BUILDING THE TEAM:
Doug Muir: I'm from Toronto and my day job was a web designer. I was always a big Roots fan and I had them on this ridiculously big pedestal. I found out that this Okayplayer stuff was starting, and I went to the site one day and I saw that it looked like shit. I was like, “Come on—this is the legendary Roots crew! You can't have a website that looks like shit.” I sent them an email one night when I was bored that said something like this is a disgrace to The Roots or some shit like that. I said I'll design your homepage for free if you contemplate changing the shit.
I redid the homepage with some sort of vintage Blue Note kind of thing. I'm kind of a creative-slash-digital person—I do the coding as well as the design stuff. So I designed this vintage album cover with Black Thought on it and I coded it so it was HTML ready and I sent it to them, like, Please, just put this shit up. Apparently they liked it so much that Angie flew to Toronto. I showed her around the city and we hit it off and became friends. She went back and she was my advocate to say we should bring this guy down, he does really good work.
It was just a bunch of people pulling ridiculous, ridiculous hours, eating cheesesteaks at 3 in the morning, cranking out artist website after artist website while maintaining Okayplayer.com. —Doug Muir
I had my own business at the time and I ended up telling my partners you guys run this shit for a while. I'll try to contribute where I can, but I gotta go to Philly. So I packed up and moved to south Philly. I was staying in Malik B's old apartment, which was two doors down from where Ahmir lived. So i'm like straight up 215. I'm not a big dick-rider but i had The Roots on this ridiculous pedestal and i now live in Philadelphia and am working with them.
It was just a bunch of people pulling ridiculous, ridiculous hours, eating cheesesteaks at 3 in the morning, cranking out artist website after artist website while maintaining Okayplayer.com, keeping it fresh with content, reaching out to the community on a regular basis, getting them to contribute, and helping everything to grow and evolve.
Dan Petruzzi: I lied on my resume and said I knew Flash. I applied and the next morning I went to Barnes & Noble, got a tutorial book, went home and just ran through it in four or five days. It was pretty fun and easy. By the time I was done, I emailed them back and checked in with them—I felt a little more confident then.
The interview was on 421 North 7th Street in Philly, same address as the Electric Factory. We were right below one of the premiere studios in Philly. Everybody recorded there—it was The Roots' office. It was management, production, all their tour gear was stored in our office, and we ran our website out of the office too. It was a very independent operation. Things Fall Apart had just come out. They had just won a Grammy for “You Got Me.”
I met with Doug Muir—the original IT person and designer, a Jamaican cat from Toronto. Really cool guy. He set up all the servers in the office and had done all the coding for Okayplayer up to that point. I got the job and I started four days before my 24th birthday in April of 2000. The next day we met in a conference room in the apartment complex Black Thought lived in. He lived in a building with a doorman that had conference rooms on the ground floor. Everyone had their StarTACs and their Motorola two-way joints.
Everyone was laid-back, but was really good at what they did. There was a feeling of purpose when we were there as far as starting the company and blazing your path in the new media space. It was pretty much open territory, so that was a motivator.
People didn’t know what to think of us. Everybody would say, you’re a website, you’re a record label, you’re a managment company. They didn’t really know what it was, because we had our name all over the place—on fliers, posters, CD trays, on CDs themselves, on albums that were coming out on major labels. So people didn’t know what Okayplayer was. I always thought that helped us.
Shawn Gee: Another thing that Ang added on, which I would say was the second greatest decision in the early development of Okayplayer, was she added message boards. With those message boards, the fan had a voice, so it wasn’t just Angie, Ahmir, the Roots, and a one-way communication. When we put up the message boards, the first people we had come in and identify themselves were Roots fans, obviously. But what we started to see in that second wave was that some of these people were just individuals who were expressing themselves and communicating with other like-minded individuals. They had found a home.
Questlove: The early vets—anyone there who has over 35,000–90,000 posts—a lot of them had that, “Is this really you?” type of thing. That left real quick once you showed that you’re human. That’s the important thing; I wanted a place where I could learn stuff. The way you get to be known as a smart cat is that you got to surround yourself with people who know more than you do. You take from them and you become smarter.
Shawn Gee: Questlove’s a communication junkie. Pre-Internet, he had a cell phone, and in each city of the tour he would change his outgoing message so depending on the city he would have different artists on there. People would call him not to talk to him or to even leave a message but to hear where he was and see who was on his voicemail.
No one wants to feel human in hip-hop. Everyone’s whole goal is to rise above the ashes and become superhuman. I was doing my best to try and dispel that myth.
He communicated directly with the fans. Initially there was a bunch of fandom type of questions that fans ask artists but eventually he became a regular member who joined in on regular conversations. People would argue with him, people would disagree with him.
Questlove: I would get into the posts and the boards and basically strip down and become human to the point where I was a regular cat. No one wants to feel human in hip-hop. Everyone’s whole goal is to rise above the ashes and become superhuman. I was doing my best to try and dispel that myth, to normalize myself in ways where they feel comfortable with it. Most people would be delusional to think that it would happen, but I like to think it was a place where I could become human.
Doug Muir: Ahmir is super digital dude and was always up on the forums. So it was a place where if if you were a Roots fan you could basically talk to Questlove and see what the band was doing. That brought in a lot of like-minded hip-hop fans to one digital space. It was like a social network before people had the term social network for that sort of thing.
Shawn Gee: People were discovering this web community called Okayplayer, but they may not have even heard of The Roots. They connected on the message board, not even about music, not even about art, but about life. What school should I go to? College applications, your girlfriend—I broke up with my girlfriend. It became less about the art and more about every day issues. General discussion is just that. It could be, Hey, I went to a club and fucked three girls. Or, Did you guys see the Grammys last night?
The sports forum was my idea. I’m a sports fanatic and there were sports conversations happening in general discussion. I’m a private person—I’m not the type to talk about what’s going on in my life. But when you’re talking about the game last night and who you think is going to win the Cy Young award or whatever, I would engage. When we had our strategic meetings, I would say, we should break that off as its own forum.
There was a forum called the Left, then there was general hip-hop discussion. Then we started realizing we were getting a lot of people who are interested in technology who want to have a higher conversation about tech. So we built a tech forum. It grew out of what was happening on the site. That’s one of the things we did very well: We watched, listened, and reacted very well to what was happening on the site.
Dan Petruzzi: I started the tech forum. That’s the last one we added. It never took off like the music discussion forum, but it’s there.
Quest has always been very involved with the message boards and he’s one of the biggest reasons why they are what they are, because he’s an expert on music and he’s very opinionated and very knowledgeable and he has a lot of stories and he likes to write.
We interviewed Kanye right before “Through The Wire” came out and that interview lives on the message boards. We didn’t even have a section to post something like that. We never set out to be a publication. Just like I had to teach myself Flash I had to teach myself content too. A lot of stuff we’ve been figuring out as we go.
Questlove: Friendships that I have to this day are from people who I started having differences with. FWMJ is a good example; he runs Rappersiknow. He did a scathing review of Phrenology—that was a major moment for the site where someone isn’t supposed to drink the Kool-Aid. It’s a place where you are really honest about how you feel. That was a moment.
And no one does better BET Awards commentary than Okayplayer. I tested my theory last year and didn't even watch the BET Awards. I just read the 600-thread count on Okayplayer and that was enough for me.