“I know it’s a buzzword now, but we were authentic. In 2010 and 2011, we’re talking about the blogosphere, where everybody was buddy-buddy. Everybody liked every song on the radio or every song that was posted and there were no real honest critiques about what they were listening to. So we came into that space and the model we came up with was ‘no politics, no BS’ because it's not about the relationships, it's about the music at the end of the day. We either like it or we don’t and as long as we stay true to that we were going to speak to someone out there and to the hip hop culture.”
That’s Kennith B. Inge’s response to the question of why Dead End Hip Hop quickly gained so much traction when they first took to the internet to share their thoughts on one of the youngest and currently most popular genres of music worldwide, hip hop.
Hip hop was born in the Bronx of New York in the mid-70s, combining the rhythm, history, and culture of African Americans, Latino Americans, and Carribean Americans. Squaring up to rock ‘n’ roll in terms of shock and controversy, blues and soul through its propensity for storytelling, and combining rhythmic vocal stylings with the age-old art of spoken word, its footprint —not only in the US, but the world over — has continued to deepen since the very first b-boys wore-in their Adidas before breakdancing.
Hip hop is about telling stories, and Dead End Hip Hop is about sharing the stories behind those stories. Dead End Hip Hop (DEHH) started in 2011 with one simple goal in mind — to provide a platform to discuss hip hop culture with unbiased opinions. Kennith B. Inge, Roderic Wright (aka Modest Media), Brandon White (aka Beezy430), Rafael Ferrer (aka Feefo), Myke Jamison (aka Myke C-Town), and Sophia Bryce (aka Sophie) all bring their unique perspectives, stories, and insights about hip hop culture to the table without holding anything back. In their own words, Dead End Hip Hop is committed to impacting the hip hop community, through videos, audience-engaged podcasts, or by participating in panels at some of the biggest hip hip hop festivals.
“The idea came from a conversation among coworkers at our previous employer via email, actually. Someone used the phrase, ‘here goes another dead end hip hop conversation’ in an email thread I was on, and that phrase just stood out to me,” Kennith shared when I asked him about DEHH’s origin story. “Looking at the exchange that was taking place that day among hip hop fans, it felt like something that would make for a good show.”
The next part happened organically. They took the conversations they’d been having about movies, music, sports, and popular culture from the email thread, work, and the basketball court, and captured those natural interactions on video, where everyone else could take part in the conversation. However, putting something online isn’t the same as having people watch it. I asked Kennith when he knew that DEHH was no longer just a conversation between friends, but with engaged viewers as well.
“We put out our first couple of videos and watched them organically pick up a couple of hundred views and saw the responses from people in the comments section. It gave us the confidence that there was something there,” says Kennith.
Their confidence kept them going, and success quickly followed, “as we went along we started to gain momentum and we picked up our first thousand subscribers within the first six months or so. I think at that point with that type of rapid growth it felt like there was something there and that there was a genuine interest in what we were doing.”
For DEHH, it wasn’t just the authenticity and diversity in the conversation (there was always at least one opinion from members of the crew that resonated with viewers) it was also about the way the content was captured: dropping the fourth wall and inviting the fans to take a seat at the table as well.
“Modest Media [Roderic], through the format he created, made it look like it wasn't just about talking heads. He made people feel like they were part of the conversation because of the way he shot it. It felt like they were just sitting in the room talking with us. We became their hip hop friends online.”
Those online friends were not only interested in being part of the conversation but were looking for other ways to contribute as well. When they ran into trouble with an integral piece of equipment, they realized their audience was more than happy to back them up.
“We had people reach out and say they would love to support us. In that first year Roderic had his camera stolen and we turned to our audience and asked them to submit donations to help us buy another one. And they did that and it was an incredible reaction from our very small community at the time.”
Though they raised their initial audience support through PayPal, they started to wonder if they could take it a step further.
“We used to engage in pretty intense conversations about fan support and whether or not it could be something that would work. I was always of the mindset that it would.”
They ended up leaving the production company they started out with and partnering with a new company that was already generating fan support through Patreon.
“We knew that in order to continue to do what we were doing, we'd need some type of financial backing. For me, it made sense to come from the people who are consuming the content if they wanted to see it continue and allow us to continue to be independent. It would allow us to put out the stuff that resonated with the people that were watching.”
Support from patrons goes towards production, recording, and other costs associated with keeping their channel running. It also gives them the flexibility to take on new projects and share the hip hop conversation through new media channels. The rewards for fans are extensive and range from interacting online with the DEHH crew and fellow community members, joining a private Facebook page, submitting tracks to their “Patreon Playlist,” and a personal monthly video call where they’ll give you feedback on your work, and that’s not even half of it. They’ve currently set a goal to take Dead End Hip Hop on the road and bring live album reviews, discussions, and meet and greets to cities and colleges across the nation.
It also makes it possible for DEHH to continue their conversations free from sponsors, corporate investors, or anyone else who might force them to focus on clicks over authenticity.
Even with their goals and rewards, the most important touch point for their community is engagement, or as Kennith shared with me, not just putting content out on the internet and walking away.
A day after our chat, Kennith, (whose in-depth hip hop knowledge is the only contender against his online business acumen, and that’s saying a lot) followed up with me to share the advice he wanted to give other creators who are interested in connecting with their community the way Dead End Hip Hop does (see: successfully).
“One of the most important things a creator can do is run it like a business from the start. It will save them a lot of time down the road if they do so. In addition to that, I would also advise that they avoid digital sharecropping. Social media, youtube, etc. are tools for distribution but they need to have a home base that they own. If they lose their account for any reason, having a website they own and operate to fall back on is critical because it provides a place for their fans to go to in case that happens. Collecting email addresses is important too, so they'll have direct communication with their audience. Churn is a natural part of the business. As that happens, having the means to reach out to [your audience] is important because you could win them back should their situation change. That one on one relationship is crucial to building up their fanbase and business. That's what I love about Patreon, you all give us access to that information.”