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Brand the Jewels – How RTJ Stole Hip-Hop’s Crown

How We Got Here

Hip-hop dynasties aren’t supposed to start like this.

A Tribe Called Quest formed between high school classmates. Run-D.M.C. began when two kids from Hollis, Queens recruited Jam Master Jay shortly after starting college. And thanks to “Straight Outta Compton”, even your little sister is now familiar with the origin story of N.W.A.

Since hip hop’s Golden Age, Brooklyn’s El-P (Jaime Meline) was blazing new trails for alternative music by experimenting with dystopian beats and delivering paranoid lyrics with stream-of-consciousness ferocity. While releasing several fantastic albums for himself and others on his Definitive Jux label, El Producto never gained widespread acclaim beyond his underground notoriety.

Meanwhile, Atlanta’s Killer Mike (Michael Render) was earning his moniker, murdering on wax with guest appearances on OutKast cuts while scoring a minor radio hit on his debut album in 2003. But similarly, Mike never realized his full potential, dwelling on the “LA Clippers” of record labels with little fanfare.

It wasn’t until a chance introduction in 2011 by Cartoon Network exec Jason DeMarco that Jaime and Mike (then both in their mid-thirties) finally began collaborating on Mike’s masterpiece “R.A.P. Music”. Since then, the duo has formed into the “new Avengers” of rap; a supergroup that has taken the hip hop world by storm with two classic albums and a third on its way for early 2017.

How They Did It

Run the Jewels functions as far greater than the sum of its parts – not only sonically, but also as a brand. Here are some of the things they are doing right that marketers can draw inspiration from.

1. Iconography

The name “Run the Jewels”, inspired by an LL Cool J lyric, perfectly captures the hardcore, take-no-prisoners mentality that Mike and El-P take on when they step in the booth. It’s badass at its surface while respecting old school hip hop culture the way both emcees do.

Taking it a step further, the duo developed a logo which can be easily reproduced by RTJ and fans alike as a hand gesture. It’s literal, instantly memorable, and has been successfully been reproduced with alternating styles of hands since the original version that graced their debut album cover. The teal green zombie hands have already inspired a curated assortment of RTJ merch by Daylight Curfew including sticker packs, a “Love Again” duvet cover, bandanas and countless hoodies.

Their unique style has already inspired some amazing Marvel Comics tributes on covers of Deadpool and Howard the Duck.

2. Creativity

Releasing music for fans to download free online isn’t exactly a new concept, but that’s exactly what Killer Mike and El-P gave to fans for RTJ1 and RTJ2. Nor is it unique to up-sell “bonus packages” to hardcore fans, offering the music in various formats and bundled up with merch. But our fearless heroes took things way further than that… here are just a few highlights of such packages:

* This package inspired a successful Kickstarter campaign, garnering over 2,800 backers and raising over $65,000 (the profit from which was donated to help provide legal support for social activists). And yes, “Meow the Jewels” is real.

More recently, Run the Jewels became one of the first brands to experiment with virtual reality, releasing a video for “Crown” that works with NYT VR.

3. Relevance

If embracing tech’s hottest trend and delivering on a fan-created crowdfunding campaign weren’t enough, Run the Jewels happen to be (arguably) the most socially relevant group in music today.

“Run the Jewels 2” (Pitchfork’s Best Album of 2014) took the dynamic duo to new heights, largely due to their aggressive social commentary on relevant topics. “Early” became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. “Lie, Cheat, Steal” explores corruption of the 1% (including Donald Sterling). Even the libidinous locker room boasts of “Love Again (Akinyele Back)” deferentially give way to a decidedly feminist third verse that would make even Sasha Fierce blush.

RTJ3 promises to continue this trend, with Mike rapping “Went to war with the Devil and Shaytan / He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan” on lead single “Talk to Me”. Shows in 2016, including Coachella, featured visuals of a demonic Donald Trump, and even their August appearance in Toronto inspired a rousing “fuck Trump” cheer.

Beyond the music, Killer Mike has become a high-profile social activist, whether it’s calling out Bill O’Reilly, speaking out about Ferguson, or talking shop with Bernie Sanders. Harking back to the era when hip hop’s greatest acts like Public Enemy were making political statements with their work, RTJ manages to weave these messages into music that’s also fun enough for a boisterous party.

Very few brands are able to effectively endear themselves with fans by openly supporting social or political causes – too often, it feels forced and inauthentic. However, hip-hop has a deep history of activism, Killer Mike has been rapping about the same topics for years, and the duo manages not to overextend themselves into any territory that feels too contrived.

4. Connection

In today’s post-iTunes landscape of pervasive streaming and YouTube sensations, it’s clear that artists need to engage with fans to stand out among the endless options. Similarly, the best brands recognize that meaningful connections need to be made in order to establish credibility and foster loyalty.

Killer Mike and El-P both seem to get it, as both artists have been active on Twitter since early 2009. More unusual is their mastery of email marketing. In a perfect example of quid pro quo, RTJ collected email addresses in exchange for free downloads of their first album back in 2013. Most fans forgot all about it for a while until September 2014 when they sent this masterful email thanking their fans and announcing the exclusive preorder packages of RTJ2.

The email-for-download was so successful that it drove a 66% lift in the Run the Jewels email list according to a case study on the MailChimp blog. Their emails aren’t overly frequent, they include relevant (and highly visual) content, and they arrive casually addressed by “Mike and El-P” or “Jaime and Mike”.

Extending their digital reach further, Mike and El-P have found a new home with Apple Music. Their WRTJ show on Beats 1 gave the duo yet another platform to showcase their personalities, share a curated mix of music that inspires them, and (often sarcastically) answer questions submitted by fans via Twitter.

Regardless of how long the RTJ phenomenon lasts, Jaime and Mike have proved their ability to create a brand that sets itself apart in the modern music industry with Run the Jewels. Marketers, take note.

Which artist/group are you most impressed with from a branding perspective? Share in the comments below!