Author’s note: Read part 2 of this investigation here. I encourage readers to do independent research and utilize the links provided herein to read and hear testimonies from indie artists who feel defrauded by this company’s alleged scheme.
On September 13, Aaron “ThatKidCry” Nash — a rapper and promoter from Oregon — received a direct message from the Instagram account of superstar rapper Redman. The day before, the verified Instagram account of Redman’s posted a [now deleted] call-to-action, telling followers “DM me if you rap.” A friend of Nash’s tagged him in the comments, and Nash DMed a link to his latest music video, “Bare Necessities.” Astonishingly, Nash got a response.
“The views don’t match up with the talent bro. I got some things I’m workin on that you might be interested in if you ready to work and invest in yo self,” the first message said. “I’m puttin out this Spotify premium project that I’m hosting let’s get u on it. Goin on Spotify playlist so u can make $$ off the streams $500 and u in there. If u got bigger budget let’s talk bigger moves and build.”
This was an incredible opportunity. For $500, Nash could buy himself a slot on a project hosted and promoted by an artist with millions of followers.
Imagine the excitement. You, an unsigned, independent artist whose passion and talent for music has been recognized by a rap icon, have earned a chance to appear on a verified artist Spotify account with millions of followers, an opportunity translating into untold numbers of streams, new fans and revenue shares. Nash jumped at the chance and scraped together $500 from a family savings account. He was ordered to send two payments of $250 to two different CashApp accounts.
Once the payments were sent, he was asked to fill out a form including his full name and phone number. The Redman account then sent a message saying “follow @DaBlock365.”
The business transaction was complete and Nash basked in his excitement. He sent a screenshot of his communication with the Redman account to his partner and for some reason — let’s call it divine feminine intuition — she looked up this company going by “Da Block 365.” For a week, he dove headfirst into a proverbial rabbit hole, discovering a widely-circulated Twitter thread from DJ Booth’s Editor-in-Chief Brian “Z” Zisook, published back in June. In that thread, he made it clear that, at least from what he gathered, this company’s operations weren’t necessarily illegal. “Technically, the DaBlock365 business model isn’t a total scam. These young artists are paying for mixtape placements and they are receiving mixtape placements. They just hold 0 value.” Click here for the full thread.
Further research led Nash to find out that others like him were accusing the company — through the use of verified accounts of established hip-hop artists — of charging them for promises not kept. Once Nash began to poke around more, he began messaging the Redman account with his concerns. Eventually, the Redman account blocked him.
According to Nash, he began uncovering the alleged identities of the people operating the company. In a Facebook video, Nash leads viewers through a compelling investigation, using publicly available information to trace the Instagram account of Da Block 365 to two specific individuals. Click here to watch the video.
I’m not naming those individuals here, but it’s worth mentioning that in his research, Nash was able to identify one of the alleged operators of the company as having been charged with fraud in an unrelated case. You can read up on that, here.
It wasn’t long before Nash got a phone call from one of the alleged operators of Da Block 365. The man calling him admitted that, yes, he had worked for the company in the past. But he was adamant that he was no longer involved. But then something even more curious happened. The man offered to send Nash the $500 he had previously sent in the aforementioned exchange with the Redman Instagram account, if Nash agreed to remove the man’s name from that Facebook post. Indeed, Nash did as requested and received the money. Naturally, the man’s offer to pay him the $500 appears to be confirmation of his involvement. Why would an innocent and/or uninvolved party hand over $500 so freely to clear his name?
Nash’s story is not anecdotal. Accusations have become so prevalent that an entire Instagram account going by “rap.ponzischeme” was created to collect screenshots and videos detailing the experiences of the accusers, as well as statements made by the established artists seemingly involved/partnered with the company. Included therein are accusations not only of fraud, but of doxxing and threats. I cannot urge readers enough to visit that account to learn more about the intriguing, complex and sometimes scary details of what’s really happening.
In the weeks since going public, Nash has become one of the more vocal artists accusing the company of fraud. Through a publicly available collection of posts, Nash’s Facebook page published some of the most important pieces of “evidence.” He has become so convinced of the company’s fraudulent behavior that he’s filed an official complaint with the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
The worst part of the ordeal, Nash says, is the use of verified artist accounts to convince unwitting artists to send money. “All these [independent] artists think they’re really talking to the [established artists]. You can see how they’re being tricked, and they share these messages and they don’t even realize that they are copy-and-pasted messages. There are all these accounts with matching messages — like they have a script. It’s really discouraging that they’re preying on this aspect of us. I felt like I needed to warn people. When I made that post that was my intention, to warn people about all this.”
I want to make it clear that Redman is not the only well-known rapper to be associated with this company. The list includes Fat Joe, The Game, Jadakiss, Shad Moss (fka Bow Wow), and many more. Redman has since deleted posts associated with the alleged scam. A message to a representative asking for comment went unanswered.
I also want to reiterate here that it is unclear how involved these established artists are with the company. Some have publicly endorsed the company, while others have remained silent. Attempts to get some of those artists on the record have been fruitless. I contacted Da Block 365 directly, asking for comment. I’ve received no responses to my questions, which include:
How involved are these established artists? What exactly are the independent artists investing in?
My hope is, through this piece, mainstream media outlets will be encouraged to investigate this further — or hire me to do so. There is so much information out there, there are so many accusations, so many screenshots, so many videos, so many coincidences, so many trails of evidence.
Let’s be clear. Pay-for-play is not new. This company’s business model of offering placements on projects in exchange for money is not reinventing the wheel. In past eras, artists commonly paid money to appear on official mixtapes on cassette and CD. The same goes for official mixtapes on digital platforms. By and large, those mixtapes were hosted by a well-known, established DJ and got radio play.
Nash continues. “They’re preying on something that’s supposed to be sacred, something you’re not supposed to touch. They’re doing it in a way without contracts where they’ve been able to cover it up for a long time. Ten years maybe, maybe more. In the past, you’d get a DJ to play your music and spin it in a club and it’s a famous DJ. But that’s not what’s happening [in this case]. That’s what it should be like. They should be sharing it. If they’re putting a mixtape out with their face on the cover and one track of yours is on the intro and they’re hosting it, why haven’t they shared it to their page? Sharing it to a Story is what they do to shut people up. They follow you to shut people up. They comment on your post to shut people up. I’ve talked to rappers with kind of a Stockholm Syndrome thing going on. You show them everything, all the information, and it kind of depends on if you care about your own self and your music, or your peers and your community. The ones who care about themselves are kind of stuck in it, like it’s a mental thing. I feel bad for them and I feel bad arguing with them because they are arguing for someone who is a scumbag and is taking advantage of people’s feelings.”
When I ask him why he thinks what the company is doing is an actual scam, this is what Nash tells me:
“When a famous artist says I’m going to be featured on their Spotify page, that implies marketing because their Spotify has millions of followers, right? That implies marketing because I think I’m going to get a revenue share because I understand Spotify and how you can get on somebody’s Spotify by being a feature of theirs and they accept you as a revenue share. They give you a percentage of the share, and when they e-mail you and you accept a percentage of that stream, you’re a part of that track and you’re now on their channel and they’re on your channel and you share it, it’s like cross promoting. I’ve done that before with people and I’ve seen people blow up because of it. So I thought, ‘I’m going to give this guy $500 to be on the bottom of his Spotify, in the playlists, and millions of people are going to see me.’ I was thinking that, and I’m not stupid, and I was also starstruck. Those things combined led me to believe it was a good business deal. There are levels to how wrapped up in it you are mentally.”
To find out more about the digital marketing, social media and streaming-related aspects of Da Block 365’s alleged fraud, I spoke with Minx Couture, a podcaster, radio host, social-media marketer and artist advocate. The Bronx-based woman comes from a lineage of hip-hop stock, including her father who was a member of the Force MDs. She’s spent years working to support independent artists in their careers and, like Nash, has become one of the most outspoken critics of what she says is definitely a scam.
“At the beginning of my journey of podcasting I wanted to understand marketing and social media marketing better. I deal with a lot of black hat tools as well as white hats tools.”
Let’s pause for a moment. I didn’t know what she was talking about so here are some definitions courtesy of Wikipedia for those who are likewise unclear:
The term “white hat” in Internet slang refers to an ethical computer hacker, or a computer security expert, who specializes in penetration testing and in other testing methodologies that ensures the security of an organization’s information systems.
A black hat hacker (or black-hat hacker) is a hacker who violates computer security for personal gain or malice.
OK. Back to her story.
“I’m pretty familiar with what is available for anyone, and when I say anyone, I mean anybody can start a marketing service to be fruitful if they’re using the tools in a positive way, or they can use it in their own personal gain way. So based on the model that I’m seeing, just reviewing how things are posted, I can tell that it’s robotic, that it’s automatic.” She’s referring to the nature in which the independent artists are being contacted by what appears to be the verified accounts of the established rappers. She says she can tell the company is using what’s called “scraping” which — according to Imperva — is “the process of using bots to extract content and data from a website,” usually by a digital business which relies on data harvesting to operate. More specifically, she says this is how the company is able to access multiple verified accounts simultaneously and send those “robotic,” “automatic” messages to thousands of targets. She says the company is also likely using software to inflate the numbers of followers it has, as well as the amount of plays its playlists have.
“There’s a [Da Block 365] playlist with 53 followers. The artist who was on that playlist sent me the screenshot of their analytics showing 23,000 streams and I’m thinking [Da Block 365] must be botting at that point. If you’re a marketing company, you have access to that. You have access to inflating streams and even if they wanted to pose as a real marketing company, why didn’t they also inflate the amount of people that were following the playlist? You can fake that, too. So in a sense they were very sloppy in organizing all of this, they were very sloppy in trying to have the perception as if this was a legitimate marketing promotion situation.”
She explains even further how this process works on Spotify. “If you have Spotify for Artists and you click on your data that’s being gathered, it will show you the playlists that you’re on. It shows the actual numbers, who’s actually playing it at that time. It’ll break it down from the analytics as to where they are playing it from.” She says that, when artists who ask for streaming analytics from accounts associated with Da Block 365, the screenshots don’t include data about where the streams are coming from, geographically. “If this is a legitimate playlist, that IP address would not be stuck in one location like Tucson, Arizona,” she argues. “It’s gonna be spread out to 50, 60 places worldwide. That’s the data that we need to prove.” In theory, a black-hat hacker could purchase software allowing them to own thousands of active Spotify accounts in an effort to boost streaming numbers, she says. But the IP address would likely remain the same.
“A lot of fake marketing companies are utilizing these services. They’re definitely faking the numbers. You can tell streams are fake when they’re round numbers. You’ll never have 20,000, you’ll have like 17,023. These artists are coming to me with screenshots of analytics showing round numbers,” she says.
Minx reached out to Spotify directly to find out their policy on allowing pay-for-play on their playlists. “I said, ‘How is it that you guys are actually allowing companies and people to use your playlisting service to charge people for slots? Is that not like payola?’” She says the company messaged her right away, asking for more specifics. Minx provided them with the requested information including proof of CashApp transactions and was told the Spotify team would be looking into it. It’s worth mentioning I reached out to the SpotifyCares Twitter account, alerting them to the fact I was working on this story and whether I could speak to someone for an official statement. My request has thus far gone unanswered.
Like Nash and the countless others alleged victims who feel scammed, Minx says what’s at play here is not just legally questionable but also ethically deplorable. She says the behavior that Da Block 365 has practiced in the face of accusations may be the most resounding proof of its culpability. “I do fear for our safety. I fear for my family, but I just told a couple of people that have been getting threats that we have to stay vigilant. The company’s intimidation tactics, like leaking addresses online, have people backing out in fear. They don’t want to come forward anymore, people who have given us phenomenal information. They’re living in fear right now. They won’t even leave their house because they’re afraid someone is going to hurt them. But me, I’m not scared. I’m from the Bronx. My passion is in this. I even gave up my own music to educate artists. I gave up chasing my dream to help others chase theirs the right way.
“Hip-hop is dead. Hip-hop did die. It died this summer, because of these scams that went around like crazy. But what happens after death is rebirth and strengthening of our spirit in the music. Because we are here for the music.”
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