By Tyler Sheets
Brandon McCartney (a.ka. Lil’ B a.k.a The Basedgod) has the critics’ attention. Since Lil’ B invented the genre of “based music” at 21 years old, critics have made Lil’ B into a pariah and a genius. A New Yorker article called him “the strangest rapper alive”. Aside from abandoning nearly every convention of hip hop music, Lil’ B has challenged the politics of the art. After announcing that his upcoming album would be titled “I’m Gay” in support of the homosexual community, the emphatically heterosexual rapper began receiving death threats and many hip-hop legends denounced him. The controversy hasn’t only attracted critics. It has given birth to an Internet-based community of Lil’ B worshippers who follow the rapper’s every online move.
Lil’ B’s most discussed quality is strangeness, but I posit that he adds much more to hip-hop than a colorful distraction. Lil’ B’s background and lyrical themes connect him to a crucial paradox in hip hop wherein rappers must anchor their message in actual past experience and yet outdo other rappers no matter how far past reality their claims are. Lil’ B accomplishes this through open expression and outrageous parody of his peers. Because all of his music is free on the Internet, he operates largely outside of the “culture industry” that would otherwise exploit his inner-city experiences and promote a violent motif contrary to the Basedgod’s commitment to positivity.
From the Pack to the Basedgod
As a young teenager Brandon McCartney wrote “Vans” with his rap group The Pack. The track raced up the charts and was No. 5 on the Rolling Stone’s list of the best songs of 2006. Rap legend Too $hort mentored Lil’ B for much of his early career and remembers that around the same time Lil’ B began recording something he called “freestyle albums”. Though Too $hort admits that these recordings were “wack”, they were precursors of what would take Brandon from Lil’ B of the Pack to Lil’ B the Basedgod.
Lil’ B rapped with the Pack during the peak of the “Hyphy” movement in California’s Bay Area. Hyphy music started with Bay Area rappers Keak da Sneak, who was the first to use the term publicly , Mac Dre, and others who sought to exert a more explicit Bay Area influence on mainstream rap. The culture of the music placed “going dumb” above all else. Going dumb is, most importantly, not investing too much thought into anything.
The Pack was seen as the logical successor to Hyphy rappers E-40 and Too $hort, whose music still defines the movement. The Pack’s beats, mostly composed by Brandon’s friend and co-Pack member Young L, follow Hyphy’s rhythmic pattern, and the dances in the group’s music videos feature wild gyrations and exaggerated movements expected of one who is “going dumb.”
While the Hyphy movement certainly influenced Lil’ B, particularly in its emphasis on freedom and silliness, he would not be constrained by its themes, rhythms or culture. He began recording freestyle raps wherein whatever came into his head would come out of his mouth. Whether it rhymed, made sense or was culturally appropriate did not matter. Knowing he was unlikely to have a professional outlet to distribute his freestyles, he took to uploading his music on MySpace. MySpace only lets users upload 6 songs at a time, so he eventually had to open more than 160 MySpace pages with 4-6 songs on each of them. Lil’ B’s total MySpace discography included more than 900 songs. He claims that he had only one or two fans praising his music during this early stage. That limited positive response was enough to ignite Lil’ B’s vision of escaping the confines of conventional hip-hop music.
What began was based music. Lil’ B’s definition of based music rarely changes from interview to interview, but tends to be uselessly vague. The word “based” itself, according to Lil’ B, was used to make fun of kids, including himself, who weren’t seen as smart. He took this scarlet letter as a badge of pride. Ryan Duffy of Vice Guide to Everything defined based music as “stream-of-consciousness rap”, in which the rapper just unleashes undirected thoughts over an instrumental. Lil’ B explains the transition from the mainstream Hyphy movement to based music as an attempt to offer transparency and find out if fans really loved his art or merely the polished production of it. He told a Fader magazine journalist, “I’m at a real honest point with my music right now, because I’m free.”
What did Lil’ B do with his freedom? While many “independent” rappers feel their independence is license to criticize big business and the American political system, Lil’ B’s based freestyles are about oral sex, the Internet, cat adoption, wonton soup, etc. Somewhat surprisingly, there is a directed message in all of it. That message is positivity, something that in basedworld is placed above all else. Positivity is to The Basedgod what “going dumb” was to the generation that preceded him and what “getting crunk” was to southern rappers like Lil’ John. Other important qualities of based culture include being rare and legendary, having swag (a term Lil’ B is primarily responsible for, and defines as “doing a good job”), and most importantly protecting Lil’ B from his Internet critics.
Lil’ B’s fan base has grown from a couple of disconnected Internet users to sold-out shows in New York, London and elsewhere. He recently made a speech at New York University that sold out within ten minutes. Themes of the speech included hydraulic fracking, architecture, forgiveness, washing hands after using the restroom and Mitt Romney; the crowd welcomed all of this with cheers. He also wrote a book titled, “Taking Over, by imposing the positive”. He has well over half a million followers on Twitter. Lil’ B is mostly an Internet phenomenon. He’s not on the television, he’s not on the radio and yet the rapper proclaims, “people know my songs word for word at my shows.”
The Wisdom under the Weirdness
Much of Lil’ B’s popularity is attributed to its strangeness, and that’s not totally incorrect. The freak-show hypothesis has its merits. Lil’ B has sustained his popularity through outlandish memes, trying out for an NBA feeder team, telling Kanye West that if he didn’t acknowledge him on Twitter that he would “fuck him in the ass”, among other publicity stunts. However, publicity stunts are not what sets Lil’ B apart. In fact, they are standard par for the course of the rap game. Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech, Gucci Mane’s ice cream cone face tattoo and endless lists of rappers challenging one another all come to mind.
Lil B’s fame is different because it derives from such a diverse group. At his first sold-out show in New York City he called out from the stage, “All my hipsters, all my nerds, all my losers, all my rebels!” Indeed, representatives from each crowd and limitless others can be found at a Lil’ B event. Very much in line with queer theory, Lil’ B’s basedworld is a space where everybody is welcome and celebrated for their differences while enjoying each other’s similarity. Only bullies and exclusivists are not welcome. Whereas most rappers expect to be exalted for their fashion, hood credibility and lyrical skill, the Basedgod wants to be respected for being a human being and respects you for being the same.
The release of his 2011 album, “I’m Gay” challenged hip-hop’s most important ideals: collecting women and flexing violent masculinity . Though not clearly influenced by Lil’ B, since the album’s release a range of homo/bisexual rappers have gained notoriety (see: Le1f, Mykki Blanco, Big Freedia). The album spoke out about oft discussed civil rights issues in hip hop such as poverty, the media and being black, but opened the discussion to include homosexuality, general self-loathing, environmental rights and the Internet as the end of human relationship.
The Internet plays a huge role not only in marketing “the human meme” of Lil’ B, but in his personal life as well. Lil’ B admitted to Ryan Duffy in an interview for MTV that he prefers the pictures girls send to him more than the girls themselves because on the Internet, “you start envisioning and stuff, and my thought process gets so deep.” Lil’ B’s ode to the Internet, “Age of Information”, was the subject of a recent UC Berkeley lecture by Professor Geoffrey Nunberg. Prof. Nunberg was particularly impressed by the Basedgod’s critique of the human race’s wasted potential in the age of information. Strange stuff for hip-hop in general, let alone a kid raised in the Hyphy movement. One might question if Lil B’s roots are sewn in Berkeley or on the Internet.
Overlapping artistic influences are the norm in an increasingly interconnected world. A$AP Rocky and his crew have interwoven a Southern feel to New York hip hop and have even incorporated some Lil B-isms, including his signature “Woo! Woo!” background noises. Kendrick Lamar is noted for demonstrating very little LA influence in his rap style despite repeatedly suggesting that he is Tupac’s reincarnation. Though Lil’ B seems like he might be incorporating sounds and themes from other dimensions, he is heavily influenced by the Internet, a place where anything can happen. In his own words, “The internet has played a huge role in freedom… freedom of speech, freedom of thought.” As drawn to Internet culture as the rapper is, it is drawn to him. Followers of Lil’ B are known as the Bitch Mob Task Force after his mixtape #1Bitch hailed him the top bitch. The Task Force has been busy of late. They recently forced much-celebrated up-and-comer Joey Bada$$ to shut down his Twitter account after he made a song dissing the Basedgod. They also nearly brought Lil’ B to perform at the Grammys until the committee suspiciously removed his name from the ballot.
More than a Weirdo
Though almost every paragraph ever written about Lil’ B references his strangeness, he has an important place in the progression of conventional hip-hop. By the mid 1990’s hip-hop was in desperate need of a reality check. Vanilla Ice, a white motocross rider from Texas, had earned the first ever #1 hip-hop single. The influence of money was apparent all over hip-hop as it became increasingly an industry for the most attractive males with the most general appeal. Thus began the era that Andre 3000 of Outkast remembers as “the days when ‘Keep it real!’ was the phrase.” Suddenly, a rapper needed historic credibility to rap about violence. His story and message couldn’t change with the money he made. This was Tupac Shakur’s era and he did not disappoint.
Today hip hop is in a similar crisis. While hip hop superstars rap about having outrageous sums of cash, rising stars mimic these themes long before the money comes and has next to nothing to do with their experience. While rap has always been decorated with the lure of materialism, there are other areas where rap fails to meet standards of authenticity. Tyler the Creator’s entire catalogue depends on hyperboles of sex and violence, though he seems like a pretty nice guy. Even the rappers who criticize hip hop’s materialism, sexism and violence tend to come across as too self-righteous and overly serious to fit the genre. Overall, the subject matter of hip-hop is hardly married to the average rapper’s lifestyle.
Yet, Lil’ B sees the problem in terms of structure, not content. That is something we have not seen in the 40-odd years hip-hop has been in the media. Lil’ B’s problem is not as much with rappers as with the rules of the art itself. Because rap has to rhyme, Lil’ B explains, “It can’t all be true ’cause you’re consciously changing around words and scenarios in your mind to make it add up in the rap.” So if a rapper has to be real, and can’t do it through rap, what does one do? Lil’ B invented based music as a logical solution. While many have hailed based music as the death of the venerable art of hip hop, some, including Andrew Noz of NPR, have compared him to Tupac without the widespread support. Rap is real again, isn’t that what the people want?
Perhaps not. Halifu Osumare of UC Davis and two colleagues published a paper during the early years of Lil’ B titled “Gazing the Hood: Hip hop as a tourist attraction” . The paper hypothesizes that places like the South Bronx and 8 Mile road in Detroit could become tourist attractions if properly marketed by tourism authorities. I see an inherent implication that hip hop as an experience is a window through which listless suburban kids see a chaotic jungle where death is always around the corner. Approximately 70% of hip-hop music is sold to white audiences and predominantly males . This is what drives hip-hop marketing, which largely drives hip-hop creating.
Lil’ B’s fans are not tourists looking to explore the life of a thug; they are part of his campaign to promote positivity and general oddity. Lil’ B highlights this aspect of his fan base via his annual “Lil’ B is my friend in 2012…2013” meme festival on his Facebook, channeling the “Kony 2012” video’s effort to make war criminal Joseph Kony famous.
Any effort to connect Lil’ B to classic hip hop must be marked with an asterisk; this article is not an exception. With songs like “Violate that Bitch”, he cannot be categorized as a conscious rapper revolting against sexist masculinity. With off tempo and just off the wall songs like “I love you” it’s hard to call him a rapper. And with the slew of songs where Lil’ B just repetitively says he’s another celebrity, such as “I’m Justin Bieber” “I’m Bill Clinton” “Ellen DeGeneres” “Paris Hilton” and more, it’s difficult to say that Lil’ B has a message at all.
Yet, for his authenticity and positivity, for his parodies of materialism and violence, for his open-to-all attitude toward his fan base, and finally for his undeniable oddity and entertainment, I say, “Thank You Based God #TYBG”
1. Collins, Hattie Oct 20, 2006 “Ghostridin’ the Whip” The Guardian [/ref]
2. Arthur, Damien “Hip Hop Consumption and Masculinity” University of Adelaide School of Commerce[/ref]
3. Osumare et al “Gazing the hood: Hip-Hop as tourism attraction” 2007[/ref]
4. Hess, Mickey “Metal Faces, Rap Masks: Identity and Resistance in Hip Hop’s Persona Art” 2005 Popular Music and Society[/ref]
Image by Ebalouqassam