A couple years back major labels started picking up on what hip-hop fans had known for a long time, which is that the best place to locate new rap talent is on the type of street-level mixtapes that were distributed primarily through liquor stores and gas stations before they moved onto the Internet. Until very recently the deals went to artists who worked within a preexisting, geographically defined rap scene who’d already established credibility and fan bases through low-budget releases, but the freak out-of-nowhere popularity of Odd Future made the majors spasm and start handing out ridiculously large deals seemingly to anyone who could get a YouTube rap video onto Pitchfork.
While most of the OF-related signings have had terrible sales-to-hype ratios—Columbia’s seven-figure investment in Kreayshawn paid off in a debut album that sold fewer than 4,000 copies in its first week out—things are looking very good for young Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky. His “Purple Swag” and “Peso” made the difficult leap from YouTube and hipster blogs to a level of IRL success that few self-released projects have matched. And without the help of a traditional media push or any obvious assistance from RCA, who signed him and his A$AP Mob crew to a $3 million deal, he’s accumulated a large and enthusiastic audience among a highly covetable teenage demographic.