You are on page 1of 16

Neff Oxford Handbook Hip-Hop Studies 1/17

Digital, 
 Underground: 
 Black 
 Aesthetics, 
 Hip-Hop 
 Digitalities, 
  
 
and 
 Youth 
 Creativity 
 the 
 Global 
 South 
 

Ali Colleen Neff, Virginia Tech

When Tupelo rap duo Rae Sremmurd released "Black Beatles," a song dedicated to their own
explosive global fame, they also took on a digital experiment. They released the single for conventional
radio and video distribution in August 2016 and quickly followed up with a viral video meme they called
#MannequinChallenge. Patterning the meme on the YouTube experiments of high-school amateurs, Rae
Sremmurd posed like statues in a diorama-like scene: a shot of the stars onstage pans from the artists to an
equally-still crowd while the song kicks up in the background. The short snippet of video--a variety new
media scholars call micromedia--was designed for easy, low-bandwidth streaming over social networking
sites (SNS) Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. And then the project took digital flight: entire
high schools filmed their lunchrooms in a collective pose with the song playing off-camera; wedding
parties froze over cake and garters; The New York Giants and Hillary Clinton's campaign team pitched in;
Paul McCartney even nodded to the group with a #MannequinChallenge of his own (Bergado). Not only
did the meme propel the song to the top of the charts, it marked the group's global initiation:
#MannequinChallenge was taken up by innumerable teams of young people worldwide, from a group of
friends on the beach of Mauritania using an expertly-piloted drone to film their long robes whipping in
the Atlantic breeze, to the (temporary) mass immobilization of hundreds of teenage girls on the
crosswalks of downtown Tokyo.
Hip-hop’s big takeover, four decades deep, has gone hand-in-hand with the age of digital
globalization. Charts and numbers, playlists and soundscan tallies cannot fully measure the influence and
mobility of hip-hop’s emerging digitalities, which move swiftly across the global media landscape and
bring global fans and practitioners into their collaborative folds. After decades of concern with the elusive
question of what hip-hop is across its historical trajectory, critical media studies is turning to the question
of what hip-hop does for its practitioners in the context of digital globalization. As this study shows, the
longstanding field of Black aesthetic studies can nourish new approaches to understanding a transnational
digital landscape in which popular music has become a premium site for emergent digital creativity, even
as many of these community fall across the digital divide that makes professional production software,
hardware and training difficult to access. Today, hip-hop is as much a global field of digital design as it is
a body of musical production.
Mixtapes, samples and reversions, studio choreographies, and vivid videoscapes line a field of
multimedia practices that are the product of distinct hip-hop scenes, overlapping influences and
innovations. Hip-hop digitalities flourish on emergent platforms: cell-phone videos, third-party wiki
pages, and meme generators, as much as they articulate to conventional modes of digital communication.
Often, as has been the case with Myspace and Vine, the digital industries simply do not know how to

1 of 16
Neff Oxford Handbook Hip-Hop Studies 1/17

account for the work Black creativity does to their platforms: it oversaturates them, repurposes them, and
occasionally trolls them to stretch them far beyond their commercial purpose. In other cases, as with
Black Twitter or hip-hop dance videos on YouTube, platforms accommodate, monetize, or appropriate
Black creativity. While some aspects of this creative body erupt in the form of new commercial genres—
Chance the Rapper’s groundbreaking "Coloring Book" mixtape, for instance, which reoriented industry
attention to genre-blurring hip-hop outsiders in 2017–others spill over the edges of the standalone pop
single or album formats, move unconventionally through amateur media platforms, or contribute to
emerging forms and formations that work through and against the commercial media industries.
Here, I am concerned with modes of “Black vernacular technological creativity,” following
Rayvon Fouché, that allow marginalized young people to write themselves into the global digital
landscape (Fouché 2006). These are the digital undergrounds that concern this study: global sites of
critical mediamaking by hip-hop communities for whom Black aesthetics, cast in the digital register, offer
a route to self-authorship, community-building, and cross-cultural solidarities. Through the channels of an
emerging global digital infrastructure, hip-hop has become the lingua franca for young people throughout
the Global South: a cartography that joins minoritized communities throughout the US South, the
postindustrial/urban “Upsouth,” global postcolonial and indigenous communities, and in the transnational
flows between them (Prashad 2012, 235). While youth in these communities, historically marginalized by
global capital, are deeply affected by the digital divide, they have also leveraged SNS, streaming
platforms, and other kinds of emerging media to build a digital infrastructure that works for them. In
amplifying global hip-hop digitalities through the concepts of transmedia, small media, and off-label
media, I hope to lay critical groundwork for routing further recognition and resources to minoritized
media makers whose work transgresses the global digital divide, and to contribute to discourses on what
media engagements based in hip-hop aesthetics, transposed to the digital register, can do to empower
young people whose creativity is ofter overlooked.

Hip-Hop’s Black Mediascapes
Conventional hip-hop historiographies trace the genre in terms of its developmental arc. In this
schema, hip-hop was born in the outer boroughs of the 1970s, matured in the age of Tupac and the Wu-
Tang Clan, and entered a sort of spiritual decline under the pressures of global diffusion, stylistic
transformation and “selling out” (Frere-Jones 2009). This focus on hip-hop’s development over time can
serve to marginalize the thickness of the media practices that collected in its folds: from the development
of the graffiti arts, emcee-ing, DJing, and b-boying/b-girling as well as the emergence of flyer art and
street fashion, it is clear that New-York based rap recordings were only one aspect of a world of Black
creativity that, according to Greg Tate, was located “at society’s margins: its origins are shrouded in myth,
enigma, and obfuscation” (Tate 2016). Although hip-hop the commercial music genre is attributed to the
specificities of postindustrial Black life in the outer New York boroughs, it crystallized from a series of

2 of 16
Neff Oxford Handbook Hip-Hop Studies 1/17

globally-grounded media practices: what Appadurai would call a mediascape that was flourishing in the
outer boroughs of New York at the time of hip-hop’s emergence (Appadurai 1990).1
I want to suspend the germinal New York moment in hip-hop history to sound the thick, globally-
grounded media complex that set the stage for hip-hop’s contemporary digital creativity. In doing so, I
emphasize the work of hip-hop artists, scenes, and media forms that fall outside the constraints of
conventional historiography. While Appadurai’s mediascape references the global mass-media
infrastructure, other technologies of the body (voice, movement, speech, fashion) are also media unto
themselves, contributing to the mediascape without requiring electronic or mass technologies (ibid.).2 Of
the four multimedia hip-hop elements fostered by the germinal Zulu Nation collective–rap, graffiti, DJing,
and B-boying, rapping (particularly in the classic 16-bar formation) persists as the primary authenticity
marker by which the media industries identify hip-hop. Beyond established hip-hop recording formats,
Kyra Gaunt (following Cornel West) finds that rap is a medium that comes in many forms: a kind of
“kinetic orality” that moves unconventionally from one format to another, from the double dutch chants
of girls on the playground, to popular rhymes recited by kids on schoolbusses nationwide, to the freestyle
rap cyphers of young people on the street corners (Gaunt 2006, 92).3 In addition to the vocal samples that
reach into the Black digital archive to anchor contemporary hip-hop production, kinetic orality persists
online in the form of viral GIFs (very short, silent videos, based on an accompanying quote or lyric, that
can be used to replace profile and text-embedded photos); memes (static photos with a quote or lyrics
printed on its margins), and cell-phone ringtones containing a hip-hop sample (Schloss 2015: 5). In
continuity with the Black media practices of New York’s germinal hip-hop moment, hip-hop digitalities
have proliferated in the past decade; to understand their role in the contemporary mediascape is to
recognize and resource the work of young people who are rarely seen as artists or innovators.
An example of how New York's hip-hop mediascape has transposed itself to suit the MTV and,
later, web 2.0 terrains, is its kinetic visual culture. The groundbreaking works of Jean-Michel Basquiat,
Keith Haring and Zephyr, among others, brought street graffiti to the downtown fine-arts gallery. Soon
after, the hip-hop mediascape thickened with the roll-out of the MTV generation in 1980, when the visual,
dance, and fashion elements of hip-hop quickly merged with the global expansion of the American media
empire. At the confluence of the gallery and the music video, digital installations like Kanye West’s
multimedia site “Watch the Throne” and Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby,” involving twelve hours of freestyle
performance in a downtown Manhattan gallery, have become an emerging, industry-resourced mode of

1 The term "mediascape", refers to the electronic and print media in "global cultural flows” as they index the
electronic capabilities of production and dissemination, as well as "the images of the world created by these
media” (Appadurai 1990).
2 This approach draws from McLuhan's formulation of the medium: “any technology whatever that creates
extensions of the human body and senses, from clothing to the computer” (McLuhan and Zingrone 1995: 239).
3 This approach resonates with Public Enemy frontman’s Chuck D’s assertion that rap is “The Black People’s CNN,”

rather than a conventional pop songwriting format.

3 of 16
Neff Oxford Handbook Hip-Hop Studies 1/17

hip-hop production. Here, Web 2.0 functions as a kind of unlimited gallery space: an immersive field of
hip-hop publicity, which underground practitioners use to manipulate modes of sensation, embodiment
and affect not conventionally associated with song-based musical formats (Porcello, et. al., 2010). In the
early oughts, Black teens exploited the plasticity of the Myspace social networking platform to develop an
aesthetically-saturated digital language. Pages were “blinged out” with animated diamonds and gold
plating, rigged to blast bass-driven crunk music upon loading, and “tagged” with brightly-colored
wallpaper and posts that recall the conventions of graffiti. Some youth, for whom access to coding classes
and up-to-date operating systems is unattainable, learned a bit of programming language as they
augmented their Myspace pages as uploaded photos of street style and independent CD promotion
flourished. What Myspace could not do, however, was provide an enduring archive of outsider digital
design: as Myspace became populated by inner-city teens, it was abandoned by investors–a kind of digital
white flight–and its immense influence as a medium for hip-hop’s global publicity has been largely
forgotten.
An example of a hip-hop mediascape that formed in the age of web 2.0 is that of the hyphy scene
that ruled Bay Area creativity for a full decade. Hyphy, already an assemblage of interethnic creativity
across the Asian, Latinx, and Black communities of the Bay Area, proliferated through an inventive series
of hip-hop digitalities that have made an indelible mark on global popular culture. The scene integrated
street “lingo,” car culture, club dance and drug cultures, and inimitable Bay Area production styles into its
digital folds. While its primary artists (E-40, Keak da Sneak and Mac Dre amongst them) had been
recognized names in the classic early-90s West Coast “gangsta” scene that took root decades earlier, the
hyphy ecosystem represented a radical aesthetic and political recentering of West Coast hip-hop under the
rubric of mass socioeconomic and upheaval under heavy gentrification and policing in the East Bay in the
early oughts. Over the course of a decade, the scene proliferated through its engagement with digital
media, from cell-phone videos of hybrid automobile-human street dance in the form of “ghostriding” to
the digital routes of rap recordings made by Mac Dre during a stint in prison. Hyphy’s influence had a
major impact on the sounds and styles of hip-hop at large, and inhabits a special corner of what Mark
Anthony Neal would call the Black digital archive today: its rhythm tracks can be heard consistently in
commercial hip-hop production a decade from its inception, and its accompanying street dance videos—
which were amongst the earliest street dance videos to go viral on YouTube–set the standard for new
movements in dance and in hip-hop videography (Neal, “Ali” 2016). At the same time, this
groundshaking body of aesthetic innovation merited only a passing notice by the industries and remains
largely undocumented in the world of hip-hop historiography.

Hip-Hop Digitalities and Marginalized Practitioners
In the age of digital globalization–and in the proliferation of media applications, technologies,
and practices that have accompanied this new and uneven infrastructure–we witness an unprecedented

4 of 16
Neff Oxford Handbook Hip-Hop Studies 1/17

transformation of a media ecology in which musical undergrounds rapidly take on new technologies of
transmission and new modes of circulation, new forms that sometimes do not seem to be musical at all.
These require new empirical and theoretical approaches on the part of media studies, which must sound
the thick contexts of global media (Abu-Lughod 1997). Two contemporary approaches to media studies
are particularly useful in sounding this field of hip-hop digitalities. The first, transmedia, draws from
Henry Jenkins’ work on the convergence of old and new media cultures to describe the ways in which
storytelling unfolds across digital platforms:
[It is] the art of world making. To fully experience any fictional world, consumers must
assume the role of hunters and gatherers, chasing down bits of the story across media
channels, comparing notes with each other via on line discussion groups, and
collaborating to ensure that everyone who invests time and effort will come away with a
richer entertainment experience (Jenkins 2006, 21).

Hip-hop’s digital archive, like Jenkin’s description of contemporary commercial media, requires
participatory immersion, careful curation, and discursive processes that unfold according to multiple
spatial and temporal processes. Hip-hop, which has always integrated the musical, visual, and performing
arts, is especially poised to engage Web 2.0’s plasticity, as artists’ works bleed over the edges of
established pop formats to encompass an assemblage of media projects and platforms. The contingencies
and possibilities of hip-hop transmedia help to account for hip-hop’s ability to shape-shift to suit
emerging modes of digital globalization.
Social media giant YouTube revolutionized the distribution of hip-hop transmedia, making many
previously difficult-to-access hip-hop recordings freely and globally available; allowing track remixes,
parodies, and reversions to flourish; and providing a digital platform for unsigned global artists and to
collect pay in the form of sponsors and ads (Salvato 2009). YouTube is crisscrossed by transmedia chutes
and ladders: “lyrics” videos scroll lyrics across a series of static group photos; producers record the
“making of” hit tracks in their studios; artists contextualize their songs with trailers and mini-
documentaries: as the platform accommodates seemingly unlimited innovations in hip-hop framing and
format, its also spins new forms of hip-hop value that enfranchise members of the hip-hop community
who are less likely to hold a rapper’s mic. YouTube has been instrumental in resourcing dance: Lafayette
artist Cupid’s 2007 “Cupid Shuffle” and Atlanta teen Silentó’s phenomenal 2015 “Watch Me (Whip/Nae
Nae) merge instructional dance video and hit song into a unique commodity form that saturates the
resources YouTube bring to bear, gathering massive web traffic revenue to unknown artists who generate
relatively few album or song sales.!5 The medium has also opened up space for amateur hip-hop
“remixes” that are set to audio from the original commercial release, but which feature a revolving cast of
dancers and choreographers. These third parties often become hip-hop industry players unto themselves,
particularly women and girls marginalized by the industry but invested in new modes of choreography
and videography who have transposed the global hip-hop economy to suit their creative work.

5 of 16
Neff Oxford Handbook Hip-Hop Studies 1/17

The second critical amplifier I engage is drawn from groundbreaking work within the emerging
field of media anthropology: the notion of small media, as describe by Faye D. Ginsburg.
Research on video culture and other forms of decentralized “small media” suggests the
emergence of a “new media era” that is more fragmented and diverse in its economic and
social organization (Larkin 2000), more characteristic of the expansion of informal
markets under neoliberalism and the fluidity of late capitalism than the older forms of
mass media (Ginsburg 2002, 3).

The concept of small media can help to explain the ways in which the resources associated with hip-hop
collect around highly visual platforms like Vine, where value is measured in “loops,” or the amount of
times users have watched a content producer’s six-second-or-less video. A surfeit of loops yields paid
“viner” appearances, merchandise sales, and product sponsorships for vine artists. Hip-hop songwriter
DeStorm Power boasts 4.1 million followers for his clips, which mix observational humor with hip-hop
music and dance. The Vine format is also well suited to hip-hop, as the videos play in continuous loops,
creating a rhythm that mimics–or features–hip-hop sampling. The careers of hip-hop artists including OG
Maco, O.T. Genais, and RiFF RAFF rely on the popularity of snippets of their work with Vine users; they
saturate their work with short sound bytes accordingly.
To the concepts of transmedia and small media, I offer a third amplifier for the work of hip-hop’s
hidden digital producers: the concept of off-label media engagements. Where the global digital
infrastructure takes uneven root, and particularly in spaces that have been underdeveloped by the digital
divide, hip-hop communities enact media practices and forms in their purposeful “misuse” of
conventional media technologies. I use the term off-label to account for the unconventional digital media
practices by which marginalized hip-hop practitioners draw from Black aesthetics to make excursions into
the global media networks, gathering critical resources (digital clicks, sponsorships, record deals) along
the way. An excellent case of such digital (mis)use is the case of the excessive use of autotune, initially
adapted from studio producers who used it in small measure to digitally correct flat singing. In the hands
of hip-hop’s most inventive producers, certain overblown settings of the program came to mark the
robotic, gargly, marled strains of Southern and Third World hip-hop, and eventually to rule mainstream
pop production at large. While Jay’Z’s iconic 2009 “Death of the Autotune” single made hay of critical
attacks claiming that the autotune indicated a lack of artistic mastery, Jay knew what his autotuned peers
from the Global South were up to: off-label use of the autotune to create at least two new modes of hip-
hop value. First, autotune thickened the textures of vocal production at a moment in which the genre was
ready for a stylistic move away from the sample-based work that had ruled the charts for some time.
Secondly, following Lil Wayne’s 2008 The Carter III, autotune became the calling card for the global rise
of “Dirty South” hip-hop, to which the industry has turned for new sounds and styles for over a decade,
thereby resourcing the creativity of postindustrial, underclass, and Third World youth: the Black digital
archive.

6 of 16
Neff Oxford Handbook Hip-Hop Studies 1/17

Hip-Hop: A Digital Cartography
A series of groundbreaking hip-hop studies turn toward community-based practices as the
foundation for hip-hop creativity, from Filipino soundsystems to experimental Cuban genres (Bradley
2016, Harrison 2009, Morgan 2000, Neal 2002, Perry 2016, Robinson 2014, Wang 2016). In tandem, the
field of ethnomusicology (and confluent work in popular music ethnography) has generated nuanced
studies of global hip-hop communities (Appert 2015, Salois 2015, Schloss 2014). In my longstanding
anthropological work with hip-hop practitioners in Clarksdale, Mississippi and Dakar, Senegal alike—
communities that are marginal to the US urban centers of the pop music industry–digital music is
circulated in unconventional ways: through swapped and copied cellphone sim cards, bootlegged CDs,
and unauthorized “ripped,” downloaded and remixed YouTube video files (Neff 2015). The problem for
practitioners in my fieldsites in the rural US South and urban West Africa, and across the Global South at
large, is a vast lack of recognition and resources for work that remains in community-based,
noncommercial form; only a privileged few are able to access the kinds of professional equipment,
connections, and mobilities they need to tie into the culture industries (Neff 2015). In the case studies to
follow–Mississippi, Senegal, and the emerging hip-hop mecca of Chicago–I outline the contours of hip-
hop digitalities as they arise from various local sites of media-making.

Mississippi Delta Hip-Hop and Promotional Small Media
In the midst of my collaborative fieldwork with the Mississippi Delta hip-hop community
(2004-9), Southern hip-hop was just beginning to prove its enduring power on the international stage.
While the sheer number of talented, practicing hip-hop artists in the Delta community reflects the
immense musical creativity of the region–populated as it is with gospel singers, blues artists and radio and
club MCs–the scene remains unrecognized amidst the global hip-hop landscape. In addition to the
devastating effects of socieconomic disenfranchisement in the Delta, the digital divide has starved it–and
the Global South at large–of hardware, software and programming know-how. Not only are Delta hip-hop
artists unlikely to record their work professionally, as regional recording studios are priced well out of
their range, those who do manage to build makeshift home studios would have to handle failing hard
drives and lack of access to mastering or official CD production. The Mississippi Delta hip-hop economy
is not only based in the small media practices I outline here; its archives are ephemeral. Without attention
from the fields of critical media studies and hip-hop studies, its contributions to the Black digital archive
remain largely hidden.
The small media that coalesce into an archive of Delta hip-hop creativity are crafted on highly
accessible, free and mobile platforms, and their objective is rarely directly commercial. Rather than draw
listeners into immersive sites of music discovery or participation toward selling product or pushing
advertised sponsors, Delta hip-hop artists use small media as a means of promotion: to loop social media
users back into the local cultural economy, which has been, since the heyday of the Delta blues, based on

7 of 16
Neff Oxford Handbook Hip-Hop Studies 1/17

nightclub admission charges. Mississippi Delta hip-hop culture is heavily club-oriented, and a multitude
of (often unlicensed and ad-hoc) nightlife spaces for young people use social media to compete for
patrons. Delta promoters (themselves hip-hop artists) design flyers from cell-phone photos of local
personalities and use their phone’s photo editing apps to add text detailing the theme of the night (often a
community member’s birthday or a visit form a Memphis rapper or comedian/MC). These are then posted
on one of a number of Facebook forums and personal pages.
In terms of the production of music itself, Delta artists who do not have access to custom-made
beats—a point of scarcity for many global artists who do not have access and training to highly
specialized and expensive proprietary software, plugins, and hardware—can download free beats from a
number of online platforms, which they then distort using pirated that can run on outdated PC platforms,
such as FruityLoops. Artists who do not have access to professional microphones record directly into their
cell phones, giving them a distorted feel that mimics the sound of a phone call. Rather than appeal to a
broad hip-hop audience with their raps, Delta artists use this quick-recording platform to promote club
nights, answer to a neighborhood controversy, or to shout out a sponsoring barbershop, club or restaurant.
They distribute these through virtually unknown online platforms like datpiff.com, a mixtape upload
website that allows artists to sample from popular songs without copyright clearance. The point is less to
compose the kind of professional recording that will gain notice of the global media industries—the
digital divide (and the socioeconomic divide it articulates) has made that virtually impossible for these
artists–than it is to speak to the Delta’s hip-hop present: a thriving local creative economy that digital
media serve to enrich, not transform. The world of Delta hip-hop, where nearly all young people are
skilled and schooled in traditions of eloquence through the power of church life and community musical
practice, has managed to survive and thrive despite its emplacement across the digital divide: a local club
performance circuit that supports emerging artists, a heavy stylistic influence over their cousins’ rap in
Chicago, Memphis and West Coast, a thriving car soundsystem culture, the genesis of the gospel-rap
subgenre.

Senegalese Hip-Hop as Off-Label Digital Practice
My current collaborative research with hip-hop artists of the outer suburbs of Dakar, Senegal,
shows that the thriving world of indigenous-language hip-hop production is rendered largely invisible and
inaudible to the global popular music industry. Hip-hop offers Senegalese youth a platform by which they
can write themselves, to echo Achille Mbembe’s work on African modes of self-writing, into the global
digital landscape (Mbembe and Rendall 2002). Following the development of a powerful national film-
TV-music industry in the age of the Pan-Africanist movement, Senegalese youth have used digital hip-
hop production, imbued with samples of traditional praise singers and appeals to the local Sufi saints, to
mark new grassroots political movements (including the 1990s Boul Falé and 2010s Y’en a Marre
movements), to nourish a local arts economy as hip-hop artists gain visas to foreign countries and the

8 of 16
Neff Oxford Handbook Hip-Hop Studies 1/17

resources that accompany international performance, and to articulate an Senegalese cosmopolitanism by
which young people represent themselves as economically present and viable in a globalized digital
economy that would otherwise cast them as tragically and passively underdeveloped. While these
contexts are largely illegible to westerners, the fruits of this hybrid aesthetic collectivity are tangible to
the Senegalese themselves.
Senegalese youth access global discourses and resources through what I call off-label
engagements with media, a strategy outlined by media anthropologists whose work on African media has
been critical to new discourses in media studies. In his germinal work Signal and Noise, Brian Larkin
describes the ways in which young people in Hausaland, Nigeria bend dominant postcolonial media
infrastructures to allow a host of independent, amateur, and small media to flourish. These include
rerouting the electric grid and film projection, radio networks and pop music cassettes, which are used by
locals in unconventional and mispurposeful ways to nourish emerging discourses on Nigerianness and
Pan-Africanness, to make a bootlegged buck, or to communicate Islamic teachings (Larkin 2008). Jesse
Weaver Shipley’s germinal study of the Ghanaian hiplife scene in Accra—a national take on global hip-
hop styles—describes the value of digital production as it circulates through the urban political economy.
Here, the currency of the local media industries are based primarily in social capital above revenue itself.
As aspiring artists recognize that their success hinges upon fashioning an image of
celebrity—and that financial support for music comes primarily from corporate
sponsorship and market recognition— they increasingly create personal brands, striving
to be made into corporate icons for mobile service providers, drinks, and household
goods. In the context of the free market, the freedom of personal expression itself
becomes a disciplinary practice that organizes power and value (Shipley 2012, 5).

In this sense, unconventional engagements with global media not only transpose preexisting forms of
prestige to suit the cosmopolitan desires of African youth; it has transposed a hip-hop economy based on
western models of commercial distribution to local political economies.
An example of an emergent hip-hop digitally patterned on these "glocal" media transpositions is
that of personal digital storage: an off-label site of hip-hop exchange, archiving and production in Dakar
and throughout the Global South (Howard 2011). Bootlegged tracks, live recordings, and uploaded demos
are stored and swapped via cell-phone sim cards and bluetooth recordings, subverting the constraints of
proprietary commercial content meant only to be played by the paid owner. The digital “stuff” of
contemporary hip-hop practice in the informal/outsider hip-hop economies can be weighed in bytes rather
than in grams of vinyl, numbers of cassettes, or even amount of downloads. Like the surveys of what
kinds of recordings occupy shelf space at home or counter space at the store throughout the Global South,
attention to what takes up disc space, how playlists are organized, modes of file “ripping” or field
recording offers special insight into the content of the Black digital archive. In areas otherwise affected by
the digital divide, like the underground music communities of Havana, Cuba, young people trade bundles
of songs from jump drive to jump drive. Because these files have been traded for some time and

9 of 16
Neff Oxford Handbook Hip-Hop Studies 1/17

contemporary or file protected downloads are less accessible, these personal hip-hop archives juxtapose
aging commercial hits with local underground recordings, comprising a time-spanning local hip-hop
lexicon that influences a unique local hip-hop scene (Garber 2016).

Chicago: Hip-Hop Transmedia in the Age of Web 2.0
In May 2016, Chance the Rapper opened his Coloring Book mixtape, the final of his mixtape
trilogy, to free digital streaming rather than through any physical or downloadable purchases (Plaugic
2016). The mixtape debuted at No. 8 on Billboard’s 200 chart, with 57.3 million streams in its first week,
positioning his marketing strategy at the cutting edge of music industry distribution. Most importantly,
Chance the Rapper’s digital production and distribution strategies illustrate underground artists’ ability to
engage transmedia—namely, the digital mixtape and the digital objects that collect around it–as an
industry intervention. Drawing from the legacy of artists who have used to mixtape to produce long-form
work beyond the reach of the commercial studio, to test new sounds and styles in between releasing
commercial albums, or to mash-up unlicensed samples or reversion others’ songs, Chance uses the
format’s elasticity to skip through a series of guest spots by pop singers and hip-hop heavyweights, brush
vocal production with a layered psychedelic wash, and alternately ride and abandon the intricate lyrical
conventions of backpack rap.
Chicago’s independent hip-hop scene arose in tandem with Web 2.0: Kanye West infamously
exploits the plasticity of digital recording and web design formats alike, and a host of artists like Chief
Keef gained industry contracts straight from the highschool schoolyard thanks to homemade YouTube
videos. The recent timing of Chicago’s rise to the hip-hop vanguard, and the willingness of independent
Chicago artists to experiment with the digitalities at their disposal, accounts for Chicago's reputation for
marking the hip-hop digital present. While hyper-industry scenes such as Atlanta or those on the east and
west coasts have only recently begun to approach digital deign as a studio recording afterthought, Chance
credits the marginalization of the Chicago scene for allowing his community to make hip-hop on its own
terms: “We’ve never had a music industry and I think because there was no industry or big labels posted
there, it gave people a lot of air to make what the fuck they wanted to make and bred a lot of awesome
talent across all genres” (Lowe 2016).
The digital mixtape moves in ways that have suited the late coming success of Chicago’s hip-hop
scene. Until digital formats made piracy easily prosecutable in the early oughts, the widespread
availability of blank cassettes and recorders made for unchecked recording piracy in the 1980s, skewing
the relationship of album sales to genre popularity. 4 As soon as it became available, hip-hop cassette
culture exploited the plasticity of the blank tape to compile music from record albums or other cassettes,
voice-overs, and radio broadcasts. While these forms extended DJ practices of live turntablism and

4"Home Taping Is Killing Music" was the slogan of a 1980s anti-copyright infringement campaign by the British
Phonographic Industry (BPI), a British music industry trade group.

10 of 16
Neff Oxford Handbook Hip-Hop Studies 1/17

voiceover, they also crystallized in the new form of the hip-hop mixtape. New modes of musicmaking
arose around the malleable medium; for artists who did not have access to the formal recording studio,
mixtapes allowed recorded raps over other artists’ tracks or instrumentals, long songs or strings of songs
that extended past the individual song format, and underground circulation independent of any
professional duplication or distribution services. A rapper or DJ/producer could gain immense local and
national prestige without sponsorship by the recording industry, and they were free to sample, parody, or
rework others’ materials without copyright considerations. Mixtapes, and the multiple political economies
in which they circulate, allowed artists to enact “off-label” media practices as they draw form local
sounds, styles, and modes of valuing music to enter and innovate on the primary media industries,
particularly for contemporary practitioners across the Global South. In the early oughts, many
independent record stores cross the US South began to supplant their standard wares with sales of CD
mixtapes made by local DJs and rappers, thereby retaining more capital for their home communities and
providing customers with continuous loops of music for playing on their car soundsystems.
Today, digital mixtapes—often made available for free download and/or streaming through
Soundcloud, Mixcloud, or one of many podcast platforms—operate through, to borrow Gaunt’s take on
West’s concept of kinetic orality, a mode of kinetic digitality, or the organic, even rhizomatic, movement
of creative materials across digital contexts. Once sold behind the counters of mom-and-pop record stores,
traded promotionally, or dubbed by fans, mixtapes have been central to the emergence of hip-hop
undergrounds in a media landscape dominated by blockbuster albums. These depend less on static,
finished products than emergent musical assemblages, and they allow artists to elide the boundaries of
copyright, legal sampling, and label distribution. From Triple Six Mafia in Memphis and Lil’ Wayne in
New Orleans, to vocalist Jhené Aiko and scores of international artists, the mixtape format has allowed
outside artists—particularly those whose styles articulate to extended, experimental formats—to break
through the media industries without commensurate label representation. At the same time, the free
circulation of mixtapes allows an artist to build grassroots prestige in his or her home community and
leads to featured spots in showcases, radio shows, and guest verses on more accomplished artists’ tracks
(and vice-versa).
Artists upload their mixtapes across a series of professional and amateur platforms, including
Soundcloud and Mixcloud; sites like Bandcamp allow artists to charge money for downloads while others
require registered and trackable download from iTunes. Although audio track “leaks” have become a
standard industry weakness—or, increasingly, a pre-album-release marketing tactic—they represent an
important feature of contemporary hip-hop promotion and circulation. Many of these leaks feature partial,
early, or unfinished tracks, giving the medium a sense of immediacy and rarity, and sometimes the
intimacy that comes with hip-hop produced with fewer layers of production. Kanye West masterfully
exploited this kinetic digitality through a series of digital projects that crisscrossed his 2016 release of
Life of Pablo, which itself retains the unfinished plasticity of an underground digital mixtape. As sites

11 of 16
Neff Oxford Handbook Hip-Hop Studies 1/17

such as Soundcloud begin to use web trawlers to find and police artists’ use of the proprietary songs and
samples that mixtape artists sample freely, artists are likely to either find ways to evade detection by
further distorting samples or to distribute their work through emergent, unregulated platforms. They
market their reputation by competing for guest vocals by better-known artists, producing amateur video
clips, entering mixtape competitions, and engineering sensational social media publicity campaigns. The
increased pressure for amateur and independent artists to release entire mixtapes at the outset of their
careers mean that the longer format is subject to increased attention and innovation as web platforms rise
to support them.

Digital Undergrounds
Ultimately, the study of hip-hop digitalities promises to enrich the fields of transnational cultural
studies and digital media studies alike. Because the elements of the hip-hop ecology that adhere most
closely to the infrastructures of the commercial media industries--albums, singles, music videos tend to
endure in the popular imagination, however, the sparks of media creativity that animate them tend to slip
through conventional archives and evade study. Throughout its history, hip-hop has transformed and
renewed itself at the sites where established hip-hop styles meet emergent media, unconventional
archives, and kinetic forms or orality. Nelly’s 2000 album, Country Grammar, for instance, ushered in a
host of midwestern and Southern hip-hop artists who inserted regional, folkloristic rhymes and toasts into
bubbly pop hip-hop hits; Fetty Wap’s self-titled 2015 release merged contemporary dancehall reggae
vocal styles and effects with the bass-heavy strains of trap and left a trail of soundalikes in its wake;
Lauryn Hill’s 1998 “Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” employed a jazzy, neo-soul aesthetic drawn as much
from female R’n’B styles and roots reggae as it did from the rap itself. These artists tapped into a series of
under-resourced and unrecognized, but vital, Black aesthetics to produce highly marketable singles and
albums in the gaps between other commercial hip-hop movements. Alternately, artists like Killer Mike or
Azealia Banks choose to retain something closer to an outsider approach by directing their work to local
or niche audiences rather than the pop mainstream, or attempt, like J Cole, to balance the aesthetic
freshness of underground styles with the legibility of commercial appeal.
Like other pop genres ranging from the blues to rock to jazz and country, the sounds and styles
associated with hip-hop have transformed over time and place–or, more precisely, they help to redefine
time (era) and place (communities of practice) by an emergent, overlapping logic of their own. I argue
that hip-hop takes on a special role within the history of modern media, however, thanks to its unique
status as a relational genre: a Black digital archive by which the young people of the Global South
produce imagined community. Hip-Hop digitalities transpose a mode of Black Atlantic creativity
described by Edouard Glissant: “Relations of multiplicity or contagion exist wherever mixtures explode
into momentary flashes of creation, especially in the languages of young people. Purists grow indignant,
and poets of Relation marvel at them” (1997, 105). The hip-hop mediascape thickens the mode of cultural

12 of 16
Neff Oxford Handbook Hip-Hop Studies 1/17

in-betweenness that Homi Bhaba describes as cultural hybridity: “the very act of going beyond” the
binary of the West and “the rest” to contribute to an emergent assemblage of many, already hybridized,
cultures and modes of creativity (Bhabha 1994, 5-6). The Global South politic of self-writing built into
the core practices associated with the genre account for a hip-hop politics that both reflects and
reorganizes the groups who engage it from any angle. This makes discourses on hip-hop roots generated
particularly rich, as the “roots” of an imagined Africa—one with an indelible political valence for the
cultural descendants of the Pan-African, Civil Rights, and Black Power generations alike—entangle with
the routes and rhizomes of the creative Black Atlantic presence. How can we contribute to the richness of
archives for global hip-hop communities in the digital age, particularly those of women, rural
practitioners, immigrants, and non-English-speaking populations whose work both refuses and is refused
by the media industries?
Young people throughout the Global South engage and trick back on notions of what hip-hop is,
often making excursions into the commercial realm. As hip-hop’s multimedia tendrils multiply, so do the
political tensions between artists’ creative strategies and the constraints of the market. How can hip-hop
research make the politics of hip-hop undergrounds legible, to nourish them with an appropriate critical
lexicon and to attend to the call of its practitioners for recognition and resources, without doing the
violence of locating and exposing them? Beyond shaking out the details, situated hip-hop studies table a
situated understanding of how various media forms—and the political and aesthetic constraints and
possibilities they carry within their folds—carry the hip-hop idea. This approach to hip-hop studies offers
the field special insight into how hip-hop moves, which in turn gives us a sense of what hip-hop is, and
for whom, in an ever-shifting global context. An approach that takes hip-hop to be a dimension of the
Black digital archive offers the opportunity to document, archive, contextualize and, most importantly,
represent hip-hop’s hidden practitioners throughout the Global South.
The Cornell University Hip-Hop Archive has done important work in cataloguing relatively
ephemeral hip-hop media, from concert flyer art to photography and oral histories (Cornell 2009). This
effort in collecting difficult-to organize materialities–and the revived careers and enriched discourses that
have followed this work– demonstrates the resources that accompany documentation of the uncapturable
nature of the Black digital archive. Youth, Global South, and feminine modes of hip-hop creativity can be
recovered from erasure and re-sounded through immersive research that attends to unconventional digital
media practices. By revisiting the question of what goes into the hip-hop archive by turning to emergent
digital media forms, media studies can enrich knowledge of how the music materializes, and how youth
cultures in the Global South make media worlds that do critical political and economic work.

References

Lila Abu-Lughod. 'The Interpretation of Cultures after Television', Representations, 59 (1997): 109-133

13 of 16
Neff Oxford Handbook Hip-Hop Studies 1/17

H. Samy Alim, Awad Ibrahim, and Alastair Pennycook, eds. Global Linguistic Flows: Hip Hop Cultures,
Youth Identities, and the Politics of Language (New York: Routledge, 2008).

Catherine M. Appert, "To Make Song Without Singing: Hip Hop and Popular Music in Senegal,” New
Literary History 46.4 (2015): 759-774.

Kelly Askew and Richard R. Wilk, The Anthropology of Media: A Reader (Malden, MA: Blackwell
Publishers, 2002).

Gabe Bergado, "How the Mannequin Challenge Inventors Froze America: Highschoolers in Jacksonville
Taught 2 Chainz to Love Memes." Inverse Culture, (November 5, 2016).

Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London andNew York: Routledge, 1994).

Regina Bradley, “‘Take ‘Em to Chuch’: OutKast and the Sounds of the Southern Black Church,”
Sounding Out Blog, June 27, 2011. Url: https://soundstudiesblog.com/2011/06/27/take-em-to-
chuch-outkast-and-the-sounds-of-the-southern-black-church/

Robert Burnett, The Global Jukebox: The International Music Industry (Hove, UK: Psychology Press,
1996).

Cornell University Library, “What Happens When Hip Hop is Archived? Keeping the Study of Hip Hop
Real and Relevant” cornell.edu. (Feb. 12, 2009). Url: http://www.cornell.edu/video/what-
happens-when-hip-hop-is-archived

Fouché, Rayvon. "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud: African Americans, American Artifactual
Culture, and Black Vernacular Technological Creativity." American Quarterly 58, no. 3 (2006):
639-661.

Sasha Frere-Jones, “Wrapping Up: A Genre Ages Out,” The New Yorker (October 28h, 2009).

David Garber, “Wi-Fi Cards, DIY Parties, and Food Rations: I Went to Cuba's First Major Electronic
Music Festival,” Thump (Vice Media: May 13, 2016).

Kyra D. Gaunt, The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop (New
York: NYU Press, 2006).

Kyra D. Gaunt, "YouTube, Twerking & You: Context Collapse and the Handheld Co-Presence of Black
Girls and Miley Cyrus,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 27.3 (2015): 244-273.

Faye Ginsburg, Lila Abu-Lughod and Brian Larkin (eds.), Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

Édouard Glissant and Betsy Wing, Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997).

Anthony Kwame Harrison, Hip Hop Underground: The Integrity and Ethics of Racial Identification
(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009).

Philip N. Howard, Castells and the Media: Theory and Media. Vol. 2. (Boston: Polity Press, 2011).

Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2006).

Brian Larkin, Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure and Urban Culture in Nigeria (Durham: Duke
University Press, 2008).

14 of 16
Neff Oxford Handbook Hip-Hop Studies 1/17

Zane Lowe, “Interview with Chance the Rapper” complex.com (May 24th, 2016). Url: http://
www.complex.com/music/2016/05/chance-the-rapper-discusses-musical-independence-kanye-in-
new-zane-lowe-interview

Achille Mbembé and Steven Rendall, "African modes of self-writing,” Public Culture 14, no. 1 (2002):
239-273.

Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone, Essential McLuhan (Concord: Anasi 1995).

Joan Morgan, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down (New
York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

Mark Anthony Neal, Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (Psychology Press,
2002).

Mark Anthony Neal, “Muhammad Ali and the “Birth” of Black Digital Archive,” New Black Man in Exile
(June 8th 2016).

Ali Colleen Neff, Let the World Listen Right: The Mississippi Delta Hip-Hop Story (Jackson, MS:
University Press of Mississippi, 2009).

Ali Colleen Neff, "Roots, Routes and Rhizomes: Sounding Women's Hip Hop on the Margins of Dakar,
Senegal" Journal of Popular Music Studies 27.4 (2015): 448-477.

Jason Parham, “The Man Behind the Web's Most Controversial Video Site,” Gawker (06/19/14).

Marc D. Perry, Negro Soy Yo: Hip Hop and Raced Citizenship in Neoliberal Cuba (Durham: Duke
University Press, 2016).

Lizzie Plaugic, “Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book is the first streaming-only album to chart on the
Billboard 200” verge.com (May 22, 2016). Url: http://www.theverge.com/2016/5/22/11739444/
chance-the-rapper-coloring-book-chart-billboard-200

Thomas Porcello, Louise Meintjes, Ana Maria Ochoa, and David W. Samuels. "The reorganization of the
sensory world." Annual Review of Anthropology 39 (2010): 51-66.

Vijay Prashad, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (NewYork: Verso, 2012).

Zandria F. Robinson, This Ain't Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South (UNC
Press Books, 2014).

Deborah Spitulnik, “Anthropology and Mass Media,” Annual Review of Anthropology (22, 1993):
293-315.

Kendra Salois, "Connection and Complicity in the Global South: Hip Hop Musicians and US Cultural
Diplomacy." Journal of Popular Music Studies 27.4 (2015): 408-423.

Nick Salvato, "Out of Hand: YouTube Amateurs and Professionals." TDR/The Drama Review 53, no. 3
(2009): 67-83.

Joseph G. Schloss, Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop. Wesleyan University Press, 2014.

Jesse Weaver Shipley, Living the Hiplife: Celebrity and Entrepreneurship in Ghanaian Popular Music.
Duke University Press, 2012.

15 of 16
Neff Oxford Handbook Hip-Hop Studies 1/17

Greg Tate, "Hip-Hop". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia
Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 07 Jun. 2016

Oliver Wang, Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews in the San Francisco Bay Area
(Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).

Further Reading

Joe Karaganis, ed. Media piracy in emerging economies. Lulu. com, 2011.

Charles Hirschkind, The ethical soundscape: Cassette sermons and Islamic counterpublics. Columbia
University Press, 2006.

Heather A. Horst and Daniel Miller, eds. Digital anthropology. A&C Black, 2013.

Jay-Z, “Picasso Baby”

Tony Mitchell, Global noise: Rap and hip hop outside the USA. Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

Nas, Hip-hop is Dead, 2006

Jeremy Packer, Communication Matters.

Sarah Pink, The future of visual anthropology: Engaging the senses. Taylor & Francis, 2006.

Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation

Greg Tate, “What is hip-hop?” https://www.thewordisbond.com/greg-tate-what-is-hip-hop-spoken-word/

16 of 16