DatPiff, founded in 2005, is an online music sharing and downloading platform. Up to this point in time, the relevance of free mixtapes was minor in comparison to labels, radio clout and industry tycoons who governed hip-hop music. Gaining attention for one’s art required tireless adherence to an industry standard: audition for labels and hope that one of them is impressed enough to sign him/her.
In the final moments of Kanye West’s brilliant 2004 solo debut The College Dropout, West paints the scenario quite accurately for aspiring rappers of the era. Even as a regular production stalwart in Jay-Z’s catalog, having architected some of his biggest hits, West’s solo career was still rejected time after time. Kanye freaking West. While signing to a label was not the only route one could take, it was still the most propitious option and the best proven way to make a living as soon as possible.
The Internet has been around since the mid-’90s, but as we all know, it wasn’t a staple in the American household and teeming with money making capabilities like it is today. Around the time of DatPiff’s inception, the internet saw an explosion of online companies that would alter the future of music dramatically go public — most notably, YouTube.
Launched the same year, YouTube became such a force in the dissemination of music, music videos, lyric videos, artist interviews, etc., to the extent Billboard counted views from the site toward song units and chart rankings. However, overshadowed by the prowess of YouTube in the world of music was DatPiff, which arguably did just as much for undiscovered hip-hop artists.
The format that DatPiff came forward with in 2005 was closely modeled after a similar platform that preceded it: iTunes. iTunes was launched by Apple in 2001 and changed the commercialization of music for the rest of time. The fundamental difference — which is so obvious yet brilliant — was making it easier for both sides to access the platform, easier for the producer to produce and the consumer to consume. Pending a brief verification process, it’s free to upload a mixtape. Any mixtape uploaded onto the site is free to the consumer, who can download it directly off the site, with premium content reserved for those who pay for a premium account. Since its humble beginnings, DatPiff has expanded its platform to deliver news, merchandise and other exclusive artist content, and it has spawned other platforms that have tried to replicate its success — namely, SoundCloud.
SoundCloud has been incredibly successful in its own right, launching its platform in 2007 and clearly emulating ideas that were pioneered by DatPiff. According to The Verge, in recent years, controversy has hovered around the company, as disgruntled artists found themselves less than satisfied with how SoundCloud capitalizes on free music. DatPiff, while not beyond its own criticism for the same reasons, has mostly circumvented this industry-wide backlash due to its modest presentation and awareness of its own role.
This is a platform for the emerging artist who has yet to attain mainstream success, enabling them to garner online traction and showcasing their potential while they seek out a record deal or make enough money off ancillary means (merchandise, concerts, guest features, etc.) to finally strike a deal with a for-profit music platform, like Apple or Spotify.
Hip-hop as a genre needed a model like DatPiff’s to materialize in order to give the next generation of artists a chance. Artists like J. Cole (The Warm Up, Friday Night Lights), A$AP Rocky (Long.Live.A$AP), Chance the Rapper (10 Day, Acid Rap) are just a few in a pool of countless other extremely popular artists who would not have gained their footing in the rap game without the free platform. It was existentially pivotal to the evolution of music on the internet as a genre and as a product and doesn’t receive nearly enough credit for it. Still today, it continues to lift aspiring artists to a more successful place and give listeners a way to enjoy free music legally.