On February 6th, I was given the news that Justice Edwards, my friend of almost four years, had passed away. Immediately my brain flashed back to 2019, one of the many nights where he and I along with other members of Diversa Unit, his Los Angeles-based collective of cyberpunk autotuned chaos-bringers, had fought our way through the 1720, the best of the warehouse-turned-venues in the outskirts of DTLA. Justice, known as Terr9r (without the 9 at the time), was an anomaly, the first internet rapper I’d met in real life. I’d been bumping classics like the rambunctious, rageful anthem “CODE GREEN” just weeks before I met him.
The 1720 was an indoor venue but we spent most of the nights outside, sitting on the bench, smoking cigs and staring at the passersby. We’d usually be there for H3AV3N, a regular queer-lead party with acts ranging from gothboiclique alumni like Brennan Savage, up-and-coming based rap stars like HOOK and futuristic DJs like the late SOPHIE, who performed a legendary 2 hour double set at the venue. LA at the time had a reputation for being “SoundCloud if it were a city,” and Terr9r was a product of this melting pot of sounds and culture. He combined the angst-filled melodies of emo rap, the forward thinking synth-based production of EDM and the unforgiving bluntness of LA street rap. It was a time when it seemed like you could still get real traction from SoundCloud. Terr9r’s superteam Diversa Unit featured members of two other collectives that seemed to carry the torch for the new age Eric North of Anti-World and Cxrpse and Bruhmanegod of Spider Gang. At the time it felt like their distorted, cacophonous yet melodic music was the birth of the new era, a punk movement of kids on their computers making shit that was utterly unpalatable. They seemed to resurrect an energy lost since XXXTentacion’s death.
And Terr9r was one of my favorites, because he was willing to explore everything as long as it had an underground energy and did it with a smooth yet pained delivery that seemed to tie it all together. He could make headknockers with the best of them, as proven with his features on “DYSTOPIA_OF_OPIATES!019” alongside Eric North, whom he called his brother. But unlike his peers who tended to make angry, synthy proto-rage rap, Terr9r typically chose restraint and soul, slyness over screaming. Whenever we’d talk about influences, he’d namedrop Harlem crooner Max B and early Drake. He competed in the same, chaotic leagues as his Diversa Unit peers, never being caught dead near the dusty sounds of an MPC, but he was the calm at the eye of the storm.
Songs like “bad feeling” and “floatin” showcase his haunting aura the best: slick, breathy flows over beats that sound like the restless, nocturnal landscapes of the many LA raves we attended. Terr9r was the first rapper with whom I ever recorded in a studio, an absolutely free spirit. He was a monster with a laptop and some time to himself, easily knocking out half a dozen songs in a couple hours, and he encouraged me to improvise instead of write. Though Wayne was his studio muse, what made Terr9r truly special was his love for his scene and the surrounding sounds. He’d constantly be telling me about shit from certified legends like Wifigawd and Sybyr, as well as forward thinking up-and-comers like prblm and Kasper Gem. The scene was his lifeblood, and SoundCloud was his chronicle of art. It was more than a platform for him, it was a shapeshifting exhibit where he could display his art alongside his contemporaries. And even as our times discussing art became rarer and more strained during the pandemic, his passion for the SoundCloud underground never ceased, which only made what happened around the start of March even more tragic.
I won’t be going into the details of Terr9r’s untimely passing, as that’s to be reserved for his family when they feel comfortable sharing it. The most important thing that resonated with me is how everyone in the underground had something to say about him after he passed. It didn’t matter what state you were from, or who your friends were; if you made rap music and uploaded to SoundCloud, you either knew about Terr9r’s passing or someone around you did. Everyone from New York digicore kids and LA gangbangers to straight noise and crustpunks all had something to say about Terr9r, usually from an experience in the flesh. He was a true grinder, whose independent spirit and selfless love for the underground proliferated into everything he lived. Whenever we burned the midnight oil, he’d remind me that being confined to a record label, to a single sound, to churn out content for a machine of suits was pure grunt work. An attitude that was shared by the late, great Lucas Foster who for a time served as his live-in manager. The youthful, the free, the raw and the rare was all that mattered to him, with SoundCloud serving as a beacon to shine a light on creatives that the world might never be ready for.
Unfortunately, around a month after his passing, I was scrolling down his page like I had done in the days before, trying to speak to my fallen friend through his art, only to find that most of it was missing. His most listened-to singles—erased. Entire playlists for his albums stripped bare of their songs. Terr9r was a prolific artist and a true embodiment of what was previously considered to be the SoundCloud spirit, eschewing dry, focus-grouped rollouts to simply put out what he pleased when he pleased, with over a dozen projects to his name. It was all lost because of a fatal flaw in the system. Terr9r’s SoundCloud Next Pro subscription, which allows for unlimited uploads, had failed to renew due to his bank account being closed after his passing.
SoundCloud, like many other growth-based startups, was never profitable. Like Uber, Twitter and other application-based companies, its goal is simply to expand itself to monopoly status for a return on shareholders’ investments in their stock. This dangerous, late-stage capitalist model means the company is constantly burning through reserves. And much like how a post-Elon Twitter finds its staff gutted with previous user-friendly features being discarded by the day, SoundCloud decided to take its own losses out on its community—specifically, the artists. Going against the site’s long-standing tenets of free uploading and supporting independent artists, in 2022, they instituted a new subscription system for artists known as Next Pro, requiring them to pay SoundCloud monthly for unlimited uploads of their music. This was part of SoundCloud’s rebranding of its artist services platform as “SoundCloud for Artists,” described by SVP Tracy Chan as “an elevated, all-in-one platform for artists to connect with fans and accelerate their careers.” Terr9r paid every month, and it was a priority for him even during times of financial strife to keep his back catalog alive. Since Pro’s implementation, I never saw him without that orange star besides his profile, a badge of loyalty throughout his life.
That was, until he passed.
Then, the autocharge failed, and SoundCloud purged Terr9r’s discography, cutting it down to only two hours of his most recent offerings, because the company cares more about blackmailing artists with their own catalog for profit than pushing independent artists and paying them fairly. It almost feels like punishment for having faith in a company preserving a memory and discography that doesn’t have 12 label executives leeching off of it.
To be a rapper in 2023 is to not only struggle for the attention and ears of a generation who have access to everything in the world, but to know that your art is ephemeral, its existence dependent on bribing the arbiters of culture so that they can profit off you for free. And if that subscription runs out, so does the world’s ability to access you. The threat of Distrokid for a failed payment isn’t that you’ll be barred from the service or unable to profit from your work during the time period, it’s that your art will disappear from streaming services. These companies threaten the ego and the art itself instead of simply disabling further uploads, because they know that’s what musicians care about. And once they’re unable to be drained, they are tossed away. Because poor people don’t get to make statues. We don’t get to be remembered unless we pay for it.
Don’t believe these companies’ lies that they care about you or your art.
The condensing and reduction of all online interaction to ten websites has put art preservation in a precarious state. I think back to when Myspace lost a huge amount of its music in one day and that there are still years of songs that likely will never be recovered for the public to experience. This state of things feels even more transient now, considering that the majority of independent releases live on subscription services that charge a sizable premium to “leave a legacy.” Worst of all, as exemplified by the failing Datpiff servers, it seems that these monthly charge systems might be the only option we have in the very near future.
As much as the streaming era and accessibility to music production have opened doors for bedroom artists everywhere to get a shot at being heard, I believe that the companies that these artists use to distribute should concentrate far more effort in supporting the core base that developed underground scenes on their platforms. Nobody thinks of Drake when they say “SoundCloud Rapper.” They think about artists like Terr9r, underground heroes who don’t have the resources to clear every sample, do every interview or make a new dance every song. The internet is becoming more and more hostile to artists who want to develop a steady, grassroots following through consistent drops. Music serves as a soundtrack to your life, and depriving fans and artists alike of their history is criminal for a service that claims to put artists first. SoundCloud, please stop Next Pro from deleting artists’ catalogs once their subscriptions run out.
Some of us are really still starving out here.