“That guy is a genius,” JP, Sir Mix-a-Lot’s investment partner, says to me before planting himself side stage for the set that’s about to start. Mix, born Anthony Ray, is headlining the Heineken House at Coachella. Stepping into the space, you feel like you’ve been transported out of the sunset-drenched fields of the festival and landed at a house party in the middle of a downtown city block. The dance floor is packed wall-to-wall, speakers and amps are stacked up on either side of the small stage, and eight ladies, all festival-goer volunteers, have climbed up onto a platform, beers in hand, ready to shake it to arguably the most epic ode to butts in human history.
Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” was released in 1992. The only song to outsell it that year was Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” Long before Nicki Minaj’s unapologetically-sexy “Anaconda” video gave new life to the song, it garnered so much controversy that MTV banned it from broadcast. ’92 was more than two decades before Vogue declared the “Era of the Big Booty” was upon us; to call Ray a booty pioneer would be an understatement. These days, he only traffics in butts for special performances like the one he’s doing tonight. He spends most of his time chatting up venture capitalists, web developers, and hopeful young visionaries eager to find funding for new ideas in the tech space. For a dude who got famous because of his insatiable love for giant behinds, the fact that he travels around with his investment partner is an indicator of how much things have changed.
We sat down to talk about the artificially-intelligent LED wall he’s building, his love for Shark Tank’s Mark Cuban, the state of the streaming music industry, and the barriers “Baby Got Back,” helped break down in popular culture. This year is going to be a big one for him; JP roughly projects that Ray will make 10 times the amount of money he raked in last year. “He knows what he wants,” explains JP almost ceremoniously, as the ubiquitous opening bars of Ray’s smash hit start to play and he addresses the ladies jiggling on stage directly: “I like big butts and I cannot lie.”
Have you seen any sets you really enjoyed at Coachella?
Tell you the truth, I’m more enamored by the lights. I’m investing in an LED wall right now.
How involved are you in the tech space?
Heavily, not in the normal rapper way. I build my own stuff, a lot of embedded stuff. I’m really going to do some different stuff with LED walls, no static garbage running across the screen like everybody else. I want to do something unique. I’m an inventor. I want this LED wall to stand on its own and perform by itself. I can’t say too much right now, but it’s going to be really unique. It’s basically going to be able to interact with the crowd on its own.
What are some of the woes of being an inventor in 2015?
Companies seem to celebrate funding. It’s like, an idea gets funded and then they invite me to come play at their parties. Why do they want to celebrate a loan? For me, I want to get it to the consumer. I want to see the consumer satisfied, then I’ll go out and celebrate.
Are you familiar with Shark Tank?
I watch the show all the time! A lot of my friends in the VC world laugh at it, because it’s not all that realistic. If it was, people would fall asleep. I love the show. I’ve always felt there was a disconnect between the inventors, and startup crowd. Inventors often don’t know how to pitch their ideas. So many people in Silicon Valley want to hear you say “disruptive,” and tote a “platform.” They repeat buzzwords over and over, and I think it intimidates a real inventor. I like Shark Tank because it takes the veil off that stuff. I love Mark Cuban because he hates that.
It’s interesting to see how emotional it is for the hopefuls too. We hardly ever get to see that side of the business world.
When someone’s been working on something their whole life, and then the judges just destroy it—that’s tough. I remember there was this black dude on the show pitching his shrimp burger recipe. He got rejected, but just from being on the show, he blew up. I love when they show the follow-ups.
As an artist you’ve had to defend, back, and believe in your work for years. How does that transfer to the tech space?
Very well. You have a thick skin, and you can take criticism. There’s a disconnect going the other way. Many young people I see in tech subconsciously seem to despise capitalism. They’re going to an investor, and they have this great idea. When he asks them, “How am I supposed to monetize this?” It’s, “Oh, I haven’t figured that out yet.” That’s the Facebook/Twitter generation. Kids think they can do that again—have a great idea and figure out how to make money later. I don’t have that problem. I’m going to go to cats that are really talented. We’re going to create something, and I’m going to pay them. What a concept! They’re going to make money, and be like, “Oh wow, I can pay my rent.”
How has the business side of things changed for musicians in a world where brands are often the ones paying checks?
We’re the only artists on the planet that people don’t want to pay. Painters don’t have this problem. Code writers don’t have this problem. They love our work, but they think they deserve it for free! I think it’s because musicians don’t value their work. I, for one, thought Taylor Swift was smart to take her stuff down [from Spotify]. People might call me hypocritical, because my music is still available to stream. There’s a difference: Taylor Swift makes her money on sales. I make my money on licensing, so I want my stuff out there. I want as many people to use it as possible. Somebody at Heineken may go, "I want to use 'Baby Got Back,'" or, "I’d like to use 'My Hooptie.'" That’s why I do it.
Does Tidal seem like a genuine alternative to that model?
I’m a big Jay Z fan, but I want to know per million streams how much you’re paying out. He’s charging double Spotify. Honestly, I just want to see young artists get paid.
How do you think young artists can make money if they’re not able to sell records? Is licensing an option for a band without a hit the size of “Baby Got Back”?
They’re getting better at it. Look at Macklemore! Perfect comparison, we’re two artists from the same city who both had meteoric rises at different periods. I probably sold more albums, because in that era you couldn’t steal them; you had to go to a record store to buy them. But Macklemore had more power. I made a lot of money—but when I walked in to Warner Bros I couldn’t do anything that I wanted to do. He could! He went to Warner and said, “I’m going to pay you to put my music on the radio.” And they did! If I’d have done that they would have thrown me out of the building. I think social media gives kids a kind of power we never had. You’ve got guys like Tech N9ne, Hopsin. These guys aren’t even known. Tech N9ne is on the Forbes list!
To veer away from the money-talk, I know that you were a fan of Stuart Scott. You said that one of the reasons you really respected him was because he reminded us that sports were fun—
More importantly though, before people like Stuart Scott, so many elements of black culture were spun in a negative way. Stuart Scott said, “You know what, I’m going to actually bring the real sh*t, the fun sh*t, when we’re in the barber shop, how do we talk?” He put that language on television. It wasn’t cursing, but people weren’t talking like that on TV before him. Now you have all these square people from the suburbs talking like that.
I love Stuart Scott. There are a lot of people that tore down barriers that we don’t really acknowledge sometimes. He was one. I think James Brown was too. That cat was a soul brother when it wasn’t very popular to be one. That’s why I love a guy like Jay Z, I mean, I was really the first rapper to brand myself like I did in that era. Snoop and those guys came around, but after me. I was the first one to get rid of the thug image and not be ashamed of it. It was cool, but look where Jay Z went. That guy’s a genius.
Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” shot “Baby Got Back” back to the top of the Hot 100. Do you think there’s a right way to re-work a song with history?
The fact that Nicki Minaj did the video “Anaconda” and girls were shaking gigantic asses in the video means that “Baby Got Back” did what it was supposed to. When I wrote that song in 1991, you only saw two kinds of black women on TV. They were either maids, or they were women who had assimilated to another culture. When I wrote that song it was a tongue-in-cheek poke at the establishment, at Cosmo, at MTV. And it worked! All of a sudden white culture was like, “Hey, this is cool too.” Now it’s normal. To me, for Nicki to do it is to show how far we’ve come. I’m not saying it’s because of that song.
There are a ton of big butts out there walking the festival grounds for what it’s worth.
It’s cool. I go to the gym now and there are a ton of little white girls being like, how can I build this thing up? And that’s cool.
It sounds like you try to keep an open mind about everything, from new tech inventions to new takes on your music.
You know what blows my mind? Intelligence is cool again. When I first got into hip-hop, people would come over to my house and I was building RF amplifiers, power supplies. People would say to me, “You should hide this when the press comes over.”
You mean like, “Don’t let people know you’re a dork”?
Don’t let people know you had brains! You had to run around lying, talking about how you murdered people. It cracks me up. I think it’s cool that intelligence is cool.
You mentioned being a fan of what Macklemore has done. Are there any other intelligent, young artists you’d love to see succeed?
I’ll tell you who doesn’t get enough credit, Soulja Boy. He was the first one to do something, post it, yank it down, and sell more records because of it. He was doing that stuff when it wasn’t even fashionable. I have a lot of respect for Soulja Boy.