Shamim Gammage – Hip-hop invented peer-to-peer music sharing, not Napster

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Napster didn’t invent peer-to-peer music sharing networks, rap music fans did. Before rap was ever recorded in corporate studios, or distributed to millions via articulated lorry or fibre optic cable, it was sold, shared, and swapped by thousands of New York’s poorest youth. The spread of affordable – and recordable - cassette tape players from 1975 onwards (see graph below) was the technological tinder on which New York City’s rap scene first ignited. Without it, rap music as we know it probably wouldn’t exist.

Source: Recording Industry of America (RIAA) Online Shipment Database.

Though the data in the graph do not show trends specific to rap music, they do show the transition from vinyl to cassette tapes as the “industry standard” recording medium in the U.S. It seems a fair assumption that the sale of ever increasing numbers of tapes (as seen on the graph) is a good measure of how many people used tape players, and thus the market penetration of the technology. The critical distinction between cassette tapes and vinyl – for those who haven’t spotted it yet – is that tapes gave music fans the ability to duplicate content via tape-to-tape recording. No reproductive method this simple, fast, effective, or cheap had been available to consumers before, and it changed the market for recorded music in some fundamental ways. The graph shows the steady rise of cassette tapes as the recording medium of choice from 1975 to 1990, the period that rap music emerged as the cultural production of some of America’s most deprived young people.

Was this mere coincidence? Or was the rise of cassette technology intimately linked to the spread of rap music in its earliest years? I would argue that coincidence barely figures in this story.

In 1992, musicologist[1] Simon Frith wrote that the “the rise of rock [music in the 1950s had] depended on a broader social change – the appearance of youth as a pop music market.”[2] Similarly, many years before rap became extensively commercialised - and its audience became majority white - the rise of rap music depended on the appearance of black youth as a music market. New technology played an important part in this process.

Recordable cassette tapes revolutionised the market for recorded music. With blank tapes cheaply available, home recording virtually removed cost as a barrier to the consumption of music. For the first time (in history?), a fan’s ability to privately consume their favourite artist’s music was not limited by their ability to pay for it. Many early rap fans in the Bronx - and other similarly deprived inner city areas where rap first thrived - could not have afforded regular vinyl releases. But now they didn’t need to. Music was freely available to anyone with the desire to seek it out, and the few cents it cost to buy a blank tape.

New York rapper Nas referred to this as the “cassette lifestyle”.[3] It consisted of spending large amounts of time compiling personal mixtapes by listening out for favourite songs to record from the radio, or by trading sections of sought after music with friends.[4] With cassette technology, enthusiasm and perseverance could be substituted for purchasing power, and this simple fact resulted in unusually high levels of cultural consumption amongst some of America’s poorest youth.

Although most rap music could be compiled onto personal mixtapes for free, a vibrant market in cutting edge rap music also began to develop. Hip-hop journalist Havelock Nelson described a man he saw selling tapes on the streets of New York: “The same way drug dealers whisper and gesture when attempting to make a sale, that’s the way this brother was hawking tapes. I guess hustling is just in the blood of some brothers, and hip-hop was the latest hot commodity.”[5]

Many famous rappers used these cheaply produced tapes to promote themselves at the start of their careers. “Groups like the Fearless Four started making home tapes which they sold… in the streets of Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx.”[6] These tapes were often “given out to friends, to cab drivers or to kids with giant tape boxes” to help spread the new sounds.[7] The low cost of reproduction meant that a rapper’s music could spread virally through social networks, and a rapper could achieve local cult status with almost no promotional costs.

Rapper MC Eiht said:

"I started doin’ little tapes for my neighbourhood, talkin’ bout the homies [read as ‘local youth’] and the niggas we didn’t like ... [Then] all the homies hear your tape [and] next thing you know, you got fifty niggas ridin’ around with your tape [playing]."[8]

During the 1970s and early 1980s, rap music was largely excluded from commercial radio, and wasn’t played at most mainstream discos or nightclubs either. Informal sharing via cassette tapes filled this promotional void, and became a substitute for access to traditional forms of publicity. As rapper Lil Rodney Cee explained, “Rap was travelling through tapes so people was [sic] coming from Jersey who had family in New York. [And] they’d hear the rap tapes and them back to Jersey.”[9] This peer-to-peer promotion established rap as an authentic cultural form, and developed a broad, committed, and responsive fan base on which later efforts toward commercialisation built.

It is difficult to imagine how rap music could have achieved a similar level of market penetration in communities with such low levels of disposable income without the advent of exceptionally low-cost reproduction and distribution technology. It is also challenging to estimate the precise impact of this technology.

Probably the best estimate of the extent of bootlegging and home taping came from an investigation into the “pass-along” rate of The Source, a monthly hip-hop magazine aimed at the same market. Its editor, James Bernard, estimated a pass-along rate of 11-15 readers for every copy sold; a rate three to four times higher than the average magazine industry pass-along estimates.[10] Given that tapes could be reproduced so that the lender could retain the original copy and still distribute the music to friends, the true pass-along rate for tapes is likely to be far higher than even Bernard’s estimate.

Cassette tapes, and the peer-to-peer networks they spawned and developed, meant that audience demographics for mass-distributed music included, for the first time, people who could not afford to pay for it. The result was a remarkably broad social fan base amongst some of the poorest consumers in the U.S. Without this technological innovation it seems unlikely that rap would have spread as far or as fast.

Though this method of distribution did not initially generate large profits for rappers or record labels, both the breadth and commitment of this social fan base would later become the basis for a new approach to monetising rap music, and eventually all music: cross-promotion.

So the next time you hear about how Napster invented peer-to-peer sharing, or how viral content is a new phenomenon reliant on internet technology, you can tell them about New York in the 1970s, where poor young people with tape decks, radios, and a few friends and strangers to share with, started the world’s first modern music-sharing network, decades before a Tweet was anything more than a sound the birds made.

References:
[1] An academic specialising in the scholarly study of music
[2] Simon Frith, “The Industrialisation of Popular Music”, In James Lull (ed.), Popular Music and communication, (2nd ed.) (Sage: London, 1992), p.62
[3] TDK Life on Record Series, “Chronicles – Nas”, Video, http://www.tdkhifi.com/chronicles/nas/, accessed on 12/07/12
[4] Ibid
[5] Havelock Nelson & Michael A. Gonzales, Bring the Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture, (Harmony Books: New York, 1991), p. xvii
[6] Toop, The Rap Attack: African Jive to New York Hip-Hop, p. 78
[7] Ibid
[8] “Reality Check”, The Source, June 1994, p.67, In Eithne Quinn, Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap, (Columbia University Press: New York, 2005) p. 55
[9] Toop, The Rap Attack: African Jive to New York Hip-Hop, p. 78
[10] Rose, Black Noise, p. 8

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