A common refrain I hear echoing from all directions these days is “Yo! What’s up with UGHH?!” From some angles it’s fueled by the genuine curiosity of people wanting me to share what I’m up to. The other extreme has kept me up at night—sometimes working until 3AM—out of concern.

Over the past few months, I’ve received encouraging and disparaging words via email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, online reviews and even through a couple of Better Business Bureau inquiries. Many of these inquiries I’ve taken the time to answer, but I haven’t had the time to address what’s going on publicly.

In short, to keep it Internet, here is what’s up with UGHH:

So, how did we get to the point wherein I’m wading through a blaze wearing a t-shirt with the new UGHH branding and sipping an Old Fashioned out of a mug? Let’s discuss.

Failure By the Numbers

2017 started off relatively strong with us paying off a hefty amount of the six-figure debt that UGHH had previously incurred. Things looked positive as we were able to increase revenue at a steady clip. We then had the best Record Store Day that UGHH had ever seen. After that, we dipped back to pre-Record Store Day revenue levels expecting that revenue would, at least, remain flat as we ramped up other efforts for growth. So, we proceeded with our plan to invest in high-quality editorial content.

Revenue slumped considerably through Summer 2017 as the magazine ramped up. We continued to pay off old debts and then the revenue sharing portion of our acquisition deal kick in early July. In other words: more money was going out while much less was coming in.

The goal of UGHH Magazine was to invest in high-quality journalism and develop long-form, well-written stories to remind people that we are the definitive source for underground hip-hop. Those articles were also meant to drive users to the site, which we hoped would encourage record sales. Unfortunately, the investment in editorial content didn’t yield much in the way of traffic or sales. The chart below indicates that the magazine content only saw 20k visits and yielded $152 in direct sales in 2017.

Even if we zoom out and look at the editorial content through a branding lens (considering some readers may have learned of UGHH through the magazine, and then come back later to purchase) we can only attribute 249 purchases and ~$10k in revenue to that.

No matter how you slice it, we lost a lot of money on investing in editorial content.

As a digital marketer, I know that when it comes to content marketing, you need to invest in it long-term before you see results. Naively, I believed that since we had a built-in audience and longstanding brand, creating content would cut down that timeline.

I was wrong. That won’t be the last time I’ll need to admit that here.

Around the time of our content ramp up, we also augmented our approach to Paid Media. We very quickly zeroed-in on the most optimal advertising channels for UGHH. The problem? There is very little volume for direct response marketing in underground hip hop, and a brand strategy would have proven too costly until we found more solid footing. I still believe this site ultimately needs a media component to thrive, but we did not execute it effectively in 2017.

Ultimately, the year ended with little cash in the bank. Together, my partners and I decided to invest more cash to keep the business going. We decided to personally invest in UGHH because we believe in our brand and its mission.

Sales are not sustainable

Being that we are in retail, my next statement will be obvious, but it’s worth saying to give a fuller picture.

Our customers are highly reactive to sales.

As you might imagine, that’s a terrible expectation to set in a buyer/seller relationship, because there are a ton of customers that will only shop during a sale.

UGHH is a relatively low margin business which means that, irrespective of our price to you, we don’t make much profit from the sale of each product even at full price. But, I get it, I’m no different from you, I’m always searching for a deal.

In the research we did early on, it’s clear that we historically haven’t been the cheapest option because we’re not a distributor and we don’t command enough volume to get preferred pricing from distributors. So, when we run sales, it gives us a shot in the arm with regard to revenue, but then when we have to pay our vendors, partners and staff it just doesn’t add up.

While I haven’t had time to validate this hypothesis, I suspect that’s part of how the previous management got into the rut that they were in.

Running a sale also leads to a huge influx of orders. Being short on staff, this influx was something that we weren’t prepared for. As a result, UGHH’s customer experience suffered throughout the holidays and, ultimately, into 2018. To keep it short: sales need to be more strategic to be effective.

And then there were two

From a technical perspective, UGHH is held together by bubblegum and duct tape. Throughout the past year, there was a tremendous amount of resistance against updating UGHH to a more modern, improved technology stack. As I write this, UGHH is using three distinct platforms: WordPress, Shopify, and a legacy homegrown solution for the forum.

On the fulfillment side of things, there are perhaps hundreds of disparate scripts to sync a secondary database with Shopify, manage inventory and queue up product for ordering and shipping. Frankly, there is no reason that everything aside from packing can’t be automated.

Since last year, my goal has been to bring everything on to WordPress/WooCommerce so we can easily integrate everything and quickly/continuously make improvements. Unfortunately, that did not happen on the original timeline we had planned, and in mid-January (after some key departures) managing the technical components of fulfillment fell entirely on my plate.

Our E-commerce Associate and I were left to our own devices to keep things going. Big shout to him for being resilient throughout this whole process and stepping up in a variety of ways to make things happen. He is definitely the biggest personnel win that has come out of my short tenure of running UGHH.

Unfortunately, the documentation for the management of fulfillment was lacking, referenced computers or files we didn’t have access to or the processes were so convoluted that it wasn’t something that could be efficiently managed by someone without a surplus of time.

So, I did what any self-respecting web developer would do. I wrote my own shit!

It’s all still a work in progress as I have been plugging new holes and fixing bugs as we go, but I’ve simplified and automated most of what was previously done manually. Processes that once took hours now take minutes. In fact, the process of writing UGHH’s new code has been the one thing that I’ve really enjoyed throughout this tumultuous time. Once we launch our new site, there will be additional efficiency gains and we will be able to serve our customers better than ever before.

However, in the short term, these improvements came at a couple losses. At one point during the migration to WooCommerce, emails about historical and pending orders were accidentally sent to a lot of customers. Also, because there were only two of us to manage everything, and I’m split between many responsibilities on other businesses, focusing on building for the long term slowed things down.

I Failed You At Communication

We sent mass emails out to customers when there were big delays, but we did not do a decent job of answering all the email inquiries. We also didn’t establish phone support once the previous management abandoned it.

And when I say we, in this case, I mean me.

As the showrunner over here, any of our failures are ultimately my responsibility. Yes, I recognize getting behind in orders and not communicating effectively are hallmarks of a fraudulent online business. I assure you that it was never my intention for anyone’s order to get delayed. Rather, I thought that the more valuable thing for me to do with my limited time was to sit in front of the computer and bang out the code to get things working better so orders could actually get shipped.

Nevertheless, we fucked up and I apologize to any customers that were negatively affected.

In fact, as we’ve gotten caught up, our customers began to receive hand-signed notes from me because our lack of communication and delivery delays were completely unacceptable.

To that end, we’ve hired someone just to manage email responses moving forward. Every single message we’ve received is getting a response and we expect to be finished with that in the next few days. Other than that, orders are continuing to be shipped in the order in which they are received unless items are out of stock or backordered.

So Ambitious

“I’m different. I can’t base what I’m gon’ be off what everybody isn’t” -Jay Z

I approached this venture like I do anything else I do in life — with uncompromising ambition and optimism. Despite my personal high functionality and various accomplishments, I’ve never seen anything I’ve done or wanted to do as especially hard or requiring exceptional talent. The sobering reality is that not everyone is on board with or capable of making what I see so clearly into a reality.

In hindsight, I still don’t see anything that we’d set to do as being something that could not get done. However, the goals we set out to accomplish were too ambitious for the combination of people that worked on them. Also, I have been an ineffective manager and, to overcome that, I recently completed a management course and I’m continually devouring books to improve those skills. Nevertheless, the order of operations with what we did was exactly backwards.

In other words, what we’ve been working on since I’ve taken over fulfillment operations is what we should have done first. Had we done that, I’d be sharing growth charts with you rather than telling you why we’ve hit bumps in the road.

We should have focused on identifying opportunities to attain efficiencies with the e-commerce and fulfillment operations and paid off all the debt. Once everything was stabilized and we established a step function of growth then we should have been expanded into more exciting opportunities like the magazine.

I believed that we could do the opposite. Again, I was wrong.

Dancing on Quicksand

“Saw a side of myself that I never knew. I’d probably self-destruct if I ever lose, but I never do” -Drake

I’ve watched enough Scandal and helped enough brands through crises to know I’m supposed to make this all look easy. I’m supposed to act like none of this bothers me. I’m supposed to just look at this like a bad acquisition, cut my losses and sell it to the highest bidder. I can’t, I won’t and I’m not.

As corny as it sounds, UGHH means a lot more to me than that and it’s taken a considerable toll on me, my personal relationships and my family to keep this ball in the air. It’s not just “a business,” it’s something that I feel is an extension of me and my partners and the more adult way that we express ourselves through this artform.

I’ve personally struggled through a variety of things over the past year and I don’t share that looking for sympathy. Rather, I share it to clarify that I’m just trying to do the right and most effective things across the board and have simply made costly mistakes.

The Path Forward

“That’s another difference that’s between me and them: I smarten up, open the market up” – Jay Z

The path forward is actually quite simple. We’re doing what I said we should have done previously, focusing on being the greatest underground hip hop record store possible. I still believe in growing toward the Media direction, but we need to develop the step functions that will help us get back to profitability first. Here’s what you can expect:

  • Focused Mission – Admittedly, we went into 2017 with 19 tactics that UGHH could leverage to generate more revenue. For 2018, we’re going to whittle that down to a handful of initiatives and put the weight of our resources behind those. The core of that mission is being the best online record store and the home for the underground hiphop community.
  • Improved Website – In the next day or so, we will have launched a new website on WooCommerce. Bare with us; we ask for your feedback once its launched so we can rapidly make improvements once this is live. This will position us to continually roll out features and functionality in support of our core mission.
  • Improved Fulfillment – We’ll continue to hire extra support on the fulfillment side as we grow and we’ll bring on seasonal support as we head into higher sales seasons like Record Store Day and Black Friday.
  • Improved Customer Service and Communication – This is our biggest immediate focus for improvement. We understand the need to be able to reach someone about your order and are correcting that right away.
    • Improved Phone Support – You can now reach UGHH Customer Service by phone 24 hours a day and 365 days a year at 866-311-5320. For those of you that are UGHH Premier members, your priority customer service line is 877-218-0176, also available 24/7.
    • Email Support – We now have someone solely dedicated to answering your emails. As she is working through the backlog, I’d recommend that you call one of the numbers above if you need immediate assistance.
  • Improved Customer Experience – I have no illusions about what we’re competing with for your business. I do know that we are capable of giving you a more personalized and higher quality experience then you’ll get elsewhere. We’ll iterate towards being a company that is more personalized and customer-centric. I don’t want us just to be another place that is going to send you things in a brown box. I want to be the company that is giving you a curated experience and knows who you are when you call us.
  • Focused Product Efforts – With us finally moving to a platform where we have more control over how things operate, we’ll be developing and publishing a roadmap of the improvements we’re making. The goal is to deploy new features and functionality on the site every two weeks. UGHH is becoming more of a “product” rather than just a “website.” You can expect things like an improved forum, mobile app, a streaming service in the near future — all personalized for you.

Back Like We Never Left

“Always trying to let go of anything that’ll burden me. That’s the reason you can feel the tension and the urgency” -Drake

I understand that we have undermined the trust that the previous management worked hard to establish. Some customers will never order from us again. I completely understand and I sincerely apologize for failing you as a businessman, rap fan and someone who has devoted a large part of his life to this music.

Perhaps, in the future, you’ll give us another chance.

In the meantime, were’ going to keep pushing forward to make this site and this business better than it has ever been. For anyone that still has questions, you’re welcome to email me directly (mike at ughh dot com) and we’re also hosting a livestream on the UGHH Facebook at 4:30pm on 4/20/2018 where you can ask me anything. I promise not to be too Mark Zuckerberg in my responses.

To those that have supported UGHH over the years and will continue to do so, I thank you so much for sticking with us. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to following through on everything I just said.

-Mike

I have no recollection of meeting Donwill for the first time. It feels like he was always just a dope rapper everyone knows, ever since he arrived in Brooklyn from Cincinnati. A scene stalwart. I thought it might just be all the vodka I drink though, so I asked him if he recalls meeting me. He can’t call it either! “I just know it was love at first sight,” he said. “We never met, we just were.” Look at all that good Midwest pimpin’, hehe.

I remember where I was when I first heard Moonlighting, the first full album from Tanya Morgan. It was that impactful for me. Since then, he has steadily churned out great music, in the group and solo. He’s also provided music for podcasts like blackgirlnerd faves Another Round & 2 Dope Queens, and HBO’s This Week With John Oliver. He’s a popular DJ too, spinning for Wyatt Cenac’s weekly comedy show, Night Train, and together they do the hilarious Shouting At The Screen. Tanya Morgan’s new effort, YGWY$4 (You Get What You Pay For), drops July 28. “It’s an anti- hashtag acronym because we hate search engine optimization.” Donwill is so cool, and funny enough that I’m almost willing to forgive his traitorous body for rejecting avocado. Almost.

Do you love avocado, or are you a savage animal with broken taste buds?

I think that I’m allergic to them and that saddens me because when I discovered them I binged on them for a while. They are like cold-boiled eggs with an inedible yolk (at least in my mind anyway). One time we were in Denver and TiRon made an amazing batch of guacamole, and I afterwards I got really nauseous with a horrible headache. I tried again the next day and the same thing happened. Ever since, I can’t eat them w/out getting a headache. I’m not blaming my food-based allergy on TiRon ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. For the record, his guac was great and his music is amazing, you should interview him and find out why he tried to poison me.

They’re nothing like eggs. NOTHING! This is like when they asked the 40-year-old virgin about bewbs and he said they feel like sand. You’re an avocado interloper! But okay. Name a perfect song, and defend that song.

While it’s not even in his most popular Spotify songs, “Baby Be Mine” by Michael Jackson is hands down the greatest song ever recorded. There isn’t much to defend regarding this record because this is a time tested fact—the horn arrangements, the way the synth line turns into actual words in each successive hook, the modulation at the end, the cowbell that sneaks in midway through keep you moving. It’s fucking masterful.

Rod Temperton gave the Manhattans a version of this song called “Spice of Life,” and it makes “Baby Be Mine” even more spectacular because it was already a great song, but he went back and made it bulletproof. I have been known to play this song for hours on end (deadass) and it is the easiest way to change my mood at any given moment.

Who’s going to play you in the biopic?

In the past, I would have said Hill Harper or Prodigy but with the rise of Rachel Dolezal I’d like to submit dark-skinned Sammy Sosa and announce that I am officially the Dominican Dolezal. It should also be noted that I should have been cast as Eazy-E in the NWA movie and Eazy-E follows me on Instagram and is actively liking my photos as we speak. I live a crazy life.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up?

I pull my phone from under my pillow, look at the time, check who emailed/texted me, then I go back to sleep or lay and think for like 30 minutes. This is also the time where I either assess my hangover or prioritize my activities.

Talk about a time you were star struck.

I saw Raphael Saadiq once at LAX. He was holding mad bags and a coffee and I walked up to him, held out my hand and was like “I’m a huge fan,” and I kept my hand out until he shook it. He looked super annoyed and Von was like, “Man you just pissed off one of your idols for a handshake.” But I regret nothing. Later as I boarded the plane, he was sitting in first class and as I walked past I gave him the Black man head nod, he shot me one back with a slight smirk. Again, I regret nothing.

What’s the most expensive thing you’ve ever given someone?

A child. She’s awesome, but hella expensive for everybody involved. I’m still waiting to see what the ROI is but it’s looking good so far so *fingers crossed*.

Give Machinko some good advice.

Consistency is more important than quality, and in most instances your level of output actually defines the quality. If you’re great once, it’s gotta have an impact that shifts the culture, but if you’re good all the time (and more importantly in a timely fashion) people will know that they can count on you to get their fix.

Punctuality is important too. I’m punctual to a fault, and I can usually tell you the exact time that I’ll be at a place even with travel delays. Time is more valuable than money, and not only do I respect it as such but I expect other people to as well. I got shit to do, b.

What human would you trade lives with, and why?

Pharrell Williams. I know he’s a real person, but he just doesn’t seem like a real person. It’s hard to even put into words, but like he has defined eras of music and is respected across several genres. Impeccable style, super inventive, and extremely forward thinking. I believe we all have universes inside of us and whereas most of us are trying to get it all out or even show a sliver of our greatness, his entire universe is on full display. It’s pretty amazing.

Name a celebrity you think is lame, and why.

That orange nigga they elected as their president. Fuck that nigga, man. Fuck him as a staff, record label and a muthafuckin’ crew. I refuse to call him the president. Nigga has no respect for the office or the people he serves. He’s treating the Oval Office like it’s a cubicle, man. Fuck that bitch ass nigga, man.

The church says amen. What thing do you love that you think would surprise people about you?

Kennedy Fried Chicken aka the real KFC. Not Crown’s, but Kennedy, the one by my house more specifically. Popeye’s is overrated as fuck, but Kennedy gets it right. This is the hill that I have chosen to die on, so y’all gonna just have to respect it or check it.

Check out more Fan of My Friends with the inimitable MeLa Machinko. 

Hip-Hop has defied consensus since its inception; even about its inception.  For example, while most would stamp Kool Herc’s 1973 back to school jam in The Bronx as the genre’s official birthday, Kurtis Blow might tell you for that for him it was more like ‘72 when he hooked up two component systems to rock his friend Tony Rome’s birthday party in Harlem. Either way, once the street born art form migrated from rec center and park jams to traveling DJ tapes and recorded vinyl, it created vocal factions that were loyal to two goals: purity or profit. In the years after Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” broke the seal by giving the lyrics of an established MC (Grand Master Caz) to a neophyte (Big Bank Hank) to perform, an uneasy alliance was forged between the MC and the corporate entities that sought to profit.

There was still a vocal and consistent belief that “skills” and “paying dues” mattered even as rappers became the default voice of popular culture. The rebellious, youth-driven lifestyle that informed and inspired the music still held sway on what was placed on record for mass consumption. As hip-hop’s mouth pieces in the ‘80s and ‘90s enjoyed the spoils of Gold and Platinum plaques, daytime radio play and award show recognition, they stood on the shoulders of the giants from the ‘70s who simply wanted to be recognized as “the best.” So a humbling exercise was instituted. Mantras like “keep it real” and “no sellout” were repeated with fealty in the early ‘90s. Much like the dystopian film The Matrix, the underground was conceived as a place closest to the core center where those born free, unplugged from the machines, would continue the battle for autonomy.  

At times, some of the “hardcore” would become too hot to contain, breaking through the layers of bureaucracy, spilling above ground like magma. Lyricists that were more substance than style could still garner the elusive and coveted recording contract and ascend to new heights, but they rarely strayed TOO far. If the label wanted a “hook” for a song, you got your DJ to scratch it or got your boys hanging out in the studio to scream into the mic. Some still held on to traditions like having an actual DJ, dancers and the like to complete “the crew.” But this wouldn’t last.

Those appendages were sacrificed in the name of fiscal responsibility and duos and groups became increasingly less common (only to be later manufactured into super teams of solo stars to bolster rosters and marketability. What? You thought the NBA started that?)  The hip-hop star was adorned in flashy clothes and paired with a beautiful woman to either sing his hook, dance in his videos or raise his sex appeal with female consumers. This would most visibly manifest on July 2, 1996 when Nas’s It Was Written was released on the same day as De La Soul’s Stakes Is High. On the one hand you had the underground Prince who’d clearly bought into the champagne wishes and caviar dreams of the major label A&Rs. And on the other hand was the veteran group who was warning us all about what was at stake if we continued down that path. The purists and those for profit had their de facto leaders, but the schism wouldn’t reach its point of no return until a year later to the month in 1997.

In the world of music there was no more singularly impactful event in 1997 than the murder of Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace.  His March 9th death (a date branded into the collective memory of hip-hop fans thanks in part to an LL Cool J diss recorded by Canibus) was a right cross following the left hook of Tupac Shakur’s death just six months before on September 13, 1996.  It was a seismic event for those who knew and loved Biggie, but for one neophyte MC it had a particular resonance.

As a Philly born rhyme practitioner Tracey Lee was signed to Bystorm Entertainment and was part of the fraternity of Howard University alumni to find success in film, TV and music. His label owner Mark Pitts was managing The Notorious B.I.G. and his debut album “Many Facez” was one of the most anticipated debuts of the year thanks to his hit “The Theme (It’s Party Time).”

“It’s damn near surreal, man. Prior to his death it was sunny days, the weather’s perfect. The single is doing well, we got the record with Biggie,” Lee says of that pivotal moment in his career’s infancy. He’d recorded a duet, “Keep Your Hands High,” with Biggie for his debut and was with him that ill-fated night in L.A.

“But then March 9th comes and we walked out of that door of the [Petersen Automotive] museum together. For some reason I wasn’t feeling right and he asked me what was wrong because we were headed to an after party at the Playboy Mansion. ‘Put a smile on your face, we in LA. Let’s get it.’ So I perked up and we got in the car. Then like five minutes after, we get the call. Biggie got shot.”

Rapper Tracey Lee

Tracy Lee’s album Many Facez would be released on March 25th, 1997 the same day as Biggie’s Life After Death, the posthumous follow-up to the Ready To Die. If having to compete with that wasn’t hard enough, Lee’s heady, conceptual debut about navigating multiple personalities (ending with the murder of one) was a departure from his blithe and bouncy lead single, which leaned heavily on Malcolm McLaren’s “World’s Famous” for its infectious appeal. Where most MCs up to that point could get away with having a raucous lead single “for the radio” while satisfying the streets with album cuts, something was changing.

“Me being on the cusp of underground and commercial, I think it hurt [me],” Lee says in hindsight. “Back then people were so ‘You gotta be this way or that way,’ especially with the concept for the album. When people heard “The Theme,” this was the perception that you got. So anything following that record has to be in that same vein. [But] the rest of the album was very underground compared to the lead single. I had a song called ‘Repent’ that embodied the split.” The dark confessional opens with a preacher lambasting MCs who “make records for bitches” and scratched in a line from EPMD’s “Headbanger” (“To hell with the bitches and the so called fame!”) to underscore his point.

“I was a firm supporter of the underground and wanted to make a distinction between the commercialism side of hip-hop and the purity, as far as the music was concerned.” But Lee was stuck between a rock and a hard place, being held to the standards of the shiny suit soldiers but not benefitting from it. Puff had not granted him “sticker rights” to even advertise that Biggie was on his album, possibly fearing confusion since their releases were dropping on the same day. Lee was also slated to open for Biggie on his upcoming tour, which now wasn’t happening.

As Puff Daddy seized the Billboard singles charts from Toni Braxton and The Spice Girls by serving up sanitized versions of hip-hop classics like “The Message” and posthumous Notorious B.I.G records, veterans like KRS-One, The Lost Boyz, and the Wu-Tang Clan stood at the ready.  Balance was sure to be restored to the realm that Summer in ‘97, right?

Not quite.

The Blastmaster from The Bronx, KRS-One, borrowed from the Bad Boy playbook for his third solo release, building his lead single “Step Into A World (Rapture’s Delight)” on a mix of hip-hop nostalgia and pop appeal. Producer Jesse West layered The Mohawks “The Champ” with an interpolation of Blondie’s hit “Rapture” into an undeniable groove that was then remixed by Puff Daddy and Stevie J. The combo gave KRS the biggest single of his career, and his third album I Got Next peaked at #3 on the Billboard charts, becoming his highest selling album to date. The man who once rapped that “It’s not about a salary, it’s all about reality” had colluded with reigning avatar for excess in rap. And won.

It’s crazy to think that a rap group could out underground KRS-One, but 1997 was that kind of year. Two years prior, the son of billionaire Rupert Murdoch invested in a hip-hop label called Rawkus Records, founded by Brian Brater and Jarret Myer. After building a catalogue of 12-inch releases, they signed the New York based trio Company Flow (comprised of rapper/producer El-P, DJ/producer Mr. Len and rapper Big Juss) and released their debut Funcrusher Plus

If Puffy was hip-hop’s ringmaster—an accessible, charming crowd pleaser with a 1,000-watt smile—Company Flow was the drunken carny with elephant shit on his shoes banging the ringmaster’s wife.

Company Flow

Their sound was defiantly cavernous and muddy, the perfect soundtrack for anyone looking to take a hot, steaming dump on whatever was moving “above ground.” Intentionally or not, they became the vanguard of Rawkus’s anti-establishment rap brigade.

The group’s DJ Mr. Len cut his teeth interning for a management company whose roster included CeCe Peniston, DeVante Swing from Jodeci, and Poetical Prophets (who would later become Mobb Deep). That led to a gig at Jive Records in their dub room where Len got a crash course in record label politics. So—for better or worse—he knew what a major label was capable of when his group signed with an indie like Rawkus.  

“I remember having a meeting up at Rawkus about where they were NOT going to concentrate on pushing Funcrusher Plus,” says Len. “They were like, ‘We’re not going to concentrate on the urban market,’ and I was like ‘What the fuck?’ I’m from the Bronx and I live in Brooklyn. Why wouldn’t kids like me [be the target]? And that was a sign that there was a difference between what Puffy and Company Flow were doing. Puff had Stretch Armstrong do a mixtape, and I remember Stretch proposed to put a Company Flow record on there and Puff said no. It had nothing to with him being on some ‘Fuck Co Flow,’ it was him not knowing what we were about. This was like ‘95 or ‘96. I’m trying to remember which song. If it wasn’t “8 Steps” maybe it was “Corners” or “Vital Nerve.” He just wasn’t into it. I remember not taking it personally. I thought it was weird that Stretch wanted to try it but you gotta test the waters.”

When Funcrusher Plus dropped in late July of 1997, Puff’s “solo” debut No Way Out had already been out for several weeks and was marching towards 24 consecutive weeks of chart dominance. The “suit and tie rap” was in full effect for juggernaut visuals like “It’s All About The Benjamins,” but he still kept a pair of Timbs under the bed for album tracks like “Young Gs” and Black Rob’s “I Love You Baby.” But for those that slept in their hoodies and liked their “bubbly” brewed with hops, there was no compromise.

“I didn’t really know about the whole DIVIDE thing until way into it and the album was out,” says Len. “In the UK they were yelling at shows that ‘Puffy is a Poofter!’ Which is like calling him a f*ggot. People were like ‘Fuck shiny suits!’ But it was funny to me. If you saw me walking down the street in a shiny suit, you would laugh and ask ‘What are you doing?’ You talking about dudes from Harlem and The Bronx, hardcore dudes. So when you see them dudes in shiny suits you gotta laugh, whether you know them personally or not. That turned into ‘Fuck mainstream.”

The mainstream—what was easily identifiable, marketable and adaptable—fueled the entertainment economy. If something worked, you could best believe there would be twenty copies in the pipeline right behind it. But things didn’t always become popular organically. Some would even argue that organic popularity is a pipedream and that it’s ALL manufactured. While some form of audience manipulation has always existed in music, it seemed to come to a head in the late ‘90s.

Thanks in part to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which eliminated the cap on nationwide radio station ownership, one singular entity emerged as the dominant force in radio and music, Clear Channel, now known as iHeart Media. In 2002 The FMC (Future of Music Coalition) released a report “Radio Deregulation: Has It Served Citizens and Musicians?” which distills the impact of Clear Channel’s radio monopoly:

Consolidation is particularly extreme in the case of Clear Channel. Since passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Clear Channel has grown from 40 stations to 1,240 stations — 30 times more than congressional regulation previously allowed. No potential competitor owns even one-quarter the number of Clear Channel stations. With over 100 million listeners, Clear Channel reaches over one-third of the U.S. population…

Format consolidation leads to fewer gatekeepers. A small number of companies control what music is played on specific formats. Coupled with a broad trend toward shorter playlists, this creates few opportunities for musicians to get on the radio. Further, overwhelming consolidation of these formats deprives citizens the opportunity to hear a wide range of music.

In short, a paradigm shift in music distribution was occurring which would have an undeniable impact on a genre like hip-hop that was still growing. Payola was already choking out access, but now playlists were ensuring that only a limited number of artists would get played on the air regardless. This facilitated widening the chasm between “commercial” and “underground” hip-hop.

“Although looking back it would seem that the Telecommunications Act helped shift the power toward the majors in 1996, I must be honest to say that at that time, when I was an A&R at Profile, I had no idea it existed,” says Will Fulton, a veteran label executive who signed acts like Camp Lo and Smooth Da Hustler at Profile and Ja Rule and Mic Geronimo at TVT.

“It did seem like it was becoming more of an uphill battle for independent labels, though. There had been a number of labels in the early to mid ‘90s (Profile, Nervous, Select, Wild Pitch among them) that had been able to make an impact. The independents (and those independently controlled labels with P&D deals like Loud) could move faster, and were generally more in tune with the hip-hop fans. You know, a lot of larger labels fit that GZA line, “he don’t know the meaning of dope, when he’s looking for a suit and tie rapper that’s cleaner than a bar of soap.”

“They had people up there at the top who didn’t know what they were doing regarding hip-hop,” Tracy Lee says of his label’s distributor, Universal. “My man Garnett Reid, God rest his soul, was an integral part in taking Universal where they needed to be in regards to promoting hip-hop records. If it weren’t for him I can’t imagine where that place would’ve been.  They didn’t know what to do with ‘The Theme’ until Garnett got it to Red Alert. That was the tipping point because everybody followed suit.  We took the record to Flex and DJ Clue but none of them would touch it until Red Alert played it.  That was our gateway to the radio.”

But before long, the labels adapted. According to Fulton those “Mountain climbers playing electric guitar” realized they needed to bring the Garnett Reid’s of the world in-house to not just work the records, but to make them.

“A&R-producers like Irv Gotti figured out how to get the street and the radio. And of course, Roc-A-Fella and Bad Boy. The majors were making good records; Universal, Sony, Arista,” says Fulton. “I remember one day in 1996 or 1997, Profile president Steve Plotnicki was looking at Billboard, and he asked me and fellow A&R Chris Landry if we liked any records in the top ten. I don’t know what was selling at that time, maybe Fugees? B.I.G.? But I said, yeah, there’s a lot I like there. And his response was that meant it was time for independents to get out of hip-hop. That the only way indies could have a shot, he argued, is if people in our position hated the top ten. That stuck with me.”

Before long, many of those smart and agile indie labels were bought by the majors—who then consolidated the talent, budgets and influence. The music oligarchy had two dominant hands, the labels and radio, pulling all of the strings. In some instances, artists fought back. The Wu-Tang Clan released their long awaited group follow-up Wu-Tang Forever in June of 1997 but found themselves in a war with their hometown radio station, Hot 97. They were slated to headline the annual Summer Jam concert but were on tour in Europe with Rage Against The Machine—a paid gig. The radio station refused to fly the 9-member plus crew to New York for the show, so when they eventually touched the stage Ghostface Killah cussed out the station and on air personality Angie Martinez. This led to them being blackballed from the airwaves and the physical building for a decade.  While they had a hand in this, it became a rallying point for artists and fans who didn’t like the direction New York radio was going in anyway.

Adding to the anti-radio fervor was a KRS-One interview about his record “Step Into A World.” Despite boasting on the record that he was “relying on talent, not marketing and promotion,” he in fact did pay Funkmaster Flex’s Franchise Marketing company $40,000 to promote the record and play it on the air. The latter did not happen and he blew the whistle so to speak. But in a 2006 interview with writer Thomas Golianopoulos Funkmaster Flex flat out denies KRS’s claims: 

“You paid me to do something and the record didn’t play because I wasn’t supposed to play your record,” he counters. “That’s not what you asked me to do. You asked me to promote your soundtrack. You asked me to put up posters. I play too many nightclubs to take money for records. In a nightclub, you can’t bribe a guy to dance on the dance floor. I can’t have a record that I play on the radio that I won’t play in the clubs.”

So in essence, what got played on the air and in the clubs became synonymous. And what got played in the club in 1997? Lots and lots of Bad Boy.

Already scarred from the “East Vs. West” feud that resulted in the deaths of two mega stars, Puff Daddy went on the offensive against faceless “haters” who wanted to stop his ascent. It was a genius bit of gaslighting that underground fans fell for hook line and sinker.

“If I’m shadow boxing, I’m not fighting you. However, you’re now able to stand in front of me and say you dodged a punch and you hit me,” Mr. Len explains. “So underground heads, as we’re now known, we’re all shadowboxing. So Puff comes out saying ‘You guys are haters’ and we’re like ‘We’re not even talking to you, b.’ And then he adds, ‘Haha and you not makin’ any money! We ain’t never gonna stop!’ Stop what? What are you talking about? And you do end up hating these motherfuckers. You seriously gonna make a $500,000 video and wear a shiny suit and I can’t laugh at you? No one trolls harder than Puff, and it’s beautiful. No one rises to the top without some competition or drama. But you never heard Co Flow diss Puffy. If you heard me DJ a party you heard me playing Black Rob’s ‘Whoa!’ and Biggie records. There wasn’t a cat in the underground who could say they didn’t like ‘Unbelievable.’ That shit was incredible.”

Granted, there were definitely men like Jeru The Damaja and Suge Knight who took direct shots at Puffy and his ilk on and off record. It wasn’t all in Puff’s head. But he did masterfully manipulate the culture by taking away the ability to critique what he was doing. No one wanted to be a player hater.

Maybe it’s being a DJ and having a direct connection with audiences on a regular basis, but Len has a more pragmatic perspective on the rift twenty years later.

“The people could have revolted against the [Bad Boy] sound. But they didn’t. The underground embraces the elements of hip-hop more and are gung-ho about culture. But there are kids who just want shit that sounds cool and get amped to it. We got into this competition and two decades later you really start to understand the casualties of war. Most of the artists you looked up to and loved, they’re fuckin’ broke. That’s what that line did. You’ve got at least 10 years of songs about haters and can’t name one. It’s fucked up. Then you got a whole other half-decade of hip-hop songs about hip-hop. The shit becomes redundant. That’s what that separation did.”

But with the diminished utility and influence of both the major label system and the radio, where does this leave the “divide”? After two decades of war, do we even know who the enemy is anymore?

What exactly is ‘underground’ when Souls of Mischief’s ‘93 Til Infinity’ is being played in national TV campaigns to sell Gatorade and a Yasiin Bey instrumental like “Twilight Speedball” is used to promote hotels in Las Vegas? Sprite may have swapped Nas and AZ for Lil Yachty, but Kendrick Lamar is the voice of the NBA Finals. Run The Jewels—which features El-P, an alumnus of Company Flow—is being played in trailers for Marvel movies and video games.  The purists are more profitable than ever.

Between satellite radio and streaming services like Soundcloud, Pandora, Spotify, TIDAL and Apple Music you have to work to NOT find music you like, so we can’t place blame at the feet of the Funkmaster Flexes of the world anymore. However, with hip-hop’s continued splintering across style, age and sound we will keep fighting under various banners, because sometimes what we dislike defines us more than what we support. Plot twist. We’re all players and we’re all haters.

Take that, take that.