Keep The Dirt: Content Strategy From Hip Hop’s Golden Era

Hip hop beatmakers of the 70s, 80s, and early 90s used to sample from vinyl and tape decks. The myth is that DJ Kool Herc, when he used to throw parties, noticed that the crowd would go wild during the drum break.

So, he would just loop the drum break and let everyone dance and enjoy themselves. The breakdancers would bust a move and the MC would hype the crowd by spitting his more fire bars.

That’s where rap comes from.

Playing To The Crowd

Now, the needle on the vinyl and the tape head on the reel had an ambient crackling, hissing or humming sound.

They call it “dirt.”

Whenever they ran that drum break through a recording device to capture the moment, it would record that ambient noise too. Then they would take that recording to an audio engineer to press a record so they could publish it and get it out to all the other DJs.

The engineer would be like,

“Yo, what is this shit?”

And they’d be like,

“No, leave that noise in, we want it that way.”

Otherwise, they’d have to hire a band to play that drum break and they didn’t have the money for that.

So, they left it like it is, and it was tolerated. Because the audience they were making it for wasn’t a commercial audience who were used to listening to highly-produced Motown hits or whatever.

(Keep this in mind for later, it’s important.)

It’s for printing it onto vinyl, giving it to DJs, and the DJs would spin them at their parties. These records are called “white label records” and they’re printed in small amounts.

The audience didn’t care about the quality of the sound because they’re hearing what they like:

The funk loop/drum break for an extended duration, with their favorite MCs from the neighborhood rapping over it.

Working With What You Have

Then along comes DJ Marley Marl and his proteges like Pete Rock. They found out there are these things called Samplers that allowed them to sample 5-second loops from records or tapes. They would cut up 5-seconds here and 5-seconds there, and make beats out of those samples.

Another thing about these samplers (or drum machines or analog synthesizers,) the internal circuitry/machinery of the devices brought out those crackles, hisses, and hums. So all the beats came with the “dirt.”

And they didn’t care. Because they couldn’t afford to hire bands and shit. All they had was the sampler. The sampler was their band.

Owning Your Flaws

This gave the beats of that era a very distinct sound. A rustic, homemade feel.

This dirty sound became the sound of hip hop.

And people started to notice what made hip hop distinct from all other genres was these little “defects.” (It’s like Cindy Crawford’s mole.) It was the defect that made it special.

(Once again, keep this in mind, it’ll all come together in a minute.)

The Clean Sound Era

The dirty sound starts to disappear around the Puff Daddy era, where he would just take sections of 80s hits, speed them up and loop them. Post the Puff Daddy era, record labels would step to hip hop producers like, “Yo, you can’t just be looping our shit. Pay us royalties.”

So beatmakers had to move away from sampling because they were dealing with copyright issues. This is one of the reasons why Pete Rock’s meteoric rise was halted because sampling was his thing and he was one of the best in the world at it.

From 2000 onwards you start to see the hip hop sound is “clean.” This is where beatmakers like Pharrell and Timbaland start to take over. But still, you’ll find them try to introduce the “dirt” artificially. And any beatmakers who used drum machines and continued the tradition of sampling, like J Dilla, their music had the dirt in it.

To this day, despite how much the genre and audience tastes have changed, the hip hop of the late 80s and early 90s is referred to as the Golden Age.

“What Kind Of Content Do You Like?”

A few months ago, a client and I were going over his content strategy and the different stuff we wanted to publish.

“Well, what kind of content do you like?”

…he asked me.

Without hesitating,

“I like dirty content.”

Maybe it’s the hip hop influence. Maybe it’s because I’m lazy. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen what works on the ground (and not what they tell you works on Youtube.)

But it’s the rustic, low-production-value, raw, gritty content that I’ve seen audiences respond to the best.

And it’s not so much the production value because some content creators put out some next-level shit.

Real Recognize Real

It’s the REALNESS that says,

“Here, this is me. I’m sharing myself with you,”

…that people unconsciously gravitate to.

Too many businesses and entrepreneurs are concerned with public perception and keeping up appearances. Concerned with how this looks for their “brand.”


Apple has a brand. McDonald’s has a brand. Coca-Cola has a brand. YOU have a logo, some colors, and a font or two.

Your “brand” exists only in your imagination. And nobody gives a damn about it.

But what if, instead of putting on airs, you owned your flaws and embraced your rough edges?

What if you showed up with some dirt? The dirt we all have on us.

Now, you’re connecting. Human to human. And people will start to care.

Give People What They Want

Beyond that, if you give people what they want, they won’t care about the packaging.

Does packaging not matter? It does matter. But you’re not in a position yet where it will matter for your business. Come back to me when you’re at 8-figures in revenue and then we can talk about “branding.”

For now, are you serving your audience? Are you solving their problems? Are you making their lives better?

If the answer’s yes, then it doesn’t matter whether the packaging is a long-ass Facebook post, or a smartphone video in shitty lighting, or a podcast spoken into a voice recorder using your headphone mic.

And remember, it’s the defects that make you special.

2 comments… add one
  • Jace A Brown Dec 31, 2019 @ 0:24

    I have to say, from someone who came from that time, I have never looked at it like that. I have had folks relate to me that they “got” or “felt” someone and that was why they did business with them. Fantastic info and a great wake up call. I can’t see me having a “brand” but maybe sometime. Until then, I just want to connect and help folks. (they help me)
    Great post!

    • Nabeel Azeez Dec 31, 2019 @ 8:41

      Once you see it, you can’t unsee. I’m glad it resonated with you. Thank you for the comment.

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