Hip-Hop Moguls: Beyond The Hype

As rap music has exploded, so too have the fortunes and businesses of some of today's hottest young music executives

I don’t mean to brag, I don’t mean to boast, but we’re like hot butter on your breakfast toast.” –Wonder Mike
In the 20 years since rap music swaggered forth from the block parties and basement jams of the Bronx, it has made the transition from fad to cultural phenomenon. In fact, hip-hop culture has become hip-pop culture, its influence felt from Madison Avenue to Hollywood.

Look no further than Long Island’s exclusive Hamptons for evidence of rap’s mainstream appeal. Last summer, this tony suburb hosted parties thrown by Jay-Z and Sean “Puffy” Combs that attracted a motley crew of attendees ranging from raunchy rapper Lil’ Kim to the doyenne of homemaking, Martha Stewart. Calvin Klein and Mountain Dew recognize the role of rappers as tastemakers, nabbing the likes of Foxy Brown and Busta Rhymes, respectively, to endorse their products. But none of this would’ve been possible if hip-hop hadn’t conquered the charts and captured the minds of the record-buying public.

Last year, rap surpassed country to become the third-best-selling music genre behind rhythm and blues and rock. According to SoundScan, which tracks retail music sales, by October this year’s rap sales had increased 17%-putting the genre on track to surpass 1998′s total sales of 81 million records and over $1 billion. The most telling moment of 1999 was Lauryn Hill’s five-award domination of the Grammys. In one of her many acceptance speeches, she summed it up best with the statement: “Wow, this is hip-hop!” Oh, you don’t know?!

Somewhat obscured by the gangsterism and materialism that dominate today’s rap scene is an emerging aesthetic of entrepreneurship. “It’s become part of the hip-hop culture now to become a business mogul,” says L. Londell McMillan a New York-based entertainment attorney. “Rappers are talking about everything from recoupment status to publishing percentages and ownership of their music.”

Perhaps most responsible for rap’s mogul mantra is Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam and the original b-boy executive. “We were the guinea pigs for the corporate music business to build a new kind of relationship with entrepreneurs who wanted to fight for a bigger share of the profits,” says Simmons. These deals are not fundamentally much different from the mainstream rock-and-roll deals, adds McMillan, who negotiated The Artist’s release from Warner Brothers Records in 1996 and represents rap label Ruff Ryders-home to multiplatinum-selling rapper DMX. Whether it’s money or a proven track record, rap labels are beginning to bring more to the table and have more leverage than ever before. “I sold 10 million albums before I had a joint venture,” says Simmons.

Today’s successful rap music entrepreneurs have indeed been able to wrestle more favorable deals from the Big Five record companies and distributors (Sony, BMG, Universal, WEA and Cema). In turn, they’ve followed Simmons’ lead (see sidebar, “The Blueprint of Hip-Hop”) and expanded into other businesses that leverage the marketing muscle of their music.

“The biggest difference between today’s label executives and the first generation is that they come into the game seeing the whole picture-records, movies, clothes,

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