Transparent audio cassette tape lit by pink and blue lamps on a black background with "The Lost History of the Internet" written on the label.

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Discovering early hip-hop on the internet

Sites like Hieroglyphics and UndergroundHipHop connected like-minded fans and forged relationships.

 

John Morrison

Internet Culture

Published Nov 12, 2021   Updated Nov 12, 2021, 10:20 am CST

Like many kids who grew up in the 1980s, I first experienced hip-hop as a living, breathing culture that primarily existed in physical spaces. As a child, hip-hop happened in my neighborhood. In the summer months, we’d listen to and watch DJs mixing and cutting up breakbeats at block parties. I knew dancers, and my older brother’s friends would write graffiti. Booming 808 drums would rattle the countless jeeps and cars that sped up and down our block all day. My earliest memories and engagement with hip-hop were deeply tied to the sights and sounds of the community around me. Later, I spent my teen years navigating the thriving underground hip-hop scene in my hometown of Philadelphia. As an aspiring rapper and beatmaker, I made homemade cassette tapes on a Tascam 4-track recorder and played my songs and beats for my friends. I cut class and bought records at Armand’s in Chinatown and freestyled at open mic nights on South street and battled kids in other neighborhoods. On Friday nights, I would also spend hours listening to Power 99 FM and DJ Ran and Colby Colb’s late-night mix show Radioactive. In 1997, I was a junior in high school: I started writing music reviews and essays for a local, independent hip-hop zine called The Philly Word. We had no personal computer at home so I would write my pieces out by hand and call my editor Sheena Lester (former editor of legendary hip-hop publications like Rap Pages and XXL) and dictate the pieces to her over the phone. That would all change when, shortly after my 17th birthday, my mom brought home a brand new Gateway Essential PC and my life on the internet began.

Having been born in the early ‘80s, I’d already had some experiences working with personal computers. In school, we had a dedicated computer lab class in which we’d type out essays using an old-school Macintosh. During our computer lab classes, we’d also brave the horrors of typhoid fever, cholera, and dysentery while playing the classic strategy video game Oregon Trail. As a teenager in the ‘90s, I was aware of the internet and had some vague idea of what it was but before that day, I didn’t think much about it or the potential that it held. Kids in my neighborhood didn’t have much access to computers and the internet. Personal computers were for the kids on TV shows like Family Matters and Clarissa Explains It All. But when finally faced with the possibilities offered by the so-called “information superhighway,” my immediate goal was to find some of my favorite music. Once we set up the computer (a friend from my mom’s job helped) and popped in a fresh CD labeled “America Online Version 3.0” into the drive, we were poised to discover everything that the internet had to offer. Although my memory is a little foggy, I’m sure that the first thing that I attempted to search for was “rap music” or “hip-hop”. A handful of my favorite artists at the time were already building and running their own websites. Now that I was online, I naturally wanted to see what they were doing.

Oakland-based rap collective Hieroglyphics first burst onto the scene in the early ‘90s. In those years, anything released by its members—Del the Funky Homosapien, Casual, Pep Love, Domino, Extra Prolific, Mike G, Jay-Biz, Toure, and the members of Souls Of Mischief—would automatically grab my attention. I played their tapes incessantly and hung their posters on my bedroom wall. Logging onto Hieroglyphics.com, I found everything that I was looking for; photos, interviews with the crew, and links to buy T-shirts and mixtapes packed with rare and unreleased Hieroglyphics gems. Quickly, I realized that despite the Hiero crew being based in California there was a local connection behind the site. In August 1995, Binyameen “StinkE” Friedberg, a 15-year-old musician, web developer, and Hiero fan from Philadelphia, launched a site called “tHa thReshHold.” In a piece for his blog (yameenmusic.com) celebrating 20 years of Hieroglyphics.com, Friedberg explains how tHa thReshHold came about:

“By the summer of 1995, I had already begun dabbling in making websites,” he wrote. “The very first was a site for my father’s private investigation business. As part of my junior year high-school curriculum, I had to do community service, and I chose to help troubled kids at an overnight camping retreat for a week in the summer. It was here where I first came up with the idea to do my own website. It was to include all the things I loved: A video game section, a graffiti section, a links page (naturally), and a page dedicated to my favorite hip-hop group, Hieroglyphics.”

Soon, Tajai of Souls Of Mischief would discover the site and was so impressed he approached Friedberg about making his site Hieroglyphics’ official home on the web. “tHa thReshHold” would be rebranded as Hiero Online and tech-savvy Hiero fans from around the world flocked to it. Shortly after Friedberg and Hiero connected, the entire crew was famously dropped from Jive Records, forcing members to build their careers independently without the benefit of major label marketing dollars and backing. While losing a major label deal could turn out to be a death sentence for most groups, Friedberg and Hiero used their online presence to build a close relationship with fans that has helped sustain the group to this day.

Around the same time, another Californian underground hip-hop collective, Living Legends, were also dipping their toes into the early internet. Made up of the group Mystik Journeymen and rappers Murs, Grouch, Eligh, Scarub, Bicasso, Aesop, and Arata, Living Legends built their name on the strength of their now-classic low-fidelity underground tapes made on 4-track cassette recorders. Fiercely independent, Living Legends rejected the trappings of the major label system instead of opting to distribute their own music and book their own tours. Eager to keep myself updated, I’d log onto the Living Legends site, poring over a discography of their underground tapes and reading reprinted copies of their zine Unsigned & Hella Broke. An important tool for info on the hip-hop scene in California and around the world, Unsigned & Hella Broke contained stories of the crew throwing their own local shows and touring throughout Japan and Europe. As a young, idealistic MC myself, I couldn’t help but be enamored by the Living Living Legends’ firsthand accounts of self-financing their own tours, barely breaking even and surviving on cheap packs of Top Ramen noodles, all for the love of hip-hop.

“I wanted to be Formless, this nameless, faceless entity, just giving out information about hip-hop as I know it.”



I found myself revisiting my favorite sites almost daily. I’d peruse new releases and buy rare tapes and records at online mail-order retailer Sandbox Automatic and B-Boy Kingdom. The internet became an indispensable tool for the discovery of music, being made by people in places where I had never been. I found the Dubmartian Swap Meet, an Angelfire tape-trading site focusing on ultra-rare underground hip-hop cassettes like Cut Chemist’s Rare Equations mixtape and Living Legends’ 4-Track Avengers. Whether it was Werner Von Wallenrod’s site, UndergroundHipHop.com, or HipHopsite.com, the internet during this time period connected so many dots for me and helped vastly expand my knowledge base about hip-hop history as well as regional and obscure rap music. 

When I wasn’t visiting the aforementioned sites, I’d log on to the “hip-hop Music” AOL chat room or the SOHH (Search Online hip-hop) forum to share and debate with kids my age about the music that I loved. Illinois-born historian, archivist, and writer Kevin Beacham was also active in hip-hop circles (both online and IRL) throughout the ‘90s, producing music, writing for print magazines, and hosting his show, Time Travel Radio. When Beacham and I spoke for this piece, he explained that much like his work as a historian today, his early activity online revolved around correcting erroneous information and educating people about hip-hop history.

“When I first went online, I saw so much wrong information about hip-hop,” he said. “I went by the name Formless and I was like ‘I don’t want to come on as some authority figure as Kevin Beacham’… No one knew who I was anyway! (laughs) So, I wanted to be Formless, this nameless, faceless entity, just giving out information about hip-hop as I know it.”

One of Beacham’s most ambitious early online projects was “The Chicago hip-hop Story,” a comprehensive timeline of the city’s constantly evolving hip-hop culture that was published by URB Magazine and hosted at Galapagos4.com, the home site for the Chicago independent rap label of the same name.

“That website was super important,” he said. “I wrote this timeline of Chicago hip-hop. I wrote it for a magazine in Chicago but they edited it like crazy. They hacked it. So, Galapagos knew that I was upset about that so they agreed to post the full thing on their website. And then for years, like when Kanye’s ‘Through The Wire’ first broke, I was getting a lot of calls and emails from [pioneering rap magazine] The Source and news stations because they were just searching ‘Chicago hip-hop’ and that was the only history that you could find online.”

As the internet fed my own boundless curiosity, it also exposed me to new approaches and perspectives on music writing that deeply influenced me as a young music journalist. From the amazing, in-depth interviews with hip-hop pioneers and up-and-coming artists at sites like BombHipHop.com (founded by Bay Area DJ David Paul) to Davey D’s hip-hop corner, the internet in the ‘90s opened space for new publications to publish innovative hip-hop journalism outside of the confines of the print industry. Over the years, countless online publications dedicated to hip-hop culture have come and gone, and one of the earliest online hip-hop magazines was Guillotine.

Created and run by New York City-based artist and writer Hanifah Walidah (who also recorded under the name Shä-Key), Guillotine presented writers with a grassroots perspective on hip-hop from inside the culture. Walidah had spent the early ‘90s as a key figure in the NYC underground hip-hop and poetry scene, where forward-thinking MCs and poets performed at Washington Square Park and the legendary Nuyorican Poets Cafe. I spoke with Walidah and asked her about that early ‘90s scene and how it relates to Gulliotine’s origins.

“The first issue came out at the top of ‘95. It was just me, myself, and I, for the most part, and community,” said Walidah. “But it was a beautiful time. It was just one of many things that was produced out of a space in time and the space being New York in the early ‘90s. At this time, my cohort of folks were like 18 to early 20s. The industry started to move toward the West Coast and how that impacted on the ground in New York was that a lot of hip-hop clubs started closing. So my crew called the Vibe Chameleons, we were the ones that were like ‘Fuck it. Let’s go to the Village.’ And we found this little spot called Under Acme and we put on these shows like ‘Fuck it. Let’s do it with all live music.’ We were the kids that came from the outer boroughs, started to nest in the village, and were affected by the traditional prose and beatnik poetry that was already going down there but we came in with a hip-hop aesthetic. It was a beautiful fusion that became what people now know as spoken word.”

Walidah was also actively using the internet at the time, and she decided to merge both of her passions into one project.

“I was on Prodigy [an early internet dial-up service], taught myself HTML and DOS, I was an early coder, so I always had one foot in tech and the other foot in music,” she said. “So I thought of the idea of doing Guillotine because hip-hop was not online. So I said, ‘I’ma do a magazine. I’m in the industry and people respect me,’ I had access to people and I wanted to push the envelope as much as possible.”

At this time, Walidah and her peers connected with a fledgling crew in Philly that was also making a name with a combination of hip-hop and live instrumentation: The Roots. Walidah would end up performing with The Roots and rising Brooklyn MC, Jeru the Damaja. One night, Walidah conducted an interview that would be one of Gulliotine’s first significant stories.

“We all wound up getting signed around the same time, so this is like 1993,” Walidah explained. “And this was all of our introduction of going into the industry from the underground. So they invited us to their signing party. So I opened for the Roots and Jeru the Damaja performed. On the ride home (to NYC), I interviewed Jeru. We didn’t agree on much (laughs) but it was respectful.”

When readers went online to read the Jeru interview, they were met with a graphic interface that included the image of a human brain divided into four sections. Clicking on each section of the graphic would take the reader to a different part of the interview. The site also featured “The Link,” a virtual freestyle session/forum in which one person would post the first line of their verse and it was up to the next person to piggyback off of it. Others would add on, line for line with hundreds of replies transforming the page into a massive shared space for exploring wordplay.

“The internet as a whole in the mid-’90s felt limitless and exciting, as if the possibillities were endless.”


Although Guillotine wouldn’t last long (a little over a year or so), the site left a legacy for its innovative approach to publishing music-related content on the internet. Later, in 1999, I began writing for AllHipHop.com and PublicEnemy.com, two sites, in particular, that proved to be invaluable to my own early work as a music writer. I would review new releases, write historical essays on topics that interested me like the fusion of rap music and rock, and interview some of my favorite artists like Philly’s own Mountain Brothers, who at the time enjoyed the distinction of being the first Asian American hip-hop act to sign to a major label. As the ‘90s gave way to the 2000s, I began directing more of my energy online to forums and message boards at music sites like the Roots’ Okayplayer.com and HipHopInfinity. In 2003, the launch of Myspace signaled the dawn of the social media era, ushering in a new paradigm for internet life that would permanently alter my own. Eventually, I found myself visiting those old sites less frequently and many of the publications that I read and retailers where I bought tapes and records closed up shop, their domains falling into inactivity. Increasingly, my online life would be primarily mediated through social media. It would remain that way to this day. Speaking with Friedberg about his thoughts on those early days of hip-hop on the internet, he remembers them fondly while expressing appreciation for the bonds that he formed online.

“The internet as a whole in the mid-’90s felt limitless and exciting, as if the possibilities were endless,” he said. “That sort of innocence and ‘sky’s the limit’ perspective of genuine possibilities is what I remember and cherish most about the early internet. I met so many people online at a time when there was a stigma about meeting people online. I’ve seen people who met on the Hiero bulletin board get married in real life, artists who used to congregate and talk ‘e-shit,’ go on to become famous, successful artists. I have formed many personal, creative, and professional relationships over the years from people I met on the Hiero website and its periphery. I am very thankful and honored for being there and hopefully contributing to something special that people enjoyed and remember fondly.”

Although most of the old sites are long gone, the first generation of kids that came up online are still active as innovators in music, art, tech, and beyond. Walidah has been doing some really interesting things in the NFT space, Friedberg continues to run the Hieroglyphics site, and Beecham does important archival work. When thinking about the way that I grew up navigating hip-hop culture—with a sense of discovery, finding connections with like-minded people—it’s clear that the early internet was the perfect medium to explore, learn and feed my curiosity. Back then, the hip-hop internet felt like the Wild West. It was a wide-open space for a rebel culture.

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*First Published: Nov 12, 2021, 6:30 am CST