Inside the World of Internet Rappers Who Are Monetizing 'Fortnite' and 'Cuphead' Bars

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Cuphead

DaddyPhatSnaps has the same philosophy as George Clooney: One for me, one for them. It's the monkish discipline of keeping yourself creatively fulfilled and financially solvent.

The only difference is that, instead of bouncing from Batman & Robin to The Thin Red Line, DaddyPhatSnaps is a member of the "video game raps" alcove on YouTube and Spotify, which reframes that classic artistic identity crisis in a way that any 12-year old could understand. For instance, why would you write a rap about Apex Legends, when a rap about Fortnite or Cuphead might triple the views and ambush the algorithm? 

"I try to do three passion projects for one that I need to like, really do," he says, on a phone call with Billboard. "Three that I'm super interested in, and one where I'm like, 'Eh, it's good for the health of the [YouTube] channel.'"

This is a familiar anxiety for anyone who makes a living through pageviews. Trends and influence take priority. It's why you can buy an Area 51 siege shirt on Etsy after the meme went nuclear. But DaddyPhatSnaps, born Leon Young, was smart enough to adapt that logic to the songwriting process. The 32-year-old lives in San Diego and holds down a day job working in a hotel, and while his rap career isn't full-time, he says the supplementary income he's generated have resolved a lot of his routine stresses. "I don't have to worry about money anymore," Young explains. "It's allowed me to do what I want to do." 

Broadly, he considers DaddyPhatSnaps a "nerdcore" project -- borrowing the term used in the late-'90s and early 2000s for poindexters like MC Lars and MC Frontalot, who dressed in Dilton Doiley pocket-protectors and tucked-in polo shirts in order to trade punchlines about Javascript and Deep Space Nine. But unlike those artists, Young has never released an album, nor has he signed to a record label. Instead, his entire creative itinerary is built around what's happening at the box office or the trending page on Steam's video game storefront.

In 2019 alone, he rapped about John Wick: Chapter 3, Avengers: Endgame, and Sonic the Hedgehog. In each song, Young steps to the mic and delivers grim, curved-lip battle raps, dripping with enough references to geekdom to justify the franchise name in the thumbnail. "But you don't give a damn you are making a saga/ Hate it or not you're gonna bring the pain to Baraka," he raps on his Mortal Kombat XI-inspired track. The lyrics are emblazoned on the bottom of the YouTube video, which itself is a supercut of all the trailers and highlights that Netherealm, the game's developer, has published to drum up hype before release.

He uploads each song to both his YouTube channel and his Spotify profile, and says that Spotify in particular makes the lion's share of his revenue. This is reactionary music, the chaos-theory feedback of a culture that values fandom as its primary currency. Rap chases clicks, just like everything else in the Comscore era.

"I see what's on the trending tab, I look at Google Trends. I get an idea of if there's going to be a lot of content online [for something] or if it's something I should skip. I try to look ahead at least two or three weeks, and tie [my music] to a big release," says Leon. "I'll search for [my topic] on YouTube to see how many videos have been made about it, and how recent those videos are, and how many views they have. I make a decision based on the overall fan support."

Compared to the other players in video game rap, DaddyPhatSnaps' hustle is fairly conservative. Rockit Gaming is an Austin-based partnership between 28-year-old Russell McKamey from Chicago and 29-year-old Vincent Newsom from Orange County. The channel was founded in 2015, but McKamey was making video game-inspired music when he was a college student at Chico State in 2008. He was motivated to start up shop again after a friend of his became a major influencer in mobile games.

"He was like, 'Yo man, you should do that video game music thing again. It's booming. The opportunity is huge,'" he remembers. "I called Vinny, who I met in college where we had a band, and I was like, 'Hey, let's try to do this full time.' He was like, 'Sure!'" 

Together, Rockit Gaming say they upload one new song a week to YouTube and Spotify, and that each composition takes them about "100 hours" to produce. It is a difficult stunt to conceptualize, but if you scroll through the channel's rolodex, you begin to see where Rockit has ironed out their inefficiencies. Since January, I count 15 raps based on the horror adventure anthology Five Nights at Freddy's -- which has long been a popular video game franchise for YouTube Let's Plays. They've also mixed in three different Fortnite songs, which remains the biggest game in the world. This job gets a lot easier when you mechanized a formula. It's like the Brill Building, if Gerry Goffin and Carole King played duos on the side.

But that doesn't explain the outliers. Rockit Gaming has made a song based on the hard-as-nails Software action game Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and they've rapped about a cast-off entry to Ubisoft's Far Cry series and the Resident Evil 2 remake this winter. The idea of actually playing through all those games on a strict enough timetable to get content out seemed impossible (Sekiro alone will take anyone at least 30 hours). Naturally, the Rockit team admitted they have some tricks of the trade to get around the corners.

"There are games where it's super important to play the game, but there are other games where there's a countless amount of lore online that you can find," explains Newsom. "Say it's like a 170-hour game. I don't have time to play 170-hour game, but I do have time to read the lore to get a grasp of what I'm writing about."

Rockit Gaming, like Young, tell me that Spotify, rather than YouTube, is their cash cow. As such, they make sure their production quality worms values listenability over fanfare. "We want to ride the line where if you showed our music to someone who doesn't know the game, they'd still like it the same way as someone who knows the game inside and out," says McKamey. Musically, they favor payloads of electric bass, Fruityloops synth, and industrial-sized kickdrums -- like Imagine Dragons, at a quarter of the size. Sonically, it's a throwback to a hip-hop of a different era; pre-mumblerap, when peroxide-washed beats ruled the charts.

"What I find people respond to most is that stadium, Eminem Recovery-era rap, with angry voices," says Cam Greely, a 21-year old who runs the VideoGameRapBattles YouTube channel. "I've tried doing a couple in the modern trap style, but when it comes to battles, people want to see people go at each other's throats."

Greely notes that he was a preteen in middle school when he started making rap music. Hip-hop has always been a genre about personal experiences, and in retrospect, he speculates that he was drawn to video games as his aesthetic centerpiece because, whether he realized it or not, teenagers rarely have their own stories worth retelling. "The first really big one I did involved Slenderman [a famous internet-bred horror character] in 2012," he continues. "I was obsessed with it. I was watching these guys play [a Slenderman-based] game, and I wanted to make a video, subconsciously realizing that as a 14-year-old, like all 14-year-olds, I loved these characters."

No one in this business has gotten truly famous yet. Chart-toppers blow up for their own merits -- by creating buzz, rather than reacting to it. Rapping entirely about someone else's intellectual property installs a ceiling on any artist's hype.

But that's a very traditional understanding of the music industry, and there's a chance that perspective is already out of touch. Earlier this month, Rockit Gaming performed at the Nerdcore Party Con in Nashville, essentially uniting a coterie of video game rap YouTube channels under the same banner for a brief, miniaturized music festival, giving attendees an up-close look at the faces behind the Fortnite bars. This could be the future. The evidence is already apparent. McKamey notes Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road," which set a new record on Billboard Hot 100. Before BTS, or Mason Ramsey, or Billy Ray Cyrus, "Old Town Road" was a YouTube video, composed of clips taken from Rockstar's philosopher-cowboy odyssey Red Dead Redemption 2. Lil Nas X himself was an web-fluent teen with a uniquely native understanding of how hype, and virality, work in 2019. From machinima to 18-consecutive weeks at number one. Who can say for sure that that's an outlier? 

"[Old Town Road] is a nerdcore song!" says McKamey. "Why is that any different to what we're doing?"

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