After 10 years of striving to serve up the best that Hip-Hop has to offer each and every day, today (March 2) is the last day we will be updating…
Ambrosia For Heads Is Dead…Long Live Hip-Hop
When I first started writing, AFH was just a Tumblr on which I was posting music, videos, articles, and random musings. Ironically, the first post was about Facebook being the new Outlook, i.e., the place that served as everyone’s ultimate address book. Little did I know that it would eventually become Ambrosia For Heads’ most critical platform and Facebook’s core mission to be that social connector would subsequently lead to AFH’s demise…at least in this incarnation.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s 2009, and AFH is a hobby that I dabble with a few times a week. When my son is born later that year, I find myself at home much more and in need of a creative outlet. It’s a perfect time to dive deeper in search of ambrosia. I start to narrow the scope–or refocus it, to be more accurate–and really hone in on the music. When I’d started nuRules back in 1999, I’d wanted to own all of Hip-Hop in the digital space. By 2009, Hip-Hop was more than 20 years old and too wide and sprawling for any one brand to meaningfully own it in its entirety. What I noticed, however, is that even though there was an entire generation that had grown up on Hip-Hop, it was still being pigeonholed as something that was for young people. I thought there needed to be something that spoke to people who were in adulthood–working, parents, out of school or whatever chapter comes with being 25 or older. Studies show that people stop listening to new music after age 35 or so, but I always thought that was a function of not having enough time, rather than a lack of interest. I decided to put it to the test by having AFH cater to people 25 and older (though younger people were always welcome).
Hip-Hop for older people did not mean Hip-Hop for old people (though they were always welcome too…). Instead, I wanted to create a platform that respected Hip-Hop’s rich history, celebrated the great music that legacy artists continue to put out now, and which showcased the unbelievably talented artists of today who respect and reflect lyricism, musicality, and substance. As I thought about it more expansively, what I wanted to create was a combination of the “Hip-Hop Rolling Stone” meets the “Hip-Hop HBO.” This would be a site that featured long-form narrative and deep journalism and, eventually, a digital TV service that featured Hip-Hop videos, performances, and freestyles, but also narrative-driven content that spoke to Hip-Hop lifestyle–films, documentaries and TV series, akin to Power, The Wire, Atlanta, and Hip-Hop Evolution.
By September of 2010, I decided to see if I had it in me to post something every day for a month. I had an idea to countdown the greatest of all-time record labels (a theme that would recur for AFH over the years), and wrote about 25 of Hip-Hop’s finest purveyors of music each night.
After completing that month, I decided I was ready to make a go at turning Ambrosia For Heads into a full web site. I reached out to Amit Dodeja, a former co-worker who had become an expert at social media marketing, and asked him for help in launching a Facebook page. Another former co-worker migrated AFH’s Tumblr to WordPress.com, and by January 2011, we were off to the races. Amit came up with campaigns to build community on Facebook and drive audience to the site, and I came up with stories. When I first started, I noticed that when you shared a story to Facebook, the headline became the caption, so my headlines often were an entire sentence or more. Many times, the headline would be multiple sentences, and the article, itself, would be just a few words.
By this time, I was working full-time at BET as its SVP of Music Programming, so in order to not in any way compromise relationships the network might have with artists and to avoid leveraging my status at the company–I wanted AFH to stand on its own 10 toes–I created a pseudonym, so no one would know who I was. In college, I’d read a profound philosophy book called Reasons and Persons. It was about personal identity, and what it is that makes us who we are. The author’s name was Derek Parfit…and thus, AFH’s Parfit was born.
In January, we went from 0 to 500 followers on Facebook, by the end of the month. By mid-February, we had over a thousand followers and for the first time when I went to post a story, I got incredibly nervous. “Holy sh*t. I’m about to push something to 1200 people,” I thought. I settled down, and though we would grow to well over 420K followers and reach as many as 15 million people in a month, I never got nervous again. Part of that was because of a strategy I’d adopted to hone the voice for AFH in social media. I’d never wanted us to be a voice of god, speaking down to people. Instead, I wanted us to be the friend whose ear you liked and trusted. At a conference, I’d met a guy named Melvin, and we got into a deep conversation about music. He was 31 but was up on everything from ’70s Soul to ’90s Hip-Hop to the Rap music of the day. He was the exact type of person that I wanted to reach with AFH, so from that conversation on, I decided to write every Facebook post like I was talking to Melvin. It allowed me to personalize shares and treat them like conversations rather than lectures.
By now, I’m deep in the underground Hip-Hop of the day and names like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Logic, Rapsody, Childish Gambino, Vic Mensa, Mac Miller, Ab-Soul, ScHoolboy Q, Jay Rock, and Stalley are all near and dear to me. And, because I’m still at BET, something beautiful happens. We decide to launch “The Backroom,” the 2010s equivalent of Rap City’s “The Booth,” on 106 & Park. It was a space for freestyle sessions featuring the best young spitters of the day. Because I have my ear to the street through AFH, I’m in the position to program The Backroom, and I’m able to showcase the talents of many of the artists mentioned above and nearly 100 others to millions of people. For many of these artists, it would be their first appearance on TV. My experience with Battle Rap also allows me to forge a partnership with Smack URL to re-launch 106’s “Freestyle Friday” as “Ultimate Freestyle Friday.”
By now, it’s 2013, and AFH is growing. I want to take things to the next level, but can only write articles at night and over the weekends. If Ambrosia For Heads is really going to be in the game, it needs to be covering the culture by day too. A friend introduces me to a guy who had taken HipHopDX to epic heights as its Editor-in-Chief. He had decided to leave the company and was unsure if he wanted to be in the Hip-Hop journalism business anymore. We met for a drink and, after a fairly intense conversation, I asked him if he’d be willing to write for AFH as a consultant. That would be the best move I ever made for the company. His name was Jake Paine, and he would transform Ambrosia For Heads from a quirky blog to a full-blown Hip-Hop news organization.
When Jake first joined the company, a long article for us was about 50 words. More than any other person, Jake was responsible for making us like the Hip-Hop Rolling Stone. He brought in interns, groomed new writers, and made our articles long-form narratives rich with context and history. He worked under the name Bandini, the Clark Kent to Jake’s Superman. Bandini handled the day to day grind of news coverage, and when it was time to go in and flex, Jake pulled out the govie.
With Jake as my partner in crime, AFH grew to the point where we were reaching 500K unique visitors per month at the end of 2014. We’d gotten to a place where I knew we had a shot at becoming what I’d envisioned, and I decided to leave BET to fully materialize it. Working full-time, we were like Jordan and Pippen, alternating roles depending on the time and the need. In February of 2015, a writer reached out to Jake, wondering if we were hiring. I met Amanda Mester a few days later, and she proved to be one of the most talented writers in the space. Her knowledge of music was deep and wide, and her pen game was incomparable. She was also a massive fan of A Tribe Called Quest, hence her choice in monikers. Together, Bonita, Bandini, and Parfit were the “three-legged table” that would grow AFH to its highest heights, editorially, with Amit’s strategy helping to amass one of the most formidable and deeply knowledgable audiences in Hip-Hop.
By Spring of 2015, we were humming. The 2014 March Madness had inspired me to host a competition where we let our audience decide the age-old debate of who is Hip-Hop’s greatest of all-time MC. We launched “Finding The GOAT,” that Fall and for several months we pitted MCs against each other and let fans vote to determine who would advance to the next round. I believe we started with 165 MCs, but also had a number of wild card rounds where we let readers write-in candidates. Virtually every MC of note had a shot. This was at the height of Facebook’s partnership with publishers, and the engagement around the contest took on a life of its own. There were side chats between friends, family, and even some of our most respected competitors. Millions of people weighed in over the course of the contest and it reached dizzying heights. By the end, a fan had gotten so zealous that he hacked the voting and forced us to adopt a new voting tool and redo a contest that had been compromised. Ultimately, Eminem was declared the GOAT and, despite the fact that it was the fans that had determined the outcome, for years it was assumed we had declared the winner (or forced the result–for the record, my GOAT is JAY-Z, who lost in the Sweet 16 round to MF DOOM).
Regardless of the controversies, “Finding The GOAT” had put AFH on the map in the Hip-Hop community. It also allowed us to reach 1 million unique visitors in a month for the first time ever, powered in large part by a monster post about the anniversary of Redman’s MTV Cribs episode.
That May 2015 would be a springboard that led us into a year and a half of exponential growth. At our apex, we were reaching over 15 million people per month on the site and its social media platforms. By November 2016, the winds were changing, though. That month changed the landscape of the country in one fell swoop. Facebook would infamously come under attack for its role in the election results that year. Unbeknownst to most of the public, however, the company’s decision during that same time period to shift its focus away from showcasing the content of websites to prioritizing content posted by friends and family would lead to a downward traffic decline from which publishers, including Ambrosia For Heads, would never recover.
Since that month, AFH’s web site traffic was never the same. We had our best month ever in May of 2017 (after a monster article about Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN album) and another strong month in October of that year, after Eminem’s epic takedown of Donald Trump in his BET Cypher, but, for the most part, it’s been a slow and, truthfully, extremely painful decline.
As I saw this unfolding, I was concerned, but not overly so. From the beginning, I’d not set out to build a web site or social media company but, instead, a digital TV platform. By 2018, the world was beginning to wrap its head around the fact that digital TV was the future. Netflix and Hulu were still the main games in town, but companies like Crunchyroll were making noise, as were established media plays like HBO Go. It felt like it was finally time to launch AFH TV, the real butterfly for Ambrosia For Heads’ caterpillar.
I started meeting with app companies to get a sense of cost and really begin to scope out what AFH TV would look like. Ideally, I wanted an app that showcased both the stellar editorial that Jake and his team had put together, as well as the video we would produce and license over time. My plan was to raise money against AFH TV, using the audience and brand name Ambrosia For Heads had built as proof of concept. One of my biggest hurdles in raising money for nuRules back in 1999 had been my lack of experience and the lack of an established product. Fast forward to 2018, and I now have nearly 20 years of experience under my belt, having worked at MTV, Vh1, and BET. I also had founded and grown AFH from 0 to millions of people per month on extremely limited resources. So, raising money this time would be easy, right?
Not so fast. By this time, the market had taken a turn. Media darlings that had drawn enormous valuations were proving to be smoke and mirrors, the digital ad market was imploding and, believe it or not, people still question the viability of the Hip-Hop audience as a sizable enough market for its own streaming video platform. So, like I did with Ambrosia For Heads the web site, I decided to build AFH TV the OTT offering and show them. I found an affordable partner that could host the service on all of the major platforms–iOS, Android, Apple TV, Roku, etc.–and got to work. I spent months uploading and captioning videos, doing deals with incredible content partners like Ralph McDaniels, DJ Eclipse, DJ EFN, Soren Baker, Tim Einenkel, Justin Hunte and more, and launched AFH TV in October 2018.
In early 2019, I started meeting with film libraries to try to license many classic Hip-Hop films. Jake and I also went on a spree, interviewing an unbelievable number of great artists like Griselda, Rapsody, Pete Rock, Skyzoo, Killer Mike, Murs, Locksmith, Smif-N-Wessun, Little Brother, EPMD and so many more. Like with ambrosiaforheads.com, we were going to make AFH TV work, by hook or by crook. As the year went on, however, the expenses to market and maintain the service became too much. What’s more, the digital advertising market continued to decline, such that the money coming in for ambrosiaforheads.com could never match the money going out. That–along with the continuing traffic decline as Facebook shifts priorities, and shifting behaviors as readers find content in places other than web sites–has led us here.
So…as of today, ambrosiaforheads.com, as you know it, will no longer continue. This is not a sad song. Over the past 10+ years, I have had the journey of a lifetime. I have people who will be family for life, in Jake, Amit, and Amanda. I’ve met virtually all of my Hip-Hop heroes (past and present), and, moreover, we’ve earned their respect. Killer Mike told Joe Rogan he got the best compliment he received about his show, Trigger Warning, from Ambrosia For Heads. Questlove has told me personally how much he loves AFH. 9th Wonder has conveyed how much we mean to the culture. And, both RZA and Method Man have given us praise that C.R.E.A.M. can’t buy.
Beyond that, we leave behind a legacy of journalism that we believe stands with some of the best to ever cover this culture. We revealed never before heard secrets about New Jack City 25 years after it was released. We were the first publication to crack the code about Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN being two albums in one and that it was meant to be played forward and backward. And, we celebrated hundreds of MCs, groups, albums, and producers through our “Finding The GOAT” series. What’s more, we’ve become one of the most respected brands in Hip-Hop media, among artists, record companies, peers, and, most importantly, you, our readers.
But, if you’ve read this far, you know that I’ve been at this since 1999, when I founded nuRules.com. Each time I’ve made a run at building that Hip-Hop TV platform, I’ve gotten farther…much farther. So, while we’ve come to the end of this sprint, you can best believe the marathon continues. Stay tuned for the next episode…