New York City-based photographer Chi Modu has been an integral part many rap artistsí marketing campaigns over the past 30 years. He has countless iconic photos legendary rappers such as Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, Mobb Deep, and The Notorious B.I.G. on his resume.
To commemorate the life Craig Mack, who passed away on Monday (March 12), Modu posted one his memorable shots Bad Boy Recordsí first two signed artists ó Mack and B.I.G. ó as well as the labelís founder/CEO Sean ďDiddyĒ Combs on his Instagram. The photo was from the ďB.I.G. MackĒ advertising campaign that helped launch the label in 1994.
The imagery within the frame consists an obvious play f the artistsí stage names and references Mackís Grammy-nominated single ďFlava In Ya EarĒ (and its†remix that became a vehicle for Biggieís stardom), which launched Bad Boyís tour de force in rap through the 90s. The photo is inside a makeshift McDonalds with ďB.I.G. MackĒ burger containers and cups using Bad Boyís insignia, along with CDs and menus their debut albums,†Ready To Die and Project: Funk da World.
As marketing strategies for artists continue to evolve, industry pressionals have become more creative with merchandise and products (i.e. ďRap SnacksĒ) to brand the artists beyond EPKs and music placement on blogs, radio, TV commercials and social media.
Modu spoke to HipHopDX about how Bad Boyís earliest marketing strategy was an ingenious way to promote Mack, B.I.G. and Diddyís images, and how the photo concept†remains highly influential for marketing artists even decades later.
HipHopDX: Whatís your take on Craig Mackís impact on Hip Hop history?
Chi Modu: ďFlava In Ya EarĒ is one the best freestyle beats ever. Itís something that everybody still rides to that beat. Everybody.
It stands the test time almost 25 years later and is one my personal favorites as well. With your 30-year tenure in the rap industry, how does it make you feel seeing so many legends, including ones youíve worked with, pass away?
Well, Iím getting used to it. But every single time I wake up and I see somebody post somewhere like uh oh. And I think the whole internet sort looks to see which clip that Iím going to put up to commemorate it. So, itís almost like a bit responsibility that I feel to sort let folks who might not know already, but do it in a respectful way and still about Hip Hop. Not just about mourning but back to the brighter times. Thatís why I put that photo up on my Instagram account the Biggie and Craig Mack] shoot.
That ďB.I.G. MackĒ shot was pivotal for a lot marketing strategies for rappers from that early-to-mid ’90s era. Youíve worked with so many legendary hardcore rap artists, including Biggie on separate photo shoots. How did you balance that B.I.G. Mack shoot to be creative, funny, but not too campy for the campaignís lead image?
I think at that point campy was actually okay because,†in some ways, thatís Hip Hop. You were appropriating, you know? And the same way we did it with music as well. We take a jazz beat and then rhyme over it. So, I really donít think itís all that different from what the genre was about. Itís like weíre going to take what we are and take what you are and meld the two together, which is kind what we did with that B.I.G. Mack-Craig Mack thing.
I mean, they came to me with a concept. I think it was] Lou Romain, who was at Arista Records] at the time in their P.R. department when Bad Boy Records] was bubbling up. I knew Lou from The Source days, so I think Lou and Puff probably had the concept together with the creative team. There was a Burger King that was nearby the fice in Times Square, which was how we could get into Burger King. So, we just did basic Photoshop, right? Early Photoshop and tried to make Burger King look like a McDonalds.
Itís funny because you actually see the Burger King logo in the backdrop the photo.
Laughs] Itís still visible as to get it Photoshop style. And that B.I.G. Mack box was a big deal. The concept became a much bigger deal when B.I.G. died. It was cool. It worked but was kind whimsical. The picture wasnít as important as itís become today and even more so today now that Craig just passed. Itís wild how things take on a whole new shape in life as people leave us.
What was distinctively different about that B.I.G. Mack campaign compared to others that youíve worked in?
I think in some ways that campaign was a little bit a leading edge because it wasnít really about a particular album release or a song. It was a campaign for a kick-f for a label, which we hadnít really seen prior to that. That was the announcement for Bad Boy. To me, that was unique in a way. And with Puffy putting himself in the photograph as well because he represented the label.
It was kind the start the label owner being part the brand because prior to that, those guys tended to stay out the picture. You knew about Berry Gordy, but you really didnít see him in the ads, right? †It was always artist-first. So, that was the beginning the label owner being in the shoot. I think Jermaine Dupri was doing a little bit that as well around Kris Kross and them for SoSo Def Records]. Puffy took it to a different level, hence, his career that followed.
Puffy rapped a verse on Supercatís ďDolly My Baby (Remix)Ē in 1993 with Biggie, which helped kickstart Bad Boy before Craig Mack came along the following year. Did you notice Puff trying to be an artist himself at the time the B.I.G. Mack shoot?
History answers that question for you based on what youíve seen since. And yes, history says that yes he wanted to be an artist, but it just took a while for it to happen. Laughs] With Craig and B.I.G. on your label, itís a lot tougher for you to come out as an artist. But some them left us, and time went on, it became a lot more ble for Puff to become a rapper. Hence, the album that he released right when B.I.G. died. Would that album have the same legs if ‘Pac and B.I.G. were still alive? Probably not. But a lot those things are a matter timing. And so, the timing was there, the opening was there.
I would say that he probably did want to be an artist, or at least a certain amount fame the whole way. That’s certainly how you get to those heights. You have to be pursuing it. Thatís not by accident. You canít do it without notice. You have to make it happen.
Did you notice any other labelsí artist marketing strategies that were extensions that 1994 B.I.G. Mack campaign in the form magazine advertising, online promotions or physical packaging?
That was really the beginning the whole street team vibe. Itís funny because street teams feel like old hat now, but they were fairly new back then. At that time, you started to see the block covered in flyers upcoming artists all over the ground. Thatís what street team guys were doing. Bad Boy was definitely on the front edge using street teams to push their brand. Iíd say that. That campaign was an extension their street team mentality. They had the Bad Boy promo item.
I remember at former Hip Hop industry convention] Jack The Rapper, they had Bad Boy picket signs and were walking around. They really brought that marketing into the music space aggressively. I will give Puffy that credit for sure. No one was really going there with it. And Puffyís doing his birthday at luxury restaurant] Ciprianiís, inviting Martha Stewart, Donald Trump. He was playing in that space. And some could argue that it was good, some could argue it was bad for us. But whatever it is, itís courage. Marketing is important, but I find that too much marketing dilutes the product.
Do you believe there to be more dilution in todayís social media era in the marketing rap albums and artists?
If your work is quality†and can withstand the test time, you need a little bit less the hype marketing to make things move. You see a lot more focus on branding and marketing because itís tough to separate yourself from the pile these days. If you look at it visually, Iím not Joe Marketer myself, but I do let my work speak loudly. Since I took that approach, I have a long-term strategy, but in the short-term, the aggressive marketers will seem to be doing more than me because they are louder in the short-term. But in the long-term, the people who have the stronger stuff will always rise to the top. Aggressive marketing will always give you a step up, but itís not really sustainable. There is no quick fix to sustaining. Itís a longer play.
What artist(s) from todayís era fits into that long-term approach that is reaping the benefits now?
Iíd give Kendrick Lamar] some credit because his marketing stays true to his brand. Heís out there, but heís not diluted overexposing himself too much. In a way, heís on Instagram, but heís not all over Instagram. I think he has the right long-term strategy. He kind needs to show a little bit more behind the scenes in his world without showing everything, but I think he has a strategy that can stay a little bit longer. Heís not so gimmicky. Itís not about a current hair color heís wearing, gold fronts or jewelry. Itís just the person and then the lyrics. That tends to last the longest, even though in the short-term some the hype will pass you. Iíve lived the life and have been doing this for 30 years. Youíll always maintain if you stay true to yourself. You may not make as much money in the longer play, but youíll make way more money and achieve higher status doing it over the long haul.