This week, XXL Magazine released their annual Freshman List to much fanfare and the usual fighting. The magazine’s biggest issue of the year, since 2008 the Freshman List has become an easy-to-follow guide to which new artists are making noise in the rap game, as well as an increasingly more accurate estimation of who will be making an impact in the future. With such recent alumni as Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore and J.Cole, the choices keep getting sharper, as well as more controversial. We spoke to XXL Editor-in-Chief Vanessa Satten about the selection process for this year’s list, as well as some of the previous year’s biggest hits and misses.
Where did the original idea for the Freshman List come from?
We’ve been doing it, I think, for seven classes now. Over the time we’ve seen the shift from people liking certain rappers and being very interested in the new guys. Fans want to be early and take credit for who they knew early, and that resonated with us as we saw that shift, so we figured we’d do a cover with the new jacks. That was a good chunk of years and its definitely gone through some transitions, but it’s become our Super Bowl for XXL.
The earlier lists had artists who were more established, such as Lupe Fiasco, Young Dro and Rich Boy, who all had chart-topping success at that point, as well as OJ Da Juiceman whose 2010 appearance was his second XXL album cover. This year you have Rich Homie Quan who had one of the bigger hits of 2013 with “Type of Way.”
Well, when we did Kendrick Lamar, he had Section 80, which was big for him, but he didn’t have Good Kid Maad City, so the basics for us [are] that you don’t have your major label debut, your big moment. Macklemore’s The Heist came after Freshman. It’s, for us, that national roll-out. You don’t have just a few songs, you’re making a career. A lot of those guys aren’t there right now. They’ve made a few songs, and they’ve got their core fanbase but they don’t have a national audience that connects with them. Diehard hip-hop heads are familiar with a lot of the guys on the cover, hip-hop as a whole has a lot of “I only recognize four guys on the cover.” It really depends on the level of hip-hop fan you are.
What constitutes a Freshman? Someone who hasn’t had a national release yet?
No, you can’t have a major label debut. By the time we do the Freshman photo shoot, you can’t have a major label debut.
You mentioned the Macklemore and Kendrick Lamar success stories, and going back even further you have Wale and Ace Hood who took a few years after the Freshman list to connect nationally with an audience. What do you look for in a Freshman?
We look for who we believe in. They don’t have to blow up in the next year, they have to blow up in the next couple years. They’re people who are in the moment, who are talked about in the prime of getting record deals and having their first songs. People who we think are going to be around for a while, have more success and grow into bigger stars. We keep in consideration what we think works for the public, what their talent level is, what kind of set-up they have, if they have an endorsement and will they be a focus of the artist who supports them. It’s XXL‘s list, it’s not saying “this is what it’s gonna be,” it’s what we believe could happen based on our tools that we use in our experience for the future.
Despite usually being incredibly diverse, especially regionally, over the years, there’s been some brouhaha this year over there being no female or white rappers, not unlike the hoopla in 2010 over there being no New York rappers, or the fact that in all the years of Freshman Lists, Lil B’s been the only Bay Area artist featured. Is diversity a conscious choice?
Diversity comes up, but it’s not the main choice. At the end of the day, we’re picking who we believe in at the moment and the people who are hot. If we say “Who’s the woman that’s gonna blow up?” “Who’s the white rapper that’s gonna blow up?” “Who’s the Asian rapper that’s gonna blow up?” That is not picking the essence of what’s going on in hip-hop. We’re not trying to fill a quota. We’re trying to pick who has got a major buzz right now and if we picked people based on quotas, it wouldn’t be fair to the artists or XXL. The cover should document what’s going on in hip-hop right now. There’s not a huge female movement right now. Hopefully, there will be one day in the near future. I’ll support any rappers. We’re documenting, we’re not determining who these people are going to be. We want to get credibility on picking who is going to blow up.
Chicago’s got a movement right now. It’s taken years. The movement is happening right now, there’s more eyes on Chicago than there has been. You see a reflection of that in the hip-hop class because that’s what’s going on in hip-hop. As for the Bay Area, we got questions about Sage and Iamsu. Sage, honestly, put an album out before the Freshman shoot. When the conversations came up, we didn’t know how we felt about Sage, and then he put an album out that took him out of contention anyway. With Iamsu, sometimes we’d rather let an artist marinate to be one of the bigger guys next year, rather than the smaller guys this year. With Iamsu, we felt like he definitely has time to cook over the next year or so, unless he rushes an album out, which he could do. That’s what happened with A$AP Ferg.
We’re not filling out a checklist. We’re conscious of what we’re doing. We’re conscious about what the regions are and what the breakdown is. But, if we feel strongly, we feel strongly. We don’t want to tamper with the credibility of the whole thing.
Do you think anyone in the Freshman Class faces any sort of stigma in the industry? Only about 25% of the Freshman Class puts out an album within a year, and there’s the cases of Drake, Nicki Minaj and A$AP Rocky who opted out of being part of the list.
I look at it this way. The list comes out once a year, and a lot can happen in that time frame. If we were putting it out twice a year, it would be harder to have anything fall through the cracks. The year that Drake wasn’t on the cover, he blew up a few months later. I remember doing interviews when that issue came out with people calling in asking “Do you know Drake from Toronto” and nobody knew who he was. Within months he was touring with Lil Wayne for Tha Carter III and had a huge mixtape. By the time the next Freshman list came up, he had to decide if he wanted to do it, but he already had the momentum. With the Freshman, you have to deal with the time frame of how quickly someone can blow-up. Nikki and Drake fell in that time frame after one class and before the next class, and their buzz was so big they didn’t need it at all.
The Freshman Class has never hurt anybody, as part of being a part of it. We got Nicki and Drake the following issue together. Especially with the internet, people blow up so quick. I would have loved for Ferg to be a part of this cover. He put out an album months ago, that put him out of contention. With Rocky, we asked him, he said “yes” and never communicated with us again. Why he decided not to do it, that’s on him. I don’t know, we never got a clear answer on that. We have collaborated with him again after that, and it’s all love. We’re trying to predict the future and say who we think has a chance to blow up. We know, if you’re picking 10 rappers at once, what’s the chance that’s really going to happen. At the same time, we like giving the opportunity to the ones who have that potential or that momentum at the moment.
Who do you think has been the Freshman List’s biggest success story?
I think Kendrick has been a big success story. J.Cole has been a big success story. Wiz. Big Sean. A big chunk of them. Macklemore has been the biggest on a mainstream level. We got hate in the beginning for Macklemore. “What’s a Macklemore?” was the main question I ever got in relation to him, and look what he’s achieved. That might be one of the biggest Freshman, but you can make an argument for Kendrick. I’d never pick my favorite Freshman, but looking at Macklemore with the Grammy stuff this year and the political issues he’s touched on, all those things put him in a different spot conversation-wise in hip-hop. That’s cool for XXL to be able to support him early on and prove Freshman gets credit for that, but we love us some Kendrick and all the other guys also.
You got to look at Freshman as this is not making or breaking you. You aren’t signing to a label. This is a tool for you to use. A stepping stone. An opportunity for whatever happens next for you. If you aren’t proactive, the rapper’s not going to benefit. They don’t want to be one of the ones who weren’t successful from Freshman. We’re trying to document what’s going on, but it’s up to them to take it to the next level. I love OJ da Juiceman, he had huge songs at the time. Everybody was talking about it, he had a huge buzz with the Cam’ron song, and it’s a different thing now. I can’t say what he did to use that Freshman as a benefit, but he comes up as one of the one’s we get a harder time for.
What are some of the bigger missteps some of the previous Freshman have taken that this year’s artists should avoid?
I really don’t know. That’s a good question. I think the biggest problem in hip-hop these days is that people get egos so quick. The whole staff tries to tell the Freshman what we think of their music, and suggest they stay within their means. Today, with the internet, it’s easy to feel really big off of one song because of YouTube views. There’s so much more to create a catalog and become a beloved or special hip-hop artist. Being able to communicate with fans and work with people will only help and not hinder you. Keep your head in check. It’s a pain in the ass when everybody gets big heads. Ego seems to be the most consistent problem.
Looking back on all the previous lists, it’s interesting how Interscope, Atlantic and most recently Def Jam have a presence. Does the attention these artists get from labels factor into the choices?
Everything factors in. If you look at someone in a crew, and they’re all in a equal setting, who is going to get attention first? We have Troy Ave and Vic Mensa, two dudes who don’t have [deals]. Troy has his own label and Vic has his own business. We’ve seen artists like Macklemore, Chance the Rapper, beginning to prove themselves without a label. I believe you need a label or distribution support to take you to the next level. But, we aren’t taking you to the next level. That’s not where Freshman’s at. All of these things come into a factor of who supports you, what funding do you have for your next project, what do you think your next move is going to be.
Is there anyone you wanted to feature this year who, for one reason or another, couldn’t be included?
No, I think we got everybody. We worked hard to get Chance. I’m glad we introduced R&B this year — Ty Dolla Sign and August Alsina — with the lines blurred so much lately. I’m all about being happy with what we have. I was disappointed when we didn’t get Drake, Rocky or Nicki Minaj. But I feel so good about this class. It’s just a happy class that feels like it has a good energy about it. We got what we wanted this year.
What’s the biggest misconception about the Freshman List?
That we have to have certain people on there. Like, we have to have a female or we have to have a white rapper, rather than how we go around doing it. That’s secondary, [first is] people think the list is paid for. They think the label is paying money and the list is completely tainted. As journalism gets tougher, we have to stay true to what journalism is, what XXL is. It’s not bought and you can’t buy your way on there. No payola or exchange for advertising. It’s the staff making our decision after going to live show after live show, watching video after video. Six months of research. That’s where it comes from. It doesn’t come from a place that’s political. It comes from a place that can’t be bought, and that’s the most important thing.
Finally, what should aspiring artists try to strive for in order to be considered for the 2015 Freshman List?
Put music out. Put music out. Put music out. Be creative. See what’s working for other people. Everybody’s trying different lanes these days. An artist finding themselves and creating their own lane always works. The biggest thing to know is that we’re all paying attention. We pride ourselves on being up on what’s going on with new talent. I always think that, around Freshman time in October-November-December, you should perform in New York a few times. Get into SOB’s, or Highline or Webster Hall so the XXL staff and the industry who we talk to a lot can get to those shows and see you guys. Do CMJ. There’s nothing like a live show from someone to help you out and tell you where they sit with things at times. It’s not a show for us, it’s a show for the night in the city and we’ll be there to see you.