Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Hype N the Hood

Sometimes the best marketing campaign is a staple gun and a good pair of sneakers

By Michelle Chihara

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  Allen, a photographer, and I are all packed tightly into the back seat of a small four-door sedan. The owners of the car have asked me not to describe it too specifically, but I can say that the back seat is not very big. Pressed between Allen's leather jacket and the photographer's equipment bag, I can barely get a lungful of the car's rather pungent air -- heavy with cologne, warm Pepsi, and something sweet that I can't place. Nas is rapping on the CD changer, it's late at night, and we are on our way to "hit the neighborhood spots" with fliers for three major rap artists.

The guys in this car are not necessarily planning to break the law this evening. But still, they're hoping the cops won't be around.

Allen, along with the guys in the front seats -- Oscar and Menolo, whose nickname is "The Drunken Elephant" -- works for Indi Pro, a small Boston company hired by record labels to do street promotion for their hip-hop acts. Armed with stacks of free stuff, they show up at any event where hip-hop fans might congregate. They give out cassettes, lanyards, key chains, magnets, T-shirts -- whatever they've got. They hand out fliers and they slip them onto the windshields of cars. They go to record stores and talk up Q-Tip, or Raekwon, or Big E's latest.

But that's not necessarily all they do. As a street team, Allen and his crew might also pile into a car late at night to slap stickers onto NO PARKING signs and parking meters and car bumpers. Just before a hip-hop album is about to "drop," they might paper entire city blocks with posters trumpeting Dr. Dre's 2001. They might do some "sniping," which means plastering posters across every available wooden surface or stapling them back to back around a light pole and pushing them up until the entire pole is sheathed in ads for RAKIM: THE MASTER.

Were they to do such things, it would be illegal, and neither Indi Pro nor its rivals officially do any of them. But if -- if -- they were to do such things, it would be a pretty smart business move. Wallpapering entire blocks of Blue Hill Avenue, it turns out, is an extremely effective way to generate hype among "urban youth" -- the business-world euphemism for black kids -- just before an album drops. If these guys were to do some sniping, it would be very useful for the record company that is paying them to be in this car.

But, of course, they would never do such things, because they might get arrested. As would any reporters who might happen to be with them.

You know what it reminds me of?" says Menolo. "It's like back in the day, when cats did graffiti."

He says this while we're standing on Lansdowne Street at a polite distance from Bill's Bar, where DJ Chaos is spinning records. Menolo's here hoping that patrons leaving the bar will take some of his fliers. But at 11 p.m., the street is deserted. I'm shivering, but Menolo, in an Extreme ski jacket with a knit cap pulled down over his ears, seems warm enough. At 21, he has a joking, irrepressible energy, and an impish smile when he talks about what he does. "You gotta find places, you gotta be creative," he says. "We don't even carry IDs or anything when we're outside."

We catch up with Allen and head back toward the warmth of the sedan. Menolo is saying, "I feel like a ninja! I just feel like it's really illegal."

Allen, the wise and quiet leader, says, "It is."

Menolo keeps going: "We're doing a martial art, you know, it's cool."

Allen explains. "In certain areas, you know, we got to go in and out, like a ninja."

Indi Pro, run by Eddie Matthew, does promotions for Arista, Bad Boy, Warner Bros., and Universal. (It has also worked for a number of Boston radio stations, including WFNX, a Phoenix affiliate.)It's one of a handful of behind-the-scenes hip-hop companies in Boston with dedicated street teams for hire. Another is MetroConcepts, which is based in Fort Point Channel and has contracts with Rawkus Entertainment and Tommy Boy Records. Another is In the Trenches, based in Canton, which has a loose partnership with The Source magazine and handles Def Jam, Loud Records, Priority, and Franchise Marketing. In keeping with their image, these companies tend to keep a low profile. In the Trenches isn't even listed in the phone book.

Street promotion is as old as word of mouth, and it's had a long history in the world of pop music. But it has a special importance in the hip-hop world, where record labels haven't traditionally had as much money or as many advertising outlets as rock labels.

Credit for inventing the street team goes to Steve Rifkind, the white head of hip-hop label Loud Records. Rifkind was the first person to recognize the power of a very simple premise: urban youth will buy things marketed to them by other urban youth. Rifkind has been marketing to the streets since 1987, and he's been sending boys out in a van in New York City since the early '90s. He's the one who coined the term "street team." In 1997, he boasted to Spin magazine that his street teams were so in tune, so completely one with what the kids wanted, that he could "put the fucking president in the fucking White House."

Since then, "street team" has become industry jargon. Call any hip-hop company today, from JAM'N 94.5 to Fubu clothes, and they will assure you that of course they have a street team. Record-store owners at tastemaking establishments like Funky Fresh Records, in Roxbury, and Mattapan Music say that street promotion is a crucial element in breaking any new artist. "I would say that if the promotion is done correctly, it gives a 20 to 25 percent boost in sales, and more for an artist that people don't know is coming out," says Marvette Neal, the manager at Funky Fresh Records. "If you give away 2000 pieces in various parts of the city and get people looking out for it, if there's a buzz, and then it comes out in a timely manner, it'll get bought."

There are dozens of records dropping every week," says Tim Linberg, co-founder of MetroConcepts. Sitting in his company's office, he is in front of what looks like a particularly thorough example of a street team's handiwork: the wall is a crazy quilt of posters and ads for hip-hop artists, with a few alternative rockers thrown in for good measure. "Only a very small percentage are going to break out of their region. There's so much competition. So it's the one who's somehow better promoted."

Linberg and partner O'Neal Rowe started putting on shows in 1994, when Boston had even less hip-hop than it does now. They've watched the scene grow, slowly, and hope one day to be the one-stop shopping center for hip-hop acts in Boston. In the meantime, their street team will work for anyone who's willing to pay. And they're not hard up for clients: Rawkus, Tommy Boy, 321 Records, Interscope, Dodge . . .

Dodge, as in cars? Yep. Street teams aren't just for hip-hop anymore. In the race to reach an increasingly jaded and media-saturated clientele, companies of all stripes are increasingly on the lookout for something new. Like guys in a van.

"We just took a road trip down to Pittsburgh, where the Carnegie Science Center hired us to do some chalk drawings," says Linberg. "They were doing an exhibit on the history of crime, and they wanted us to do body outlines. Nike is hiring us in January. And the Dodge Neon people hired us to hand out magnets or something about the Dodge Neon."

Dealing with clients such as Dodge means that street teams have to show a more polished, corporate face, and that means seeming "real" while trying to avoid the risks that being "real" in the city might entail. Even Steve Rifkind, the man who invented the snipe, has gotten more circumspect since his "fucking White House" days. In a phone interview from Florida, where he was on vacation, Rifkind spoke only while chaperoned by a careful press representative.

"It was never my intent to really snipe," Rifkind said. "It was always my intent to get the product into the right hands and give you honest feedback. The sticker is just to create an awareness, not to, say, climb the highest building and put a sticker up there. I hope they do crack down on it. They should."

His press person agreed, and repeated that Loud Records and the Steve Rifkind Company do nothing illegal.

At the same time, Rifkind believes that street promotion is something "corporate America" will never understand. "They're buying [street promotions] 'cause they have to," he said. "Their job is not to understand what the street is. That's why it's corporate America."

But corporate America already does understand. In the wake of runaway successes like the Blair Witch Project's clever "Missing Persons" campaign, and with dot-com companies hyping themselves by means of everything from painted buses to puppetry, "guerrilla marketing" -- meaning any nontraditional method of getting the word out -- has become a buzzword. Babson College even teaches a class on it.

" 'Guerrilla marketing' is hot, like entrepreneurship is hot, so the word is getting kicked around a lot," says William Johnston, a lecturer at Babson who teaches that class. "It translates into, 'I got no money, I got no staff, and I want to introduce a new business.' So you find techniques that use sweat equity and your own time, and you get a bunch of college kids sticking fliers on windshields. It's generally aimed at generating word of mouth."

What sets street teams apart from other guerrilla marketers, even very creative ones, is that elusive edge. The kids on the street teams are personable and young. They wear the right jackets and caps and earrings and baggy pants. They tend to come from the world that they're selling to.

But they are walking a fine line, trying to provide edge to big companies without sacrificing credibility in their own neighborhoods. This isn't always a hard line to walk; as long as MetroConcepts keeps up its relationships with DJs, as long as the guys hitting the record stores and the clubs speak the language, it doesn't matter if yesterday they were giving out teenybopper Tre D cassettes to Britney Spears fans.

Back in the 'hood, a street team has to use its judgment. "There are lines that we can't cross," says Linberg. "Will Smith, he had the lead single last summer, he blew up on the pop level with Wild Wild West. But the movie bombed. Our job was supposed to be to sell the movie, to sell Will back to the 'hood, and it couldn't be done. It couldn't be done. His sound was too fluffed-up for the 'hood. I mean, he's talking about running for president." (Linberg, unlike Rifkind, seems to think the White House is not such a hip place to be.)

Part of a street team's job, then, is to be antennae for the record labels. When MetroConcepts is hired, either under retainer or for contracts paying from $800 to more than $3000 a month, it will do everything in its power to promote a record. But it'll also let the label know if a record is just too lame to be pushed. A superstar rapper's label hired MetroConcepts last summer to promote a single, and "they were really pushing it, and even pressed up a snippet tape, but the word on the street was fucking awful," says Linberg. "If the dance floor empties when the DJ spins the record, that is the most vital thing to tell the label."

And part of the job is simply to avoid getting stopped by police with a staple gun and a fat stack of posters.

The cops who look for street teams are from Code Enforcement, a police unit that patrols the city in green-and-white cars, checking out quality-of-life complaints and looking for things like overloaded dumpsters. Sniping counts as a quality-of-life complaint.

"We've had areas, especially Mattapan and Roxbury along Blue Hill Avenue, where they flood the areas with signs," says director James Cahill. "We've had numerous complaints from residents. It's for rock bands, things of that nature, and a lot of times, we don't have too much information on them. It's kind of hard to write up a violation. Seems like lately with all these Bad Boy Productions, all these different ones, all of a sudden they just do massive signage. In the past six to eight months, there's just been an increase of these massive productions, this type of thing. They must spend a fortune making these posters."

In response to the increase, the mayor upped the fine for postering from $50 to $300 per poster for every day that a sign remains up. MetroConcepts got slapped with a huge fine a couple of months ago; as a result, Linberg and Rowe swear they've stopped sniping. "For some reason, someone said it was us," says Rowe. "We're not stupid. We took responsibility and moved on. And we're not doing that anymore." Stanley Navaire at In the Trenches and Eddie Q both say that since MetroConcepts got slapped, they've all learned their lesson.

Still, somebody is putting those posters up. And one night, out on Harrison Avenue with some guys on a street team, I am definitely with that somebody. Our little group -- five people and an armful of posters -- doesn't go unnoticed for long. An unmarked car pulls over, and a voice from within barks, "I hope you have a permit for that." Two of the guys vanish while I stick around for a lecture from the cop, who threatens to take me in and then backs off.

"It's not a big deal," Allen says nonchalantly, when I ask him later about whether he gets stopped. "We don't stick around long enough to get fined."

For street-team members, the danger is obviously part of the appeal. Most of the guys I spoke with don't make a living from their street-team work; either they're in school or they have other jobs and do it for fun and free CDs. MetroConcepts can't pay most of the guys (up to 20 on any given project), but it treats them like interns, encouraging them to spend time in the office learning about the industry. Mike, the MetroConcepts team captain, is paid, but he's also learning about artist management while he leads the snippet-tape campaigns.

Dylan, one of the guys on one of the teams, says that he does make ends meet: "They take good care of me." Walking around outside Axis, on Lansdowne Street, he is stickering for a rap group. Two acts, called Screwball and Exhibit, have just finished rapping, and now's the best time to snipe and sticker because the right people will see it as they leave. Dylan's walking slowly, thwapping available surfaces with one hand, peeling with the other, and keeping lookout for cops and Lansdowne security. Sticker backings flutter to the ground behind him like a trail of bread crumbs. "We put 'em up, then the City of Boston takes 'em down, and then we put 'em back up in the same places," he says, without a hint of frustration. In fact, when he talks about the law, a distinct note of pride creeps into his voice. "We get chased, a lot. That's why we dress up. We get nice suits, sneakers. We're repping when we're out here. And we've gotta run."

Dylan doesn't see himself as just another underpaid Joe on a street corner handing out fliers. And clothing and footwear companies clearly believe that street teams are cool enough that they want the guys to be seen wearing their logos. They might be the low-paid, high-risk end of an expensive marketing campaign, but "it's not like there's a shortage of kids wanting to be involved," Linberg says.

So, street teams wear free gear from hot urban brands like ENYCE and Fubu. They get some free music. They think of themselves as ninjas. And they do it, at least in part, because they like the image. Like the rest of the world of hip-hop, they're caught between wanting to be badass motherfuckers outside the system, and wanting the system to pay them for doing it.

And if the outlaw thing ever gets tiring, they can always go for better perks. The clothing label Fubu has begun not only outfitting its street team, but also sending them out in a fully decorated van with 20 speakers and 13 televisions. As Fubu co-founder Keith Perrin says, "We're always wondering, What else can we do to make it hot?"

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