Rappers aim for ringtones
By Nekesa Mumbi Moody, The Associated Press
NEW YORK - Despite a double-digit sales slump and mounting public criticism, rap
has not lost its ability to create monster hits -- but the fresh-faced artists
who make them seem to disappear by the time the next smash registers on the
From Soulja Boy, whose "Crank Dat" has topped the pop charts for the past six
weeks, to Mims and his No. 1 "This Is Why I'm Hot" from earlier this year, a new
generation of rap stars are sustaining the genre with huge party jams that take
over the radio, Internet and especially cellular ringtones.
But for the most part, what these artists haven't been able to sustain is their
"They're not making substance material -- they're not really going into creating
a sound," complains the rap veteran Snoop Dogg.
"It's all about making the hot song for right now, but the artists who will
stand the test of time like myself are about making records, not songs," he
added. "You got to make a quality album so you can hold people's attention. It's
like a movie. If you make a movie that got (only) one good scene, ain't nobody
gonna go see it."
Acts like Dem Franchize Boyz, a group on Virgin Records (a division of EMI Group
PLC), have definitely caught America's attention -- "Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It"
was the party jam du jour last year -- but they aren't on the charts today.
Young Dro, on Warner Music Group Corp.'s Atlantic Records, had everyone doing
the "Shoulder Lean" last fall, and his ringtone sold more than two million
copies. He hasn't had a top 10 hit since. And while Rich Boy's "Throw Some D's"
was so potent even Kanye West did a remix, the Interscope artist has been pretty
much M.I.A. on the charts since then. The ringtone went platinum, but Rich Boy's
debut album has sold only 354,000 copies.
Not that record labels necessarily have a problem with all that, especially when
those artists are racking up huge ringtone sales -- most of which sell for about
$1.99 for a snippet of a song, compared to 99 cents for a whole song on iTunes.
"That's just a business mind-set for the record companies ... instead of artist
development, they're looking for that," says Jermaine Dupri, president of urban
music at Island Records. "They want to try and sell as many ringtones as
Mims, another Virgin Records act, was huge on the ringtone market and the pop
charts, with "This Is Why I'm Hot." The slick street anthem shot to No. 1 and
was a platinum ringtone. But the album sold only 290,000 copies and Mims has yet
to have another hit -- which one veteran act finds troubling.
"He doesn't have another one? At least one more?" 50 Cent said in a recent
interview, blaming it on the lack of artist development on the record label's
part. "And then you're surprised that people don't want to spend their money on
"In today's music business, (fans) buy singles of songs that they like but they
buy albums of stars that they love," says "Big" Jon Platt, of EMI Music
Publishing. "There would be a time back in the day where you would know
everything about an artist. Today you don't know what half of these artists look
But it's not only record labels who are looking for ringtone raps to boost their
coffers. Some in the industry blame rappers who whip together simplistic, catchy
songs aimed at the ringtone market.
"About one or two weeks ago ... (an artist) played me a record and said, 'This
would make a hot ringtone,' " said Platt, president of west coast creative at
"Right now the state of where we are at in hip-hop, it's different," 50 Cent
says. "I don't think they want the lyrics to be complex -- they want it to be
simple, catchy. The Southern-based artist can be credited (with) that, because
they're dancing, so now your record has to pretty much be catchy. It doesn't
have to be super content, extreme content. It has to have a good rhythm to it
Seventeen-year-old Soulja Boy says that's what people want to hear these days.
"People don't want to go to a club and hear (about) people getting shot or hear
about your life story," he says. "People want to ... have fun and dance and
Still, Soulja Boy, on Interscope Records (a division of Universal Music Group),
knows the pitfalls of some of his predecessors. Already, he's got a song "Soulja
Girl" rising on the charts.
"When I did my album, I went into the studio (thinking), 'I gotta have each song
on here where it will be good as a single,' " he says.
Dupri admits that there have been times when he's signed a "ringtone act" (Dem
Franchize Boyz were his group when he was president of urban music at Virgin),
but he says there needs to be a balance between acts signed simply for ringtone
success and long-term prospects.
"You have to try and play both sides of the game," he says.
But for all the concern about what the future holds if the industry focuses on
ringtone rap stars, Platt sees an even more worrisome aspect of their success.
"If it wasn't for these singles blowing up, and some of the digital downloads
and the ringtones, it's kind of scary of where the business would be at this
point," he says, noting the rap genre's 21 percent sales dive in 2006. "It's a
Catch 22. It's not selling albums, but it is helping drive the genre further
because there's been no big (new) artist to carry it."