Jay-Z and Ludacris arrive at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, Calif.
Jay-Z and Ludacris arrive at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, Calif. - 
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Tess Vigeland For years, rap superstars were all about the dollar signs. Guys like Ludacris rhymed about sipping Cristal and wearing as much bling as you could stand. But the business model of making it big as a rap star has changed a lot in the last couple of years. Record companies aren't selling CDs like they used to. And the Internet has made it easy to bypass the labels entirely. In fact a rap recession is underway, at least according to Tom Breihan. He's a staff writer for Pitchfork.com. Welcome to the program.

Tom Breihan: Thanks very much.

Vigeland: Remind us how the rap stars of old -- old being a relative term here -- how did they make it big? Say a Jay-Z or a Ludacris?

Breihan: They came up, originally, within their cities -- making the sort of music that appealed to those cities and fit within an aesthetic because rap is a very local music. Jay-Z makes New York music because he's from New York. Ludacris is from Atlanta, he makes Atlanta music. And they rise up within the ranks of their city, getting other artists to do guest spots on their albums, releasing music independently, hoping the bigger labels would maybe notice. And then as time goes on, they make their way into the mainstream and they start making music that combines whatever they were originally doing, ideally, with pop music in general.

Vigeland: What do you think is going to drive rap's success in the future?

Breihan: There is still the possibility that somebody can make it to major label, sell a few hundred-thousand records, but the music business is shrinking. And so right now it has to change focus, go small. These guys have to build up these small, little devoted fanbases. That way they can tour nightclubs. The real success stories are these kind of small-level guys. Like, there's a guy from Pittsburgh named Wiz Kalefa who has no major label contract at all. But who releases three or four of these mix tapes for free to his fans online and then sells out clubs across the country and makes a decent living for himself doing that.

Vigeland: It sounds like, then, the rap genre had a better hold on this whole going-free-on-the-Internet phenomenon than perhaps other modes of music.

Breihan: In a way it did, but it's interesting now because the actual mechanics of selling a record have eluded a whole lot of people and rappers are absolutely no exception. And since rap is, like, culturally sort of a music in which money is very important, it's been this sort of identity-crisis period that we're seeing right now.

Vigeland: Has the economy played a role in some of these changes, recently, at least over the last couple of years?

Breihan: With the music business, it's hard to say where the economy begins and where downloading and the business' basic lack of competence over the past 10 or 15 years ends. Artists, they're all out there releasing music online and hoping to somehow achieve some sort of stardom, but nobody even knows what stardom looks like anymore. Like there's basically no rap mainstream any longer at all. There's your Jay-Z's and then there's everybody else.

Vigeland: Tom Breihan is the author of "Grind to Get It: Rap's Recession." Thanks so much.

Breihan: Great, thanks a lot for having me.