Ear Infection

The hip-hop nation has always operated within a different set of marketing parameters than other music forms. Except for the multiplatinum artists, hip-hop airplay on radio or MTV is almost nonexistent, and purveyors of the genre must use different strategies to succeed. The lifeblood of hip-hop is street promotion; artists as large and high profile as the Wu-Tang Clan still rely on street teams passing out fliers, singles, and other promotional shwag to push their products.

Fort Lauderdale's Outback is following the pattern set by generations of hip-hop artists, pushing its single "Hold the Fort Down" on the streets and in the clubs via hand-to-hand dissemination. The dreadlocked trio hit the Super Bowl in Miami in a van plastered with "Hold the Fort Down" posters, distributing tapes, T-shirts, and posters to the teeming crowds. Two weekends ago Outback was on the streets of Daytona Beach at the spring break Black College Reunion, passing out fliers and tapes and hoisting picket signs advertising the single. And last weekend DJ Jungle Boy, Burning Bush, and Fantom hit Atlanta for Freaknik '99, packing the usual materials plus a special-edition-mix CD by Jungle Boy, Freaknik '99 -- Raiders of the Lost Ass, featuring seven tracks by South Florida hip-hop artists alongside well-known artists like Nas, Foxy Brown, and Eminem.

Operating without a label or outside financing, Outback is a self-supporting entity. The three members run their company, Outback Productions, out of the brick house in Sunrise where Fantom and Burning Bush reside. In a small corner room strewn with fliers, boxes of promotional materials, and CDs and decorated with posters of Bob Marley, Notorious B.I.G., and other inspirations, they work at a single wooden desk, coordinating Outback shows and promotions at high schools, commercial venues, and community events. Outback Productions also functions as a separate business venture, contracting out promotions for other events and renting out time in the members' home studio. It's a seemingly large undertaking considering only one member of the trio is old enough to drink.

"We try not to spread ourselves too thin," says 20-year-old Fantom, who, with his 23-year-old brother Burning Bush, handles production and MC duties for the group. The collective is well aware of the impressive breadth of its undertaking, but thrives on its accomplishments.

"When I look at my age bracket -- people I went to middle school, high school with -- and where they at, and I look at where I'm at, from the outside lookin' in, my time was spent more wisely," says 19-year-old Jungle Boy.

"When we started out, we were just using turntables attached to a stereo system, you know," Fantom says, explaining the group's evolution. "Now we've got a nice lavish DJ system, Technics 1200s, a home studio. We're just working hard, you know."

The street strategy figures prominently in Outback's goals for success. The members realize that it's their responsibility to create a consumer-level buzz about the project. "It's not like people go out and search for a hot new title here," elaborates Jungle Boy. He offers an analogy to illustrate his point. "Suppose I'm a frequent subscriber to this magazine, and I know that they always put the new shoes in it. So I'm gonna be lookin' through the magazine, seeing what new shoes they have, right? I'm gonna buy these shoes, and then people see them, and they're gonna want these shoes. No one else is gonna look in the magazine; they'll wait till somebody else has the shoes. That's the same attitude they have here with new groups, so basically, I publish my own magazine by putting our music right in front of them."

Hold the Fort Down, the four-song tape distributed in local record stores, is a strong endorsement for Outback's future prospects. The title track is a smooth, flowing tribute to the town that spawned the group, backed by a sinister guitar riff and staccato high-hat beats. Along with the other three tracks, it shows a diversity of influences that run outside of hip-hop's normal parameters. "I listen to everything, except heavy metal and hard rock and shit. From easy listening, jazz, orchestras, whatever, you'll hear all those in there," says Fantom.

"The elements that we use are real hard to explain 'cause the type of style we grew up listening to is like a Northeast type of flavor, but being that we live in the South, we kind of adapted that to us, mixed it in, so the beats are something actually different. It definitely sticks out," explains Jungle Boy.

In the long run, Outback is following the pattern set by current shooting stars like Jay Z and Mase, who after their initial unit-moving successes set up labels and production companies of their own. Instead of shooting for a contract simply for Outback, the members hope to use the group's future accomplishments to get the entire production company hooked up with a label. "That's why we're Outback Productions Incorporated," says Fantom. "The percentages and the ratios are so bad with labels, you get like 10 percent of what you're selling. Why do that when you can run your own company and get 50 percent?"

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