Questlove: The one who came up with the idea of becoming bigger than just a Roots website was actually Rahzel. He had come over to the house to see Okayplayer because at the time, he was working on his solo record. He wanted to do some exclusive stuff for the site. He’s telling me, “I’m all aboard, but you know what it should be? Okayplayer shouldn’t be your home. It should be a mall. You own all these malls with empty stores. And you’ll get a Rahzel store, and next to him you’ll get a D’Angelo store. Then you went and got an Erykah Badu store, and....” He kept going on and I was like, “Holy shit. I could do that.”
Shawn Gee:OK, we hired an individual on payroll, we bought a computer, there are expenses associated with running this sort of thing. As a business man I was asking myself, is there some sort of business model that could offset some of these expenses? Because in those early years there was no Jimmy Fallon and there were no large Roots shows. We were struggling to survive show in and show out.
I was asking myself, is there some sort of business model that could offset some of these expenses? Because in those early years there was no Jimmy Fallon and there were no large Roots shows. We were struggling to survive show in and show out. —Shawn Gee
Why don’t we go and market what we have to other artists? It’s a community of like-minded individuals that developed organically. We thought that if it was interesting to us, it would be interesting to others. So we reached out to a number of artists we already had relationships with. We reached out to Common, we reached out to D’Angelo. Those were the first two artists. We had a relaunch of Okayplayer which included the web presence for multiple artists. So now you have the D Angelo fan, who’s thinking Voodoo’s coming out. Where can I go to get some information?
Questlove: There was this joke about Okayplayer being my ant farm. It was my ant farm for two years. Then once D’Angelo came aboard, and he was active in his career, that’s the point in which we started crashing the servers and hosts and hosts and hosts. I remember we always had problems with overcrowding and crashing our hosts.
Labels started to approach us to build sites for their artists. That was to keep the lights on. It was funded out of my pockets and whatever merch we could move, and the icing on the top was doing work for other labels. Like Universal would always come with an artist that wasn't necessarily Okayplayer-related, but they liked the formula that we had built. So my concern primarily for the first ten years was definitely, "Let's just keep the lights on."
Dan Petruzzi: Analytics didn’t even enter the equation until way later. We had stats, but we weren’t selling traffic at the time. We knew how many people were on the boards and how many people were on concurrently. We’d look at those numbers and it was popping. But a lot of times when you run a website you have tunnel vision. You’re not really looking at other people’s stuff too much. You have a job and you know what your job is. Our job was to land these deals with labels and artists to create this community. You had all these artists who had substantial fanbases but were still “underground” but when you combined these collective fanbases it became very substantial. And there wasn’t anyone doing what we were doing, so it felt very unique and progressive.
Shawn Gee: Once we saw that it was bigger than The Roots, Common, and D’Angelo we started expanding. We started that cross-pollination on the artist side as well and built Okayplayer into a hub. That was the home of left-of-center music in urban culture at that time. You started to see other artists come under our umbrella, but even on our message boards, you started to see artists who weren’t part of our core, but were part of the community.
We saw everyone from Will.I.Am to Jill Scott. Phonte and Nicolay, they met on our boards—Foreign Exchange was born on Okayplayer. The cool thing about the community that we built was that you started to see how things were built and developed around an idea. Great minds and great elements that came together.
Dan Petruzzi: At the time The Roots were popular but they weren’t making a lot of money. Same for Common, same for Black Star. D’Angelo was a little more successful. Voodoo had been doing well. So it made total sense to try and pitch the labels and the artists to be part of this thing where we could all share the same resources—which is community, e-commerce, news updates.
Our job was to promote them 24 hours a day. And it was limited to those people. That was originally the model, and we were getting artists to pay us. For every release we would customize a website around the album artwork. On the Voodoo promo and on the tray card in the cd case it says, okayplayer.com/dangelo. That was the official website. Same with Like Water For Chocolate. The websites all lived on Okayplayer, but they had their own entry points. We’d keep them updated with a photo gallery and news updates and we’d also blog about the different happenings on our homepage. We did it in a way where it cross-promoted the different artists. Obviously, our model has changed a lot since then.
Questlove: It’s such a common thing now for artists to be on Twitter and Facebook. But the idea of a velvet rope was still a thing back in the late ’90s. [There wasn’t] a lot of access to a person’s life. Pretty much the only people that were open to it were the people I was working closely with. I would start a post on Okayplayer and just keep the computer open all day and go live no matter where I was.
I would go shopping with Zack de la Rocha, talk about it in the post, and go live with it. One day I remember Zack wanted to work on the solo record and we went shopping and we both came back with 300 records between us. We spent all day listening to the records, and cut for cut, I would write the cuts we’re playing and the reaction. “OK, we’ll listen to ‘Inspiration Information’ by Shuggie Otis... Oh yeah, this is cool. Maybe we’ll work on this or loop this or try to sample that.” Stuff like that.
Dan Petruzzi: Questlove brought the other artists who still hadn’t figured out how to communicate with fans on the Internet. Back then rappers didn’t have computers, and they didn’t care to. For most of these dudes from south Philly and The Roots, they had no interest in being on the Internet. They made music.
Back then rappers didn’t have computers, and they didn’t care to. For most of these dudes from south Philly and The Roots, they had no interest in being on the Internet. They made music. —Dan Petruzzi
Like Black Thought—it just wasn’t up his alley. He tried it a couple times because Ahmir got him to, but he was not into it. Kweli was always into it, Mos not so much. He was never really into it at all, actually. It wasn’t D’Angelo’s thing. It wasn’t like he didn’t like it; it just wasn’t his thing. Then there were people like Skillz that got busy on their own. Erykah’s really proficient with it now. She’s an analog girl in a digital world—that’s her handle on Okayplayer.
Doug Muir: I have Black Thought in my top 5 lyricists of all time. i had the idea that being able to work with him would be cool. But he was on some, “Fuck these Internet nerds.” He was like, “I don't give a shit about any of this.” So any time we needed him for anything, it was nearly impossible. He was not down with us. He wasn't against it. He's just a really private person. He didn't get why people were online talking about hip-hop. And to this day he doesn't use Facebook or Twitter.
Questlove: Some of the artists I worked with took an interest in it. Erykah Badu would always be like, “Tell them this, tell ’em that.” D’Angelo just shunned the idea.
I was real close to getting Jay-Z aboard. When I was mastering Unplugged, he was there basically for the process of mastering and was always wondering why I had my computer everywhere I went with me. He’s like, “What are you doing? What are you typing?” He seemed really impressed with the real time instantaneous responses he would get. I know there was a thread I put up about “Mastering with Hov” in real time. Jay says, “What up? What questions y’all got?” He maybe answered like four of them.
Things were that way for Kweli. Despite his lack of participation, Mos seemed to be into it as well. That’s how we were able to pull people in. They saw the kind of camaraderie we had with our fanbase and it makes you want a piece of the action. I guess we were the Pied Pipers of that movement of the second half of the ’90s.
THE OKAYPLAYER HATERS
Talib Kweli: I didn’t even own a laptop until 2004. It’s not like that anymore, but from the beginning Okayplayer was centered around the artists. So whether or not I was on the Internet I was part of the movement. You had a Talib Kweli tab and Reflection Eternal tab, along with Common and The Roots, Slum Village and a bunch of other Okayplayer artists.
Common: I remember not being very tech savvy and Questlove was always ahead of the game when it came to that. I remember him trying to get me on a chat room and we did it. He would type the thing and get responses back and I remember being frustrated. I had these guys commenting on the music we need to do. I had to get adjusted to that world. I was used to fans interacting in person and giving an opinion. Or them coming up to you and telling you, “this is what I think.” So fans expressing themselves through the chat rooms, it was new for me.
Man—these cats can sit behind the computer and say a lot of stuff that they won’t say to your face at all. It’s not like he say it to my face and we going to fight. It’s just like having the heart to say something to somebody and look them in the eye, you know?
Questlove: Me and Angela had a proud parent moment. This is when we were making Like Water For Chocolate, and I suggested to Angela to come up to the Electric Lady Studios. By this point we had an airtight system at Electric Lady. D’Angelo was in studio A, Common was in studio B, studio C upstairs was like an associated artist. Mostly Kweli, sometimes Mos, sometimes Bilal, or just someone that was family associated. D’Angelo always came late at night, so Erykah would take his daytime hours to start working on her records. Electric Lady Studios at one point became like Okayplayer central.
Man—these cats can sit behind the computer and say a lot of stuff that they won’t say to your face at all. It’s not like he say it to my face and we going to fight. It’s just like having the heart to say something to somebody and look them in the eye. —Common
I suggested Angela come down to seal the deal. I knew I had Common, but I figured a real cute girl... He was going through that phase where different educated women, that really got into his ear. So I was thinking OK, let Angela come in, pitch it to him and we got him.
To really make the offer sweet, I decided to give him my very first computer, because at this point I had graduated. I was using a Sony PC because they have better speakers. So my very first computer, maybe it was a HP—I’m not certain, but it was OK. And even when he agreed to join Okayplayer and do some marketing with the website, we could not for the life of us get him to be an active participant. To this day when I ask, I think his computer is still sitting in his momma’s basement in Chicago.
Common: It was honestly just that one time with Quest and I didn’t really take to it well. I didn’t like it. I was just like, “Y’all do that.” I remember him wanting us to be consistently present with that. Quest understood the value way before I did. But I don’t really go on the site at all. I pretty much stay away from comments about music and just keep creating. I check certain things here and there. I like to stay in tune wit what the fans are into and what’s dope to me, but put it this way—it’s very rare that I go on many blogs or sites.
Questlove: Erykah was the same way. She was allergic to the Internet. I always thought it was a fear of… You know, I’ll get you a computer. If you’re scared, if you don’t know how to turn on the power or whatever, I’ll get somebody to teach you. I think one day Erykah said that she just got tired of being left out. Rashad Smith was working on her record, and Rashad had his computer setup—he had two of them. Then James Poyser had his computer setup and I had my computer setup. Like, everybody was having fun with computers. She just decided, “Well, I want to get in all the fun.” She finally jumped in the river—albeit a little late, like around 2004. Better late than never. But she definitely was one of them people that was scared of the Internet. And it’s a scary thing. When you throw them in the lake, they’re trusting you to throw them in the lake but it’s like, Oh, I forgot to mention there’s a few piranhas in there—but don’t mind them. They don’t mean you no harm.
You definitely need tough skin. Because I’ve been there from the beginning, having Okayplayer has definitely prepared me for snark elsewhere on the Internet. You got to know how to pick and choose your battles with the Internet. Most people that do snark do so as a means to make a mark. True hate and truly disliking something is actually to ignore it. Nothing against One Direction, but I have no interest in their music. It’s just nowhere in my stratosphere. It’s nowhere on my radar. And that’s a true example of not liking something. But when you go out of your way to take that piñata and try and bash the shit out of it, that’s a whole other story. That’s the thing that you can’t explainto people.
Me and Mos, we had a problem, where maybe for like four or five months we didn’t talk. He didn’t like it, but I had to be honest. That was just like the early moments where honesty and artistry clashed. —Questlove
I remember once, man, Mos got heated at me. I took the real-time diary to the next level when we started the Voodoo Tour with D’Angelo. Every day I basically kept a journal from the beginning of the Voodoo Tour, from March of 2000 all the way from my very last day in Atlanta in October of 2000. And all the stops, I was painfully honest about the whole experience. When me and D’Angelo had arguments, I Iet people know. I’d rate the show by “@” signs, so a classic night was a five; mediocre night was a three. And I was honest about everything.
I wrote about cats being late for lobby call, D’Angelo included. But the thing that really got me in trouble was just the conflicts that Mos was having in his position as the opener. He was chosen because he was the man, he had incredible stage presence, he had the album, and he was a very engaging performer. But there would be the cases of him not wanting to go on because there was nobody in the audience to perform for. He thought it was too early or that type of thing. When you’re the opening act, this is what you deal with. I’ve played houses with seven people, eight people, most of them bartenders and barmaids. And D’Angelo is an artist that likes to show up fashionably late.
I was just being real. Reality serves you one thing, but I guess it’s a whole other thing to really keep a live journal about things. I wanted to keep it honest without being disrespectful. Me and Mos, we had a problem, where maybe for like four or five months we didn’t talk. He didn’t like it, but I had to be honest. That was just like the early moments where honesty and artistry clashed.