BY LALAI MANJIKIAN
Special to Asbarez
For more than 14 years, Saro Derbedrossian, who goes by the name of Saro D, has been diligently building one of the biggest music platforms on the internet today. This digital publication called HotNewHipHop (HNHH) has become an internationally recognized force in the hip-hop world and in the music industry at large.
Saro D was born in Beirut before the start of the Lebanese civil war and grew up against the backdrop of conflict, until he immigrated to Montreal, Canada. After completing an MBA degree in Montreal, he was eager to find opportunities to apply his entrepreneurial skills and relentless drive. With his love of the Internet and music colliding, he was able to take a simple website to new heights, as the growth of HNHH also coincided with hip-hop’s rise as the dominant music genre.
Today, HNHH is the place where millions of people around the world turn to for news, music, and trends, all linked to hip-hop culture. Currently, HNHH averages over 12 million unique visitors a month, with 80 percent of them from the United States & Canada and boasts a social media footprint of over 3.5 million followers across all channels. Though the company is based in Montreal, HNHH has an office in New York City and a creative space in Los Angeles.
Not only is Saro D a successful entrepreneur, but he also manages to stay active in the Armenian community, as a committed advocate for the Armenian Cause (Hay Tad). His Armenian background and his deep involvement in community activism, whether for genocide recognition or Artsakh, has only heightened his sensitivity vis-à-vis racism in general and the Black Lives Matter Movement.
I interviewed Saro D to learn more about how he developed and grew HNHH into the digital publication that it is today, and to find out more about his overlapping entrepreneurial and personal trajectories.
Saro is an example that Armenians are builders, whether that is building an online lifestyle publication from the ground up or (re)building a stronger Armenia.
LALAI MANJIKIAN: Can you take us back to when, and how, this start-up was born? Can you describe what your role has been in HNHH’s development over the years?
SARO DERBEDROSSIAN: It started as a personal thing. My entrepreneurial drive, the fire I had in me, pushed me to do something on my own. When I was thinking of “where” and “what” I wanted to do alone, at the time, I was fascinated by the Internet, we’re talking about 2007. The Internet was going crazy back then. It really didn’t matter what the project was, as long as I was working on a business involving the Internet. I came from a background of operations and manufacturing, which is pretty traditional. I was really looking forward to being in a very exciting venture. Once I knew that I wanted to start something on the Internet, the music aspect came later.
L.M: The start of your website happened to coincide with a time when music was transitioning from physical to digital. The way we consume music has changed drastically over the last decade, and it is precisely during these past ten years that HNHH has emerged and evolved.
S.D: Exactly! In the beginning, HNHH started by being a simple page where we curated music. It was a compilation of daily music that we, ourselves, liked. We said, you know what, instead of you going and looking everywhere for music, you can come here, where we are giving you a highly curated daily list of songs and we were rating them. So, there was an editorial element. We were saying, “this is HOTTTTT”, “this is VERY HOTTTTT” and this ranking system became an iconic thing for HNHH.
L.M: HNHH carved its place then, initially through music curation, but now it has expanded to tackle hip-hop news and other topics adjacent to the culture. How did this transition take place?
S.D: We decided that HotNewHipHop has to be a publication, as opposed to just a website, or a blog page. I don’t have any background in publication, and I don’t have editorial experience, but because I had worked in operations, I had a lot of experience in how to operate a business. I started realizing that we should have an editorial team. We should have someone writing news, someone who’s writing features. That’s when I started hiring journalists, who know exactly how things are done, people who have writing skills. We started putting these people together, who also have a lot of knowledge in hip hop, referred to as “hip hop heads.” As much as I love music, there are people who really know this stuff, they know it by date, the history, etc. So, that is how we started growing the content type. We realized, instead of focusing on the content let’s focus on the audience.
L.M: Can you address who your target audience is on HNHH?
S.M.: Our audience is made predominantly of millennials, who are 18-34 years old. The majority of people visiting the site are 21, 22, 23-year-olds. These are people who not only love to hear hip hop music, they are also active within the culture. A lot of current aspects of pop culture are influenced by hip hop. We went from being the “underdog” of music genres, to really a worldwide cultural phenomenon. We realized that we should cover other aspects of the culture, besides just the music. If you are coming to listen to the music or coming to know what are the top songs of that day, you also come to see what happened that day in the world of professional basketball, like did something funny happen yesterday during the Laker’s game?
L.M.: Can you give us a sense of the role HNHH plays in introducing and determining trends in hip hop culture? To some degree you are calling the shots, by telling your audience what’s hot and what’s not.
S.D.: I am not going to call it our forte, our specialty, but I guess the name of the game is creating content. Most of the news that we break is through interviews. That’s the type of news we like to break.
We also focus on finding new talent.
We focus a lot on new artists. We have a team taking care of that, we have music submission systems, and we also go and look for artists.
We try to stay true to our name. The content has to be “hot”, in the sense that, we want to serve it to our audience quickly, but it also has to be culturally relevant and important. We want to be the first ones to break the news, and then also, when something interests us, we report it. We publish anywhere between 100-125 articles, pieces of news, information a day. We have different segments on YouTube weekly. We also have a social media team who creates content specifically for our social media channels, Facebook, and Instagram. The content is not necessarily the same, they don’t intersect. Our audience on Instagram consumes news differently than our audience on the website.
L.M: HNHH has been instrumental particularly in featuring new, as well as established hip hop artists. Can you describe the role HNHH has played and continues to play in launching new artists’ careers?
S.D.: I wouldn’t credit ourselves saying we launch artists’ careers. We give them the platform; it is up to them to make the most out of it.
Many artists have gone through HNHH, but one or two that became really big via our exclusive support early on, would be Tory Lanez, Canadian R&B/Hip-Hop artist. Tyga would be another one. Wiz Khalifa would be another one. We’ve launched his first mixtape. The Weeknd also is another one. We have a good relationship with The Weeknd’s management team and have premiered exclusive singles from him.
L.M: I would like to address the #BlackLivesMatter movement and how it too connects to HNHH. How has HNHH addressed anti-Black racism over the years and particularly now, with the rise of racist rhetoric and with systemic racism becoming more exposed?
S.D: It all comes from the internal culture. Every time something big happens, we have covered it. We are not a political website, true. However, anything that happens in the world that affects the culture, we definitely are there, we cover it. Personally, I am very sensitive to these issues. Sometimes, I am the one pushing, because I am an activist as a person, as an Armenian. I feel like anytime a community, a population is going through a crisis, something is activated in me and tells me that we have to do something, we have to talk about it.
Obviously, I am not black, but sometimes, I really feel what they go through. For the past 14 years, I have been working day in and day out with people of all races.
L.M: HNHH has plans to open a creative space in Los Angeles, can you talk to us about this project, what the space will encompass and where this project currently stands?
S.D: The whole idea is about creating content. As a digital publication, besides text-based content, we also need to produce video content, visuals, photos and audio. Initially, we were very successful in creating a creative space in NYC. However, while we wanted to go to NYC because of its deep history with hip-hop, we realized many rappers had moved to LA. With all the talent that LA and Hollywood both have, as well as the visual creation industry that is based there, we felt like we would be in a good position to move out there. So we kept our offices in NYC, and we went out and got a space in LA as well. We signed the lease in February, and unfortunately everything was closed down in March, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a beautiful space in Burbank, it is near other visual creators, musical studios, Disney and all that. The idea is to have many small studios, each one catering to a different video series for our YouTube channel. We also plan to have a recording studio – I also own a record label called Nomad Music. We manage artists, we sign artists for record deals. So, the idea is to have our own artists go there as well, to produce, and record songs in that space.
L.M: Can you tell us a bit about your personal trajectory, both in life and in business?
Have you always had entrepreneurial ambitions?
S.D: I was born in Beirut, and I grew up in Beirut. I was born just before the (Lebanese civil) war, and I came to Canada shortly after the war ended. So, I have seen it all in Lebanon. I went to Neshan Palandjian Djereman in Beirut, and I also attended university in Lebanon, Université St-Joseph, majoring in Economics. After graduating, I wanted to come to Canada, but I had a year in between, waiting for immigration acceptance. During that year, I taught Math at Djemaran. After finally arriving in Canada, I did my MBA at Concordia University and then found a job.
So, the entrepreneurial thing, I don’t know exactly, is it genetic? Or is it my personality? My father was a businessman, and I always went to his office. I was inspired by my father, he was a very creative businessman, he was a “big ideas” man. “Big ideas” which we have to be able to do, make them concrete. My father inspired me to think big, to dream big. But I think my personality also plays a role. The war, and the fact that we did not have a normal childhood. We grew up around bombardments, military cannons and army bases, it was chaotic. Nonetheless, I had a great childhood, I was born into a great family, but the environment was so rough, so tough, and violent.
On top of the war, there was this Armenian education, to remain Armenian, I am not going to say indoctrinated, but we were brought up being “very Armenian.” We are talking a period of time that was post-genocide, pre-Artaskh. As an Armenian, there was a struggle, as a Lebanese, there was a struggle, as a student, as a person, there was always a struggle, to try to make up for what we lost.
L.M: I think it is safe to say that you were in survival mode but wanted to go into “thrive mode.”
S.D: Exactly. So, when I came to Canada, my thinking was that, you know what, I have to prove to myself that I am able to achieve something. Basically, we went through all that, and, now, are we good for something? Can we do something?
L.M: Besides being a successful entrepreneur, you have also been a relentless advocate for the Armenian Cause (Hay Tad) for several years. Can you talk about this aspect and what the Armenian Cause means to you, particularly in light of the recent war that took place in Artsakh?
S.D: Hay Tad is on a personal level. It’s my life. Hay Tad is the most important thing we have outside of Armenia. It is advocating for Armenia in the diaspora. I feel like it’s the most important mission any Armenian should be devoted to, outside of Armenia. Besides educating our kids and keeping the culture, we need to make sure that Armenia, as a country, as a state, becomes stronger. Hay Tad is important, it means activism outside of Armenia.
As for the war, not only did we lose the war, but we are going through turmoil within the country. Armenia should have never gone to war. Armenia should have defended Artsakh, Artsakh is the cornerstone of everything we have, we lost it. I am very worried.
We went to war; the loss of life is tremendous. I don’t know how to put it. It ruins you from the inside. The aftermath is also very ugly. There is no loss without an aftermath of sorrow, of sadness, people not understanding, of political turmoil. However, I also feel that we have the strength as a nation to stand on our feet again.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.