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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

How eMC Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Leak

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EMC were in their tour van, en route to a Los Angeles concert this January, when they heard the news: A full two months before its official release date—and just four days after it had been mailed to the media— their debut album, The Show, had been leaked online.

“We were angry, especially since we think we know who leaked it,” says Stricklin, the Milwaukee rapper who makes up the group along with veteran lyricists Punchline and Wordsworth and golden-age icon Masta Ace. “We rushed to the hotel so we could get an Internet connection and find out more.”

Thanks to the Internet, you can watch the band work out their response to the leak in real time. They filmed YouTube videos of themselves in their grimy hotel room, hunched over their laptops as they sifted through hip-hop message boards for more details. Masta Ace made an on-camera plea for fans to still buy the album. Stricklin sublimated his own anger by reading an outraged fan’s condemnation of the leak. And a contented Wordsworth dwelled on the bright side. He recited a write-up of the album so rich with praise it could have been written by the group’s publicist.

“We were less upset over the leak once we logged on to the Internet and saw the frenzy,” Stricklin admits. “Everyone was loving the album right out of the gate. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter how people hear the album; the important thing is that they come out and support us at our shows.”

Although they were taken aback by the speed of the leak, realistically eMC must have expected that the album would make its way online eventually. In hip-hop, leaks aren’t just inevitable; increasingly, they’ve become a marketing tool. One of the standout tracks on The Show is even coincidentally (or perhaps not so coincidentally) titled “Leak It Out.” Whether or not they intended the leak as part of their marketing strategy, eMC is relying on the Internet to promote their album in other ways. They’ve hired a separate publicist solely for online promotions, and they’re planning to film YouTube videos for every track on the album.

“For a group like us,” Stricklin explains, “the Internet is especially important. With it, we can reach as many people as we could if we were on a major label like Def Jam.”

Online networking and word-of-mouth has already enabled the group to tour the world and perform for overflow crowds (they do much of their touring overseas, in countries like Germany and the Netherlands, where there’s a bigger market for independent hip-hop than in America.)

Of course, the group also had the benefit of existing notoriety. Over the past decade, critics have reappraised Masta Ace, who is now regarded as one of the overlooked, oldschool greats. Meanwhile, Punchline and Wordsworth built names for themselves through countless guest spots, their album together as Punch-N-Words and their time on MTV’s “Lyricist Lounge Show.” That leaves Stricklin as the quartet’s least known entity, but with his affable persona and jocular verses, he’s also one of their biggest assets, a reliable scene-stealer who never takes a backseat to his more famous peers.

The Show is the type of album that hip-hop fans complain never gets made anymore, a soulful recording grounded in classic, New York-styled storytelling and wordplay. Stricklin is already planning to capitalize on the early enthusiasm it’s generated.

“I’m going to piggyback off the success of the eMC album and release my own record this year,” says Stricklin, whose solo career stalled after a dead-end stint on Tommy Boy Records shortly before the label’s collapse.

Most of the new songs are already worked out, Stricklin says, and he’s working on five or six tracks with the burgeoning producer M-Phazes, whom he met while touring Australia. In the meantime, The Show, which was delayed nearly a year when a hard-drive crash wiped out most of the album, is now on sale at iTunes and Hiphopsite.com. Hard copies hit shelves March 25.

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