Chronologically, I’m in a chapter covering mid-90s hip-hop, which is full of conflict. There’s a tension alluded to in the book of the musicians that made it and those that didn’t: does increased radio play make songs popular? There’s some science that suggests yes. Or is there something intrinsic to the record that puts it in that virtous loop of requests and airplay, the equivalent of usage and virality in a web product?
There’s a great ancedote in the book that I think is useful when thinking about products. All of the links are my addition, not in the original text.
There was one moment during the recording of Voodoo that really brought this home. We were recording DJ Premier’s scratches for “Devil’s Pie,” and Q-Tip had just let the room to go work on something else, so there were four of us left there: Premier, Dilla, D’Angelo, and myself. During the break, Premier asked if anyone had any new shit to play for the group, and D’Angelo went for a cassette and played a bit of a new song, and the whole room just erupted in hooting. Then Dilla put on some new Slum Village shit and it was the same thing: an explosion of excitement. Then Premier, who had started the whole thing, played an M.O.P. song and some new Gang Starr material that he was working on for The Ownerz.
I was last at bat. All I had on me was a work tape for what would eventually become “Double Trouble” on Things Fall Apart. It didn’t have finished vocals yet, didn’t have Mos Def’s verse. It was just a skeleton. I played it, and I will never forget the feeling that came over the room, including me. It wasn’t that they didn’t hoot and holler like they had for the other songs. They did. But they didn’t mean it. I know the move people resort to when they’re not quite into a song: they keep a straight stare on their face and bob their head a bit, not saying anything, not making eye contact. That’s the sign of death. That’s what they all did to me, and I felt humiliated. I was like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction: I will not be ignored! I went back into the studio that same night and gave that song a radical, extended facelift. I refused to sleep until I had that thing up and running.
I love the idea of Questlove realizing the song was missing something, and going back to the booth to keep working on it until it resonated with his target audience. A song that doesn’t stand up on its own wouldn’t be any better when bundled as part of an album. (Or Samsung would have the most popular apps on Android.) Fans hear the care and quality of each track, and they become super-fans. The bands that break out weren’t bludgeoned into fan’s ears by radio play, they were pulled by these passionate few into a wider audience.
I love the mixtape culture that so many of today’s successful artists have come up through, and it is amplified online. Drake had three ever-improving mixtapes before his first album. It harkens to a line from PG’s startup canon (in 2009!): Better to make a few users love you than a lot ambivalent.
There’s this tension in everything we produce. Where’s the line to tread between 1.0 is the loneliest and a minimum viable product? Or is it about a minimum lovable product? Are we building a car with no air conditioning or a car with no wheels?
“Pivot” has become passé, but it’s much worse to assume that distribution will solve something core to your product that isn’t working.