A group of men in their early to mid-twenties surveyed the crowd arriving at the New Vintage. With each additional attendee, the men looked around at each other, nodding with satisfaction: this kid could pull — this “kid” being the evening’s young headlining rapper, Jack Harlow.
In the foyer sat a fully equipped bar that many of the night’s audience could not enjoy, due to the fact that the sold out, 300-plus crowd was heavily comprised of teenagers. In the performance hall, teens stood body to body on the floor, lining the walls, crowding on countertops and couches. Rather than suffocate from the heat, the adults gravitated towards the back. Soon the escalating anticipation was nearly unavoidable, the tension cut only by the crowd’s buzz. Then the whole place exploded. Harlow had arrived.
“It’s crazy how many people want to be rappers,” said Harlow, an 18-year-old senior at Atherton High School. “I have a theory that every white kid has secretly written a rap, whether it’s public or not.”
His own story, at least, follows his theory. In sixth grade, Harlow and his friends began writing and recording raps with nothing but a Guitar Hero microphone hooked up to a computer. What started out as a pastime soon became Harlow’s passion.
“I’ve just always been into writing; I am a writer,” Harlow said. And, when his love for music and fascination with writing come together, the crowds found it to be magic.
“It’s a great feeling,” he said, “because it’s something you created. It’s like your baby.”
Crowds reacted positively to his performances, and Harlow began to take rapping more seriously. Soon his baby matured into a fully grown adult.
Now, only a year since playing his first live show, Harlow is rapidly gaining prominence locally — specifically among the teenage population — leading him to co-headline venues like Mercury Ballroom and open for acts such as Vince Staples at Headliners Music Hall. Most recently, Harlow performed at the Louisville Palace alongside the nationally recognized hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd and prominent Louisville-born rappers Rosario and Lougz Gee.
“Hip-hop is a young man’s game,” Harlow said. But they’re playing in an older man’s arena.
Robert Bell is a hip-hop enthusiast and Ph.D. candidate in American Culture at the University of Michigan who grew up performing in and attending shows in the Louisville hip-hop scene. He remembers hip-hop of the late 90’s as defined by DJs, parties and battle rapping, which facilitated a community and shared culture.
Today, Bell sees the scene as a series of unrelated performances. From his perspective, the culturally tight-knit hip-hop community has faded over the last two decades.
“Back then, the shows held the community together,” Bell said. “They felt like they fulfilled parts of your personal needs, like your soul was being fed, and it felt like you were part of something bigger than yourself.”
To their advantage, younger musicians have grown up in the age of technology, making means of production, marketing, booking and distribution easier, cheaper and more individualized. However, it may be more difficult for fans to feel as if they are contributing to something bigger than themselves, because physical crowds aren’t as important to an artist’s success as they used to be. Yes, new artists still need an audience to gain popularity, but new and improved outlets have attracted masses to online venues, as well as tangible performance halls. Reaching more people in these ways may lead to less face-to-face interaction within the local hip-hop community, but artists have the ability to “out market” the older musicians in a way that diminishes the importance of geographic boundaries and brings more national audiences. Social media, in particular, has expanded young hip-hop artists’ scope.
Rosario, Lougz Gee, and Bryson Tiller are names present on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, reaching ever-changing, ever-widening, and ever-growing audiences.
In order to expand his horizons, Harlow followed suit, taking his talents online through YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook — and boy, did people listen. With almost 6,000 Twitter followers and even more on Instagram, Harlow’s popularity is slowly growing.
“It’s a weapon,” Harlow said, regarding social media. “It’s what kids are on these days. It’s the most powerful thing to do.”
According to a 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, an organization that specializes in social science research, 94 percent of teens are active online, and 91 percent go online using mobile devices. The availability of smartphones and smart technology has vastly increased teens’ access to new information, specifically music, with digital music service sites such as Spotify and Soundcloud just a tap away. Greater communication and more connections via music-oriented apps or websites, as well as more popular social media outlets, have produced an influx of fresh artists and a new definition of mainstream.
“Social media has kind of messed up the norm,” said Ben Jones, owner of Better Days Records. “I’ve been in the business for 30-plus years and I sell plenty of music that I know, but also plenty of music that I know nothing about.”
According to Jones, social media now determines the public’s playlist. Instead of radio stations determining what songs the public will hear, giving people a limited choice of music that could become popular, the public now largely decides what will be played on the radio or what will be sold in stores. Social media allows audiences to bypass the controllers, opening up a broader music selection.
“We’re selling more hip-hop music that’s not even a hit. It might be a hit on social media, and that’s how it’s got its following, but it’s not a hit on the radio or a hit in the community,” Jones said.
Bell attributes this trend to today’s scene being single-based rather than album-based, meaning people listen to and purchase individual songs rather than entire albums. Therefore, artists more often release singles, which are easier to promote via social media and add to the fast-paced scene.
While some artists have experienced an increase in attention due to active social media engagement, equally impactful artists outside the technological bubble do not reap the same benefits. In short, public perception of artist contribution is warped.
“Social media has made more people larger than they are,” Jones said, emphasizing that younger musicians may seem to be in control simply because they dominate the technology aspect of hip-hop, the most accessible part of the scene.
But, an online presence is just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface lurks Louisville’s thriving underground hip-hop scene, teaming with veteran artists.
“I would still describe Louisville’s hip-hop scene as very viable, but very underground, meaning that over the years we’ve had several groups that made it with some recognition, but none of them has really made any major impact in, you know, besides Louisville,” Jones said.
Although Louisville has never been known nationally as a hotbed for hip-hop, the town can still point to a number of successful musicians who have paved the way for Louisville’s scene today. For example, Nappy Roots, a local rap group from the 90s, was brought to regional and national attention when they were nominated for an MTV Video Music Award in 2002 and a Grammy in 2003.
But hold up: that doesn’t mean the new kids on the block don’t spit.
Even though older musicians continue to be the driving force behind how today’s scene operates — through producing, owning recording studios and venues, and organizing events — young artists are the ones the public hears about. Some are even gaining the regional and national market that artists of the ‘90s and 2000s could not achieve.
A new wave of artists has been dominating locally for the last 10 years: Jalin Roze, who won the LEO’s Louisville Hip Hop Artist of the Year award in 2013 and 2014; “1200,” or Jecorey Arthur, who has steadily gained a strong following; Skyscraper Stereo, a group that has made waves regionally since 2006; Harlow, the up-and-coming 18-year-old rapper sitting on top of the teenage demographic; and producer Ace Pro, who has worked with Harlow and Tiller, among others. The list goes on and on.
With this said, the impact of those who have come before is still felt throughout the entire hip-hop community — even some of the prominent artists, producers, and organizers of the ‘90s and early 2000s, such as Father Jah, continue to work and develop Louisville hip-hop behind the scenes.
“The people that I see putting shows together, that I see getting the huge shows, are people in my age group,” rapper Kogan Dumb said. “I don’t think the younger people are in control.”
Harlow disagreed, saying older rappers, such as Dr. Dundiff and Friends, have consistently similar audiences of people their age — 20s and older — at every show.
“It’s like this family of friends playing for each other, you know; half the crowd is other rappers,” Harlow said.
Harlow did say that older artists have put in more work than he has, but he thinks their stagnant audiences could result from not having aspirations above playing local bars or possible lack of engagement online. In addition, bringing the same audience time and time again does not gain new traction.
Bell recognizes that the new generation’s self-focus differs from that of their predecessors and may add to the fact that the young artists are rising quickly.
In the ‘90s, Bell saw the city’s hip-hop performers fostering the scene with a goal of having a local presence. Older artists were not as worried about fame or getting on the radio; that would come naturally. In contrast, he sees today’s young rappers as being more focused on personal success.
Take Harlow as an example.
Harlow does not consider himself part of the Louisville scene because his aspirations are above the local level; he wants to have more of a regional, if not national, presence. While this can be expected of an aspiring musician, Bell notes such attitudes are what may be fracturing today’s hip-hop community.
Let’s take it back to the old days again.
Before social media arose, hip-hop artists gained listeners the old fashioned way: posters, word of mouth, attendance at local events, and handing out physical album copies. In the present though, those methods do not always get the job done.
“It’s still real hard for us to do the old school way: tell people ‘hey, there’s going to be a show at Mercury Ballroom, or The Palace, or at Legend’,” Jones said. “So, we still have to do a lot of work to even get people to know where and how things are being pushed in Louisville.”
To avoid the limits of the old school ways, younger musicians, again, have turned to the Internet for business dealings. But pushing ahead comes with a price.
“Social media has taken the soul out,” Jones said. In other words, the internet discourages the type of face-to-face engagement that artists used to rely upon. And even while some artists stick to older methods of communication and distribution, Louisville’s younger scene has sacrificed intimacy for the exposure the new technology spawns.
But that exposure has gone a long way towards sparking interest throughout the city.
“I think Louisville is realizing what we have,” 1200 said. “From embarrassed about the hip-hop scene to flaunting it is quite the shift.”
“Everybody has that twinkle in their eye again,” Kogan Dumb said. “I think for a lot of people it got to a point where they got tired of it. The audience wasn’t into it, people were expecting something typical.”
Because technology has rendered community standards or expectations less important, current hip-hop artists have been able to develop their own styles, countering the public’s apparent boredom with bolder, riskier music, kickstarting local enthusiasm and doing away with predictability.
The result? A unique hip-hop scene characterized by experimentation and collaboration.
Some older rappers, musicians and producers have taken younger artists under their wings. Kogan Dumb mentioned how he has attempted to pass on his own knowledge to a young rapper in hopes that he can bypass unnecessary setbacks.
“I’ve been taking him to shows with me and showing him the ropes and trying to tell him all the things that I did wrong to where he can skip past all of those things and get to a better place faster than I did,” he said.
Partnerships between old and new, the expanding reach of young artists and the stable underground scene have all contributed to Louisville’s multifaceted music.
“We don’t sound like one anything. I feel like Atlanta sounds like Atlanta, Atlanta artists; New York, New York artists, they sound like that… Us? We sound like a mash of a lot,” Kogan said. “People don’t know what they’re going to get when we get there. I think people are shocked every time they hear us, like ‘I wouldn’t expect that to come from Louisville.’”
According to Jones, the city’s ever-changing sound cannot solely be attributed to Louisvillian contributions — it is unique, in part, because of the way it incorporates outside influences to create not just one overarching culture, but many small pockets of cultures.
“Since we already have our own flavor, we’re kind of like a small melting pot, because, there are a lot of out-of-towners that come through,” Jones said.
In other words, Louisville is not simply a hub for other cities’ music: it is a place that fuses outsiders’ varying styles, genres, and feels with its own personal oddities, producing a distinct Louisville sound.
As Jones noted, “We have always gotten lots of praise, and I’m talking about from New York magazines to Chicago magazines to the social media and other places; we get recognized about being very unique being in Kentucky.”
Now, the praises of others have met with those of a public that finally supports new artists and their new ideas. So, the pressure is on to take advantage of an opportunity to gain popularity.
“I’m seeing a lot more artists now, and a lot more good artists, because the scene gets very competitive. Everybody’s putting their best foot forward,” Kogan Dumb said.
“People need to be seeing you progress,” Harlow said.
“It’s just about doing new things and stepping out of your comfort zone — the s— that scares you is usually the healthiest s— for you to do.”
An overall more open-minded audience has made stepping out of the comfort zone easier. According to Kogan Dumb, listeners and musicians have been exceptionally tolerant over the past few years.
“I think the culture here is changing. To me, when I was younger, it was a lot more close-minded,” he said. “Over time, Louisville is becoming less close-minded and more receptive to new ideas.”
1200 remembers the unique Louisville atmosphere from when he started rapping at age 10. But now, the crowds are catching up with more support than ever before.
“The craziest thing is, it was exactly how my concerts are now – the theatrics, the music, the people I perform with, everything,” 1200 said, describing his first concert at the Magnolia Bar in Old Louisville. “The biggest differences now are that my stages are bigger and my audiences are larger.”
This is considering the very few solid venues Louisville has available that allow artists to perform in front of mass 18-and-up audiences, the most profitable age group.
“Something about our music scene, with the venues we have, we do find a way to support in a small way, and that’s the reason why it never dies,” Jones said. “It doesn’t matter about social media, come check us out. Come and check out the vibe, the feel. Once you have that experience in Kentucky, when you go anywhere else you will be so amazed like, ‘Oh no, at home we do it and we feel, oh you all don’t do nothing like what we do.’”
In order to keep the audiences on edge and the music in a state of continuous change, Jones noted that the Louisville scene has to live up to the madness and the standards it sets for itself.
“Quit making it a hype. You’ve got to make it a reality, and you can’t make yourself larger than you are,” Jones said.
At last, that dream, that “hype,” is slowly becoming real.
As soon as Harlow finished his last song, the crowd began to disperse and head home. All that remained were about 20 teens huddled together in small circle in front of the stage acting more subdued as they watched the next performer. A few adults sat at the bar. But that was only inside.