The shoe fits: Posner, like many popular hip-hop artists, trades on his image to help sell clothing. Here, on photo shoot for LRG, a small, California-based company. Quang Le
The shoe fits: Posner, like many popular hip-hop artists, trades on his image to help sell clothing. Here, on photo shoot for LRG, a small, California-based company. Quang Le

Remix, Record, Release

Pop musician and Duke senior Mike Posner has gone viral
October 1, 2009

Search for "Mike Posner LDOC" on YouTube. Find it, and you'll see an out-of-focus video clip that opens with a crowd of students crammed onto Duke's main West Campus quad. Then, the camera, held by someone on stage, turns to the right and rests on Mike Posner and his collaborator, rapper Big Sean. They start into a song, and the crowd is feeling it, singing along with "Smoke and Drive," a hit from Posner's recently released CD. It's a favorite for the students who have gathered to celebrate the spring semester's Last Day of Classes.

Standing toward the back of the crowd is 9th Wonder, a Grammy-Award winning hip-hop producer, the hip-hop ambassador for the NAACP, and a lecturer in hip-hop history at North Carolina Central University. A couple of days later, Posner (pronounced POSE-ner) will be in his studio laying down tracks for Washington-area rapper Wale's new mixtape, Back to the Feature, which 9th Wonder is producing. He watches as Posner warns the audience that his time is nearly up, then asks them whether they want to hear one more song. Cheers erupt.

Posner and Big Sean launch into "Cooler Than Me," perhaps the biggest hit of Posner's brief career. Imploring a young woman to abandon her stuck-up ways, the song was the top free download on Apple's iTunes U website in early March. Its catchy beat and universally recognizable narrative theme have made it immensely popular on college campuses across the country.

"I was impressed," 9th Wonder says. "People want to hear something different, and he has a different sound. I think he's gonna stick out like a sore thumb," which is not a bad thing in today's crowded music scene. The rest of the video clip bears out his observation. After the first few bars of "Cooler Than Me," the sound engineer turns off the speakers, and, as if nothing has happened, the crowd continues to sing along for nearly a minute more. They know every word.

It's tempting to characterize this moment as something of a culmination for Posner, who began making hip-hop beats in his suburban Detroit bedroom at thirteen. But he doesn't view it that way at all. His moves are deliberate, and, while he admits to taking a few moments to enjoy his success, he is quickly on to the next step. After recording his parts in 9th Wonder's Durham studio, he boarded a plane to New York to meet with Jay-Z, arguably the most powerful man in hip-hop. The two spent hours discussing a possible record deal. Posner ultimately decided to sign with J Records, a subsidiary label of Sony Music Entertainment, in July and will release his first commercial album early next year.

This means that a little more than a year after beginning to perform and promote his own songs, Mike Posner, Class of 2010,  is on his way to becoming a major recording artist while still an undergraduate. His ascent is owing to a convergence of forces—available technology, resources on campus, and a changing music industry among them—combined with a creative drive that makes him eschew socializing in favor of late nights in his dorm room, working on beats. He is a self-described white kid from the suburbs who produces and performs music that many classify as hip-hop, though Posner prefers "pop," because it is more inclusive. He views his work as a bridge between members of his increasingly postracial generation. Mike Posner, confident in his abilities, has gone viral—and if you asked him, he'd say it was merely a matter of time.

Posner remembers wondering, one day in his early teens, where the musical tracks or "beats" playing behind the lyrics in hip-hop songs came from. Soon after, his parents bought him a keyboard, and he was online, soliciting advice on how to go about producing beats. In hip-hop music, more often than not, a rapper does not compose his own beats. They come from a producer, who draws on various musical traditions—generally R&B, soul, funk, and other hip-hop —and mixes together the instrumental track, which the rapper then uses as a backdrop to writing and performing his lyrics.

Crowd pleaser: Posner performs at a concert on the last day of classes, left, with rapper and friend Big Sean.

Crowd pleaser: Posner performs at a concert on the last day of classes, left, with rapper and friend Big Sean. Lawson Kurtz / The Chronicle

Posner acknowledges that this wasn't the most ordinary teenage fascination, but with his parents' support, he began to teach himself all he could about hip-hop. He went to a lot of concerts, spent time reading hip-hop blogs, hung out with other hip-hop fans, and eventually began producing tracks of his own for unsigned rappers—those without record deals—he'd met on the Internet. But he never thought of it as a business; it was just a hobby.

Fast forward to Duke. Posner decided to major in sociology and earn a certificate in markets and management studies. He was still producing beats, sometimes for up-and-coming rappers. He won a few student hip-hop competitions and made contact with industry insiders, who gave him free software so he could produce more songs. He says he grew increasingly weary at not hearing the kind of music he wanted to listen to on the radio and of having to channel his talents through others. "I could only hear me performing my lyrics," he says.

So, he decided to simplify the process—he would make the beat, write the song, and perform it himself. The summer before he came to Duke, he had an internship at Detroit's Hot 102.7 FM, which included the opportunity to sing on the air. The experience gave him the confidence he needed to start putting his songs out in public. (At 102.7, he also met collaborator Big Sean, who is from a rough Detroit neighborhood and who Posner considers one of his best friends.)

In 2008, at the start of his junior year, he assembled a crew of musicians, including vocalist Eric Hölljes '09, then a senior, and instrumentalist Jeffery Oh, a sophomore, and set about making what, in the world of hip-hop, is called a mixtape. In March, he released twelve songs, seven original compositions and five covers (his take on another artist's song) that highlight the diversity of his musical background—pop idol Beyoncé's "Halo," rapper Gorilla Zoe's "Lost," funk guitarist Keziah Jones' "Pleasure Is Kisses," '70s rock act ELO's "Evil Woman," and current pop/rock band The Fray's "Over My Head." Posner says that Evan Bogart, who cowrote "Halo," a Billboard Top-Ten hit, reached out to him after the mixtape was released. They collaborated on a number of songs over the summer.

Mixtapes are traditionally distributed free of charge and are used to generate hype for an eventual commercial release. They originated in the early '80s along with the rise of hip-hop, as releases for hard-core fans, but are now an important aspect of hip-hop marketing. Almost all major hip-hop acts release mixtapes. (Posner prefers the pop-music term "CD.") "Right now, everybody has a mixtape, everybody," says 9th Wonder, the producer. "But only the people who have names stick out."

That's why, as a relative unknown, Posner decided to choose a slightly different path. He gave live performances on a handful of college campuses while producing and recording most of his first CD, A Matter of Time, in his West Campus dorm room. He occasionally worked in the Duke University Union's Small Town Records studio but says he preferred spending long evenings perfecting his songs alone. When he finished the CD, members of the staff of Duke's Office of Information Technology helped him upload his music to Duke's iTunes U site.

 Born out of a partnership between Apple's iTunes Store, a major digital retailer of audio and video content, and research universities like Duke and Stanford, iTunes U provides a place for members of the university community to make educational material available to the general public free of charge. Because of its near ubiquity on college campuses, the iTunes software is something students are accustomed to using to download music. (Outside university communities, when artists want to provide free content online, they often turn to file-hosting websites like zShare, which can be confusing to novices.) A Matter of Time was released on iTunes U on March 1, and within a week, "Cooler Than Me" had shot to the top spot among free downloads, beating out the closest competitor, President Obama's inaugural address.

Crowd pleaser: Posner performs at a concert on the last day of classes.

Crowd pleaser: Posner performs at a concert on the last day of classes. Lawson Kurtz / The Chronicle.

Posner says that friends at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University passed his music around to their friends. From there, and from the other campuses where he'd played live shows, his songs kept spreading to others in the highly coveted college-student demographic. "It was a planned tactic," he says of the iTunes U release. "I knew that this was going to be a bigger venue."

Music-making technology has changed dramatically since Posner began making beats less than a decade ago. As recently as five years ago, he says, "you'd have to buy a whole piece of hardware" to duplicate just one aspect of one of today's computer programs. Now, with a keyboard and a couple of laptops, he can record, mix, and publish his music, dramatically reducing his costs.  The changes have called into question the very definition of music. Instruments are still present in Posner's work. But so is software that can create a nearly limitless number of synthesized sounds, making the computer an instrument in its own right.

In effect, Posner's music can travel directly from his imagination into his computer and then to a listener's iPod without ever having to leave a digital setting. This, together with the increase in the numbers of people who can produce and publish music on their own, spells major changes for a music industry that has relied on earning massive revenue from selling vinyl records, cassette tapes, and CDs for the past half-century. "The days of the record companies totally controlling what we like are over," Posner says. "The people dictate more than ever what gets popular, what gets signed, and what ultimately becomes mainstream. The people found me first."

The Internet, with its profusion of music outlets, fragments audiences, 9th Wonder says, by sending listeners directly to content that they will like. There is no single dominant media outlet: "It's not like we're all sitting around watching television anymore," he says. Blogs are key elements in generating popularity in the hip-hop community, and Posner has garnered praise there, as well. He has been mentioned on hip-hop superstar Kanye West's blog and other high-traffic, highly read and regarded websites like Nah Right and 2dopeboyz.com.

Posner and his live band, The Brain Trust, are teaming up with his manager to put together an ambitious touring schedule and marketing rollout in the coming months. He will release another mixtape in the fall and plans to tour on weekends between studying for midterms and writing essays. The terms of his record deal haven't been released, and he is staying mum, but says he is committed to graduating from Duke before dedicating himself to his music full time. He sees his involvement in the music industry as an evolving process. He would like to continue performing for a while longer but eventually hopes to parlay his popularity into a career as a producer.

In the meantime, while the age of pop superstars is likely on the way out, Posner the performer has come to define pop music in its original sense—music that would be popular with many different audiences. He rejects being pigeonholed into the hip-hop genre, preferring to see it as an influence alongside others, like the classic-rock background he was steeped in while growing up. Instead of carving out a niche for himself, he is trying to expand his audience to include a wide range of ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

"My music is going to put different people in the same room," Posner says. "I'm forcing a discussion."

Over winter break during his junior year, just a few short months before his music took off and his career was jolted into high gear, Posner played his hometown venue, the Majestic Theater in Detroit. As a teenager, he says, "I'd been to a lot of shows there where I was the only white guy."

Playing on the same bill with Big Sean, he could tell something special was about to happen with his music when he peeked out from backstage. A diverse crowd, half black and half white, gathered and mingled in the same room. "This is a beautiful thing," Posner says, "and I hope I can continue to do it."