Part 2 of the secret behind every popular culture movement over the last 10,000 years
Back in October, I wrote “How to Create Your Own Cultural Movement”. Since the piece got a positive response, I wanted to take the opportunity to dig a little deeper. Before we get into that, here’s what we’ve covered so far:
- A “movement” in this context means a marketing campaign around a specific product that aims to provide community, affiliation, and inspiration as well as the desire to live a better life.
- For the sake of continuity, I’m going to continue the musician example. I believe the below strategy applies to any creative profession.
From last time:
- Ask yourself, “What do I want to share with the world about myself and my world via my art?”
- Look around and find people who share your culture who are in a similar creative space.
- Collaborate on projects that appeal to people who share your cultural context with people who share your cultural background.
- Broaden your reach by figuring out how to contextualize your culture to someone completely different from you.
- Repeat until you have a million in the bank.
Today, I’m going to elaborate deeper on #2, #3, and #4. #1 is something only you can answer, and #5 is out of your control, so stressing out about it is a waste of time.
Find people who share your culture who are in a similar creative space.
“For a handful of years straddling the turn of the century, the Soulquarians treated Electric Lady as a clubhouse — a perpetual hang unburdened by the usual ticking clock of the recording studio. Sometimes their work involved more input than output: Questlove and D’Angelo would hunker down to study bootleg videotapes from old Prince and Stevie Wonder tours, like a coaching staff reviewing game film. Sometimes the energy shifted to accommodate a drop-in guest with fresh ideas. Progress was vague, halting, nonlinear. But the creative vibe of these hothouse experiments attracted other works-in-progress: While D’Angelo and company held court in Studio A, the rapper Common began recording his new album in Studio B, and others (the rapper Mos Def, for example) followed suit in Studio C. These simultaneous recording projects often shared personnel, a sonic aesthetic, even concrete musical ideas: a riff or a groove conceived for one artist might be put to better use by another, leading to some tactical horse-trading. Still, the overwhelming mood was one of urgent creative independence, a conviction that ran counter to the prevailing commercial mode at the time.” (Quoted article in homework section below)
The Soulquarians formulated their breakthrough sound in an environment suitable for creative discovery: the iconic Electric Lady Studios in New York City. In an ideal world, the creatives that share your culture have a place to congregate and exchange ideas with each other.* Musicians have jam sessions; writers have clubs, comedians have open mics. It’s a place not only to learn and connect, but it allows individuals to learn about how to shape their voice in the proper context of the broader community.
*A note about online communities: I believe this is the easiest time in history to connect with people all over the world via the internet, but you still have to go outside. I also believe human interaction breeds trust and understanding faster than any other collaborative method. You have to go where people in your culture go. If your people don’t have a place to meet, create one. Even within communities that built online, there’s still no substitute for bonafide human interaction.
I look at it this way: Think about how many people look cool online, and then you meet them, and they don’t match their online persona? Don’t be one of those people.
Collaborate on projects that appeal to people who share your cultural context with people who share your cultural context.
“Questlove was the one who started bringing people there. He told everyone what was happening. He was the original Twitter before Twitter. [laughs] He brought Common and Erykah into the studio. He had a vision for Common’s album, Like Water for Chocolate. The same applied for Erykah and James [Poyser]. He wanted them to catch the vibes he was getting at Electric Lady. It was this super organic, soulful, psychedelic vibe that he was getting. Electric Lady brought out a certain type of psychedelic vibe in D’Angelo and everybody else, including me.”
– Russell Elevado, recording engineer and record produce.
“I was working on D’Angelo, Erykah, The Roots, Jill Scott, Bilal, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, Slum Village, and Nikka Costa’s records. At the height of everything, I was working with 17 different artists. I was really gun shy on any unwelcomed praise. I came from a commune. It wasn’t a one man act. I was very uncomfortable accepting a title or praise.”
So you’ve found your people, and you’re putting stuff together. It makes sense to combine your efforts and create something new. A few things to get your brain ready for collaboration:
Nobody is “self-made.” Enough of this shit! Half the people who say they’re self-made mean to say “self-motivated,” and the other half is just lying. In order to create a movement that matters, you need a team. Even if you managed to do every single thing yourself, you wouldn’t be able to maintain a level of quality for too long. For the young shooters, a word of advice: Stop letting your ego get in the way of the higher goal.
Speaking of teamwork…decide before you get started if you want to be the one in front of the one behind-the-scenes. If you have the ambition to be in front and don’t go for it, you turn into a hater. If you have goals to be behind-the-scenes but have to be in front, you’ll go crazy (this is why I think a lot of musicians lose it). There’s value in both paths, so be honest with yourself.
“People would ask me, “If y’all aren’t using it, can I have that?” A great example of that was the song “Chicken Grease” on D’Angelo’s Voodoo album. It was actually made for Common. The song “Geto Heaven” on Common’s record was made for Voodoo. This was the song that Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo were supposed to do a duet to. When it was made clear that Lauryn Hill wasn’t going to be available to sing on D’Angelo’s record, Common asked him, “Can I please have that track?”
But what Common didn’t know was that D’Angelo said to me, “Yo, man. I can’t let him have that funk track y’all did. Common doesn’t know what to do with that song. That’s the funk I need. You know good, and well that’s the funk I need. Common doesn’t know what to do with that funk.” So I had to broker a peace deal. I said, “If you give him that song, he can take “Chicken Grease,” and you can have “Geto Heaven.”
If your business is set up correctly and you’re collaborating on creative projects that will be sold, I think you shouldn’t be afraid to share concepts across multiple projects, mainly if you’re featured. None of this “I’ll get you back on the next one” shit, make sure your business is taken care of.
Expect the expected.
Jealousy? To be expected.
Greed? To be expected.
Pride? To be expected.
People acting in self-interest? You guessed it, to be expected!
Every great movement, from the Macedonians to the Black Mafia Family, had to deal with these emotions. Understand that you will encounter all of these things while building your movement because you’re working with humans, and all humans share these traits. You can’t prevent them because you can’t control human beings. Don’t let them harden you from collaboration; don’t let them turn you bitter. Move with the expectation that you can only control the things you can control.
Broaden your reach by figuring out how to contextualize your culture to someone entirely different from you.
An excellent way to do this? Interview yourself! Think about what questions a journalist would ask you about your creative output. Try to answer questions like “What do I have to say about the world?” And “What did growing up in _ teach me about music?” The better you can articulate your context, the better chance a person has to understand and ultimately support what you’re trying to do.
Why do you believe your creative output stands out? What about you stands out vs. the literal thousands of people who are trying to do the same thing you’re doing creatively?
One last thing: In our example, the Soulquarians all had record deals, which allowed their innovative sound and collaborative energy — not to mention that shared cultural context!— to travel all over the world. The most significant step in starting a movement in culture is figuring out how you’re going to spread it!
YOUR HOMEWORK FOR THE WEEK:
- Source materials for the above include the essential RBMA oral history of the Soulquarians and
- This sick thesis someone at the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!) defended that I randomly came across.
- Why We Need a Working-Class Media!
- If you love chips as much as I do, this is worth your time.
- The Ultra-Wealthy Who Argue That They Should Be Paying Higher Taxes(!!!!!)
Office Hours is written by Ernest Wilkins. He is on the hunt for All-Star Dunk Contest tickets! Follow everywhere online @ErnestWilkins or email.