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Universal Music exec Andre Torres zeroes in on ‘90s nostalgia with new Urban Legends platform

He also speaks on the release of exclusive 2Pac memorabilia.

Hip hop has long been touted as a young man’s sport, but the years surrounding its 40th anniversary have shown that the age requirements are being adjusted. As hip hop has grown accustomed to many of its OGs growing up, evidence that the old school is heavily influencing the new school exists all throughout pop culture.

Despite the continued downward spiral of record sales, the vinyl market has been booming in recent years. Classic hip hop, r&b and reggae tunes produced in the 1990s and early 2000s are laying the foundation for some of today’s most streamed songs. T-shirts from iconic ‘90s outings like JAY-Z’s Hard Knock Life Tour, the Puff Daddy & the Family Tour and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation World Tour have become must-have fashion items. Brands like Opening Ceremony, Tommy Hilfiger, Gucci and FUBU have also cashed in on the retro trend by reissuing hip hop-centric collections first introduced almost two decades ago. Thrift shops are even lit now.

“You can look at a place like Urban Outfitters. It’s the number one vinyl retailer, and that’s a clothing and lifestyle store,” says Andre Torres, VP of Urban Catalogue for Universal Music Group. “Obviously people are looking at this like accessorizing almost.”

Aware of the overwhelming interest in all things classic, the world’s leading music group introduced Urban Legends. Operating as a content and an ecommerce site, the newly-launched platform aims to serve as a destination where timeless rap music can get its fair share of props. The goal is also for it to become a hub where day-ones and new fans alike can both celebrate the milestones attached to their favorite albums and get exclusive access to rare and unreleased gems from their favorite artists.

“The ultimate vision for Urban Legends would be to create a site, platform and social footprint that is all encompassing and inviting for hip hop fans to celebrate some of their most personal music memories,” says Torres, who recently visited the REVOLT offices to discuss his current pet project. Here, he talks bridging the gap, ‘90s nostalgia and the 25th anniversary of Strictly 4 My N*.

What is Urban Legends?

Andre Torres: Urban Legends is really a cross-platform initiative with a website at its core, a content site and e-commerce. It’s really a platform for everything we are doing in the urban catalogue space at Universal, so all of our releases will be run through Urban Legends. We’re really focused on a lot of the big anniversaries and kind of giving the audience and hip hop fans a place to come a celebrate a lot of these big hip hop anniversaries. It’s really a place for all of the fans to come, learn about and celebrate. We do a lot of playlists, merch and other things, so it’s really like an urban hub for Universal Music Group.

Why was it the right time to launch something like this?

I think, traditionally in the music space every genre has kind of been given this opportunity when it hits that kind of like 40-year old mark, whether it was rock or jazz. It was thought that maybe hip hop was like a fad or even that the music people were feeling in ‘98, wouldn’t still felt now. However, if you look at the data that’s coming from music streaming services, you can see hip hop dominating everywhere and I think it has shown everyone at the labels that this is music that people still care about. And it’s not just new hip hop that’s dominating. It’s a lot of catalogue. When you see an album like DAMN come out, you also see To Pimp A Butterfly and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City both re-enter the Billboard 200. You can clearly see people engaging with catalogue once they have a new release out. Now there’s data that shows that, so I just think that it’s our time. Now hip hop has come of age. It’s at a place where we want to have those touch points and be able to celebrate it like others did in the past.

How will Urban Legends bridge the gap between the young fans of today and the classic records of decades past?

For me, I think it’s about educating at the same time. I want to show how an album like Reasonable Doubt is connected to 4:44 and is connected to DAMN, and how these are all a part of a sort of flowing continuum. Lots of what was built 20 or 30 years ago in the hip hop game are sort of the same rules for today. Some of the same legends that were laying it down are who we are now realizing are the pillars of the culture. I also want to show how it’s a continuing dialogue between the past and present. I think lots of MCs are always drawing inspiration from the past, whether it be an era like the late ‘80s, which can be seen as a golden era, or the early ‘90s to the turn of the century/early 2000s. That seems to be where a lot of kids are drawing inspiration from. I wanted to pull a lot of the fans in. It’s a content site, but we’re not trying to be competitive with any of the other media companies. We really kind of invite them in to participate. We have lots of writers from lots of other big media places coming in and celebrating these anniversaries with us to show how it’s connected to what’s going on now.

Why take the approach of inviting voices from outside outlets to help curate the content found on Urban Legends?

Everybody that I brought in is not sort of a traditional record label person. I brought in lots of people like Lauren Nostro from Genius and Complex and Ty Howard from Fake Shore Drive. These are people who have been in the culture for years and who are fans, but are also media, so they have an understanding about narrative which I think some people at labels never had that type of experience. There’s also the understanding of how to market music, I think that’s super important now. I think we wanted to have a place where everybody felt comfortable that they could just geek out on what it was that they were feeling. It could be an album that changed their life at a certain point or something that still today is reverberating with them because it was sort of a life-changing experience at the age of 13. That’s something everybody identifies with, but we didn’t want to necessarily try to compete with everybody else, as much as sort of get in that lane and sort of have an outlet for them to all come and do something they aren’t normally able to do.

As a fan of the culture tasked with highlighting over three decades of hip hop, what has been your favorite part of working on Urban Legends?

That’s a crazy question. It’s actually overwhelming. When I look at all of the things I have access to - because Universal owns everything from Def Jam to Interscope to Capitol to Priority to huge properties like TDE, Rocafella, Roc Nation, No Limit, Murder Inc and Cash Money - I can get lost in it all. I really have to sort of zero in on what year is this, what are the anniversaries and what’s reverberating culturally right now. I think you have to be strategic about it. I think probably in the past it was sort of just like, “Let’s grab some records and re-issue them.” There wasn’t much thought and strategy, so I’m really trying to like make this something where we can celebrate some of those 20, 10 and 5-year anniversaries. In hip hop terms, that’s a long time. Traditionally in the rock space, they waited 30 years to do a lot of this work, but I think because of the speed of culture today and the speed at which hip hop moves we have an opportunity to do these things much sooner. So yeah, I think the curating process can be difficult for me. I have to sort of understand there’s all of these records, but I can’t do everything. So for me, it’s really about being smart about it.

Why has the sound and style of the ‘90s been able to resonate so well in this era?

Everything is cyclical, especially when you look at this sort of 20-year cycle. If you were like a kid growing up in the mid-‘90s, this is stuff you probably heard your parents playing. Especially if you grew up in Brooklyn and moms and pops was bumping some Biggie or Jay around the crib. These may be records that you have a connection with like somebody my age or older may have for their parents playing Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye at the crib. I think understanding how as you get older and enter your 20s and late 20s that you begin to sort of think back to these periods of your life and start to understand, “Yeah man, I remember that.” You could've been just hearing it on the radio and now it sort of triggers these moments in your life where you can remember hanging out on the street with your boys and hearing that Biggie track for the first time. Those are the things I think triggered these connections back to the past that every generation can relate to.

Although we’re in a digital era, there’s been a recent resurgence in vinyl. What are your thoughts on this trend?

I think it’s an interesting dichotomy. You have streaming music the primary motive of music consumption, but because it’s removed all of the physical touch points from the music listening experience. Most people in prior generations had either albums, CDs, cassettes - something they can hold and touch, so I think now with having everything on your phone for younger kids it’s kind of like how do I show this is what I’m into. I think that’s where vinyl comes in. You can look at a place like Urban Outfitters. It’s the number one vinyl retailer. And that’s a clothing and lifestyle store. Obviously, people are looking at this like accessorizing almost. I think vinyl at its scale is sort of the perfect thing. The whole merch game has blown up because it’s another way people can kind of put these artists' likenesses or something that they are affiliated with on their body to show they are down with whoever. It’s like a walking billboard really. I think people are looking for ways to reconnect, and I think vinyl kind of put itself in a perfect position for a revival at this point.

Tell us about the special 2Pac release for the recent 25th anniversary of _Strictly 4 My N*_**

The Pac estate has been very careful now about how they roll out Pac’s legacy, as far as products. The estate is holding so many great assets. They were forthcoming with real personal documents, things that Pac had handwritten, notes about the album, tracklistings and some photos that have never been seen before, so we were able to create a package that broadens a lot of these different assets. There are photos, a logo that he had created and the gatefold that he actually had the album recorded on with the end-date written on the tape. It really kind of gives you a little more of personal look. These are the kinds of things that have been done for rock, jazz and blues artists. I think there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be done for Pac as well, because clearly, he’s probably one of the only transformative artists not just in hip hop history, but I would say in musical history period. Here’s a guy up there with John Lennon and Elvis Presley.

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