THE POWER OF TENSION
This summer I had the opportunity to present to the Richards Group Planning Department. I could choose any topic I wanted, so I chose the East Coast/West Coast Rap Feud of the Early 1990's. The feud acted as the vehicle to showcase the power of tension.
I'll give you the TL;DR: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" does not apply to gangster rappers.
Below is a more in-depth synopsis of my presentation.
What's up with this picture? Why does it feel a little off? And why am I so drawn to it? The answer: tension. Our brain's basic understanding of physics tells us that little red ball should roll down the side of that black triangle. Gravity and all that. But the red ball is locked in place and this tension between what we think should happen and what is actually happening intrigues us and draws us in.
This same sort of practice is utilized in music. For instance, a guitarist will strum a D7 chord to draw you in and then resolve that tension with a G chord. Without the G chord, the D7 feels like a sneeze stuck in the bridge of your nose. The "Hey Jude" lyrics "take a sad song" (D7) "and make it better" (G) is a solid example.
But since we're in advertising, I've chosen a topic that revolves around tension in communications...
To really get a full understanding of the situation we've got to go back to the beginning.
In the mid-1980's the East Coast was the leader. They were topping every chart and busting through Walkman headphones everywhere. Schooly D was pioneering the gritty rap genre focused around violence and drugs while on the West Coast...
(We all buy $200 headphones from that guy in the red now).
Well, Schooly D's lyrics travel the country and find Ice T's ears in California. Ice T loves this shit and so his raps start to become heavily influenced by Philly's Schooly D. This style of rap goes gangbusters in California and soon enough the world gets this iconic album.
This album lights up the United States. No one's heard anything like this before. It's got urban and suburban kids alike going bananas. And the East Coast isn't too fond of this new found popularity radiating from sunny California. So East Coast rapper, Tim Dog responds with:
Except he didn't say fudge. He goes right after the boys from NWA (portraying them as women in his video) and their "bullshit city." Tensions between the East and West are starting to mount, but the rap genre has never been more popular, so the West Coast hops back in the game with...
Dr. Dre follows up "Straight Outta Compton" with another iconic album called "The Chronic." This time he's paired up with a budding young star from Long Beach that goes by Snoop Dogg. On it was a single called "Fudge with Dre Day" (he didn't say fudge either) and was a direct call out of Tim Dog. Dre and Snoop told Tim Dog to eat certain genitalia and joked on his overweight mother.
The album sold over 3 million copies in less than a year. That's nearly double the amount of sales from Dr. Dre's NWA album "Straight Outta Compton" from just a year earlier. While tensions built, album sales sky rocketed.
Until this point, the feud was just a war of words. Only feelings got hurt. But then...
West Coast based rapper, Tupac Shakur, gets shot five times when entering Quad Studios in Manhattan, NY. Tupac was going to a recording session with East Coast based Bad Boy Records artists' Puff Daddy and Notorious B.I.G. Suspicions arose that this was a setup by Puff Daddy and Biggie. This shooting gets picked up by every major news outlet causing tensions to reach higher and higher peaks. This news segment ran all over TV (only need to watch to :30).
While a simple conversation between Tupac and Biggie could've squashed these suspicions, Biggie chose to use that quote at the :30 mark as the muse for his next hit single.
Biggie, biggie, biggie, can't you see. Sometimes your words are antagonizing. (This joke did not go over well, but I liked it.)
Tupac takes this as an admission of guilt and goes off on the East Coast in a now infamous interview with VIBE magazine in which he basically foretold his impending death. Not one to go down without a fight, Tupac responds and fuels the tension machine further.
The lyrics in this song are straight venom. Tupac talks about having relations with Biggie's wife. He makes fun of a member of East Coast crew, Mobb Deep, who has sickle cell anemia. He threatens the children of Bad Boy stating that his ".44 makes sure all your kids don't grow." The song ends with a barrage of "F*ck yous" to anyone associated with East Coast rap.
And that was the end.
Three months later an anonymous gunman murdered Tupac in a drive by shooting on the Las Vegas strip. Then six months after that Biggie died in drive by shooting in his "rival" city of Los Angeles. An incredibly sad ending to a story that set the world on fire.
But look at what they did while they were alive.
Additionally, the posthumous release of "2PAC's Greatest Hits" also reached certified Diamond status (10M+ copies sold). So, as a result of the tensions that arose between these two artists, 3 of the 7 certified Diamond Hip Hop albums (10M+ copies sold) were produced in this time frame.
What I realized in the end was that the real tension in this situation was not between Biggie and 2PAC or the East Coast and the West Coast. The tension was between the words the consumer heard and the actions the consumer saw. Based on the words the consumers were hearing they expected certain actions from the performers. However, they didn't get the expected actions and this tension between what they thought should happen and what was actually happening sent hip hop into the stratosphere.
But ultimately, the words and expected actions did meet and the little red ball rolled down the side of the triangle. Once it did, the tension broke and interest flamed out.
Creating tension is easy. Sustaining it is not. And that is something planners must consistently work towards.