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You Used To: The Birth & Death of Ringtone Rap

The days when Mims could make a million of a ringtone are dead and buried.

I entered the halls of high school as a freshman who had just acquired his first cellphone, the Nokia 6230i. It wasn’t very special, it didn’t flip and it didn’t slide. It was a basic phone with basic functions and maybe that meant I was basic, but it was all mine and I dialed with pride.

I wasn’t the only one who graduated from the constraints of a house phone, in almost every pocket there was a cell phone and almost every phone had an abundance of ringtones. It seemed crazy how enamored people were by these songs that were cut down to 30 seconds or less, somehow it felt new and exciting. It didn’t take long before teachers stressed that phones should remain silent and invisible, not seen or heard, but at least once in every class a song would disrupt the silence or rise above any light chatter.

You couldn’t walk through the cafeteria without hearing J-Kwon’s “Tipsy,” kids that couldn’t enter clubs or obtain liquor were infatuated by the simple yet catchy single. Ciara’s “Goodies” was an anthem for the girls, one that was only replaced when relationship statuses changed and all you heard was Usher’s “My Boo.” Regardless if it was popular or personal, I soon realized that ringtones had this weird purpose that made the 30 seconds worth more than the full song.

Ringtones were forever changing, with each new popular song it'd be time to update the collection. It was a game to stay current, updated on the newest songs. If a video premiered on 106 & Park it wasn’t a surprise to hear it during bus rides the next morning. Ringtones were like digital collectables that almost everyone scooped up. They weren’t expensive, cheap enough that buying more than one was common, especially for those that didn’t pay their own phone bill.

After being in school for a few months, there were kids that had a custom ringtone for every single contact, whatever song that played when you called represented you in some way, based on personality, relationship, or just a memory that stuck. I can’t even recall how many times I watched someone rap, dance, or sing to their ringtone to the point where they forgot to answer the call. Especially once D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” became such a huge smash. “Laffy Taffy” was the kind of hit song you couldn’t escape, it was on the radio, it was in the schools, it was even in the supermarkets. That’s when I realized that ringtones weren’t some fad that took over the schools, they were beginning to take over the world.

By 2007 ringtones had indeed taken over the world. You heard them everywhere. By then those that were internet savvy were making their own by using audio editing programs. A whole generation of kids and young adults were getting accustomed and it affected rap and hip-hop unlike any other genre.

Just look at the top ringtones from that year, rap completely dominated. AT&T released their customer's most popular tones and the list was almost entirely rap, Shop Boyz, MIMS, Soulja Boy, T-Pain, Hurricane Chris, Huey, only Nickleback and Fergie were the outsiders to make the list. Ringtones were the gift that would take many men from rags to riches and also be seen as a curse that was polluting the culture. Ringtone rap, as it was later coined, had artists from all regions prospering but it’s the southern rappers that mastered the formula, benefitting the most from this new market.

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This bubble gum rap birthed more than a few short careers and made millionaires out of some of rap's most unlikely participants. Much like gum, the flavor only lasted so long before the sweet sensation turned tasteless and stale. While some enjoyed it, others felt like this age was more like stepping in gum than the act of chewing. It was an interesting time in rap, ringtones were selling more than albums, the industry needed a solution to the declining sales and ringtones seem to be an answer. A lot of one-hit-wonders were able to sign deals strictly because they could cater to the ringtone audience. The business of selling ringtones was in the billions, they were a part of the cell phone experience and everyone had a cell phone and everyone enjoyed music, labels wanted their piece.

Nothing is ever quite what it seems in the music industry. From 2004/2005 – 2009 ringtones rose and peaked, made the most money and broke the most artists, and my entrance and exit from high school intertwined with both the rise and fall of ringtones’ popularity. 2009 was probably the last year where any artist could enter into that avenue and find success.

“Party Like A Rockstar” was the last big bang from the ringtone era from a fairly unknown act, the Shop Boyz had entered with a ringtone crafted record that appealed across the boards. You heard it on the radio, you heard it in the supermarket, you saw the video on B.E.T., they were completely unavoidable. Over three million "Party Like a Rockstar" ringtones were sold, but those who looked closely could already see the ringtone begin to breathe its last breaths.

In 2009, Drake slid in at the last minute with "Best I Ever Had," Jay Z's "Empire State Of Mind" was another cut that definitely was heard from mobile phones, and "Boom Boom Pow" from the Black Eyed Peas annoyed ears from coast to coast. The well known were able to sustain, a few new acts like New Boyz, Travis Porter and Roscoe Dash were able to have some minor success but nothing compared to MIMS and Jibbs. In 2010, it was predicted by a consumer analyst group that the business of selling ringtones was doomed, dying a slow death and would be completely extinct by 2016 in the U.S. 

There was a moment in time where your ringtone was just a natural part of the cellphone experience, it played when you called, texted, or in the background as a ringback. Much like MySpace at the time, it was just something you imagined would be around forever. Now though, the days where cell phones would ring and the latest catchy song would jingle from its speakers are a distant memory.

Imagine how big "Hotline Bling" would be if it was 2008? Phones simply don’t ring like they used to – texting, tweeting, Vines and all other forms of social interaction have replaced the phone's most basic function. When they do ring it’s either in silence, on vibrate, or the generic default tone that came with the cellular device. It’s a rare occasion to be in a public setting and hear a short snippet play from a nearby pocket, I literally can't remember the last time I had a ringtone, it's been years. I don't even know how to make a ringtone on my iPhone.

Things were actually easier when phones were small and simple instead of large and smart. It’s amazing how an era that completely dominated the music industry is now just another relic of what was. Nothing ever feels temporary in the moment but all waves come to an end, much like high school.

This is an industry of phases and ringtone rap is at the end of its rope. We can now reflect on the the good, the bad, and the absolutely forgettable that came from this time period. Leaning and rocking down Memory Lane.

[By Yoh, aka This Is Why I'm Hot, aka @Yoh31. Image via Amazon.]



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