I just attended an awesome discussion led by Bill Pauls and John McHale, creative directors at Internet marketing & branding agency SapientNitro, titled, “Y Rappers R Better Than U”. I've attended half a dozen panels during SXSW Interactive since it started yesterday (Baratunde Thurston's keynote was badass too), and this one is by-far the best one thus far. Not only did Bill and John do a good job of setting the mood (Nas' Illmatic was playing as I walked into the room), but they also did a great job of balancing their desire to speak as the discussion leaders and moderators with the insights from the people in the room. It's amazing how many moderators don't listen to the audience, especially considering many people in the audiences as these panels are social media, startup or marketing wonks themselves.
The room was energetic, engaged and the speakers well-prepared and informed. The core messages or themes they shared were that:
1) Stay legit. Rappers understand that before you can grow your brand, you must protect it. Jay-Z has maintained his hustler mentality whether it be about the drug game or the marketing game.
2) Always be on the lookout for a bigger venue. Rappers are like highly-trained tech incubators when it comes to uncovering new opportunities and unlocking new value. Run-DMC's iconic "Rock This Way" song with Aerosmith is just one example.
3) Name check. Rappers have crushed the marketing game by being pros at name dropping without overly saturating their brands. Rappers like The Game and upstart guys like Big Sean are name checking regulars.
4) Master social. Sure, brands have done a good job with social media as they've become more versed and developed case studies, but rappers like Soulja Boy have really paved the way for rap's seat as the social media kings. Take that John Mayer.
5) Fuck the rules. Excuse my French, but this is an important one. Ice Cube has gone from a hard-core gangsta rapper in NWA to a rom-com daddy actor and maintained his authenticity by saying "fuck the rules", but doing so in an organic, balanced way from Boyz N Da Hood to Friday to Barber Shop to Are We There Yet?.
6) Manufacture controversy. 50 Cent comes to mind, but there are other examples in the rap game that brands should pay attention to. Don't be afraid to challenge your competitors a la Apple's "1984" commercial.
7) Reflect culture. Project culture. This seems like the other end of the loop from point #1 about staying legit. This is where you see so many rappers constantly speaking to their audiences through other forms of pop and urban cultures.
The discussion about rappers being expert marketers triggered another thought: rappers are highly experienced at handling mergers and acquisitions.
Think about it: Rap started in the late ‘70s, but didn’t really get profile until the 1980s with Run-DMC, The Beastie Boys and Def Jam out of New York. What else was happening during the 1980s? Did you see that movie Wall Street with Michael Douglas and Michael Sheen? Leveraged buyouts and a ton of M&A activity led by New York’s finance industry.
Since that time, rappers from LL Cool J and Vanilla Ice to Rick Ross and Wiz Khalifa have been the winners or losers of mergers and acquisitions in the rap game. To that effect, I wanted to share some highlights of the last 25 years in hip-hop history and the M&A activity that has paved the way for the most powerful music marketing force we have today.
Mergers in the rap game are partnership that yield visible business results and amplify rappers' brands.
Run-DMC & Aerosmith - The aforementioned "Rock the Way" track may seem more like a partnership, but really it was a significant merger of rock and rap...paving the way for mergers like Jay-Z and Linkin Park or even the late DJAM & Travis Barker.
Dr. Dre & Eminem - Not a merger in the sense of two equal parts, given the fact that Dr. Dre helped Em get his start, but by the time 50 Cent's career was launched by these guys it felt less like a rapper launching a career and more like a successful brand launch.
Jay-Z & Kanye West – Speaking of great partnerships, Watch the Throne has produced a hit album, but more importantly produced the most successful rap tour duo ever put together. This merger has yielded considerations by other rappers of taking a shot at a similar feat a la Lil' Wayne & Drake or Nas & Common. Chances are, they'll be more AOL Time Warner than Exxon-Mobil.
Jay-Z & Beyonce - The world calls it a marriage, but from a marketing and business standpoint this is a straight up merger. Probably the single-most important merger in the pop culture world since Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie don't push product outside of the movies they act in. Perhaps this is why Wiz Khalifa is dating Amber Rose; only problem is Rose has yet to show she has talent beyond her rear-end.
Master P & Snoop Dogg - Sure, this move by Snoop helped him escape the grip of Death Row's Suge Knight, but it didn't exactly produce a successful, sustainable business.
Common & Erykah Badu - I actually like that Common song "Come Close" feat. Mary J. Blige, but I agree with the criticism he received during his partnership with Erykah Badu that he went a little soft. At least too soft to represent Chicago. His merger with Kanye West resurrected his career.
Acquisitions in the rap game are all about battles. Rappers have brands that carry weight and that weight is tested through battles. The winner gets the spoils, and sometimes - like Jay-Z and Nas - the battle itself isn't the real acquisition play.
50 Cent - Fiddy is never afraid to gamble with an acquisition. Ja Rule and Fat Joe have both had their street cred and popularity acquired by Curtis Jackson's enterprise in the last decade.
Rick Ross - However, 50 Cent has taken an L of late to none-other-than Rick Ross. Rick came in the underdog, but left with a W next to his name thanks to the progress of his Maybach Music releases over the last few years.
T.I. - Houston rapper Lil' Flip never stood a chance when he challenged Atlanta's T.I.'s self-appointed designation as "The King of the South". T.I. immediately put Lil' Flip's business into non-existence upon the acquisition.
Nicki Minaj - Did you listen to Kanye's "Monster" featuring the Barbie Doll rapper herself? Yeah, she pretty much bought all of Lil’ Kim's 1990s glory in one verse.
LL Cool J - An acquisition expert and veteran having waged battles with everyone from Kool Moe Dee to Canibus. He hasn't maintained his relevance years into his career in the way Jay-Z or Common have, but he is one of the early innovators in the hostile takeover business of rap music.
Jay-Z - Sure, "Ether" gives plenty reason to pause when chalking up an L for Nas, but it's clear to see who the king of rap music for the last 15 years (post-Biggie & Tupac) is and he is most definitely from Brooklyn, not Queens.
Common - "I Used to Love Her" is one of the greatest, most important, hip-hop tracks of all time, but surprisingly pre-comedy Ice Cube got serious and shortsighted about his lyrics and tried to squash Common's statement. Common fired back and proved to the world that he was here to stay, no matter how big of a competitor he'd have to face.
KRS-One - Before Jay-Z and Nas there was KRS and MC Shan. One of those guys is still regarded as a legend of hip-hop, the other one not so much.
MC Serch - Not many people remember MC Serch, but his 3rd Base track "Pop Goes the Weasel" helped to put fire on Vanilla Ice's career. Serch went on to executive produce Nas' masterpiece Illmatic.
Prodigy - One-half of notable, Queens-based rap duo Mobb Deep, Prodigy and Jay-Z never seemed to get along...mostly because Jay-Z was always in the seat Prodigy coveted but could never grab. Jay-Z closed the case on this one with "The Takeover" on The Blueprint.
Common - Just as Ice Cube tried to bully Common in his early days, it seems Common has taken a jab at Drake and his crooning. We'll see how this ends up, but it's already started as a failed acquisition attempt by Common. Sorry, no new fans for you.
*This may become my next book topic, so be on the lookout for more in the future, and remember where you heard this theory first.