How De La Soul Beat Young Thug To No. 1 Using An Updated Twist On An Outdated Strategy

De La Soul beat Young Thug in an album sales battle in 2016. Sort of.

There are many layers to unravel in the story of how, after 12 years of relative silence, a trio of Long Islanders in their late forties managed to compete with one of the most popular artists from Atlanta, a city that has dictated the sound of hip-hop and reinvented the meaning of plugs since 2004’s The Grind Date. When the sales numbers were revealed for De La Soul’s long-awaited album and the Anonymous Nobody…, the group found themselves in a surprising place — at the top of the Billboard Rap charts, No. 2 the Independent charts, and No. 12 on the Billboard 200.

After their Kickstarter campaign, the second most successful in the crowdfunding platform’s history, raised more than $600,000, De La Soul fans received a return on their respective investments with an forward-thinking, fresh-sounding new album in and the Anonymous Nobody…. That alone is more than we can say for some acts. But to come out on top in a musical climate that seems to be racing away from the type of music De La made its name creating is a feat that not many people saw coming.

Throughout their careers, De La Soul has worn and discarded several titles: upstart hippies, thoughtful everymen, skeptical purists and more. But, victorious underdog is a role that’s probably as unfamiliar to them as it is to their fans. And this was a victory that was years in the making. It was the result of several unrelated circumstances creating a the perfect storm of opportunity for a trio of hip-hop legends to beat out today’s hottest acts.

Here’s how it happened:

1. The Billboard Rap Charts Measures Pure Album Sales

As Fu detailed in this week’s Numbers On The Board, Billboard’s Rap Charts eschew the multi-metric data calculation that includes streams and individual song sales, and focuses on one thing. How many units did you move? De La sold 21,000 albums, including the pre-sale digital downloads of the album, valued at $15, that were included in the “rewards” that many of the group’s backers received for pledging money to the cause.

2. De La Soul Packed Two Months Of Pre-Orders Into One Week

Although, De La started their campaign a year ago, Kickstarter only allowed them to collect money and pre-orders for 60 days. Still, two months is significantly longer than albums are traditionally available before they release, and all of those sales counted towards the group’s first week total.

3. De La Soul’s Fans Are Starving

While The Artist Formerly Known As Thugger has released three mixtapes commercially this year alone, De La Soul has not released a full length project in more than a decade. Add to that the fact that they haven’t been able to have any of their back catalog on streaming services due to sample clearance issues, and a music climate that doesn’t seem to value De La’s strengths as much as it once did, and you have a rabid fan base — check their extensive international tour schedule for proof — that hasn’t been serviced in years just dying to spend some money on this album.

In the past, the Plugs have gone as far as releasing their catalog for free, to the ire of Warner Records, just to get the music out there. Now, with the help of Kickstarter, they were able to compete on all platforms.

4. Big Name Guests

We’ve talked about De La’s fanbase showed up and showed out for them to the tune of $600,000, but how would they go about the business of getting new fans? One way is to have the glitziest guest list in the group’s three decade history. Jill Scott, Snoop Dogg (“Pain”), Usher (“Greyhounds”), 2 Chainz, Damon Albarn, and David Byrne all make appearances, opening the group to audiences outside of their target fanbase. And $600,000 goes a long way towards paying all of those artists their steep appearance fees.

5. Good Music

So the group of older guys beat out the bigger names with an blend of old school and current strategy executed in a new way. They cribbed the direct-to-consumer hustle of independent artists, sprung for the big name features like major label acts, serviced their music to digital platforms like the artists of today, and moved units like artists of the past. De La Soul is a testament that smart, honest, music and paying more attention to the fans that love what you do instead of bickering about those that don’t is a recipe for success in any era.

Stream the new album right here and, below, watch the group’s documentary, We’re Still Here (now)… a documentary about nobody, which follows the creation of the project.

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