Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Why hip-hop tops the ringtone pops

By Kate Bulkley

The Guardian

Monday July 4, 2005

Russell Simmons, who owns the Def Jam brand, tells Kate Bulkley about his successful formula

Russel Simmons. (photo by Johnny Nunez / nubuzzphoto.com. Print by logogroupny.com)

Russel Simmons. (photo by Johnny Nunez / nubuzzphoto.com. Print by logogroupny.com)

Text messaging may still be the killer data application for mobile phones but ringtones and music downloads are clearly among the top drivers of the mobile phone industry going forward. And it is not just top British pop acts like Coldplay and the weird Crazy Frog phenomenon that are leading this fast-moving trend. The former owner of the massively successful US hip-hop music label Def Jam, 47-year-old Russell Simmons, is also in the vanguard.

Simmons was in the UK recently to launch his hip-hop label and show his support for the American half of last weekend's Live 8 concert. Known in the US as the godfather of hip-hop, the articulate and easy-going Simmons is not simply a street kid made good; he is an intelligent voice in the media industry, especially when it comes to talking powerfully to urban youngsters and helping them find their voice.

Simmons founded Def Jam Records in 1985 and sold it for an estimated $100m in 1999 to Universal Music, yet the deal he negotiated allows him to use the Def Jam brand in other areas. He also still has close ties with Universal; in fact, his new label Russell Simmons Music Group (RSMG) was formed in April last year as a 50/50 joint label with Island Def Jam Music Group, part of Universal Music Group.

When I meet Simmons he is dressed in an argyle-patterned waistcoat, buttoned-down shirt (a la Ralph Lauren, only much baggier) and wearing a baseball cap - all from his own Phat Farm fashion label. The man who signed the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J among others has achieved a comfortable level of wealth and now he is putting the emphasis on "giving it back" to causes he believes in. His business interests run from food and clothing to movie and TV production (he co-produced The Nutty Professor), to financial services, including a Visa-branded debit card targeting the 70 million people in the US who do not have bank accounts. Yet he also has total credibility among the artists and followers of a brand of music that represents the urban poor, both black and white.

"I'm not Trump rich," says Simmons, whose wealth is estimated at $500m. "But I've made some money. I've been successful."

Last year he launched Def Jam Mobile in the US - a joint venture between American Greetings Corporation, a listed greetings card company, and Def Jam Enterprises, part of Simmons' umbrella company Rush Communications. The venture is offering mobile services in the US, such as a hip-hop news service and hip-hop e-greeting cards as well as polyphonic ringtones, mobile street games and wallpaper. In Simmons' world, hip-hop music and mobiles live in perfect harmony. "Hip- hop artists are not only good at branding the technology and making it cool, but as the new technology comes out they are the first to play with it," he says.

The appeal of hip-hop and urban music to young people is clear from the sales, which typically top the single charts. Urban music has also featured heavily in the weekly ringtone chart in the UK since it was launched a year ago. Urban music from 50 Cent, Black Eyed Peas, Snoop Dog and Eminem always takes up about half of the top 20 spots. Simmons' plan is to bring his Def Jam Mobile services over from the US to make the most of the European hip hop scene and he also plans to sign new artists to RSMG. "In America, 80% of the people who buy hip-hop are not African American," says Simmons. "What's special about hip-hop to me is that it's poor people of all colours - in fact, there aren't enough white rappers; we need poor white kids from the trailer parks talking about their struggle because there's a connection with black kids in the projects."

The worldwide value of mobile entertainment services is growing almost exponentially and could be worth as much as $36bn by 2010, according to Informa Telecoms & Media. The same forecasters say ringtones alone are worth almost $5bn and this could rise to nearly $7bn in five years. The UK ringtone business is expected to top 100m this year and ringtones now outsell singles. Simmons expects to be at the heart of such growth figures and the phone carriers are keen to figure out ways of earn ing extra income with him. At the recent Mobile Entertainment Market in London's Olympia, Simmons met a host of local mobile phone operators to strike up deals to begin Def Jam Mobile's UK push. But it is not only content that makes Simmons's entertainment products and ideas so attractive in the new media marketplace, it is also the fact that the music he represents is a strong fashion statement among youth, just like mobile phones.

"He's probably the first of the known hip-hop entrepreneurs to make a noise in Europe," says David Simmons (no relation), the chairman of the UK ringtone chart initiative. "I think he'll be extremely successful. He'll prove to be the pioneer in this area because he knows what he's doing; he's in touch with the street."

Russell Simmons was an original contributor to the rap music movement that was to become hip-hop. While rap was full of aggressive and controversial artists (including Simmons' brother, Joseph, aka Reverend Run of Run DMC), hip hop was more mature and accessible to the mainstream. "I think hip-hop lends itself to the youth of today. Simmons is savvy about what it could bring to the mobile companies," says Gerard Grech, head of music & video at Orange.

The man who has people from Bono to Michael Jordan on his speed dial is not a Mr Bling caricature, he is a sophisticated businessman who understands the marketplace. No African artists at Live 8? "Of course, we'd love to have some African artists, but we don't want to lose the ratings. Big global artists happen to be American and British, that's where all the money is and that's what Live 8 is about, raising awareness and raising money."

In the new media world, Simmons also knows where the money is, so when your phone starts ringing with more hip-hop tunes he probably has something to do with it.

MEF RINGTONES TOP TWENTY - FOR PUBLICATION
   
compiled by KPMG
   
Period covered: 20 June to 26 June 2005 inclusive
   
Rank Name of Song Name of Artist   Position last period Publisher Writer
1 Shot You Down Audio Bullys ft Nancy Sinatra   12 EMI/Edward Kassner Franks/Dinsdale/Bono
2 Lonely Akon URBAN 1 Edward Kassner/Famous Thiam/Vinton/Allen
3 Crazy Frog Axel F Crazy Frog   3 Famous/tbc Faltermeyer/tbc
4 Feel Good Inc Gorillaz   5 Copyright Control/EMI Albarn/Hewlett/Burton/Ellardo
5 You're beautiful James Blunt   16 Bucks/EMI Ghost/Skarbek/Blunt
6 Don't phunk with my heart Black Eyed Peas URBAN 4 EMI/Catalyst/Cherry Lane/Chrysalis/BMG/Zomba Adams/Board/Pajon Jr/Full Force
7 Hollaback Girl Gwen Stefani   7 EMI/Kobalt Williams/Stefani
8 Wake me up when September Ends Green Day   71 Warner/Chappell Armstrong/Pritchard/Wright
9 One thing Amerie URBAN 6 Copyright Control/E Harrison/Walden/Rogers
10 Ghetto Gospel Tupac / 2pac URBAN 28 Copyright Control/Carlin/Universal-MCA/Universal-Dick James Evans/Shakur/Mathers/Resto/John/Taupin
11 Why DJ Sammy   Uncharted tbc tbc
12 N Dey Say Nelly URBAN 17 Reformation/BMG Haynes/Kemp
13 Axel F - Beverly Hill Cop Harold Faltermeyer   8 Famous Music Faltermeyer
14 I like the way you Move Body Rockers   13 Sony-ATVC/Copyright Control Burns/Karyotakis
15 U Dont Know Me Basement Jaxx   66 tbc tbc
16 Lil Bit 50 Cent URBAN 31 tbc tbc
17 Switch Will Smith URBAN 25 Rondor/Notting Hill Smith/Bennett/Holland
18 Candy Shop 50 Cent URBAN 15 EMI/Universal Storch Jackson
19 Speed of Sound Coldplay   11 BMG Berryman/Buckland/Champion/Martin
20 Hate it or Love it The Game ft 50 cent URBAN 26 Copyright Control/Universal-MCA Jackson/Lyon/Valenzano/Taylor

 

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