Rock The Bells President James Cuthbert on Building Hip Hop's Legacy
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."
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.
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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On the heels of TrillerNet launching a subscription service to solidify its ongoing shift into live events, the owner of short form social video app Triller is reportedly preparing to go public via a direct listing.
The company is aiming to file for the listing with U.S. regulators in July, with shares becoming available for public purchase as soon as September, according to Reuters.
In the interim, the startup is reportedly seeking to raise $500 million by selling 10% of its company to private investors at a $5 billion valuation. In July 2020, TrillerNet (still called Triller at the time) executive chairman Bobby Sarnevesht told dot.LA Triller was seeking to raise $250 million at a $1.25 billion valuation.
TrillerNet CEO Mahi de Silva declined to comment on the report, but noted that "Triller continues to explore all avenues…"
Triller previously had been exploring going public via SPAC, with talks advancing at least as far as identifying three blank-check companies and working with an investment advisory firm to see through the deal. According to the Reuters report, waning investor enthusiasm for SPACs scuppered that approach.
In April, shortly after his appointment, de Silva told dot.LA it would be "possible" that Triller would go public in 2021.
"We're at that magic threshold where as a company, we have the income statement – in terms of revenue, earnings, growth potential – we have everything that you need to be a U.S. listed public company," he said then. "So whatever vehicle we use to get there – whether an IPO, a SPAC, a direct listing – we've been very thoughtfully exploring all those options."
Alex Canter understood his role from the beginning. As a fourth-generation restaurateur and heir to beloved Canter's Deli in Los Angeles, he was set to continue the family legacy. But running a restaurant in 2021 is very different than running one in 1981, let alone 1931.
As Canter saw it, his job was "bringing in new technology and proving to my family that change is good," he says with a laugh.
Within a few short years, Canter has undoubtedly succeeded, building a delivery platform, Ordermark, that not only brought the family business into the digital age, but helped thousands of other restaurants as well.
But as Ordermark expands into the worlds of 'virtual brands' and ghost kitchens, some are asking whether the company is creating more problems for mom-and-pop businesses than it's solving, and if the ultimate goal is to support restaurants or compete with them.
Bringing the Deli to the Web
After a few years of working his way up from a dishwasher to managing the restaurant, Alex Canter set about bringing his family's 90-year-old deli online. He introduced Postmates, GrubHub and other delivery apps into Canter's service, and business for the kitchen picked up.
Alex Canter is the heir to L.A.'s beloved Canter's Deli and founder of Ordermark.
Photo by Dan Tuffs
"Fourteen online ordering platforms later, delivery accounted for over 30% of our revenue," Canter says. A substantial chunk, no doubt, and surprising for all, "but the staff in the back hated me because we had nine tablets, two laptops and a fax machine" to manage all the incoming orders.
"It was a very complicated process and very disruptive to our operations," he continues, adding that each third-party platform used its own device, and menus had to be manually updated across each site individually.
After talking with a few other restaurants around L.A., Canter came up with a solution: consolidate.
"Most brick-and-mortar restaurants are not set up for delivery," he says. From the in-and-out of delivery drivers waiting on their pick-ups, to the constant if disorganized stream of orders coming into the kitchen, "I really wanted to take a step back and reimagine the entire online ordering experience from scratch at a restaurant."
The result was Ordermark, which Canter co-founded in 2017.
The idea was to combine the various delivery apps onto a single OrderMark tablet. The device would allow restaurant kitchens to view incoming orders from Postmates, DoorDash, UberEats and others on one screen, and easily update menus from the same spot, too.
"When we started, we had no relationship with any of these companies," Canter says of the 50 or so online ordering platforms and point-of-sales companies that integrate with Ordermark. "And none of these companies wanted to be hardware businesses, anyway."
It was easy to see how Ordermark's system would be a win-win for restaurants and delivery platforms alike: driver wait-times were reduced along with order errors, while revenues increased.
And Ordermark seemed to have entered the online delivery market at just the right time. According to a report by Morgan Stanley, the total U.S. market for food delivery grew from $260 billion in 2017 (the year Ordermark launched), to $356 billion in 2019. Any company that could capture even a fraction of the market was poised for a windfall.
Then the pandemic hit.
Within a few weeks, the company went from adding about 300 new restaurants a month to their platform, to over 1,000 a month in March and April 2020. By then, 92% of restaurants' orders were coming from off-premise sales.
This explosion in growth, fueled by a once-in-a-century scenario, helped push Ordermark past $1 billion in sales in 2020 and sent a nascent service Ordermark had begun experimenting with into hyperdrive.
From Ordering and Delivery to Virtual Brands and Ghost Kitchens
Canter and his team launched Nextbite in late 2019, envisioning a platform that partners restaurants with virtual brands designed by Ordermark.
"The restaurant industry is in the midst of the ecommerce phase where restaurants must get creative by embracing technology and new sources of revenue generation to reach customers outside of their four walls," Canter said in an October statement after securing a $120 million Series C round of funding.
Through Nextbite, a restaurant essentially does gig work using their kitchen and staff to fulfill orders for virtual brands.
The brands are designed from scratch, Canter explains, by "looking at a lot of data of what's performing well in which markets and what time of day, based on what we know is going to deliver well, and based on what we know will be non-disruptive to restaurants' existing business."
So, say you're a Thai restaurant with a kitchen operating at only 75% capacity on weeknights, Nextbite might partner you with HotBox by Wiz Khalifa to pump out burgers and BBQ tofu in addition to your Thai menu. If all goes well, you have a new revenue stream—you keep 55% from each order you've filled, and the remaining 45% gets split between the delivery apps and Ordermark.
"A big chunk of that [45%] goes to the third-party delivery services," says Canter, "and we use some of our take to invest in the marketing of that brand so that we can continue to drive more gross sales for the restaurant."
But all this begs the question: is Ordermark solving a problem that Ordermark itself helped to create?
The restaurant industry was already in a fragile state before the pandemic. Food delivery apps and point-of-sales platforms have been devouring the razor-thin margins of small operators for the last few years now. Is Nextbite creating a cannibalistic cycle by propping up smaller restaurants' while simultaneously ensuring that their margins continue to shrink?
"It's an inevitability that dining occasions are moving off-premise," begins Zach Goldstein, founder and CEO of Thanx, a customer engagement platform.
Faced with that inevitability, many restaurants are rushing to adopt various platforms and technologies to capture whatever revenue they can from outside sales. The problem, Goldstein continues, "is that's all well and good in the medium term. But in the long term, if you have incubated a new class of restaurant [with virtual brands] that has taken on a disproportionate share of dining occasions, then we will see far fewer traditional restaurants able to survive."
Restaurants should be creating their own digital channels instead, Goldstein states.
"Every restaurant should be focused on, 'how am I building my first-party digital channels under a brand I own so that I gain the brand equity?'," he says. And the technology is there for even the smallest and least savvy players to do it, Goldstein adds. "The only proven model, in my opinion, for long-term sustainability as a restaurant is to own your own digital channels, to own your own brand or brands, and to own your customers directly so that you can talk to them."
It's a notion Canter pushes back on. He says Nextbite is plugging businesses into a national virtual restaurant marketing system.
"A mom-and-pop restaurant can't just go partner with George Lopez," he says. With the resources a small business has, "they're not going to be able to even get in the door with Wiz Khalifa to say, 'hey, let's collaborate and co-market a brand together'. But we're doing that for them, and turning it on for them, and driving all the demand for them, and basically paying them to make the food for this concept."
Investors seem to agree. SoftBank Investment Advisers, which led Ordermark's Series C raise, said in a statement that their firm was "excited to support [the company's] mission to help independent restaurants optimize online ordering and generate incremental revenue from under-utilized kitchens."
$120 million is a sizable sum of cash if neither Ordermark nor their big-name investors are looking for anything more than assist struggling mom-and-pops.
Canter's famous pastrami sandwich.Photo by Dan Tuffs
Still, Nextbite has already helped save certain restaurants during the pandemic. "It's given me a way to hire some of my staff back, get a stream of revenue, and leverage the fact that I have a kitchen and a health permit and all that, when previously I wasn't able to make any money," says Mitch Edelson, owner and operator of Jewel's Catch One in Los Angeles.
Since the city of Los Angeles mandates an establishment with a liquor license to also serve food, Nextbite has helped Catch One turn the burden of a nightclub's kitchen into a profitable proposition. Yet, Edelson is aware that the platform is something of a double-edged sword for operators. He says that bars, music venues, and restaurants should adopt the technology "before their neighbors do and they kind of lose out on opportunity."
Xandre Borghetti, co-owner and operator of Nossa LA, is even more skeptical. As he sees it, Nextbite definitely could be a band-aid for a one, two, six-month period, he says, "but at some point, it's not going to last. And then you're gonna be back to where you were, probably worse," because you've been distracted from your core business by an outside concept.
"You want to be investing in the people that you have hired to get better at your own business," Borghetti notes. "This it's kind of a distraction, and not really worth it. Especially during this time when it's pretty difficult to hire people."
It's a sentiment Jesse Gomez of restaurants YXTA and Mercado echoes. As the owner/operator of two concepts and multiple locations, "why would I want to invest energy into a concept that isn't my own?" Gomez asks. "And what if one of those outside concepts should take off?"
So, does integrating a Nextbite brand into a kitchen distract small owner/operators and potentially push them into a losing cycle of chasing revenue streams from competing virtual brands whose recipes and IP they don't own?
"Absolutely not," says Canter. "We're not in the business of competing with restaurants, we're rather enabling restaurants to do more with their existing operations." All Nextbite brands are designed specifically to be non-disruptive to the restaurants they're partnering with. Canter says the first question Ordermark asks a potential fulfillment partner is "can you handle an extra 10 or 20 online orders a day in your restaurant? If the answer's no, then why would you sign up to throttle extra orders in your kitchen if you're already at full capacity?
For those struggling to bring in revenue, Ordermark has positioned itself as a life-line in a time of flux — even if it means trimming their margins and feeding concepts that aren't their own.
The rise of delivery apps and the pandemic shutdowns have left the restaurant industry irrevocably changed. But will off-premise orders remain at 2020 highs, or will diners clamor back into seats desperate for face-to-face interaction? The continued growth in revenue among the various ordering platforms suggests delivery is here to stay. Meanwhile virtual concepts and ghost kitchens will have to prove that they're not as ephemeral as their names suggest.
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