When Rolling Stone deems your online music community “…an antidote to dull promotional Web sites used by most artists,” you just might be on to something. Especially when many hip-hop fans feel lost amongst the sensationalist tabloids and shameless e-commercials that dominate the genre’s web presence. Way back in 1999, Roots drummer and all-around musical virtuoso ?uestlove established Okayplayer—a place where fans of progressive hip-hop, indie, soul, jazz, or any other imaginable genre could go to discuss music and interact with artists. Denizens of this site (they’re called Okayplayers, or OKP’s for short) have helped to evolve this message board into a robust and far-reaching network of music and style taste-making. Factor in the Okay.store—its ever-expanding marketplace for designer apparel and artist merchandise—and it seems that this site has found the perfect niche between art and commerce.
We wanted to know more about the brains behind this successful venture and decided to catch up with Vice President Ginny Suss:
How does Okayplayer find designers/brands/artists to feature on the Okay.store?
This is our secret formula—we can’t give it away! We tap into the vein of cool, fresh, one-of-a-kind specialness and let it guide our decisions. Many times we’ll do a fashion story, interview, or short blog post on an African designer and then decide to feature their product in our store. We’re mainly looking for really creative designers or brands who are working at a boutique level (we love hand-crafted items) and we’re definitely interested in showcasing young, emerging artists—particularly those coming out of Africa and the African diaspora.
Tell us about the goals of the Okay.store. You’ve gone beyond regular artist merch and now you’re featuring designer items. Where do you go from there?
Our goal is to eventually be a competitive lifestyle brand, alongside a unique online boutique for really special African and African-inspired items—from clothing, to jewelry, to bags and hats. We’re new, and growing, so we’re really exploring right now and seeing what works.
Any plans to expand the brand into retail? Will we be seeing an Okayplayer brick-and-mortar store someday soon?
No plans for brick and mortar anytime soon. For now, we’re focused on the web.
Which featured items get the best response from fans?
Fans really like when we have something different and special. We featured snoods in the store this winter, for example, which are a combination of a scarf and a hood in bright African patterns. We sold out instantly.
What item do you have from the store that you can’t live without?
Personally, I’m obsessed with my Okapi hoody, and have been rocking it practically every day this winter.
You run into the typical OKP on the street. What are they wearing? What’s on their iPod?
We see the typical OKP all the time around the streets of New York, Philly, LA. They’re generally wearing whatever’s hot in the contemporary street wear world—maybe a five-panel cap and some selvage denim; probably a nice graphic tee. They listen to everything. The typical OKPer is a true music connoisseur and could be listening to anything from Donny Hathaway to the Dirty Projectors, from Amadou & Mariam to Erykah Badu, Tame Impala to Kendrick Lamar.
?uestlove co-founded the site. How much input does he have in regards to its day-to-day content. How about its long-term direction?
?uesto was instrumental in the day-to-day at first, when the company began. Since then he’s become, as you know, the hardest working man in hip-hop. He doesn’t have as much time to be as involved, but he definitely weighs in frequently, and he still maintains a strong voice on the site. In terms of the long-term direction, he’s certainly involved. It’s an ongoing group discussion between the top-level employees and the man himself.
Does closer contact with fans inspire/change the music that OKP artists make? How?
Sure. I believe it’s been doing this since OKP’s inception in 1999. Closer connections between the fans and the artists open up dialogs, and provide a really tight community. Within this community ideas are shared, contested, and reinforced. It’s not so much that this “changes” the music artists make, but it does inspire it. What we do is offer a forum to continue the discussion of ideas that artists raise in their music, which occasionally happens to be an idea that originated in this forum.
Okayplayer.com looks amazing. Tell us about the aesthetic vision of the site itself.
Thank you. We’ve worked very hard at the look and feel of the new Okayplayer, which just re-launched about a month ago. We wanted something updated and fresh, clean and simple, while maintaining our identity as a hub for progressive and left-of-center urban music.
You’ve got several unique sister sites under the Okayplayer umbrella—okayafrica, LargeUp, etc. Why do you feel it’s important to expose these music/style communities to audiences in the U.S.?
We feel that all of our sister sites are a natural extension of the Okayplayer brand. They represent the same ideals—progressive minded music, authenticity, creative and forward-thinking sounds—just carried over to different genres of music. Music from Africa, from the Caribbean, and new jazz are territories that notoriously receive marginal coverage in the U.S., yet the music that’s born out of these “genres” (for lack of a better word) is extraordinary. This music often inspires new artists and musicians in Western pop culture, yet it’s severely overlooked in mainstream media. OKP has always defined itself in opposition to the mainstream. We champion the underdog, the emerging artist, and the creative talent that’s too “weird” for radio or TV. These sister sites are simply an extension of this idea: showcasing amazing, authentic, progressive music which is getting over-looked.