Of the ten rising rappers unanimously cited by Billboard, Complex magazine and Ranker as artists to watch out for in 2022, only one – Kali – had her commercial debut single (Do a Bitch) go viral. The other artists had been releasing music for a while before scoring their first hit.
It should be noted that Kali herself was no novice on the rap scene when her song exploded. In fact, she released her first mixtape as a twelve year-old, by circulating it to local shops in her hometown of Roswell, Atlanta.
So, how long does it take to become a successful rapper?
Over 90% of upcoming rappers boost their visibility and audience outreach sharply through collaborations with already famous artists, typically after building a track record of consistent music releases spanning from one to seven years.
The takeaway? There is usually a build-up to success in the rap music industry, even in the case of stars who seemingly blow up overnight, like Kali or Nardo Wick.
But what does it take to achieve the ‘consistency’ mentioned above? Or, for that matter, to attract famous artists as collaborators? This article is about to answer these and many other questions around what it actually takes to make a career out of the music you love. So read on.
Popular misconceptions about how to become a successful rapper
A surprising number of widely held beliefs about what it takes to break through on the rap scene are ill-founded and dangerously misleading. This section clears the air by highlighting what not to do in trying to build yourself up as a rapper, while the next section outlines the real essentials of turning rapping into a rewarding career.
Here are some of the wrong, but strong beliefs circulating about rapping successfully:
- Rapping requires inspiration; in other words, rappers wait for inspiration to strike, then belt out amazing lyrics.
- Good rappers can (and must!) create lyrics inside their heads.
- To be famous, your look and lifestyle must fit the ‘rapper’ image; this includes wearing designer clothes and flaunting flashy jewelry and expensive cars.
- The only really rap-worthy topics center around money, drugs, gang violence and sex.
In reality, these are all irrelevant distractions that lead many budding rappers astray. Read on to get at what really matters in developing yourself into a top-notch rapper.
Four essential elements to becoming a successful rapper
Now that we’ve identified the pitfalls to steer clear of, it’s time to focus on the four ingredients that are absolutely necessary in your quest to achieve success as a rapper:
1. Be authentic in your music and your image
The single quality absolutely essential to making a mark in rap music is authenticity, in other words, being true to who you are. Rapping about topics that you identify with and truly care about gives you a critical, two-fold advantage:
- It greatly enhances your creative flow when you write about themes that you are familiar with and invested in emotionally.
- Your authenticity helps you sustain a connection with your fan-base which is based on your real self and values, as opposed to a facade that is likely to distance fans once they see through it.
Likewise, the way you dress, speak and behave must reflect your real principles and values in order to be sustainable and to ring true with your fans and audience. Even a painstakingly built up following can disintegrate quickly if people begin thinking of you as an impostor or a phony.
2. Polish your craft
There’s much truth to the adage that success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. The most successful rappers all have one thing in common: They create rap constantly, almost incessantly. From Jay-Z to Eminem to Kendrick Lamar, these relentless creators have built themselves up by learning to rap about anything and everything. The real secret to their phenomenal success lies in the thousands of hours of rapping practice these artists have put in.
Nearly all good rappers carry around notebooks, jotting down ideas, phrases and rhyme patterns, while some rely on gadgets like phones and computers for recording their thoughts. Human memory is notoriously unreliable, so it is highly inadvisable to try to construct an entire song inside one’s head.
3. Form a unique connection with listeners
What distinguishes popular rappers is their ability to find a unique connecting point with their audience. They are good at making music that moves, touches or inspires people, by resonating with fans in some way. This quality helps them stay in listeners’ minds, long after their music has stopped playing.
4. Incorporate growth habits
Another vital quality that marks outstanding rappers is their grasp of the importance of growing, both as rappers and as human beings. From veteran MCs like Royce Da 5’9 to more recent rap sensations like Fetty Wap, the top rappers uniformly recommend prioritizing personal growth by adopting the following habits:
- Be a constant learner
Take every opportunity to learn, whether about music theory, production techniques or marketing, or even unrelated topics such as diet, mental health, networking and relationships or anything else.
- Develop reading and writing skills
The greatest rappers all admit to having their minds, rapping skills and their whole lives transformed through reading books. Likewise, cultivating the practise of daily writing builds the discipline and skill needed for rapping effortlessly.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment and make mistakes.
Learning from your mistakes is the most enduring strategy for long-term growth. Recognizing this, the rapping greats have all been innovators, trying out new styles and techniques, taking failure in their stride and moving on.
To sum up:
The four elements necessary to becoming a famous rapper include being authentic in choosing rap topics and building your image, honing your craft through constant practice, resonating uniquely with your audience, and growing by learning, reading and experimenting.
If your passion for rapping makes you willing to work on building the above elements into your rapper identity, you stand a really good chance of making rap into a successful musical career.
How much do rappers earn? And how do rappers make money?
In a 2014 article, the website Priceonomics shared actual booking quotes for live gigs, provided to an entertainment agency by the agents of popular music artists and bands. While not necessarily very accurate and definitely outdated (check out more recent quotes for some artists here), these figures do provide a rough idea of the income that successful artists can expect from performing live.
The most important take-aways from a comparison of these live performance rates are summarized here:
- Even well-known artists command widely varied prices for their gigs (for example, compare Busta Rhymes, French Montana and Gucci Mane).
- While there is no obvious (or even non-obvious) relationship between artists’ talent and the rates they command, popularity is a pretty good index of the rates charged by artists. (For example, the number of YouTube video views could be a proxy for how popular an artist is.)
- Finally, the artists listed here are already fairly well-known, with at least 50 to 100 thousand fans.
What rappers earn early on in their careers
The economics works very differently for artists just starting out. Getting recruited for live gigs typically requires a fair amount of experience, so rappers new to the scene are likely to find it more difficult to get paying gigs.
Instead, a good strategy for a new rapper would consist in following the steps below:
- Offer to perform at good quality venues and events which are likely to attract a sizeable crowd of potential listeners of your type of music. (Check out this Instagram reel for tips on how to grow your audience.)
- Maximize your ‘mileage’ from live performances by capturing photo and video footage (content for your social media) as well as mixing and mingling with the crowd and other performers at the venue/ event.
- Get expert advice on promoting your music and building your brand as an artist.
- To supplement income from your regular job, provide music-related services in your area of strength. Examples include song lyrics, rap beats, back-up vocals, dance choreography, instrumental support, audio and/or video editing or other kinds of production assistance.
Diversifying streams of income as a rap artist
As recent analyses show, it takes over 250,000 Spotify streams for an artist’s payout to hit $1,000. With this in mind, smart rappers look to increase the number of sources of their income earlier rather than later in their careers.
The graphic below provides a quick overview of the major sources of income at different stages of a rap artist’s career.
The biggest challenge for independent (indie) rappers
In today’s world, rappers can achieve worldwide popularity and global listenership, irrespective of whether they have a contract with a major record label. Their sources of income, too, can be as diverse as those of rappers signed to big labels. That said, there is one big hurdle faced by an indie rapper that will be outlined at the end of this section.
If you’ve been consuming the countless online resources that address the topic of indie artists – their earnings, audience outreach, sources of income and other aspects of an independent musician’s career, you probably already know that there are pros and cons to staying independent.
As a quick reminder, the helpful table below summarizes the major advantages and disadvantages of being an indie rapper versus signing a contract with a record label.
|Contracted to a Record Label
The biggest challenge faced by independent rappers (or artists of other genres) is that their income growth trajectory is typically slower than that of artists signed to record labels. Indie artists must thus produce good music consistently over a longer period to achieve similar financial success.
We've invested hundreds of hours to create helpful resources that draw from industry veterans and insider experts on a variety of topics. If you're looking to grow your success as a rap artist, you should definitely check out some of our in-depth guides: