The Mainstream vs. Underground Debate (Why You’re Wrong)

Written by Wil

Why do fans of independent music – or “real hip-hop”, as they like to call it – get so upset at people who enjoy listening to mainstream music? Why is it so bad that people like to listen to Gucci Man?

These fans will say “there’s no substance”, or they’re “not really saying anything”. Music is entertainment. It’s whatever a person wants it to be. Not everybody wants to study their music.

Let me ask you – do you watch Family Guy? How would you feel if someone called you “stupid” or “sheep” because you weren’t watching documentaries? What if they told you that you should be watching the Congressional Hearings instead of the Yankees-Red Sox game? You’d reply that you aren’t interested in politics and that you work all day and just want to come home and relax and laugh.

Yet, then you’ll turn around and tell someone that they should listen to MF Doom instead of Waka Flocka Flame or else they’re ignorant. Starting to see the hypocrisy? Music touches people in very different ways and serves a unique purpose for each individual person. Some people listen because they want to connect with the words. They want to hear the struggle and feel the pain. They want to dissect and analyze every line. They follow the artist’s life. They search for artists with whom share a similar struggle so they can connect.

Other people listen to music simply to, well, just listen. Crazy concept, I know, but not everybody wants to analyze lyrics or even think about them. They want to bop their head to a good beat, recite the last few words of every few bars and sing along with the chorus. Guess what? That doesn’t make them any stupider than you are for watching Simpsons reruns and laughing at their ignorant jokes. My wife doesn’t study lyrics. She likes throwing on whatever’s new and singing along in the car. Does that make her “stupid”? There are a lot more casual listeners than there are hardcore fans who’s study the music. It’s the same reason why Friends gets way higher ratings than the History Channel.

Yes, some people become part of the music. They connect on an intimate level, and it’s a beautiful thing. Just like some people watch television to learn, not just to pass time. There are many people who feel like watching comedies and fictional shows are nothing more than a waste of time. They’re entitled to that opinion, but should they judge you for not feeling the same?

Like I mentioned in a previous blog – making a hit record isn’t easy. Those that can successfully do it have a completely different skill set than the rapper who’s lyrically superior, but only touches a niche audience. It’s a skill that isn’t necessarily respected by everyone, just like Lupe’s lyrics probably sound like babble to people who would rather listen to B.O.B.

But who are we to tell the million plus people who pay for a Lil’ Wayne album and call the radio stations and fill the stadiums that they’re wrong for liking him. How can we realistically say that when our favorite artists have trouble selling out small local nightclubs because we won’t pay to attend? When the majority of us are downloading their music for free? What makes the opinion of ten thousand people who might buy an Elzhi album more important than the million of people who financially support the artists that we love to condemn?

To blame the labels or radio is a copout. Why does radio play Drake more than Black Milk? Because Drake generates revenue. He drives ratings, which increases advertising buys. They know they can promote a Drake concert on-air and it’ll sell out. It goes back to what I said in a previous blog – look at things from the other person’s perspective, not yours. Sure, you like listening to Saigon. Well, the great news is you can. You no longer need turn on Hot 97 and wait for them to play your favorite artist. You can load up all his songs and listen on your iPod. You can stream it from Spotify. You can create a Pandora playlist.

See, that’s where the root issue is. It has nothing to do with wanting to hear your favorite artist. It has to do with you wanting to feel smarter than everyone else. You want to feel like you’re the smart one for listening to this intelligent artists instead of what all the sheep listen to. You want that artist to become mainstream just so you can say “I told you so. I knew it all along”. It’s about ego. You want to be right. You complain about the radio being terrible but then celebrate when your favorite artist signs with a major label or lands a collaboration that might “get him spins”. It’s 100% about ego and zero about wanting to hear him. It isn’t like if your favorite artist gets a song spinning on mainstream radio, you’re suddenly going to turn on Hot 97 all day waiting to hear it.

If you want the landscape of music to change, then change it. You’re the consumer, you have all the power. Call radio and request an artist. Buy their music. Attend concerts and buy merchandise. Write letters requesting them and support them on every website and blog that you can find. Invest time into the artist. Show that there’s a strong interest.

Or don’t – but then don’t complain.

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  • I always say blaming labels is a copout and weak excuse. It’s right up there when people try to rationalize BS by “only God can judge me.” NO! You’re being judged because you’re dumb

    The labels throw their $ behind artists who are the easiest to market and generate ad revenue, like you said. I mean you think Little Brother could get a major endorsement from Sprite? Not in this universe. Could Slaughterhouse sell out a 50 major city tour (not clubs and have a steady schedule)? Have yet to see it happen. Hip hop fans are super fickle and they wanna feel just as important as the “wack” artists they support

    So while people may say WTT is trash or that Drake is overrated, I bet if they were audited you’d find ticket stubs to the last 5 Hot97 Summer Jams

  • This is sort of off topic.But what is your thoughts on a underground artist such as tech n9ne (the number 1 selling underground artist) pushing more units and selling out more venues then more major rappers. He is doing this without a major lable behind him. He has some of todays biggest artist on his albums.So what do think is some of the “tactics” that he uses to reach the status he has in the rap game without the money behind him?

      • I’ll give it a shot. Pharoahe Monch said it best, the people really do “believe that something is fat just because it’s played on the radio 20 times a day.” I don’t buy the “skill set is different” argument either. Once an audience is on board, they’re there till they decide not to be. But guess what gets them on board? The campaign. The radio, MTV, BET, and big labels position themselves as the tastemakers. It’s not that cynical to think certain acts are getting a push akin to wrestlers being written as the big championship title holder for a couple of years. As such, if the mainstream community goes in a certain direction and works it in the way the campaign machine does, the casual audience generally will f*ck with it, regardless of the artist. Why else were Tina Turner, The Whispers, and Aretha Franklin still poppin’ in the 80s when none of them were sexy 18 year olds?

      • So, an underground artist has a beat that people can “ob their head to and conent filled lyrics that are catchy enough to sing along at the end of each few lines… If labels marketed them they would gain enough revenue to be a successful artist. If the label doesn’t, it will be really hard to garner 20,000 downloads. A few ads add up to a much larger following. But today, labels want their artists to already have a fanbase so they can do less work and still harbor the profits. When labels look at ROI, they never want to start from the ground up anymore. They are looking for a half built empire they can complete and stamp their brand on it. IMHO.

        So, if they wanted, eventually labels could invite more prominent lyrical content into the mainstream. But they don’t want to, because the majority of consumers are only high school graduates (if that), so they must appeal to them. It makes sense, it’s just heart breaking that that is what Hiphop music has come down to.

  • I hear your perspective, but I don’t believe it’s possible to “just listen to music”. Music effects you. Whether you realize it or not. And, personally, watching tv, or listening to music mindlessly shouldn’t be something you, myself, or anyone is proud of.

  • So I listen to underground music because I like to think that I’m smarter than everyone else…..ok then. I’m afraid your wrong, a lot of

  • So I listen to underground music because I want to be smarter than everyone else…..ok then. Actually that’s just a bad stereotype, I and many others listen to underground music because we can’t relate to mainstream music, plus we dont like being fed music, we dont like the horrible beats or lame rappers etc… simple. Plus making a hit is hard…lil wayne – lollipop?? That was the worst song ever made, I’m sorry he is talentless, look at his freestyle on that idiot westwoods show, it’s embarrassing.

  • Read the beginning and noticed Gucci mane was misspelled I had to post before completion, but this brought me to a topic that is well overlooked in this debate. First it is that many musicians who you might claim to be mainstream quite frankly despite their riches are actually quite underground. I mean, since i assume most people reading this are underground fans due to simple demographics. For those who simply do not mind being fed their music by publicity (presuming that your preferred genre is rap, hip-hop, and I would say trap but eh that is a rare oddity among mainstream [not saying it doesn’t occur]). Anyways, name 10 Gucci Mane projects. Now some right now are racking up Gucci Mane tapes, Bricksquad collaborations, and his albums. While some are sitting there thinking “Fuck, that dude surely doesn’t have 10 projects out. He got like 5 songs!”.

    On to another issue that is in a defense of underground fans. Is that when music is so popular, if any deep meaning is had that requires intense interpretation it is often squished.My test dummy for this is Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools” don’t run away now! I understand a successful song from an artist just gaining his complete stardom must drain the life from some overloaded hipsters. The song, when written was made adequately to make radio time, while although all it was portrayed as to most listeners was “A slow song to down another drink to”. It was written with meanings of regret, experience, depictions of peer pressure, and dependence. Which is better than many songs that are revered for being “real hip-hop”. The reason the song can begin to be venom to underground fans is that once it is heard and weakly interpreted by more and more people it can just make you frustrated to hear. Then once the artist is tagged by tabloids and such giving them more radio time their songs are more misinterpreted by more people. This of course only happens in situation where the artist obviously wasn’t just shooting for a radio track. I find Kendrick as a golden example, but it must make you realize that you must realize that music is one big thing. The only way one can truly cure and eradicate mainstream is by promoting education and broaden horizons to listeners. This will make them inquire music , and search for more to enjoy, relate, and level to. Then music worthy of gratifications will be played, mainstream with flow calmly with underground to a point where fame isn’t an issue to listeners, and suffocate hipsters to the point where the ones only listening to underground to be different will struggle for their ways. I understand this idea is too grand to come true, but we listeners as well as artists can calmly fix it on a much smaller scale.

    • You’re the consumer, you have all the power. Call radio and request an artist. Buy their music. Attend concerts and buy merchandise. Write letters requesting bla bla bla bla bla. The consumer has no power, the radio stations hold that power over the consumer, you think fans of underground music don’t already do the things you listed? News flash, it doesn’t make any difference if they buy merchandise or write letters requesting them etc..the fanbase is too small to make a true difference, it’s a fanbase that’s also looked downed upon and mocked with ridiculous words like backpacker just because they choose not to turn the radio on and listen to Heart FM, so don’t make out that it’s only underground fans doing all the mocking. Heart FM’s slogan is more variety? Don’t make me laugh, I don’t call playing the same songs on repeat all day variety at all, and the music that they promote is the type of clubby, bogged down, auto-tune crap with no real message behind it, all rappers seem to do in the mainstream is brag about money and dance with video hoes, tell me is that a good message to send to our children? Who can buy the way access that negative music so easily with a just a press of a button. Now why do you think Drake generates revenue and gets ratings, it’s because the radio promotes him heavily, because Drake is ‘radio friendly’, but yet we shouldn’t blame the radio for poor quality, embarrassing music? That’s ridiculous, I blame the radio and people for buying in to it, if you want to be controlled and told what to listen to then turn on the radio. As far as not having to wait for your favourite artist to appear on Hot 97, well no shit Sherlock, but downloading music to your I Pod or what device you might have hardly makes a real difference in terms of music quality, the radio don’t want music with meaning to be heard, they promote the music they want to, it’s all a form of control, underground music available for download isn’t going to change the music industry and it won’t be heard in a major way. Yes I can hear my favourite artist whenever I want, but pressing play doesn’t get them air time or much profit, would I like to hear them on the radio? Yea I would but not at some ridiculous time and not in a watered down state either, if that happened I wouldn’t say I told you so, I am not 7 years old, I also wouldn’t celebrate them selling out and signing with a major label either, simply put your a retard, it’s 0% about ego, it’s about personal taste. I’m not going to say commercial fans are stupid, although it was proven that Lil Wayne fans have a low IQ, I’ll leave mainstream fans alone unless provoked, I listen to some old mainstream music myself, the problem is modern music, it’s mostly terrible. You want to say Underground fans should leave mainstream fans alone and not mock them, well it works both ways, you listen to your music and we’ll listen to ours.

  • I believe all underground fans should just stick with underground and same as mainstream because the inevitable truth is that the artists from both factions will fade rapidly because of they don’t want to rap to their graves most rappers retire by 40 and the mark they made will be reinvented by some new youth and it’ll be called something different or it will just be lost in time forever like do wop or swing music and my point is leave everyone to their preference because this defi

  • This is half true. I don’t really appreciate mainstream because it’s all played out. Yes they can make hits, but to say they’re ‘lyrically superior’ is an understatement. I listen to underground music and that only, but I guess that means I have this HUGE ego… Music can be a form of entertainment, you are certainly right good sir. But to me it’s about the message. Everytime I turn on the radio I hear the same beat, same lyrical content from every mainstream artist. Bitches, weed, money, jewelry, cars and clothes. What kind of message is that to our youth? For me it’s not ego. If one of my favorite MC’s became mainstream and he started rapping like that. I wouldn’t listen him. Successful or not, don’t sell you’re soul to have someone tell you what to rhyme about. Bottom line lol

  • TO GARY: I agree with you just like with the black eyed peas befor the hit song where is the love the more independent and they had a very unique sound but after that song and ever other song after that song they sounded more and more like a typical top 40 artist. there is this canadian hip hop artist named classified he has only been mainstream since 2007 but he has been and underground artist since 1995 but even tho his he has still keeped his own sound he does not sound like onother li’l Wayne or just bebbier or that gawd awful lady ga ga.

  • TO GARY: I agree with you just like with the black eyed peas befor the hit song where is the love the more independent and they had a very unique sound but after that song and ever other song after that song they sounded more and more like a typical top 40 artist. there is this canadian hip hop artist named classified he has only been mainstream since 2007 but he has been and underground artist since 1995 but even tho his he has still keeped his own sound he does not sound like onother li’l Wayne or just bebbier or that gawd awful lady ga ga thats why I like him. I pefer independent music beacuse they dont have some producer telling they have to make this sound. there is an independent record company called space sound records and if you are old enough to remember italo disco/high-nrg music they dedicated to that type of music but the kool thing is every song I herd they all sound like they should of been made in the 80s there is not one new sound in there sound the other fantastic thing no auto tune crap real voices just what I love.

  • Your last agreement not only came across too strong, but also completely wrong. If artists I liked were on the radio more often then more people would listen and more would follow the style, giving a larger talent pool making music that’s better (and when I say better, I just mean…ACTUALLY BETTER! not this ‘well it sells better’ stuff, music can be evaluated based on the techniques, variety, vocabulary, message, etc.). It’s not an ‘ego’ thing, it’s a ‘it’s hard as hell to find good music’ thing.

    Also, if you think I have a hard headed stance on this, going through many neighborhoods iv had to turn off the music because I was about to get jumped for listening to slug

  • Really interesting. I would have to agree. But I always feel like I have to be careful to not look down on those who bash on mainstream music to inflate their ego because that would be like making myself feel superior to them (MY ego would kick in). Haha, funny how that works, huh?

    • It has nothing to do with ego, it’s about personal taste, the modern music that I listen to isn’t mainstream, I don’t have a big ego, I just don’t like modern mainstream music, I detest things such as auto tune. But if we’re talking about other eras of music, then I like a fair bit of mainstream music, again it all comes down to personal taste, I turn on my the radio these days and every song sounds the same to me, I constantly hear auto tune, and I think people are like a flock of sheep, or it’s like they’ve been programmed to like it, that’s just my opinion. The thing is if one of my favourite artists became big, then the reason I wouldn’t support them, is because I wouldn’t want to listen to a watered down, radio friendly version of them.

  • Just listen to video game music instead. There’s no ego, no lyrics to analyze and it’s usually composed better than what you hear on the radio or in a super smart unique underground music community.

  • Waouhh
    that’s what I was looking for,
    why so much people hate mainstream music because according to them, it is crap and always about the same thing (sex, money, and i may agree with this though) but I’m really happy to find that what I was thinking about is included in this article. I personally listen to music just to relax, dance, be happy or just listen! I read people’ opinions on a previous website, and they like “lyrics are nonsense, it’s for shallow people, who aren’t intelligent”. But hey, the purpose of listening is different from one another. Thank u for that wonderful reflection of yours.
    And i am a rapper myself, i write songs with little to no meaning, just for entertainment.

  • What? Ego doesnt have smth to do with that? IN MY OPINION, person who only looks at the melody and getting plessure from that is just satisfying its Ego. For example when you hear song with great, amazing melody and u fancy it but than realize that song is about sex for example, ur superego says” Damn, that song is about sex, turn it off”. Just bcause we are humans (superego makes us different from animals) we dont mainly depend on the melody because the ability of thinking and perception makes us look at the song with all sides, that are melody (for satisfying our ego) and lyrics that suits to our brain , society et.c satisfies superego. That is difference between underground and mainstream music. Both satisfying different parts of human. And I dont really have any objections to mainstream music, sometimes it is also cool and entartaining. Sometimes I just wanna listen to underground music. But DONT try to deliberetly listen to underground music if u are mainstream, it wont work. Just listen to music that gives you pleasure . Tell people who tell you to listen to underground music, to live on their lives. Dont ever try to do smth deliberetly if it isnot in your soul. Otherwise you wont be called human as human is someone who can make his or her own choice in life , whether they are mainstream or underground Plus I dont find neccesity to mainly live on underground life. Sometimes people just wanna relax of that Fucked up life and feel a little bit funnier.

  • Underground music fans are not people who think they’re better than anyone else. Sure at first they might feel special because they’re listening to music no one else listens to, but later on it just becomes that they want to enjoy the music, and underground music is a much more massive library than popular music, so the listener could listen to new music all the time.

    And at the end of the day it’s obvious that anyone who argues passionately about music and writes a massive rant like the author did, it’s frankly pathetic. Like the author suggested, music is entertainment. It’s a lot like video games. If someone was like “Killzone 3 sucks balls” it wouldn’t be something to be incredibly butthurt about unless the person who heard it didn’t want to accept it. Anyone who argues about something as lighthearted as entertainment is only arguing because they’ve been brought to the truth, and they can’t handle the truth. So they yell about it and act defensive.

  • I think underground music and video game music are the best …the mainstream music is trash satanic major record label tell you want to…. Underground artist have real talent than mainstream artist