Headphones: The head boys of hip hop

Two of rap’s biggest stars are branching out into high-end headphones – the better to enjoy those monster beats. Paul McKenzie plugs in

At the heart of hip-hop, right up there with the bling, the babes, the dollars and the dancing, is the bassline. It could be argued that, with the possible exception of reggae, no other genre of music loves the sound of a driving, thumping, migraine-inducing bassline like hip-hop. In urban culture, given a great beat and a menacing bass, heads will nod, $100 Nikes will shuffle on dancefloors and asses clad in designer clothes will shake. The love of the bassline and the need for hip-hop culture to communicate that ear-jarring sound to a musical audience is the inspiration behind the latest and hottest pieces of technical equipment to hit the market – headphones created by hip-hop’s elite.

The first headphones out of the blocks came courtesy of Dr Dre in late 2008. Dr Dre, Andre Young to his mother, was one of the original members of the controversial rap group NWA. Although Dre made his name rapping, it was in the studio, producing beats for the likes of Eninem and 50 Cent, that he earned his stripes. Many of his peers – producers, rappers and DJs – consider Dr Dre to be the best in the business.

Dr Dre doesn’t do press. And he is rarely seen at parties or film premieres, unlike his more flamboyant partners in rap. Legend has it that he is always in the studio, working on sounds, concocting beats, producing singles and albums for a galaxy of urban music stars. That said, he has taken time out of his schedule to be closely involved in the production of his “Beats By Dr Dre” headphones. Marc Sarfati, the European PR spokesman at the electronics firm Monster, can barely contain his excitement when recalling how Dr Dre came to the table. “The beauty of these headphones is that this project did not come together because of some brand exercise or sponsorship opportunity,” he says. “Dr Dre had looked at other companies before choosing Monster. But he went with Monster because he knew we were experts in the audio cable field and Monster was looking to branch out into other areas of audio.”

Such was the attention to detail in the production of the Beats headphones that 150 prototypes were developed, over a three-year span, before the finished ‘phones were completed. Both parties had set their hearts and minds on producing a set of high-end headphones that, in the words of Dre, would make the listener go, “now that’s the shit!”.

One of the most startling aspects of the Beats headphones is not the technology. It’s the price: a whopping £300. But Kevin Lee, the vice president of Monster, claims the cost is justified. “The headphones allow the listener to hear the track the way it was created in the studio,” he says. “Delivering the bass, which is a key component of hip-hop music, is only part of it. What we were trying to do here is take a full studio sound and set-up and transfer it into a set of headphones. And if it ends up costing as much as it does, then that’s how it’s going to be. Actually given the high standard of engineering and development, they really should be priced higher.”

Lee says that at one time, there were serious concerns as to whether they would complete the project. “We were pushing the boundaries on technology, seeking clarity without distortion, working out the frequency for the low-end bass. We wanted to deliver the perfect musical listening experience. It was a huge challenge”. The early buzz around the headphones seems to point to a job well done. The high-quality sound and the sleek, sexy design has seen the LA in-crowd snapping them up and wearing them around their necks, in true peacock fashion; at courtside seats during LA Lakers’ basketball games or shopping round Beverly Hills.

Another key element of hip-hop culture is one-upmanship. So it should come as no surprise that other stars are looking to make their move into the hardware market, too. Snoop Dogg is following the scent laid by Dr Dre. The equally controversial but talented rapper has befriended the cool and edgy action sports brand Skullcandy to produce his own headphones, the Snoop Skullcrushers. “These headphones actually rattle your skull. The bass is simply awesome,” is the opening gambit from Clarke Miyasaki, the VP of business development at Skullcandy.

Over the past few years, Skullcandy had become aware that the LA rapper had been using Skullcandy products on stage and in photoshoots. At a music festival in Salt Lake City last year, they crossed paths and Clarke’s team popped the question, proposing a joint venture. The dog bit. Skullcandy had already teamed up with rock acts Metallica and All American Rejects, “but what we wanted was a huge rap star who would help us enhance our brand,” explains Miyasaki, noting the power and influence of hip-hop culture.

But the products are not battling for the same slice of the market. When released this June, Snoop’s Skullcrushers will cost around £70, some £230 cheaper than Dre’s Beats. Though both claim to be superior products, Dre’s are aiming at the top end of the market, technologically as well as in terms of price. Miyasaki insists that the decision to take the Skullcrushers down this route came from Snoop. “He genuinely wanted to make this product more available and affordable to his fans.” it’s a decision that went down well with the brand; after all, says Miyasaki, the low pricing ensures “you don’t cut off your market share”.

What Skullcandy and Monster both agree on is that the headphone market is only just getting started. They both credit the iPod for the boom in headphones sales. “People are now walking around with 3,000 songs in their pockets,” reasons Lee, “they carry those songs on a cool-look

ing device, but they no longer want to hear their favourite tracks on a little pair of white headphones. They want the real studio experience.” With a nod to Snoop’s blue and white paisley-patterned headphones, Miyasaki acknowledges the role fashion plays in people’s headphones selection. “Three years ago we did black, grey and one that was half black and half grey,” he recalls. “Now we have a huge array of colours. You have to remember that headphones are the most visible part of a music player, so they’ve got to look good. Kids want them to match their sneakers or pants.”

Miyasaki’s assessment is spot on. What’s worth keeping an eye on is to see which multi-millionaire rapper will make the next foray into the audio world. Rappers are not shy when it comes to extending their business portfolios. Vitamin water, Xbox games, mobile ringtones, clothing lines, trainer deals, make-up – anything goes as long as there is money to be made. And the egos of rappers like P Diddy, 50 Cent and Kanye West are unlikely to let Dr Dre and Snoop garner column inches and street cool – not to mention fat cheques – as consumers flock towards their technology products. While other rappers ponder their moves, Dr Dre is already rumoured to be lining up an entire audio range, including speakers and car stereos. Meanwhile, Skullcandy is getting another hip-hop act ready to front a new range for 2010. The audio fun has just begun. There will be more pimped-out, super-cool, rapper-endorsed goods coming soon. Of that you can be sure.

Dr Dre

Real name: Andre Young

Age: 44

Claim to fame: Credited with inventing “gangsta rap” (with his crew NWA – Niggaz With Attitude) and a Grammy Award-winner. Dre is a record producer, rapper, record executive and actor. He is the founder and current CEO of Aftermath Entertainment and a former co-owner and artist of Death Row Records.

Position on the 2008 Forbes Hip-Hop Rich List: Ninth (estimated worth $15 million).

Headwear: Beats by Dre, manufactured by Monster

Cost: £300 (a budget version will be released later this year for £200).

Recommended Dr Dre track to listen to on Beats headphones: In Da Club by 50 Cent. Dr Dre’s production on this track is sublime. And as for the bassline, it’s massive.


Snoop Dogg

Real Name: Calvin Broadus

Age: 35

Position on the 2008 Forbes Hip-Hop Rich List: Eighth (estimated worth $16m).

Claim to fame: A protégé of Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg is a Grammy Award-nominated rapper, record producer, and actor

Headwear: Skullcandy Skullcrusher headphones

Cost: £54.99/£69.99

Recommended Snoop track to listen to on Snoop’s Skullcrushers: Drop It Like It’s Hot (collaboration with Pharrell Williams).