I know what you’re thinking. Why is Trapital making a “best of the 2010s” list? Or a listicle at all? Well, hear me out. My goal from the jump has been to elevate the discussion on hip-hop. These past ten years have taken hip-hop culture to new heights. A well-made, digestible list helps us comprehend that impact!
These are the ten most influential hip-hop business moves of the decade. There are no hot takes here designed to drive traffic. If I get fewer page views because I didn’t troll you by saying “Soulja Boy’s bootleg video game console is the second-most influential move of the decade,” I’m fine with that.
To make the list, a business move had to do two things:
- Change the trajectory of the artist, mogul, businessperson, or company involved
- Influence others by changing the landscape or following their lead
#1 is obvious, but #2 can change over time. For instance, If I made a Best of the 2000s list in October 2009, 50 Cent’s investment in Vitamin Water and his self-reported $100 million payout would have topped the list. It helped popularize equity compensation for hip-hop partnerships and brought in more money than 50 had earned in his already successful rap career.
But in October 2019, that Vitamin Water deal falls further down the list for two reasons. First, it was less influential than expected. Beverage deals cooled off after that. If anything, spirits deals, like Diddy’s Ciroc partnership, had far greater influence in hip-hop. Second, that $100 million started to look suspect. During 50’s bankruptcy protection filing, The Washington Post reported that the Vitamin Water payout was as low as $60 million. The Wall Street Journal gave a low-end range of $40 million. Remember, this is the same guy who bragged about making millions from an early Bitcoin investment, but denied it later! Respect his hustle, but never believe a word he says about anything.
Instead of Vitamin Water, Jay Z’s $150 million deal with Live Nation in 2008, which birthed Roc Nation, and gave money for additional investments like Tidal and Uber, would have topped the list.
Before we kick off the 2010s list, here are a couple of honorable mentions:
- Nipsey Hussle’s $100 mixtape (2013) – Nip got a copy of Jonah Berger’s book Contagious, read the first chapter on the story behind the $100 Philly cheesesteak. He took those insights and applied it to his own product. End of story. The first $100 Crenshaw mixtape sold out its 1,000 copies in three days. He ran it back in 2015 with a $1,000 mixtape in 2015. The #Proud2Pay campaign proved the haters wrong. The man was ahead of the curve on maximizing his die-hard fan’s willingness to pay. It’s a shame he didn’t have more time with us to continue making a legacy.
- Supreme sells 50% stake to Carlyle Group (2017) – Private equity is rarely associated with hip-hop or streetwear culture. But Carlyle saw the value and claimed its stake. This valued Supreme as a billion-dollar company. I’m usually not one to celebrate valuations—which is why it didn’t make the main list—but it stemmed from an actual sale, which makes it more real.
On to the top 10…
TIER 1 – “Nah, I’m just tryina get like you!”
10. J. Cole’s Dollar & a Dream Tour (2013)
Cole is not the first artist to do a “free” concert.” He’s also not the first to recover from an overly-commercial album that his day-ones weren’t feeling. But this tour established Cole’s legacy with the thousands of fans who attended the shows, the thousands more who waited in line and couldn’t get in, and the millions who saw it unfold on social media. Other mainstream acts tried to follow his lead but failed due to poor planning. There would be no over-the-top “double platinum with no features” meme without this concert.
It also made Dreamville, Dreamville. The label’s culture is built on the sentiment of Cole’s success when he stopped trying to be “the mainstream guy.” Most of its artists release albums off-cycle to avoid the pressure of the Billboard charts. Dreamville has sustainable expectations and is willing to help its artists achieve sustained success, even if it takes longer to get there. Traditional record labels are like VCs. They want big exits early and often. But Dreamville is like a friendly funder with a realistic time horizon and healthier expectations.
9. Jay Z re-upped with Live Nation for $200 million (2017)
This deal is less impactful than the initial 2008 deal, but it still matters. The ’08 deal was focused on album advances and launching Roc Nation, while this is focused on touring. It locks Jay in until he’s 57 years old. For years, Hov called himself the Rolling Stones of hip-hop, rap’s Grateful Dead, and Black Axl Rose. Now he’s contractually obligated to make that happen.
Hip-hop culture still follows Jay Z’s every move. Him touring well into his 50s will give his peers the confidence to monetize their craft as they age gracefully. Roc Nation’s management arm has been focused on the older generation of hip-hop stars. Hov truly practices what he preaches.
Roc Nation’s NFL partnership adds an interesting wrinkle to this. Jay Z has yet to perform at the Super Bowl—a stage that’s often been reserved for legacy acts. I expect him to grace that stage by the time this Live Nation contract expires.
8. Beats by Dre sold to Apple for $3.2 billion (2014)
Premature flexes are best—especially when caught on camera. There are hilarious ones, like Nick Young celebrating his missed three-pointer. But that pales in comparison to Tyrese and Dr. Dre’s celebration of Apple’s acquisition of Beats.
They broke the news before the deal was finalized! They also incorrectly declared that Dr. Dre was hip-hop’s first billionaire. Despite the mishap, the deal itself was one of the best moves this decade.
Beats got several things right:
Smart marketing tactics – In the early days, Beats co-founders Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine leveraged their celebrity and connections to use musicians as product endorsers. It was a modern-day influencer campaign. The longtime business partners doubled down on this with an ambush marketing campaign during the 2012 London Olympics. Dre gave a bunch of Olympians the headphones to wear throughout the summer games. He skirted the official endorsement rules and still got valuable airtime. As someone who attended the London Olympics, I can assure you: Those. Headphones. Were. Everywhere.
Sell high – In 2011, beats accounted for 64% of U.S. headphones priced higher than $100. The product was everywhere. But Beats were a style-over-substance product (despite Beat’s claims otherwise). They often cracked from normal wear and tear. Those types of products typically have limited longevity.
By the time of the acquisition, Beats had switched ownership hands a few times and started in music streaming. Beats became an attractive acquisition target, and soon found a home with Apple. The brand has now largely pivoted into Apple Music. And while Beats still makes headphones, they are nowhere near as popular as they once were. Dre cashed out at the perfect time.
TIER 2 – “On the top it’s just us.”
7. Straight Outta Compton grossed over $200 million (2015)
It’s the best music biopic of the decade (and yes, I saw Bohemian Rhapsody. I said what I said). The film was a commercial and critical success that inspired a wave of big-budget hip-hop projects. Major studios recognized the opportunity with hip-hop, and now everyone wants in. Not all of the movies it influenced have been good (like All Eyez on Me) but they still matters. The film also teamed up with Beats by Dre for the memorable StraightOuttaSomewhere.com meme campaign. It had over 6 million downloads before the film released.
Each person in this movie continued rising. Director F. Gary Gray directed Fate of the Furious—one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. Gray also directed Cube’s 1992 music video for “It Was a Good Day.” Talk about a full circle. Oshea Jackson Jr was in Den of Thieves. Paul Giamatti is in Billions. Jason Mitchell was in Kong: Skull Island and Mudbound. Even the guy who played DJ Yella became the smartass friend in Insecure. Can’t ask for much more.
6. Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club gets nationally syndicated (2013)
“The world’s most dangerous morning crew” got its official start in 2010, but its come a loooong way since then. This 2010 interview with Jamie Foxx looks like it was recorded on a Motorola flip phone. But the content and potential were there.
By 2013, iHeartMedia expanded Power 105.1’s show beyond New York City and syndicated it in several markets across the U.S. The show started drawing bigger and bigger names. The hosts became celebrities in their own right, especially Charlamange Tha God. The show also got additional traction through its simulcast partnership with REVOLT, and its greatly improved video content. The show has become a mandatory stop for democratic presidential candidates that want the black vote. Every few months, the Breakfast Club is guaranteed to give us a viral moment. The show’s platform and influence have played a strong factor in elevating the culture.
The Breakfast Club’s success also fueled Charlamagne’s rise. Like Angie Martinez and Funkmaster Flex before him, Charlamange leveraged his platform to other business opportunities. “Hip-hop’s Howard Stern” had his own show on MTV, podcast, New York Times bestselling books, and more. The show’s rise paved the way for Drink Champs, The Joe Budden Podcast, No Jumper, The Read, and all the other shows/podcasts that thrive on hip-hop culture. The Breakfast Club is the most influential hip-hop morning show of all time.
5. Adidas and Yeezy team up (2013)
Adidas and Kanye must look at each other like the viral Paul Rudd look at us meme. “Look at us. Who woulda thought? Not me!”
Yeezy had a prior life on Nike, but the Red October’s have become a rare collector’s item in the grand operation that Yeezy has become. Kanye soon moved the brand from Nike to Adidas.
The partnership started as most sneaker-rapper deals do—limited drops that are driven by hype. Skeptics like sneaker analyst Matt Powell tried to warn us that Yeezy wouldn’t last because the celebrity model can’t sustain mass scale. But Yeezy has successfully transitioned into a mass-market product. It was the ninth-highest selling sneaker of 2018. Adidas succeeded where Reebok and countless other hip-hop sneaker partnerships failed. Instead of saturating the market too soon, adidas took its time. Yeezy’s slow buildup was the success behind its $1.5 billion brand.
Yeezy gave Kanye the money to recover from the debt he accumulated. It also quelled his desire for acceptance from the fashion world. Kanye doesn’t need to hold up trays of food for gatekeepers in the fashion world anymore. Since Yeezy’s rise, Puma, Adidas, and Nike have continued to strengthen their partnerships with hip-hop artists. The rise of Yeezy also paved the way for companies like StockX that built marketplaces around the sneaker culture, which is largely driven by both Yeezys and Jordans.
4. Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book and the rise of the indie artist (2016)
This decade will be remembered for the rise of the independent rapper. Coloring Book solidified Chance as the beacon of the indie movement. His success also sparked a seemingly endless discussion about the viability of record labels. It also inspired a generation of SoundCloud rappers. Hip-hop media constantly discusses the success of artists who choose to break out on their own. Chance’s transparency about his $500,000 Apple deal sparked a conversation on the distribution and promotional power that digital streaming providers have.
Chance’s run also influenced several companies as a result. UnitedMasters received $70 million funding from Alphabet on the notion that there are 250,000 Chance the Rappers out there. Music distributors like Stem and TuneCore grew in popularity. Whether you love Chance’s story, have a nuanced take on it like I do, or think he’s an industry plant (ha!), you can’t ignore the impact his rise has had on the decisions that up-and-coming rappers now make.
3. Rihanna launches Fenty Beauty (2017)
$100 million revenue in its first 40 days.
Inclusivity was a rare concept in the cosmetics world. Rihanna found a tremendous opportunity to use her brand to make a difference for those who don’t get represented. She made the product affordable and attainable. The ethos of Fenty Beauty extended to her Savage x Fenty lingerie line.
It’s a timely rise. Hip-hop’s relationship with couture has been a tumultuous one. Thirty years ago, Gucci went out of its way to shut down Dapper Dan’s clothing shop in Harlem. It cut off his supply chain and threatened outlets like MTV that featured artists who wore his knock-off merchandise. But today, Gucci and Dap are proud business partners.
Rihanna’s new LVMH Maison—the company’s first since 2019—is a crowning achievement. It recognizes the 31-year-old’s accomplishments with Fenty, and the fresh perspective she brought to an industry notorious for overlooking the underrepresented. It further solidified Rihanna’s multi-hyphenate status.
The Maison is just a few months old, so its influence is still fresh. But Rihanna’s achievement–which once seemed unattainable–should continue to change the landscape in the 2020s.
2. Apple Music and Tidal’s album exclusives (2016)
In the streaming era, 2016 feels like an entirely different era. Apple was proudly leading the charge on what seemed like the inevitable path forward for the industry. The digital streaming providers sought after exclusive content just like their video streaming counterparts, Netflix and HBO. By August 2016, Rihanna, Beyonce, Kanye West, Drake, Chance the Rapper, and Frank Ocean had all dropped albums that were exclusively on Apple or Tidal for at least a few weeks.
Everyone knew that streaming was the future. These exclusives solidified hip-hop as the genre that would lead the charge.
But all that came to a screeching halt when Frank Ocean pulled the ultimate okey-doke. He fulfilled his contractual obligations to Def Jam with the visual album Endless. The next day he dropped the far-superior Blonde as an independent album exclusive to Apple Music.
A few days later, Universal Music Group CEO Sir Lucian Grainge informed all his label heads that UMG was done with the exclusive game. It was a not-so-subtle middle finger to Apple Music, Frank, and all parties involved. The other major label followed suit, and the short-lived streaming era came to an unofficial end. Beyonce held out a bit longer with Lemonade, but that’s Beyonce.
The blame can’t solely be placed on Frank for this though. UMG had grown weary of the “streaming wars.” This was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Tier 3 – TOP 2 AND IT’S NOT 2
1. Beyonce’s surprise album (2013)
No one saw this coming. In fall 2013, Beyonce had an infant child and had been touring for a majority of the year. Where the hell did she find time to record an entire visual album? How did she manage to keep it under wraps for so long?
This deal gave us some exposure to operation that is Parkwood Entertainment. Fans knew that Beyonce’s team was built different, but they weren’t sure how different. Her team kept its product tightly controlled and secretive–like an iPhone product launch. Parkwood’s operations, explained in-depth in Harvard Business School’s case study, laid the framework for how to run a superstar’s management team. Bruno Mars, Ciara, and others have followed in suit with tightly-knit teams that seem to resembles the makeup of Parkwood.
Before Beyonce, surprise drops were few and far between, especially for a superstar. Acts as big as Beyonce typically took advantage of all the pre-album promotional support that major labels offered. But Beyonce believed in her power to make it happen. The album sold over 800,000 units in its first week.
The influence has spoken for itself. Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Kanye West, Mariah Carey, Eminem, J. Cole, and many more have since dropped albums with little or no advanced warning to fans. It confirmed what was now possible in the streaming era. It changed the marketing and promotional strategy of the entire music industry. It will continue to have influence.
It is, without question, the most influential hip-hop business move of the decade.