'They Built What We Stood Upon': How LA's Rock the Bells Plans to Grow from Hip Hop's History

Sarah Favot

Favot is an award-winning journalist and adjunct instructor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She previously was an investigative and data reporter at national education news site The 74 and local news site LA School Report. She's also worked at the Los Angeles Daily News. She was a Livingston Award finalist in 2011 and holds a Master's degree in journalism from Boston University and BA from the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada.

More than 30 years ago, a young LL Cool J debuted the first single off his "Rock The Bells" album.

At the time, hip hop was still a new cultural force, and few young rappers were thinking about preserving its traditions. Now, many of those who helped build the global culture are gone – from the Wu Tang Clan's Ol' Dirty Bastard to Tribe Called Quest's Phife Dawg to, most recently, Shock G – and LL Cool J is trying to build a brand for classic hip hop, one that pays back some of its artists.

Named Rock The Bells after the song of the same name, the Los Angeles-based company sees itself as a content and commerce brand dedicated to the OG's of hip hop, some of whom have an ownership stake in the company.


Its website offers a curated mix of classic hip hop merchandise like Kangol bucket hats, Timberland boots and Gucci and Louis Vuitton accessories, as well as stories and video content. The brand also includes a SiriusXM Radio channel, which launched in 2018.

Former BET and Coca Cola executive James Cuthbert sits at its helm, helping LL Cool J steer the company.

The startup recently raised $8 million through a recent Series A funding round led by Raine Ventures. Cuthbert has big plans for that new cash infusion including a documentary series and live experiences, even a Rock The Bells music festival.

Cuthbert, 39, joined Rock The Bells in October, leaving his job as senior vice president of brand strategy and marketing at BET. He sat down with dot.LA to discuss his role, the new funding, Rock The Bells' mission and how it is uplifting classic hip hop artists for those who grew up with their music as well as those just discovering it.

One thing that LL Cool J has said is that Rock The Bells was intended to uplift classic hip hop artists, many who didn't make the money off their music that some feel they should have. Big Daddy Kane, Run DMC, Eric B, Salt-N-Pepa, Fab 5 Freddy, Risk, Crazy Legs, Roxanne Shanté and Jonathan Mannion all have ownership in the Rock The Bells brand. How does that change what you do and how you carry out your mission?

JC: If you think about it, we're the only brand that's literally owned and operated by a culture that they created. Hip hop evolved to be, literally, the biggest influence on global popular culture. We want to call ourselves the preeminent brand of classic and timeless hip hop and really build the bridges from today to tomorrow. By having these icons that own part of Rock The Bells, not only does that allow us to honor them, but more importantly that allows us to make sure that we shepherd this culture forward in the most authentic way.

Why is it important to honor the OGs of hip hop?

JC: They built what we stood upon. Cultures that survive and thrive and continue and push forward are the ones that continue to tell the stories and have the mythology that it sits under. When you lose your past you can be destined to become defined by what's happening now. When I think about honoring the past, there's an opportunity for us to really just carry the torch, but most importantly ensure that this culture continues to thrive.

It's no different than any other genre you think about, like films. If you only looked at the films that came out in the last three years and said, "hey man I want to make movies now." Or should you go back and say "hey I'm gonna go all the way back and look at what John Singleton or Hitchcock are like, and I want to look at some of these others"? This is a whole level of creativity. There's value in what's happened in the past and the creativity of what was done. And I think it's easy to see that in almost every other facet of our life and hip hop culture is no different.

You talked about honoring the past and then carrying the mission into tomorrow. What are some of the things you've learned that are important to what people are doing today?

JC: One of the things we've learned is this idea of building bridges. This is not just about honoring the past. This is about connecting the culture to the future. So we talk about this idea of sparking intergenerational conversations between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, where they can speak about the elements of hip hop, what music they like and how that connects to today or even fashion, we think about different retro trends that allow people to connect. There are these natural cultural connections and bridges. Hip hop didn't start because a bunch of people said, "let's make some money and let's come up with a business model". It started to give a voice to the voiceless. It was born out of: "I have a voice, I have something to say and I want to share it with the world."

James Cuthbert

Rock the Bells President James Cuthbert

Image courtesy of Rock the Bells

What are you going to be doing with the new funding?

JC: A lot of what we'll be spending the money on is building out a world-class team that can work across all three pillars. The way that we think about marketing is content, commerce and experiences. The future of content is commerce, the future of commerce is content. Those two are integrated. When you do an experience, of course there's going to be a commerce element. And if you do an experience, you should be creating content, maybe a documentary around it.

How are you expanding your direct-to-consumer business?

JC: From a content perspective, you're going to start seeing custom content being created. You'll see episodic content that ties back to classic hip hop. We're going to see that start to roll out at the tail end of this month and early into May. You'll start to see long-form docuseries and content currently in development, some really cool, big ideas and some amazing talent that we're beginning to partner with to create that. When this culture is elevated, there's such amazing stories and given the care that it deserves, it wins in the marketplace.

LL Cool J

Hip hop icon and Rock the Bells CEO LL Cool J

Photo by Peter Yang

How does being in L.A. influence what you're doing?

JC: We're positioning ourselves to be global, but hip hop is also hyperlocal. There's amazing talent and a hip hop culture that lives in L.A. Obviously, there's some amazing things that happen on the film side in L.A. so being there especially when you think about content or long-form content, is kind of being on the tip of the spear of new technologies that allow us to really engage our audience.

Some of hip hop's most iconic rappers have been lost in recent years. Thinking about everyone from Phife Dawg to Ol Dirty Bastard and most recently the death of DMX. What is the impact on your audience?

JC: DMX had such a powerful story, ODB as well, but when you really dive in, these people highly impacted our lives. Their sincerity, their authenticity, their ability to overcome, their voice, their uniqueness. And as you listen to the music over and over again and watch the interviews, they impact your journey. When somebody passes away that lives within the lexicon of classic hip hop, oftentimes you don't realize the impact until they're gone. You're like," I have never met this person but feel like somebody punched me in the stomach," so how can we honor them and lift them up and make sure their stories continue to get elevated?

How has the death of George Floyd, Duante Wright and so many others along with the wave of protests and national conversations about racial injustice altered the way you look at your work?

JC: As a Black-owned company and a culture-first company, when I look at the employees, you're still coming into work, but you're dealing with so much weight. Racial injustice is something that's been a cancer on American society for a long time and when it percolates it kind of comes into the zeitgeist and you think about how that's vocalized in a very unapologetic way through hip hop.

It first affects the human beings that are working at Rock The Bells, but most importantly there's a responsibility for us to amplify those voices and make sure that we're pushing towards justice. What is some of the good work that needs to be done? What's our role in doing that good work for the community to make sure that that doesn't happen again?

Have you seen an influx of support as a Black-owned business? You're elevating Black brands?

JC: In some respects, we've seen some of that. LL Cool J put out a really impactful freestyle today that's still one of the highest performing pieces of content we put out because it was honest and it was true, talking about injustice. What I have seen is different companies and brands and potential partnerships where people are starting to unveil and not be afraid to say what's true, which is always good to hear. You're seeing some behavior changes and some actual sweat from some of these different partners in the community. For us, we kind of live it everyday. We're not necessarily looking for incremental support, but what we're looking for is positive change.

Rock The Bells launched during the pandemic. There's been a decline in global retail sales of licensed products because of the cancellation of live music events during the pandemic. How has this affected you?

JC: I would say we're a little bit early on as we start to license some of our products out. I'll say that we're actually doing pretty good. I think we're going to exceed our plan on our commerce business this year. There's a lot of new trends and things that are happening, live commerce is one of them, which has kind of exploded in places like Asia. How are you entertaining people? How do you also allow them incremental opportunities to buy? How is that commerce integrated in the content in a way that doesn't feel forced? People will continue to purchase if you're driving significant value and they believe in what your brand stands for.

What is the most profitable part of the company? What do you see growing?

JC: Some of the "experiences" stuff is fairly profitable. The business model for virtual events has been rejiggered, but there's an opportunity to share a really meaningful, impactful and engaging experience online. Rock The Bells merch has been incredibly profitable for us. We have rocked it with our SIRIUS XM channel. Rock The Bells [channel] has been working very well for us and it's really allowing us to speak out our brand proposition on radio and creating a meaningful, highly curated listening experience for fans of classic hip hop.

What's on the horizon for Rock The Bells? You already talked about the docu-series. Is there anything else we should be looking out for?

JC: In general, when you think about Rock The Bells, you should always see classic hip hop through a modern lens, which is classic hip hop elevated. What you'll continue to see is us taking this culture, and doing the best that we can do to elevate it. I'm going to do something that won't just appeal to the people that are kind of like raised with it, but the whole next generation is going to be able to enjoy these stories, enjoy the commerce items and the really cool merch and eventually come to some experiences that will be able to see it come to life.

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Here's How Much Tech Companies Made From LA Unified School District During the Pandemic

Sarah Favot

Favot is an award-winning journalist and adjunct instructor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She previously was an investigative and data reporter at national education news site The 74 and local news site LA School Report. She's also worked at the Los Angeles Daily News. She was a Livingston Award finalist in 2011 and holds a Master's degree in journalism from Boston University and BA from the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada.

In the early days of the pandemic, there was a mad dash to get technology and broadband internet service into students' homes. About 1 in 3 Los Angeles Unified School District families didn't have a desktop or laptop computer or high-speed internet, according to an April 2020 study by USC Annenberg.

To improve tech access and to make other COVID-related purchases, the Board of Education granted authority to then-Superintendent Austin Beutner to spend "any dollar amount necessary" to respond to the crisis. In 13 months, the district spent $390.5 million.

Over the course of the 13 months of data, the single largest purchase — $51.3 million — went to SummerBio, a Silicon Valley COVID testing company.

All told, $227.6 million went to tech companies or 58% of the district's total spending in that time frame.

The spending went to tech companies like Apple, T-Mobile, Verizon and a COVID testing company, records obtained by dot.LA through a Public Records Act request show.

Los Angeles school district spending from March 2020 through April 2021 show that money was spent on line items from iPads and broadband to food for students and families, and masks and sanitizing supplies for schools.

In March 2020 alone, 94% of the $72.3 million the district spent using emergency funds went to tech companies.

"It took a procurement team working around the clock to scour the globe and find devices and a technology team to make sure the devices had the proper software installed and every student was connected to the internet," Beutner said in May 2020.

It also began purchasing COVID-19 supplies, including 100,000 N95 masks and 300,000 surgical masks, for $2.4 million, and food for the district's "Grab n Go" meal program, like $450,000 on cases of chicken tenders and drumsticks.

John Rogers, an education professor at UCLA, said the district took decisive action to get necessary technology into student's hands.

"It was a herculean task to shift in-person instruction to remote learning in a district that serves many families who previously did not own a computing device or had regular access to the internet," he said. "Many other districts around the county lagged behind LAUSD in their efforts to provide a baseline of access to learning."

Here are the total amounts large tech companies were paid:

Apple

$51.3 million

Apple was paid virtually the same amount as SummerBio in total, just $9,000 less. It is unclear from the data exactly how many iPads and other devices were purchased and distributed, as a $37.8 million purchase for iPads doesn't list a quantity of items.

Arey Jones

$49.2 million

San Diego-based Arey Jones, which has relationships with Microsoft, Google, Intel, HP and other companies, is a conduit for school districts to procure technology equipment and software. LAUSD purchased Dell, Samsung and HP Chromebooks, monitors and iPad integration services and cases. In March 2020 alone, the company received $22 million.

CDW Government, LLC

$8.6 million

LAUSD purchased 1,000 video conferencing bars from CDW Government, LLC, a technology provider for state and local governments, for $8.5 million.

Amazon

$2.0 million

As online learning extended beyond the few weeks that many were expecting, it became clear that some households had multiple students and adults working at home. Headphones were a solution to help students block out the noise of a busy home to focus on their studies. About a month into the pandemic, LAUSD purchased 131,000 pairs of headphones for $1.9 million.

Mergent

$8.1 million

In December, the district spent $8.1 million for 490,000 headphones, enough for a pair for every student.

Edgenuity

$6.7 million

LAUSD opened up summer school to all students for enrichment courses, like guitar lessons and language classes, in addition to classes where students can make up credits. About 100,000 or about a quarter of the district's students enrolled in summer school. The district paid for a platform called Edgenuity for credit recovery for 30,000 high school courses and 40,000 middle school courses, according to the data. It's a software program that the district has used for years. The district also used the program as classes turned online and continues to use it in its online independent study program.

Verizon

$6.1 million

The district agreed to pay Verizon up to $4.6 million in March 2020 for mobile broadband services and devices. It later paid another $1.5 million for additional service and devices.

IVCi

$4.3 million

Audio visual company IVCi sold 5,000 video conferencing bars for $4.3 million.

T-Mobile

$3.7 million

The first purchase the district made was to increase its contract with T-Mobile for mobile broadband and devices by $500,000 to $750,000. In March 2020, it paid a total of $2.4 million and later made an additional $1.3 million payment.

Discovery

$3.1 million

The district purchased a districtwide licensing agreement.

Reading Horizons

$3 million

The district bought a license for the training and curriculum tool software for teachers teaching science.

Rosetta Stone

$3 million

The district bought licenses for 100,000 students from the language software company.

Microsoft

$2.3 million

The district described this purchase as "various applications." Microsoft developed an app called the Daily Pass that must be scanned for each student and staff that enters a campus. That contract was for gratuitous services.

Nearpod

$2 million

The district purchased a license for the instructional platform for teachers.

Crayon Software Experts

$1.7 million

LAUSD paid Crayon Software Experts, a software asset management managed services company, for Microsoft Power Apps licenses to implement its COVID vaccination program.

IXL Learning

$1.7 million

The district bought site licenses for 300,000 students from the integrated learning platform that supports personalized learning in math, English language arts, science, social studies and Spanish.

Blackboard

$1.2 million

The district purchased a districtwide enterprise license for the online learning platform for additional teacher to student notification functions.

Zoom

$1 million

The tool that many of us became familiar with during the pandemic, the district spent about a half million on software licenses for 66,500 employees, 500,000 students and 2,000 others.

Newsela

$995,000

Elementary schools purchased licenses for Newsela, a literacy-focused startup with content in English and Spanish.

Renaissance Learning

$995,000

The district bought licenses for Renaissance Learning, a math and reading software.

Edpuzzle

$730,000

LAUSD bought a districtwide license for Edpuzzle, which teachers can use to make interactive videos.

HopSkipDrive

$500,000

Pasadena start-up HopSkipDrive, an ridesharing company for students, was paid $500,000 to take students to and from COVID-19 testing sites.

Hollywood Crews, Studios Reach Tentative Deal to Avoid a Strike

Harrison Weber

Do you know something we should know about L.A. tech or venture capital? Reach out securely via Signal: +1 917 434 4978.

Harrison is dot.LA's senior finance reporter. They previously worked for Gizmodo, Fast Company, VentureBeat and Flipboard. Find them on Twitter: @harrisonweber. Send tips on L.A. deals to harrison@dot.la. Pronouns: they/them.

It appears the show will go on.

The union representing Hollywood production crews announced it has struck a tentative deal with the alliance representing major studios and giants in tech.

The move averts what would have been the first walkout for Hollywood crews since World War II as well as the union's first national strike since it was formed more than a century ago. However, union members must still decide on whether to ratify the agreement in an upcoming vote. In the meantime, all work will "continue without interruption," the union said.

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Q&A: Bobacino CEO Darian Ahler Makes His Case for Food Automation

Decerry Donato
Decerry Donato is an editorial intern at dot.LA. She received her bachelor’s degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, Decerry can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

After a year and a half of the pandemic, the robots have arrived—at least in restaurants.

A new report from market research firm Global Industry Analysts (GIA) found that the global food automation market grew to $9.7 billion in 2020, spurred in part by a desire to offer customers contactless service. The GIA researchers projected the market would swell to $13.6 billion by 2026.

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