Macklemore and his producer partner Ryan Lewis call their own shots. During the past year, the Seattle-based hip-hop duo independently skyrocketed to fame on the strength of rigorous touring, social-media savvy and word-of-mouth marketing, all without major-label aid. Upon releasing their debut, “The Heist,” in October, the album entered the Billboard 200 at No. 2 with 78,000 copies sold and has moved 213,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Following a sold-out 50-date tour through December, the duo is now applying its independent ethos to radio to build lead single “Thrift Shop,” a horn-festooned anthem celebrating fashionable frugality, to unexpected heights. The self-directed video for the track hit YouTube on Aug. 29 and has since racked up almost 42 million views. Backed by radio-promotion muscle from Alternative Distribution Alliance and Warner Bros., the song sits at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Now in its ninth week, it bullets at No. 17 on Alternative, No. 18 on Rhythmic and No. 27 on Mainstream Top 40, which helped propel the unlikely hit to 1.1 million downloads.
Macklemore (born Ben Haggerty) initially met with ADA, an independent distribution arm of Warner Bros., last summer after associates at respected indie labels Sub Pop and Rhymesayers tipped the company to his momentum. Both parties agreed to a one-album deal for the company to handle distribution of The Heist on physical and digital platforms. For Macklemore and Lewis, who run their self-titled limited liability company, keeping complete control over their properties and maintaining artistic integrity were key benefits in partnering with ADA.
“They really let us mold our own deal and they’re very open to different ideas and ways of working together,” says Macklemore, who first met Lewis through Myspace roughly five years ago. “This is the first time that we’d gone with a distribution company and brought in anybody else. They’ve turned into family, and you hope that when you open the doors and embrace the idea of working with new people that they turn into individuals who are friends.”
Days after the video for “Thrift Shop” debuted, alternative radio organically began picking up the track, with WBRU Providence, R.I., serving as the first Alternative chart reporter to give it a spin on Sept. 2. After the clip clocked more than 4 million YouTube views in less than a month and the album’s impressive Billboard 200 debut, Macklemore agreed to a one-off deal with ADA for at least three months to service the song in the alternative market. ADA sent the song to key tastemakers, and the response was so overwhelming that it expanded its servicing across stations within the format-an unusual approach for the company, according to ADA president David Orleans.
“While that hasn’t been our history, it’s our present and future,” Orleans says, noting that typical single campaigns span between 10 and 12 weeks ahead of an album’s street date. “We didn’t do the deal because we thought we had a radio hit; we thought we had an album, a touring band, a band that was synced up with a huge social network, and that in itself was interesting enough for us to be very enthusiastic about the project. Then we got into it and were like, ‘Holy shit! Maybe we’ve got a radio record.’”
As the song gained traction at alternative, pop and rhythmic formats independently turned to “Thrift Shop” without heeding to a campaign. Roughly one month ago, Macklemore and his manager, Zach Quillen (formerly of the Agency Group), saw an opening to amplify the track’s success and connected with Warner Bros. to sign a similar one-off deal to service the other two formats.
Macklemore explains that their groundwork afforded them leverage in negotiating with Warner. Playing to sold-out venues across the country, he has built his success both offline and on, touting 267,000 Twitter followers, 476,000 Facebook likes and 169,000 YouTube subscribers. “Warner had never done this,” Macklemore says. “That’s the interesting thing about where the music industry is right now: You have major labels that are willing to take unconventional approaches because the old model is crumbling in front of us. They’re open to it.”
Quillen echoes Macklemore, advising upstart artists to avoid signing to majors and instead hire them for their services and reap the benefits. “Our business is set up exactly how it was when we released the album, but we have access to a great radio department at a major label that we essentially pay for out of our own pocket,” says Quillen, who previously booked Macklemore’s tours but became manager shortly after. “It’s obvious that we’ve built a certain amount of leverage in these negotiations, in that we own our own business, masters, publishing and merch company. Everything that we’ve done, we’ve retained ownership over. We’ve got a lot here that’s appealing to companies like Warner, and I think they’re talking long term.”
For some stations, adding the song to rotation went from taking a chance to meeting demand. Rhythmic KEZE Spokane, Wash., PD Zachary “Mayhem” Wellsandt played “Thrift Shop” on Oct. 16 after noticing Macklemore’s online presence and his sold-out show at the local Knitting Factory. Now, the station leads in spins with 638 plays through Dec. 27-a reactionary response to listeners dialing in.
“I rarely get feedback on records from listeners, just because I think it’s a different time and age and activity, but whenever those phone lines were open, people were calling for it. It was bananas,” says Mayhem, whose station reaches 65,000 tune-ins. “It was already buzzing, and then once we started playing it, it was [an] immediate reaction.”
Mainstream top 40 KEGY San Diego PD Chris Patyk says that “Thrift Shop” still has room to grow. “It’s going to be on people’s playlists for a long time,” he says. KEGY, which gave the track 483 spins through Dec. 27, has an audience of 500,000. “It’s hard to capture lightning in a bottle like that-I don’t even think we’re at the peak yet.”
Macklemore agrees. He plans to let the success of “Thrift Shop” ride out, but since he doesn’t have any concrete plans to follow with another single, he’s instead aiming to bank on touring through the year to expand his presence. He and Lewis have a college trek from March through May and have already sold out Denver’s 9,450-capacity Red Rocks Amphitheatre for Feb. 1, one of their biggest solo shows to date. Following a wider U.S. tour and gigs in Australia and New Zealand, where “Thrift Shop” has been No. 1 for six weeks, the two will either release an EP by year’s end or a full-length LP in early 2014. Additional music videos are on the way, as are collaborations with other artists, but Macklemore hopes that his success serves more as a lesson on how to make the industry work for you.
“It all comes down to leverage,” he says. “We didn’t have it six months ago but [we] have it now. But for other artists, you’ve got to want to still have creative control in order for a deal like this to be intriguing to you. It’s figuring out how to maintain your connection to your core fan base that has ridden with you from the jump and remembering them as you continue to grow. I’m looking forward to that in 2013.”
Posted: January 8th, 2013
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Omarion doesn’t want to be seen as a teen pop star anymore. The 28-year-old singer, who stepped onto the scene as frontman for B2K in the early 2000s, began his solo career with 2005′s “O” (Epic), which debuted atop the Billboard 200 with 182,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Sophomore set “21″ (Epic) garnered similar success in 2006, crowning the chart with 119,000 units, but just four years later, “Ollusion,” released through Omarion’s imprint StarrWorld Entertainment and EMI, fell short, entering the Billboard 200 at No. 19 with only 21,000 sold.
After signing with Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group earlier this year, the R&B star is ready to step into his adult shoes and release music that diverges from his previous teen-geared fare. On Nov. 29, Omarion will deliver his “Care Package” EP (Maybach Music Group/Warner Bros. Records) for free through file-sharing sites. The project features contributions from Problem, Tank and Wale, who appears on its first offering, “M.I.A.,” which is also included on MMG’s ” Self Made Vol. 2.”
For Omarion, the EP signifies a shift in his public perception and musical content, ushering his themes into a more mature strata. “A lot of my fans are adults and have children and lives. It’s really interesting because they still come out and support, the fans that used to chase my car. I think they ready,” he says. “This is the real grown-up me. This is that age when Beyoncé had ‘Crazy in Love’ and Michael Jackson had ‘Thriller,’ when Justin Timberlake had ‘FutureSex/LoveSounds.’ I feel like I’m at that age. I can’t wait to display this new me.”
His evolution from boy to man has been calculated. Prior to the release of “Ollusion,” Omarion was briefly signed to Young Money Entertainment but parted ways with the label after a few months. With his manager, Ketrina Askew, the former teen heartthrob planned to ditch the underage pandering and take control of his career. He planned on signing a deal with E1 Music, but happened to bump into Rick Ross at a strip club, putting the wheels into motion in getting a fresh start.
“We look at it as starting over from scratch. That’s where our approach is-that we don’t get complacent,” says Askew, who started working with Omarion after “Ollusion”‘s release. “This is the reintroduction and reinvention of Omarion. It was important that people see the real him, for people to know who he truly is. He’s not a teen-pop boy band singer anymore. He’s a grown man.”
To bolster the EP’s impact, Omarion shot a video for “M.I.A.,” which logged 250,000-plus YouTube views in its first three days of release. Warner plans to bank on Omarion’s social networks (@1Omarion, 737,000 followers) and saturate the online market with music videos.
“Omarion coming into the game, of course he was a singer and dancer but he had great visuals, which are going to be a big part of the EP as well as his album,” Warner urban A&R director Alaska Gedeon says. “This is a platform that allows him to get back to where he left off and then some, and then he can evolve into being more of a creative.”
Gedeon says the label plans to service “M.I.A.” to radio but is treating the EP as a “precursor” to his fourth solo album, for which Omarion has recorded 50 songs and hopes to release in the spring. He also plans to dabble in acting and open up a dance studio franchise in Los Angeles. Once fans hear the EP, he just wants his presence to be felt.
“I hope that they hear the emotion and take away one thing, and that’s that I’m coming,” Omarion says. “I’m going to continue to create music. I’m here, and that’s what it is.”
Posted: November 27th, 2012
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Posted: September 27th, 2012
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After almost two decades in rap, Three 6 Mafia’s Juicy J is making a grand entrance as a solo artist. With a handful of solo mixtapes and a pair of independent albums, the Memphis native took off from his longtime crew to sign a joint deal with Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe Records and Columbia, putting his major-label debut into motion.
The signing comes in the wake of Juicy J’s breakout hit, “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” featuring 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne. The solo version of the song was released in May, and the 37-year-old rapper tweeted a link to download the remix version of the Mike WiLL Made It-produced anthem in June. The track exploded on the club circuit and soon became a hit at R&B/hip-hop radio. This week the track is No. 14 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and No. 11 on Rap Songs. It has sold 39,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
The song caught Dr. Luke’s attention in the months that followed its debut. The producer had worked with Three 6 Mafia four years ago and reconnected with Juicy J to sign him to Kemosabe, which he brought to Sony in November 2011. Juicy J, already signed to Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang imprint and Columbia under his Three 6 Mafia deal, seized the opportunity to go into business with Luke by forming a mutually beneficial partnership.
“I call us ‘the Powerhouse 3,’ and we’re going to get in the studio and make hits,” Juicy J says, referring to Taylor Gang, Kemosabe and Columbia. He’s recording his first album as part of the deal and has already banked roughly 60 songs for the untitled project. Though Luke’s official involvement with the album is currently undetermined, Juicy J hopes to knock out an additional 15-20 songs with him. “I’ve been in the game for a while, and I do my shows now and sell out venues — 3,000, 4,000 people at a time,” he says. “It’s going to be something big.”
Luke, whose recent credits include Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been,” Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R” and B.o.B’s “Strange Clouds,” notes that Juicy J’s relationships in the industry prove his ability as a businessman and praises his drive.
“Juicy was already signed to Columbia, and they were gracious enough to say, ‘Hey, let’s do this together,’” says Luke, who executed the deal in less than two weeks. “I don’t look at it as just this record. I look at it as a long-term relationship with an artist that I have a ton of respect for and believe in. I’d love to be involved.”
With the record now a top 20 hit, Columbia sees Juicy J’s success as “traditional,” yet bolstered by his passionate work ethic. “It’s a great story of an artist who’s found his own renaissance,” Columbia senior VP of marketing Scott Greer says. Senior director of A&R JR Lindsey adds, “He’s got something that separates him from other artists. He’s definitely focused on making this one of the best albums he’s ever made, and that’s one of the most inspiring things, especially as an A&R.”
Juicy J is finishing up his Kemosabe debut and will hit the road as part of Khalifa’s 2050 tour through the fall. Another Three 6 Mafia album is up to Columbia, but he’s focused on keeping his solo buzz sustained. “I’m not going to go out without a fight,” Juicy J says. “I’m the guy who’s always going to hustle to the end. It was unexpected to me — I didn’t expect to be a solo artist. I was just promoting and it happened to come back to me. You can’t argue with that.”
Posted: September 24th, 2012
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Posted: September 11th, 2012
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Rap supergroup Slaughterhouse doesn’t quantify success in numbers. Following its self-titled debut on E1 Records in 2009, the quartet started work on its sophomore album, “Welcome to Our House.” Consisting of Royce Da 5’9″, Joe Budden, Crooked I and Joell Ortiz, the group-signed to Eminem’s Shady Records in January 2011-believes mainstream acclaim is secondary to what it has already accomplished.
“Eminem is arguably one of the most successful artists in the whole fucking world,” Crooked I says. “And he signed Slaughterhouse. You can’t get much more successful than being signed to that guy. Wherever the project goes, that’s where it goes. Hopefully people will feel the music. I know we put our best foot forward.”
On “Welcome to Our House,” due Aug. 28 through Shady/Interscope, the foursome builds on its prior projects-including last year’s Slaughterhouse EP-with marquee production from No I.D. and AraabMuzik, as well as guest slots from Cee Lo Green, Busta Rhymes, Swizz Beatz and Eminem, the lattermost also producing and mixing the majority of the LP. For Shady Records president Paul Rosenberg, signing the group aligned with the label’s respect for rappers who care more about lyricism than scoring a hit.
“The goal is to make a great album and, obviously, if we can get some wider acceptance in the process, we want to do that,” Rosenberg says. “I really believe that the [members are] in a group because they are the type of artists they are and make this type of core lyrical hip-hop that not everybody else is making these days.”
Under E1, the group had six days to knock out the debut LP, which has sold 77,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and debuted at No. 25 on the Billboard 200. Shady allowed the members to take their time in laying down tracks for the album and have a hand in determining a release date. The four artists scheduled breaks from their solo careers to record “Welcome to Our House” together in a studio, as opposed to shipping verses through the Internet. The benefits of signing with Shady became immediately evident.
“We were just allotted everything with a much greater scale this time,” Budden says. “There was much more support and a bigger budget, more brains, more ideas, more people invested.” Royce Da 5’9″ adds, “This is the first project that I was involved in that I didn’t feel was rushed. We made time to get together to record the album together. The fans will actually hear the cohesiveness of that.”
Following Yelawolf’s 2011 debut, “Radioactive,” Slaughterhouse is the first in a line of Shady acts with albums in the queue. In conjunction with Aftermath/Interscope, the imprint has already put out 50 Cent’s “New Day,” featuring Alicia Keys and Dr. Dre, which precedes the November release of 50′s next album, “Street King Immortal.” Eminem has begun work on the follow-up to 2010′s “Recovery” and last year’s “Hell: The Sequel,” a collaboration with Royce Da 5’9″ under the name Bad Meets Evil. There’s a deal in place with Casio and G-Shock in connection with Slaughterhouse and Eminem (both acts kicked off G-Shock’s 30th anniversary with a special show in New York in early August), and the label is considering the possibility of a Shady 2.0 tour for next year as long as it makes “financial sense,” Rosenberg says.
The label’s resurgence is part of a rebranding effort known as Shady 2.0, signaling the imprint’s return following a prior incarnation that featured acts including D12, Ca$his and Obie Trice. Mike “Heron” Herard, who co-manages Slaughterhouse with Crystal Leslie, acknowledges Shady’s efforts to promote the album through an online video series (the group’s YouTube channel has more than 1.7 million views) and international touring.
“It’s not about spending a lot of money,” Herard says. “They’re not expensive. But people are caring to put effort into making things happen. You get on these conference calls and endless shit with things never happening. But someone will follow up with you. It’s pretty amazing stuff.”
Prior to its Shady debut, Slaughterhouse released a comic book to iTunes on Aug. 14, as well as the single “Throw That” featuring Eminem on Aug. 21. The group also released its DJ Drama-hosted “On the House” mixtape featuring all original music. The penchant for releasing free songs speaks to the respect that the group holds for fans’ patience. “If we do something today, we feel like it’s old. So we want this mixtape to be fresh, and we’re getting it done,” Ortiz says. “We want this to be the pregame to the Super Bowl.”
While members of the group tease focus on solo careers post-album release, the quartet stays unified-but is willing to cut loose along the way. “As soon as the album comes out, you can find me at the local strip club, hanging off of the Hollywood sign,” Crooked I says. “We’ll probably do some shows, go out there and have fun with the fans. No doubt.”
Posted: August 29th, 2012
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For rapper Killer Mike, independence is key. The Atlanta native born Michael Render launched his career with 2003′s “Monster” (Columbia Records), but label issues delayed the highly anticipated follow-up. Three years later, in November 2006, his second album, “I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind,” was released through his own Grind Time Official imprint.
For his sixth album, “R.A.P. Music,” the 37-year-old took a different route. With four indie releases to his name, Killer Mike parlayed voice-over appearances on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block into a record deal with the company’s Williams Street Records, which will release “R.A.P. Music” on May 15. The partnership proved unusual but fruitful: In addition to pairing Mike with a pitch-perfect producer in underground rap legend El-P (a relationship forged by Williams Street’s Jason DeMarco, who handled A&R for the album), the label also gave him creative freedom.
“For me, independence is what has given me a 10-year career,” Killer Mike says. ” Ice Cube’s success for a few years was going gold independently. For Odd Future, staying independent has worked. If a label wants to change your life and give you a million dollars, I’m not going to tell you, ‘Don’t do it.’ But, for me, independence has worked.”
Killer Mike’s relationship with Adult Swim goes back five years, during which time he’s performed voices for the show “Frisky Dingo” and provided the song “Blam Blam” to the soundtrack to “Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters.” The soundtrack experience led Mike to approach DeMarco about doing an entire album. With producers Flying Lotus and Clams Casino in mind for the project, DeMarco paired Mike with El-P eight months ago for a test run in Atlanta. The session yielded three demos and a “bromance” that led to a full-length collaborative effort.
According to DeMarco, the chemistry was immediate. “El’s and Mike’s aesthetics are so defined that the songs almost came into being fully formed,” he says. Williams Street, which also has released albums by Cerebral Ballzy and Cheeseburger, plans to integrate tracks from “R.A.P. Music” into Adult Swim shows and hopes to work the album through the rest of the year. “When a record like this is really good,” DeMarco says, “it has a longer life span than one with just a couple of great songs.”
Killer Mike’s manager Joe Baker explains that working with Williams Street opens opportunities to tour through the rest of the year and gain new fans from El-P’s “backpacker” fan base. Baker says Mike and El-P will co-headline a tour this summer with opening acts Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire and Despot.
Given his experience so far with Williams Street, Killer Mike hopes to release more solo albums in 2013, and intends to record all future solo sets with El-P. In addition, he confirms plans for a group album with Big Boi and Pill, references recent studio sessions with T.I. and Grand Hustle signee Iggy Azalea and is looking to compile a sequel to 2009′s “Underground Atlanta.” He and El-P have already begun picking beats for the successor to R.A.P. Music.
“I hope it does whatever they need it to do so they’ll cut us a check to do another album,” Killer Mike says. “I want this record to go gold, I want it to come out of nowhere and shock the shit out of everybody. Hopefully word-of-mouth and smart use of money will help that happen. I want Adult Swim to say, ‘We’ve got to do this again.’”
Posted: May 18th, 2012
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A version of T.I.’s single “I’m Flexin’” has sold 2,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The song, which features Def Jam artist Rick Ross, has been available in the iTunes store since Jan. 24 as part of the DJ Cortez and DJ Ransom Dollars mixtape “Fuck the Competition Vol. 3.” But something isn’t right: T.I.’s Grand Hustle camp has never licensed this version of the song for retail, and hasn’t seen any revenue from these sales.
It’s an issue that’s plagued rappers who often use mixtapes as promotional items, rather than product for sale. Grand Hustle CEO Jason Geter speculates that DJs partner with distribution companies to mutually profit from major mixtape releases. “Fuck the Competition Vol. 3,” distributed by Green Light Records through SongCast, is also up on Amazon and Rhapsody, where the “Flexin’” remix is available for purchase.
“No one should be seeing money off of a T.I. record if we’re not seeing money off of that, period,” says Geter, who co-founded Grand Hustle with T.I. “With Amazon or iTunes or any major distributor, they should be held accountable.”
Both iTunes and Amazon have copyright infringement policies that allow anyone to lodge complaints. (ITunes vows to “terminate the accounts of users who violate others’ intellectual property rights” in its copyright policy.) Rights-holders must specifically request that a song be taken down, yet despite this safeguard, tracks often reappear in the digital stores shortly after their removal, requiring artists and management to constantly track the use of their music. Neither iTunes nor Amazon responded to repeated requests for comment.
T.I. isn’t the only rapper who has found his songs for sale without consent. New Def Jam Recordings signee 2 Chainz has struggled to keep his mixtape material off digital sites. In November 2011, he released his breakout mixtape, “T.R.U. REALigion,” hosted by DJ Drama. Then unsigned, the Atlanta native put up the non-DJ version for sale on digital platforms to profit from the project, which comprised original content. After signing his deal, 2 Chainz’ team removed the tape from iTunes as he transferred the masters to the label, but tracks continue to appear on the digital retailer on other compilations. “T.R.U. REALigion” wasn’t taken down from Amazon, where it’s still available for purchase.
One of the tape’s standout tracks, “Riot,” can be found on iTunes in remixed form on the compilation “We Turnt Up Vol. 6,” released through AMB Digital, a label affiliated with the Independent Online Distribution Alliance/the Orchard. According to SoundScan, the anthem featuring Warner Bros. artist Gucci Mane has sold 1,200 copies since first appearing in the store on Feb. 1. “We Turnt Up” credits the song to “2Chainz & Gucci” — a slight name variation that doesn’t register through any basic search on retail sites. The tactic frequently helps deter artists and management from finding unauthorized tracks. On “We Turnt Up,” other names are also modified, such as Rick Ross (“Rozay”), Alley Boy (“Allley Boy”) and Jim Jones (“Jimmy Jones”).
For 2 Chainz’ manager Teknikz, battling mixtape profiteers in the digital realm has become routine. “We constantly have to go after them,” says Teknikz, who also manages Travis Porter and Jose Guapo under Street Execs Management. Teknikz physically sifts through online retail sites and makes a list of who illegally distributes their content. “It comes down to doing research and seeing who’s putting your stuff up,” he says, adding that repeat offenders are a constant hassle. “I was just doing this a month ago, and now I have to go back and do it again.”
Mixtapes have appeared at retail for years, legally or not. Throughout the ’90s, they were often labeled as “for promotional use only” while bootlegged and sold out of car trunks and on street corners. DJs and rappers often earned profits from those sales. With the rise of the Internet, mixtapes were sold on websites and some even appeared at physical retail as label-sanctioned releases.
Some labels have stepped in to regulate the unauthorized sales. Bad Boy Worldwide VP of marketing Jason Wiley says the imprint monitors mixtapes from artists like Machine Gun Kelly and French Montana since it’s beneficial in the long term to promote free material. “It’s a constant battle,” Wiley says. “We’re always tracking our sales, tracking our numbers, seeing how it relates to fans and tour dates. So, in doing all of that, we’re looking at this person buying and selling a song illegally.”
It’s still unclear if distributors are aware that they’re perpetuating copyright infringement. The Orchard, for one, declined to comment. Either way, Grand Hustle’s Geter sees the major labels as the answer.
“When you say [a T.I.] record sold 1,700 copies, on a big scale, that’s nothing,” he says. “But [those sales] add up at the end of the day. It’s going to be a problem if major labels don’t address it and make these companies accountable for their actions.”
Posted: April 30th, 2012
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For his sophomore album, “Strange Clouds,” B.o.B hopes to take his corporate connections sky high.
Following the success of his 2010 gold-certified debut, “B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray,” the Decatur, Ga., native looked for ways to boost his image, striking deals with Target and Coca-Cola in addition to a pre-existing Adidas sponsorship and an appearance in an Electronic Arts Sports videogame. The singer/songwriter, who cracked both pop and R&B markets with the singles “Nothin’ on You” and “Airplanes” (peaking at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, on the Billboard Hot 100), wanted to expand his business portfolio with his second album and use those ties to introduce his music to a wider audience.
“I definitely see the benefit behind building a brand for whatever venture you catapult yourself into,” B.o.B says. “But for me, the driving force has always been the music-it’s just a way to get my music heard by more people and [potentially] more fans.”
With “Strange Clouds,” arriving May 1 on Rebel Rock/Grand Hustle/Atlantic, the 23-year-old signed a deal with Target to promote the album through TV and online campaigns. His conversations with the big-box chain date back to “The Adventures of Bobby Ray,” but the partnership was solidified after he played them several cuts from his new project. TV spots and online ads begin April 29, and culminate with a New York event on the album’s release date. Target will also sell an exclusive version of the set with five bonus tracks.
Target doesn’t typically work with rap artists, but the company has previously signed exclusive deals with several rock and pop acts including Pearl Jam, Lady Gaga and Ricky Martin. Marsha St. Hubert, director of marketing at Atlantic Records and product manager for “Strange Clouds,” says, “B.o.B isn’t just a hip-hop artist, although he raps and makes hip-hop music. He also has the ability to do more. He sings, he plays instruments, he has a broader and more universal appeal. That’s probably what makes the partnership with Target so unique.”
That diversity is evident on “Strange Clouds,” which teeters between the grittier rap sound of his mixtape fare and the pop sheen of “The Adventures of Bobby Ray,” which has sold 597,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (“Nothin’ on You” and “Airplanes” have sold a combined 7.5 million copies.) The album is led by the platinum title track (1.2 million copies), featuring Lil Wayne, touting a buzzy, Southern-influenced beat and such radio-unfriendly lyrics as, “Stay on the greenest greens, call us vegetarians.”
While B.o.B plays to hip-hop audiences with guest appearances from Grand Hustle label head T.I., as well as Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown and Trey Songz, he balances the urban angle with pop and even country artists making contributions. Taylor Swift duets with him on “Both of Us,” while OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder croons on “Never Let You Go” and R&B songstress Lauriana Mae contributes to “Chandelier.” As with his debut, production comes courtesy of pop masterminds Dr. Luke, Cirkut, Benny Blanco and Alex Da Kid. The album’s pop-geared single, “So Good,” is also approaching platinum (869,000 copies).
B.o.B dates his musical flexibility back to his adolescent years. “I had always had that approach and could talk to everybody-from the jocks and cheerleaders to outcasts, nerds and gangsters,” he says, describing himself as “a drifter.” Later on, he says, “I developed a wide range, and it grew with my music career. I feel like I can speak different languages when it comes to music.”
The artist plans to perform on the European festival circuit beginning in July, returning to the United States in August for a headlining tour he claims will continue for two years. He’s already at work on an upcoming mixtape and has been recording songs with T.I. for a collaborative album titled The Man and the Martian, which will be released after “Strange Clouds” and T.I.’s forthcoming “Trouble Man.”
“The last album was about the songs. The songs were bigger than Bob,” B.o.B’s manager Brian “B-Rich” Richardson says. “This album is about B.o.B the brand, and letting people know who he is.” Richardson notes that partnerships were in place for the first album with Nintendo, Adidas and EA Sports. “Each album cycle, you have to get bigger,” he says.
Beyond his touring and recording, however, becoming an entrepreneur is a top priority. ” Will Smith, T.I., André 3000 and Cee Lo Green are artists who have longevity in entertainment and the business world and even beyond music,” B.o.B says. “No matter what road you’re on, it’s going to keep moving regardless of what happens, good or bad, high or low. You’ve got to keep moving on that road and make the best situation out of whatever is thrown your way.”
Posted: April 30th, 2012
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When newly signed Roc Nation artist Rita Ora visited Clear Channel with label boss Jay-Z on Feb. 23, it was simply to present music and videos from her untitled debut. But in a rare move for rotation-based radio, executives were so moved by what they heard that they walked the Runners-produced single “How We Do (Party)” to New York’s top hit music station WHTZ (Z100) to premiere the cut on DJ JJ’s afternoon show, which is syndicated nationally through iHeartRadio and SiriusXM. Shortly after, it was moved into rotation on the station without a campaign for radio adds.
The premiere was unorthodox for Clear Channel and Roc Nation, whose roster includes J. Cole, Bridget Kelly and Willow Smith. Shortly after the single’s debut, the label revved its marketing strategy, pushing up the single’s rollout and capitalizing on the sudden attention surrounding the British singer.
“Z100 definitely raised the exposure level tenfold, which puts everything into the fast lane. We were in go mode before; now, we’re speeding,” Roc Nation publicist Jana Fleishman says. “I think Jay just knew it was the right time and how strong the music is, how it’s such a perfect fit for the station.”
Jay-Z is known for remaining at arm’s length from artists signed to the label, making his presence highly unusual and possibly influential on radio execs. His appearance with Ora follows a similar experience in 2005 with then-unknown Rihanna. He introduced her and her debut single, “Pon De Replay,” to Clear Channel personnel, who physically drove the single to Z100′s studio to break the Caribbean-inspired jam.
“We’re kind of seeing a similar pattern to what we saw in 2005,” says Z100 PD Sharon Dastur, who estimates that JJ’s show reaches 2 million listeners in New York. “[Jay] putting his seal of approval on something has meant a lot over the years. But we heard other songs in addition to that where we were like, ‘This girl is going to be a superstar. There’s actually something there and we want to be in on it from the ground floor.’”
Columbia Records senior VP of promotion Lee Leipsner credits Clear Channel for taking a chance. He says the company’s artist integration program into radio and online properties was a driving factor for launching “How We Do (Party),” and that Columbia was prepared to shuffle marketing strategies to accommodate the publicity. “You want it to be radio’s idea. Sometimes, when it comes from them, it makes it that much more credible,” he says. “It hasn’t happened in a while. It got so homogenized and so passive and safe that nobody was taking chances anymore. Now, they [are].”
For Tom Poleman, president of national programming platforms for Clear Channel Radio, Ora’s music and presentation were convincing enough to break the radio mold. “It doesn’t always need to be planned out perfectly, and spontaneity and the emotions is what makes our medium special,” he says. “The planets aligned really nicely in this one because we had someone who was mentoring a new artist, and the mentor happens to be one of the biggest stars we put on the radio station. That was an opportunity for a great radio moment.”
Whether the massive debut of “How We Do (Party)” guarantees future success, both Roc Nation and Clear Channel view the exposure that came from breaking the single on mainstream radio as capturing lightning in a bottle. (A Roc Nation rep confirms that Ora’s “How We Do (Party)” was “loosely inspired” by the Notorious B.I.G.’s 1993 song of the same name; he doesn’t receive a credit on the song.) “No one can predict the future,” Dastur says, “but for the song to be world-premiered on Z100 in New York City, the No. 1 market in the country, it got a lot of attention from all sorts of media outlets.”
Posted: March 6th, 2012
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For Karmin, it took 36 cover-song videos to go viral.
The Boston-based pop duo set up its YouTube account, karmincovers, on Aug. 11, 2010, and for the next eight months posted amateur cover versions of hits by Katy Perry, Bruno Mars and Rihanna. But it was when Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan uploaded their rendition of Chris Brown’s BET Award-winning, Grammy-nominated “Look at Me Now,” on April 12, 2011, that Karmin’s account went into hyper-drive.
Today, karmincovers has more than 765,000 subscribers. And Karmin’s version of “Look at Me Now” has logged 54 million-plus views alone.
Last summer, that online success led to a deal with Epic Records — the first act signed to the label by new chairman/CEO Antonio “L.A.” Reid. Karmin’s major-label debut album, “Hello,” is due in April and expected to feature contributions from such marquee hitmakers as Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, Dr. Luke and Claude Kelly. All songs will be originals. On Feb. 11, Karmin will perform on “Saturday Night Live,” becoming only the second act — behind Lana Del Rey, who appeared on the Jan. 14 episode — to perform on the show before the release of its debut since Natalie Imbruglia in 1998.
Cover songs are nothing new on YouTube. With 60 hours of footage uploaded to the service every minute, amateur musicians have saturated the site with self-helmed clips, most of which log handfuls of views. But YouTube has also become a launching pad for unsigned talent. Justin Bieber (RBMG/Island), Greyson Chance (eleveneleven/Interscope) and Dondria (So So Def/Island Def Jam) all landed label deals after first attracting attention by covering top 40 hits.
“Imagine you have the best idea in the world, but you don’t have the finances or the connections or the wherewithal to bring that all to life,” Karmin’s Heidemann says. “That’s what we can do now.” Noonan adds, “YouTube is kind of the platform of the future.”
But have labels warmed up to amateurs profiting from covers? Although most covers posted to YouTube don’t generate revenue, users can sell these tracks legally by obtaining mechanical rights from services run by RightsFlow and the Harry Fox Agency. Last May, Karmin released a 15-track collection — “Karmin Covers Vol. 1″ — to iTunes after securing the proper licenses from rights-holders to songs including “Grenade,” “Jar of Hearts” and “Teenage Dream.” According to the U.S. Copyright Act, the group would’ve paid 9.1 cents on the dollar to the rights-holders for every unit sold. The set has sold 13,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and peaked at No. 27 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums chart. But for Karmin the release wasn’t about sales: It was about marketing.
“At the end of the day, we did not monetize these cover videos,” says Nils Gums, Karmin’s manager and president/CEO of the Complex Group, an artist management group that assists acts in driving monetization through new-media specialization. “It was strictly a promotional tool for us, so it was sort of in a gray area. But I think it worked out, because it became so popular.”
Online synch rights have improved in recent years thanks to YouTube’s Content ID system that identifies uploaded songs and its settlement with music publishers on synch royalties. In December, the streaming service acquired RightsFlow to assist with licensing music tracked by the system by taking a song’s digital fingerprint and allocating a slice of ad revenue to copyright holders.
According to Harry Fox senior VP of licensing, collections and business affairs Maurice Russell, it’s not always easy for amateur artists to track down copyright holders for mechanical rights, which can impede protocol. “It would be difficult for a common title to sometimes determine which one you need to clear if you don’t know the writer,” he says. “And then let’s say you did know what you needed, but for whatever reason you can’t find the publisher, you might not be able to get through.”
Some songwriters don’t mind the amateurs and instead consider the clips to be added promotion. Dutch producer Afrojack, who co-wrote and co-produced Brown’s “Look at Me Now,” welcomes such renditions. He believes it encourages listeners to track down source material and strengthens the original marketing momentum.
“It’s always promotion. I don’t know how it was 10 years ago, but I know I don’t care if there’s cover stuff. It’s better [to have] promotion than loss of money,” says Afrojack, who’s working on a solo album and executive-producing Paris Hilton’s sophomore LP. “These kinds of spoofs and covers, they never get played on the radio, as far as I know. So it’s just a fun online promotion.”
But it doesn’t always go so smoothly.
Released by Samples ‘N’ Seconds/Fairfax/Universal Republic (except in the United States), Australian singer/songwriter Gotye’s summer 2011 hit “Somebody That I Used to Know” peaked at No. 1 in Germany, Belgium, Australia and New Zealand, but didn’t appear on any of Billboard’s charts until late last year. The song features New Zealand singer Kimbra and a sample from the Police’s 1983 No. 3 Billboard Hot 100 hit “King of Pain.”
On Jan. 6, Canadian quintet Walk Off the Earth posted a quirky rendition of Gotye’s song to its YouTube channel, walkofftheearth, featuring the quintet playing different parts of the track on just one guitar. WOTE had been posting videos to YouTube since June 2009 to the tune of 4.8 million total views. But the cover video immediately went viral, averaging 3 million hits per day, and at press time, the WOTE clip had registered more than 49.5 million views.
Although WOTE cleared the mechanical rights to sell its cover on iTunes, the group has been engaged in a battle to keep the song up for sale. Since releasing the cover to iTunes through its own SlapDash Records on Jan. 6, the track was pulled several times and reinstated, only after the group disputed the takedown. The band is unsure of whether Universal Music Group or iTunes orchestrated the removal, but some speculate that UMG considers WOTE’s cover a wrench in the marketing plan for Gotye’s version, which entered the Hot 100 after WOTE’s video went viral. At press time, a representative from UMG hadn’t responded to requests for comment.
“That has nothing to do with anything that was done on our part. That’s pretty much all I can say,” WOTE singer Sarah Blackwood says. Since going viral, the still-unsigned group says it has been vetting major-label deals and booked a spot on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” “We’re not really sure if it is someone else’s camp who’s doing that, or if it’s iTunes or what. Unfortunately, it’s been taken down a few times. And we keep getting it back up. So we’re doing something right.”
Some label executives have faith that audiences are curious enough to connect the dots between a cover and its original. “I don’t particularly see a downside to it,” says a top marketing executive who asked to remain anonymous. “I don’t know why anyone would. It’s not the artist out there doing the song. It’s a different version of karaoke.
“If the Gotye cover takes off, people will track it back to Gotye,” the exec continues. “There’s nothing wrong with that. I’d understand what the issue would be in the short term, but in the long term, it could help the whole thing.”
Who knows? Sometimes the charts do. On this week’s charts, Gotye’s version is No. 27 on the Hot 100, up from No. 31 the week before. It jumps 18-13 (89,000 units, up 24%) on the Hot Digital Songs chart. And Gotye tweeted his approval (“genius and clever,” he said) of WOTE’s YouTube cover. As for Kimbra, “Settle Down” (Warner Bros.), her debut EP, is No. 26 on the Heatseekers Albums chart.
The other side of the coin: In 2006, 23-year-old Dutch singer Esmée Denters became a YouTube smash after posting videos of covers of hits by Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and Christina Aguilera. Less than a year later, Denters signed to Justin Timberlake’s Interscope imprint Tennman and began working with Mike Elizondo, Stargate and Ryan Tedder for her debut, “Outta Here.” But as the LP’s release date staggered to 2009 in her native Netherlands and to 2010 in the United States and United Kingdom, her steady stream of cover clips slowed to a trickle, a byproduct, according to former Tennman GM Navin Watumull, of Tennman/Interscope’s fear of a YouTube account shutdown following a temporary suspension in 2009 due to suspected copyright infringement. Even with more than 166 million views on her personal YouTube account and 19.5 million views on her Vevo page, Denters couldn’t cross over. Since its 2010 release, “Outta Here” (which was only released digitally) has sold approximately 1,000 copies, according to SoundScan.
“She was somewhere in the most-subscribed people on YouTube,” says Watumull, who exited Tennman in January but still manages label signee Brenda Radney, who also signed to the imprint after posting covers to YouTube. She hasn’t yet released her debut. “If you start off doing covers and you get famous for singing covers, and you start singing original music, at that point, the audience is going to question what you’re doing.”
For Karmin, the challenge of crossing over to the mainstream with original material was daunting. Heidemann and Noonan, who are engaged, developed artistically while attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. Describing their initial recordings as “super hippie,” the pair built a following before trying its hand at cover songs. Audiences have warmed up to new tracks, including buzz single “Crash Your Party,” with fans tweeting their original lyrics at them instead of praising their covers.
“That was definitely a concern, [but] the transition so far could not be smoother,” Noonan says of breaking out of the cover mold. “Before, our Twitter account was all, ‘Check out this cover video.’ Now, it’s all quotes from ‘Crash Your Party’ or from video links of [cover] videos. We tried to do the covers creatively so that people saw that there was a little more than the karaoke thing going.”
The pair recently released the Dr. Luke/Cirkut-produced single “Broken Hearted,” co-written with Claude Kelly. Like many artists who ditched their cover strategy upon signing to a major label, Karmin doesn’t have any immediate plans to continue building its career on the backs of others’ songs.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re past it. We just haven’t had a lot of time to do that because we’ve been focused on these other things,” Heidemann says of posting more covers. “It’s a natural progression to focus on building up your Vevo channel, which is where all these official music videos live. We’re working with YouTube to transition a lot of our stuff. It’s where artists are discovered these days. It’s incredible. But we’re definitely not abandoning it.”
Posted: February 14th, 2012
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On Feb. 13, 2009, the mixtape paradigm shifted.
Aligned with Lil Wayne, the then-unsigned Drake, who’d spent the few years before releasing buzzy mixtapes (rapping over hits), unleashed his almost entirely original mixtape “So Far Gone.” He did so on his website, October’s Very Own, which quickly went into bandwidth overdrive. Reportedly, to date, there have been millions of downloads.
Drake — whose platinum debut, “Thank Me Later” (Young Money/Cash Money/Universal Republic), bowed atop the Billboard 200 the following year (July 3, 2010) — had redefined the mixtape model for the digital era. (He released three free songs through October’s Very Own as recently as last week, with second album “Take Care” due Oct. 24.) Far from its adolescent iteration, the mixtape-a compilation of music generally distributed outside of label purview-had evolved from a mere display of DJ skills to a promotional tool packed with exclusive freestyles to an actual album-before-the-album, one that could spawn chart-topping singles like “Best I Ever Had,” without labels at the helm.
In hip-hop today, free, original mixtapes have become standard. They’re offered on websites like DatPiff.com and LiveMixtapes.com, which have erased CD-peddling bootleggers from city street corners. DJs — like Doo Wop and DJ Clue — who once shouted over tracks on popular tapes like ’95 Live and Springtime Stickup, have been almost entirely weeded from the equation. And where MCs once hijacked beats from others to serve as the sonic quilt for their release, mixtapes have become a creative survival of the fittest. Rappers who dropped freestyle mixtapes can no longer show-and-prove through lyrics alone-original beat selection, artwork and overall artistry determine worthiness.
The original mixtape approach has also crossed genre lines. Artists in the R&B realm have likewise adopted the format, most recently The Weeknd and The-Dream with “Thursday” and “1977,” presented as a “free album.” Pop singers have even dabbled in mixtape releases. JoJo, whose label disputes have been made public over the past few years, dropped her debut mixtape “Can’t Take That Away From Me” in September 2010, while dance diva La Roux teamed with Major Lazer for May 2010′s “Lazerproof,” a collection of artist-approved original remixes.
“The game favors people that can produce quality music and then turn right around and produce more quality music-which is not a given,” Atlantic Records VP of A&R Zvi Edelman says. His signee, Wiz Khalifa, leveraged free, original mixtapes like 2010′s “Kush & OJ” and 2011′s “Cabin Fever” into the building of a dedicated fan base that helped, along with an intensive touring strategy, make his Atlantic/Rostrum Records debut, “Rolling Papers,” one of the few hip-hop debuts to sell more than 500,000 copies (it’s now at 570,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan) in 2011.
A batch of newcomers — such as J. Cole, Big Sean, Dom Kennedy, Mac Miller and Smoke DZA — has adapted to the consumer demand for free, original rap music. The philosophy is often described this way: As a reward for artists remaining loyal to them (by giving away original music), fans return the favor by buying concert tickets, merchandise and “real” albums from record labels. The result is a give-and-take relationship that keeps rappers in control of their brand and marketing, and iTunes playlists full of free albums disguised as “mixtapes.” The payoff is an active fan base, which labels and management hope stimulates retail purchases.
“Active consumers will support [you] and go out and buy your album, buy your concert tickets and your merch. The passive consumer will download it for free, talk about it and that’s it,” says Al Branch, GM of Hip-Hop Since 1978, which manages Drake, Nicki Minaj and others. “The active consumer is very reactionary, and you can get that consumer to respond quite quickly.”
What exactly distinguishes an album from a mixtape? “These days, mixtapes are really albums,” Rostrum Records founder/president Benjy Grinberg says. “The difference, is that you don’t make any direct money off of it. But the benefits of building the reputation of the artists are pretty amazing.”
From many artists’ standpoint, the freedom of creating an original mixtape is limitless. Big K.R.I.T., who was scheduled to release studio debut “Live From the Underground” (Def Jam) on Sept. 27 (it’s now due early 2012), built his career with free mixtapes including “K.R.I.T. Wuz Here” (2010), “Return of 4eva” and “Last King 2 (God’s Machine),” the latter two released this year. All of the self-produced tapes employ samples and audioclips from films-two major hoops to jump through, as far as clearances, with a retail release.
“When you’re talking about an album, some samples you can’t clear. And it causes you to get more creative,” the Meridian, Miss.-born K.R.I.T. (real name: Justin Scott) says, noting also the pleasures of working within the system “Drawing deep in myself and coming up with content and subject matter-and as far as writing lyrics, really taking out more time to piece together a story, making hooks more melodic. It’s a growing experience.”
Some established acts lean on mixtapes as marketing tools for pending retail albums. Lil Wayne is an example. He dropped freebie “Sorry 4 the Wait” through WeezyThanxYou.com six weeks before “Tha Carter IV” as an apology for the latter’s delay. Wale, whose second set “Ambition” (Maybach Music Group/Warner Music Group) is scheduled for release Nov. 1, offered his most recent mixtape, “11-1-11,” through Hulkshare.com, a file-sharing site that immediately buckled under the weight of posting the link to his million-plus Twitter followers. The tactic of crashing servers by releasing tapes on low-capacity sites-a growing trend among artists like J. Cole and the Weeknd-appears to only ramp up demand.
“It’s like a never-ending commercial,” Wale says. He estimates that 1.2 million people downloaded 11-1-11 in the first three days-a feat flaunted in label press releases, and retweeted all over. But he’s realistic about the residual effects. “I’m definitely not going to get 1.2 million album sales in the first week. That’s just the reality of it,” he says. “I just hope that the majority of the people who love the mixtape go out and support ‘Ambition.’”
Even on smaller scales, the model can shine. New Orleans’ Curren$y released his third studio album, “Pilot Talk” (Roc-a-Fella/DD172/Def Jam) in 2010, avoiding the sample clearance issues of his mixtapes by employing live instrumentation and production from Ski Beatz. The now Warner Bros. Records signee utilized online mediums like Ustream and Twitter to build a relationship with fans and deliver free mixtapes such as 2008′s “Fast Times at Ridgemont Fly” and 2009′s “How High with Wiz Khalifa,” helping the non-mixtape “Pilot Talk” sell 52,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
McKenzie Eddy, a singer/songwriter and president of BluRoc Records who handled A&R for Curren$y’s album and its sequel (“Pilot Talk II”), says, “Free records and selling records-it’s all about having something to drive the building of your brand. Giving away albums is equally as important as selling them.”
Some major labels have begun to embrace the format by repackaging the giveaways as retail EPs. Universal and Young Money/Cash Money pared down “So Far Gone” to a seven-track EP with two new cuts. It was released in September 2009 and has sold 608,000 units, according to SoundScan. Last year, Def Jam monetized its first mixtape with Fabolous’ “There Is No Competition 2: The Grieving Music EP,” an adaptation of its free companion.
Def Jam senior VP of A&R Sha Money XL, says that major labels’ adjusted attitude toward mixtapes isn’t only rooted in compensatory motives, but also in the emphasizing of talent-to build careers with longevity. “We’re doing this because rappers want their artistic abilities to be displayed,” he says. As president of G-Unit Records, Sha helped 50 Cent craft his career through steal-your-hit-style mixtapes in the early ’00s. And Sha signed Big K.R.I.T. to Def Jam. “You can rap over someone else’s beats, but it’s not as impactful as giving them a song you created.”
The mixtape revolution began as a presentation of turntable skills by such DJs as Lovebug Starski, DJ Hollywood, Brucie B and Kid Capri. By the mid-’90s, it became the battle of the strongest Rolodex, with turntablists like DJ Clue and Funkmaster Flex netting exclusives for their own street and retail releases.
But around the turn of the millennium, artists had begun to assimilate the mixtape model. Instead of offering new tracks and freestyles for DJ-administered mixtapes, prolific groups like G-Unit and Dipset strategized on how they could use the model as a full-length promotional vehicle for studio albums. DJs were elbowed into secondary roles, and became known more for facilitating underground distribution to bootleggers and corner stores.
Flex, a DJ at WQHT (Hot 97) New York and host of MTV’s Funk Flex Full Throttle who released four gold-certified retail mixtapes between 1995 and 2000, put his career as a mixtape DJ on ice when he noticed the shift. “The artist started to want better control,” says Flex, who has refocused his non-Hot 97 energies on his InFlexWeTrust.com. “Some DJs were only as big as the exclusives they got.”
Mixtape culture reached critical mass in January 2007 when DJ Drama, one of the few DJs to persevere with his Gangsta Grillz brand, was arrested along with DJ Don Cannon and 17 others in a police raid on their Aphilliates Music Group headquarters in Atlanta-a part of the RIAA’s quest to put an end to mixtape profiteering. “A lot of us, including myself, had to find other avenues,” DJ Drama says. “After that raid, it got a little scary and nerve-racking.” He has since abandoned mixtapes as a revenue stream, instead releasing them for free in a tastemaker role.
Indeed, for artists who have constructed careers on a mixtape foundation, signing with a major may not always be the end-goal. Acts like Odd Future and Tech N9ne have sidestepped major labels, releasing albums on their own imprints and distributing through companies like RED or Fontana. “You don’t have to put out a commercial album to build your fan base,” Grinberg says. “You could have an artist who’s on a major and an artist who doesn’t have a label or a manager-they can both get a mixtape out there and compete. It really levels the playing field.”
Posted: January 1st, 2012
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Posted: January 1st, 2012
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Once a foul-mouthed tough chick with a chip on her shoulder, Nicki Minaj has blossomed into one of rap’s most arresting emcees. Now, she’s ready to prove herself with the release of her highly anticipated debut, Pink Friday.
Three years ago, Nicki Minaj sat hunched on a cramped staircase in her native Queens, her crispy black hair tucked behind a pair of chunky gold doorknockers. “Y’all bitches better sharpen ya mothafuckin’ No. 2 pencil – ‘cause I stay on point!” she shouts, waving a brick of Benjamins on reserve for a manicure. The tirade, capped by a pointy acapella freestyle, landed on 2007’s The Come Up DVD, introducing a hardened urbanite with raw, unmined talent.
Today, Nicki clicks her black stiletto heels into a bright studio in Manhattan’s Garment District. She dismisses an egg white breakfast that isn’t to her liking and sifts through a rack of couture, giving the green light to select designs. A personal handler – one of the many on her team – clears the set to make her comfortable as she ducks behind a curtain for makeup and pampering.
Ever since her mentor Lil Wayne welcomed her to his testosterone-fueled Young Money gang on the strength of her DVD appearance, the 25-year-old has sped down the hip-hop highway to become the new decade’s first rap diva. Over the past year, Nicki became the first solo female emcee to top the Rap Songs chart since 2002 with the saccharine “Your Love,” effectively ending rap’s estrogen drought. In October, she shattered a Billboard record by becoming the first rapstress to simultaneously land seven songs (a combination of both solo and featured tracks) in the Hot 100 chart and sell a combined 4.29 million copies.
The numbers are on her side, but Judgment Day arrives on November 22, the day her hyped debut Pink Friday hits stores. Earlier this year, her Cash Money cohorts nudged her into the studio to begin cold recording the LP, attempting to capitalize on the buzz from animated verses on Ludacris’ platinum-certified “My Chick Bad” and Young Money’s “BedRock.” Initially, Nicki balked at the demand, worried that her talents were better suited for 16-bar guest contributions.
“I was so afraid to put out an album for fear of failure,” she later admits, stretched across a dressing room couch in a yellow Harajuku Lovers tee and flowing sweatpants. “I wanted to put my album out on Valentine’s Day of 2011. And my label was like, are you fucking crazy?”
With a fan base that’s expanded from hip-hop to mainstream pop (even Regis Philbin branded her “the next Lady Gaga” following a performance on his show), Nicki isn’t ditching her aggressive hood past. Pink Friday carefully straddles the line between boisterous hip-hop and glistening pop, boasting an eclectic roster of guests including Rihanna, will.i.am, Drake, Kanye West and Natasha Bedingfield (who appears on “Last Chance”).
Pop has a heavy hand in the full-length, but Nicki panders to the hip-hop sect with the harsh “Roman’s Revenge.” The track, which sports a wobbly electronic beat and saucy lyrics, pairs her gay alter ego Roman Zolanski with Eminem, who also used the beginning stage of his career to rap from the perspective of a character.
“We both have our own world, and we’re just colliding. I feel like we’re on a freaking collision course or something. But it’s very equal,” she explains. “I want a piece of that Slim Shady world because I feel like it may have subconsciously influenced me.”
Fans who have been lured into the Minaj matrix by her mystique will also see a more introspective side of the Harajuku Barbie on the album. Typically on wax, Nicki can flip from pointy and aggressive to British and ditzy over a span of two bars, leaving listeners in the dark about the girl behind the mic. One minute, she’s a squeaky British valley girl like on Mariah Carey’s “Up Out My Face (Remix),” and the next, she’s back to being Roman on Trey Songz’s “Bottoms Up.”
But where she used the bulk of her 2010 recordings to take listeners to metaphor heaven, she strips away the gloss and allows herself to become vulnerable for the first time since her stark 2008 track “The Autobiography.” On “Dear Old Nicki,” for example, she addresses why she changed from the feisty around the way rap chick to female emcees’ saving grace.
“I’m going to talk about my family and a little bit of dysfunction – or I should say, lots of dysfunction. And I’m just going to talk about me and self-searching and why I made the choices [I did],” she says, differentiating between her aliases and Onika Tonya Maraj – her birth name. “Onika is not Nicki is not Roman. People will never be able to figure me out. I can tell you my whole life story from beginning to end, and then tomorrow, I’ll be just a different person.”
Her identity is as shape-shifting as her rainbow collection of wigs, but her history is written in stone. Growing up in Queens, New York, a young Onika attended the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (of which Fame was based), slinging her first rhyme to impress her next-door neighbor, Jennifer. “I started saying it to everybody,” she says with a giggle. “I thought that they were laughing with me, but they were really laughing at me.”
Reared on a healthy diet of Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh, Nicki spent her adolescence studying hip-hop and developing a taste for couture from admiring her supportive mother’s fashion expertise (“She was wearing only the flyest shoes and dresses”). But where she spent countless hours locked in her room penning rhymes, hip-hop became a necessary escape from life’s harsh realities. On “The Autobiography,” Nicki details a traumatic episode where her substance-abusing father tried to burn the house down with her mother inside. It was one of the many situations that molded her into the hotheaded firecracker barking on The Come Up DVD.
It wasn’t until she met Wayne that she finally found a strong male figure capable of nurturing her love of rhyme. His oversight on her 2008 Sucka Free mixtape and her breakout 2009 tape not only cultivated her eccentricities, but also stamped her with a co-sign from a member of the hip-hop elite. Under the Young Money skein, the two joined forces with the rest of the squad to release We Are Young Money in December 2009, later earning gold certification for the album and a platinum plaque for “BedRock” in June.
But Nicki quickly learned a harsh lesson. Wayne could only take her so far as a solo artist, and his incarceration this past March left her and the YM camp to their own devices. His absence jolted her, not just on a personal level, but also taught her that making it to the top of the game doesn’t reward with automatic bulletproofing.
“At any given moment, you can experience your last day, whether it’s going to come back, as in his case, or whether it’s gone forever,” she slowly states, citing Remy Ma as another incarcerated emcee who often crosses her mind. “I can’t stop, I don’t know when this is going to end. I don’t know if this is going to end. I don’t know how long I’m going to have.”
The sobering reality put her into beast mode. Her buzz not only grew in the wake of Weezy’s imprisonment, but her willingness to experiment turned her saltiest haters into believers. According to Nicki, her pivotal 2010 moment wasn’t when “Your Love” hit the top of the charts – it was with a show-stopping guest appearance on Kanye West’s “Monster,” a giveaway track where she eclipses Jay-Z, ‘Ye and Rick Ross during a blackout verse.
“That has to be the breakout Nicki Minaj moment. That was my moment,” she says. Nicki laid down the verse after ‘Ye reached out to her through his former arm candy Amber Rose, hopping on a flight to Hawaii where she met up with West and laid down the track’s first vocals. “People paid attention because of who was on it and because I held my own and I stayed true to my crazy animation, and it’s like I didn’t have to take my fun stuff out. I was able to incorporate Nicki Minaj on a record with Jay-Z and Kanye West. And I think people know that’s a difficult task in itself.”
Her success as an emcee has also jostled hip-hop’s gender lines, uncorking the forgotten female rappers of yesteryear. It’s no coincidence that Lauryn Hill returned from self-imposed exile or Rah Digga followed up her 1999 debut with her sophomore album this year. Some female emcees forgoing comebacks, like Foxy Brown, have co-signed Nicki and praised her consistent wins, but artists like Lil’ Kim have blasted Nicki for forgetting to pay homage to past femcees.
“These girls aren’t mad at me. They’re mad at themselves,” she states, shooting down questions on why she never took Kim’s bait. “[It’s] jealousy, insecurity and being broke. When you haven’t capitalized and you see I’m about to capitalize on this shit like it’s never been done before, then you’re mad at yourself.”
Nicki gets the last laugh. Plotting an international tour for 2011, the baddest bitch in the building is climbing the charts with her singles “Right Thru Me” and the will.i.am-assisted “Check It Out.” Wayne will rejoin the Young Money fam upon his release from prison. All eyes are on the year’s highest achieving female rapper, whose debut album could position her as one of the year’s most successful musicians.
“I know that is a classic album. I have never been this proud of anything in my life,” she says. “I just think that it’s such a dynamic body of work. I’m no longer afraid to drop it. Now, I know it’s time.”
Posted: January 1st, 2012
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Posted: January 1st, 2012
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