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What Makes a Rapper Mainstream?

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Rap is quickly becoming the most popular genre of music, both in the United States and across the globe. With so many new rappers emerging on the scene, several are getting deemed “mainstream” or “underground.”

There are several factors that can make a rapper mainstream. Mainstream is mostly concerned with the media coverage; therefore, mainstream rappers are typically hot topics among the tabloids.

However, some believe that being mainstream has to do with selling out to gain success, or content of music.

To learn more about mainstream rappers and different things that can influence their mainstream status, read on!

Mainstream Media Rappers

Celebrities of all types, including rappers, are constantly being exposed and exploited by the media. Their personal lives and statements are just as scrutinized and heavily examined as their music, or other craft.

Since rappers’ lives are so closely examined, it is no surprise that they are constantly being talked about, written about, and photographed.

At this given moment in time, there are over two hundred and ninety million search results on Google when you search the term “rapper.”

Many people classify mainstream rappers based entirely on the amount of media exposure they receive.

For example, Eminem was voted “Best Mainstream Rapper” by Ranker.com. When you Google Eminem, one hundred and twenty-one million results come up.

Eminem’s search results include things like the records he’s broken, the number 1 hits he has had, performances he has given, and political stances he has taken.

His search results are a testament to his professionalism as a rapper and performer. Over the course of his career, he hasn’t had to pull publicity stunts to stay on top of the charts.

Some of the other highly ranked mainstream rappers that haven’t used any major publicity stunts are Snoop Dog, Lil-Wayne, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, 50 Cent, Wiz Khalifa, Big Sean, 2 Chainz, and NF.

Mainstream “Sell-Outs”

Sometimes, artists don’t always rely on their artistic abilities to bring them into the media’s spotlight. Some artists have to struggle for media attention and create plans and ploys to get it.

This isn’t a tradition that applies only to the hip-hop artists either. Celebrities across all genres and platforms have used this tactic for years.

Who remembers when Madonna and Britney Spears kissed while performing at the VMA’s? People buzzed when two of pop’s biggest babes locked lips while performing with Christina Aguilera.

Weeks, months, and even years later, it is still being talked about.

What about Lady Gaga’s meat dress? This was another moment in pop history that had fans’ jaws on the floor. Ten years later and people still relate the uber-successful singer and actress with the butcher shop inspired dress.

There is a fine line between pulling a few publicity stunts and being a total sell-out. Some artists pull these stunts constantly and are far from sell-outs. However, other artists pull one stunt and get deemed as a sell-out.

Regardless of whether or not the following rappers were deemed sell-outs or not, here are some of the biggest and most notorious publicity stunts in hip hop.

Big Daddy Kane in Playgirl Magazine

In the early 90s, Big Daddy Kane was at the top of his rap game and had street cred by the truckloads. However, he took a deal with Playgirl Magazine to strip down for a hefty paycheck.

He preserved some of his modesty by covering his more sensitive areas with a box of chocolates, how romantic.

Memphis Bleek Shampoo Rap

Memphis Bleek was a rapper who was widely considered the next Jay-Z, that was until he struck a deal with Garnier, the shampoo company.

He went from rapping about racial injustice and inner-city lifestyles to rapping about shampoo.

“Code Green” excellently highlighted Bleek’s desire to run his hair through “smooth, glowing” hair; however, the rap community was not very impressed.

Pink Cam’ron

Cam’ron was steadily climbing to the top of the charts, and then fame started to go to his head. In 2002, he adopted the color pink as his favorite color. It wasn’t enough to simply have a favorite color, though.

Cam’ron had to let everyone else know about it!! He bought a pink fur coat with a matching headband, a pink cell phone, and to top it all off, a pink Range Rover.

Kanye West

Kanye West is a professional in many areas. He is a professional rapper, as well as a professional publicity stunt-er. He takes the idea of all publicity being good publicity to the next level.

Many people often associate celebrities, especially African American celebrities, as being more democratic than conservative when it comes to politics.

However, Kanye recently endorsed and publicly supported Trump, who has supposedly made several racist comments toward minorities over the course of his presidency and career.

While he is not the first artist to take a controversial political stance, he received an enormous amount of backlash. Many couldn’t understand, including his wife Kim Kardashian, why someone of color would support and condone Trump.

Another huge publicity stunt he pulled was over ten years ago when he publicly humiliated baby-faced Taylor Swift.

America’s sweetheart had just won her first VMA, when Kanye crashed her speech, claiming, “Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time.”

Viewers were outraged when he interrupted the 19-year-old’s shining moment, but it gave him a lot of media attention. Ten years later, he is still instigating fights with her, writing songs about her, and spreading lies about her.

Regardless of all the negativity, he still uses this feud as a way to promote himself, his music, and his brand.


Pitbull is considered a huge sell out in hip hop culture. Many of his original songs were strictly street rap and full of the angst and frustration that traditional rappers have.

However, once he released “Give Me Everything,” in a very pop, mainstream style and it blew up, he converted to mainstream and never went back.

Mainstream Content

Some hardcore rap consumers think that being mainstream or not has less to do with representation in the media and more to do with the content of the rap. Underground rap is typically considered to be more similar to traditional rap.

During the birth of hip hop, rap was used as a way to express frustrations with one’s current way of life.

Because rap originated in low-income areas, a lot of rappers used their voice and their art to express their frustrations with the racial and socioeconomic disparities and injustices they were faced with every day.

Underground artists have stayed true to hip hops roots and continue to express their feelings on topics like political corruption and inequality.

However, mainstream artists have sadly turned rap into a genre that sensationalized and idealized the party scene.

Mainstream rap, to some, is rap music that includes topics of violence, drugs, misogyny, alcohol, and partying. Some feel that mainstream rap is less about expressing their feelings and opinions and more about exploiting negativity.

They think rap is a poetry that is meant to tell a story, and not just discuss negative topics.


The standards set for being a mainstream or non-mainstream rapper are far from concrete. The definition of mainstream has changed continuously much over the nearing half-century of hip hop, and will no doubt continue to change.

At the end of the day, there is nothing necessarily good or bad about being mainstream. Oftentimes, it is looked at in a negative light, but at the end of the day, you still know their name, and they are still topping the charts.