You have seen them before and you probably have tried a few for yourself. I want to discuss the overly abused tactics that many hip-hop artists have used in the past to help distinguish themselves from the pack that were innovative when they were initiated, but now they’ve been so overextended so as to place anyone adopting the tactic at a later time in the position of being cliché before they even begin.
In hip-hop, there has always been a strong tendency to root for the underdog, the Rocky figure slugging his way to the top and fulfilling the Horatio Alger dream of conquering a seemingly insurmountable adversity – and getting to the big prize (could be status, fame or money). The hip-hop dream is nothing more than the classic American Dream realized through the practice of out-rhyming, out-sampling or out-marketing your artistic opponents while capturing the ears, eyes, headphones and speakers of an adoring public throughout this country and all over the world. Much of what has made hip-hop the industry it has become is that people are still compelled to follow the same Do-It-Yourself work ethic utilized by hip-hop pioneers. In the beginning, there was not millions of dollars to entice an artist to enter the hip-hop arena. If you wanted to be noted as a potential player in the developing hip-hop playing field, you were wise to begin recording, packaging and marketing yourself.
This DIY approach to the music has done much to help explode hip-hop to the commercially accepted marketing tool it has become today. Many of the techniques artists have used to help establish their name in the public have gone on to be heavily duplicated, even within the corridors of corporate America. Many of these tactics were innovative at their time of inception. At the time, they were responsible (or said to be responsible according to media hype) for helping to elevate the artist from relative unknown to international celebrity. The problem comes when every other aspiring rapper either sees an interview or reads an article and gets the same idea…and everyone decides to try his or her hand at the same idea — at the same time.
Today, many of these same tactics are responsible for a glut of mediocre and redundant material clogging the conduits dictating consumer choices. Much like Multi-Level-Marketing schemes and envelope-stuffing advertisements that infest the classified sections of cheap newsprint and magazines, no one seems to make any money or progress from these gimmicks except those who supply you the tools to become involved in them in the first place.
Granted, every single one of these techniques was innovative when they were first brought to life. They are not devoid of value, because in the right hands, and with a little tweaking, they have the potential to blaze a new trail all over again. Of course, everyone will adopt the twist and it will soon face over-saturation as well…
So without further adieu, let us take a bit about some of the most abused hip-hop marketing tactics of all time, a look at its origin and the positives and negatives that have emerged from the tactic itself.
Remixing an Entire Hip-Hop Album
In 2003, the North Carolina based hip-hop producer 9th Wonder (real name: Patrick Douthit) managed to do something that hip-hop fans had been waiting for ten years: he delivered a consistent Nas album. It was not because of any direct relationship he had established with the lyrical legend either; he just made the choice to remix every song on the “God’s Son” album to reflect his personal preference and released it over the internet. A simple gesture triggered a tidal wave response.
Remixes have been a fixture of hip-hop for years. Several hip-hop classics have emerged from the laboratories of expert producers whose brand new vision of a well-known song breathes new life into the production. However, no one else took the initiative to remix the ENTIRE album single-handedly, leaving a very large portion of his or her DNA over someone else’s complete album. It was a masterstroke because remixing an entire album gives the remixer as much spotlight as the artist they chose to remix. Finally, producers had a marketing tactic that centered on them versus making the rap artist the focal point. Seemingly, overnight, the Web began to see copycats creating their own versions of Nas albums and posting them free. 9th Wonder would take the buzz surrounding his remix album (“God’s Stepson”) and the board work he performed for Jay-Z’s (supposed) retirement album (the track “Threat”) and parlay it into an active hip-hop career he is still enjoying today.
In 2004, the breakout star of the remix album tactic would emerge and create a new subgenre to the remixed album: the remix concept album. Hip-hop producer Danger Mouse (real name: Brian Burton) had managed to gain a bit of minor notoriety for his previous work with rap artist Jemini the Gifted One. It would be his witty conception of “The Grey Album” that would move him from a hipster’s top-ten list and land him on the cover of Time Magazine.
Danger Mouse combined the commercially released acapellas of Jay-Z’s “Black Album” (the same album that helped bolster 9th Wonder’s production career) and combine the vocals with samples culled from The Beatles’ “White Album”. Danger Mouse never intended for the album to become as popular as it became. His initial offering was to be a limited production run of only 3,000 units. The deciding factor for this remix album would be when the EMI (the copyright holders for The Beatles “White Album”) issued a cease-and-desist demand towards Danger Mouse, and retailers carrying the album, because of Danger Mouse’s unauthorized sampling of Beatles recorded material.
On February 24, 2004, an activist group called Downhill Battle, a cadre that seeks to reinvent the music industry, decided to post “The Grey Album” on their website for 24 hours to protest EMI’s cease-and-desist letter. This day was declared “Grey Tuesday” and Downhill Battle set about with a remarkable online guerilla marketing campaign to spread the word. They were able to enlist close to 170 additional websites to participate in the protest. That day alone, The Grey Album would be downloaded 100,000 times. EMI eventually issued a few cease-and-desist letters, but no further action was ever taken.
The tsunami of media attention on “The Grey Album” would receive would transform Brian Burton from an unknown indie producer to a major international star. It received a great review in an issue of The New Yorker, it would be named the best album of 2004 by Entertainment Weekly, won a 2005 Wired Rave Award and he would be named one of CQ Magazine’s Men of the Year.
Since then, Brian Burton has went on to be featured in a variety of high profile recording projects, the biggest to date being the Gnarls Barkley album “St. Elsewhere”; a collaborative effort between he and rapper/singer Cee-Lo.
Remixing entire albums provides an opportunity to correct some perceived ills in hip-hop; Nas’s dubious track selection being an obvious focus. When 9th Wonder remixed the entire “God’s Son” album, he was addressing a complaint that Nas fans have had concerning every album that he’s ever released since “Illmatic” – the production has rarely ever matched the sublimity of his verses since his first album.
Most “Illmatic” fans had come to accept that there would never be an assembly of producers as those that appeared on his first album again; what many found problematic is there seemed to hardly any effort made to accommodate that particular section of fans again. Not every emcee sounds great over everyone’s production. What made Notorious B.I.G. (and the album “Life after Death”) such a remarkable achievement is that Biggie was able to rhyme over virtually any style of hip-hop track available and make them work to his advantage. From speed rap, Southern California tracks, pop tracks and grimy rhythms; he tackled them all and came out a winner. There is a very limited group of hip-hop artists whom lyrical stylings translate well over almost any type of production (e.g. Ludacris, Busta Rhymes, Lil Wayne and Jay-Z).
Nas has never belonged to that group of artists (check out any of his performance over a Southern track and feel your skin crawl); his strength has always lied in the DETAILS of his lyrics, however; that has never stopped him from trying as evidenced by almost every album following “Illmatic”. The “God’s Stepson” remix album was a return-to-form for fans of “Illmatic” (or fans who recognized that Nas tends to sound his best over soulful or Jazz-influenced tracks). What is surprising to me is that, despite the fact that Nas appeared to be attempting to follow the blueprint of Jay-Z’s career by utilizing mainstream hip-hop and R&B style production, Jay-Z would actually create, and popularize, the music style that Nas would have been at his best with the “Blueprint” album. Nas never gave his fans that type of album so 9th Wonder, and a thousands of other producers all across the world, simply took matters in their own hands.
One of the biggest issues a hip-hop producer faces is finding an artist who can flesh out the full potential of their tracks. Hip-hop tracks, on a whole, tend to be monotonous affairs when you are listening to them without the benefits of vocals to drive the music. Remix albums allow you to hear a producer, who may not access to gifted lyricists, within their proper context. It also gives you an opportunity to see how they visualize themselves by the choice they make of which tracks to back an acapella. When you listen to them over an entire album, you have a clearer idea of their range of style and the vastness of their catalog.
In my personal observation, the hip-hop remix album is a return to the one artist/one producer paradigm that so many hip-hop artists utilized in hip-hop’s early commercial years. (e.g. Gangstarr, early Juice Crew albums by Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie and Masta Ace and A Tribe Called Quest).
The birth of the concept remix album also allows a producer to use one source for sound mining and build an entire record around that music. Danger Mouse’s use of the Beatles album did a lot to create renewed interest in the remixed record (a category that had grown stale) and also to introduce a new marketing paradigm for a music form famous for constantly reinventing the way it reveals itself to others.
Danger Mouse began a subgenre that could be dangerous in the wrong hands. When Danger Mouse introduced the idea of using one album’s material to remix another, he was using source material that was packed with incredible dynamics, texture and melodic actualization to begin with. “The White Album” is considered to be of the one greatest albums of all times by many music critics all around the world and Brian Burton is a capable producer who knows how to manipulate sound for best effect. Not every concept album has been as fortunate. You can check out the link I have for Kevin Nottingham’s blog and discover several painful remix concept albums that do not make you want to continue listening for very long.
Many people have begun to abuse the unique marketing angle presented by remixing an entire album from one source by placing the marketing gimmick (the remix album name) ahead of the music. This is a strategy that I call the “Name First, Remix Second” method of album remixing. You know them when you see them because they are designed to catch your attention by the witty way they combine the title of their album with the album name that the acapellas originated. However, some gimmicks sound much better on better than they do when spit out of Pro-Tools session. This became clear with some of the “Black Album” remix albums and is even truer with many of the “American Gangster” remix albums.
Another negative is that there seem to be many bedroom producers who do not understand there is not always an easy way to match acapellas to vocals. Many of these remix albums are filled with acapellas that are dangerously misaligned to the music. The problems can range from verses and choruses that do not match well with the tempo of the music because a producer designed to attempt to time-stretch the acapella instead of taking the time to align the acapellas to the beats properly. Many people do not match the pitch of their new beats to the vocals; this is a real problem when the track contains singing. It tends to make their remixes sound like very bad DJ blends versus a remixed record. A major problem is that the mixes that emerge on these albums range all the way from abysmal to supremely crisp.
You learn a lot about the remixer’s technical acumen when you listen to vocals that are either too loud or too soft over distorted beats. In many cases, it turns a remix project that could have been classic into something you can barely stand to listen to because of the substandard sound quality.
Remix albums are a gimmick that I agree with because, when performed well, it brings so many of the things that make a great hip-hop producer to the forefront and present it in it’s best possible context. You get a chance to learn where their actual sense of timing, pitch, technical ability and imagination actually stands because you cannot cheat with a remix album.
Some people think that there are too many of these albums available and saturate an already saturated market. My feelings on that are most producers who remix an entire album are looking for you to accept the entire project (unlike an artist who, most likely, live and die by every song they make).
Most producers are already aware that we do not hit the target, not even a quarter of the time. However, by remixing an entire album, we get you to focus on a large body of our work with an attractive co-sign (by the remixed vocals) and digest it within the context we intended for you to hear it in the first place. Think about like this, when you are listening to a remix album, you are listening to my 10 to 14-track beat CD.
This is one marketing tactic that is “wearing out its welcome” and it is only because of the glut of bad material. That is a shame because, when it works; it is as if you have discovered a brand new friend. I do not know what else producers will have in store afterwards. However, like everything else in hip-hop, the game will keep marching on, someone else will do something else that will create a whole hell of a lot of excitement around themselves and we will all be lined up waiting to bite and see if it will work for us too.
For all of you fans of “American Gangster” remix albums, I have done the dirty work of listening to eighty remixed albums (!) and compiled my favorites for you to check out. I set it up just like the original album. I would like to send a shout out to all the producers whose productions appear in my bundle (cleverly called “American Compilation…hah!) In addition, I would like to extend an extra special shout out to Kevin Nottingham for creating a home for all of these remix albums in the first place. Be sure to check out his “best of” compilation on his page and to go and download some of the albums that the songs in my bundle are derived from.
Produced by Uncle Charles
From: Uncle Charles & Jay-Z Presents American Gangster
Produced by Veterano
From: American Me EP
3. American Dreamin’
Produced by Poison Hertz
From: American Poison
4. Hello Brooklyn 2.0
Produced by Rob Viktum
From: American DONUTShop
5. No Hook
Produced by Veterano
From: American Veterano
6. Roc Boys (And The Winner Is)…
Produced by Lartizan the French Gentleman
From: The French Gentlemen
Produced by Ravage
From: American Monsta
8. I Know
Produced by Poison Hertz
From: American Poison
9. Party Life
Produced by Poison Hertz
From: American Poison
10. Ignorant Shit
Produced by KD-Supier
From: Supierior Gangster
11. Say Hello
Produced by 16 Bars Productions
From: American Gangster by 16 Bars Productions
Produced by Beewirks
From: American Racketeer
Produced by Rob Viktum
From: American DONUTShop
14. Blue Magic
Produced by Strike Team
From: American Bangers
15. American Gangster
Produced by K-Def
From: Real Live Gangster
Link for Kevin Nottinham’s “American Gangster” Remixes Archive
Link to an Archive of “Black Album” Remixes
Quick note: Let us not forget that Jay-Z’s perceptive marketing strategy of releasing the acapellas for both the “Black Album” and “American Gangster” could be seen as a subtle offering of the olive branch to all the hip-hop fans who feel that Jay-Z is responsible, to a degree, for the “Big Willie-isms” that permeates the music today. Jay-Z’s hip-hop career has become what many thought Nas’s should have been with every album he has released since “The Blueprint”.
The release of those acapellas made a star out of Danger Mouse, gave every bedroom producer an opportunity to work with Hov and provided all of his fans plenty of counter-argument material for those who say that most of his rhymes has little-to-no substance. It is difficult to listen to an entire album of Jay-Z acapellas and not become aware of how incredible his gift for embedding metaphors and similes within his unorthodox flow truly is.
Hip-hop marketing tactics heard round the world! ::: The most abused trends in Hip-Hop history. ::: PART TWO – THE LOUDNESS WAR
In the first installment, we explored the tactic of remixing an entire album. In this section, we will discuss the “Loudness War” and how its abuse is creating many records that many of us cannot stand to listen to for very long.
The Loudness War
The “Loudness War” is a term coined up by record producers and recording engineers to describe the widespread practice of applying dynamic range compression to recordings hereby reducing the difference between the loud and soft dynamics in a song. There is no escaping it, almost every pop, hip-hop and rock record in the last ten years have made use of this sound mastering practice to create the illusion of extreme loudness in every song.
For those of you who still deal with vinyl, you will notice that the music does not seem to be as loud as the music you hear today – you will also notice that the music seems to be clearer and you are far more likely to hear all the little details within the song versus what you hear today. This is particularly relevant to hip-hop producers who often have a chance to hear their tracks in one fashion when they are creating them and then hear an entirely different track when the song has been mixed, mastered and prepared for distribution. It can be very disappointing to listen to what happens to your music after you have spent so much time mixing all of the different elements within the song only to have them all compressed into uniformity – removing all the emphasis on certain sounds that made the track special in the first place.
The whole notion of heavily compressing your record to increase the sensation of “loudness” began as a method record companies used to call attention to a song. When engineers were first instructed to begin doing this, it was at a time when not every record was using the same principle.
A person who has to listen to a stack of records is more likely to pick the “louder” record as being more exciting just because of the shock that comes with a record being so much louder than all the rest. It is based off the idea that humans respond to the shock that sharp elevations in volume create. It is the same effect you get when you are watching a horror film and the main character jumps out and a loud sound rings out simultaneously.
The exception to the rule is that, instead of surprising you with volume, records just stay as loud as they can technically be tweaked out to be – and there is no competitive advantage to “loudness” since almost every record that comes out now has been compressed within an inch of its’ digital life as well.
There are a few places where squeezing all of the dynamics out of your music actually comes in handy. One place I know where this is paramount is beat battles. In most beat battles I have attended, the beats that win are those that make the best use of catering to the most basic and aggressive elements you have to deal with within the beat battle arena. If you are trying to win a beat battle in a club, you have to keep in mind that you are likely to be dealing with a sound system that is designed to bludgeon you with noise, so there is little need to use beats that require a listener to pay attention to the nuances of your tracks.
What you need to do is bring beats that have few internal elements; so forget about bringing tracks that feature pretty chords, the effect will be lost on an audience who equates “loud” with hotness. Mix your drums very close to the forefront and then compress your track until you squeezed them to the borders of dynamic range. Now when you walk in to battle, the judges are going to believe you are the hottest dude (or dudette) in the room because “loud” often equates to excitement for most listeners. This also applies to when you have made a record for the club environment.
Music sounds horrible nowadays because everyone feels as if they have to match the loudness that every other record is using. In a way, it is a compromise we have to make because most music is heard from environments that do not place a whole lot of emphasis on high fidelity. Most headphones, card stereos and computer speakers are not designed to facilitate a heightened listening experience – they are primarily for people who just want to “hear” the music.
Nevertheless, it makes it irrelevant to waste a considerable amount of time mixing music properly if it is only going to have all the dynamics you spent so much time stressing wiped away in the mastering process. Many people do not think that it is a problem or know that it is a problem. This is likely because they are not aware of the difference letting a mix breathe makes; they only know that the result of the song sounds like whatever it sounds like. However, because recorded music is forced to conform to this compressed state and the casual listener really does not hear a problem, many hip-hop records are giving fans “listener fatigue” because of their use of compression. Records need to “breathe” so that you can appreciate the variances taking place within the music.
Nowadays, I have begun to notice the quality of mastered albums has fallen a great deal because of this very principle. An example of this would be UGK’s last album. When I listen to a cassette version of UGK’s very first album, the difference is incredible in that, though the sound seems to be softer, there is far more clarity and breathing space between the drums and instruments. This last album sounds as if it was so compressed that the musicality on many tracks seems to have been mashed a noisy mess, making it difficult to distinguish between which elements were meant to be heard over the others.
Check out this excellent article on the “loudness war” subject at the Rolling Stone link below.
The Death of High Fidelity