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Saro Derbedrossian: from Montreal, at the top of a small hip-hop empire

by Félix Desjardins

HotNewHipHop is one of the most influential platforms on the hip hop planet. Who knows that its founder and CEO is a Montrealer? Who knows that the HNHH neighbourhood is located in the Saint-Laurent borough of Montreal ?

Saro Derbedrossian is from an Armenian family living in Lebanon, and moved to Montreal. He enrolled in the MBA program at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University. A few years later, he went into business with a friend, the first project being to create an online forum dedicated to hip-hop. PAN M 360 spoke with  who heads one of the most influential platforms dedicated to Hip Hop culture in the world: HotNewHipHop (HNHH).

“In the early 2000s, all the people of my generation were fascinated by the web,” Derbedrossian begins. “I married that interest with my love of music, that’s how it started.” 

Admitting that he wasn’t a hip-hop fan at first, he finally let himself be conquered after many years in the business. Although this kind of business is born out of passion, the businessman assures that he has always been serious in his approach, believing in the enormous potential of his site. 

“It’s never been a hobby,” he says. “I’m not a publisher, an editor or a journalist. My angle was to see how the industry works and turn a music curating model into an assumed, full-flesh publishing model. To do that, you have to understand how the digital world works.”

Originally, HNHH was just a page offering daily hip hop selections. Now, the site welcomes more than 12 million unique visitors each month and expands its content to include the entire culture surrounding the scene. 

“In the beginning, hip-hop was a more marginal genre. Now hip hop culture is popular culture,” he explains. “So today we find content ranging from sports to Hollywood gossip to haute couture, interests that reach their ‘young audience’.”

Even if he remains humble,  Derbedrossian is convinced that HNHH helped some international artists reach fame by sharing their songs, or by offering them a platform. Among the list of artists who owe him a great deal: The Weeknd, Tyga, Chris Brown, Wiz Khalifa, Iggy Azalea, Tory Lanez and Post Malone, to name a few. 

“We didn’t put their names on the map, but we certainly helped their careers in a spectacular way,” he says. 

At his side, HNHH Content Director Rose Lilah of Montreal adds. 

“So many labels come to us to break their artist. We’re often the first to post, the first to support, even if we don’t necessarily get the credit. Post Malone’s manager talked to us directly about how we helped him.”

HNHH’s target audience is divided between the older, more purist fans and the younger, who worship the Lil Babys, Roddy Richs and Lil Uzi Verts of this world. There is a significant divide between these two groups with distinct mentalities. 

“We often hear traditionalists say that hip-hop is dead,” says Derbedrossian. “As a business owner in this industry, I don’t want to hear that! I’ve begun to be antipathetic to people who claim it, rather than looking at it from an evolutionary perspective. All genres evolve.”

In fact, Lilah believes that the supply has never been greater on the hip-hop scene than it is today. At the same time, she explains that it’s easy to put the spotlight on women rappers, who are in the thick of things these days.

“When we started, there weren’t that many female MCs,” she explains. “Today, it’s easy to encourage them, we have so many choices.”

With the advent of social networks, especially TikTok, Derbedrossian finds it’s easier than ever to reach the top… but harder than ever to stay there. 

“Today it’s easier to become an artist, to have a good song, because there are ways to reach consumers more easily and quickly,” he explains. “You don’t need anyone to post a song on Spotify, and with the help of the algorithms, you can make a name for yourself. We see a lot of one-hit wonders.”

Derbedrossian knows this evolving scene at his fingertips. In fact, he believes that a site like his has a much finer understanding of it than the giants of the industry. 

“I think they leave out the real roots of the genre. We’re more in touch with the artists, with the art itself. I don’t think the people who select Grammy nominees are as immersed in hip-hop culture and understand it as well as our team does.”

Prior to the pandemic, which forced the company to make temporary layoffs, HNHH had about 20 employees between its Montreal headquarters and its New York office. In addition, Derbedrossian and his team had signed a lease for an office in Los Angeles, where they planned to produce more video content.

Even if the most important hip-hop scenes are in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta or Toronto, Derbedrossian never considered moving HNHH headquarters out of the borough of Saint-Laurent. 

“I had the opportunity to move permanently to the United States, but I love Montreal, I love the vibe. I also think about the people [who live here] who helped me get where I am, and we have a strong team.”

While waiting for the health crisis to end, Saro Derbedrossian and his team stay the course and offer dozens of articles a day to their readers. 

“I’m glad we’re doing something right. I am proud of the success we are experiencing. After the pandemic, we hope to offer much more to our audience.” 

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