On August 11th, 1973, Clive "DJ Kool Herc" Campbell and his teenage sister Cindy threw a back-to-school party in the recreation room of their Bronx apartment building. With Herc spinning and Coke La Rock holding down the mic, 1520 Sedgwick Avenue became historically cited as the birth of hip-hop culture. In 1986, three teenagers from Queens, known as Run-D.M.C., signed a $1.6M contract with Adidas, not only revitalizing the brand, but also commodifying hip-hop culture as a product for the first time in history. In 1989, four young men from Compton release a song called "Fuck the Police." Subsequently, the FBI wrote the group, known as N.W.A, a warning letter advising them to stop promoting violence and assault against law enforcement, and placed them on a "watch list." And on May 17th, 2013, Kanye West channeled a little of all three.
This past weekend, thousands of people were propelled into a new visual marketing campaign courtesy of Kanye West and his creative partner Virgil Abloh. After his run-in with a pole and some paparazzi earlier last week, Kanye was the root of numerous jokes worldwide, but Friday night, he swiftly shut everyone up and got them focusing on what really matters - the music.
While Kanye has been sporadically promoting his forthcoming album, Yeezus, throughout New York, performing "I Am God" at the MET Gala, premiering "Awesome" at the Roseland Ballroom and "Black Skinheads" on SNL, last Friday he pushed his marketing campaign to a level no major-label artist has done before. An incredible 66 venues across the United States, Europe and Canada fell under Kanye's siege to visually display his latest single, "New Slaves." Ironically, as soon as the word got out, Friday night turned into a crucial game of 'hide-and-go-peek,' played by musical slaves worldwide.
Kanye’s ability to reach thousands of people worldwide on a physical level without even being present marked an incredible victory in music business. As we've become slaves to digital marketing, Yeezy's team tapped into traditional guerrilla marketing and word-of-mouth promotion, consequently allowing "New Slaves" to take over the streets and social media at the same time. For the first time in decades, rap fans gathered around cities to stare at monuments and buildings, waiting as a collective to hear what Kanye West had to offer. Let that marinate - people consciously canceled their Friday-night plans to stare at the walls of buildings. In 1973, DJ Kool Herc gathered his community within the confinement of four walls at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. In 2013, Kanye West gathered rap fans from city to city, state to state, country to country, sharing a space and time to embrace a pivotal moment in hip-hop culture, too.
In the past year, we've seen artists and their management teams stray from traditional means of marketing, such as Rick Ross' Maybach Music Group televised press conference last year or Rihanna's 777 Tour this past fall, but both ventures had numerous faults and were far from successful. Without announcements or prior marketing tactics, without the gimmicks of a press conference and the meddling of industry folk, Kanye successfully embarked in a guerrilla marketing campaign that has, and will, change the face of music marketing. Within hours, Kanye West became the #1 Trending Topic worldwide, without even releasing a tangible or digital copy of "New Slaves." Yeezy presented himself as a living, breathing commodity, but also an exclusive brand. As Run-D.M.C fans would raise their classic Shelltoes in the air, smart phones and cameras were raised just as high to capture this projected imagery. As a production, “New Slaves” wasn’t the main commodity being sold this weekend – a change in hip-hop culture and music business was presented, packaged and sold worldwide.
Perhaps the concept of "New Slaves" isn't new, after-all, hip-hop has dealt with race relations and economic divides since its inception and Kanye himself has never been shy to discuss it. In 1989, N.W.A., Released Straight Outta Compton, and the game changing cut, "Fuck the Police." Written by Ice Cube, he spits "Fuck the police coming straight from the underground / A young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown / And not the other color so police think / They have the authority to kill a minority." In the same light that groups like N.W.A out against police brutality and institutional racism, Kanye spits "Meanwhile the DEA / Teamed up with the CCA / They tryna lock niggas up / They tryna make new slaves." Kanye is no stranger to getting under America’s political skin, infamously stating that then-President George W. Bush Jr. "doesn’t care about black people." Or perhaps even more recently, his comparison of the war in Iraq to the inner-city war in Chicago on "Murder to Excellence." With an ever-growing platform to voice his opinions inside and outside of the everyday American home, Kanye West is subsequently a threat to the American socio-political system, in the same light N.W.A. was in 1989.
Captivating the world with a projected image and potent lyrics, Kanye West pushed the boundaries set for him, and embraced the history of those before him. “You see it's leaders and it's followers / But I'd rather be a dick than a swallower .” In a bold and daring move, on May 17th, 2013, Kanye West changed the power dynamics in music business by commanding the attention of music communities across the world. As an artist, knowing your worth is the most invaluable quality you can have, but knowing the value of the culture your artistry comes from is rare. Kanye West knows both. American genius, musical terrorist.
-- Erin Lowers