URBAN GETS WIRED
THE WEB IS THE LATEST HIP-HOP ‘HOOD, AND E-COMMERCE IS A GROWING PART OF THE DEAL.

Byline: Leonard McCants

Hip-hop’s gone digital.
Now that the best-selling music genre has moved from its U.S. urban underground roots to the global arena, fans wanting information delivered faster than magazines can provide it are dialing up the thousands of hip-hop specific Web sites, for the latest on their favorite artists, the buzz on upcoming albums — and the chance to buy related music, gear and apparel.
The most authentic of these sites — some of which get millions of visitors a month — are leveraging their hip-hop street credibility to develop into global forums and marketplaces.
One of the larger and splashier sites is Platform.net, which combines news, culture and e-commerce with interactive elements such as free e-mail services, message boards and chat. While centered on urban hip-hop culture, the site’s reach is broad enough to include other youth scenes, such as skate.
“We put the whole urban youth culture together,” said Steve Greco, Platform.net editorial director and co-founder. “The Web can unite the urban youth culture like TV never did.”
The site’s income stream includes funds from 50 partners and investors and advertising revenue from record labels and movie studios. It also gets a percentage of sales from its e-commerce element, which includes urban youth apparel labels like Triple Five Soul and Ecko Unlimited.
“Our partners are 50 other businesses seeking the exact urban youth audience that Platform aggregates,” said Greco.
He also said Platform.net is still operating in the red. “Our projected profitability is soon,” Greco noted. The company currently has no plans to join the many other Internet entities in the rush to IPO status. “We would only do that if the integrity of what we are stays in place,” he explained.
Future plans, however, do include media convergence in the form of a television show and expansion of the the e-commerce portion of the site to include filling orders. Currently, each of the site’s vendors handles transactions individually.
“What we are is an entertainment company, a media company,” he said. “We’ve been successful at building a brand. Where we are going is toward making the Platform brand bigger. Some of those ways [to do that] I can’t say, but I think we want to be, for our audience, what MTV was to its audience: It defined everything cool.”
Plaform’s reach extends far beyond domestic urban markets. Of the hundreds of thousands of people who visit the Platform site monthly, nearly 40 percent are from outside the U.S., Greco said, adding that most foreign visitors log on from Germany, Great Britain, Japan and Scandinavia.
Launched in 1997 with Greco’s co-founders Tina Imm and Ben White, both software developers, the site started with just five employees. It now counts 30 people on the payroll, not including 25 news stringers and freelancers. Before joining the digital world, Greco was a senior editor at Interview magazine.
The news content offering at Platform.net is updated daily. Its offering of longer, more in-depth feature stories is refreshed every week. “We’ve been lucky in the last two years since launching that we’ve had a steadily growing audience and a steadily growing number of retailers,” said Greco.
One of the Web’s major benefits for operators such as Platform is that it tends to be a great equalizer, at least in terms of cost of entry into the information stream. While the newest, hottest television show or the boy band du jour will more than likely have a Web site run by their television network or record label, there are also thousands of sites created and run by independent artists and die-hard fans. And in the urban scene it is no different.
While not a giddy teen, Web site operator Davey D currently has one of the better known individual hip-hop destinations — Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner (Daveyd.com). In addition to creating and maintaining the site, Davey D also has other ties to the community such as disc jockey gigs for a top-rated San Francisco radio station and for the Pacifica affiliate radio station in Oakland.
“The site came out from a situation of not being able to present a position on hip-hop without it clashing with people’s business agenda,” said Davey D, who would not divulge his full last name.
“I’m not trying to be in bed with the big record companies,” he said. “It’s a good game if you want to do that, but at the end of the day, they have their agenda and they do the things they want to get their agenda across. I come to you as an independent partner.”
The site averages about 1.5 million unique visitors per month, he said, among them mayors, artists and record executives. He updates the news on the site daily, and his collection of hip-hop music charts every few weeks. Davey D also publishes an e-mail newsletter, the Friday Nite Vibe. “I have a pretty good following,” Davey D said. “I want to make sure it’s a place of accuracy and integrity on the Web for hip-hop.”
Davey D started his career as a musician in the mid-Seventies, during hip-hop and rap’s infancy in New York. He then moved to the Bay area, where, he said, he played a part in the formation of hip-hop’s West Coast style. Along the way, and after racking up 40 platinum and gold records, he got frustrated by the way the genre and its players got presented. He started the site in 1996 in conjunction with Eline Productions, a San Francisco-based software development company, which provides him with space for his site.
His long-term goal is to make the site into a media resource that may include other Web properties. “If you consider the type of presence the site has had and the things the site has done,” he noted, “pound for pound it can stand up to other places that have millions of dollars behind them.”
With the plethora of large sites like Platform.net and fan sites like Davey D’s available serving the urban youth culture, it can be hard to separate the good from the mediocre. This is where portals such as Aka.com come in.
Like a smaller and more specialized version of Yahoo, Aka.com searches for what it deems the best hip-hop sites on the Internet and offers links to surfers looking for digital hip-hop. The linked sites, or affiliates, gain increased traffic.
“It’s basically the one-stop shop for hip-hop on the Internet,” said Ayres Haxton, Aka.com’s chief editor. “We wanted to organize all of the little independent sites so Internet users could come to one site and get all they wanted to know about hip-hop.”
The portal attracts three million unique visitors per month linked to sites based in Germany, France, Switzerland as well as the U.S. and Canada. Its content includes photos, album reviews, news and links to MP3 digital music sites.
“Our affiliates have a lot of love for hip-hop,” Haxton said. “They may work at Disney, but still have a love for hip-hop.”
Haxton said there are 200 affiliates connected to the hip-hop portal. Aka.com is looking to expand to other music genres with portals devoted to rock, dance, soul and Latin music, all set to go live by May. Once these other portals are up, the affiliate total will jump to 450, Haxton said.
Launched only six months ago, the site employs about 70 people in its offices in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea, and is funded by a group of 20 individual investors. Its income includes advertising revenue.
The site is updated three times daily. The affiliates send Haxton e-mail updates about what is new at their sites; Aka.com then updates the appropriate links.
“I think this is a win-win situation because we get their best work,” Haxton said. “And the affiliates do it for the traffic. Their traffic may go up 500 percent from being with us.”
Asked to name Aka.com’s main objective, Haxton was quick to answer: “Our goal is to be the premier music and entertainment portal in the world by next summer.”