The apartment was dark except for the chilling glow of the laptop screen. A man sat in front of the laptop, leaned forward so far that his nose almost touched the screen. He clicked the mouse and hit keys on the keyboard with practiced skill, focusing intently on his task. All the other responsibilities of his life had been set aside in favor of this artistic pursuit.
“Perfect,” Damian Lillard whispered as he played back the final thirty seconds of his latest track. The song’s beat, which had been laid-back for the first four-fifths of the song, was subtly more intense to match the multi-layered final chorus. A stroke of creative genius to rival the most accomplished producers and lyricists of the genre. His community of fans on SoundCloud would love it.
He was about to start tweaking the bass line when his phone rang. Feeling annoyed that he had thoughtlessly brought the distracting device in with him to his improvised home studio, he muted it, tossed it aside, and resumed his work.
Hours later, with the sun rising and Damian thinking he should probably get some sleep, he grabbed his phone off the floor. A voice message hadn’t been left from the unknown caller, but, surprisingly, a text message had been sent instead, and it grabbed Damian’s attention:
“Hey Dame. We’re a hip-hop label focused on fusing new sounds with old methods of distribution. Call us up if you’re interested.”
Damian was used to fending off wannabe collaborators in his SoundCloud messages. Every up-and-coming rapper on the site wanted to latch on to his success to bolster their own. But he had never received a message from a label, even a minor one. His impression was that indie labels, as they existed for other genres of music, didn’t really exist in the so-called genre of “SoundCloud Rap”. To have some of the more mundane duties of an independent artist be taken over by a record label was appealing.
And “old methods of distribution”, what did that mean? Were they releasing music on vinyl or what? A part of Damian found that intriguing as well; having a physical release of his music would legitimize his art in a way that simply uploading it to SoundCloud couldn’t. The NBA fans who thought his music was low-effort and low-skill would have to reconsider if he was pushing thousands of vinyl records to old-school rap enthusiasts around the country.
Taking all this into account made Damian’s decision easy. He navigated to the missed call on his call list and hit the “redial” button.
A week later, Damian was back in his dimmed apartment, staring at his laptop. However, his expression was not the expression of a creator studiously perfecting his craft. It was the expression of a man who was confused and unsure. As he clicked through related YouTube video after related YouTube video, the unfamiliar sounds coming from his headphones only got more incomprehensible, not less.
“Add some vaporwave influences,” his label contact, a man named “Travis” had told him. “It’s been brewing in the underground for almost a decade. When vaporhop breaks into the mainstream, you’ll be at the front of it all.” Damian had gone to the website for the label, which was minimally designed with plenty of neon colors, and could see that nearly all the cassette tapes and vinyl records available for purchase were listed as “sold out”. This guy Travis clearly was aware of some trends that Damian wasn’t.
But this understanding didn’t mean that vaporwave meant any sense to Damian. It didn’t. It just sounded like slowed-down smooth jazz with echoey drum beats. How was he supposed to add “influences” from this enigmatic genre into his own personal sound? The only thing that he had gathered up to this point was that he should be aware of a concept called “ＡＥＳＴＨＥＴＩＣＳ”, a word which was always rendered in some weird-looking letters that were wider than normal.
While his ears were tormented by strange sounds and his eyes were beset upon by scenes of ironic 80’s nostalgia, Damian wondered how his fanbase would react to the change in direction. Surely they would continue to appreciate his lyrical mastery, but would they accept the perversion of his orthodox west coast hip-hop style by outside influences? Did it even matter if his stylistic changes resulted in a bigger fanbase that was more willing to spend money to acquire his music?
Not feeling very confident in his ability to do what was asked of him, Damian returned to his digital audio workstation and started adding found fragments of 80’s elevator music to his in-progress track to replace the existing electronic motifs. By stretching the clips past their intended length, he found he could slow them down to make the melodies sound more “aesthetic”. The rigid drums clashed with the new addition, so he added maximum reverb to them.
“Perfect,” he whispered, even though he didn’t quite believe it.