When rapper Big Baby Gandhi heard about Bitcoin from his coder friends, he was immediately fascinated — so much so that he made his first album, Debut, available for purchase via Bitcoin on Bandcamp.
That was back in 2013, when Bitcoin was popular mostly among tech workers and 4chan types who used the cryptocurrency for illegal dealings on the deep web. Big Baby Ghandi's interest was more holistic, in the possibilities of a decentralized digital currency independent of government. Still, the new technology was niche at the time, and Big Baby Gandhi wasn’t surprised that only a handful of fans opted to pay for his album with Bitcoin.
“I got like 30 bucks back then and didn’t look at it again,” says the artist, who is originally from Queens, New York and now lives in Oakland.
But about a year ago, when Bitcoin started rising in value and generating press, Big Baby Gandhi checked back on his stash and found that his earnings from his album had quintupled. The small profit inspired him to research Bitcoin and its underlying blockchain technology, and he found that many of its principles align with his left-leaning politics.
“There’s no central banking system, and that’s the center of how a lot of political decisions are made,” he says. “All our problems stem from the fact that you have these large powers who make moves based on corporate interests.”
As it turns out, the ideas behind cryptocurrency also align with many of hip-hop culture’s values. The genre promotes entrepreneurship and self-reliance, underscored by a distrust in authority — which stems from a long history of corporate and government practices, like loan discrimination and redlining, that have kept communities of color economically disadvantaged. From Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full” to Gucci Mane’s “I Get the Bag,” financial stability has been a central theme in rap for over three decades. So it makes sense that cryptocurrency, a new, potentially lucrative investment opportunity, would pique the interest of the rap world before any other cultural sphere.
Selling Cryptocurrency's Cool
Many still consider Bitcoin to be the domain of the Tesla-driving technorati, but prominent rap artists’ growing involvement with cryptocurrency is helping it gain mainstream traction. 50 Cent, for instance, boasted that he took a Bitcoin payment that earned him $7.5 million (a claim that he has since refuted in his ongoing bankruptcy case).
Nipsey Hussle, the L.A. rapper whose debut studio album recently hit No. 4 on Billboard, encourages his fans to invest in Bitcoin in his interviews. He told XXL that Marc Ecko, founder of the tastemaking hip-hop publication Complex, put him onto cryptocurrency in 2013. Even Wu-Tang’s Ghostface Killah is a Bitcoin evangelist.
And with hip-hop becoming the top-selling music genre in recent years, companies are taking notice that rap artists in particular have a knack for selling cryptocurrency’s cool. G-Eazy, for instance, partnered with the new coin Monero and accepts it as payment in his online store.
“Successful rappers are good businessmen — and any good businessman or woman is going to exhaust all options of expanding their portfolio and expanding that bag,” says Oakland rapper Beejus, adding that his own recent cryptocurrency investments have yielded enough profit to fund his next international vacation.
Beejus’s podcast Awkward Convos With Beejus, popular among the Bay Area’s indie rap community, recently devoted several episodes to discussing cryptocurrencies and their underlying blockchain technology with fellow artists, including hip-hop producers 10mTony and Julia Lewis. Even as the value of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies like Litecoin and Ethereum fluctuates in the current market, Beejus says that he’s confident that blockchain has wide-ranging potential that could change how we use the internet altogether — which could have major impacts on the music industry.
Many finance and technology experts agree. Essentially, blockchain is a more streamlined data-transfer system that eliminates many of the current inefficiencies and security risks inherent to how we send all types of files and assets, not just currency. Many tech industry insiders argue that it will transform commerce in the same way that email and social media have transformed communication over the past two decades.
The opportunity to get in early on such a game-changing technology is why Beejus, a West Oakland native, says he’s determined to use his podcast to educate his community about Bitcoin and blockchain. “I wish that people in my community were talking about, 'You gotta invest in this thing called Google, you have to invest in this thing called Microsoft,'” says Beejus. “There was nobody doing that. So if I have a little bit of understanding about it, I want to spread that knowledge.”
“A lot of the people who were profiting [from cryptocurrency] a couple years ago were alt-right people or white gamer types,” says Big Baby Gandhi. “If rap exposes it to a different part of the population, then you’ll have people who have this chance to make money that wouldn’t have.”
That push from the rap world seems to have had some sway; the majority of Bitcoin users — 58 percent — are young men of color. But cryptocurrency is more than an investment opportunity.
“People in the music industry that understand what blockchain is and cryptocurrency is, I think they see the value in the fact that the ledger is not held by one person, it’s held by everybody,” says 10mTony, referring to the public, yet encrypted, ledger of Bitcoin transactions available to everyone in the network. “When I think about that, I think about the fact that in music, you have all these record labels that own the song or your album or the publishing rights, but with cryptocurrencies and blockchain, you could potentially take that out of their hands and into the public sphere.”
Using Blockchain to Reimagine the Music Industry
A few examples of potential applications of blockchain technology in the music industry are ticket sales, streaming services, and databases and marketplaces for publishing rights. In other words: the spaces where "convenience fees," crooked managers, corrupt labels, and ticket resellers work their systemic grift on artists and fans.
Several startups, like Aventus and PassageX, have launched new ticket-selling platforms that use a blockchain-powered verification system to combat price-inflation and counterfeiting at the hands of scalpers, who often use bots to purchase tickets for high-demand shows and resell them at several times the original price.
And Resonate, a new, cooperatively-owned music streaming service still in its beta stage, uses blockchain technology to make streaming more advantageous for artists and users alike. On Resonate, listeners buy credit and use it to stream songs (and streaming for two hours a day adds up to about four dollars a month for listeners). The platform operates on a model called stream-to-own, which breaks up the price of an MP3 download among nine streams. After streaming a track for the ninth time, the listener gets to keep the MP3. Payment credits transfer from listener to artist instantly upon each stream.
Right now, on Spotify, it would take 150 streams to equal the price of a download — compared to Resonate’s nine — says Resonate founder Peter Harris, adding that he designed the model with independent artists in mind. He says his team is about a month away from setting up its payment system, but that his eventual goal is instant payments via cryptocurrency.
“One of the biggest problems in the industry is the length of time it takes to pay artists. Sometimes it can three to four years,” says Harris. “There’s a lot of inefficiency in the industry in the maintenance of the records, the list of rights, and who could get paid for their work. With blockchain, you could get to the point of having a single database. And if you could automate the collections processing of that data, and then payments, everything could move much faster.”
Harris also says that Blockchain could eventually safeguard artists from losing followers as they move from platform to platform by creating an independent network. That's crucial for artists like Nate Kodi, an L.A. rapper and producer who recently joined Resonate because SoundCloud deleted his account for copyright violation after he posted some of his remixes, causing him to lose his following.
“I think blockchain technology will give more power to actual musicians and artists in general," says Kodi. "When you put something on the blockchain, it can’t be changed, so it’s sort of like a copyright protection in itself.”
Kodi is part of an artist collective called Future Modern, which advocates for the use of blockchain technology for artists. (Oakland's Big Baby Gandhi is another member.) Chibu Ichiban, the founder of the collective, says that hip-hop artists are key players in the mainstreaming of blockchain, which he maintains has power to give more financial and creative control to artists of all disciplines.
"I definitely perceive hip-hop as a path for cryptocurrency to be ingrained into mainstream culture or even millennial youth culture,” says Ichiban. “Anything that’s gonna help artists realize their vision with less friction is going to have an impact on society.”