AllHipHop.com Editorial  

The Business Of ‘Story’ (A Rapper’s Brand and Image)

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In July of 2005 I had lunch in Washington, D.C. with David Banner. We were having a wide-ranging conversation just before we went over to the offices of Congressman Bennie Thompson, for a meeting I had arranged.

At a certain point the discussion turned to Young Jeezy.

I had been feeling the growing buzz on him up North (as I was spending most of my time in the Philly, New Jersey, New York City corridor) as a result of my relationship with record stores in the area and what I was hearing on the streets but I had to admit, my ear wasn’t as close to the ground during those months so I didn’t quite understand why so many people were raving about this hot artist from Atlanta.

I told Banner, “I don’t understand what it is that is making him so popular.”

Without hesitation the Mississippi icon responded, “I know what it is – he got a story

After the always brilliant Mr.Banner (one of the 3 most intelligent artists I have ever met) gave me the 411 on Jeezy, I too became a convert and have been appreciating his work ever since [by the way – is Jeezy the only cat to get Jay-Z and Fat Joe on the same song (the ‘Go Crazy’ remix)? Anyone who listens to ‘The Cedric Muhammad and Black Coffee Program’ (returning January 20th at: http://www.cedricmuhammad.com/media/) knows how we feel about ‘Corporate Thuggin!’

Yes, Young Jeezy has been successful because his story, reputation, image and brand have stayed in alignment.

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That conversation impressed upon me something I must have forgotten about that Summer – having a story is one third of what makes for the ultimate success formula in rap.

An artist is hitting all cylinders when they have three pitches working: hot music in rotation, media coverage, and a story that people are either a) intrigued by b) can relate to or c) find moving.

If I had to say who I felt has had the most compelling ‘story’ in Hip-Hop history, I would have to say 50 Cent in 2002-2003 followed closely by Snoop Dogg in 1992-1993. In all of my years in the business and as a consumer or adviser to artists I have never seen anything like the phenomenon around their stories, prior to the release of their ‘debut’ albums.

50 Cent had the ultimate timing – the intrigue around his being shot 9 times, the perfect manner in which he flooded the streets with mixtapes of his music, and his affiliation with Eminem and Dr. Dre.

With Snoop the elements were similar – the questions around his Crip street organization affiliation, brushes with the law, and the association with the hottest producer in the game, again, at that time, Dr. Dre.

When you can get people looking and interested in who you are, moving units is so much easier (it doesn’t hurt to be from a major market too).

But what happens when the public is no longer interested in your ‘story?’

That, I think is where 50 Cent found himself in November with the release of ‘Before I Self-Destruct.’

For the first time, I noticed the always self-aware Queens native seemingly unsure of why his sales were so poor. In interviews I’ve heard him make good arguments that place the blame with technology (that his album was bootlegged a month before it came out) and reference playa’ and objective hate (people always want to see the person on top fall).

I found his comments reportedly made to BET when the first sales projections came out to be most revealing, though, saying, “The actual project is arguably my best work, to have the general public respond the way they’ve responded to it. I haven’t heard anything negative about my choices artistically, so if I was in the space where I absolutely needed finances from the actual sales of the record, it might mean something, but if it offers the material that I can go out and perform and make everyone enjoy themselves as much as I enjoyed myself making it, Ill be happy with it

Exactly. 50 is admitting that making good music is not enough (I am among those who do believe that artistically ‘Before I Self Destruct’ is a pretty good album). But he doesn’t seem as conscious of the fact that possibly his attitude toward making music has compromised his appeal as an artist.

Those who have read my book know that I begin The Entrepreneurial Secret (http://theEsecret.com/) on the subject of 50 Cent, in 1999 – depicting him as the prototype of entrepreneurship by necessity. He made ‘How To Rob’ because he “was in the space where I absolutely needed finances from the actual sales of the record.”

That hunger and mentality helped fuel him creatively, and entrepreneurially, into the deal with Shady/Aftermath.

That this form of motivation no longer exists where his music career is concerned is understandable.

I think it can return in a sense if people continue to pronounce his music career dead (my hope is that he’ll channel this energy into executive producing classic albums for other artists). It appears for now that he is determined to establish a strong film production and acting career (have you seen how willing 50 is to cry on cue in just about any major interview he does?).

The fact that 50’s financial motivation for making music is gone is not lost on his audience and it is one of the things contributing to a lack of interest in his story.

A 50 Cent doing something just for the love of it and to give people enjoyment is just not as interesting of a story (‘…if it offers the material that I can go out and perform and make everyone enjoy themselves as much as I enjoyed myself making it, I’ll be happy with It.’) as surviving getting shot 9 times and getting with Vivica Fox and breaking her heart (http://vodpod.com/watch/2770583-vivica-a-fox-cries-over-50-cent).

That image of 50 Cent – though a form of maturity some would say – is not in alignment with the brand he has successfully created.

We’re not making moral judgments today – just talking business.

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I feel for many artists who believe that their ticket to a successful career is creating an image based upon selling a story of some kind, not realizing that you have to be built for that. When I say built for that, I mean the story has to be genuine and credible, and interesting, and you have to be able to handle yourself in the public, accordingly.

It also means that you have to develop an appreciation for how the media works and understand that a story becomes a brand and an image that you have to manage over time, not for your personal benefit, but for the benefit of an audience and career. The artist that can’t distinguish between their own personal reality and their celebrity profile won’t last very long, and will fail to develop the kind of mystique that allows you to have a long career, selling your story.

The first Hip-Hop artist I saw effectively do this was Rakim. You never saw Rakim out of character, and in fact you hardly saw him at all. For whatever reason (and the rumors that circulated only helped his ‘story’ become a brand and image) Rakim hardly did any interviews, and never saturated us with performances, interviews, and endorsements.

Of course 1987 was a different era than today, but when you compare Rakim to his main solo peers like Big Daddy Kane and KRS-One, it becomes obvious that the god’s image was most mysterious and intriguing. This was due to his natural demeanor and personality, and a street reputation that he cultivated, and allowed others to wonder about.

His focus on knowledge of self and street culture, combined with his inaccessibility made him different.

And this is a big part of Jay-Z’s continued success.

When people ask me why he is so popular one of the main things I emphasize is how selective Jay is with media and public appearances. He has always been like that. He’s no where near as ‘invisible’ as Rakim was in 1986-1987 but Jay-Z’s intentional lack of a movie career, selective interviews, and few endorsements (just imagine how many offers he must have turned down) has built for him a brand and image that supports his reputation and ‘story.’

He is extremely conservative when it comes to his brand, measuring what he needs to do at all times to avoid losing his base, while constantly appealing to new audiences. He is edgy without taking chances, and can frame himself as a border-line revolutionary by making examples of selective targets. His ‘movement; against Cristal, and his ‘attack’ on Auto Tune (Check it out here ) are classic examples.

The only person who may pick their opponents more carefully than Jay-Z is Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather, Jr.

In Volume II of my book I explain the difference between a brand, an image and a reputation and the mistake that most make in managing the three. Quoting my life-long business mentor I write, “There are actually two influences always determining a brand – What you are projecting, and, the interpretation that those who observe you and interact with you give to what you are projecting. Your goal is to project the brand that you want to convey and desire them to interpret. Sometimes your reputation or image doesn’t support your brand.”

To me the key to success as an artist is making sure your reputation or image always supports your brand. No one has done it any longer than Jay-Z.

He did however have one near-fatal episode where he undermined his reputation (about business and above pettiness) with an image (as a strong-arming gangster) that did not support his brand (a smooth hustler).

I could only be speaking of 2003 when Jay got ‘Ethered’ by Nas.

Jay-Z ‘lost’ the battle with Nas because he assumed an identity that did not fit his iconic brand. He became aggressive, personally bothered, and even ‘indecent’ or ‘low class’ (the stuff about Carmen and the baby seat) thinking he was being witty, demonstrating his power, and distancing himself from possibly his only peer and competition for ‘greatest rapper of his generation.’

This fits 50 Cent’s brand and image more (which is why he has been trying to lure Jay-Z into a battle on his turf).

Jay-Z ‘won’ though in a business sense by ending the battle and apologizing. It hurt him a bit on the streets, and maybe with other artists (who only think like artists) but it protected his brand. Jay-Z has lasted as long as he has as a successful artist because he is equally skillful at protecting his artistry with business and growing his business with artistry.

Pick anyone you like – Lil Wayne, Raekwon, Jeezy, Kanye West (well, he just had a slight mishap) whoever – the greats have become that not just by making hot music, but by how effectively they balance four factors: their story, reputation, image or brand.

Some do it naturally, others with the help of a team, and still more, by making corrections and adjustments so that mistakes and errors don’t persist.

However they do it, they are doing it.

Cedric Muhammad is a business consultant, political strategist, and monetary economist. He is author of the book, The Entrepreneurial Secret: To Starting a Business Without A Bank Loan, Collateral Or Revenue (http://theEsecret.com/). He is a former GM of Wu-Tang Management and currently a Member of the African Union’s First Congress of African Economists. His Hip-Hoppreneur ™ column can be read each week exclusively at AllHipHip.com. Cedric can be contacted via e-mail at: cedric(at)cmcap.com

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