There’s a debate over whether or not hip-hop fame obtained through viral marketing is legitimate. Some argue that to be respected, rappers have to be in the streets, literally—grinding, handing out CDs, and building up a fan base through live performances and word-of-mouth.
Years ago, when Soulja Boy had crowds of people gleefully mimicking his “Crank Dat” dance and hip-hop heads used terms like “Internet rapper” to describe him, it was in derision, not praise of his success. “Yeah, he’s blowing up, but only because of the Internet,” critics said—implying it somehow made him less legitimate than a rapper who had earned his or her fame with a traditional ground game.
On the contrary, in 2014, there may be nothing more legitimate than the acceptance of the online masses. No demographic is more critical or merciless than Internet commenters; winning their praise and shares is, at the very least, a testament to how enjoyable your music is. Videos are an important mechanism through which musicians can give fans a glimpse into their lives and personalities.
Great, because with the demise of dedicated music channels, and MTV’s downward spiral into reality TV hell, the art form almost died off. Diddy, Busta Rhymes, and Missy Elliott used to create elaborate videos for every single track on their album, by the late 2000s fans were lucky to get even one clip per record.
But with the Internet a ubiquitous part of life and the sharing of viral content a driving force behind its economy, music videos are making a comeback, and rappers are cashing in. In fact, hip-hop stardom and Internet stardom go hand-in-hand for the most part. The real question won’t be if rappers can achieve Internet fame, but whether or not they’re able to sustain the relevance gained with it. Take the neon icon himself, Riff Raff: After years of mixtapes and viral clips, his 2014 major label debut, led by Vine smash “Tip Toe Wing in My Jawwdinz,” made a frat-house star out of the Houston rapper.
With that in mind, check out our list of eight rappers whose viral videos blew up this year.
Perhaps no one had a bigger or more unexpected rise this year than Brooklyn MC Bobby Shmurda. In fact, Shmurda became famous enough to warrant long-term NYPD surveillance and was arrested Tuesday outside of a recording studio in connection with drug trafficking and shootings. That’s because thanks to underground hip-hop forums, Vine, and subsequent memes of Shmurda’s distinctive Shmoney Dance, by the end of the summer the young rapper was everywhere. His single “Hot N***a” was playing on radio stations across the country, and everyone from celebrities to Ryder Cup teams got in on the viral action.
Hand Job Academy
Female rap trio Hand Job Academy first made waves with their period anthem “Shark Week” and Internet-culture satire “Tumblr Bitches,” but an Instagram video by Taylor Swift—see above—brought them mass attention in November.
There’s little that can be said about Stitches’ video for “Brick in Yo Face” that hasn’t already been said about the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies. It’s dark, frightening, trashy, and excessive. The video features Stitches—an 18-year-old white rapper with an AK-47 and a “Glasgow smile” tattooed on his cheeks—waving around a machine gun. Later, he dons a Hellraiser mask and tosses fistfuls of cocaine into the air like a degenerate LeBron James. Of course, the Internet loved it. Stitches is still trying to recreate the magic of “Brick in Yo Face,” but he’s kept himself in the news by pulling stunts like, uh, giving audience members cocaine.
Lil Dicky gained recognition for his comedic music videos and clever lyrics. Dicky made news last week with his breakout hit “White Crime,” a tongue-in-cheek commentary on crime, race, and police brutality, with a timely launch amid the protests over the Michael Brown and Eric Garner rulings.
Swedish rapper Yung Lean’s rise to fame began in 2013 when the video for his song “Ginseng Strip 2002” went viral. Capitalizing on its success, Yung Lean released a mixtape and an EP that same year before embarking on a 2014 American tour. With his “sad rap” movement gaining steam, Yung Lean released his debut full-length album, Unknown Memories, and led sold-out shows all over North America and Europe.
Nora Lum, aka female NYC rapper Awkwafina, raps like a female Das Racist member, and every hit she drops goes viral. She entered the scene in 2013 with videos for “My Vag” and “NYC Bitche$.”
She broke down her latest album, Yellow Ranger, for the Daily Dot in February. “I loved making [“NYC Bitche$”] because it was basically a compact, musical tirade of the rants I would go on anyway in everyday life,” she said.
OG Maco is the voice behind a million Vine remixes. The song, “U Guessed It!,” is catchy enough, but what sets apart the track and the trippy, rotoscoped, Inception-style video are the memes the Internet made out of a five-second audio clip.
“Coco,” like “Brick in Yo Face,” is a gangster love song about dealing cocaine. The absurdity of the song’s lyrics—“I’m in love just like Ne-Yo/Bustin’ shots, now he kneel”—would have been enough to give the song some viral notoriety. But an incident involving his boss, Busta Rhymes, will guarantee “Coco” goes down in infamy.
During a recent live performance, Busta joined O.T. Genesis on stage to perform the song and got a little too turnt-up. As the rappers headbanged along to the music, Busta swayed and then took a nosedive off the stage, cracking open his head on the ground below. Several memes and Google searches later, and “Coco” has accrued more than 25 million views.
Collage by Max Fleishman | Images via YouTube