Are DJs still gatekeepers in hip-hop? A discussion long in the making 

OPINION: When Griselda’s Conway the Machine accused Funkmaster Flex and his ilk of gatekeeping, he opened up a convo about the evolution of hip-hop.

Conway the Machine of Griselda performs on the Sahara stage during the 2022 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival on April 24, 2022 in Indio, California. (Photo by Timothy Norris/Getty Images for Coachella)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

I love a good evolutionary hip-hop discussion and debate so when Conway the Machine—the Buffalo, N.Y., rapper and one of the many names and faces of the Griselda Records movement (it is indeed a movement; put a pin in that)—unleashed a salacious soliloquy on Instagram directed at legendary and controversial New York City mainstay DJ Funkmaster Flex (and DJ Suss One), I was all in.

Conway the Machine was lamenting the fact that he feels DJs like Funk Flex and Suss One are out of touch with what’s hot in the streets while still dictating what gets played on New York radio, which, for the sake of argument, would then presumably bleed down to the streets and impact sales and culture. Flex, of course, fired back with a retort of his own, alleging that Conway (Griselda)—and this will be me paraphrasing—had the most significant co-signs possible and if he (and by default, Griselda) is worried about DJs’ impact on his career, maybe it’s because he’s peaked, potentially reaching everybody that might be interested already, so Flex shouldn’t really impact his career at all. Legendary producer Pete Rock has also weighed in, and he and Flex have traded barbs, but for the sake of this discussion, that’s not as important. 

Just to be complete, Conway responded to Flex, saying that he doesn’t care if he plays his records or not on the radio, but Flex went on the Million Dollaz Worth of Game podcast and apparently said that though he likes and respects what Griselda Records is doing—its movement, so to speak—it isn’t his vibe. Conway felt like somebody of Flex’s stature saying something like that could impact their careers, so he should keep opinions like that to himself.

My head is spinning. So Conway’s issue isn’t Flex’s “gatekeeping” as much as it’s Flex’s sharing of his opinion. Again, my head is spinning. Apparently, a person of Flex’s stature might shift something and thus impact the career of Conway in some negative fashion.

There’s so much to talk about here. The idea of “gatekeepers” in hip-hop is as old as the genre itself. From journalists, magazines, record labels, execs and, yes, DJs, deciding and dictating what gets heard and signed—and before the internet ruined the label model—there have always been people who could make or break an artist’s career. For a long time, New York’s mixtape DJs definitely and significantly influenced which artists had an opportunity to really make it. Getting broken on New York radio was a thing, and folks like Funkmaster Flex, among legendary others, were instrumental in that practice, knew it and allegedly used that position to better their own position. 

The internet changed a lot of that. Long gone are the days when firing off your latest record to a DJ was the primary source of breaking artists. Now, social media can be the thing that launches a song into the stratosphere. How many artists have had songs hit the charts because of a social media challenge or because TikTok decided this latest song was the song that everybody needed in a video?

I’m not saying that DJs aren’t vital any longer; I just don’t think a DJ as gatekeeper means the same thing as it used to. Hell, podcasters and really anybody with enough of a following can dictate trends as much as the next person. Now, making it onto a Spotify playlist or any other streaming-service playlist is a coveted position. Granted, many of those playlists are curated by DJs, but really though, the algorithms can do JUST as much of the work in putting an artist you’ve never heard of right into your headphones. I can’t tell you how many new artists I’ve discovered just because I let Spotify pick out songs for me once an album has concluded. 

That’s how I discovered the artist UMI, and I’ve been listening to her music non-stop since. Everybody has a chance to introduce new artists to other people nowadays in so many ways that it feels archaic to even hold DJs to that standard. New York radio doesn’t hold the same sway it once did, and while regional music will always resonate more in the area it was launched, songs from Boston might hit just as hard in Seattle once the right folks in an area hear it and run with it, and it’s not necessarily the radio DJs that do it. Atlanta is LEGENDARY for the stip club A&R circuit where artists would break records in strip clubs like Magic City to see how the strippers reacted; if they liked it, the artist had a hit. Who would have thought Peachez would have more sway than Flex? And it’s not to say that DJs don’t have some sway; Conway’s gripe with Flex proves that there are still folks who feel like DJs move the needle. But here’s the rub: It wasn’t Flex’s radio position that Conway took issue with, it’s that he feels that Flex is a big enough name in the game to impact his career.

Which brings me to Griselda as a whole. I respect the hell out of what Griselda is doing as a label. They—Conway, Westside Gunn, Benny the Butcher, etc.—are a real movement out here. And that popularity actually surprises me a bit, which is why I thought what Conway had to say was so interesting. Griselda’s aesthetic is d-boy, drug rap over pretty esoteric production that isn’t even remotely geared towards commercial radio. They have a lane and they body that lane something serious. But there was a time when they would be considered entirely underground hip-hop. They have had cosigns from the biggest names in rap, from Eminem to Dre to Interscope to features from any and everybody, etc. The fact that Griselda is a household name in hip-hop speaks volumes about their work ethic, output and resonance. Especially coming from Buffalo. This isn’t New York City; this is upstate. 

Considering just how big the label’s reach seems to be, it was surprising to hear Conway lament gatekeepers—though he did say he didn’t need them himself—since Griselda seems to have broken through any potential glass ceilings in terms of notoriety. If its artists’ albums aren’t selling (and I don’t know how the label feels about its sales) that has NOTHING to do with gatekeepers. Their artists have moved past “the gatekeepers dictate our careers” portion of their success and are firmly in the “our destiny is ours” camp.

And it was even more surprising to hear Conway lament folks like Flex, who just aren’t as important to the culture as DJs used to be when it comes to breaking records; I’m sure even Flex knows and might admit this. But to be upset that a person with an opinion shares it AFTER applauding them? Flex was asked a question and answered it. I don’t know that Flex (or anybody for that matter) owes any artist praise if he just doesn’t like their music. Is anybody going to hear Flex say that Griselda isn’t his vibe and decide to pass on the whole experience? Doubtful. 

Conway’s issue seems personal; he doesn’t like it when people aren’t fans of his label’s music. Cool. But he started it with a gatekeeper argument, alleging that New York needs to get the old DJs out of there in favor of younger DJs who are more attuned with the streets, which is odd to me because, well, Drake is as popular as ever, and I’m sure those younger DJs are playing that stuff and more. 

The fact is radio DJs especially don’t have a hold on the culture the way they used to. Radio itself doesn’t have as much of a hold on the culture, not while everybody has a phone and access to free music all day every day. That’s why I think podcasters have become so big—podcasts are right there on the phone and there is unfiltered music talk where folks shoot straight. We hear a lot more from artists themselves in much longer form interviews.

Again, it’s not to say that radio DJs don’t have sway; all DJs are a reflection of music in some way. A good DJ can put you up on artists any night of the week. But gatekeeping? Yeah, not like the ’90s. Nowadays, there are just way too many ways to circumvent the DJ part of the machine and many have been able to do it and get super successful. 

Griselda’s artists are the best example of doing just that.

Panama Jackson

Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest) but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said “Unknown” (Blackest).

Make sure you check out the Dear Culture podcast every Thursday on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, where I’ll be hosting some of the Blackest conversations known to humankind. You might not leave the convo with an afro, but you’ll definitely be looking for your Afro Sheen! Listen to Dear Culture on TheGrio’s app; download here.