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How Jay-Z and Dr. Dre “Focus Group” Their Musical Releases

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So much of why these two rappers have found so much success can be boiled down to their undeniable understanding that the music business is… wait for it: a business.

For years, Jay-Z and Dr. Dre have remained laser-focused on the real goal of “selling product,” as opposed to getting distracted by the naïve interpretations of the business illiterate (“to make good art”). And sure, the latter can very often lead to the former, and even vice versa, but the only real mission statements of those sitting at the top stratum of the industry are: to get people’s attention, keep it once you have it, and push incremental boundaries to keep people talking about you and/or confused, so they talk about you more. And all of that is in service of the single goal of getting the masses to buy their records.

We’re not going to cover the massive wealth generation stemming from Dre’s involvement with Beats headphones and Jay’s various corporate holdings, from Rocawear to Tidal to the Brooklyn Nets, or their co-ownership of record labels like Aftermath and Def Jam. But keep these in the back of your mind as you listen to how each hit track they produce seems to lead to further successful investments in sound-as-iterative-product.

Jay and Dre don’t have some secret recipe for how to make “the best” hip-hop music the world has ever heard. The extent of the efforts they put into the testing, development, implementation, and distribution of their music as a material product are simply unmatched by any other rapper-mogul out there (except maybe Drake).

Let’s take a closer look.

Dr. Dre

Dr. Dre has always taken a number of years to test a beat-making sound on his own. He then presents this sound to the public, before reworking it based on feedback in the individual features that he does for other solo acts. Take his album 2001, for example. The sound of 2001 was developed over seven years between its own release in 1999 and Dre’s previous project, Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, way back in 1992.

This newer, darker, synthier, and more “gangsta” wave of the G-funk sound was tested out a little bit between 1992 and 1999, such as in Dre’s song “Keep Their Heads Ringing” from the soundtrack for the 1995 film Friday. After 2001’s staying power was cemented by its many, many platinum certifications, Dre went on to flesh out this new-wave G-funk sound with deeper, more orchestral layers.

You can hear this development happening over the course of several highly successful releases, and you also get the sense that with every hit track, he would take it back to the laboratory and dissect the working ingredients to use in further applications. This is a business-minded process.

This sound was peppered throughout the songs he released in the 2000s, and featured everyone from 50 Cent (“In Da Club”) to Busta Rhymes (“Break Ya Neck”), Obie Trice (“Shit Hits The Fan”), Eminem (“The Real Slim Shady”), Eve (“Let Me Blow Ya Mind”), Raekwon (“About Me”), Snoop Dogg (“Lay Low”), and The Game (“How We Do”).

This feedback process could even be considered to have begun way back in the product development cycle of Dre’s 1990s output. Doggystyle didn’t come out of a vacuum in 1992; it was the culmination of a stretch of work dating from the 1980s “Wall of Noise” sound that N.W.A. had developed to 1991’s The Chronic.

Jay-Z

Jay-Z’s methods as a businessman differ slightly from Dre’s — although they’re both nearly billionaires, so clearly both work very effectively. While Dre might be the legacy, establishment, or prestige company here (think The New York Times), Jay is the Facebook who buys up his competition (Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus) before it can compete with him.

As an entrepreneur, this can be traced through Jay’s litany of corporate assets, like Rocawear and Roc-A-Fella Records, and his history of successfully building companies and leveling them up to sell for a profit. But as an artist, a similar process unfolds in the family tree of producers who get drawn in across his discography.

DJ Premier’s work on Reasonable Doubt in 1996 is followed by Swizz Beats on 1998’s Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, who is followed by Timbaland on 1999’s Vol. 3… Life & Rhymes of S. Carter, who is followed by Just Blaze on 2000’s The Dynasty: Roc la Familia, who is followed by Kanye West on 2001’s The Blueprint, who is followed by Pharrell on 2002’s The Blueprint²: The Gift & The Curse, who is followed by 9th Wonder on 2003’s The Black Album, who is followed by Dr. Dre on 2006’s Kingdom Come, and on and on and on (Hit Boy, Mike Dean, No I.D. — they all come through at some point).

Jay’s list of rapper-collaborators across the ages is no less impressive: Notorious B.I.G. gives way to Puffy, DMX, Dre (again), Kanye (again), Eminem, and so on. One could easily say that Jay’s eye for success has keenly focused in on whoever is starting to consume the hip-hop zeitgeist at any given moment.

When an artist shows they’re becoming a fast-rising success, Jay “buys” the competition by usurping their talent into his own oeuvre. You could call that collaboration; I’d call it an acquisition. He thereby makes these artists yet another subsidiary of “Jay-Z, Inc.” (Dre’s role as a label executive led him to similar practices with his Aftermath Entertainment label, which distributes Eminem’s Shady Records, as well as 50 Cent’s G-Unit Records label… and no one has heard from Young Buck lately.)

Jay also always takes care to distribute his product in ways that are both widespread and industry disrupting. He had a deal with Samsung for Magna Carta Holy Grail, when he allowed that album to be heard by listeners if they downloaded a Samsung app to their phone. After realizing how big Napster was, he released a cappella and instrumental versions of his Black Album songs. This led to him being able to release a second version of the album without lifting a finger when Danger Mouse put samples of The Beatles’ White Album alongside Jay’s raps on his 2004 Gray Album.

By then, he was in a strong enough industry position to create his own distribution network, Tidal, to increase the demand for (and have greater control of) the supply of his own releases, which he did by restricting access to his 2017 album 4:44 to Tidal’s customers in the initial stages of its release.

What — you thought the schizophrenic SNL-catwalk-Spotify release of Jay-Z protégé Kanye West’s song “Wolves” was by accident? Sheesh.

This is the genius of subtly blending business practices with musical creativity, and finding new and exciting ways of using one to enhance the other. Being an entrepreneur and being an artist are more similar than we tend to recognize. And in order to be successful at either practice, one must continue to focus on what’s working, what’s capable of reaching wider audiences, and what has the potential to be scaled up and expanded.

The difference between the most successful artists of our time and great artists who still work day jobs to make ends meet is likely not the quality of their music or their playing talent.

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Martin Connor
Martin Connor

A musician and writer with a B.A. in Music from Duke University, Martin recently received his M.A. in Musicology from Brandeis University. His research is focused on rap's vocal melodies, and has appeared at the Harvard Hip Hop Music Archive, The University of Cambridge's Popular Music Journal, and at the University of Colorado's rap-focused humanities lab. He's a contributing writer for HipHopDX, Complex, and Pigeons and Planes, and has had multiple articles from his website go viral on BET, The Source, XXL, and MTV. His recent book, The Artistry Of Rap Music (2017 via McFarland Publishing House) is an in-depth music theory analysis of 130 songs by 60 rappers which charts rap's evolution as a music from 1979 until today. It was a follow-up to his 2014 contribution to the McFarland anthology Eminem & Rap, Poetry, Race, the research for which informs the weekly rap lessons that he teaches rap lessons online through the music school LessonFace.