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Whether we're talking about the funky-fresh, breakin', gold-chain hip-hop fans of the 1980s or the glow-stick, lollipopped PLUR set, music has always been as much about the community and culture surrounding it as the scales and octaves within it. Adapting to the times and new technology, the website-cum-record-label Okayplayer has forged a new and vital web community by bringing together kindred spirits from around the globe.
And while the idea of an Internet community is far from novel, Okayplayer is exceptional because it allows its artists -- who include Talib Kweli, Common and, most prominently, the Roots -- both a new means of marketing their music and, via its message boards, an opportunity for the artists to interact with their fans. Though lots of musicians chat with their fans, Okayplayer has one-upped them by occasionally making an underground rap star or two out of its Netizens.
The formula has been an unmitigated success, establishing the site as one of the most popular on the web, significantly broadening the fan base of its artists and, most recently, even spawning a fledgling record label, which will unveil its first release later this year.
Established by Roots drummer ?uestlove in 1999, Okayplayer was originally intended as nothing more than an online home for the Roots. Creating the site was a perfectly logical move for ?uest. After all, the organic, old-school vibe of the Roots' music, as well as lyrics that stressed social and personal responsibility, drew a largely collegiate audience -- a crowd that also flocked to the Internet in large numbers. As the Roots' popularity snowballed with 1999's Things Fall Apart, the site grew exponentially and began to take on more and more musicians and significantly increase its staff.
While there's no formal litmus test for Okayplayer artists, there does seem to be a set of common denominators involved: a reverence for hip-hop's "golden age" (East Coast hip-hop from approximately 1989 to 1994), calculated and conscious lyricism, and a social/ethical code that appeals to hip-hop fans who spend more time in the dorms than in the streets. There's also one other important quality that all Okayplayers share: an appreciation and respect for their listeners.
"I've never been with people who show that kinda love to all their fans," says Virginia-born MC Skillz. "It's almost mandatory among us. I know a lot of people do a show and leave. But we appreciate the fact that you pay for our music and pay to come see us perform it."
Artists such as Kweli, Common, Dilated Peoples and J. Dilla were perfect fits and quickly integrated themselves into the Okayplayer fold. And while they were generally considered "underground" when they joined the team, it's a testament to the website's power and popularity that most of them have gone on to sign with major labels and achieve at least modest commercial success. In a way, the Okayplayer site amounts to an underground (or "boutique") label populated by some of today's most popular acts: The artistic vision is personal and focused, the context is intimate, and decisions are made to produce quality music instead of impressive sales numbers.
For its members, Okayplayer publicizes news of their latest releases and tour dates along with interesting tidbits for die-hard fans. Ever wonder why Eve didn't represent for her guest verse in the Roots' classic video "You Really Got Me"? Check the Okayplayer archives for the answer. In addition, the site offers exclusives and downloads, including premieres of new Roots singles and an always-hilarious year-end "rap-up" courtesy of Skillz.
The site also fosters a sense of community among the musicians. "In our own right, we are all underdogs," Skillz comments. "These people know what we go through to get our music heard. They know about the label woes and the whole nine. I try not to hide anything from them, because I want them to understand why I make the music that I do."
Most important, Okayplayer allows fans to interact directly with other fans via the message board. They have a chance to speak with their musical heroes while checking for new, recommended acts. "People give you their ear a little easier," Skillz comments. The flip side is that the artists also have the opportunity to hear the music of their fans. In fact, one of the hottest groups in underground hip-hop, North Carolina's Little Brother, got its start when producer 9th Wonder (who later went on to work with Jay-Z) posted the band's demos on the site. ?uest loved the group's calculatedly organic sounds, and Little Brother -- under ?uest's supervision -- was later signed to independent juggernaut ABB Records.
While the relationship between fans and artists is generally amicable, there have been a few rifts. Earlier this year, a new member by the name of "ImRickJamesBitch" posted studio rough cuts of the upcoming Kweli album, The Beautiful Struggle. Although the moderators quickly deleted the post and Kweli made a rare appearance on the site to admonish (and threaten) the poster, the damage was done, and soon the tracks were circulating via P2P networks. Despite the occasional breach of trust, however, the bond is strong. Okayplayer exemplifies the rare instance of the music industry's using the Internet to its advantage.