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The Gigaom interview: documentary filmmaker Marguerite de Bourgoing on hip-hop and the internet

Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker Marguerite de Bourgoing spent the last four years working on The World Is Yours, a documentary about the way a new generation of hip-hop artists has been using the internet to reach their fans and bypass traditional gatekeepers. The film is slated to be released next spring, and de Bourgoing is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to cover some of the post-production costs.

I’ve only seen the trailer of the film so far, but immediately wanted to know more, which is why I invited her for a Q&A.

What inspired you to make this movie?

I think the role of hip-hop is underplayed when it comes to the internet. The people who form the hip-hop community are early adopters and heavy indexers of most of the big trends we’ve seen so far, including MySpace, Twitter, Ustream, Vine, Instagram, and YouTube. And yet as a consumers, they are never targeted by the companies that benefit from them. An exception could be MySpace who at least in their beginnings understood the value of cultivating such an audience and attending to it.

Otherwise the numbers speak for themselves, only two percent of of the people who work at Twitter are black, when the urban community is probably the community that uses Twitter the most effectively. If you look at sites like Rap Genius, which just rebranded as Genius with a mission to annotate the whole web, they would not have been successful without the avid hip-hop fan base that exists online.

What’s the biggest misconception about hip-hop and the internet?

The biggest misconception would be not recognizing the creativity that lies in this community that is constantly trying to outdo itself, find the next big thing, whether it be new online marketing strategies or different ways of producing content. The high end examples of that are Kanye West, Beyonce or Jay Z who have used those tools very effectively.

But on the other end of the spectrum there is a community that is just as creative and doesn’t have the same means as a Kanye, Beyonce or Jay Z. Technology has always been embedded in hip-hop’s DNA and fueled by the lack of resources it has always shown extreme creativity on how it has used it.

The trailer to your movie mentions how record stores shutting down takes away these physical spaces where folks could go and learn about music and meet like-minded people. Do you think there is anything out there that could replace this?

No, there will never be anything that can replace the historical legacy of a store like Fat Beats, where the hip-hop community congregated for years and that was like a museum of hip-hop — a rare video just surfaced of a young Kanye West spitting bars at 19 in Fat Beats NY. Those type of stores belong to a previous era.

The space now is now more fragmented than ever and the internet has become the new cornerstone. Blogs are a great example that draw in different communities. One of the earliest hip-hop blogs is OkayPlayer, a site founded by Questlove, who has been a great example of a hip-hop artist who was invested online early on and who is very adept at social media. OkayPlayer was where Dutch producer Nicolay and Rapper/singer Phonte from North Carolina met online and produced an album together as The Foreign Exchange without physically meeting. Ten years later they are touring together, Nicolay relocated to North Carolina and they have produced many more albums.

The Reddits, the Twitters, the World Star Hip Hop are for better or worse those new spaces that have pushed back the geographic barrier that existed before when meeting like-minded people. But all is not all digital, thanks to the internet there is a now a new emphasis on live shows, because once an artist has cultivated all those relationships online, the next logical step is for the fan is to see him perform when he is in town, go to the meet and greets and buy the merch. There is also a comeback of vinyl, a store like Fat Beats has reconverted to an online distribution platform that ships music all overt the world instead of catering to just a city, because there’s a rise of invested fans who want something a little bit more tangible than an MP3.

What can the music industry learn from how this new hip-hop generation is using the internet?

To think outside the box. Today, you have Iggy Azalea, a white woman from Australia, who is now one of the biggest sensations in hip-hop, or a star like Drake who is from from Toronto and is half Jewish and black and was famous for being in a sitcom, or even a Soulja Boy, who used to be just another kid living in Mississippi and transformed from a high-school artist to a multimillion dollar businessman. All those artists owe part of their success to the internet. Hip-hop is at a new age when it comes to diversity, artists are collaborating from across the world without every meeting, there isn’t so much of a sound anymore that is associated with a particular place. Which is why Harlem rapper A$ap Rocky’s music sounds like it comes from Houston.

It’s important to acknowledge that complexity instead of buying into prefabricated stereotypes. One of the biggest fear for artists when they sign to record labels is that the labels won’t understand who they are or who their fans are, they just see numbers and they don’t adapt their strategy to the specificity of each artist.

Syd tha Kid, producer of Odd Future, as captured in The World Is Yours.

Also, this generation is the best generation that has ever existed to know how to use music across multiple platforms. They are invested in a transmedia narrative. A group like Odd Future — whose music in the past would have just cataloged them as an underground rap group — first struck a chord with a huge fanbase online because of the richness of the world they portrayed. When they rose to success, largely thanks to Tyler The Creator’s viral video hit Yonkers, they had a big catalog of music online, they had videos they directed themselves, Tyler The Creator had customized the Odd Future Tumblr into a great site, they were making their own flyers, rolling with their photographer friends who were documenting their lifestyle. They created their version of what an art collective should look like today in hip-hop.

An artist like Lil B took the transmedia stance even further by developing endless internet memes around a persona he created called the Basedgod. Examples of memes he created are the cooking dance, the BasedGod curse, the huge thank you Basedgod meme which is the equivalent of tagging up a wall with graffiti, girl time on Twitter, where girls send Lil B pictures of themselves, and countless other memes that ensure him a constant presence online and generate huge amounts of content created by his fans. Lil B isn’t signed to any label and that’s what makes him a unique: his unwillingness to be co-opted by the music industry that he doesn’t need anymore.

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