Nearly a decade ago, Tim Hinshaw, currently the Head of Hip-Hop and R&B at Amazon Music, was one of the few Black executives working in entertainment marketing at Vans. On the Compton native’s first day with the skatewear brand, he reconnected with fellow Southern Californian and then-Vans ambassador Tyler, the Creator. He previously met the rapper sometime before starting his new gig.
“Yo, y’all hired a ni**a?!” Tyler exclaimed as he spotted Hinshaw in a meeting at South by Southwest, encouraged by seeing a familiar Black face at the festival alongside an otherwise all-white group of colleagues.
“You know how T is,” Hinshaw tells VIBE at Dreamville Festival 2022. Amazon Music is onsite as the event’s official livestream partner. “People didn’t know how to react, but I understood what he was trying to say. That stamp really helped me as an executive [in] corporate America.”
Not long after that reunion, the two men got to work on what they hoped would be a fruitful collaboration. Hinshaw’s original plan, workshopped with Tyler and his managers Chris and Kelly Clancy, was conceptually simple but logistically elaborate. Sponsored by Vans, the Odd Future rapper was to headline three different shows in three different cities all on the same day. Per Hinshaw’s vision, Tyler would perform in New York and then jet to a show in London before making his final stop in his home city of Los Angeles, aided by an eight-hour time difference between the latter two cities.
For reasons unknown, Tyler and Hinshaw’s daylong Vans tour never came to fruition. But the idea of a three-city activation stuck with the multi-hyphenate performer long enough for him to revisit it once Hinshaw landed at Amazon Music. In late June 2021, fresh off the release of his Call Me If You Get Lost album, Tyler embarked on a cross-country trek that made its first two stops (on separate dates) in L.A. and Dallas. In each city, he tested material from his eventual Grammy-winning album that had just hit streaming platforms days before.
“I honestly am doing these small little shows because I just miss being around f**king humans,” Tyler confessed to one of the crowds. “I wanted to practice and just see what the f**k y’all react to. I don’t know what songs ni**as like off [the album].”
The mini-tour ended with a show in New York that was broadcasted live on Amazon Music’s Twitch channel. Presenting the hour-long performance on July 1, 2021, the service officially entered the Hip-Hop livestream business.
Before these streamed shows, Amazon Music’s relationship with Hip-Hop looked similar to that of its competitors. Rotation, the service’s flagship brand for Black music, curates Hip-Hop and R&B playlists that rival Spotify’s Rap Caviar and come with equally dazzling billboards in Times Square and other out-of-home hotspots. And like Apple Music’s relationship with on-air journalist Nadeska Alexis and Spotify’s platforming of Joe Budden and DJ Akademiks, Amazon also has a partnership with an ex-Everyday Struggle host in the form of Connected with Wayno. But broadcasting entire shows for fans at home who might not be able to keep up with the rising cost of concert tickets speaks to a more profound commitment to the culture.
All roads to how Amazon Music became a home for Hip-Hop livestreams lead back to Tim Hinshaw and his ability to relate to artists and executives alike. Tyler’s Call Me If You Get Lost pop-up proved megastars and corporate giants could co-create a sense of intimacy, as the show was streamed from a small music hall in Brooklyn a year before Tyler would perform the album at Madison Square Garden.
Soon thereafter, decision-makers from labels like LVRN and Dreamville came calling for similar collaborations, but not before the most creative and chaotic force in modern music—Kanye West.
In November 2021, Hinshaw, along with the rest of the world, was surprised to learn through a J. Prince tweet that Kanye West and Drake would reunite that December at the Free Larry Hoover Benefit Concert for the first time since their 2018 feud. Livestream negotiations between Amazon and West’s team didn’t last longer than a few days before Ye, ever impatient, abruptly called Hinshaw to expedite the process.
“In the midst of all that, Kanye calls me. [Amazon] was in the middle of going back and forth and negotiating, but he was already sold,” Hinshaw says. “Just having a conversation and being upfront with him, I think he respects people who are real and know how to talk—we were able to get the deal done in like two days.”
Within the space of a phone call, Amazon Music moved from simply livestreaming Hip-Hop shows to livestreaming beef-squashing, freedom-fighting, timeline-stopping cultural moments. A second phone call led to the service broadcasting West’s Donda 2 listening event in February 2022, temporarily making the platform the only place for listeners to hear the album without having to purchase the rapper’s stem player. A pattern of organic communication and quick turnarounds was beginning to form.
“Kanye, and people in that vein and at that level of their careers, they’re not just going around shopping,” Hinshaw says. “You need to be proactive, and you need to be a shark and find these things because they’re not just gonna fall into your lap.” An old-fashioned networker, the Amazon executive has a straightforward system of getting what he wants: “Just pounding the pavement, working the phone.”
“My kids pick up everything and put it to their ears because I’m on the phone all day and that’s how they see me (laughs). Really just having conversations, knowing what’s going on, and knowing what to go after.”
Following a successful livestream with Summer Walker in her hometown of Atlanta, as well as The Weeknd’s 103.5 Dawn FM special (the latter of which Hinshaw credits to other members of the Amazon Music team), the next event on the docket was Dreamville Festival in J. Cole’s native North Carolina. This would prove to be Hinshaw and Amazon Music’s most ambitious stream yet.
“I talk to Tim almost weekly,” says Candace J. Rodney, President of Dreamville Records and Dreamville Studios. Outside of the artist compound, which is situated behind one of Dreamville Festival’s three stages at Dorothea Dix Park in Raleigh, N.C., Rodney breaks down how Amazon Music came to be the official livestream partner for her label’s marquee event.
Having worked in film and television for a decade, making stops at Lionsgate, Sony, ABC, and NBC Universal, Rodney joined Dreamville in July 2020 to help broaden the label’s multimedia presence. Within her first two weeks on the job, she phoned Tim Hinshaw. Over breakfast in Culver City, she pitched Hinshaw her vision for Dreamville’s future. A part of that vision included bringing back the festival, which at the time was entering an eventual two-year pandemic pause following its inaugural year in 2019.
While she jokes about wishing that breakfast was when conversations about livestreaming the event began, as her meeting with Hinshaw predated Amazon’s Call Me If You Get Lost pop-up in Brooklyn, she clarifies a more condensed timeline. “It all came together incredibly quickly,” she says. “It was something that was teased at the end of last year. We have a really great relationship with Amazon Music. They’ve been huge supporters of Dreamville every step of the way. Not just with all of our artists, supporting their releases [on] the Rotation platform, but also just expanding into all the different areas where Dreamville is growing.”
An example of that growth is Dreamville Festival’s expansion from one day to two days, with the Amazon stream starting at 2 p.m. each day and lasting until the end of each 9:40 p.m. headlining set. Over the course of the weekend (April 2-3), artists including Wale, Wizkid, Kehlani, and Dreamville’s entire roster performed at the festival, with Lil Baby headlining Saturday and J. Cole headlining Sunday. As the bill also featured timely sets that’d provide meaningful moments for Black music—with Ja Rule and Ashanti performing on the 20th anniversary of the singer’s debut album and DJ Drama reuniting with his Gangsta Grillz collaborators hours after he won his first Grammy—the ability to livestream the event for the entire culture to see was imperative.
“Once we knew [the festival] was official… Once we were locked and ready to go, which was early at the top of this year, [Amazon] put in the bid to be the partner,” Rodney explains. “And for us, there really was no other competitor out there.”
“Look. There are other people out there logistically, right? There are other people that can maybe pull off what Amazon’s done—maybe. But there was no one else in ethos. There was no one else that really understood what Dreamville is as a brand, who Cole is as a brand, what it is that we stand for. Everything that we do, there’s that aspirational aspect.”
“We want people to dream a little bigger, to inspire, to grow beyond their circumstances,” she continues. “And we do it with a level of authenticity and truth, and we do it with a level of community and with love. So, we want a partner that is not just gonna be here with us to exploit the best of the superstar artists that we have, but really understand who we are as a brand and bring that to the forefront. That’s exactly what Amazon recognized and why we partnered with them.”
Amazon and Dreamville’s aspirational alignment would seem to start with the man in charge of its Hip-Hop and R&B presence. Back at the artist compound, Hinshaw describes how a Black man from Compton came to represent the culture at the world’s second or third most powerful company.
“At first it was tough,” he says of his career before joining the tech giant’s music platform. “Compton to Hollywood to Beverly Hills is roughly 10-12 miles, 15 at the most. It’s not far at all. [But] when you’re in Compton and you see these things, it seems so far away. It seems so unattainable.”
“The thing that helped me was having people in this business who took a liking to me early, who saw something in me early and poured into me and invested in me,” he continues. “Like Chris and Kelly [Clancy] from Four Strikes [the management group that reps Tyler, the Creator], those have been some of my main supporters… Dave Free, who manages Kendrick Lamar. Men and women who have taken time to invest in me as a human being first but then as an executive.”
Similar to the way Hinshaw’s relationship with Tyler and his managers led to a full-circle moment in the form of the Call Me If You Get Lost pop-ups, other Amazon collaborations felt just as fitting. Reminiscing on West’s Free Larry Hoover Benefit Concert, Hinshaw reveals a personal connection to the cause.
“The whole background of the show was prison reform—my dad spent 20 years of my life in prison,” he explains. “If there was any stream that I was supposed to be a part of, that was the one. Because of the cause. It was a surreal moment for me.”
“I spent my childhood at FCI Terminal Island visiting my dad. My connection to Hip-Hop was in large part due to my dad being like, ‘Yo, I’m listening to Scarface, I’m listening to this, this is what’s getting me through.’ So, to be a part of that moment from a work standpoint now as a grown man was special for me.”
Here at Dreamville Festival, Hinshaw moves through the artist compound with the confidence of an executive who knows he’s cut from the same cloth as most rappers. He shakes hands and shows love having come from just as humble beginnings. He’s respected not just because he’s important, but because he’s familiar.
Candace J. Rodney noted the atmosphere of the compound and the wider festival grounds felt like that of a “family reunion or a cookout.” VIBE Hip-Hop Reporter Preezy Brown likened the two-day event to an HBCU homecoming, citing one of the most “beautifully and overwhelmingly Black” festival crowds he’s ever seen. With the weekend’s livestream reaching over one million homes each day, Tim Hinshaw understands the occasion as exactly what it is: A win for Black music.