There are plenty of music discovery platforms, but SoundCloud is the only one that doubles as an adjective.

"We're a genre," says Erika Montes, Head of Artist Relations at SoundCloud. Over the last 12 years, SoundCloud has become synonymous with emerging rap stars the same way that iPods were with MP3 players. With artists like 2016 XXL Freshman Lil Uzi Vert, 2014 XXL Freshman Chance The Rapper, the late XXXTentacion, a 2017 XXL Freshman, and countless others using the site to generate a loyal fan base, it's become clearer than ever that the road to rap stardom is usually paved in SoundCloud streams.

The term SoundCloud rapper is both a loose musical classification and an unintentional ad for the platform, which has become the preferred route for artists in a rush to share music with their fans over the last decade. Open and intuitive, social, but unfailingly tactical, the site, which was founded in Germany, engages fans and artists at the intersection of streaming, pragmatism and social media.

Rob Caiaffa, Head of Major Label Relations at SoundCloud, recognizes both the millennial, social appeal of SoundCloud and its immediate utility for artists who want to be heard. "If Mister Cee didn't get that mixtape we wouldn't be talking about Biggie," he offers, reflecting on a time in the 1990s, when music needed to be distributed physically.

In an age where the physical mixtape is all but extinct, SoundCloud offers a streamlined music distribution platform while helping recreate the essence of the throwback, get-it-from-the-source vibes of rap yesteryear.

"SoundCloud is like going back to the old school days to Beat Street on Fulton Street, going to the boutique and getting that experience that was much different than when you were going to an FYE," Caiaffa adds.

These days, thanks to the internet, getting heard is easier than ever and artists are using SoundCloud to level up. This year, 67 artists out of 98 in total vying for the  XXL Freshman 10th spot have been "first on SoundCloud" to release their music in the earliest parts of their career. With an evolving platform and fans' ceaseless need for new tunes, that won't be changing anytime soon.

Today, XXL chats with Rob Caiaffa and Erika Montes about the best ways rap newcomers can use SoundCloud to become the next biggest artist in the game and more.

XXL: Obviously, there are a bunch of places to share music. What makes it so important for artists to use SoundCloud to post their songs?

Erika Montes: I think, first and foremost, think of SoundCloud as a social media platform. As we know, social media is a place to get yourself out there. That’s how people thrive. We allow a place for them to easily upload, comment, repost, just engage with each other. This is how creators have started to meet each other. You hear about these great tracks that come about, these great scenes that come about. We provide a sense of community, and I think that’s kind of what [brought] us to the forefront and why artists should use us.

These days when you’re starting out, you maybe don’t have the money to get a plane ticket to Miami to meet your favorite producer. Here, we provide you the platform. You can DM each other, comment, trade facts back and forth and just collaborate. You don’t even have to move from your home studio.

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Rob Caiaffa: To add to it, when the marketplace is so crowded [and] everybody's trying to find who the loudest is, SoundCloud gives you the opportunity to create your own bullhorn of sorts. So that you're uniquely out there yelling, but attracting the people that are going to be unique to what your creative ecosystem and atmosphere [are]. It's a huge developmental tool. We call it an incubator.

It's a platform that's judgment-free that allows an artist to really experiment with who they want to be as an artist and upload music and have the community of creators and artists and listeners really contribute towards the development of this person, the type of artist that they're ultimately going to end up being.

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Rappers know they can upload their songs to the platform, but what are some ways a new artist can use SoundCloud to grow their brand?

Montes: We are an audio platform. You have to figure out ways that we can figure out who your persona is without looking at you. All we have is your music, your voice, your audio. This is where the social media aspect comes in. So it's like, you start following certain artists or producers or something, or you start reposting them and it makes me immediately think, Ooh, why is he following that person? Should I be following them?

So we start getting an idea of who this person is. The other part that I really appreciate, because of our community aspect, these artists start making their audience. They start getting their audience accustomed to things. I think artists are super savvy on our platform and sometimes have better marketing ideas than I feel most people have these days.

Caiaffa: I agree with Erika. Simply put, they have creative autonomy on this platform. It allows them simply to go to the bank with it. There's no idea that's not a good idea.

What are some underutilized SoundCloud tools that artists can use but don't know about?

Montes: Commenting back to someone that comments on your track. It's one of the easiest things that you can do. What was once 50 comments, if you just start commenting back, it's a hundred comments. Underutilized also [are] stats. Look at your stats. Get savvy as far as looking back there. You can see the top 50 people who have listened to your tracks. You can go by seven days, 30 days, all time. That's like your street team at that point. If you start DMing them like, "Thank you for listening." It gets people encouraged.

Caiaffa: I agree. I think for me it would be the obvious ones, which I think people take for granted. It would be the repost and sharing and even providing playlists. That's all part of the engagement. It also helps define for the listener what kind of personality you are as an artist. We're getting the same questions, "How do I move? How do I propel?" Pay attention to who's sharing? Do you know who's sharing? Which brings us right back to what Erika said earlier about the stats. In the golden days, we used to tell artists if you're trying to have a tour get into the stats, it will tell you your top cities. Engage your top fans.

What is the biggest factor that led to SoundCloud becoming synonymous with rising rap stars? 

Montes: I think hip-hop artists have used this platform to the best of their ability. I think hip-hop music is just the expression, how it gets made is quick, quick, quick. I think we allow for them to upload [their music] quickly. They don't have to go through the different processes. As much as people say that SoundCloud is synonymous with hip-hop, but it was because hip-hop artists used us to the best of their ability. We were just there...hip-hop artists just brought it to the level that it is. They made us. We just gave them a platform and made it easy for them.

Caiaffa: I agree. It comes down to the behavior. Hip-hop started from a very segmented type of genre to expanding and expanding. When a genre starts that way, it really fine-tunes who your audience is and really how they behave and how they absorb music. So when the actual physical mixtape was on the death bed and there was no way in hip-hop that you were going to solidify yourself as a credible hip-hop artist without having music, and this was that mixtape.

The incredible thing here was the adaptation and evolution of where hip-hop was and just making sure that that behavior adapted to how technology was flowing.

The hip-hop community just said in a time where it's becoming a little harder to get mixtapes out there and not have them taken down, here comes this place that really allows me to function in the same way with creative autonomy.

For XXL Freshmen, we've got artists we've become proud of because of their success following a Freshman cover. Who are some SoundCloud alumni that you guys are most proud of?

Montes: First and foremost, let's talk about the man of the moment, [Lil Uzi Vert]. In my first year here, I got to meet him. That was the year he did our year-end showcase because he was like the highest-performing artist. That was 2017. In 2016 he had gained the most followers that year. In 2017, he was just the best everything. You're talking about an artist that's on a level that releases a surprise album and gets those numbers. That's my heart right there. Best [XXL Freshman] pick ever.

Caiaffa: For me, I'm gonna cheat. I'm gonna say YBN Cordae, Roddy Ricch and I'm also gonna throw Megan Thee Stallion in there.

In the past, a lot of artists up for the XXL Freshman 10th spot have popped off of SoundCloud. In 2020, which rapper do you really see taking off on your platform?

Montes: I really had high hopes for Pop Smoke to blow up. I think he was on such a trajectory. In my mind, at the beginning of this year, that's who I really was going for. He was so unique.

Caiaffa: I'd have to say the same. E and I have had debates. He was on that road. He was there.

Is there a song popping on SoundCloud right now that you expect to be a hit by the summer?

Caiaffa: I'm gonna go out there. I'm feeling like YBN Nahmir is going to enhance himself. Right now he's just released this "2 Seater" track and it's [in] constant rotation for me.

Montes: I like that Bankroll Hayden "Costa Rica" song and a remix just came out. The Kid Laroi dropped on the remix. I really like The Kid Laroi, too.

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