Rap Beef: The Story Behind Hamburger Helper’s Viral Trap Mixtape

Niles Stewart was up late the night before the mixtape dropped, so he woke up a little groggy on April 1. He checked his phone. Nothing.

The 18-year-old rapper, comedian, and social media star from Maryland started to go about his day, like any normal Friday. A little later, he checked Twitter again. His notifications page had more mentions than he could count. “Oh,” he said, looking up. “It dropped.”

Then he started listening to the mixtape, a five-track release from Hamburger Helper called Watch the Stove. Yes, that Hamburger Helper. The one owned by behemoth food manufacturer General Mills. An honest-to-god trap mixtape made by Hamburger Helper with a title inspired by Jay Z and Kanye West. The cover art features the Helper mascot, “Lefty,” a single white glove, with liquid gold streaming down its body.

Take a second to think about it.

Stewart, who goes by the stage name Retro Spectro, had created the second track on the tape, but he’d never heard the other four songs until that point. He wasn’t sure what to expect. “My response was the same as everybody else’s,” he said. “This is, like, an actual full mixtape. That sounds good.”

When Stewart said “everyone else,” he was talking about the four million plays the mixtape had on SoundCloud just by Monday morning. Listeners all seemed to have the same reaction. At first, laughter: Hamburger Helper just released a mixtape? I’m sure it’s cute and cheery. Then, about a minute into the first track, “Feed the Streets”: Oh, shit. This is a real trap mixtape, and it’s good.

That’s what made Watch the Stove a rare corporate project that actually went viral in a positive way. People who started to listen kept listening because it sounded like a real release—not a business-driven attempt at one. And if listeners liked it, they shared it.

A small, young team at General Mills with practically no budget created something they personally enjoyed and hoped others would enjoy too. Somehow, they did it within the confines of a big corporation. If there’s a lesson for marketers here, it’s that virality strikes more easily when you don’t try to force it.

Unofficially, the project started on October 8, 2014, when Hamburger Helper posted a photoshopped version of Drake’s Nothing Was the Same album cover on Twitter with the caption “The mixtape is almost ready.” The account already had a reputation for chatting about hip-hop news. Any time a big artist dropped a new single or album, @helper had something to say. It was a fun way of engaging with followers, who soon started to ask: Well, when is the mixtape coming out?

It became a running joke in the Hamburger Helper offices, on the sprawling General Mills campus in Minneapolis. When are we going to drop the mixtape?

This past May and June, Helper went through its annual marketing planning process, bringing in an external creative agency to pitch ways to re-inject energy and passion into the brand. The ideas were too expensive—all of Helper’s money was tied up in coupon campaigns that were effective, perhaps, but not particularly energetic or passionate.

In August, Helper’s marketing manager Maria Carolina Comings (currently on maternity leave) decided to give the team an assignment: make something—anything, really—creative for the brand on as small a budget as possible. They instantly knew what they wanted to make.

The braintrust that would eventually produce Watch the Stove consisted of three people from Hamburger Helper’s marketing division and three from The Bellshop, General Mills’ internal creative agency.

Their first move was to contact a producer and director they’d worked with before: Craig Rice, a faculty member at two nearby schools, the McNally Smith College of Music and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Rice, who worked with his film students to create two advertising spots for General Mills’ Larabars in early 2015, is an award-winning producer and director in his own right. He’s been nominated for four Emmy Awards, an NAACP Award, and has managed and worked with recording artists like Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, and Diana Ross.

On a late-summer morning, Rice and a fellow Minneapolis College of Art and Design faculty member met with Bellshop senior manager Mark Skeba and Hamburger Helper representative Amber Benson for coffee at a local café. Skeba and Benson explained that they were planning a nationwide contest where anyone could submit a song to potentially be featured on the mixtape.

“You’re crazy,” Craig told them. “You’re going to have nine thousand unfinished tracks from all over, and you’re never going to get anything finished that way.” He believed that it wouldn’t work unless they essentially became a record company: find artists, record songs, and use deadlines to make sure the work came in on time.

Big-name rappers would have been way too expensive, so the team started to develop the mixtape with a new identity—young up-and-comers who took themselves seriously as artists and, by virtue of their age and lack of recognition, had something to prove.

“If we’d had real famous people on the mixtape, it would have been more on them and less on us,” said Liana Miller, the 23-year-old creative lead on the project.

The team began keeping an eye out for burgeoning artists. In October, Bellshop brand creative Robb McNeil reached out to his friends Bobby Raps and Taylor Madrigal (stage name: DJ Tiiiiiiiiiip), a young hip-hop duo originally from the Twin Cities. Everyone met up at a local bar one night to discuss the opportunity. McNeil brought along Bellshop cohorts Skeba and Pete Basgen, along with Miller and Ashley Wright from Hamburger Helper. Bobby and Madrigal brought their entourage.

As Wright recalled, it was a strange night. Skeba, scared that his age (35) would skew the vibe in the wrong direction, almost didn’t show. Then Bobby and Madrigal showed up with their crew, feeling a little confused. They were apprehensive about working with a corporate brand and had only agreed to take the meeting because of their friendship with McNeill and hometown connection to General Mills. A round of drinks and burgers eased the mood.

“We tried to take away any corporate aspect of it,” Wright said.

The offer: complete and total creative freedom to write a song about Hamburger Helper. The only stipulations: no cursing, and it can’t offend your mother.

The group spent the rest of the night bouncing ideas off each other. By the end of the evening, Bobby and Madrigal agreed to contribute a song, which would eventually become the mixtape’s lead track, “Feed the Streets.”

Meanwhile, Rice reached out to his colleague Toki Wright,[note]No relation to Ashley Wright[/note] an award-winning recording artist and McNally Smith’s hip-hop department program coordinator. Toki was teaching a class called “The Language of Rap and Spoken Word,” and the two men agreed that the students could be perfect for Watch the Stove.

Rice and Toki presented the idea to the students. When Dwayne Holt first heard the ask, his initial reaction was: “They want what?” To the 23-year-old rapper, who goes by Illwin onstage, this felt like selling out. The other students felt similarly. Their teachers emphatically told them not to discount the chance to have their talent heard.

Those who decided to participate were paired up and given contracts to sign; it slowly dawned on them that this was a serious opportunity. By December, they were ready to pitch rough cuts of their songs to the Hamburger Helper team.

“I don’t think the students understood how much they were getting themselves into until we showed up at General Mills,” Toki said. “They call it the General Mills compound because it’s like its own city. They had to go through security checkpoints and were finally brought into this large room with twenty-foot-high ceilings and gigantic screens.”

All three songs the students pitched that day—“Crazy,” “Food for Your Soul,” and “In Love with the Glove”—made it onto the mixtape, with minimal edits.

Niles Stewart was the last to sign on. Miller had been a Retro Spectro fan for years and realized his tone might work for the mixtape after hearing his February release of “Chicken Nugget.” So she reached out on Twitter. At first, Stewart thought it was a joke and didn’t respond; it took an email to Stewart’s manager for him to realize it was serious.

Like the other artists, he remained wary that General Mills would want him to write a corporate jingle. And like the other artists, he embraced the idea of creative freedom without corporate shackles. The only edit he ended up receiving on his track “Hamburger Helper” was to remove a line with a middle-finger reference.

“It was pretty close to actual profanity,” Stewart said with a laugh. “I was just like, ‘Yeah, alright.'”

On the day of the drop, Miller woke up in her Minneapolis apartment, sat down at her computer, and set a playlist on SoundCloud to public. Then, like any other Friday morning, she went to work.

The General Mills team gathered in an office conference room. For an hour, they waited. It’s cool, it’s cool, they told each other. It’ll take off. Miller obsessively checked Twitter. Nothing happened.

Then it caught on and didn’t stop. The social mentions started to flood to the point that it was impossible to read one before another took its place. Soon after, Watch the Stove was the top-trending topic on Twitter.

The conference room erupted, standing on chairs, spinning around the room, high-fiving, and debating the merits of sneaking celebratory beers into the office before noon.

Before the release, Miller had been hoping for a baseline of 1,000 retweets and “some conversation.” The tweet announcing the mixtape currently has more than 16,000 retweets; the tracks on the mixtape have now combined for almost 9 million plays and counting. The team even hired a PR agency just for this project and sent media pitches to Complex Magazine and a few other outlets. Not a single publication responded. They all thought it was an April Fools’ joke.

Once Watch the Stove went viral, however, everyone started writing about it: TimeBuzzFeedBillboard, and more. Every publication had the same reaction as the listeners and the artists themselves: initial laughter, followed by a slow realization that there was actual substance here. Toki Wright described the path to success as equal parts platform and content—plenty of huge ad campaigns fail because the content just isn’t good enough, and plenty of great songs gather dust on SoundCloud because nobody knows how to find them.

“That’s what’s funny about all the articles that people are writing,” Miller said. “It’s such a millennial thing. You want to find it cool before the news media finds it cool.”

Image by Judy Wong

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