The Black Internet Gold Rush That Wiped Away $75 Million in 18 Months
It wasn’t just Pets.com and eToys — 20 years ago, a slew of hip-hop and ‘urban’ sites became early casualties of the first dot-com bubble
At the very end, Adam Kidron needed a multimillion-dollar loan just to pay severance to the people he was laying off. Some of his employees at Urban Box Office, the company he had co-founded, had to be taught how to apply for unemployment. They were kids, really; many had never had a real job. “I was a twentysomething high school graduate from the Bronx,” says Steven Samuel. “UBO paid me six figures. It was about our worth, not our formal education.” Kidron even made sure all the content creators retained the rights to anything they did at UBO. But riddled with tech issues and mismanagement, UBO couldn’t realize its egalitarian dream.
It wasn’t alone. Between 1999 and 2001, with the greater dot-com era just beginning to spiral, hip-hop and “urban” websites and startups proliferated, flush with investment cash. Hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, riding high in his Phat Farm/Baby Phat fashion heyday, staked his digital claim with media company RS1, later named 360HipHop. (“The site will utilize a multi-media approach to deliver content, providing the user with the latest in hip-hop trends and information, as well as connect users, and hip-hop celebrities/personalities, in a virtual hip-hop nation,” wrote one breathless article in 2000. “Especially interesting will be interactive sites devoted to ‘Puffy’s Gun Collection’ and ‘Snoop Dogg’s Greatest Spliffs.’”) Sony Music Entertainment and Universal Music Group both invested.
The finance world even got in on the founding. Investment banker Charles “Chas” Walker and his business partner Peter Griffith launched “netcaster” Hookt, later partnering with Sean “Puffy” Combs in hopes of leveraging the Bad Boy/Sean John impresario’s supernova profile. HBO launched Volume, a site that leaned heavily into video content and that many expected to spin into an MTV competitor.
And one by one, they all unceremoniously shuttered.
Just as with the larger dot-com bubble, the causes of death were many. Gross mismanagement. Bloated salaries. Unchecked…