To the Moon
Over the last two years, NFTs have become an inescapable part of life online. Though some critics dismissed them as a trend, the tokens seem here to stay in hip-hop.
Words: Grant Rindner
Editor’s Note: This story appears in the Summer 2022 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
Hip-hop artists have always loved the finer things in life—elegant clothing, exotic cars, gleaming jewelry. The industry's latest fixation, the NFT, falls into a similar category, with rappers like Future, Gunna and Eminem spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on collectible pieces of digital artwork. Whole cottage industries have emerged selling luxury goods to famous MCs, but the key difference with NFTs is that now the rappers are the ones selling them to the people.
Ask a tech evangelist what an NFT is—a non-fungible token—and what follows could be a 45-minute dissertation on the blockchain, the importance of decentralized digital currency and the future of the metaverse. Ask a skeptic, and they'll likely have some variation of the "right-click, save as" meme—who would pay six figures for what is essentially a JPEG? Ask multiplatinum rapper Young M.A what they are, and she'll give you the kind of succinct response that would likely be echoed by many rappers who have jumped into the whole world of non-fungible tokens.
"People look at it a little too deep, a little too scientific, a little too mathematical," Young M.A says of the trend. "But in all reality, it's something to take your time on, like you do everything else. It's a day-to-day type thing. It's a new way of making money."
The New York rapper released a capsule of five NFTs on the Serenade NFT marketplace in April, based on the biggest musical moments of her career thus far. She's using the medium to provide fans with exclusive benefits and songs. The ability to provide passionate supporters with new perks was also one of the main sells for Fanpage CEO Billy Rodgers. The tech company in the entertainment world works with musicians and athletes to create unique digital memorabilia projects with unique benefits and utility.
"Think of one of your favorite artists singing their favorite Christmas carol in front of their Christmas tree and they drop that as an NFT and you write in the smart contract that it can only be watched during Christmastime," Rodgers explains. "Now you're having a Christmas party and you're seeing something that no one else in the world is seeing at your Christmas event."
While it wasn't during the season of gift-giving, Jim Jones' discovery of NFTs was a gift in itself. The Harlem rapper has been in the game for over two decades and hustling for even longer, so when someone showed him the profit potential of NFTs, it didn't take long for him to see dollar signs.
"My friend said, 'Send me a picture of your chain. I wanna show you something about this thing called NFTs.' I sent him a picture of my VampLife piece and he ended up selling it for two Ether," Jones remembers of first hearing about NFTs. "It blew my mind, like, we can make money off selling pictures of things that I own? I was like, Oh, NFT is the next wave."
The rise of NFTs has been inescapable in the last few years and was almost certainly expedited by the COVID-19 pandemic forcing everyone to spend even more time online. NFTs are part of the explosion of blockchain technology and are essentially unique pieces of data that can be purchased and sold using different cryptocurrencies. Ether—that thing a picture of Jim Jones' necklace is worth two of—and Bitcoin are two of the main forms of currency used for these transactions. The general move towards blockchain technology, which is built around inalterable public ledgers, is often referred to as "Web3."
In February, Jones announced a new NFT project, Badazz Bears, which is based on drawings that his uncle did while incarcerated. Inspired by coveted releases like Cryptopunks and Bored Ape Yacht Club—which between the two count Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Eminem and Future as owners—Jones reached out to his tech contacts to see about bringing the different illustrations to this new marketplace.
"People don't get no breaks and [my uncle] spent most of his life locked up, so out of his artistry may be a chance for him to get a break and live life like I did for a little while," Jones conveys.
Latashá Alcindor, an independent rapper and multimedia artist who always relied on multiple income streams to support herself, became interested in NFTs after the pandemic halted live performances. When she saw her partner, artist Jahmel "Jah" Reynolds, earning good money on his artistic terms through the sale of NFTs, she realized it could be a logical fit for her creatively.
She began selling NFTs in 2021 and has become a fixture in the NFT community. She works as Head of Community at Zora, an artist-friendly NFT platform, and has sold songs, music videos and other pieces of original artwork for a big profit. Last December, she sold a music video for 13.4207ETH, the equivalent of over $50,000 the time. Now, ETH's value has dropped significantly in recent months, as have a lot of cryptocurrencies.
"When you go to a gallery, people don't question the price of an art piece on display and I'm like, Why can't we do that for music?" Latashá says of NFTs. "Why can't music be seen like a Basquiat or like Kara Walker? It needs to be seen in that same world because the energy that some artists are putting into their music is just as full."
But while the push for rappers to get into the NFT space is louder than ever, those who are already immersed caution that it's not a natural fit for every kind of artist. Jim Jones and Latashá both compare it to the difference between the types of artists who choose to navigate the industry independently, willing to take on the increased workload in marketing and promotion for true ownership, and those who sign with big labels so they can focus solely on making songs.
"I personally believe that the NFT space innately is made for the independent artist to find a new form of success and a new blueprint," Latashá maintains. "We've witnessed a lot of artists come from the majors or come from having really big fan bases, etc., get into the NFT space and then kinda just pick up the bag but don't do anything else with it."
Jones adds: "There's no one way. It's like being in the gym. Everybody's regimen is gonna be a little different."
Now that NFTs have proven to have some staying power in the hip-hop community, artists are starting to find new lanes. Nas partnered with Royal, a company that sells tokens, which include portions of the streaming rights of specific songs. A share of his tracks "Rare" and "Ultra Black" can be bought at different tiers, giving owners between 0.0113 percent and 2.14 percent of the rights of both songs, respectively. The music-focused platform Sound.xyz has raised millions in seed money, and already hosts projects from Allan Kingdom, Kilo Kish and more.
The earliest iterations of NFTs were mostly image-based, though they've quickly spun out into a myriad of different projects. Rappers like The Game have promoted battle royale video games like Katana Inu, where players use NFTs as custom skins for their characters. These digital tokens are also being increasingly tied to real-world perks ranging from backstage passes at concerts to exclusive access to clubs.
"I probably wouldn't buy a project that was solely focused on that [in-person perks], because it shows you're not really exploring the true potential of this new asset," shares NFT collector Cousin Ape. "NFTs are fundamentally programmable assets. For example, things where you launch a collection of these membership passes, and you might have to go to three real-world concerts, and then if you do, you get to upgrade that NFT to a premium version or something."
Guap, who formerly went by the name Guapdad 4000, is another rapper with an interest in NFTs, both as a creator and a buyer. Like Latashá, he is a multidisciplinary artist, drawing most of his early cover art. It's easy to see why people with creative pursuits outside of music are drawn to this burgeoning, undefined medium. Last year, the Oakland rhymer worked with record label 88rising to release two NFTs of his own through the platform Zora.
With that, many NFT platforms are eager to get a boost from rappers—it's one of the reasons you've seen so many artists with NFT profile pictures on social media. The major NFT marketplaces like OpenSea and Rarible are filled with rap-related projects like the HipHopLegends NFT, which makes 3D graphics of Kendrick Lamar, MF Doom and even the influential Akai MPC3000 drum machine. Search the name of any major rapper, take Travis Scott for example, and find dozens of NFTs depicting him.
These are different from the projects that have rappers involved, and those tend to sell for much greater sums. Some of these are genuine collaborative efforts—both Guap and Latashá cite Zora as a platform that wants to really bring artists into the fold—but others are more in the vein of a sponsored post on Instagram.
Despite the blockchain's promise of accountability and transparency on a global scale, there have been several instances of shady NFT behavior Numerous artists across genres railed against HitPiece, a platform that purported to be selling songs as NFTs but didn't have the necessary permissions. In February, the RIAA came out harshly against HitPiece, sending a demand letter to the attorney representing the site and its founders to demand the site stop infringing music creators' Intellectual Property rights.
In hip-hop specifically, Lil Yachty filed a lawsuit in January against NFT company Opulous, alleging that it raised more than $6 million while using the Atlanta rapper's name and image without consent. Fans have been critical of NFTs sold by artists like Tory Lanez and 6ix9ine, claiming that what they were purchasing was misrepresented. Last September, Lil Uzi Vert promoted an NFT called Eternal Beings by changing his profile picture, but quickly deleted it, prompting the value to plunge and some purchasers to fear it was a "rug pull"—a project that is hastily shut down and the money is kept by the creators. Gunna, who made headlines in late 2021 for buying a Bored Ape and getting it tattooed on his leg, faced a similar accusation earlier this year for the PushinPETH project. In a Feb. 7 tweet, Gunna addressed the controversy, saying he "didn't know anything" about the release and that his account had been hacked. "I would never cosign any fraud or scams privately or publicly! And I'm extremely sorry to anyone [who] was scammed!" he wrote.
And though the number of artists loudly backing NFTs outweighs those being critical, there are still a few instances of high-profile artists expressing skepticism about the medium. While speaking at the Converse All-Star Series this past March, Tyler, The Creator called the hype around them "a dick-swinging contest" and said he hasn't seen any NFTs that he would categorize as "beautiful art." Kanye West, who, like Tyler, largely focuses on creating physical products like clothing and sneakers, expressed similar feelings about NFTs in an Instagram post he wrote in January, though he left the door open with a well-placed "For now."
Guap, one of the connoisseurs of scam rap and whose many nicknames include Jean Fraud Van Scam and Scamzel Washington, jokes that he's already figured out the path to a successful, minimal-effort NFT venture.
"The scammer in me wants to go on Fiver, pay one of those African niggas with Photoshop $100 and make 10,000 Lil Guap NFTs and sell them as a project," Guap admits. "Make one rare one with a diamond durag or some shit and then get somebody to code in some fucking Mutant Serum for some Airdrops. That's what the scammer in me screams to do every day."
"What we've seen specifically in the hip-hop and rap space is that so many companies will jump in and promise the moon to an artist and try to squeeze as much money out of their relationship with their fans as they can very quickly and they don't think about thoughtfully entering into that space," Billy Rodgers explains of Fanpage's approach. "Instead of looking at an NFT as, 'This is a way for me to milk more money from my fan base,' we've tried to flip that approach and say, 'How can we look at an NFT as something that you can give to your fan base?'"
For those outside the tech space, one of the big questions around NFTs remains, who is buying these? The price range can be prohibitive for your average fan. Latashá sold an NFT of her video "Gogo Wyne" for the equivalent of over $50,000 last year while Guap sold his song "Could Never Be Me" for the equivalent of $4,000. Guap likens selling these new digital projects to pushing concert tickets or exclusive meet-and-greets, stressing that the best customers are already committed fans in some cases.
Cousin Ape, who's landed NFTs from Guap, Kenny Beats and more, compares owning an artist's digital projects to the "underground feeling of discovering stuff on your own, like B-sides." "I didn't buy the Guap NFT because I didn't want anyone else to listen to it," he explains before referencing the one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang Clan album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which has been referred to as "the O.G. NFT" by its current owner. "It's not like the Wu-Tang album. I bought it because I'm a fan and I want to support the work. But equally, I want more people to listen to that song because I own the only edition."
Rappers are becoming NFT collectors, too. Guap has a public wallet, one where fans send him their NFTs and a private one for personal purchases. Latashá has an impressive collection, and is also part of several DAOs—groups of like-minded people that pool together to purchase and display special NFT art projects.
Snoop Dogg has been one of the most visible NFT collectors in rap, and even made headlines last year when he claimed that he was actually Cozomo de' Medici, whose collection is worth a reported $17 million. Subsequent reporting by Vice and Artnet has posited this was more "troll job" than truth. "In this space, I'm tryna be baby Snoop Dogg," says Guap, who has worked with the California veteran on the remix to Guap's 2019 song "Flossin." Eminem also has a significant collection of NFTs as well as those he's selling, while other rap figures like Internet Money's Taz Taylor are also active in the space.
With collections exceeding millions of dollars and exorbitant buying comes financial security issues as well. Money laundering has long been an issue connected to fine art sales, and there's reason to suspect that the trend has continued in the world of NFTs. Turning illicitly obtained money into cryptocurrency, purchasing an NFT and then selling that piece of art for fresh cryptocurrency is a logical way to clean dirty cash. But the positives of the space outweigh the negatives.
There's a long history of the hot, new, consumer item benefitting from hip-hop's cultural cachet, and, in the case of companies like Cristal champagne, that came without showing respect to the artists making their product relevant to a huge audience. One of the things that has kept rappers interested in the NFT space is that it promises real ownership—Latashá names the late Nipsey Hussle for his emphasis on that concept—and the many opportunities to create room for Black artists and investors in the largely White, male crypto space. She highlights the potential for women, who have historically been marginalized in rap, to really thrive in the digital art market. In addition to Latashá herself, rappers like Rico Nasty and Azealia Banks have sold NFTs, although in classic chaotic Azealia fashion, hers was not music or visual art, but instead an audio sex tape.
It's the "wild, wild West," the phrase Jim Jones uses to describe the NFT boom. It's an apt if slightly overused descriptor. But he's also been around long enough to see how this new wave fits into hip-hop's lineage of rappers selling mixtapes out of the trunk of their car. He notes that it all comes down to salesmanship. "You ain't gotta be out in the cold," he remarks. "You ain't gotta be at the gas station. It's no risk. Just pop your computer open, get your social media going, and start going crazy. It's all stalking and talking. Get what you need to get out of this, nigga, so you can sell your NFTs. It's not that hard."
Whether NFTs becomes fully mainstream remains to be seen—Billy Rodgers estimates that just 5.5 percent of the U.S. population owns at least one—but rap has a knack for setting trends, and many of the industry's most influential figures believe NFTs are here to stay.
Read all about hip-hop and their involvement in the NFTs world in the 2022 XXL Freshman issue, on newsstands everywhere now. The issue includes additional interviews with the Freshmen featuring BabyTron, Cochise, Saucy Santana, Babyface Ray, KenTheMan, SoFaygo, Big Scarr, Big30, KayCyy, Doechii, Kali and Nardo Wick, 2022 XXL Freshman producer Wheezy Outta Here, Lupe Fiasco, Kevin Gates, NLE Choppa, Yvngxchris, producer DJ Dahi, engineer Teezio and singer Chlöe, plus a breakdown of every Freshman Class from a numbers standpoint, a look back at what the 2021 XXL Freshman Class is doing, the story of why the 2016 XXL Freshman Class gets so much respect now and exploring rappers' most valuable collections. You can also buy the 2022 XXL Freshman Class issue here.