Ian Truscott looks at rap past and present, and finds that NWA, Public Enemy and Lil Uzi Vert hold the secret to breaking out of your bubble to build a loyal, engaged community.

The fame and fortune of the stars of hip-hop and rap was not made by selling records to their fans in their own ‘hoods like Compton, Queens or the 8 Mile in Detroit: it was made by breaking out, through the adoption of their experience and stories by working and middle-class kids in other communities across the world who could relate to the very different experiences expressed in the rhymes and co-opt them as their own. 

Researching this assumption, the exact breakdown of the demographics of who bought this music is a bit murky, but this article in Wall Street Journal from 2005 suggests that this accepted wisdom is correct, quoting a 1994 Advertising Age article that “roughly 75% of rap records are owned by white teenagers”. 

As marketers we have our own goldfish bowls and echo chambers where we find ourselves talking to people like us, in a language riddled with the finest industry leading business bullshit. Yet, often our success is dependent on people not like us believing our story. If it’s not too crass of me to compare a group of probably middle-class buyers with a once deprived LA neighbourhood, this goldfish bowl is your ‘Compton’ and you gotta get out of it. 

So, how do we do that? What can marketers today learn from the pioneers of rap and hip-hop, that paved the way for the money-making corporations and brands that artists like Kanye West and Sean Combs have become? 

Here are two things I think we can learn:

It’s your story to tell. Tell it well.

What they did, in the words of Robert Rose, a guru of content marketing; they told their story and they told it well.

Today, the culture of hip-hop is accepted as mainstream, but if you put yourself back 30 years, it would have been impossible for Madison Ave to predict that this form of urban black music would upset the rock and roll establishment and becomes such a cultural and advertising force. 

Groups like NWA didn’t create this huge audience and appeal to those consumers by running focus groups for middle class white kids on what they wanted to be bobbing their heads to while sitting in traffic in cities thousands of miles away. They just did what they were passionate about.

When interviewed by Tim Ferris back in 2015, legendary music producer and co-founder of Def Jam records, Rick Rubin, who is often attributed as the architect of the success of rap music in the mainstream, said:

“It’s getting closer to the source and not being distracted by any nonsense… People like extreme things, so don’t water it down. The best art divides the audience: half love it and half hate it. If everyone says, ‘That’s pretty good’, why bother making it?!”

OK, so how does this apply to you? 

Music is not a product that is sold because it solves a problem, it is not useful, and no-one really needs it. It is purely sold on the feeling it gives people, what it says about the person buying it, the tribe it creates, the connection with the culture and zeitgeist of the time. But, even if you are not fortunate enough to be a marketer for a form of creative expression like music or films, creating the feeling, the connection and the tribe around your product are all just as important, whether you are selling the music of a former stripper-turned-rapper, washing machines, or B2B software. The product itself does not deliver this emotion, it is the story around the product that marketing creates.

“Even if you’re not fortunate enough to be a marketer for a form of creative expression, creating the feeling, the connection and the tribe around your product are all just as important.”

When creating this story, it is easy to get sucked into the lingua franca of your industry and tell the same story as everyone else, aimed at those same people, with a slight variation because you have a slightly faster spin cycle or a few more features. Consumer research may not tell you what they want. As Henry Ford once said, if asked, the consumer would want a “faster horse”, not the motor car. It’s therefore critical you tell your own story, your way.

Looking back at rap and hip hop, in an article written around a classic interview with NWA back in 1989, Mark Cooper observes that:

“Their fans include a majority of kids who identify with the music and its cocky alienation. NWA are exotic… the sheer power of their music represents a powerful alternative to traditional rock’n’roll.”

The success of this music in breaking out, was its “cocky alienation”, its difference, its attitude, its exoticness. It told its own story. Its very rawness, the profanity, the controversy and how it went against the establishment was key to its disruption of the industry. Its success in capturing the hearts and minds of people in communities far beyond where it was conceived was key to its commercial success.

In 2006, Chuck D of Public Enemy expands on this point of an audience wanting powerful music:

“They wanted their music rock-hard. Our attitude was like Mr T and Rocky downstairs in the basement listening to a radio with a hanger sticking out of it doing push-ups…” 

As marketers, like NWA or Public Enemy, to be noticed we also have to disrupt. We tell our stories against a cacophony of noise, as every other marketer in our industry, market or sector tries to reach the same folks. But, there is a whole community looking for something else, rawer, more us, more real and, dare I say, more honest. 

Share and be generous

Aside from telling a genuine, distinct story that would eventually strike such a chord that today’s teenagers are listening to Korean bands (who are a long, long way from Compton) that have appropriated this form of music as their own. Hip-hop is a genre of music that has always embraced technology, from originally making music with turntables and loops to distribution through mixtapes, Napster and then SoundCloud.  

Long before anyone uttered the words “the sharing economy”, “self-publishing” or freemium, hip-hop artists and rappers grabbed these new distribution opportunities, considering spreading the story more important than a quick buck, as Eddie Gonzales, writing for UPROXX observes:

“While Metallica was suing Napster, rappers and rap fans seemed to be embracing the platform, sharing rare songs, passing around new favorites and much like the DJs in the Bronx, making the best uses of the tools available to further evolve the genre. When record sales stagnated, rappers began uploading free music onto the internet, choosing to raise their profile in the short term and cash in commercially in the long term…”

These early adopter rap stars saw what most artists see today, that the profit in the digital economy is not in record sales, but in touring, selling merchandise and monetizing the community they built through initially sharing their music.

Yes, the purpose was to make money, they had a purpose very similar to our own. Eazy-E from NWA is quoted as saying in the Mark Cooper interview: “We’re not making records for the fun of it. We’re in it to make money.”

“Sharing useful content for free builds communities. An engaged community, that will be receptive to you when it does come time to taking an action that will result in you paying the bills.”

And it’s not just these early rappers and their fans sharing mixtapes, in 2016 Lil Uzi Vert, a Philadelphia rapper was SoundCloud’s most followed artist in 2016 and yet, despite giving it away for free, his music has found commercial success. In May 2017, the song he shared became number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, and at the time it had 78 million SoundCloud streams, it also had 114 million Spotify streams and 119 million Youtube plays (according to 36chapters).

What marketers can learn from Lil Uzi Vert and what the content marketing leaders, like Robert Rose, have discovered, is that sharing useful content for free builds communities. An engaged community, that will be receptive to you when it does come time to taking an action that will result in you paying the bills. 

Yes, in the short term it may seem hard to not get an immediate return, to ease up on the value exchange which is: if I give you content you give me marketing consent, your email address or something. But sometimes you’ve got to let go to build a loyal community. 

I admit, my shades are somewhat rose-tinted on this. I have rather glossed over the history of rap to make these points, ignoring the grittier side of the industry. While some were empowered by these actions, many others were exploited. 

However, the core truth, that Malcolm Gladwell observed way back in the day in The Tipping Pointis that any creative idea is not going to “cross a threshold, tip and start a wildfire” if it is only consumed within the small community that created it.

So, tell your story, share something useful and get straight outta Compton.

Ready to rock?

Fancy a chat about this? Or maybe we can help with our advisory services or get in touch!


Join hundreds of your peers and get your weekly fix of marketing street knowledge from the Rockstar CMO community.

Share this article