Six years ago the leaders of Ethika, a lifestyle brand based in San Clemente, California, realized they might have hit some kind of jackpot: Turns out, the hip-hop community had an affinity for their boxer briefs.
“We got lucky,” says Matt Cook, Ethika’s CEO. So they reached out some relatively unknown rappers at the time, including Machine Gun Kelly, Meek Mill and Kid Ink, Cook says, all of whom “were wearing the product and loved it.”
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Soon, Ethika was partnering with its artist fans to create custom apparel and enlisted the acts to record exclusive songs for a series of annual mixtapes that the brand releases. Ethika has now collaborated with everyone from Lil Wayne to Casey Veggies, recently dropping a new 13-song mixtape called The Prophesy, featuring original tracks from NBA YoungBoy, Ski Mask the Slump God, Mozzy and more. The deals are mutually beneficial: The songs are given away for free, while artists earn royalties from the custom merchandise and the line builds its brand and customer base through the various partnerships.
Ethika’s first RGB mixtape was released in 2017, featuring Meek Mill, Lil Durk, Kid Ink and more. That was followed by RGB 2 last May, which clocked more than 10 million streams with tracks by Lil Wayne, Kodak Black, Lil Skies and 2 Chainz. With the recent release of The Prophesy, Ethika is planning to drop two mixtapes a year moving forward with another RGB installment planned for this summer.
“Never thought I would be designing a pair of my own underwear,” says Yung Pinch, who contributed a track to The Prophesy. “I’m super stoked with the way they came out! Crazy to see how many people have taken eye to ‘The Beach Boy’ and it’s dope I got to bless the fans with an exclusive record, ‘Sunset,’ on the Ethika mixtape that was released with the new underwear.”
Billboard caught up with Cook to hear more about Ethika’s music strategy and where the company is headed next.
What was the idea behind the music strategy?
I got involved in the brand in 2012. At that time, they were just selling product to athletes. Then we started to go out to retail. I felt like underwear was a category that could be applicable to everyone — it didn’t matter if you’re a surfer, a basketball player or you played the piano, you still wore underwear. Music was the concept that was the connection for people. I thought if we could get a music program going that aligned with the brand, in the way that the hip-hop culture does — it’s a little more edgy and it’s more fashionable — we would have the potential to appeal to a huge group of people. So the connection to different genres of people and athletes and musicians and so forth was the driving factor. We had a lot of ambassadors that were musicians but we thought, “Let’s take it a step further and put out a mixtape.”
Do you pay the musicians?
They give us the tracks so we own those. What we do is we design a pair of Ethikas for them. They get the royalty off the pairs that we sell; that’s how they make the money. We’ve got a decent platform to push through our retail channel and our [e-commerce] channel and thus the ability to expose people.
Lil Wayne, for example, did an exclusive track for us. We’ve also done signature pairs that we’ve sold at retail and everywhere for him. The exclusivity’s important because if it’s not exclusive, people could just go listen to the music somewhere else.
How do you get acts to create original songs for the brand?
We put out the RGB mixtape two years ago. Once we did the first one, then everything — our second RGB and then The Prophesy that we just did — was easy because we did a lot of promotion around the first one. We did a party, we did a look book, we printed out catalogs. All the artists got gifts and we flew them out. So when the next project came up, it was easy. Lil Wayne, for instance, wasn’t on the first one but he wanted to be on the second one. So we didn’t even have to ask some of the guys; they wanted to be on it because they wanted just the brand alignment and the exposure.
How do you select the artists you want to participate in the mixtapes?
We’ve had Meek Mill to Lil Wayne to 2 Chainz. We’ve had Kodak Black, which is more of an up-and-comer. We’ve had Lil Skies, who’s an up-and-comer, just been pretty hot this last year or so. Then we’ve got some guys that have been maybe a little bit older but are still a little bit relevant, like Chevy Woods or Kid Ink or Casey Veggies or what not.
Then this last mixtape was all about us going out and finding all these new young artists that are making a name for themselves on YouTube. They’ll create music, put it up and start to get a following through HotNewHipHop or Lyrical Lemonade, and all of the sudden they’ve got like 20 million views on their video. So we thought, “Let’s go and create a mixtape that’s just the young, new guys and put that out” — we’ll have a rookie mixtape and then we’ll have a veteran kind of mixtape.
We are going to do two a year. The first one’s the RGB and that’s just the concept of red, green, blue, like an additive color. Those colors together are more powerful than individually, so that was a concept. Then, The Prophesy, we’re going to do one of those a year. That’s us predicting, “Hey, these are the guys in the future that are going to be big.”
How do you release the music?
We promote and release the music on our site and on SoundCloud. Then we have partners that we give special releases with. Like last year, Complex got Meek Mill’s song a day early. So we’ll do some strategic partners to get the music out because it can’t be paid for. If it’s paid for, then it violates the agreements that the artists have with the record labels. So it has to be free. I think we have like 11 million streams on our last RGB mixtape.
We’re currently building a music studio in our office building. We have plans to do some things like a business model around the music because we get fed a lot of younger artists because of the older artists that we work with. We have people coming to us all the time. We’d like to do something in music but with a partner, with a Universal or with an Epic or something like that, where we could work with them on doing it because we’re not experts in publishing and distribution of content in music and so forth.
How has the music program been a game changer for the brand?
We get a lot of traffic from Instagram and our email lists. When we pull together a Meek Mill and a Lil Wayne and a 2 Chainz and a Kodak Black and a Kid Ink and a Slump God and Mozzy and NBA YoungBoy, then you’re talking about 30, 40, 50 million people within the group that is pushing out, “Hey, this is the mixtape that I’m a part of. Go listen to it.” That exposure flips on a switch and it drives people to the site. People are listening to the music but they’re also buying product and then they become return customers for us.