The New Synth Pop: Ke$ha, Young Money and Justin Bieber Got This!

The New Synth Pop: Ke$ha, Young Money and Justin Bieber Got This!When it was raging about 4-5 years ago I never participated in the ‘Is Hip-Hop Dead?’ debate. Partly because I thought it was E & J (envy and jealousy) coming from the culture and industry’s New York wing and because I was already in D.C. (the top of the South) and knew rap was transforming, not dying, I did not waste my time. But the main reason I did not give the argument any credibility was because the youngest members of the generation were still self-identifying with the music they liked – calling it ‘rap’ or ‘Hip-Hop.’ That is no longer the case. And because of it, ‘rap’ or ‘Hip-Hop music’ – industry and culture – is in trouble, either transitioning toward great opportunities, or simply dying a natural, even dignified death or managed decline.Think of it something like a high school where the graduating classes are getting smaller each year. The senior class is enormous and the juniors are nearly as great in number but the sophomore class is a third smaller and the freshman are less than half the size of the senior class. I actually went to a high school where something like this happened. By the time the class who were freshmen – while I was a senior – had graduated, the high school was competing in tournaments and competitions in a smaller school category. It affected the prestige and status of the school and region across the state but it also allowed a new culture to enter.‘Hip-Hop is for 18 year olds,’ my brilliant and beautiful 13-year old adviser told me this past weekend. ‘What do you call the music you like?’ I asked her. ‘I don’t know,’ she said, indicating it didn’t matter. It was the beginning of perhaps the most interesting conversation I have ever had about music. It spanned two days. Move Over Hot 97 and Power 105 It’s All About Z-100 and 103.5 KTU! I never thought I’d see it but children who grew up traveling in cars without the power to vote (you know what I mean – the driver and adults controlling the radio channels and CD changer) who were forced to listen to New York City’s most popular rap and R&B music stations are now turning away, looking for change they can believe in. ‘I don’t like Hot 97 and Power 105 because they don’t play enough of the music I like,’ my adviser told me. And who might that be? ‘Rihanna, Ke$ha, Justin Beiber, Jason DeRulo, and Lady Gaga,’ she listed. It may be the biggest story not being told (or admitted publicly yet) but the stations that specialize in Down South Hip-Hop music for the last 10 years are losing the younger portion of their audience to top-40 or Pop stations. And the 13-Year Olds are a tough group. Testing to see if media visibility has anything to do with it I asked her, ‘Do you like Erykah Badu (certainly this 13-Year Old has been influenced by the controversy over the taboo video ‘Window Seat’) and Monica?’ ‘I’ve heard of Erykah Badu but I don’t like or listen to her music and I only like that one song from Monica. But I watched her show on BET.’ When I asked her about Mary J. Blige, I cannot even describe the look she gave me. It was the 13-year old equivalent of Chad Ocho Cinco’s ‘child please!’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lDfnG4nlQU) O.D.B. put it more bluntly years ago. When I mentioned Jay-Z the biggest smile crossed her face and she nodded her head enthusiastically and added, ‘and Beyonce too!’ If you want more anecdotal evidence all you need to peep are the massive billboards you see on your way into New York City from New Jersey and upon your return. Hot 97’s billboard literally says ‘A Black, A Puerto Rican, and A Jew’ – showcasing their morning show and Power 105’s features DJ Envy’s image promoting the fact he has left Hot 97 to join Power 105. On the other hand, Z-100’s billboards with images of Jay-Z, Beyonce, and what appear to be Justin Bieber, Ke$ha and Lady Gaga simply say, ‘All The Hits’ and promote commercial free music at a specific time each day. In other words, while the Rap and R&B stations promote their on-air personalities (who the youngest music listeners could care less about) the pop and top 40 station promotes the stars and music with the most visibility. That the very existence of Power 105 may actually be to serve as a ‘decoy’ station or ‘bodyguard’ for Z-100 (both are owned by Clear Channel) – designed more to keep Hot 97 (owned by Emmis) from crossing over into the pop genre (and competing with Z-100) than actually to thrive on its own merits, is long-rumored and not to be ignored, but that interesting subject is beyond the focus of this article. 13 Year Olds (and the vast majority of the rest of us) don’t care about corporate radio wars, however sophisticated.The 106 & Park-MTV-iTunes-LimeWire-Radio Disney Mafia. When I asked my 13-Year Old ‘consigliere’ to tell me how she and her friends found out about new music and listened and bought it she said, “We talk about it and share it in school, where I live, and at church,” she said. I have to keep it real, the church reference got me, but it is what it is (imagine if I had a smart phone and could text back in the day during Sunday School etc…I thought). More specifically, she identified the video outlets of BET (the all important after school program -106 & Park) and MTV. And she said they used Lime Wire (keep that on the low) and that even Radio Disney played a role. She said that the Internet and channels dedicated to children –Disney Channel, Nickolodeon, and Cartoon Network influenced her and her friends over the past few years. She said that none of her friends bought CDs, mostly buying music (when they bought at all) from iTunes. She did not mention Rap and R&B terrestrial radio at all. There was a time when radio airplay drove music sales but now that is changing. How important is iTunes now to determining play lists? Consider this from a March 25, 2010 article from The Financial Times about the phenomenal success of Lady Gaga and Ke$ha, ‘How To Create A Chart-Topper’:“Mr Weiss, who runs Sony’s RCA/Jive label group, has watched Ke$ha’s debut single, “Tik Tok”, top the US charts for nine weeks. She has sold 6m iTunes downloads in the US and 2m internationally, and about 1m mobile ringtones and ringbacks round the world. Her debut album, Animal, has sold 1m copies, a “staggering” 50 per cent of them in digital form, says Mr Weiss.Ke$ha’s appeal is to a hard-partying young crowd more interested in their smartphones than the CDs of Boyle’s older market. As Mr Weiss put it: “18-22-year-old girls and women are getting on the bar in Milwaukee when “Tik Tok” comes on. This is their song.”…Ke$ha came to RCA through Lukasz Gottwald, or Dr Luke, the pop producer who gave her a break providing vocals for a 2009 hit called “Right Round” by Flo Rida. When RCA began negotiating for a multi-album deal, it was struck by her strong social media following. Once the label had settled on “Tik Tok” as Ke$ha’s first single, it gave it away from July on MySpace as a free stream more than a month before it was due to go on sale on iTunes.For Mr Weiss, such viral marketing felt familiar. “It was the Britney playbook from 1998-99,” he explains. At that time, the Jive label had been dominated by rap artists but when Spears began her career, Mr Weiss says they “applied street marketing methodology to pop music” by giving out cassette singles of “Baby One More Time” as a young Britney toured shopping malls. After spreading virally, “Tik Tok” hit iTunes on August 25. Within a week, it had sold 610,000 downloads in the US alone, breaking digital records for a female artist, and soon spread. “We knew “Tik Tok” would be an enormous hit when it broke at number one on iTunes New Zealand with no radio play,” says Mr Weiss.Radio stations closely watch iTunes, which has sold 10bn songs to date, and calls poured in to Sony from stations round the world, but their interest prompted Mr Weiss to delay his radio launch plans by a month, to mid-October.Even now, “radio is still the only way you really sell a record”, says Mr Weiss, but his gamble was to heighten the song’s radio impact by letting awareness build online.The Jay-Z Doctrine Isn’t For Everyone (Dissing Auto-Tunes and Z-100 May Not Be Good For Your Career These Days). If there was a creative moment that perhaps unintentionally but definitively separated Rap and R&B music from its pop music potential and its hold on 13-Year Old Nation it was 2009’s D.O.A. (Death Of Auto-Tune) by Jay-Z, specifically the ramifications of his lines, ‘This ain’t for Z-100, Ye’ told me to kill ya’ll to keep it one hundred, This is for Hot 9-7…’ and ‘Ya’ll n—–s singin’ too much, get back to rap, you T-Pain-in’ too much.’ Now, Bulletproof Jay could say that, and it was good for business because it protected him where he’s most vulnerable – his New York rap base and the street DJs who dominate mixtapes. But for the rest of these rappers trying to have a career like Jay-Z the ‘King’ removing his seal of approval from the rage of the moment – the synthesized sound that was dominating rap, R&B, and Pop music – was like putting a ceiling on everyone else’s growth, and preventing their cross over appeal. ‘All the rap, rock and pop people are singing now,’ my young adviser told me. Simply put – you ain’t crossing over, or going where the youngest people are, without a certain sound, which will get you played on Z-100.The Sound Of Demographic Death – The Blurring of Radio Formats? If you listen to Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, Justin Beiber, and Jason DeRulo you have all the elements of where things are going – it’s something like techno music meets light dancehall meets rap’s snare and drum meets R&B chorus singing meets a Sugar Hill Gang and Blondie rap flow. It’s something like Timbaland’s beats for Justin Timberlake meets Madonna-Britney-Kylie Minogue meets Sean Kingston meets Sean Paul meets Hannah Montana meets Naughty By Nature-3LW feel good anthem music (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKVqTmAWK2o). Need a single example – try ‘Break Your Heart’ by Taio Cruz Featuring Ludacris. Want more evidence, even a case study? Check the magical transformation of the career of the artist Pitbull, who has gone from ill gangster poses to ……only rocking suits and dance tracks.In this era the goal is to create uptempo tracks and lay fun and relationship-oriented lyrics around them. Few may want to admit it but parents know what’s up – even though the music may get on your nerves and some of the lyrical content is inappropriate for young ears, the New Synth Pop, as I call it, is an oasis in the desert of explicit rap lyrics that no DJ’s back spin, sound effects or editing can prevent from becoming anything but hours of awkward moments (as your child sings lyrics acting like they don’t understand them, while you want to believe that). The Rap and R&B stations tied to the more graphic content are going to continue to experience listener erosion as parents notice the difference and decide they want to trade a sick flow about oral sex for a corny chorus about teenage love. Yeah, Slick Rick was light years ahead of us (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5iZasCzxIX8). Young Money – The Bridge Between Down South and the New Synth Pop. The most important group of artists in the world right now is Young Money. It is not even close, if you understand what is happening with 13 Year Old Nation, the New Synth Pop, and the Demographic Death of Hip-Hop. Even though I come from the House of Wu, I’m a little rusty when it comes to keeping track and chasing after a gang of n—–s (LOL) so bear with me on this Young Money thing. The most informed network in the universe – the readers of AllHipHop.com can help me with the official membership of the clique but to keep it short and sweet, Young Money is a super-group and collaborative affiliation of artists like Gudda Gudda, Drake, Nicki Minaj, and Tyga. “Every Girl” – the first single off the commercial and critically successful ‘We Are Young Money” album released in December of 2009 featured Lil Wayne, Drake, Jae Millz, Gudda Gudda and Mack Maine, reached #10 on the Billboard Hot 100. “BedRock” featuring Lil Wayne, Drake, Jae Millz, Gudda Gudda, Nicki Minaj, Tyga and Lloyd, shot to #2. “Roger That” is the third single released, featuring Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj and Tyga. What makes Young Money so important (and by the way the album is hot) is that they have elements of the sound of New Synth Pop (although not fully developed); the Down South sound that has dominated Rap music for 10 years; a leader in Lil’ Wayne who has the credibility to tie the group to older Hip-Hop fans (and appeal to the broader Pop audience) and make sure their subject matter is ‘old’ and ‘young’ sounding; feature top-flight R&B singing; and a roster membership of the right age group and appeal, with flows that are catchy. Just watch 13 Year Old Nation spit every single lyric of ‘Roger That’ (for better and worse), a record that is getting burn right now on rap and R&B radio stations and pop/Top 40, simultaneously. Because of Lil’ Wayne, the group seems to have immunity from prosecution under the Jay-Z doctrine, finding a way to make Auto-Tunes bearable if not at times enjoyable. If there is any group that understands the untapped lessons and value of Jay-Z’s anthem ‘Hard Knock Life,’ (inspired by the child-classic musical ‘Annie’) it is Young Money. The challenge will be whether they can stay together long enough to transition their sound from Down South to the New Synth Pop. If so, then Rap and R&B radio formats may have found their saviours and vehicle for penetration into the pop music crowd. The group only needs to decide that they want to be pop stars and not just rap street legends.In 2003 in his Montreal, Canada home, my friend, economist Reuven Brenner and I were having a conversation about the music industry and all the changes it was going through. He said to me that he felt Hip-Hop music was becoming a bit stale and that he felt young folks ‘are looking for something else.’ The New Synth Pop is the closest musical trend I have seen to that ‘something else.’ The power of technology has 1) diminished the power of terrestrial radio 2) blended musical sounds that were previously separated by radio formats 3) moved consumers away from the CD and 4) birthed social communities which allow fans to build fan bases outside of the influence of the elite music industry corporatocracy (hey Marxists, on the Young Money album track ‘Steady Mobbin’ featuring Gucci Mane, Lil’ Wayne throws you a bone saying, ‘I am the Hip-Hop Socialist…’). This has all opened the door to new ways of developing artists.The result may finally be the ‘demographic death’ of what we have called, ‘Rap’ and ‘Hip-Hop music’ for over 30 years and the birth of the biggest pop invasion since the 1980s when my personal favs like the Style Council, ABC, The Cure and The Fixx crushed the building, with the first coming of Synth Pop. You 30-somethings remember, back when there was no such thing as Hip-Hop formatted radio stations. Stop fronting.So, pass the baton, I say, and hug your nearest 13-Year Old.They got this.Cedric Muhammad is a business consultant, political strategist, and monetary economist. He is also a former GM of Wu-Tang Management and a Member of the African Union’s First Congress of African Economists. Cedric is author of the book, ‘The Entrepreneurial Secret’ (http://theEsecret.com/). He can be contacted via e-mail at: cedric(at)cmcap.com

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