Blurb: We sit down with hip hop-veteran Lyrics Born to discuss hip hop’s fascination with Twitter, Facebook and blogging.
Traditional media corporations—newspapers, radio and TV stations, and news services—have always acted the parents of the world, ethically filtering the news in bite-sized morsels. For ages, we suckled at the power teat, absorbing everything we were given, whether we agreed with it or not.
It was an agreeable relationship reinforced by the considerable financial barriers to enter the publishing, television and radio industries.
The advent of the Internet, more specifically broadband Internet access in the late 90s, shook up this relationship and laid the framework for media liberation. In the last five years, the rise of social media (user-generated content) has opened the floodgates. No more suckling at momma media’s bosom—dad opened the fridge taught us how to use the barbecue.
As the old guard struggles to come to grips with the swiftly changing media landscape–one that’s also turned the entertainment industry on its ear—an unlikely group is forging its own path: hip hop artists. They’ve embraced blogging, MySpace, Twitter, Facebook and nearly every other outlet with unmatched fervor.
On the surface, hip hop and social media seem like odd bedfellows. However, hip hop veteran Lyrics Born sees it as a natural partnership. He contends that hip hop is a community-based music built on self-promotion due to a cold reception from traditional media outlets in its first 15 years. He should know—he’s been promoting himself for more than 10 years, taking his music worldwide from the small-town streets of his alma mater, University of California, Davis, with little-to-no marketing budget.
Evil Monito recently sat down with Lyrics Born to discuss his journey and what he thinks of hip hop’s fortuitous relationship with social media.
EM: Why you think hip hop has embraced social media so much more than any other genre of music?
I think that because hip hop is such a community-oriented music, and I mean that, in a very special way, the audience feels a certain kinship and a certain level of familiarity with their artists. Sure, we can become stars or celebrities, but down-to-earthness is something that’s really huge in the hip hop community. There aren’t too many degrees of separation between the average audience member and the biggest hip hop star in the world. I think that Twitter and MySpace and Facebook just kind of falls in line with that. We’ve always had a lot more accessibility to our listeners than other genres, and I think a lot of it is we really reflect the listeners in the music.
EM: Agreed, so it’s about staying close to the listener?
That’s one reason, and I think the other is that we’re really misunderstood by the media at large—that’s historically always been the case. That’s why self-promotion is so important in the hip hop market. Because, I really don’t think it would’ve been as successful if we weren’t out there aggressively promoting ourselves.
EM: Makes sense.
It’s like if you listen to the song “The Utmost Versatile” on Season Pho, I say, “I’m my own greatest lobbyist. If we’re not promoting ourselves, believe me, nobody is. I’m not waiting for columnists. I’m not waiting for photographers.” That’s sort of the [do-it-yourself] hip hop mentality that’s shown the world how to advocate for oneself. And, I think that’s why hip hop has also embraced Twitter so much.
EM: I totally agree.
You know, it’s funny, I don’t think that, in the past, anybody would’ve given us credit for embracing technology.
EM: It’s funny, because I was down at the park the other day, and a young kid was telling a group how he makes hip hop beats, and this older guy, probably 50, says, “You gotta get your beats up on MySpace, get your Twitter going,” and yada, yada, yada; and I’m thinking, “When did this become the business model for hip hop?”
Well, you know, because hip hop changes so much and because it’s so technologically based, from the way it’s made to the way it’s disseminated and learned about–it’s all technology based. So, it all just sort of falls in line.
EM: But it also causes conflict, right. Because, I’ve seen a lot of industry backlash towards the [bloggers] releasing music for free as it comes out.
I think you have to find a balance, you know. I release singles on my site for free, but my mixtape isn’t free. You just haveto find a balance that’s right for you as an artist. I just remember when record labels tried to promote—back when they signed untried, unsold artists—they would give away tons of music. You’d go to a party or a conference and you’d get handed tons of music from CD’s to even a 12-inch. You know, you just need to create a balance.
EM: What about selling CDs out of your trunk?
I still do that to this day. I have a trunk full of Variety Shows right now that, if I see people on the street, I’m going to give it to them. People I know or people I think that might not know what’s what, I’m going to give it to them. You can’t expect someone who’s never heard your music to wanna buy your stuff.
EM: You’re selling your mixtape for $5 online – are there any legal issues with that?
I think that the amount of copies typically is so low that it’s okay. I personally think that mixtapes and promotional stuff is keeping this industry alive. The record companies aren’t promoting anymore, so it’s been left in the people’s and the artists’ hands to really get behind and lobby and advocate for those artists and the music they like. I really don’t think the mixtape is the enemy—I think it’s the friend, because like I said, nobody else is promoting.
EM: It seems like the music industry has really taken self-promotion to heart, so instead of a marketing plan, now it’s like “here’s a Youtube channel and a cell phone with Twitter—go at it.”
We’re not selling boxes of cereal here. It’s a very different business. This model is totally unique to any other business and any other music. Definitely, the attitude towards buying music has changed—we all know that. But I still feel like the cream will rise. Yes, I have to work a little harder. Yes, I’ve had to tighten up my album cycles. Yes, I’ve had to put out more product, and I have way more responsibility on my shoulders than when I first started. I still remember getting my first email address—I didn’t even have a cell phone at that time.
EM: Same here.
It’s just changed. Today’s artist—and this isn’t if you’re trying to get ahead, this is just if you’re trying to tread water—has a MySpace page, a Facebook page, a website, a video blog, a regular blog, mix-tapes and albums…That’s very, very different than when I first started making records. When I first started making records, I did an album and MAYBE a video because it was so damn expensive to make back then. I did my interviews and then my tours, and that was pretty much it. Now, pretty much every waking second is devoted to this.
EM: Do you think that it makes these artists more honest because they have to work so much harder to get their money?
Um, I think that there are two sides. One, there’s more people involved because the means are there for everybody. But, the thing that’s still consistent is that if you don’t love it, you won’t make it. Now, more than ever, you have to be built for this shit, because there’s just so much more involved and you really have to have your head on your shoulders.
EM: Oh yeah, you see kids breaking down on Twitter all the time now. Soulja Boy had that famous rant about white people screwing him over.
Who screwed him over?
EM: Soulja Boy said something about how “all these crackas are fucking up my music,” and everything’s “been fucked up since I got my record deal” and so on, all on Twitter. And, of course, everything was deleted an hour later or so.
[Laughs] Oh, that’s crazy. Yeah, for the record, I’ll just say that, in the case of my career, it was not “the crackas.” [Laughs] That’s pretty funny… Like I said, there are some moments that I just wanna go in the closet and fuckin’ scream. Some moments, I just wanna slap somebody. But, overall, this is the thing that most people just don’t realize: this is such an unconventional business. Artists face pressures that the normal person simply does not. And, this is why these people have these kinds of nervous breakdowns.
This is why Martin Lawrence is running around the streets of Hollywood butt-naked waving a gun. This is why Dave Chappelle has to quit his show and run away to Africa. This is why Michael Jackson has a drug problem. I mean, I don’t know, but this is what I suspect. We face pressures that the average person doesn’t, and you don’t understand that fully when you sign on for this. Every career has peaks and valleys, and you just have to ride it out.
EM: Yeah, I think that’s what Soulja Boy was trying to say, he just went the way of the cracker to get to that point.
[Laughs] Sometimes you gotta go the way of the cracker to get the cheese!
EM: So, let me ask you this, I’ve been reading about the future of the music business and some people are saying that ultimately, the people with good blogs and strong readership are going to get paid to distribute content instead of sued for doing it.
I haven’t heard about that, yet. But, it’s definitely like the wild west out there, and it wouldn’t surprise me. Next week, it’ll be something else — that’s just how quickly the shit moves. I grew up partially a Buddhist with the Japanese side of my family, and you really haveto live in the moment — you really have to be on your toes. Now more than ever, you really can’t be set in your ways. You have to realize that this model is an ever-changing one, and it’s changing a lot faster than it ever had previously. I don’t know if it’ll ever settle down, either. Think about how fast MySpace just shot to the top, and think about where it’s regarded now within the course of only two or three years. You really just have to be on your toes and stay on your toes, and you really just have to be in the moment and be in tune to what are you doing.
EM: That said, how old are you now?
I’m in my thirties [37 according to Wikipedia]
EM: How many more years do you think you have in you?
I’m gonna do it until I drop dead. My heroes are guys like Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney, James Brown. These guys are—until they died, at least—all still making records and still touring. They might not be putting out an album a year, but they’re still regularly making music. This is something I think a lot of people don’t understand: music is not something that has a shelf life. It’s a talent and a skill and something you’re born with that you can do for the rest of your life. Look at Jay-Z, The Pharcyde, Q-Tip — they’re all still going…Look at Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis — these guys made records for 50-60 years! I think because hip hop is a young artform, we maybe didn’t think of it in those terms. But, maybe now that we see people getting inducted into the hall of fame, etc., it’s definitely not something that I ever want to give up.