By Chris Gray
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Whether we're talking about the funky-fresh breakin', gold-chain hip-hop fans of the 1980s or the glowstick, lollypopped PLUR set, music has always been as much about the community and culture surrounding it as it has the scales and octaves within it. Adapting to the times and new technology, the Web site-cum-record label Okayplayer has forged a new and vital Web community by bringing together kindred spirits from around the globe.
And while the idea of an Internet community is far from novel, Okayplayer is exceptional because it allows its artists -- who include Talib Kweli, Common and, most prominent, the Roots -- both a new means of marketing their music and, via its message boards, an opportunity for the artists to interact with their fans, bridging the gap between artists and audience. Though lots of artists chat with their fans, Okayplayer has gone them one better by occasionally making an underground rap star or two out of their Netizens.
The formula has been an unmitigated success, establishing Okayplayer as one of the most popular sites on the Web, significantly broadening the fan base of its artists, and most recently, even spawning a fledgling record label, which will unveil its first release later this year.
Established by Roots drummer ?uestlove in 1999, Okayplayer was originally intended as nothing more than an online home for the Roots. Creating the site was a perfectly logical move for ?uest. After all, the organic, old-school vibe of the Roots' music as well as lyrics that stressed social and personal responsibility drew a largely collegiate audience -- a crowd that also flocked to the Internet in large numbers. As the Roots' popularity snowballed with 1999's Things Fall Apart, the site grew exponentially and began to take on more and more artists and to significantly increase its staff.
While there's no formal litmus test for Okayplayer artists, there does seem to be a set of common denominators: a reverence for hip-hop's "golden age" (East Coast hip-hop from approximately 1989 to 1994), calculated and conscious lyricism, and a social/ethical code that appeals to hip-hop fans who spend more time in the dorms than in the streets. There's also one other important quality that all Okayplayer artists share: an appreciation and respect for their fan base.
"I've never been with people who show that kinda love to all their fans," says Virginia-born MC and Okayplayer Skillz. "It's almost mandatory among us. I know a lot of people do a show and leave. But we appreciate the fact that you pay for our music and pay to come see us perform it."
Artists such as Talib Kweli, Common, Dilated Peoples and J. Dilla were perfect fits and quickly integrated themselves into the Okayplayer fold. And while they were generally considered "underground" when they joined the team, it's a testament to the Web site's power and popularity that most of them have gone on to sign with major labels and achieve at least modest commercial success. In a way, the Okayplayer site amounts to an underground (or "boutique") label populated by some of today's most popular acts: The artistic vision is personal and focused, the context is intimate, and decisions are made to produce quality music instead of impressive sales numbers.
For their artists, Okayplayer publicizes news of their latest releases and tour dates as well as interesting tidbits for the die-hard fans. Ever wonder why Eve didn't represent for her guest verse in the Roots' classic video "You Really Got Me"? Check the Okayplayer archives for your answer. In addition, the site offers exclusives and downloads, including premieres of new Roots singles and an always hilarious year-end "rap-up" courtesy of Skillz.
The site also fosters a sense of community among the musicians. "In our own right, we are all underdogs," Skillz comments. "These people know what we go through to get our music heard. They know about the label woes and the whole nine. I try not to hide anything from them, because I want them to understand why I make the music that I do."
Most important, the site allows fans to interact directly with other fans via the message board. They have a chance to speak with their musical heroes as well as check for new, recommended acts. "People give you their ear a little easier," Skillz comments. The flip side is that the artists also have the opportunity to hear the music of their fans. In fact, one of the hottest groups in underground hip-hop, North Carolina's Little Brother, got its start when producer 9th Wonder (who later went on to work with Jay-Z) posted the band's demos on the site. ?uest loved the group's calculatedly organic sounds, and soon the group -- under ?uest's supervision -- was signed to independent juggernaut ABB Records.
While the relationship between the fans and the artists is generally amicable, there have been a few rifts. Earlier this year, a new member by the name of "ImRickJamesBitch" posted studio rough cuts of the upcoming Talib album, The Beautiful Struggle. Although the moderators quickly deleted the post, and Talib made a rare appearance on the site to admonish (and threaten) the poster, the damage was done, and soon the tracks were circulating via P2P networks. But despite the occasional breach of trust, the bond is strong, and Okayplayer is the rare instance of the music industry's using the Internet to its advantage.