No Pop: The Universal Underground

Back in 2014, a music journalist by the name of Lonely Vagabond wrote an article introducing a concept he calls “No Pop.” The phrase caught on in some sense and by 2015 made its way onto The Huffington Post. Far from sated, Vagabond has continued to spread the gospel of No Pop and, just recently, that gospel has reached the ears of OK-Tho. I guess that gives you an idea of OK-Tho’s stature in the music community: 2 years behind the cutting edge and one year behind Huffington Post.  

So, first we must understand what exactly No Pop is.  Vagabond makes that easy by giving us an explicit definition: No Pop (noun) - short for Not Popular. Meaning anti-commercial, non-chart-friendly, also inferring there is no expiration date on music nor is it limited by geographic or regional boundaries.”

To break that definition down a bit, let’s take the first couple characteristics: Anti-commercial and non-chart-friendly. I am completely on board with promoting such music. In fact, such a distinction does not really exclude any of the music I listen to. Firstly, I don’t listen to commercial music. No one who writes for OK-Tho does really, it says that right on our contact page: “we are not fans of all that money, cars, and hoes bull shit.”  Secondly, I get all my music off of Soundcloud. I have never seen a chart from them. I have heard of Bandcamp charts before but regardless, I am pretty sure those aren’t the charts he is talking about. 

The second and final couple of characteristics are that the music has no expiration date or geographical boundary. These are more restrictive characteristics but still, I would argue the music OK-Tho promotes satisfies those criteria. Because the music is online, whether it be on Soundcloud or Bandcamp, it has no expiration date or geographical boundary. I can listen to over seas producers like Sandpeople or Lentra today or five years from now (assuming they don’t take down anything). Also, it could be argued that some of the artists we promote, such as AWKWORD, use hip hop as a tool to literaly bridge cultural gaps, effectively deconstructing geographical boundaries. What Lonely Vagabond calls for then is anti-commercial, non-chart-friendly music shared through mediums that traverse space and time. So far, Lonely Vagabond and OK-Tho seem to be on the same page.

He breaks things down to basics when he describes No Pop as “rooted in the attitude that people should search for the music that moves them, away from the corporate machine and towards artists who haven’t lost their capacity to be creative, experimental or boundary-pushing.” At this point Lonely Vagabond asking OK-Tho to talk about No Pop is a hyperbolic example of preaching to the choir as it sounds a lot like he is asking us to listen to underground music instead of mainstream music.

It was at this point in my reading of the article that I got a bit bothered by this No Pop concept. Who was Lonely Vagabond to come and tell me I should be listening to exactly the type of music OK-Tho has been promoting since a year before he even came up with this No Pop concept? Of course the music I listen to is non-chart friendly, its OK-Tho! I wanted to write an article disparaging the concept but, then I realized that, while the music OK-Tho promotes fits into No Pop, No Pop exists beyond our content. OK-Tho only covers underground hip hop. No Pop includes underground music from every genre in all of space-time. That’s what makes No Pop so news-worthy, it calls for an appreciation of musicians based not on their genre or era but on the authenticity of their art.

Lonely Vagabond does, however, make a misstep when he writes that “because we live in a media-fed culture where information is instantaneous and everyone wants instant gratification…music from the past has been forgotten.” Now I’m not the biggest fan of technological “innovations” but there is no need to blame them for the music of the past being forgotten. Old music is not forgotten because of Snapchat, it's forgotten because it is outdated. Social media didn’t kill the music, time did.

That being said, I’m not so sure music really is being forgotten at a rate any faster than before.  Any music worth remembering is still being remembered. Take for example classical music. People like Kevin Venom spend their college careers majoring in classical violin performance. We have people like my Uncle who play blues and bluegrass. I took a class that covered Jazz from 1910 to today. Just because Donna Summers isn’t on every iPod in America doesn’t mean we are forgetting music.

It is also important to note that the instant gratifications of the modern day more often than not helps old music stay alive. That jazz class I took, all the music was available to stream on YouTube. Technology has even been able to give music of the past a new life. “My Boo” by Ghostown DJs charted two positions higher in 2016 than when it was released in 1996 thanks to the social media-perpetuated Running Man Challenge. Also, thanks to sites like Who Sampled Who, whenever a portion of an old song appears in a new one, we are able to revive the original by hearing the sample in its unaltered form.

Despite that point of contention, I think Lonely Vagabond is right. It is not enough to support independent hip hop musicians, we must support independent musicians in every genre. Or, for that matter, independent artists in every artform. The trick, however, will be supporting these independent musicians without letting that support advance them into becoming commercial. Because, after all, if Not Popular music becomes the most popular genre of music, Not Popular music would in fact be Pop music and we’d be back where we started.