Coronavirus challenged rappers to think creatively in the face of tours stopping and income dropping. Here's how the global pandemic changed hip-hop.
Words: Sowmya Krishnamurthy
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
It’s 10:20pm EST. The streets are silent, devoid of all activity. There’s an eerie stillness reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic flick. So opens Drake’s “Toosie Slide” music video, released on April 2, 2020. Filmed in Toronto, it could be set anywhere, but this isn’t fiction, it’s reality. Following universal lockdowns to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the world has become a ghost town. In his mansion, Drake solemnly walks around in a face mask, gloves and Raf Simons Riot Riot Riot Camo Bomber—only his eyes are visible. Andy Warhol’s Mao 94 painting hangs on a wall overlooking Kobe Bryant’s jerseys. A Bösendorfer piano, inscribed with Takashi Murakami’s skulls, stands idle. Four-foot KAWS Dissected Companion figures in the vestibule are his only company. What’s poignant about the visual isn’t the stuntin’; it’s how alone Drake is.
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic. Two days later, the United States declared a national emergency. Social distancing, face masks and lockdowns are the new way of life for rappers and regular folks alike. Non-essential travel, concerts and events are on hold indefinitely. The economy is in a tailspin; over 100,000 businesses shuttered and millions unemployed. Everyone is hunkered down with Zoom, trying to salve the continual loneliness.
G Herbo was shook as he walked through an empty LAX in June, showing the airport on the Zoom podcast. “It’s literally so dead right now. It’s nobody here,” he said, dumbfounded. Alex Damashek, Founder of Move Forward Music and longtime event producer, puts it bluntly: “It felt like being dropped off a cliff with no ground in sight.”
The health crisis is an invisible force that doesn’t discriminate: Kanye West, Scarface, Slim Thug and Fred The Godson contracted the virus, with the latter passing away. NBA players like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and former President Donald Trump also were diagnosed with COVID-19. By December, the U.S. passed 13.4 million cases (63.6 million worldwide) with over 267,302 deaths (1.47 million worldwide).
Scary times and hip-hop isn’t immune. While some struggle with the chaos and uncertainty of the pandemic, a wave of intrepid artists, iconoclasts and leaders are throwing out the old playbook and writing new rules.
Welcome to Club Quarantine
Prior to COVID-19, the most severe pandemic in recent history was the 1918 influenza. These are weird, unprecedented times and it’s natural to feel anxiety, fear and stress. “Many of the issues that celebrities go through are issues that many people are experiencing,” says Jeff Rocker, a celebrity therapist. Rocker, who has worked with clients in music, film and sports, believes artists experience amplified effects of the lockdown. Socializing is a rapper’s lifeblood. They’re surrounded by entourages, hangers-on, collaborators and fans, and feed off that energy. “Artists are people of the moment and those who often seek inspiration from the world around them. They need social interactions, nature, events and activities to help them in their crafts.”
It’s no surprise then that Verzuz battles, which pit two artists going against each other hit for hit, has been the breakout success of the pandemic, fusing the competition of a rap battle with a social dynamic. The brainchild of Timbaland and Swizz Beatz is the definitive place to be during lockdown. Verzuz began as a friendly battle between the two producers—each going song for song on Instagram Live during the early days of quarantine—but has expanded to include rappers, songwriters and producers including Nelly vs. Ludacris, Scott Storch vs. Mannie Fresh, Snoop Dogg vs. DMX and the historic Jeezy vs. Gucci Mane.
“It was definitely a time of uncertainty for the world in March when we started Verzuz,” Timbaland expresses. “It was something that initially brought a few hours of great entertainment for people that has now turned into a cultural movement.” Streaming on Instagram Live and Apple TV—with significant engagement on Twitter—it’s must-see entertainment drawing the likes of LeBron James, Rihanna and newly elected Vice President Kamala Harris.
Verzuz is nostalgic comfort and an escape from the monotony of life under quarantine. It’s the chance to be in the same room, albeit virtually, with our friends and favorite celebrities. The payoff is big for the artists, too. Those who participate in a Verzuz battle enjoy an uptick in streams, the so-called “Verzuz Effect,” and renewed interest in back catalog and new music. “It’s been incredible, during a time when our friends (artists) can’t tour, we’ve given them another platform to be on,” Timbaland adds.
All the World’s a Stage
The biggest financial blow to rappers due to COVID-19 has been the loss of touring. According to Forbes, touring accounted for over 50 percent of income for the 10 highest-paid acts last year. Concerts and festivals like Coachella, Rolling Loud, Governors Ball, SXSW and Lollapalooza were canceled or postponed indefinitely. “Basically overnight, all our business came to a halt,” reveals Damashek, whose Move Forward Music produces over 150 live events each year. Indie venues face what they call “an existential crisis,” according to the National Independent Venue Association, and are seeking financial assistance from the government.
“I was a bit shocked when we went into a total lockdown, didn’t expect it to last for more than a few weeks,” admits Cheryl Paglierani, partner and agent at United Talent Agency, whose roster includes 21 Savage, Offset, Tyga and Trippie Redd. And it isn’t just ticket sales; touring creates several revenue and marketing streams. “Many artists rely on touring not just for promotion of their music but to maintain their livelihoods,” she continues on the matter. “Shows guarantee merch sales, VIP packages and after parties, all very significant revenue streams for established acts,” she continues. “For emerging artists, the opportunities to…build up their audience and connect with people are much harder to come by.”
The industry is forced now to be nimble. “We shifted course immediately,” Paglierani explains. “I had Post Malone out on the final week of his sold-out arena tour when we had to cancel the last five shows. As things progressed and got really serious, it was scary not being able to predict just how long it would last or what the overall effects on our business would be.”
Scattered artists have chosen to wait it out while others are taking matters into their own hands—and tapping into their super fans for support. In March, Swae Lee turned his studio into a stage—including bras strewn about—for an Instagram Live show. At one point, he invited a fan to join him “onstage” via split screen. “The shutdown of live in-person events has led to a boom in the digital and music branding space,” Paglierani affirms. “Livestreaming has made it possible for us to create some really unique and special opportunities with clients that otherwise may not have existed.” She points to her working on Offset and Friends, the first-ever virtual at-home livestream performance with Oculus and Facebook, which raised over 300,000 meals for the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
Some pandemic shows serve solely as promotion while others are being monetized or have a charity component. Although most fans won’t pay as much for a virtual experience as they would a live one, there’s the appeal of scale: virtual venues aren’t constrained by brick and mortar and an artist can essentially sell limitless tickets.
Think Outside the Box
In August, Lil Yachty performed for fans in cars at the Lakeshore Drive-In at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. In November, he created a virtual house party. The latter, which featured music, merchandise and special guests, was billed at $12-18 per ticket.
Several artists have pivoted to Twitch, which is traditionally popular among gamers. “I was impressed with the quality of music streaming I’d seen on Twitch, so I approached them and pitched my idea to recreate for live streaming what we’d done in the live concert space, as best we could,” Damashek says. His inaugural Move Forward Fest featured Guapdad 4000, Kari Faux, Just Blaze and The Alchemist, and garnered over 2.1 million views over two days of livestreaming on Twitch.
Will Farrell-Green, Head of Music Content at Twitch, notes that hip-hop is rapidly growing on the platform. “We think this stems from growth in formats such as music production and rap battles,” he maintains. Being able to connect with fans authentically makes Twitch attractive, especially with emerging or niche acts, such as Tee Grizzley streaming Call of Duty with fans or Kenny Beats’ weekly Beat Battle. “Artists should not feel like they have to reinvent themselves,” Farrell-Green adds. “The viewers [are] getting to step inside the world of an artist’s existing processes while also interacting with one another is such an awesome peek behind the curtain.”
The real “behind-the-curtain” content lives on OnlyFans. The subscription-based app, once popular with sex workers, has expanded to include Cardi B, Tyga and Swae Lee, among others, during the pandemic. Fans can subscribe to see X-rated fare like uncut music videos and photos. “This platform is a place of self-expression for everyone; from every day people, to models, sex workers, actors and now artists like myself,” Tyga said when he first joined OnlyFans. “[Fans] can really see more inside my life than ever before, and an intimate look of what I do every day. It’s ’bout to be lit!”
He’s not kidding. In October, Tyga’s alleged dick pic was leaked from OnlyFans and caused a frenzy on social media. Thirst aside, it’s unclear what effect OnlyFans will have on an artist’s image and brand long-term.
Bored in the House
If the pandemic has an anthem, it’s Curtis Roach’s “Bored in the House.” The track, which features the line, “OK, I’m bored in the house and I’m in the house bored” ad nauseam, went viral on TikTok and sparked a spin-off by Tyga in late March.
TikTok is ground zero for viral moments during quarantine. The short-form video app used to create short lip-sync, dance, comedy and music videos has been downloaded 2 billion times globally and has approximately 100 million U.S. users. TikTok has exploded by combining the simplicity of brief escapism with a hyper-targeted algorithm. “When the pandemic hit, we saw a lot of rappers using TikTok a lot more than before,” shares Isabel Quinteros, TikTok Senior Manager, Music Partnerships and Artist Relations. She says hip-hop is one of TikTok’s most popular genres and points to Tyga as well as artists like Lil Yachty, Flo Milli, Saweetie and Mulatto as standouts. “TikTok provided an escape from the world shutting down, bringing people together for a moment of joy.”
TikTok gives fans the power to soundtrack their lives and in turn, artists reap the benefit of streams and exposure. 24kGoldn’s “Mood” featuring Iann Dior is one of the biggest hip-hop hits on TikTok and has been featured in over 2.4 million videos spanning genre and generation like dogs, makeup tutorials and moms dancing. In October, “Mood” became the first song in history to be No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Hot Alternative Songs, Hot Rock & Alternative Songs, and Hot Rap Songs charts at the same time.
Interestingly, TikTok has created a way to break music with or without the artist’s direct involvement. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” propelled to over 6 million video creations on the platform (as well as No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100) after fans—not the rappers—started a dance challenge. “I guess the [general public] made this dance a challenge which I love and stress while seeing it ’cause now I gotta learn it,” Cardi posted on Instagram. “I’m loving it thooo…Keep sending me ya vids.”
Many artists are taking this time as an opportunity to experiment creatively and to test their mettle. The Internet Money production collective was forced to change course after the pandemic shelved plans for a festival and in-person recording. Instead of getting bummed, the producers behind artists like Juice Wrld and Lil Tecca recorded their debut album, B4 the Storm. “We did the whole album in June,” discloses Internet Money founder Taz Taylor. “We started it, had the idea and finished it and then it was just rolling it out from there.” The producer dug into previously created material, including tracks with Trippie Redd, Gunna and Lil Mosey. “I felt like because artists weren’t wanting to drop [their own music] because of corona… it definitely benefited someone like us… [We could] rely on the relationships like, ‘Hey, bro, since you’re not dropping, let me get these songs.’”
The album was released in August, and peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard 200. The single “Lemonade” featuring Gunna, Don Toliver and Nav peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. It didn’t come without hurdles. Shooting the music video for “Lemonade” was challenging logistically. “I guess we’re one of the first guinea pigs to try [shooting in-person] because people weren’t shooting music videos for a while,” Taylor details. “Every artist wanted to bring like, their own team and do all that.”
They ended up outside of Los Angeles, but the weather, desert and face masks didn’t mix. “You can’t really breathe,” Taylor remembers. “So, I think people are still trying to get used to the whole thing and deal with that.”
Lil Durk has also streamlined his music videos, pulling back on his entourage and crowd shots during the pandemic. “The videos I’ve been shooting are like, back-to-basics videos,” Durk explained during XXL’s podcast. “I had the videographer come to my house,” he says. “I don’t want no big video. If it’s gonna be like that, you might as well go to the club, right?”
Sometimes We Laugh and Sometimes We Cry
After nearly a year in quarantine, there’s no end in sight. Some artists are bucking protocols and operating under the “business as usual” philosophy to record, party and attend mask-free events.
Maybe it’s a middle finger to the rules or just flexing celebrity privilege. According to therapist Jeff Rocker, this cavalier attitude could just be a byproduct of fame and the craving for attention. “Of course, some [artists] might want to see how far they can go before getting in trouble, yet the majority is simply accustomed to constant attention,” he explains. “Now that the world is distracted with other significant issues…the only possibility of staying ‘relevant’ is getting negative attention… It is the desire to be heard, recognized and ‘tagged’ that drives people and as other events are blocked, why not throw a party and forgo the mask?”
And no matter how good a virtual experience is, it can’t replace the real thing. As Damashek says, “That feeling of connection is sorely needed right now and it will never go away.” Humans can’t be topped by a screen.
Then, there’s general pandemic fatigue or testing the odds that you might not catch the ’rona after all. “I’m just out here, outside, doing whatever I want to do,” JT of City Girls told XXL during a podcast episode in July. “Life’s short. They done had us in the house for so long.” She encourages fans to “mask up,” but it’s clear she—and many other rappers—are over it.
But producer Taz Taylor has a different perspective: Seize this moment. “I had a good year,” he declares. “I had one of the biggest records of the year. I put out a really successful album for producers… I kind of took advantage of the whole corona thing.” Instead of complaining, lean into the unknown. See the bigger picture. “The world’s never going to be perfect… It’s up to us as humans to adapt to our surroundings to make the most of every situation.”
A brave new world.
Check out more from XXL’s Winter 2020 issue including our DaBaby cover story, an introduction to DaBaby's Billion Dollar Baby Entertainment label roster, an interview with South Coast Music Group founder Arnold Taylor, who discovered and signed DaBaby, one of King Von's last interviews and more.
See Photos of XXL Magazine's Winter 2020 Cover Shoot With DaBaby