Hit Songwriter Shaun Frank on the Reality of Streaming: “The Best Model Right Now Is to Be the Artist”

Hit Songwriter Shaun Frank on the Reality of Streaming: “The Best Model Right Now Is to Be the Artist”

Despite a new ruling to increase songwriters’ streaming pay by nearly 50%, they’re still drawing the short end of the artistic stick.

Streaming has single-handedly saved the music business. In its first-quarter financial results for the period ending December 31, 2017, Warner Music Group announced revenue is up 14% year-over-year, with streaming representing 51% of total revenue. Meanwhile, Universal Music Group's revenue, according to Variety, reached nearly $7 billion in 2017, a 10% jump from 2016, and Sony pulled in a not-so-shabby $4 billion, with streaming up a whopping 32%.

However, despite on-demand streaming increasing in both popularity and revenue, only minimal changes have been made to better compensate the creatives behind the scenes, in particular, songwriters.

On January 27, the Copyright Royalty Board voted to increase songwriters’ streaming pay by nearly 50%, a change that will slowly take effect over the next five years. Of course, some change is better than no change at all, but the split for mechanical royalties between the label and songwriters/publishers is still nowhere close to fair. Once the new deal is consummated, for every $3.82 of revenue the label earns, songwriters/publishers will receive $1.

According to reports, songwriters asked the CRB to issue the greater of 15 cents per 100 streams or $1.06 per user per month, but their request fell on deaf ears.

In early January, less than two weeks before this ruling was issued in Washington, we ran a story about Vancouver, Canada-born artist, producer, and DJ Shaun Frank, who, in a string of tweets, pointed out how little songwriters are currently making from streaming royalties. 

"For some reason, streaming platforms aren’t supporting songwriters," Frank wrote.

While the 35-year-old triple threat, who has a writing credit on The Chainsmokers' 7x Platinum-certified record "Closer," has reaped the financial benefits of the 2016 single's success as a result of the song being placed in heavy rotation on the radio, he believes that its popularity on streaming services, where the record has generated several billion plays, demands a better payday for songwriters.

[Editor's Note: Our interview with Shaun Frank, lightly edited for content and clarity, was conducted prior to the CRB's ruling. Following the ruling, Shaun noted: "This is a small victory for sure. I'm not sure I 100% understand what it implies, but it's a step in the right direction."]

DJBooth: Quite often, creatives such as yourself, the folks behind the scenes like songwriters and producers, talk about why the system is broken. But no one ever presents a solution or a suggestion for how to fix it. Can something be done?

Shaun Frank: Well, here’s the thing. It’s actually the law. And I’m not super privy to the exact details of copyright law. There’s a bunch of petitions out right now from the performance societies like ASCAP and BMI that protect songwriters and protect our royalties. They’re trying to get the rules changed in Washington, but that’s not simple. This is kinda what grinds my gears, and I’m scared to point the finger because I depend on so many services for my own success and well-being, but what we’re seeing is platforms that are acting like they're very supportive of the songwriters but they’re in bed with the labels. That’s why this is happening. Certain platforms are heavily in bed with the labels and that’s why 90% of the money is going to master owners at labels. And songwriters just don’t have any support. It’s a 90/10 split. It’s crazy.

I agree. So obviously, this must change your approach as a creative, right?

100%.

How so?

Well, here’s the thing. I was very lucky to be a part of The Chainsmokers' song “Closer.” I wrote on that song. I actually did some vocal production on that song but my credits on that song are as a writer. And that song went to radio and became a very, very big song around the world. So for me, I got paid. And it was amazing. And I was all for it. I signed a publishing deal and I was like, “Wow, being a songwriter is so great. I can make a living at this. This is incredible.” I came to LA, shut myself out. Started doing songwriting sessions in LA. Writing, writing, writing. And started to realize, “Wow, you know, the only songs that make any money for the songwriters are the ones that make it on the radio. All the other songs can basically get a hundred million streams [and] the writers aren’t getting anything. It’s not even worth it. So, I’m going into songwriting sessions and everyone’s like, “Well, you know... if you don’t write a radio hit, it doesn’t count.” And that is just the worst situation when you’re trying to be creative. You’ve got hundreds of songwriters every day in writing sessions, trying to write songs. These are career songwriters and the only thing they’re focused on is hitting the Top 10 on the radio. Which, I don’t know about you, but I think the radio is pretty irrelevant. It just makes it so career songwriters aren’t even trying to write that stuff. That’s where I think the problem is.

Since you have a group of writers who are catering to the very top of the radio charts, let’s look at the bigger picture here. Obviously, this is degrading the overall quality of the material because it’s being made by design. Is that a fair statement?

Yeah, I mean, listen. Music is in a great place right now. There’s some amazing stuff being made and I’m working on some stuff that I’m super excited about. I’m not coming from a super negative place on that end. But you are right when you say that everything is being catered towards something. It’s funny, streaming fully picked up in the last year and a half to two years, it’s almost saved the music business. It took [the major labels] like 15-20 years to get this together. And in the back of my head, I was like, “This is gonna be amazing when this happens ‘cause everyone’s just gonna put their music out there and it’s gonna be open for the people to decide what is the best music.” And then what happened was, which I didn’t foresee, was this whole playlist thing. And now, we’re basically all the way back to square one again where it’s like, now you gotta appeal to the gatekeeper of this playlist and that playlist like, “Oh, well, I heard this guy is running this playlist. He likes stuff like this. So make sure, 'cause if we don’t get any playlists, then our song is a failure.” And that’s what’s happening now. It’s brutal for young artists.

I’ve noticed that a lot of career songwriters and career producers are rebranding themselves as artists.

Yeah. This is the best thing that’s happening out of this. I’ve been touring and putting out my own music under my own name and it’s actually so amazing to have my own platform because, when I write a song that doesn’t fit someone’s playlist or doesn’t fit someone’s album, I can’t get mad anymore. I love it. I just put it out myself. And what I’m seeing now is that the labels are starting to sign all of these young kids that are writers. Because why wouldn’t they? It costs them nothing to put music out these days, you know? There’s no investment. One of the big arguments on my Twitter post was that everyone was like, “Yeah, but the label puts up so much money to release the music and they take on such a financial burden.” No, they don’t. They don’t anymore. Because putting out music these days is basically submitting your song to a playlist on Spotify on Friday. And you pop the song out, and if it goes, it goes. Yeah, there’s other investments—branding investments and advertising and all that stuff, but a lot of these labels, they don’t do that anymore for new artists. They just put the music out and see if it sticks. So now what they’re doing is they’re just hiring all these songwriters. Why not? It kinda started with electronic artists on Napster and SoundCloud hip-hop artists and shit. Between like 2010-2014, that whole Wild West era of music. Like literally the best era 'cause there were no rules.

It was the best era for websites and blogs, too.

I know. It’s like we’re back to the corporate music structure. You know, when I just got into electronic music in 2012, when I started becoming a DJ and an artist, I was like, “Wow, I make a song, I put it on the internet, all these people hear it, these small little labels will help me push it out there, all the blogs will get me all the hype.” And then to have that go back to the way the way it was before.

I sense your frustration.

Having said that, though, you weren’t making money off music in my time. No one was. So that’s the Catch 22.

At the time, did you justify the lack of income directly from music as you paying it forward, putting yourself in a better position to earn future revenue, right?

Yeah. You’re able to build yourself up as an artist, get fans, go on tour and stuff. You know, I initially loved the whole Spotify model. It was crazy when I started getting checks for streaming. It was like, “Whoa.” There were 10 years where no one was making any money. Then everyone was making money off music again. Look at it how it’s being split. It’s just wrong.

I don’t even know if this is possible, I’m just throwing this out there: Obviously, no two records are equal. Should the splits be the same for records selected as singles versus records that remain album tracks? And can songwriters negotiate the opportunity to renegotiate if a record is selected as “the single”?

Yeah, I don’t know man. That sounds extremely complicated. 'Cause whoever has the leverage is just gonna be like, “No, we’re not gonna renegotiate.” I mean, there’s a lot of different things you can do. There’s always milestone things, you know? Where if your song generates this [number of streams or sales] then there’s like a bonus to the songwriters and stuff. But again, these are all fields we have to make on the back end. There’s so many songs going around. To make all these deals individually, it’s tough. Some of the bigger writers are probably just going into sessions being like, “Listen, I’m gonna do this album with you or I’m gonna do these singles with you and write these songs, but I’m just letting you know that I get a quota of the master if I write with you and we do these songs.” Period. That’s just how it is.

A standard songwriting session is set up in LA, New York, wherever. It’s gonna be like two writers and a producer, right? That’s generally how it goes when we set it up. And the craziest thing is now, producers get to walk away with the points on the master to get those streaming checks. Three people are making music together, but only one guy [the producer] is gonna walk away a millionaire while the other two guys [the songwriters] walk away with nothing.

Because the producer is also getting the songwriting credit.

And he produced the record, yeah. Because he put a kick drum and a snare drum and some chords in. I’m not shitting on anyone ‘cause I do both sides. I’m a producer as well, so I understand. He could walk out and literally make 10 times as much as the people who were in the room with him that day just cause he pressed buttons on the computer.

That split is insane.

It’s messed up. And that’s just because of the law. Here’s the thing, I truly believe that whatever the law is, however it works, it should be 50/50. When Spotify royalties come in, whatever they’re paying—something like $5,000 per million streams or same with Apple Music and any other streaming platforms—$2,500 should go to writers and $2,500 should go to the producers. It’s that simple. That’s what I believe in. Then everybody is on the same playing field to make the best possible music.

Until something, anything, actually changes, do you think the best approach for someone in this position is the do-it-all-yourself motto? Write it, produce it, and record it all yourself.

Yeah, the best model right now is to be the artist. Be the one releasing the music. If you’re a songwriter and you’ve written a bunch of songs and you’re sitting at home with a hard drive full of great stuff, your best approach might not be to try to get the songs cut by bigger artists. It might even be the best thing to just wrap 'em up and put 'em out yourself. You might end up winning or making more. If it’s all about the money. Obviously, getting a song cut by a big artist leads to a lot of opportunities, but financially speaking, 100%.

You’re signed to Ultra Records as an artist and you have a separate publishing deal. Are you happy with the structure of both deals?

Yeah. The publishing deal is great because they put me in the room with great people. I do want them to fix the situation. I do want them to go rally in Washington and just solve this. Whatever this is, whatever is causing this insane split. One more thing on that topic: If one of the labels—let’s say Republic Records, one of the big ones—decided, “We’re gonna be the first label to start giving songwriters a [larger] piece of the split,” they would have every single one of the best songwriters writing the best songs and handing them directly to that label. But they’re too stubborn.

You believe the money that the label would lose on the percentage (split), they would more than make up for in releasing more hits?

One million percent. Because this whole business is driven by the quality of the music and the biggest, best, most relatable, coolest songs always rise to the top. We see that every day. Yes, some get lost, but the ones that really go, they matter for a reason. And a lot of them are written by homies of my mine in LA, people I know. Everyone’s just working down here, writing. And if some big label came along one day and said, “You know what guys, this is crazy. We wanna support you guys. Let’s do a deal where any songwriter on our label, we’re gonna cut them in.” Obviously, it’s a lot more complicated than what I’m saying, but if they agreed, you would have the entire city of LA writing for that label. Every single song would go to them first.

Have you had this hypothetical conversation with anyone at a major label?

I haven’t. And to be honest, I don’t really talk to labels that much. I work mainly with the artists. I’m gonna start bringing it up. It might be an accounting nightmare, I don’t know. I just know that it could stir things up in an interesting way. It would be a big win for everyone if someone started doing it ‘cause everyone would follow suit. They’re basically signing an agreement to give up more money.

At the prospect of making more money...

I think so. I think it would make them a lot more money and they would end up with way better music.

Transcription by Sara Brown

How to Network in Life: !llmind Shares the Key to Making Successful Connections

How to Network in Life: !llmind Shares the Key to Making Successful Connections

How do we meet people and what are some of the things we can do to nurture long-lasting relationships?

I don't know what it is about "networking" that I find so fascinating. Maybe it's the excitement of meeting new people. Or the unpredictability of how great or terrible an interaction might go. Either way, it’s always interesting.

I'm sure you've heard the popular saying "your net worth is based on your network." That saying is actually super-duper true, especially in the entrepreneur do-it-yourself world (and abundantly true in the music industry). The base model for this structure is the idea that the more people you know, the more successful you will become.

So we must ask ourselves: How do we meet people and what are some of the things we can do to nurture long-lasting relationships? Let's take a closer look.

I've met a lot of people. Actually, let me rephrase that. I've met a SH*T TON of people. Too many to count, too many to recall. Tens—if not, hundreds—of thousands of conversations and interactions, each unique in their own right. Some of those conversations turned into call-backs. Others were one-and-done. Some of these people I've never seen or heard from ever again. A small handful of them turned into long-lasting friendships. The possibilities and outcomes are endless when it comes to interacting with other human beings.

If most of your networking falls into the one-and-done category, however, the first and best place to look is within. Really be honest with yourself and think about the last, say, three conversations you've had with strangers. Were they great? Were they long conversations? Short conversations? Did they feel awkward? Did you feel empowered after those interactions? Why do you think those conversations went well, or not so well?

The key to initiating meaningful interaction is confidence.

Let me rephrase that: Confidence is F*CK!NG KEY! (I promise that was my last rephrase.)

You're either confident or not confident. Or, you're sort of, occasionally, sometimes confident. Whichever level of confidence you are at this current moment, just know that the more confident you are in yourself, the greater your chances of winning people over during a conversation.

To be clear, I’m not talking about being “cocky.” There’s a difference. People love confident energy. It's inspiring. It feels good to be around. It exhumes positivity. It's contagious. Believe it or not, you can boost someone else's confidence by expressing confident energy in yourself.

When you’re engaged in conversation, stand tall. Express your words with diction. Believe everything you say and hold those words dear to you. Enjoy talking about whatever it is you're talking about. Don't look down. Make eye contact. BE interested. If you're not interested, TRY to look interested. Ask questions. Let the other person speak, and don't interrupt them. REALLY listen to them, genuinely. Don't converse with the purpose of replying. You shouldn't be thinking of what to say next while the other person is speaking. It's rude. It's selfish. Be selfless during conversation and confident in your words. The other person is bound to appreciate that energy. And most importantly, try to enjoy the conversation you are having. Enthusiasm is an amazing state of mind to be in to ensure healthy conversation.

Unfortunately, the same is true for the opposite. Self-doubt is just as contagious. Anger and hostility will force the other person to act angry and hostile towards you. Nervousness will make the other person nervous too, which doesn't feel good. If the other person doesn't feel good, the conversation is bound to be a disaster. Desperation is also a no-no. Don't seem too desperate. That type of energy will turn the other person all the way off. If you're not looking into the other person's eyes, you're not really present. If you're not present, why should the other person care about what you are saying to him or her?

It’s important to understand that YOU—yes, you—have the power to control the actions and attitudes of others by your own actions and attitudes. If you lack confidence, cultivate a habit of "acting" confidently. Practice doing it. Hold your head and shoulders up. Look the other person in the eyes while they speak. Listen with intent. Walk with a confident step. Fake it 'til you make it. In other words, act with confidence until you ACTUALLY START TO FEEL CONFIDENT. Use positive words during conversation. Don't talk negatively about people. And avoid bringing up negative subjects. Take the initiative to set the tone of the conversation. If you start off formal, the tone for the rest of the conversation will be formal. If you start off friendly, the tone for the rest of the conversation will be friendly.

It doesn't matter who it is, either. Most of the time, it's not about your talent or your art, or your knowledge, or how good looking you are (well, that does help, I must say so myself). These things are a PLUS, but they all follow confidence. Oh and guess what? If you're really good at what you do—and you know you are—you're likely to be more confident.

Again.

Act confident, and the other person will have confidence in you.

Trying to win a prospective client or connect over? Act confident.

Playing your music for an executive or an A&R? Act confident.

Confidence works.

Every time.

It never fails.

How Sleep Deprivation Impacts Rapping and Creativity

How Sleep Deprivation Impacts Rapping and Creativity

Two MDs break down the pros and cons of rap's "grind mentality."

“If you don’t hustle, you don’t win” or a similar sentiment has likely appeared on your timeline today. But while the idea of pouring yourself into your passion is beautiful and commendable, hustle culture can be extremely toxic.

In general, all creatives are incredibly inspiring individuals, but none of us are superheroes—no matter the inventive ways we see the world. Need proof? One Google search will lead you down a rabbit hole of papers, personal essays, and contrarian tweets detailing hospital trips and mental breakdowns following a lack of sleep and self-care. 

Even still, sleep deprivation is worn as a badge of honor because if you’re exhausted to your core, you must be on the verge of greatness, right? Sort of—the question requires more nuance. A lack of sleep might have negative physical and emotional consequences, and yet something is still keeping artists hooked on sleep depravity. 

In an effort to better understand this behavior, DJBooth spoke with Dr. Dmitry Ostrovsky, a psychiatry resident at Mount Sinai St. Luke's in New York, and Dr. Rubin Naiman, the director of NewMoon Sleep, LLC, a Tucson, Arizona-based organization that specializes in sleeping, about the impact sleep deprivation can have on creativity, the appeal of hustle culture, and the search for balance.

Starting with the basics, sleep deprivation is exactly what it sounds like: not getting enough sleep. As Dr. Ostrovsky explains, there are over 70 causes of sleep deprivation, from sleep apnea to a depressive disorder, but the condition can often be self-induced. If an artist is in the studio working for 22-30 hours straight without getting tired, per Ostrovsky, that artist is operating on a hypomanic level.

“Hypomania is a distinct period where people have elevated, expansive mood, lasting a few days,” he details. “You get more creative when you’re hypomanic. That’s an important distinction. Somebody who is hypomanic would be more creative than just people who are not sleeping.

"[Hypomania] is associated with inflated self-esteem. So when someone is hypomanic, they think more highly of themselves than usual. There’s a decreased need for sleep, distractibility, and great physical and mental activity, and an over-involvement in pleasurable activities.”

Moreover, Dr. Naiman, who has worked one-on-one with a grip of musicians, explains, “There’s a concept called the Puer, the colloquial term is Peter Pan Syndrome. It’s this notion of getting high and getting higher and higher and higher, and never coming down. The difficulty with that is a lot of people never want to come down.”

According to Naiman, Puer energy is quite common among music industry professionals and, while it can be beautiful, a lot of his work with entertainers has been centered around preparing these individuals to exit that high. “You need to be willing to descend,” he stresses. “This is a challenge in our world today.”

While Ostrovsky contends artists who hit creative dry spells are more likely to trigger these hypomanic episodes in order to hit a productive high, both doctors attest drugs can produce a similar effect. This might be, in part, why we've seen countless rap artists battle and overcome addiction in tandem with a project release.

Or consider all of the interviews in which artists discuss the eureka moment that occurred at three or four in the morning—that stroke of inspiration was no accident. 

“People who burn the midnight oil have readier access to their unconscious,” Ostrovsky points out. “You dream more after sleep deprivation, so if they’re dreaming about music, they will have readier access to things like musical melodies and choruses in their dreams.”

This state of sleepy consciousness, as Dr. Naiman describes, will find artists immersed in “waking dreams.” The antithesis of the escapism of a daydream, Naiman says, is that waking dreams bring you deeper into your unconscious, which can strengthen your creative process and your writing.

Other potential creative benefits of sleep deprivation include self-induced trips, a loss of the boundaries of your body, hallucinations, and delusions, and the creation of a high not dissimilar from one caused by a drug like acid. These effects manifest after two days without sleep, according to Ostrovsky. 

As it pertains to writing raps, there are also other benefits:

“You’re more likely to dream and remember your dreams. So if [an artist is] rapping about their emotions and their basic instincts… Because dreams come from your primitive mind, then they percolate through your emotional mind, then to your rational mind… If they need access to their unconscious, through sleep deprivation, they’re much more likely to be able to access [those emotions].”

Before you cut sleep from your creative flow in hopes of penning your version of Kendrick Lamar’s “u,” Ostrovsky notes that sleep deprivation can be just as detrimental to rapping. “There are other problems with sleep deprivation,” he explains. “Let’s say an artist is freestyling. After one day of sleep deprivation, it was found that people have decreased verbal fluency. They have a decrease in originality and flexibility. That’s after 32 hours without sleeping, straight.” In layman's terms, you’ll need a good night’s sleep to crush your 5 Fingers of Death freestyle on Sway In The Morning.

In fact, if you’re a lyrical rapper, Ostrovsky notes that good sleep is paramount: “If you’re the kind of rapper who puts a lot of thought into your rhymes, and has these complicated internal and external rhyme schemes, I would say good sleep would be helpful for you because then you can remember what you were thinking and dream about it.”

Ostrovsky also outlines a handful of damning physical consequences: “You gain weight. Your insulin resistance can get worse. Your immune system doesn’t work as well if you’re chronically sleep deprived… Heart failure can happen… I’d say, the rule of thumb is after three days [deprived of continuous sleep] you start really hallucinating. After two days it starts being unhealthy. After seven or eight days, you can die from sleep deprivation.”

That being said, Ostrovsky subscribes to the “everything in moderation" mindset, noting that creatives must approach advice from a place of humility. “I can’t argue with the fact that you can get in a trippy headspace if you’re sleep deprived,” he admits. “If that’s what an artist needs, then that’s what they need. I don’t see any long-term physical consequences for not sleeping more than three hours for two days and then crashing on the third day, as long as they don’t do it all the time.”

Key words: “don’t do it all the time.”

“It’s way better for you than, say, taking ecstasy or LSD, or smoking marijuana to be more creative,” Ostrovsky adds. “I’d say that smoking pot every day probably has more negative consequences than [limited periods of sleep deprivation].” Naiman agrees, in part, that sleep deprivation can produce a creative lens, but also made crystal clear that there is no avoiding the incredible toll sleep deprivation takes on the mind and body.

As for that hustle mentality, Dr. Naiman believes the issue is societal. “I think there’s a subtle hypomania that’s crept into common culture,” he muses. “People aren’t just awake, they’re excessively awake. It’s not just that we ascend into the atmosphere and fly through the day—we’re in the upper atmosphere. What that means is it’s harder to come down.”

If a concerted effort to come down isn't made by choice, the human body will simply shut down. “It’s been established with creative people that you burn the candle at both ends and eventually you crash,” Ostrovsky confirms. “You either go psychotic, or you break down, or you have a depressive or manic episode.”

To that point, Dr. Naiman stresses we can’t circumvent sleep: "We have to be willing to come down. I personally think that not only does that promote our health, but it promotes a different kind of creativity, a creativity that’s relevant to life."

More importantly, both doctors debunk the notion that being productive requires a 24/7 workflow. “It’s a myth that you need to not sleep to actually grind,” Ostrovsky contends. “If you sleep and you exercise, then when you’re awake you’re much more productive than when you’re sleep deprived. You can get more done in a shorter period time if you’re sleeping well and you’re in good health.”

For anyone concerned that coming down and taking a break will somehow undo their work or undercut their passion, Naiman assuredly tells me: “People confuse the hustle mentality with true passion. If they take a moment and check in, they’ll realize that a lot of motivation is not inspiration, it’s fear.

“We move for two basic reasons: because there’s something behind us chasing us, or there’s something in front of us that inspires us. We would love to live a life informed more by inspiration. I think people need to slow down and actually feel and trust their gut. It’s about placing creativity over profit, and I know that’s not such a simple thing, but that helps people stay in touch with who they are and what they need.”

The moral of the story: whether or not you use sleep deprivation as a creative tool or a measure of your worth, if you don’t come down eventually, your work and your life will suffer.

Rekordbox 5.2 Released, Lets You Make Your Own Light Shows

Pioneer DJ just launched the latest version of Rekordbox. Now at version 5.2, the update includes the brand new Lighting Mode that lets you create custom lighting effects when you’re spinning with Rekordbox DJ and you’re using Pioneer DJ’s own RB-DMX1 lighting interface. Rekordbox’s Lighting Mode can automatically design lighting commands that are in sync … Continued

The post Rekordbox 5.2 Released, Lets You Make Your Own Light Shows appeared first on Digital DJ Tips.

“Charlie Brown” Shows Rejjie Snow Is Finally Seizing His Moment

Rejjie Snow is finally seizing his moment.

Rejjie Snow is finally seizing his moment.  

After nearly two years of delays, Snow, one of the smoothest artists to cross over to US airwaves from Dublin, Ireland, has finally released his full-length debut album, Dear Annie

Produced by Benjamin Miller, album inclusion “Charlie Brown” is the perfect intersection of electro-pop phrasing, hip-hop sensibilities, and undeniable swagger.   

Norwegian singer-songwriter Anna of the North contributes a bright and bubbling verse, which pairs well with Snow’s nonchalant and rich delivery. Snow, meanwhile, stays true to his roots on the hook and the bridge, which is a slightly amended cover of Republic Of Loose’s hit “The Steady Song.” 

With its sky-high scaling vocals and easy groove, "Charlie Brown" is an immediate Dear Annie standout.  

How ‘Black Panther’ Made Vince Staples’ ‘Big Fish Theory’ Sound Even More Like the Future

How ‘Black Panther’ Made Vince Staples’ ‘Big Fish Theory’ Sound Even More Like the Future

A trip to Wakanda has recontextualized Vince Staples' thrilling sophomore album.

“This is Afrofuturism y’all can keep the other shit. We’re trying to get in the MoMA not your Camry.”

This is how Vince Staples half-jokingly described his sophomore album Big Fish Theory on Twitter before its release last year. He backpedaled on the description shortly after, but it’s hard to avoid flourishes of the subgenre. Staples is preoccupied with the trappings of rap stardom and their effect on the Black experience throughout, somewhere between demanding for more “Tamikas and Shenequas in the Oval Office” and staring down hip-hop’s dark side while dancing on the roof of a 745, the epitome of being “too cultured and too ghetto.”

The forward-thinking fusion of thoughtful raps with techno and drum and bass beats has been (unfairly) coined as a “gangster Crip Yeezus,” but to me, it always screamed Afrofuturism. Vince (and hip-hop, by proxy) is surveying his future through the lens of Black history.

“Might get JFK'd, hope not I pray if / If so, ain't no thang to a G / I feel just like Snoop on Andre Day / I run North Side of the beach / Run these streets like Ali Bomaye.”

If you’re not familiar, Afrofuturism essentially imagines the arts and culture of the present and/or future from a historically Black and/or African point of view, pioneered by people like jazz artist Sun Ra and author Octavia Butler. The term wasn’t coined until the mid-1990s and didn’t become popular until much later, but its presence in hip-hop is hard to ignore. It’s Public Enemy’s Black Planet and Shabazz Palaces’ trip to a Gangster Star. It’s Missy Elliott’s M-suit and Janelle Monáe’s android space opera Metropolis. It’s Vince Staples’ nihilistic, tongue-in-cheek sneer from the front lines of Black celebrity and OutKast recreating themselves as ATLiens. 

All of these images crossed my mind when I walked out of my Thursday night screening of Black Panther.

The story of T’Challa and the Black Panther has always been awash with Afrofuturism. The fictional city of Wakanda is powered by the alien mineral vibranium, its tech sector and military run by confident Black women. A fusion of traditional and futuristic Africa where ritual combat determines the king and a man runs around beating people up in a black and purple catsuit. It’s been imagined by the likes of Stan Lee, Christopher Priest and Ta-Nehisi Coates, but the weapons, fashion and lived-in culture of Wakanda were first introduced on the big screen in a trailer featuring a mash-up of Staples’ “BagBak” and Gil-Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

Watching the Dora Milaje prep for combat and T’Challa and his brilliant sister Shuri share a custom dap with that song in the background was the initial spark, but it was the story of villain Erik “Killmonger” Stevens—played up to 11 by Michael B. Jordan—that connected the frayed ends for me. 

Killmonger is a Wakandan-American who was left to the poverty of Oakland in the early '90s when his father Prince N’Jobu was killed unexpectedly. He knew Wakanda had the resources to lift up Black people the world over, but they chose to stay hidden. Killmonger dedicated his life to the U.S. Special Forces in an attempt to challenge his cousin T’Challa for the throne. As bloodthirsty and tainted by American imperialism as he was, a young Killmonger watching the skies for Wakandan airships from an Oakland basketball court matches Staples’ view of California in 2018: “The next Bill Gates can be on Section 8 up in the projects.” Killmonger is the Big Fish trapped in a small pond who knows how to help but can’t.

Both Big Fish Theory and Black Panther peer into a Black future and move forward with perseverance. Vince is continuing to cheat death by celebrity by standing his ground as a proud Black man while T’Challa is staring down the prospect of revealing Wakanda’s riches to the world. Vince’s verse from Black Panther The Album standout “Opps,” a booming back-and-forth between him and South African MC Yugen Blakrok, only brings the paranoia full circle: “Bring a friend, bleedin' hands from the genocide / Clean me up, beam me up to the other side / Brothers die, 'cause coons turn to butterflies / They don't wanna see me sittin' in the Benz / They don't wanna see me livin' on the end.

It helps that both Big Fish Theory and Black Panther have been given a musical bed of Black music to spin their tales over. The beats on Big Fish Theory, crafted by Zack Sekoff, Ray Brady, Flume and Christian Rich, among others, move from G-funk to Detroit techno to drum and bass on a dime, matching Vince’s breathless delivery at every turn. Donald Glover affiliate Ludwig Göransson handled the score for Black Panther, which is filled with Masai tribe chants, orchestral strings, and booming 808s. Everyone is stepping into the future with no fear.

Eight months and one $200 million-plus blockbuster after its release, Big Fish Theory strikes me as even more Afrofuturist today than it was when Vince first shared it with the world. It’s hard to hear something this progressive in the context of a futuristic African nation and not walk away wondering when the mothership will come around to grab Vince Staples. Wakanda forever.

Kendrick Lamar Cites Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes As “Big Inspirations” Behind Visual Mastery

Kendrick Lamar Cites Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes As “Big Inspirations” Behind Visual Mastery

For more than a decade, the pair authored up some of the most inventive, unique and memorable sets of visuals.

With all due respect to Tyler, The Creator, Vince Staples, Kevin Abstract and Cole Bennett, Kendrick Lamar and Dave Free, together known as The Little Homies, have the best creative vision in rap.

For the past four years, TDE's superstar MC and its label president have wowed fans by delivering one visual masterpiece after another, including, most recently, the GRAMMY-winning "HUMBLE.," as well as videos for "DNA.," "ELEMENT." and "LOYALTY."

Last week, following the release of the music video for Black Panther The Album inclusion "King's Dead," co-directed by The Little Homies and Jack Begert, Kendrick sat down with Billboard to discuss, among other things, how crucial visual arts have become to his brand and which veteran MCs served as the biggest cinematographic inspiration.

"I think from jump it's always been crucial to me," Kendrick told Billboard writer Carl Lamarre. "You know, just being a kid watching BET, I'd be on the phone with Dave, you know my partner that does the videos with me, and we'd be watching Missy Elliott videos back in high school and Busta Rhymes videos. They were always big inspirations."

For those who didn't grow up in the '90s, Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes—creatively speaking—were unrivaled when it came to visual mastery. For more than a decade, the pair authored up some of the most inventive, unique and memorable sets of visuals, constantly introducing new styles (Missy's garbage bag suit) and employing different techniques (Hype Williams using the Fisheye lens).

Since 2013, Lamar and Free have been behind the creative process and lens for 11 music videos. Expect that total, like the quality of their content, to increase in the years to come.

10 Artists Under 30 Define A “Successful Career” in Music

10 Artists Under 30 Define A “Successful Career” in Music

For some artists, success means attaining wealth. But for others, it means something completely different.

Masego

If you were to ask 10 artists to define a successful career in music, you'd most likely get 10 different answers. In fact, you would get 10 different answers.

Last week, we spoke with 10 artists under the age of 30, asking each to answer the following question: How would you define a "successful career" in music? 

While some artists expressed a desire to be considered "the greatest," and others to achieve maximum monetary gain, almost every creative we spoke with stressed the importance of simply knowing that their craft will allow them to pay their bills, put food on the table, and take care of their loved ones.

Aside from providing a bare minimum level of financial security, which was the most common answer next to having fun and making an impact, almost all of the artists we spoke with stressed the importance of full creative control and artistic freedom as it relates to success. For many, the very idea of success begins and ends with not having to ask others for permission. 

Below, you will find the complete answers we were provided, which have been edited lightly for clarity.

Maségo (@UncleSego)

Hometown: Newport News, Virginia | Age: 24

"Success to me is creative fulfillment, financial freedom, and the power of worldwide assembly. If you wake up everyday equipped with what you need to create whatever’s on your mind, you win. If you can buy what you truly want and take care of your loved ones, you win. Finally, if you can assemble people anywhere in the world—for example, a show—nobody can tell you that you’re not successful."

View the original article to see embedded media.

Crystal Caines (@CrystalCaines)

Hometown: Harlem, New York | Age: 26  

"Being able to do what you love for a living as well as 'gettin' the bag' brings fulfillment and inner success. The praise and recognition are great, but what success in the music industry means to me is being able to inspire other young women starting out. When they write me and tell me things like 'You're the reason why I didn’t give up' or asking for advice, it makes me see my role is bigger than anything I could even imagine. I’m no role model, but I’m happy that my level of success can inspire others to never give up on things that they love or dream about because they've seen me do it."

Sylvan Lacue (@SylvanLacue)

Hometown: Miami, Florida | Age: 27

"A successful career in music essentially comes down to your trajectory and what you seek to attain. If what you're doing fulfills your own expectations, then, in my opinion, you're successful—whether you're a grassroots 250 to 500-cap touring artist, a pop phenomenon, a once in a blue moon drop a tune, or a one-hit wonder. No matter what, if you're satisfied with the trajectory you've set for yourself in the music business, you've achieved a successful career in music."

View the original article to see embedded media.

Jez Dior (@jezdior)

Hometown: Los Angeles, California | Age: 25

"Music has always been about therapy for me. The fact that sharing my darkest places and deepest secrets have helped other kids who were in similar places to me feels like a huge success. Of course, signing to a major label was a dream that I’ve had since I can remember. A [desire] to craft chart-topping singles and garner mainstream notoriety is a major aspiration of mine, but in my eyes, that’s only a piece of what defines a successful career. Getting messages from these kids saying my music saved their lives is the ultimate level of success for me."

IshDARR (@IshDARR)

Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin | Age: 21  

"I'd define a successful music career as one with no expectations, limitations, or regrets. Remembering the SOLE reason you BEGAN creating and once it begins to alter, knowing when and how to find that reason. Understanding things can get out of control, and accepting that, but ultimately knowing that you are in control of your destiny. Speaking for myself, I did not get into music for anyone or anything except myself. It was a hobby that became a career once it started affecting lives. The success that starts to come with it definitely can be overwhelming but remaining happy until the day you decide to stop making music is a successful career for me."

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Brian Fresco (@BrianFresco)

Hometown: Chicago, Illinois | Age: 24  

"I would say that a successful career in music is based on a number of things. You, of course, have to have the numbers, but also if you are having fun. Music is therapeutic; that's success in itself to me."

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Fat Tony (@fattonyrap)

Hometown: Houston, Texas | Age: 29  

"A successful career for myself is being critically acclaimed, earning a healthy living from my music via syncs (licensing) and performances, continuing to pursue projects as an actor and writer, and living somewhere affordable and comfortable outside of the Los Angeles-New York bubble."

View the original article to see embedded media.

Caleborate (@CALEBORATE)

Hometown: Berkeley, California | Age: 24  

"Being able to live how you want to. And still do music whenever you choose, how you choose. Like Big said in Notorious, if I could make a garbage man salary rapping, I'm cool."

View the original article to see embedded media.

Swade (@Swade)

Hometown: Lake Wales, Florida | Age: 27  

"I define success by being able to take care of my family, being able to touch and help others, and putting my talented homies in position to do the same, all while making the music I believe in."

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femdot. (@femdotdotcom)

Hometown: Chicago, Illinois | Age: 21

"A successful career is one where you can take care of your family and survive off music. I mean, the whole idea of being a superstar is dope, but in actuality, if you can actively tour when you like and have a core fan base that will always pay and be interested in your music, and you and your family can live comfortably off the words you write, that's success to me."  

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Towkio Will Listen to His Debut Album ‘WWW.’ From Outer Space Because He’s “A Magician”

Towkio Will Listen to His Debut Album ‘WWW.’ From Outer Space Because He’s “A Magician”

The Chicago MC will literally release his "artist defining album" 100,000 feet above the Earth.

The debut album is a major milestone in an artist’s career. An even bigger milestone? Being the first rapper in space.

Twenty-five-year-old Chicago MC Towkio aims to hit both goals this Friday, February 23, as he launches 100,000 feet above Earth and listens to his debut album, WWW., from way above the stratosphere. More than a stunt, Towkio’s intergalactic adventure aims to simulate the concept that drives the album: The Overview Effect.

“It’s the looking back at the earth,” Towkio explains. “It happens to astronauts when they leave the earth and they break the plane. It’s an out-of-body experience. They look back and see how precious it is because your life on Earth only exists on Earth. So all of the bullshit you deal with on a day-to-day basis, it instantly goes out the window when you leave the plane and you’re looking at the earth.”

Sonically, WWW. falls in line with Towkio’s philosophizing. There’s a heavy electronic influence pulsing through the record, and as Towkio jumps from footwork beats to more traditionally structured tunes, pure elation ties the album together.

As far as the music is concerned, Towkio has no concerns. As the first rapper signed by iconic record producer Rick Rubin in nearly two decades, Towkio’s greatest lesson learned is to focus on keeping his intentions pure—the message will come. In that same breath, he also isn't concerned with losing himself in the grandiosity of his concepts.

“I don’t worry, I just play my part,” Towkio asserts. “My part is to inform and to spread the message for people to want to inform themselves. I have been blessed enough to have a purpose and a message, and a reason to wake up every day. This is all I want to do with my life: manifest. Manifest, manifest, manifest; I’m a magician. I make things come out of nowhere.”

While Towkio has been steadily releasing full-length projects since 2014, he contends that his debut will be an “artist-defining album,” because, among other reasons, he will be literally dropping it from space.

DJBooth’s full interview with Towkio, which has been lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

Considering you’ve been putting out quality full-length releases since 2014, what does this forthcoming debut mean to you?

There are albums that define artists, and then there are albums that define sounds. There’s College Dropout and Channel Orange, and the range of the sonics there are all over the place, but still glued together by the artist. So I think this is an artist-defining album, where people are going to be able to see where I’m at and what I’m capable of. The next album will be a little more specific to a sound. It’s exciting to finally put a body of work out that’s all blended together by the artist.

You blended all of these sounds, but as you progress through the album, the sonics become heavily influenced by electronic music. Was there a particular aim in sequencing the project in this manner?

I was rapping over footwork beats and all these uptempo things, but I think the sonics just came due to the evolution of my sound. I don’t think that I’m necessarily an electronic or dance artist, I just make music. But [all] music, I say, you can dance to. Now I’m more refined in my sound. It’s not just me singing over electronic beats. You hear something and it sounds like a Towkio song.

On the opening track, “Swim,” a choir is singing, “Be prepared to swim.” How have you prepared for this new phase of your career?

I had to learn more about myself, and getting more into the artistry. Being able to work with Rick Rubin and working at [his Malibu studio] Shangri-La, I feel like I’ve learned so much about myself in the past year or two.

What is the biggest lesson you've learned by working with Rick Rubin?

Intention. With anything you say, there has to be [an] intention behind it. I have the purest of intentions in all of my music, and my message and my presence here.

Speaking of intention, on your single “Hot Shit,” you sing, “They just want that hot shit.” Do you ever feel the need to make a specific type of song?

My manager always says she’ll blend vitamins and kale into a smoothie so that her kids will drink it. So to some extent, yeah, because it depends on who you’re trying to reach. You’ve got to relate to the people for them to listen to your further. You could make a song for a certain reason, but if it’ll grab a listener, then they’ll listen to the things you have to say.

How do you combat the pressure of trying to make songs for radio?

Drake does it the best, I think. He releases two songs at a time. He makes the song that he knows everybody is going to like, and then he makes the song for himself and for his fans. I think that every artist faces this at a certain point, but when you build up your fan base and your following, you don’t need that radio hit. Frank Ocean don’t got no radio hits, but he’s still one of the most respected artists. At the end of the day, it’s best to make art for yourself. That’s the purest of the art. When you’re trying to make things for other reasons, they’ll be flawed for those reasons.

The album title, WWW., implies a worldwide takeover. Is that the plan?

The project is a concept, it’s the Overview Effect. It’s the looking back at the earth. It happens to astronauts when they leave the earth and they break the plane, it’s an out-of-body experience. They look back and see how precious it is because your life on Earth only exists on Earth. So all of the bullshit you deal with on a day-to-day basis, it instantly goes out the window when you leave the plane and you’re looking at the earth.

This is a feeling every human needs to understand, and then we’d be able to advance. We wouldn’t be worried about Black or White or race or rich or poor, it would be more like one human race that exists on this beautiful planet. So the message is bigger than any language. It resonates with the truth for human consciousness. That’s why, if they can feel it through the music and they feel great and feel this high, that’s the plan. Hopefully, this inspires a person to go learn more information and inspires a sharing of information.

Well, that explains the cover. Where was it shot?

It was shot at Teotihuacan, the pyramids in Mexico. They’re like thirty minutes from Mexico City. Those pyramids were found by the Teotihuacan, they stumbled upon these humongous pyramids and they called them the City of the Gods because they didn’t know where they came from. These pyramids were obviously built by people who existed before. Human existence is so miniscule, it has existed and been erased. We leave manifestations, we leave art, we leave pyramids, that’s how we’re able to know that there was life before us. That was what those humans did, built those beautiful pyramids under the stars and the sun and the moon. Now, thousands of years later, we’ve actually put a man on the Moon.

Do you ever worry about how small you may be in the world?

I don’t worry, I just play my part. My part is to inform and to spread the message for people to want to inform themselves. I have been blessed enough to have a purpose and a message, and a reason to wake up every day. This is all I want to do with my life: manifest. Manifest, manifest, manifest; I’m a magician. I make things come out of nowhere. That day that I went and shot that photo, I left and two hours later, the biggest earthquake that hit Mexico in ten years hit that day. I don’t believe in coincidences. Something crazy happened that day, and I risked my life three times in the process of the “Drift” video—twice in Mexico and once in Hawaii. I’ve almost lost my life three times in this whole process of making manifestations. There’s been so many moments where one decision could’ve changed everything, but God protected me. If I should’ve been gone, he would have gotten rid of me.

With that, I’m going to be the first rapper—the first artist—to go to space. I’m gonna drop my album and listen to it from space. I’m not scared because if I’m not supposed to be here, He would’ve got rid of me already. I have no fear in my heart. This is my legacy. Even though it’s a small fragment in the timeline of the earth, it’ll still be one to inspire change. If I can inspire one person, that’s it, but I’m inspiring the whole planet.

How are you getting to space?

A helium balloon. Have you seen the Red Bull space jump? If you look it up on YouTube, it’s a big helium balloon. It takes a lot of helium, but it’s the most efficient way to get into the atmosphere because you don’t have to use thrust. It takes you up 100,000 feet, and at a certain point, the helium balloon pops and then you parachute down. The Red Bull guy, he skydived. I’m not skydiving. I’m just gonna be in a capsule, hit 100,000 [feet], and parachute down.

Seriously? This is a done deal?

This is happening. I’ve done my research, I have a company, and I’ve already seen it done. Like I said, I’m not scared. It’s gonna be the day the album drops. If I die… God forbid, I’m not gonna die. I know he’s protecting me. I see 11:11 every single day. It’s under my spell and under my power that this all will happen. Worst comes to worst, I’ll die the only way I would want to die. I’m not gonna die, though.

I got to Rick Rubin through .WAV Theory, that was me looking at the moon. Now I’m looking at Earth from the Moon. I just got out the meeting that we confirmed all of this, and I can’t even tell my mom. She’s just gonna have to see it. She didn’t eat for five days when I went to Mexico. They did everything to have me not go, but I went anyway and I got the “Drift” video. I did it for $15,000, and other people weren’t taking the risks and getting the gifts from God like I was.

What else happened during your trips to Mexico and Hawaii?

When I was in Mexico, we got extorted by the police. The police pulled us over three times. They told us to go to a darker alley, then to an even darker alley, then made us get out the car and made us give them everything we got, with their guns and shit. We only had five dollars and they took five dollars from us. We had $60,000 worth of equipment, and for some reason, we had just dropped it off. 

[Editor's Note: Towkio, at the behest of his management, declined to provide additional details about his experience with the Mexican police force.]

In Hawaii, I get in the car, I look at the guys and I ask, "Where’s the seatbelt?" He says there is no seatbelt and takes off. He hits the first drift and I’m hanging out the window, basically almost fell out of a drifting car on a volcano. I did it five more times, but the first time, I lost my grip and I had my legs holding onto the car. Then I hung out of a hot air balloon, trying to catch a drone.

Are you tired?

Energy is given to me by God and meditation. I’ve always had great energy. This is what I live for, I chase these things that get me excited. That’s why I’m even talking like this. This is what gets me high.

Grounding the conversation, if you had to boil this crazy adventure down to one sentence, what would it be?

God. I grew up Catholic, but I believe in God. Not so much the Bible, but that there is a higher power. I can’t explain why all of this stuff happens, I just move with it. I’m just a vessel. I wake up and for some reason, I gotta go do this, and then I do it. It’s been like this for a couple years, but I’m finally getting the validation now. And this is just the beginning.

I Checked on Every Celebrity Eminem Has Rapped About Murdering to Make Sure They’re Still Alive

I Checked on Every Celebrity Eminem Has Rapped About Murdering to Make Sure They’re Still Alive

Guys, I have some upsetting news...

Eminem is one of the most iconic rappers to ever grip a mic, but I’ve never been able to get over his infatuation with killing random celebrities. On more than one occasion, I have had to pause my iPod mid-song and ask myself, “Oh shit... did he actually kill that person?”

Since no one else in the history of journalism has taken the time or shown the patience to get to the bottom of this, I took matters into my own hands, undertaking strenuous research to check on every celebrity that Eminem has rapped about murdering to make sure they’re still alive and well.

This took a while.

Also, this is the abridged version. If I wrote down EVERY example this article would be longer than Chris Brown’s new “album.”

Jennifer Lopez

SONG: "Symphony In H" (“Hell yeah I’d nail J-Lo... to the railroad!”)

STATUS: I checked, don't worry, she’s OK.

Jamie Lee Curtis

SONG: "No Favors" (“They blame me for murdering Jamie Lee Curtis, said I put her face in the furnace”)

STATUS: Still alive. In fact, she’s actually filming a new Halloween movie, which, I have to say, is pretty exciting. And she’s still hot. Is that weird? I’m sorry. But, yeah, she's good.

Dr. Dre

SONG: "The Real Slim Shady" (“And Dr. Dre said... nothing you idiots, Dr. Dre’s dead, he’s locked in my basement”)

STATUS: Dre, of course, is alive, but his Detox album is absolutely dead.

*NSYNC

SONG: "Marshall Mathers" (“Instincts to kill *NSYNC, don’t get me started”)

STATUS: Justin is obviously still alive. And it looks like Lance Bass and Joey Fatone are alive, too. Still no word on Chris Kirkpatrick, though.

The Octomom (Natalie Suleman)

SONG: "Psycho" (“Beat the Octomom to death with a Cabbage Patch Kid”)

STATUS: I googled the Octomom and she’s alive and thank God ‘cause someone has to raise all those damn kids. Plus, it’s impossible to kill someone with a Cabbage Patch Kid—I’ve tried.

Lindsay Lohan

SONG: "Same Song & Dance" (“Hello Lindsay you’re looking a little thin hon'...... Slowly she gets in and I begin to lynch with 66 inches of extension cord’)

STATUS: She’s alive. Which means we BETTER get a true Mean Girls sequel soon or I'M gonna kill someone.

Brooke Hogan & David Cook

SONG: "On Fire" (“This ain’t a song it’s a warning to Brooke Hogan and David Cook that the crook just took over so book”)

STATUS: The first Google search result read: “Why?” so I’m still not sure.

Kim Kardashian

SONG: "3 a.m." (“...a flashlight up Kim Kardashian’s ass”)

STATUS: Having a flashlight stuck up your ass is painful but not fatal. Don’t ask me for details but let's just say I'm speaking from experience. College was weird.

Hannah Montana

SONG: "Underground" (“Hannah Montana prepare to elope with a can opener and be cut open like cantaloupe”)

STATUS: I've just been informed that Ms. Montana is a fictional character who cannot technically be murdered.

Ivanka Trump

SONG: "Framed" (“But dog why the fuck is Ivanka Trump in the trunk of my car?”)

STATUS: I think she was just in Em’s trunk ‘cause she was hiding from her father.

Christopher Reeve

SONG: "Buffalo Bill" (“Christopher Reeve's swimming in my swim trunks, “Mister, help me” is what he said to me and then sunk”

STATUS: ...Guys.... I have some upsetting news...

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