In the early days of hip-hop, rappers used street teams to promote new albums, singles, and tours. Now, they have Instagram. As social media becomes more integrated into all of our daily lives, recording artists have also naturally incorporated it into the business of building and communicating with their fanbases. And, just as rapidly as social media itself innovated the way we debate, discuss, and interpret the world, artists have learned to leverage those online fanbases to useful real-world effect. Even now, rappers like Chance The Rapper and Nicki Minaj bank on viral “challenges” to drive streams of their latest singles, “Groceries” and “Megatron,” as City Girls, Lil Nas X, and Megan Thee Stallion have ridden them to impressive chart placements.
In the ’80s and ’90s, as rap music first exploded into mainstream popularity, rappers and their labels had to be cagey about their promotional budgets. Due to the perceived volatility of the emerging genre and radio’s wariness to new songs to programming, early hip-hop artists needed to build a groundswell of support. Unfortunately, major labels were also reticent to approve big spending on things like print ads, billboards, or other promotional tactics. Therefore, the least expensive way to generate buzz was to employ early supporters to participate in word-of-mouth campaigns to increase awareness of new songs and albums, which would theoretically lead to more requests at radio, eventually turning a new record into a hit. Those first supporters formed the foundation of street teams.
The Los Angeles Times detailed how such campaigns would work back in 1994, when the concept of street teams was still relatively new. Record labels and artist managers would offer free merchandise such as T-shirts, cassette singles, posters, hats, and the like in exchange for fans’ outreach efforts: Handing out flyers and hanging posters announcing the latest releases or upcoming shows. The street-level, guerilla nature of their efforts were focused in urban communities and hangouts, places that big ad companies and marketing firms often overlooked, but which contained the lucrative potential to build big buzz.
By using fans who already had a passion for the music, the word-of-mouth campaigns often had the air of peer-generated, natural interactions. No one felt like they were selling anything or being sold to, because the promoters were fans of the music themselves. By handing out cheaper merchandise, labels and artists were able to build the needed buzz without the big budget expenditure required to buy radio and print ads and seemingly got more value for their expense. Fans did the legwork, freeing the artist and their reps more of their own time from promotional efforts to actually working on the music.
Today, rappers have stumbled upon a new way to mobilize their fanbases to do the work of promoting a new record. In place of or in addition to servicing a record to radio, which can cost up to $50,000 — and risks running afoul of payola laws if certain guidelines are breached — rappers have discovered that “challenging” their fans to post videos dancing, rapping, or otherwise participating in a viral trend with the song prominently featured can have a boosting effect on the record’s reach and chart life.
Of course, rappers have been going viral thanks to dances and memes since the advent of the modern internet. Soulja Boy naturally blew up as fans couldn’t get enough of sharing his “Crank That” dance video, while Bobby Shmurda’s hat launched 1,000 memes and one of the shortest superstar rap careers ever when the Vine video for “Hot N—a” exploded into the furthest reaches of even the most disconnected social feeds. However, the current trend utilizing “challenges” started more recently, in 2018, with a rapper who can be found at the root — or at least very close to the roots — of most trends: Drake.
The story of his “In My Feelings” challenge is well-worn by now: Reeling from Pusha T’s devastating body blows and the lukewarm reception of Scorpion single “I’m Upset,” Drake needed a hit to wash away the stink of defeat. While he and his team pondered other Scorpion tracks, Instagram comedian Shiggy uploaded a video of himself dancing and ghostriding his car to “In My Feelings,” which prompted others to do the same, including NFL quarterback Odell Beckham Jr., producer DJ Khaled, and even Will Smith. In the following weeks, the song shot from No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 straight to the top of the chart, giving Drake his third No. 1 single — both in 2018 and in his career. Other rappers, naturally, took note.
The most obvious success story is Atlanta rapper Lil Nas X, whose “Old Town Road” backed a “Yee-Haw Challenge” on TikTok that drove the 19-year-old’s single to chart on both the country and rap lists — a controversial move that would eventually lead to his current reign at No. 1. City Girls have doubled down on challenges, first promoting a contest to amplify their Cardi B-featuring Girl Code single “Twerk,” then inventing the “Act Up” challenge, which found exuberant fans parading through what looked like a church while dancing to the song. “Twerk” climbed to No. 14 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, while “Act Up” found its way to the top of the Rhythmic Songs airplay chart. Likewise, Megan Thee Stallion, another artist who only just broke out within the past year, found herself with her first Hot 100 placement after “Big Ole Freak” challenged fans to twerk at gas stations.
Even more recently, Chance The Rapper began the practice of offering incentives for participation, pledging to buy a year’s worth of groceries for the top 10 entries in his “Groceries” challenge. Nicki Minaj sought to one-up him in an effort to save the flagging reception of her new single “Megatron,” which made a big splash but quickly faded in the weeks following its release, offering thousands of dollars for her favorite fan-made rap video. Unfortunately for Chance and Nicki, neither song seems to have had the desired effect: Their most hardcore fans have participated, but the records have yet to gain any traction among casual listeners, who are either bored with challenges in general or — more likely — unimpressed with the challenges’ associated songs.
As much fun as viral challenges are, it’s interesting to note that the ones that seem to go most massively viral are the ones that seem to resonate most with causes people care about: The ALS ice bucket challenge, Movember, etc. Even the mannequin challenge, which could have arguably kicked off the trend of rappers using it as a promotion if it had begun with Rae Sremmurd and their song “Black Beatles” had been a requirement rather than a sometimes addition, had an element of real-life social participation to it. With the yee-haw challenge or the simple “twerk in a bizarre location” directives of City Girls’ and Megan’s challenges, they were either easy to execute or there was a sense that these were grassroots, genuine movements born from fans themselves — authentic, well-meaning, and socially enjoyable.
Watching “Megatron” flounder despite Nicki’s best efforts and seeing “Groceries” sputter in the face of Chance’s outright bribery attempt serves as a reminder: The best promotion for new music is the music itself. No amount of face-to-face recommendation or social media spurring can make a hit out of a dud. So even though the viral challenge is one more useful tool in the toolbox for rappers, the one they should be reaching for first is still the pen. If the fans like the record, it just might blow up on its own — no viral challenge needed.