What’s up y’all? Mike King here. You may or may not remember me as iCON the Mic King.
I wanted to take a moment to talk about the future of UGHH.
I’m excited to say that I’m the new majority owner of the company, site and brand. My company, Ruling Panel, a venture formed between Awar, Dos-Noun and myself has purchased it from Adam Walder (DJ Quest) the founder of UndergroundHipHop.com. These days, in our Clark Kent modes, Dos-Noun is a criminal defense attorney, Awar is an insurance broker, and I own an internet marketing firm. We’re all excited to own the site that indirectly led to us becoming friends in the first place.
If you’re wondering about Adam, he’s being taken care of. Jeremy Sullivan is still with us too. Adam will continue in his capacity of technical lead and Jeremy is largely doing business development work, but our day to day group is small and we’ll all wear many hats. My aim is to run UGHH like a startup with the immediate goal of returning to profitability while making a wide variety of improvements in support of the underground hip hop community.
So, What Happened to UGHH?
You might wonder how UGHH got into such a position that Adam wanted to close it. Things had worked for so long, why did it stop? Sure, there are market forces at play; you could get a lot of the products directly from artists, or through Amazon, but that’s not the real problem here.
As with many e-commerce sites, UGHH’s performance is largely built on free traffic that comes from search engines. Many of the people that become buyers are people that were searching for a rapper or a product. They buy that one product and never buy from UGHH again. Naturally, there are also a lot of loyal customers in the community that buy lots of products over time as well, but the long tail of buyers is a huge part of the site’s previous success. There are also those users that are potential buyers, but aren’t aware that UGHH sells the product they want so they go to a search engine to look for it rather than buying it on UGHH.
The key point is how valuable Google is to UGHH and all sites like it.
Google has a series of algorithms that update regularly to ensure that search quality remains strong and also to encourage the usage of its advertising products.
According to Searchmetrics, at the end of 2012, Google rolled out an iteration of its “Panda” algorithm update and UndergroundHipHop.com’s visibility (and traffic) dropped dramatically (green line). Around the same time, Adam and his team tried to make the switch to just using UGHH.com to give them more latitude with the brand, but traffic continued to suffer (orange line) and as a result, revenues did too. They switched the domain back to UndergroundHiphop.com towards the end of 2014, but traffic continued to decline.
Essentially, the core business problem is that UGHH, for all its team’s passion and hard work, did not know how to recover from devastating losses in traffic due to a lack of search engine optimization. To be fair though, that’s not limited to the UGHH team, the entire underground hip hop world could benefit from some SEO help.
So, Why Did I Want to Buy It If Isn’t Working?
I’m in a unique position where I have a ten year track record of helping brands make millions from digital marketing and much of my experience is in the world of SEO. Additionally, I own a digital marketing firm in New York called iPullRank. I’ve also worked with brands in the space that UGHH occupies. In fact, one of my clients also expressed interest in acquiring UGHH and/or its assets.
Then there’s the small fact that I spent 8 years as a full-time touring (read: broke) indie rapper and 4 years prior to that as a fan.
Throughout my growth as a marketer, I have wanted to give back to my friends that are still involved in the space. There’s been nothing worse than watching good friends launch incredible records to no effect. Granted, my time is limited, so I could only commit to helping so much before, but UGHH offers a revenue opportunity where I can create something of value with the community at scale and also be rewarded for my time. It also represents an opportunity to refine the home for this subculture on the modern web. Dos and Awar on the other hand are entrepreneurs and are still actively making music, so there are a multitude of reasons why they wanted to be involved as well.
So, it turns out that it was a perfect confluence of circumstance for me when Adam announced that he was shutting down. Specifically because, as 2016 ended, I had set goals for 2017 of starting a media brand and acquiring an e-commerce site. UGHH is an opportunity to do both things simultaneously.
I know you remember, there was a time when we all checked UGHH daily like a stock ticker. Now the web has so many places that fans connect with and support their favorite artists that the site is, to some degree, redundant and superfluous in its current state. Additionally, many of the people who used UGHH in the past are now 40+ and while they might check in every once in a blue moon, the world the site represents for them is gone as they remember it.
To me, this is a representation of opportunity for growth and the opportunity to make a positive difference.
My Vision of What UGHH Will Become
UGHH’s potential is vastly unrealized. Right now it’s a store with a forum and some blog posts here and there. It should be a multi-sided platform that connects artists and the community in a variety of ways. It should be a channel where up and coming rappers and producers can hone their skills, learn how to be entrepreneurs and connect with likeminded people the same way that guys like M-phazes and !llmind used it as one of the avenues that helped them get into the industry. It should be a place where fans can come and get exclusive content and directly support their favorites. It should be a fulfillment outlet for rappers that otherwise can’t get it together enough to deliver their Kickstarter incentives. It should be a high end media channel that only delivers the best possible editorial content about anything underground.
There is also the question of how does it remain true to its existing community and play to the idea of the new underground. A lot of users believe underground is backpack, and there’s nothing wrong with that, in fact much of my music can be classified as that, but what is “underground” truly when a guy like Chance the Rapper is unsigned and was an underground media darling just a year ago? The same applies to Macklemore just prior to his explosion with “Thrift Shop” when he was the latest in the Atmosphere-esque bloodline of self-made indie rap stars. Or what is it when a member of a multi-platinum rap group does an album with a rapper that was never signed? What is underground when a few years back Drake was doing songs with Elzhi and Phonte? At the very least, “underground hip hop” needs a new definition that aligns with the reality of that anyone can effectively use the Internet and have an audience no matter what their sound is.
Another big issue is that the site has missed the boat on editorial content as there is no site out there that just covers indie rap. It has the opportunity to be a tastemaker as well as an archive for a community that is otherwise represented through dilution on the urban lifestyle sites of the world. Truthfully, UGHH could have been any number of these sites that sell ads based on search traffic they generate through rappers’ names and albums.
The problem with many of those sites is that they capitalize on the traffic of a guy like Tonedeff, but don’t give him a feature when he releases an album (have y’all checked out Polymer?!). I see UGHH as the platform that supports the community it profits from by doubling down on it whereas some of these other organizations are just going for the clickbait business model and writing articles about articles. That’s not an indictment on those sites, I just believe that UGHH can and will have a goal of having high journalistic integrity.
Sure, Facebook and Twitter connect everybody, but good luck cutting through political discussion and cat memes when you’re yet another rapper with no promotional budget. There’s an audience at UGHH that represents a cross-section of subcultures otherwise not brought together through other online avenues in such a distilled way.
The store itself has a lot of missed opportunities. People that buy physical media in 2017 are collectors, so they should get a collector’s experience and on-going access to exclusive product and content. Adam’s focus on customer service is most certainly the right one, but customer experience is the name of the game now. So we will swiftly be introducing new ways to give the community a better customer experience. Those of you that order from the store will start seeing those changes very shortly.
The last point that I want to make, as to why I think this is a good opportunity, is independent artists need new revenue streams. As a platform, UGHH is positioned to give just that. I imagine a world where we do custom media deals with rappers and labels and share the revenue on the consumption of exclusive content. I also foresee that world turning UGHH into a digital version of what Rawkus once was. What I mean is that I’d love to get the site to a position where we can work with artists for a single with a video and have that only be available via our channels. Or even pay artists a salary to make music and visuals on an ongoing basis.
We’ve got some remarkable goals with UGHH, but we’re going to run it like a startup. We’re going to fix things that are broken and then we’re going to expand into new depths. As those things work, we’ll double down. When things don’t work, we’ll cut them loose. We’ll keep things lean and data-driven. In fact, it’s really remarkable the wealth of data that Adam has amassed over the years. Just in case you were wondering, here are the 50 top sellers ever on this site.
So when I say data-driven, stats like this will certainly influence our decision making. By that token, you can expect us to reach out and ask y’all what you think of how things are going and where we want to go.
Ultimately, we will be swift and changeable, but we will do everything thinking of the underground hip hop community first.
First, Let’s Celebrate 20 Years of UGHH
Before we get to all of that, I’m excited to announce that we will indeed be celebrating 20 years of UGHH with an anniversary concert in Boston. Accent on concert. We want to make this an experience with some of the dopest live acts available and an opportunity to establish that commitment to customer experience that I alluded to earlier.
We want to build an amazing lineup that you will actually leave your crib to come out and see so we ran a survey to help us determine who we will book. Below you’ll see that the top ten most voted artist reads like a Spitkicker tour lineup.
For context, the options on the survey were built from the recommendations users left in the comments from Adam’s post where he announced the store was back open. Recognizing that the responses were not so diverse, we’d left an option for respondents to submit any other artists they were interested in seeing. For those “write-in” artists, Doomtree led all suggestions, but there was still not much in the way of votes for rappers that are women or represent any other diversity measures.
Ultimately, given the climate of what’s going on in the rest of the world, I’m a bit disappointed in the lack of diversity in the representation of women both on the list and in the respondent pool as well as the lack of votes for Muslim emcees. I recognize that the underground hip hop world has struggled at being inclusive. It is my personal goal, to change that and strive for inclusion with everything we do moving forward.
That said, as we begin to fill in the lineup, we will certainly allow this data to influence who we book, but we will also make a concerted effort to book dope women, Muslim emcees and emcees that we love that represent other diversity groups. Names like Freeway, Rapsody and Psalm One come to mind as I type this, but I’d love hear your suggestions in the comments.
We are in the middle of locking down an amazing venue for this, so be sure to join our mailing list or follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram so that you can be the first to know when tickets go on sale.
Thank You and We’d Love to Hear from You
I’d like to thank all the people that helped make this happen. Adam and his team of folks, Jeremy, and UGHH employees of the past. I’d like to give a big shout out to Awar and Dos for helping me shoulder the weight of creating a new universe. I’d like to thank my Operations Director Wolfgang for the long hours of due diligence. What would you do if your new boss told you on your first day “Oh yeah, we’re acquiring a company?” I’d like to thank my lawyer Marc for sacrificing some nights and weekends to get all the paperwork done and ironed out. I want to thank Vanderslice and Apathy for reconnecting me with Adam. Also, shout out to Fresh Daily for being the first person in my timeline to share the closing post.
Most importantly, I want to thank you, the UGHH community and customers, for continuing to support UGHH. I’m looking forward to to beginning this next chapter with y’all.
While we get things off the ground, we’d love to hear any suggestion on improvements to the site. Many of you have mentioned that you’d like to get involved, right now we’re looking for contributors primarily regarding writing and design in support of our editorial effort. If you’d like to contribute in other ways, I’d love to hear from you too. Either way, I’m always reachable at mike at ughh.com.
Let’s do this!