How Social Media and Its Popular New Platforms Continue to Shape Hip-Hop
How social media and its popular new platforms are continuing to shape the rap game.
Interview: Luke Fox
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
In the amount of time, it takes you to say “trigger fingers turn to Twitter fingers,” your favorite rapper has likely tweeted a fresh music video. They could’ve revealed a new ’fit on Instagram. Maybe they shared an album update on Facebook or thrown down a dance challenge on TikTok. They might’ve teased a song snippet in an IG story, hosted a discussion through Clubhouse, published a down-and-dirty image on Only Fans, offered a sneak peek at a studio session on Snapchat or uploaded a vlog on YouTube. And, there’s a big chance that you interacted by liking, commenting or posting an emoji. Social media has become hip-hop’s outlet of choice to get straight to the point with a message in myriad ways.
The notion that the internet is reserved for nerds, that legitimate hip-hop reputations must be earned and cultivated on the streets feels almost quaint now. From Twitter to Facebook, Instagram to YouTube, Snapchat to TikTok and more, rap artists now have a variety of platforms in which they can feed and grow their fan bases, set the record straight and tease new music. Whether it’s Lil Nas X pumping out memes on Twitter, Nicki Minaj announcing her pregnancy via Instagram or 21 Savage commanding Clubhouse, rappers seem to be swiping, scrolling and posting more than ever. First, video killed the radio star. Now, social media is fueling the rap star.
One would be hard-pressed to slag DDG for being a college dropout. He’s now a rising rap star thanks to YouTube fame, one of the earliest forms of social media. Whip-smart and imaginative, the 23-year-old Pontiac, Mich. native was his high school class valedictorian, so it was a natural next step to enroll in Central Michigan University.
Between lecture halls, DDG was already raking in an estimated $30,000 a month as a YouTuber. Pouncing on opportunity, he quit school, relocated to Hollywood and became a full-time entertainer and aspiring rapper, dropping out in 2016, and signing to Epic Records in 2018. Early songs like his Lil Yachty diss “Big Boat” and the Zaytoven-produced “Free Parties” drew listeners to his YouTube page and kicked advertising revenue into his pockets. “I love YouTube from the bottom of my heart,” says DDG of the online platform. “YouTube changed my life.”
The media-savvy creator has since earned a pair of gold plaques for his 2018 song “Argument” and the 2020 track “Moonwalking in Calabasas (Remix)” featuring Blueface through DDG’s ability to market himself via not only YouTube—he has two channels—but Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and now Only Fans. Between subscribers and followers on all those platforms—excluding OF since they don’t disclose numbers—the rapper has over 10 million people tuned in to his daily moves. “I feel like social media is 60 percent, maybe 70 percent of the reason why artists get to the next level,” DDG continues. “Everybody’s using social media. Everybody and their mama. Even kids got Instagrams now. For you to reach that audience and get your music out there, you’ve gotta have a big social media following.”
The world of social media is ever-evolving, with a slew of new apps on the come up as former star-makers drift into nostalgia. Remember Friendster? Vine? MySpace? Even Facebook is deemed the app for the older crowd and Snapchat isn’t the go-to popular outlet any longer like it used to be.
Soulja Boy Tell ’Em laid the blueprint for DDG’s generation when he first self-posted 2007’s smash “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” on his MySpace page. The song—and its accompanying dance craze—soared like Superman, reigning atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart for one week, spending a total of seven weeks on the chart. Soulja Boy spun his social media efforts into a major label deal with Interscope Records and a multimillion-dollar career.
More important: The exuberant teenager from Atlanta proved the power of the digital reach to hip-hop. Street teams, those 1990’s and early-2000’s promotional crews that handed out cassingles and plastered posters, drifted into history. Faster and farther-reaching methods of generating buzz and distributing the new “ish” had taken hold.
Hip-hop veteran Kxng Crooked has always been quick to leverage technology as a means to feed his supporters. In 2007, he created his Hip-Hop Weekly series, in which he dropped a new track over a classic instrumental every seven days via an online forum. He’d take beat requests and even shout out the names of fans who had reached out through MySpace. Today, Crooked consistently engages his 213,300 followers on Twitter, outlines album plans on Instagram and is enthusiastically diving into deep rap debates with Just Blaze, Kurtis Blow and whoever else pops in on the Clubhouse audio app. Crooked says he’s encouraging other legends to follow suit.
“I just tell them, ‘Listen, man, you can’t be going a whole week without posting,’” Kxng Crooked explains. “Some go a whole month with one post. The older mentality of selling records and promoting... That way is gone. You could still do it if you want to... But you’re not gonna see the results that you really want.”
Fostering community helps artists, too. “Technology has made it to where we can build communities online and engage and form lasting relationships with people who support you,” Crooked adds. “That’s a very important tool for rappers... It brings us directly to the people who support us and there’s nothing better than that... You learn about what they feel about your music, how they digest your music, you learn what they’re not feeling... It gives us a great advantage.
In today’s landscape, rappers actively build their brands, reveal their personalities and cultivate relationships with their fans through established platforms Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. More opportunistic acts have been quick to jump on newer vehicles like TikTok, OnlyFans, Twitter Fleets and Clubhouse.
Twitter’s impact on the rap game has been immeasurable. Announcing release dates, clarifying rumors and teasing new bangers is a common practice. But, Twitter is also a realm for beef to brew and rants to run rampant (see: @KanyeWest).
In July of 2015, Meek Mill ignited one of the most memorable online and on-wax tussles of the digital era when he tapped send on this tweet: “Stop comparing drake to me too... He don’t write his own raps! That’s why he ain’t tweet my album because we found out!”
In 140 characters or less, the Philadelphia MC’s tweet triggered a ghostwriting debate and series of diss tracks between both him and Drake that would endure for months. The two have since made amends. The combative, impulsive nature of Twitter fingers steals headlines and compels screengrabs, but nearly every artist uses the platform as a virtual meet-and-greet with their fans.
“Especially in the age of COVID, Twitter has become the de-facto platform for artists to have meaningful connections and conversations with their fans—particularly about hip-hop, which is one of the most talked-about genres of music on Twitter,” says Kevin O’Donnell, Head of Music Partnerships for the U.S. at Twitter.
Hip-hop has recently embraced the voice tweet; Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Lil Nas X and Rico Nasty frequently use the feature to share whatever’s on their mind. “It’s the digital version of holding a mic,” O’Donnell says of the function. “Cardi B hopped on Twitter to talk with her fans about skincare tips [in January of 2021]; it was an honest and real conversation that became a trending topic and got covered by national media.”
Nearly every #NewMusicFriday, at least one hip-hop act scores a top 10 trend pegged to a new release, according to O’Donnell. “Lil Durk, who dropped the deluxe edition of The Voice in [January], had several trends on Twitter throughout that week, including Feb. 5, when his #AskLilDurk Q&A became a No. 1 U.S. trend for several hours.” The more rappers lean into their audiences, the more they take off. “Even in the middle of the night,” O’Donnell observes. “Meek Mill often finds 10-minute chunks of time to have Q&As with his fans, and these will almost always become a top trending topic.”
Elsewhere on Twitter is South Coast Music Group/Capitol Records' Toosii, 21, who floated to fame with the success of his 2019 song “Red Lights.” “I feel like social media’s important to reach my fans ’cause it helps me build a relationship with them,” Toosii says of his approach to social. “It helps them feel like they actually know me in real life. It gives them hope. I got fans that, like, send me stuff. Feel me?”
Twitter, which he describes as “a newer Facebook,” is Toosii’s preferred platform because of its versatility. “You could make statuses, you could post pictures, you could post videos, you could go live through Periscope, and it connects to your Twitter,” he shares. “So, I like Twitter, you feel me?”
Beef and promo, fashion and flexes, song leaks and studio sneak peek, Instagram has not only become an essential window into the lives of today’s rappers but a realm for them to make headlines. Be it announcing tours or tracklists, rappers turn to Insta to get the word out fast and direct to their loyal followers. And Timbaland and Swizz Beatz’s live-streamed battle/performance series Verzuz has helped problem-solve the performance void in a pandemic and proven just how an app tap can swell into a phenomenon.
Playboi Carti and Travis Scott curate their feeds with stylized fashion shoots, flashing their artistic eye. Saweetie used the app to showcase more of her personality during the pandemic, sharing her wild sense of humor by recording sketches, dawning costumes and making use of creative camera tricks. Nicki Minaj announced her pregnancy on Insta, and DaniLeigh broke the news of her relationship with DaBaby, clearing up rumors with just a few clicks, then used it just a few weeks later to confirm she was single.
Just as intriguing is the conflict that can spark off in IG’s impulsive live feature, stories or bubble up from the comments section. In 2018, Pusha T famously posted—and was forced to remove—an old photo of rival Drake in Blackface that he dredged up from a satirical fashion photoshoot from Drake’s youth, elevating hostilities between the artists.
Last April, Young Thug tangled with French Montana on the app, when the latter suggested his hit-making was on the same level as Kendrick Lamar’s. “Stupid-ass nigga think he got more hits than Kendrick Lamar,” Thugger scoffed as he recorded a video of himself. French Montana immediately responded to Thug, goofing on him for wearing a dress in his “No Stylist” video.
No stranger to controversy, 6ix9ine went at it with Chicago rappers Lil Reese and 600 Breezy directly on Instagram Live in February of this year, going face to face with insults and credential checks. Footage of the broadcasts show the Brooklyn rapper defending his comments about King Von, whose death was seemingly referenced on 6ix9ine’s new song “ZAZA.” In a heated scene that, in another era, may have taken place in the park or in a smoky concert hall, Reese ends up flashing his gun. Instead of spilling into the streets, however, the IG beef spilled into tweets.
Then there’s vanguard troll 50 Cent, who’s notorious for using the ’Gram over the years to fuel feuds with everyone from Ja Rule to Floyd Mayweather, T.I. to Nick Cannon.
Consider the impact viral TikTok videos had on hip-hop culture in 2020, Year of Screentime. Mix a catchy hook, sprinkle some easy-to-follow dance moves, add a dash of personality and you have the cocktail recipe for a wildfire hit.
Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage,” Don Toliver’s “After Party” and Doja Cat’s “Say So” all benefited from a TikTok boost last year. Lil Nas X’s TikTok following exceeds 16 million, Nicki Minaj 8 million, Blueface 7 million and Lil Yachty 5.9 million. “I should maybe be paying TikTok,” Nas X told Time magazine after his 2019 monster “Old Town Road” exploded on the platform, thanks in part to the Yeehaw Challenge. “They really boosted the song.”
These artists are winning over the younger generation with clips of their music and fearlessly sharing casual, behind-the-scenes footage, unfiltered dance moves or glimpses into everyday life. Catch Blueface dunking a basketball in his house wearing nothing but boxer shorts or Megan twerking in her kitchen. So, when it comes time to drop a project, the appetite has already been whet.
OnlyFans, another newcomer to the screen, has also ushered in a mixture of hype and hurdles. Rappers are using OnlyFans as an extension to their existing social media presence, sharing glimpses into their personal lives, often in a provocative manner, as a way to bond with their fans. OnlyFans operates similarly to other platforms in that it offers photo and video posts, stories, live streams and the ability to send direct messages.
What sets OnlyFans apart is that creators can directly monetize this content through charging a subscription fee, pay-per-view posts and receiving tips from fans. In turn, fans receive a premium and, possibly, NSFW content experience and have the opportunity to communicate directly with their favorite rapper, a feature difficult on other platforms due to the bandwidth of messages stars receive.
When Beyoncé referenced OnlyFans on the “Savage (Remix),” traffic on the app spiked 15 percent. The platform earned 3.5 million new signups in March of 2020, when quarantine hit; 60,000 of those signups were new creators. Cardi B, Tyga, Lil Pump, Fat Joe and DJ Khaled are some of hip-hop’s popular stars that have hopped aboard.
Later this year, OnlyFans is working on unveiling OFTV, a free on-demand platform that will stream videos from creators from the worlds of fitness, cooking, comedy and music.
Much like Bad Boy in the 1990s, technology can’t stop, won’t stop. Newer social media outlets have grabbed the attention of rap artists. Clubhouse, the invitation, audio-only chat app that launched in 2020, exploded in popularity with people unable to gather in-person during the pandemic. Communities are created around an established topic of conversation, and speakers like 21 Savage feel free to engage without fear of being recorded, which is prohibited on the app.
Of course, rules are made to be broken, and snatches of rappers speaking freely in Clubhouse have made headlines and kicked up controversy. “Can’t nobody in Compton outrap Game, nigga,” boasted The Game, later copping to be under the influence after his words made headlines. “Kendrick doing his shit. I love that nigga to death. Nigga, I flew past Kendrick when that nigga was on foot, nigga, in a Range Rover and showed him how to do this shit. Don’t play. Don’t play with Game name.”
In a tweet from January of 2021, Lil Yachty threatened he’d delete Clubhouse from his phone because people were screen-recording his conversations. Quavo, too, has questioned the app’s privacy walls. “I’m not doing clubhouse,” the Migos rapper tweeted on Jan. 3. “I don’t want to be on a 54-way.” Despite that, the new platform is welcoming hip-hop with open arms.
Eager to maximize his internet currency, DDG is now using his YouTube fame to fuel his subscription base on OnlyFans, which he’s set at $14.99 per month. The video for “Moonwalking in Calabasas (Remix)” featuring Blueface concludes with a plug to watch an X-rated version on OnlyFans. Today’s rap fan, he theorizes, wants a personal connection or a vlog as much as a full LP. And social media is the way they access it. Through DDG’s OnlyFans ac- count, he’s giving his followers tutorials on how to make money on YouTube. “I made six figures in two days,” DDG boasts. “Anything with social media, I’m a guru.”
In 2021, every rapper might be better off becoming one.
Check out more from XXL’s Spring 2021 issue including Cardi B's cover story, how rappers are legally making money from the cannabis boom and the social justice that comes with it, Snowfall's Damson Idris on how hip-hop impacted his life, A$AP Ferg reflects on the making of his Always Strive and Prosper album, Shelley F.K.A. DRAM talks about his comeback, Trippie Redd speaks on how Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert helped change hip-hop, Waka Flocka Flame checks in with us and gives an update on his Flockaveli 2 album in What's Happenin', Show & Prove interviews with 42 Dugg, Blxst and Lakeyah, Erica Banks discusses the making of hit song "Buss It" and more.