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The hardest-working man in America is the DJ at a midsize Philadelphia concert venue called District N9NE. It's the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and it has been an agonizing three hours since the doors opened. This poor DJ is trying his hardest to distract hundreds of fans—none of whom appear to be over the age of 22—from the glaring absence of Juice WRLD, the year's newly minted hip-hop superstar. They've come to see their digital hero in the flesh, but excitement has curdled into restlessness, and after restlessness comes agitation. So many Juuls have died that some fans have resorted to lighting up real cigarettes inside the venue. For a moment, the DJ is able to pacify the crowd by playing “GUMMO,” the viral New York street-rap anthem from the then newly incarcerated Tekashi 6ix9ine, but the crowd's fury prevails. “Juice WRLD will be here in five minutes,” the DJ announces in a tone that's not exactly convincing. “He apologizes for the delay.” Some kids begin chucking water bottles at his booth, which puts him over the edge. He's gone from commanding hype man to irritable babysitter in moments.
“Stop fucking throwing shit!” he yells into the mic. The crowd begins to chant: “We want Juice! We want Juice!” The DJ spins OutKast's “Hey Ya!,” which falls on deaf ears. “Reeeeeefund! Reeeeeefund!” the crowd yells in unison.
One kid lets out a bloodcurdling scream: “Where the FUUUUUCK is Juice WRLD?!” He's in a backward Vineyard Vines hat, standing next to a buddy who is sporting a Thrasher T-shirt and a cartoonishly large chain. Bare midriffs are everywhere. This may be the DJ's personal hellscape, but it's a record label's or an advertiser's greatest fantasy: the place where frat boys and hypebeasts—many of them white—converge in a millennial-meets-Gen Z slush pile. In an earlier era, these kids might have been wearing puka-shell necklaces and vibing out in a field to Dave Matthews Band, but in 2018, they were rocking knockoff Supreme gear and listening to RapCaviar, where they are fed artists like Juice WRLD—a 20-year-old from the Chicago suburbs who stormed the charts last year with his melodic, angsty hybrid of rap and emo.
As curfew draws closer, and part of the crowd is close to being lost altogether, Juice WRLD finally emerges onstage, bare-chested under an oversize leather vest. During the second song, the sound cuts out and Juice performs the first part of his set a cappella. By most standards this is a disaster, but Juice is able to turn it into a winning moment. He knows that these kids have every single word of his catalog memorized, and they will do this performance on his behalf. I'm in my black Benz / Doing cocaine with my black friends / We'll be high as hell before the night ends, the crowd sings, triumphant. “A little technical difficulty ain't going to stop us from piping the fuck up,” Juice gloats.
A year ago, not too many people knew who Juice WRLD was, but today nobody in the music business can have a conversation without bringing up his name and his rocket ship of a career. It doesn't matter if he makes his audience impatient. He is proof that the SoundCloud rap movement—the wave of chaotic, DIY Internet stars who've overtaken the mainstream in unprecedented fashion over the past two years—is mutating faster than anyone can really process. He arrived in early 2018, a lightly sanitized and seemingly fully formed version of his predecessors—a Post-Post Malone, if you will. In a matter of months, he went from being just another kid posting songs on SoundCloud to a major-label obsession.
After a heated period of label courtship, he secured a widely reported $3 million deal with Interscope, a bet that was handsomely rewarded when his single “Lucid Dreams” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song interpolates Sting's “Shape of my Heart,” and Sting has joked that royalties will “put my grandkids through college.” Juice racked up well over a billion streams on Spotify last year. He and his team are flush with cash, touring deals, the adoration of fans and peers alike. And he's newly bestowed with the greatest luxury of all: the comfort of being able to make anyone—be it a label executive or an eager fan—wait for him.
Insiders like to describe the music business as “feast or famine,” and currently it is on the delirious first course of a long-awaited feast. It can be difficult to remember what the hunger pangs felt like, but it was not so long ago that prospects for the industry, and hip-hop in particular, seemed dire. During the precarious post-recession transition from physical-record buying to streaming, hip-hop records accounted for less than 10 percent of the market. Trapped between a collapsing old infrastructure and the new prosperous surge of revenue, recording artists—let alone untested, troubled teenagers with a digital-native fan base—found it difficult to secure a lucrative deal. Budgets were slashed, label departments were shuttered, and the glory days of private jets and expensed meals at five-star restaurants became a fading memory. With the exception of tentpole releases from global superstars and EDM artists scoring Vegas residencies, much of the business hobbled along.
“A lot of record labels went out of business; the major ones consolidated,” says Bob Celestin, the entertainment lawyer who's been responsible for both the late XXXTentacion and Tekashi 6ix9ine, the viral New York rapper currently awaiting trial in a federal jail on racketeering and firearms charges. “Even as an attorney, it hurt. A lot of my colleagues quit or changed their areas of expertise.”
Flash forward to 2016, a year that kick-started a massive culture-wide shift in consumer appetites and industry trends. Only a year later, streaming would finally overtake physical distribution, which enabled a wily crop of young stars with huge online fan bases to storm the dilapidated castle. Bolstered by their ravenous fans, artists with preposterous images and lyrics about recreational prescription-drug habits were uploading brash, genre-blurring songs onto SoundCloud that would become runaway hits. XXXTentacion's “Look at Me!”—a blunt, lo-fi rap-metal anthem that sounds like it was recorded on a cell phone from inside someone's backpack—went from a cult favorite to a bona fide club smash. (Celestin remembers the first time he heard it: “I go on SoundCloud and I hear this record, and I'm like, This record's not mixed. It's not mixed! What is this?”) Rappers like Atlanta street savant 21 Savage and Philadelphia emo-rap curiosity Lil Uzi Vert managed to sign important deals with major labels, and revenues from merchandise, sponsorships, and live shows ballooned.
By 2017, rappers like Lil Pump—an 18-year-old Miami native with a frowny-face tattoo between his eyebrows and the vocabulary of a drunk preschooler—were no longer risky. They were one of the quickest routes to prosperity. (Last year, Pump signed his second major deal, for a widely reported $8 million for a single album.)
Lil Pump is signed to a management team called Tha Lights Global, a group that blurs the line between “influencing” and music, seeding songs through social-media stars. These days, the team strategically avoids following and liking anything it's interested in on social media. “If I post [someone], the labels gon' flock,” says Dooney Battle, Tha Lights Global's co-founder. Tha Lights Global picked up Pump when he had about 10,000 subscribers on YouTube, and today he is one of the biggest and most irreverent acts on the planet. Run a Google search on Pump and you will find a trove of headlines that feel like outtakes from Justin Bieber's epic 2014 run of mischief: “Lil Pump Just Got Arrested Live on Instagram After Swearing at Police.” (A representative for Lil Pump specified that he was detained at an airport.) “Now Lil Pump Is Out Here Pissing on British Banknotes.” “Lil Pump Sends Marijuana Balloon Into the Sky So God Can Smoke.”
The team confesses that managing the unruly Pump comes with its challenges. “He just said to me, I wanna go and run and jump in the lake! I said to him, You do that, you gonna get sick like the last time,” Battle says. “It's almost like he's our kid, or we're his big brother.” But it's well worth it. “You know how hard it was two years ago for any artist in the world to hit the Billboard?” Battle asks. “Now you got 6ix9ine saying, I'm [gonna go] nine for nine.… Look at the subscriber count on Spotify. It's growing bigger and bigger. It's not like CDs—once you build your subscriber base, there's no stopping it.”
If you haven't listened to these kids, you have almost certainly seen memes depicting them in your Instagram feeds, poking fun at their signature ad-libs (“Aye!”) and candy-colored hair. As they overtook rap, and rap overtook the industry writ large, these guffawing, sometimes Xanax-loving teens suddenly seemed less like a passing threat to mainstream norms and…well, more like the mainstream.
This shift sent a shock wave through the stunted, gasping-for-air world of A&R. Because the music is doing so well, A&Rs have basically moved the money away from other genres. “At some point in the last two years, people were like, Oh, my God,” says Todd Moscowitz, the former CEO of Warner Bros. Records and one of the people who shepherded Gucci Mane—who, along with Lil Wayne, could be considered a grandfather to this scene—into superstardom. “You're watching the Spotify and the Apple Charts and you're like, Oh wow. Everything is hip-hop.”
In 2016, Moscowitz launched a label called Alamo Records in the hopes of giving a platform to undersung, left-of-center artists. Whether intentional or not, Alamo has become a hub for the underground-cum-mainstream movement. Run more like a start-up than a corporate entity, Alamo is staffed by employees who are almost all under 30; these kids have been plucked from places like Kanye's Yeezy fashion line and the mischievous digital platform/clothing store Vfiles rather than exclusively from traditional record labels. The office is furnished with a giant television and gaming consoles, where artists are welcome to play Fortnite. The label's head of A&R, Zeke Hirschberg, is only 25, a fact that seems like a liability but is in reality a secret weapon for an organization hoping to secure deals by courting fickle young people in the first flushes of fame. “People are watching those numbers go up and up and up. The prices are going up and up and up,” Moscowitz says.
“The labels are more flush with cash. And record labels that were not focusing on urban music, all of a sudden are now,” Celestin explains. “Every artist that has a little bit of a buzz, they want to sign.” With such rising tides, and the wellspring of easily searchable metrics generated by the streaming machine, A&R'ing has become more like forecasting or day-trading.
“Everybody thinks it's Moneyball,” Moscowitz says.
A phenomenon can be real only once it has been given a buzzword, and it becomes really real when widespread use of that buzzword begins to piss off the people most closely connected to it. The term “SoundCloud rap” is one of these things—a description so ubiquitous that it has come to feel like ad-agency shorthand, like “hipster” or “millennial.” Artists and labels are sick of this term, and for good reason. For one, it's no longer an accurate descriptor, given that most of the artists we're discussing hardly have the opportunity to actually use the DIY streaming platform before they're snatched up by one of the aforementioned A&Rs. But for the sake of this story, they're absurdists with inventive names who might be more likely to worship Kurt Cobain and Marilyn Manson than Jay-Z or Biggie. Unlike with conventional street-oriented rap, many of them prefer to take drugs rather than sell them; they tend to wallow ostentatiously in their success instead of glorifying it. Lots of them are obsessed with using FaceTime. Many will insist they cannot be boxed in, but many also have some unmistakable commonalities: They like face tattoos and short dyed dreadlocks and braids.
Adam Grandmaison ticks only a couple of these boxes—the face tattoos and the thirst for mischief—but he has become, nonetheless, one of the SoundCloud scene's most revered figureheads. It used to be that labels would find artists, and then the labels would be responsible for shaping the artists' images and bringing them to the world via radio stations and formal album rollouts. Now the artists themselves have the reins, and they are likely to find an audience through their own social-media platforms, or through an unconventional kingmaker like Grandmaison. Grandmaison, a white 35-year-old former full-time BMX blogger, runs a tiny merch and bike shop called ONSOMESHIT on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. This shop has become an unlikely nerve center for this moment, thanks to Grandmaison's dogged documentation of the movement on his podcast, No Jumper. For three years, in a small recording studio in the back of his shop, Grandmaison has been conducting long, unwieldy interviews with SoundCloud rappers during their earliest moments of notoriety. If No Jumper is the scene's Inside the Actors Studio, Grandmaison is James Lipton, and being invited to sit with him on-camera will guarantee that you will, at the very least, catch the attention of many of his 2.4 million YouTube-channel subscribers and plenty of labels. He succeeds by canvasing the entire underground and getting in early with as many rappers as possible. When these artists blow up—which may be only mere months or weeks after he interviews them—they often have a sense of loyalty and gratitude toward Grandmaison, someone who gave them an early shot. For this reason, he says, he's still in touch with stars like Lil Pump, Trippie Redd, and Juice WRLD, even after they've graduated from his league. He says he used to spend many hours on FaceTime with XXXTentacion.
When I visit the No Jumper studio, I know that I'm in the right place from a block away. The rain has not deterred a line of excitable kids forming outside Grandmaison's store. Tonight he's trying something new: He's made an open call to his followers to show up and earn the chance to appear on his live stream. Later, the rapper Skinnyfromthe9 will be at a party for his new album, and the adrenaline is flowing. The kids flooding the store are dancing, vaping, shrieking, and Snapchatting while trying their hardest to catch a glimpse of Grandmaison, who is sequestered behind the door of his studio. In this mythic back room, boxes of No Jumper merch are piled by the walls, and on top of one rests a blue-framed photo of XXXTentacion, the 20-year-old singer and rapper whose hit single “SAD!” reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts the week following his untimely death in June of last year. (After he was gunned down outside a motorcycle dealership, his funeral was held in the Florida Panthers' 20,000-seat hockey arena.) Fans and industry insiders refer to him simply as “X.”
In the morning, Grandmaison likes to wake up and “just go crazy on social media” before coming to the shop and spending the afternoon conducting interviews. By evening, he's typically posted dozens of pieces of content and on some days is ready to live stream—an endeavor that might sound ridiculous but has significant impact on the No Jumper business, because fledgling young rappers will send him between $75 and $200 “donations” to play their songs. His plans for this evening's live stream? “We have a girl who's supposed to show up who's famous on Instagram for having a really long tongue.”
Grandmaison likes to call No Jumper a “media company,” which is not an exaggeration. It's an LLC with eight full-time employees. On the day I visit, there's an armed security guard securing the front door. At the time, Grandmaison also had his own deal with Atlantic Records, who he said were hoping he'd become DJ Khaled for the SoundCloud set. Last year, he put out “Hard,” featuring Tay-K and BlocBoy JB. The music video currently has more than 18 million views on YouTube. He'd recently met a promising young kid from Staten Island and expressed interest in signing him to the Atlantic venture. He floated the idea of uploading one of the rapper's videos to his own channels, he said, but the label advised him to hold off, given the excess of competition. “They were like, ‘We don't want every other label to realize that we're interested,’ ” he remembers.
There was a live stream that Grandmaison recalls in particular: “At the end of it, I looked at what the total was [from donations], and it was like 20 grand.… I was like, Wow, that's fucked up. This feels really weird that this is working out this way.”
Grandmaison pops his head out the door of the studio and is greeted by a swarm of kids in camouflage pants and Supreme. “Adam! Adam!” they squeal, asking for pictures. A group of young kids giddily pose with Grandmaison, and within 30 seconds I get a notification that someone has AirDropped the photo to the entire room.
“I'm a bit overwhelmed,” Grandmaison says, hustling toward the door to his studio, “by all this attention.”
Much as Grandmaison courts attention, incessantly broadcasting himself, he has also come to be wary of it. In his early days, he could interview artists with abandon and not worry about how the turns of the conversations could impact his business. When he interviewed X in 2016, during No Jumper's infancy, X regaled him with the tale of bludgeoning his “faggot” cellmate while in jail. Grandmaison chortled nervously and furrowed his brow. Today that interview—one of the only in-depth public discussions with X before his passing—has about 10 million views. Grandmaison is beginning to feel an increasing sense of responsibility for these interviews, and he's begun to appear in a smaller portion of No Jumper's core content as the business grows, gradually outsourcing some of the interviews to employees. He feels a new sense of heat, particularly because he's been wrapped up in some of the same troubling patterns as some of the artists he covers: Last year, he made headlines when he was accused in the press of rape and sexual harassment, claims he vigorously denies. During my November visit, I asked him how, or if, these allegations have impacted his work. “I think they've certainly impacted my business in ways I'm not aware of…offers that don't come my way,” he said. “But I've been pretty amazed by how the rap community has continued to embrace me, especially the fans.”
“Whether it's about the #MeToo movement, everything is about storytelling. And if you're able to offer a compelling counter-narrative,” he said in November, “then that's kind of what it's all about.” (Grandmaison's deal with Atlantic ended in early December, in the wake of these accusations. “It wasn't really based around any of the accusations,” he said in a video after the news broke. But, he added, “I won't deny that it made Atlantic kind of uncomfortable.” Atlantic did not respond to requests for comment.)
On a Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles, a few weeks after the Juice WRLD show, a group of music-industry glitterati has gathered at the Sunset Tower Hotel for Variety's second-annual Hitmakers brunch, an event held to honor the songwriters and producers behind the biggest hits of the year. Industry executives, managers, producers, and artists are rubbing elbows with one another—among them Offset of Migos; Drake's right-hand man, Noah “40” Shebib; Kris Jenner's boyfriend, Corey Gamble; and U.K. pop export Dua Lipa. The crowd is schmoozy and intimate, sipping complimentary gin cocktails and mimosas. The spirit of the room is friendly and jubilant.
One glaring absence in the crowd is Adam Levine, the Maroon 5 frontman who appears on the cover of Variety's Hitmakers issue. Another slightly less conspicuous absence is the late XXXTentacion. The differences between him and the preening, palatable Levine offer a snapshot of just how drastically the definition of “music royalty” has shifted over the past decade.
Born Jahseh Onfroy, XXXTentacion rode a career marked by unprecedented popularity and fan loyalty as well as a near constant torrent of scandal. As Onfroy blew up, in 2016, thanks to a song called “Look at Me!,” he was behind bars on charges of aggravated battery against a pregnant woman. His live shows were often marred—and bolstered—by chaos that sometimes edged into violent territory. After he died, a gruesome confessional tape was released, on which he discussed having committed brutal acts that would disqualify most people from a job at a supermarket. But for Onfroy and his handlers, the train had left the station at record-breaking speed, and nothing—not the brutal allegations, label-hopping, or even death—could stop it.
Here to represent XXXTentacion are his manager, a baby-faced 29-year-old New Yorker named Solomon Sobande; an even babier-faced 24-year-old producer who went to N.Y.U. named John Cunningham; and Onfroy's mother, Cleopatra Bernard. Donning a rose-gold one-shouldered jumpsuit and a perfectly smooth coif, Bernard looks younger than her 38 years. (Unwitting parties who'd see her with Onfroy while he was alive would often mistake her for his girlfriend.) At one point during the event, Bernard poses for photos with Offset and his mother, beaming. In interviews with X, he used to say that he would start trouble as a kid to get the attention of his mother. Bernard now lives in a gated community in Florida, where she can hide from the fans who are still looking to somehow get closer to him, even after his death. “Generation X,” she calls them.
Every emerging rap star has a constellation of adults surrounding him—managers, A&Rs, family members, and hangers-on, who are tasked with attempting to mold, shape, and manage their unruliest impulses. All of them are getting a percentage, and it is in their best interest to maximize the size of the pie. In the early days of X's career, when he was still behind bars, he'd spend his days taking phone calls and visits from these adults. One was Sobande, a hungry music manager who sensed that X's career was about to skyrocket.
“At first he was very apprehensive. I would beat him down, call him every day,” Sobande says. “I remember other people were trying to manage him, and I was like, Yo, bro, I'll take half. Ten percent. I don't even care. I just want to be involved.” Once X relented, Sobande recruited Celestin to negotiate the label deals, which were challenging given the size of the potential and the deeply troubling allegations in the media. Many labels told Sobande they weren't comfortable signing someone with such a dark cloud following him around. “But I know those people are choking on their words now,” Sobande says. “I know they didn't mean those things in the first place—they were just trying to be self-righteous about some shit they didn't understand.”
Despite the skepticism from some of the major labels, Sobande and Celestin continued to sign massive deals with multiple labels. In 2017, they worked out a deal with Caroline Records, which had been facilitated through Elliot Grainge, the 25-year-old son of Universal Music Group CEO Lucian Grainge, who had also signed Trippie Redd and 6ix9ine to his own label. Even after Spotify temporarily removed X's music from its playlists, citing a new “hateful conduct” policy, there were labels willing to scoop him up. For X's third album, Sobande turned to Empire's Ghazi Shami, who released his debut album and furnished him this time with a reported $10 million one-album deal. (Shami declined to comment for this story.) Kendrick Lamar's team also rushed to X's defense, allegedly threatening to pull his music from Spotify if it did not roll back the policy.
When the Variety event wraps, Sobande, Cunningham, and Bernard huddle outside by the valet station on Sunset Boulevard. They discuss the prospect of applying for memberships to Soho House. Bernard is doubtful about her chances. “I'm not technically part of the entertainment industry,” she says, in her light Jamaican accent. “Well, technically, you are part of the entertainment industry,” Cunningham tells her, offering up his suit jacket when she laments how chilly the air is. Bernard is the executor of X's estate, and everyone around her is deferential. They pile into Sobande's rented Mercedes in search of a late lunch. Soul music wafts from the radio. “What is this, and why are we listening to it?” Bernard asks. The rest of the crew laugh and then launch into an analysis of her son's popularity on radio. L.A. radio has been much more hospitable to his hit singles than Miami radio was, Bernard observes. “They blur out ‘suicide’ on ‘SAD!’ on pop radio,” Cunningham says. “I didn't even know that was a curse word.”
The following week, the team will release Skins, Onfroy's first posthumous album as XXXTentacion. A lavish party is thrown during Art Basel in Miami. There's only one other rapper featured on the album. “Our good friend Mr. Kanye West,” Sobande says.
“What I realized, there's like two songs where he's cussing on this new album,” Cunningham says. (In fact, four are marked as “explicit.”) “The new album is clean. I didn't realize it.”
“And that's why it shouldn't be a problem getting a lot of radio play, right?” Bernard asks.
“There's a lot of factors,” Cunningham says.
“He's already getting a good amount, I think a tremendous amount, especially from where we were before,” Sobande explains. “I think this will definitely get a lot of radio play.”
“I heard [‘SAD!'] like ten times yesterday,” Bernard says. “Every time I'm in the car here, I hear him.”
“I gotta start listening to the radio,” Cunningham says, laughing.
I note that Offset's first solo album is supposed to be released on December 14, leaving a clear window for the XXXTentacion project to dominate the charts. (Indeed, it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart.)
“We don't worry about other people,” Solomon protests. “They should be worried about us.”
Now is finally the time for a brief digression on face tattoos, a subject of great amusement for the general public, even those who have never heard a Lil Pump song. Face tattoos are to SoundCloud rappers what flannels were to the grunge movement, or what Swarovski crystals were to disco. XXXTentacion had the words “Bad Vibes” tattooed on his eyelids. For the late emo-rap phenom Lil Peep, it was “Crybaby” in giant cursive above his right eye. Post Malone has a slightly less literal face tattoo—an exquisitely sketched piece of barbed wire just below his hairline—along with the words “Always Tired” inked under his eyes. Lil Xan has the words “ZZZ,” “Lover,” “Candy,” and “Soldier.” You may know what Tekashi 6ix9ine has inked on his mug, many times over.
Face tattoos are funny, but they are heavy freak flags to fly: They telegraph to the world that someone has willingly disqualified himself from the prospect of a conventional career forever. “To them, but also even to me, somehow it makes me take them a little bit more seriously,” Grandmaison says. “It's like, Oh, I guess you're really in this, huh?”
Five years ago, a young kid from New York named Daniel Hernandez had zero face tattoos. A woman named Debra Weinstein snapped a photo of him on the street because she was amused by his outfit—a black-and-white sweatsuit with a shirt that read “Pussy” on the front and “Eater” and the number 69 on the back. After he'd become Tekashi 6ix9ine and a global, charting superstar with multiple face tattoos, he'd scaled that passerby's fascination into a worldwide obsession. As his star rose, he became enmeshed—or trapped—within a vortex of escalating incidents and controversies. What had initially seemed like pure SoundCloud rap hijinks—taunting his foes on social media and boasting about his gangster affiliations—became very real.
While scheduling to interview him in the fall, I got a taste of the chaos that seemed to follow him everywhere he went. I met his label guy, Elliot Grainge, at a hearing related to a previous charge of “use of a child in a sexual performance,” from a video posted on Instagram in 2015. He originally pleaded guilty, but his sentencing was adjourned until a long-awaited hearing in November. The judge let 6ix9ine go with four months' probation and a thousand hours of community service, but within hours, at a dinner held for 6ix9ine and Grainge, a shooting broke out. Weeks later, he was arrested on the aforementioned racketeering and firearms charges, and he's currently awaiting trial in a federal jail. I stopped hearing from Grainge.
One night, about a month later, I met the rapper Trippie Redd—one of 6ix9ine's long-standing nemeses, who also happens to be signed to Grainge's label—backstage at Madison Square Garden. He was opening for Travis Scott and sick with strep throat after spending the previous night at the strip club. (A week later, he would quit the tour.) His voice was hoarse, and he would not move from a fully reclined position on the couch. He seemed genuinely ill, but that had not prevented him from spending part of his performance attempting to re-light his blunt. Trippie started getting face tattoos in 2015, just before his star began to rise, and now has several, including the words “Love Scars” and the number 14 between his eyebrows.
Grasping for something to say to an ailing, insolent 19-year-old who just wanted to get the hell out of there, I asked him about his tattoos and made the obvious joke that he would never be able to get an office job. Suddenly he grew serious, and he sprang upright.
“I don't need to have an office job,” he said. “I'll buy the damn office.”
One SoundCloud rapper who does not yet have a face tattoo is Matt Ox. This is because he's 14 years old and must legally heed the wishes of his 29-year-old mother, Laurel, who has advised him to wait until he's 18. Which is not to say that Laurel is a prude, because she will let Matthew, as she calls him, express himself how he pleases. He started rapping seriously two years ago, at the age of 12, and caught the attention of a few local Philly blogs and producers. They would send cash to his mom's PayPal for features. “They were like, Yo, Matt, why is it a lady's picture on your PayPal? He's like, That's my mom,” Laurel says. Laurel used to work as a teacher, but now she is pouring most of her energy into her son's career, along with a carousel of producers, management, and a stylist who is here with Matt at a studio in Philadelphia, the same night as the Juice WRLD show. Technically, Laurel says, he's not a stylist—just a “friend who helps him with shopping and stuff.”
If you want a sense of just how fast this world is moving, consider that 14-year-old Matt Ox is already on the second go-round of his career, and his management team is already trying to learn from its mistakes. Matt Ox broke out in 2017 with “Overwhelming,” a candied-out little song with a video that prominently featured fidget spinners just as they were becoming a craze. His DMs lit up with messages from all kinds of peers. 21 Savage messaged him, he tells me. So did Metro Boomin and Meek Mill. “They just saw a little white boy who could make some money,” Matt says with a level of disillusionment that betrays his 14 years. Eventually he inked a lucrative deal with Warner Bros., but a month later, then CEO Cameron Strang resigned. One of his managers, a 30-year-old Philadelphia native named Finesse, who cut his teeth in the business around the Roots, worked to dissolve the deal so that they could sign a new one with Motown Records, which released Matt's first record late last year. Now he has the same publicist who worked with Nirvana at Sub Pop during the grunge heyday. The following month, he would be one of the featured performers at the XXXTentacion album-release party in Miami. As with many of the closest alliances formed in this era, the two had never met in person but consistently connected over FaceTime.
“We wanted to establish him early as a real artist, and not just the fidget-spinner kid,” Finesse says.
“You used to put fidget spinners in my videos!” Matt argues. “I keep myself away from a lot of that.”
“I treat this like basketball, and he's my star player. We have to figure out what plays he wants to run and how,” Finesse says.
“We're all pretty understanding that he's still growing,” Laurel says. “All right, maybe he's acting this way, or maybe he's having a hard time for no other reason but adolescence. To recognize that, like, Yes, Matt, we think you're a genius, but…”
Matt interjects. “I know how powerful my brain is, and nobody can't take that from me,” he says.
A universal truth is that every boom has its bust. But when I float the possibility that this cash machine will eventually stop running, I am met with uniform protest from A&Rs, from managers and festival founders and entertainment lawyers. We are in the midst of such a momentous, prosperous wave that it's almost impossible to envision the end. They do make a compelling argument: After all, hip-hop is not behaving exactly like disco or EDM did. It's not an isolated phenomenon the way other genres in the past have been. It's digesting every other genre and subculture and spitting it out in a new, blustering format. In some ways, it's simply become too big to fail.
But even if the tides of taste do not bring the demise of this moment, and even if Internet-friendly hip-hop is nimble enough to stay ahead of the pace, the hazards are real. There is all this money being thrown around, all of this speculative cash being poured into the pockets of teenagers who don't always grasp what's going on. The industry is churning so quickly that casualties are already piling up, both metaphorically and literally.
At lunch in Los Angeles, X's team reflects on the shifts that have occurred within the business since the rapper's passing. They were able to secure his placement on a Lil Wayne song in a Spider-Man movie, though they say he will be listed as the less recognizable Jahseh Onfroy, not XXXTentacion, in the film's credits.
“There are the people where it's very, very clear that the only reason they're talking to us now is…,” Cunningham, the hit-making producer for XXXTentacion says, trailing off. “I mean, his death did make the music that much bigger. There are people who see that and want to capitalize on it.”
X's manager, Sobande, spent as much time with him as anyone, trailing him on his over-the-top tours, a period which Sobande describes as “some of the most exciting and frightening times” of his life. In many instances, he felt like he was in over his head. They'd get death threats on social media before shows.
“He was like, ‘You scared, bro? Then don't come,’ ” Sobande remembers. “I would spend most of the time at shows begging the fire marshal not to cancel it.” This team describes the day of X's death as the worst of their lives, but they also feel an obligation—and a renewed sense of freedom—in their mission to carry his music forward.
“What can we do to make him the biggest? What's good for his legacy?” Sobande asks. “At the end of the day, we're keeping the lights on.”
Carrie Battan is a staff writer for ‘The New Yorker’ and a contributor to GQ. Her last piece for this magazine was a profile of Zayn Malik in the July 2018 issue.
A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2019 issue with the title "Boom Times."
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