Whether you like it or not, Soulja Boy’s influence on the current hip-hop landscape is undeniable and he should be recognized as a pioneer in the genre.
If you attended any North American high school in the spring of 2007, there’s a good chance Soulja Boy and his painfully catchy megahit “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” made their way into your complicated teenage life — complete with a dance that, if executed correctly, landed you some major cool points.
The song took a life of its own and climbed all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became big enough to propel his debut album, souljaboytellem.com, to Platinum status despite a generally negative critical consensus. So how did this 17-year-old FL Studio wiz manage to turn the music industry on its head and create such a polarizing response within the hip-hop community?
This answer really starts and ends with Soulja’s uncanny Internet savvy. He became the first rapper to really leverage his digital presence into a record deal and millions of dollars. He posted some of his songs on the music sharing site SoundClick before finding YouTube in its relative infancy at the beginning of 2007, which would become an absolute game-changer for his online portfolio.
The video-sharing platform helped Soulja nail down his core audience, which was generally made up of young hip-hop fans and early YouTube adopters. He posted his track “Crank That” on the site, along with an instructional dance video, and became the first rapper to go viral by racking up millions of views. In January 2008, “Crank That” would become the first song to top three-million downloads in the United States.
From there, things didn’t go so well for Soulja musically. While he continued to make money through other ventures, his follow-up singles failed to give him any staying power in the industry as he quickly became a modern day MC Hammer. Regardless of how his music career played out later, his influence was already established and what he did for hip-hop on the Internet was one of the biggest catalysts in building the current climate of the genre where your digital footprint dictates your success.
With the exception of a handful of hip-hop superstars who were already big or on the cusp of being big in the late 2000s, today’s rap stars are born on the Internet. Streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music dominate the current music landscape and that’s doubly true for rappers who often come in with a smash single and test the waters online before they can crossover and hit the mainstream media circuit.
The influence of Spotify’s RapCaviar playlist is well-documented and it’s single-handedly responsible for boosting the star-power behind current hip-hop acts like Migos, Post Malone, 21 Savage and Lil Uzi Vert. Meanwhile the hip-hop subgenre of SoundCloud rap has also blown up and opened the doors for a wave of new hip-hop artists, mostly from Florida, like XXXTentacion, Denzel Curry, Lil Pump and Ski Mask The Slump God.
All of the aforementioned acts are, whether or not they want to admit it, direct descendants of Soulja Boy’s initial foray into the Internet. If it wasn’t for the pandemonium caused by “Crank That,” rappers would probably still be pushing their albums the old fashioned way or at least not with the same digital-first emphasis they have today.
Hate him or love him, Soulja Boy is a hip-hop pioneer. His success on the Internet has changed the way young rappers approach their hustle. It’s no longer about trying to catch Diddy outside his recording studio so you can spit a few bards for him in hopes of getting signed. It’s about creating an image and sound that is truly yours and putting it online for everyone to see what you’re about, whether you’re from the streets of Harlem or the suburbs of Orange County.
It’s the hustler’s mentality of a rapper mixed with the entrepreneurial spirit of a young executive. There is now a lane for these young hip-hop stars to create their own brand and decide for themselves whether they want to stay independent or sign with a major. If that isn’t the essence of hip-hop — maybe just stick with that Discman you bought back in 1996.
Words by Patrick Cwiklinski – Tune in to our New Wave Playlist on Spotify.