A New Podcast Shows How the Rise of Blogs Changed Hip-Hop Forever
It seems like everyone these days is talking about the Internet. Maybe it’s the sneaking sense that artificial intelligence might upend this (very flawed) digital utopia as we know it, or maybe it’s the lingering uncertainty of the pandemic. Either way, the world online right now feels like it’s on the edge of a significant change, which might explain why we’re so obsessed with discussing the Internet of yesteryear. ItsTheReal hosts Eric and Jeff Rosenthal’s new podcast documentary The Blog Era, presented by Pharrell’s OTHERtone Media, is billed as “a definitive oral history” of the period in the 2000s when a slate of upstart rap blogs drove a new generation of rap stars who went on to help reshape the music landscape. The 10-episode series offers stories of an explosion of online platforms dedicated to hip-hop fandom, essentially upending the traditional record label system overnight. Many of the young musicians who came out of that era, from Drake to J. Cole to A$AP Rocky, are megastars of the genre today.
The Blog Era opens with the story of Joe Budden, once poised to be the star of rap powerhouse Def Jam’s roster, only to suffer from poor sales numbers, supposedly due to mismanagement. He found an avenue for success independently on then-nascent rap message boards. With vignettes of Napster downloads and blog updates, the show offers a ground-level view of the rise and fall of a new generation of what the hosts call “gatekeepers” and introduces a cast of characters — they spoke to more than 150 influential artists and personalities from the era, amassing over 500 hours of original interviews — who deserve recognition for their contributions to what could be summed up as rap’s Internet revolution. “The reason that we’re even able to tell the story is because we were there,” Jeff Rosenthal tells Rolling Stone via Zoom. “We wanted to do a narrative project, and so we texted 90 people about this idea: ‘We want to tell the real story of the blog era.’ And immediately, 75 responses came back that afternoon. From there, we just built and built and built.”
The two co-hosts talked to Rolling Stone about revisiting rap’s blog era, how rap music transformed thanks to the internet, and what they think of AI Drake.
You’ve been working on this for three years?
Eric: Yeah. It’s interesting because we had a fun and popular podcast called A Waste of Time that we did on a weekly basis for five years, and then the pandemic comes and all of a sudden, our model of having all of these artists and entertainers and everybody come over to our apartment to sit down for a 90-minute conversation is probably no longer a good idea once there’s an airborne disease. So we were like, “You know what? Let’s switch it up and do something different.” And we’ve been working on that something different for three years, and only when we went down to South By and announced it on our panel this year, did people really understand that we’d been doing something that was offline and away from everybody. It’s wild to do something for so long and for people to recognize it now and be excited about it.
Def Jam plays a big role in the first episode — almost as if their late response to the Internet is how a lot of what unfolded took place.
Eric: For sure.
Jeff: Yeah. Obviously, this is happening everywhere, but Joe Budden and his issues within the system are so indicative of where everything was going and why the old system couldn’t work anymore, and so that’s why he was the correct avatar, we felt.
Eric: There’s no other label like Def Jam. Def Jam has such a storied history, and they were successful on so many cases before Joe, that when you’re thinking of a label and an example where something went wrong and that’s indicative, like Jeff said, Def Jam has to be the case.
Jeff: Also, just saying, Joe Budden and how he rebounded using the internet, that’s really why we chose him. It’s not just his downfall. It’s that he was also able to use the blogs in all different ways to really make the best of it.
Describe each of the episodes. Do we get a view into different characters as we do with Joe?
Jeff: So the second episode is all about the rise of the proto-blogs, so we’re talking about Byron Crawford, we’re talking about Dallas Penn. We’re talking about Fresh from Crunk and Disorderly. We’re talking about people who — much like all these artists that we discussed from various parts of the country who got a chance to showcase their voice on a level that was unheard of — so did these bloggers. We wanted to put the first two episodes out together because we wanted to show you where the blogs came from, and that is a system that crashes, and then from that rubble comes an opportunity for not only artists but for bloggers. And so we go through the 10 episodes looking at not just the artists but also the people who made them the platform to rocket off from.
For every Mac Miller and Wale and Big K.R.I.T. that we talk about, we talk about the Eskays [from NahRight] and the Andrew Barbers from Fake Shore Drive, and the Lowkeys from You Heard That New and the Miss Info from missinfo.tv and OnSmash.
This is a roller coaster ride over 10 hour-long episodes discussing really what boils down to the American dream. And I’m not just talking about the American dream being achieved, but also the American dream being snatched away by giant and significant forces. And it also should be said, this is a lot of young Black voices that never would’ve been hired at legacy media companies who create their own opportunities to have their voice put out there in ways they never could before. And then you see them supported by the system in some ways, and then you see the carpet sort of pulled out from under them.
Eric: It was super-important for us to tell the story because we were there, and we wanted to work with Black voices to make sure this story was told right and not just from the perspective of us, two white, Jewish hip-hop obsessives from 30 minutes north of New York City. So teaming up with Pharrell, Moses [Soyoola, president of OTHERtone], Timm [Aku, story editor], and this team of young Black creatives, who would ensure that this significant story is told the right way was super meaningful to us.
As you got closer to the premiere, did you guys notice that this was becoming a very relevant topic?
Jeff: We noticed very early on in the pandemic when Clubhouse was a thing. There would just be all these rooms happening, Mickey Factz was calling us in to join this room, and we were like, “We were just on the phone with you. We can’t talk about the thing that we’re working on.” We thought this would be a quick thing that we did, and then it was just like, oh, the more people we talked to, the more deeply involved in the story it became. Much bigger than we had initially imagined.
Eric: I think it is definitely on people’s minds right now, but I think it was also on people’s minds throughout most of the last, let’s say, six or seven years. Because something that we get into on this podcast is gatekeepers. Jeff and I came up in an era where gatekeepers were just a thing. You understood that Jay-Z was a superstar because he was at a remove. But more recently, because of the blogs and then post-blogs and the SoundCloud era, we’ve lived in this place where everyone was accessible, and you could tag Fabolous, or you could tag Wiz Khalifa, and they’d get back to you. And now, when there are no gatekeepers, we’ve gone from the Hot 97s and MTVs and XXL magazines to the blogs becoming the gatekeepers, and then SoundCloud comes around, and there are zero gatekeepers. Over the last half-decade, people have realized that they appreciate gatekeepers in some form. They want somebody to tell them what is good, worth listening to, and who they can attach themselves to and believe in. And you don’t have that anymore. You see this now as a topic of conversation. People wish for that time again.
It’s interesting you use the phrase gatekeepers, because, on the other hand, that word has such a negative connotation in today’s cultural zeitgeist.
Eric: So yes, I totally agree. There are always negative connotations to everything. I think blog rapper was a negative connotation for a long time, but people come around to things too. But when we’re talking about the blogs, these were anonymous people behind keyboards who did not get into it to be gatekeepers. They just recognized that there was a space that they could exist in, that they could create and make a platform so they could shine a light on people who weren’t getting the attention that maybe they deserved, whether that’s a Wiz Khalifa or a Curren$y or a Wale or Mickey Factz or whoever.
They didn’t start their websites to be gatekeepers. Still, they attracted an audience because they hit on something where young kids were looking for something new — they wanted to find someone on MySpace, and they wanted to dress like someone they saw on the Lower East Side. They wanted to exist outside of what we were all used to. And that’s with all due respect to the Jay-Zs, the 50 Cents, and the DMXs, but young kids wanted to do their own twist. And when a place like NahRight or 2DopeBoyz or Miss Info or OnSmash or You Heard That New or any of the blogs that popped up in 2005, 2006, 2007, when they offered something new, the audiences showed up, and that’s where the power came in.
So all these bloggers didn’t anticipate that, but over time, they embraced that. And ultimately, as we will dive into in the series, there are a lot of reasons why the blog era ended, and one of them is because of how this thing always goes. When you’re starting, it becomes cool to do. When you build an audience, it becomes even cooler to do. When money comes around, that’s really cool, but then it starts to tip. And I think gatekeepers will come back around at one point or another, but we’re living in a time now where algorithms run everything. And I think people, as you see in conversation every day, everywhere on every social media platform, are rebelling against it.
Another point about the examples you bring up is that many regions in hip-hop that would not have gotten major notoriety seemed to be able to come up in that period.
Jeff: Yeah. We talked about that and how important it was that you didn’t have to be from New York or LA. All you had to do was have an internet connection. And you see the people who spring up from the most insane spots, like Big K.R.I.T. probably being the best example, being from the sixth-biggest city in Mississippi. And he signs to Def Jam.
Eric: Yeah. In what world does that happen? And I think for us, in telling the Joe Budden story first, we wanted to use that as an example of how the model where you have to work your way up from the big city onto billboards and onto magazine covers, and your favorite programs on radio and television — that just wasn’t available for someone from Pittsburgh, somebody from Raleigh, North Carolina, somebody from Toronto, Canada. But when these people [online] look out for you, they show you that regions don’t matter anymore in a certain sense. I don’t mean that in the sense of, hey, your certain dialect or your accent or your audience doesn’t exist, or your experience. I mean regions keeping you in a certain box don’t matter anymore. This was a chance to go worldwide way beyond anybody’s imagination, and I think that’s a very cool part of this.
You talk about reaching out to people to talk to for the show, and these were sometimes connections and personal friends and colleagues of yours. Were there any moments where you were finding out stuff that you didn’t know had happened or had never heard about, even though you were there?
Jeff: There were personal things we didn’t know, and professional things we didn’t know. The thing that I am always impressed by in the first episode — and I didn’t know a lot of the ins and outs of Joe Budden’s career to that point — but even just the fact that All Hip-Hop was the first place that came up with push notifications is the craziest thing to me. Before Yahoo, before AOL, before Twitter, before anybody, that’s just an insane sort of invention.
So what killed the blog era?
Eric: A lot of people, when we would ask them initially — and again, this is a process where we had a lot of rewrites, a lot of second and third and fourth interviews, and a lot of figuring out this story — we asked people originally why they thought the blog era ended. And you find that it’s not just one thing. It’s not just the streaming services. It’s not just the cease-and-desists that come through. It is a collection of big and small forces that played a part, and that perfect storm ultimately took them down. A lot of people think of the easy excuses where it’s like, well, music is everywhere now, or the government came after onsmash.com, and that was a whole thing. And we address all this stuff, but there’s stuff in there that we never considered, like Odd Future’s existence. The fact that Odd Future came around and said that the blogs were not cool … when something is no longer cool, then the kids are not going to traffic that site or any of those sites. And Tyler led that charge, going after NahRight and 2DopeBoyz, two of the biggest blogs out there, and deciding that, “You know what? Tumblr is the way to go; we can go directly to our fans. We don’t need gatekeepers there.”
That’s a huge part, and many other forces took it down. A big part of it was that the times do change, but this is a complicated story, and no one is all the way a hero, and no one is all the way a villain. So what causes some of the blog era’s end is self-inflicted, and we wanted to be very fair about that. That gray area makes this super-compelling and a must-listen until the very end.
We’re in this moment of AI music and AI hip-hop, and people are asking questions about the internet’s overall impact on fandom and the music itself. Why is now a good time to revisit the blog era?
Eric: I think authenticity is the word. People cared about artists from the blog era. There was something about the stories they told, the voice that they used, and the places they came from and represented that struck a chord with people that exists to this day. If you’re talking about something inauthentic, I think people naturally care less. I think that the reason that Curren$y can put out a project with Jermaine Dupri in 2023 and people go so crazy for it and see him do a press run like he was a brand-new artist when he’s a decade and a half into the game, that just proves that he can do it independently. He can do it for himself and the people who are out there who support him, and that’s going to continue.
You see this with people who understand the Internet and are from a prior generation. If it’s a Bun B, who is doing Trill Burgers, which is not rap, right? But those same people who love him go to support him because they trust his taste and his past, and his authenticity. Styles P crosses over into a lot of different avenues these days. He’s making peanut butter and jelly with Eleven Madison. That couldn’t be further from how he grew up, but he got it. He’s his authentic self, and people want to support that. I don’t want to support an AI rapper that maybe gets dropped from a label.
Jeff: I will say that the one thing about AI is that what took us three years, it could do in five seconds. It would’ve also probably ended up being horribly racist.
Eric: Long live human beings.