The young Turks of hip-hop and rap are challenging the way big labels do business, capturing the imagination of today’s youth and cashing in big. Antonio ’L.A.’ Reid and Kenny ’Babyface’ Edmonds of LaFace Records in Atlanta, Kevin Liles of Def Jam Records and Sean ’Puffy’ Combs of Bad Boy Entertainment, both in New York, mirror the success of Motown’s Berry Gordy and the indomitable Quincy Jones.
The young Turks of hip-hop and rap are challenging the way big
labels do business, capturing the imagination of today’s youth and
cashing in big. Antonio ’L.A.’ Reid and Kenny ’Babyface’ Edmonds of
LaFace Records in Atlanta, Kevin Liles of Def Jam Records and Sean
’Puffy’ Combs of Bad Boy Entertainment, both in New York, mirror the
success of Motown’s Berry Gordy and the indomitable Quincy Jones.
In the last decade, these artists-turned-moguls have catapulted their
music from street theater to an international lifestyle phenomenon.
Traditional music sounds have been transformed. Chart topping rock -
like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock - and Disney-fied pop stars such as the
Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears base much of their success on the
infusion of urban rhythms into their music and dance. The accompanying
fashions have moved from statement to daily wear norms.
Hip-hop and rap labels are also changing the rules of music PR. Their
audience relations are so tight, in fact, that a new release can go
platinum overnight with little to no media attention.
Such high demand, however, proves to be a double-edged sword. The labels
are cavalier with the press but vulnerable to piracy. The new MP3
phenomenon enables bootlegs to move faster and at a higher price via
Moreover, since the Internet is less cumbersome than a street-corner
stand, it makes the pirates even more elusive.
Press: who needs it?
Garth Brooks makes a tearful confession on Donny & Marie, the Barenaked
Ladies rock the house on Conan O’Brien and Britney Spears is, well,
Press junkets remain the PR corpus of country, rock and pop music.
Publicists carefully time magazine coverage to new release dates, plying
writers from Rolling Stone to the local free weekly with advance copies
They saturate the national press with glossy packets.
But hip-hop and rap artists frequently miss interviews, usually because
their labels neglect to book them once committed to the press. Music
writers consistently complain that the urban labels are stingy with
advance releases. Security is not the prime motivator for these tactics.
’There’s always a hassle of getting hip-hop advances on time,’ says Doug
Wolk of Rolling Stone. ’Hip-hop is where you sell a half-million copies
in the first week. If they send you a copy they’re doing you a
Wolk recounts a story of an unnamed writer from another New York
publication who encountered publicity static when he went to cover the
new Nas release.
The record company producers made him check his tape recorder at the
front desk, limiting him to only a pad and pencil. In the end, his story
bore little resemblance to the CD that was released because several
tracks the writer covered never made the final cut.
Rolling Stone is one of the few publications with enough clout to
regularly get press kits for new rap and hip-hop artists and titles.
Writers for local free weeklies have a much tougher time covering their
Roni Sarig of Atlanta’s Creative Loafing has been forced to go to LaFace
Records studios to listen to new tracks that may or may not end up on
the final release. But he seems unfazed by this process. ’I don’t think
their core audience is looking to the mainstream press to tell them
what’s good,’ he says.
Sarig has heard record company executives say that they ’go out and find
the kid the most people respect and put him on the payroll.’ Working
target peer groups in schools and hiring street teams to make early
morning poster assaults on abandoned buildings and telephone poles have
proved the most successful PR strategy. ’Simply getting the word out
drives sales probably more than journalism,’ explains Sarig. ’A hip-hop
or rap release doesn’t really need a review. Those other techniques are
as strong if not stronger.’
Piracy or PR?
Working the DJ pools and club mixers is another label strategy. John
Rotella, general manager of ARK21 Records, a small independent label in
Los Angeles, says that this tactic and MP3 are important PR sources for
underground music producers: ’For youth-skewed or gay-skewed music they
are very effective lifestyle promotions.’
Concerns about bootlegged downloads, he claims, is a lot of media
’If you strip it all down, the amount of actual people that are
downloading records based on the billions of business that’s out there,
it’s probably 2%,’ he says, stating that download time is too lengthy
for most people to bother with. ’Rap and hip-hop is all about the first
two weeks of sales, MP3 is about artist development and the long
But 2% of a billion-dollar industry is still a lot of cash, and the
labels have been burned by Web vendors and street hawkers. Journalists
point the finger at DJ pools and record companies. The record labels, in
turn, blame the journalists. ’Some labels definitely give stuff to
people who make mixed tapes,’ says Wolk, who knows the exact location of
a shop in New York’s East Village that will handle the mixing.
Wolk and Sarig both admit to selling sample CDs, though Sarig says he
only does so after the official release date. ’I couldn’t afford to have
my New York apartment if I didn’t (sell CDs),’ says Wolk, who, like
other music writers in the Big Apple, is served by a used CD vendor who
makes house calls.
Sometimes the accusations of bootlegging can escalate to violence. Def
Jam artist Jay-Z was arrested recently for allegedly stabbing music
industry executive Lance ’Un’ Rivera after accusing him of masterminding
the piracy of the rapper’s new release, due out this month. Post-party
buzz claims that Jay-Z proclaimed, ’You broke my heart,’ before stabbing
the exec in the chest. Rivera survived the attack, and Jay-Z turned
himself into the police. Some speculate that this was all an elaborate
promotion to heighten Jay-Z’s street persona. (Kevin Liles of Def Jam
declined repeated requests for comment.)
Though overt violence as a PR strategy has not been used in the wake of
the Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. murders, it underscores the gritty
guerrilla techniques that have driven the rap and hip-hop segments to
stratospheric success. In an age when PR is continually redefining
itself, perhaps PR pros could benefit from taking a page from the