About a month before 360hiphop.com launched, the bombs started dropping. Every morning, as folks would turn on their machines, the prelaunch demo would fire up, and with it the whispered LL Cool J assertion, "Pimp shit," followed by four synth-horn blares that sounded like drunken paint splatters hitting a keyboard. It was the opening loop to "Ill Bomb," LL's contribution to the Funkmaster Flex/Big Kap confab The Tunnel (Def Jam), and it became our interoffice salvo, however irksome.
Thanks to the unintricacies of our Web site's architecture, every time someone reloaded the home page, or hit the refresh button from anywhere on the site, those blasted horns went off. What was once a sly nod to impending victory quickly became laughable fusillades of stifled ambition. Funny how a song remembered can be bitter when once it was sweet. The launch wasn't a flop, but we'd been overambitious and had to spend several weeks wondering how exactly we were going to keep this bloated ship afloat.
By the time we were sold to BET Interactive (with a third of the staff set free in the process), the 360hiphop.com office had turned into one large mix tape. Napster was fully in vogue, and the gaps between work were spent divining who was playing Jeff Beck, who had a mainstream techno fetish, and who was so caught up in turn- of-the-last-decade quiet storm R&B that they'd downloaded seemingly the entire Atlantic Starr catalog. In a way, loud music became a substitute for real live dialogue as, in the wake of the layoffs, a swell of unease filled our office. What had once been a freely flowing association of like-minded thinkers had been severely psychically constrained. Gone were the lengthy content meetings where we swapped big ideas on how to motivate the hip-hop generation to critical and political understanding.
Instead, we had the battle of the beats. Over in the art department, it was New York hip-hop 101, the rough stuff. Heavy doses of Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel (especially after the 360 redesign was shelved so that the design folks could concentrate on building the Web site of Jigga's Roc-A-Fella Records) butted up against Napstered snippets from various classic DJ Clue tapes. Of the crew, only the staff's junior member kept it eclectic, ripping entire Pink Floyd and New Order albums (and everything in between) and playing them at earsplitting levels.
No wonder the tech guys wore headphones. It was the tech staff that had been least affected by the cutbacks, and they seemed perfectly content not to rock the boat. There was a bizarre fastidiousness in their musical consumption, always plugging their ears as if the beats coming from the next desk over had pollutive qualities. When the phones came unplugged, out came a bizarre m鬡nge of complex sounds—more-"under"-than-underground-hip-hop, blip-happy techno.
See, in any Web enterprise, the tech folks are more often than not the odd birds. And 360, founded by Def Jam impresario Russell Simmons and funded by everyone from Jay-Z to Will Smith, increasingly had little time for the "other," whatever it may be. Even over in the music department, the folks to go first were those who couldn't see the larger picture. The Web, we were learning (along with our colleagues at Salon, Slate, Feed, etc.), had little sympathy for thorough journalism and seemed destined to be a marketing venue long after we (and our 3,000-word historical opuses on long-past producers, complete with audio selections and video interviews) were gone.
One of the drawbacks of the online space is that, without properly wide infrastructure, attempting a cross-platform multimedia extravaganza was not just impractical but arrogant. We'd have discussions about how the audience would catch up to us eventually, but deep down, I think we all knew we'd burned through our welcome. Our suspicions were confirmed soon after the sale of BET Interactive to Viacom. No longer could we count on unchecked expression, creative and financial. And the final insult came two weeks ago when we were told that 360hiphop.com wasn't growing at expected rates and thus had to be downsized once again.
Now I'm among only a handful of content folks who've been saved (art and tech have been largely spared but now work almost exclusively for the BET properties). As for the interoffice mix tape, it's been reduced to an overwhelming silence. Now music played is cause for notice. Every song booming from a speaker echoes through the entire length of the office, annoying not for its contribution to the cacophony but rather for its rude interjection into the void. Who's that interrupting the funeral? Who's wiping the sleep from their eyes? Who's that clinging to life?