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I never embraced Napster; it always seemed as if it were too much trouble to go through just to hear new music. But then, hey, I get free records—vinyl, CDs, and cassettes—in the mail just about every day. What’s odd is that some people who aren’t hooked up like critics still haven’t taken advantage of the beleaguered file-sharing service with more bad press than a pair of silk slacks. Once Napster gets eaten by BMG, only industry-sanctioned material will likely be available—and for a subscription rate. So for hiphop heads, always eager for new sounds and traditionally broke, it’s geek now or forever pay for beats.

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So I decided to give Napster—which also happens to be the biggest entertainment-biz story of 2000—a spin before it goes corporate. After a quick install, I was searching. Popular stuff was no challenge to find. It seems that hardly anyone online missed the bus to Stankonia—but OutKast’s Southern-slurred psychedelia is also readily available at Tower, somewhere near Kid A. My search also yielded the equally trippy but much less exposed Atmosphere, whose “The Woman With the Tattooed Hands” is a veritable Bonita Applebum in the sky with diamonds. Slug, Atmosphere’s charismatic frontman, is gradually becoming a celebrity in his hometown of Minneapolis, as well as a recognizable personality nationwide, thanks to hundreds of college kids and hiphop fanatics with an open-hard-drive policy. (Minutes after I downloaded “The Woman,” I caught some lurker pulling it off my machine. That’s how it works, I guess, but the first time you can’t help but feel a little violated.)

The Internet shed light on plenty of other local scenes this year, as hometown heroes nationwide inched closer to their 15 or so tracks of fame. Phil Da Agony (Los Angeles) and Pep Love (Oakland) represented the West Coast’s purist hiphop philosophies with frustration (“Blunted”) and aggression (“Act Phenom”), respectively. In Boston, Landspeed Records distributed just about everything under the ground, and the city’s favorite sons Mr. Lif and Akrobatik were particularly prolific for the label. For the record, Mr. Lif’s banging “Be Out” ain’t available on his new EP, but it is conveniently floating in the cyberether. And Akrobatik’s “Internet MCs” even reflects on his own insecurity at being relegated to the dork demographic: “I love to get online and shine and drop bombs/But my music can be found on more than dot.coms.”

For controversy-mongers, Napster is also the easiest way to catch up on beef. With free downloads, such ho-hum novelties as Eminem clicking and dragging Everlast’s name through the mud on his latest white-rapper supremacy bid, “Quitter,” can be nabbed off the Net, sampled, and quickly discarded without guilt. But Slim Shady’s opinion is all over the place; it’s better to spend your log-on time unearthing unusual perspectives, like those of Harlem’s Cannibal Ox, who put a dark gothic spin on the ‘hood mentality with “Iron Galaxy,” or those of the Micranots, who fashion paranoid conspiracy theorizing into a catchy anthem on “Illegal Busyness.” And forget $300 Coogi sweaters and platinum accessories—what could be

more hiphop than “cutting corners and cutting costs”? Soft-spoken Philly native Bahamadia lays her quiet dignity over a mellow

bounce to praise a quality totally underrespected in hiphop—

thriftiness—on “Commonwealth (Cheap Chicks).”

And, ultimately, that’s really the strength and the appeal of the whole file-sharing deal. At the risk of sounding like that wacko kid from American Beauty, I’ll say this: There’s so much hiphop in the world. Up to this point, it’s been impossible to try it all out. But now, through digital file-sharing, the unstoppable populist phenomenon for which Napster plays scapegoat, you can locate and listen to whatever style suits you, no matter how specific—or unknown. The Bay Area’s bizarre, introspective philosopher the Grouch puts it best. On “Simple Man,” he exemplifies the homegrown hiphop that balances out the commercial: “I deal with audio/My graffiti looks like shit/I dress how I dress and can’t really dance a lick/And chance is this shit might never catch on/But my friends like my songs—and I like my songs.” —Neil Drumming