and connections. Before you could make music on an iPhone, you had to either have money to record in a high-end studio or be signed to a label that fronted the cost. Even if you did get signed to a label, your album’s release was largely predicated on manufacturing times to produce CDs, vinyl, and cassettes. These barriers to entry limited how many new artists could be heard. Even with the advent of the internet, which flattened the world and connected everyone, digital platforms did not become the primary way people consumed music until 2011.
Following YouTube and Soundcloud’s debuts in 2005 and 2008, respectively, and the proliferation of budget-level recording equipment and software, paired with an economic recession, the walled garden quickly turned into a public park where anyone could play. Labels stock the shelves of retail stores with albums instead of selling them directly to fans because the stores have constant customers who trust the products they put on shelves. Now that artists had cheaper ways to record and inexpensive distribution options, all that was left was one thing: an audience.
That’s when blogs came into the picture. In the vast sea of music blogs, seven controlled the tides: 2DopeBoyz, OnSmash, YouHeardThatNew, Xclusives Zone, Miss Info, DaJaz1, and NahRight. These blogs would get exclusive access to songs before radio stations and, most importantly, gave artists their first exposure — hip-hop game-changers like Nipsey Hussle, Big Sean, Kendrick Lamar, and Wiz Khalifa. The consortium of blogs, famously named The New Music Cartel, were the tastemakers of flavors that the mainstream didn’t even know existed.
The Best Rap Album at the 52nd Grammy Awards was awarded to Eminem’s 2009 comeback album, Relapse. However, the best rap album of 2009 was actually a free mixtape from Drake called So Far Gone. Rick Ross threatened “fuck a blog, dawg, ‘cause one day we gon’ meet” in 2011. Jay Electronica threatened he’ll “Rap Radar, Nahright, 2dopeboy you” during his 2010 performance announcing his signing to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation.
The blog era renaissance was revered at the time for its impact, but it’s historic now for its prescience.
For Kendrick Lamar (2011’s Section.80), Drake (2009’s So Far Gone EP), and Mac Miller (2011’s On and On and Beyond EP), their first entry into the Billboard 200 were projects made of songs released freely on blogs. Rick Ross’s “B.M.F. (Blowing Money Fast),” the second single off his 2010 Teflon Don album, peaked at No. 60 on the Billboard Hot 100 on August 28, 2010, two months after being released to radio in June. A month before any of that transpired, it was track three on an Albert Anastaisa EP he released online.
Here are the four most impactful artists of the blog era and how their Billboard success is predicated on their blog-era beginnings.
In 2010, Mac Miller wasn’t a marketable artist. Besides Asher Roth’s one-hit-wonder flame with 2009’s “I Love College,” there wasn’t a viable market for white rappers with more experience chugging kegs than being in the streets. However, he fit right in on blogs that championed quirky innovation, and these blogs jettisoned him to heights rarely seen by an artist with no Billboard presence at the time. For most of August 2011, months before Mac Miller released his major-label debut, Blue Slide Park, he was searched more on Google than mainstream rappers Lupe Fiasco and Rick Ross.
His proper introduction into the blog world came with his 2010 mixtape, K.I.D.S. From the first song, “Kickin’ Incredibly Dope Shit (Intro),” the promise is sublime with bittersweet lines like “being young so fun, I don’t ever want to age / I haven’t come down in the past five days.” The blog-era classic also features zany songs like “Kool-Aid & Frozen Pizza” that sound like early iterations of his more popular Billboard songs such as “Donald Trump.”
Before the blog era, Kendrick Lamar wasn’t Kendrick Lamar. Up until the very end of 2009, Lamar rapped under the moniker K-Dot and reintroduced himself under his birth name with his Kendrick Lamar EP he released for free on blogs. In the mainstream, reinvention for unproven artists usually results in disinterest. In the blog era, it resulted in a legend.
The militancy of Lamar’s visceral and unvarnished depictions of his Black life found in “Blacker The Berry” on To Pimp a Butterfly and “M.A.A.d City” on his debut Good Kid, M.A.A.d City was first introduced to the world on songs like “Ronald Reagan Era” and “F*ck Your Ethnicity” from Section.80. The somber singing that helped him score his earliest Billboard placements with “Poetic Justice” and “Swimming Pools (Drank)” has remnants in the seductive “P&P 1.5” from his 2010 mixtape Overly Dedicated.
Without blogs, the most popular artist of the past decade would’ve probably been someone else. For years, Drake was better known as Jimmy Brooks from Degrassi, a television role that precluded major labels from taking his musical aspirations serous. It wasn’t until Lil Wayne heard Drake’s freely released mixtape, 2006’s Room for Improvement, that Drake got his first co-sign from a major artist and the rest is history. Blogs weren’t just a natural consequence for Drake; they were his lifeline. He was directing listeners to the blog in songs and even debuted his most successful project, So Far Gone, on that same blog.
Incontrovertibly, Drake’s So Far Gone mixtape was the most successful product of the blog era and reification of the mainstream viability of the blog world. The mixtape produced two Top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, including a No. 2 smash in “Best I Ever Had,” the song of Summer 2009 and the song that introduced most of Drake’s fans to the Canadian lyricist. The success of “Best I Ever Had,” a singing-rap hybrid, predicates the last decade of Drake’s success with similar songs such as No. 1 single “God’s Plan” from 2018 and No. 4 single “Hold On We’re Going Home” from 2013.
Most of J. Cole’s core fanbase first heard the poetic lyricist on his 2009 mixtape, The Warm Up, after seeing every blog promote him as the first signee to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation imprint. The mixtape was quickly heralded as one of the finest projects of the blog era. Cole’s manager at the time, Mike Rooney, remembers he and Cole playing 60% to 70% of the songs that ended up on The Warm Up for Jay-Z during their first meeting. In essence, his blog ties got him signed to the greatest rapper of all time.
When J. Cole reached No. 27 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2013 with “Crooked Smile,” a beautiful ode to embracing the imperfections of life, blog-era Cole fans heard the similarities to his poetic ode to the simplicities of life, “Lights Please,” from The Warm Up. His first Drake collaboration (“In The Morning”) and his only collaboration with Kanye West (“Looking For Trouble”) were both on a mixtape he wished Jay-Z thought could be his debut album, 2010’s Friday Night Lights. Cole’s Billboard footprints can be traced back to blog posts before radio play.