Chicago hip-hop duo The Cool Kids have finally returned on July 12, 2011 with When Fish Ride Bicycles, the long-awaited official follow up to their 2008 debut The Bake Sale. Mikey Rocks and Chuck Inglish’s rise to success began with early support from reputable artists including Flosstradamus, M.I.A. (who took the duo on tour as an opener), and A-Trak, who released their first recordings, including The Bake Sale EP, a precursor to the album of the same name. As media support began to mount for the group, their marketing plan focused on corporate sponsorship and synchronization licensing deals. This strategy placed their music in advertising, TV, and film instead of the typical record label path most artists purse. The Cool Kids also focused on building a face-to-face connection with fans by touring heavily, something many hip-hop acts do not prioritize. Their unorthodox approach provided both financial support and freedom from long term recording contracts -- although they were later supported by the small local Chicago label Chocolate Industries who (along with their exclusive distributor Southern Records), invested substantially to release The Bake Sale full-length.

The Cool Kids became one of the most talked-about and successful new independent acts by grafting an old school simplistic style with a street prep swagger in the vein of Chicago scene predecessors like Common and Kanye West. At the height of The Cool Kids' popularity, they inked a partnership with Mountain Dew/Pepsi Co’s new Green Label Sound, who released the single “Delivery Man” in August of 2008.

In 2009 The Cool Kids released Gone Fishing, a free mixtape featuring industry mainstays Bun B and Ludacris. 2010’s Tacklebox was another strong mixtape, but both did what mixtapes generally tend to do: leaving fans anticipating an album. In early 2011 Green Label Sound and The Cool Kids announced the impending release of When Fish Ride Bicycles and previewed the album with the single “Bundle Up.”  Proving the act was back to form, Mikey and Chuck openly expressed their disinterest in the traditional label model via public events and interviews. A typical label deal offers an advance of cash and then recoups most production and marketing expenses before an artist sees any royalties. At best, a typical artist makes a 50 percent royalty from sales and licensing through a label. A bigger label typically offers newly signed artists more like ten to fifteen percent of the retail cost of the album, and that is only seen after expenses are repaid (which is rare). In an unprecedented arrangement, Green Label’s first full-length release would be released exclusively on iTunes with all royalties after Apple’s share going solely to The Cool Kids.

With this new business model in place, The Cool Kids’ camp has again provided a major piece of the puzzle that is artist sustainability within a volatile music industry. No single technological advancement or marketing strategy has been responsible for the shifts in media consumption. Neither Apple, nor Spotify, nor Radiohead's In Rainbows, nor Pitchfork, nor Android, nor cloud computing-whatever has completely reshaped music fans' behavior. All of these emerging models have combined to formulate a new, constantly evolving ecosystem. The Cool Kids’ influence may be less publicized than artists like Radiohead and Trent Reznor, who are more widely recognized for their experimental models. But as a Chicago hip-hop fan, I can confirm The Cool Kids are of enormous influence on local beat producers and MCs -- and regarding smart ways to build a career as an underground artist. Certainly corporate sponsorship is no perfect solution. Big business funding the art world is a longstanding and controversial topic. Regardless, it is a reality. No art marketed to a sizable audience is truly devoid of major financial support, whether music fans care to admit it or not. As this reality becomes more accepted -- and arguably, more necessary -- the Green Label Sound model may become the rule instead of the exception.

Musically, When Fish Ride Bicycles is a successful return for the group, albeit a more polished and commercially viable approach. Track one “Rush Hour Traffic” and track two “GMC” both harken back to their signature street anthems.  From there a majority of the album intertwines their classic style with a more melodic, dance-friendly, R&B-influenced approach. This new direction may alienate some of their purest fans, but comes across as honest. Guest credits are peppered throughout the album, including Ghostface, Bun B, Asher Roth, Mayer Hawthorne, and Travis Barker. Pharrell is credited with producing the album’s anthemic closer “Summer Jam (featuring Maxine Ashley).” Interestingly, Pharrell is not credited on the track “Get Right,” yet the song could easily pass for a N.E.R.D. single featuring The Cool Kids. When Fish Ride Bicycles is a good entry point if you are not familiar with this duo’s music. If you are a fan -- and are not turned off by a substantial step in the direction of commercial viability -- the album will not disappoint. If anything, the album is worth downloading, knowing all proceeds go to two young artists forging new business models in a constantly-changing music industry.

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