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What You Can Learn From Lil Dicky, The Chart-Topping MC Who Worked At An Ad Agency

David Burd, aka Lil Dicky, started his recording career with Doritos jokes, but there’s nothing funny about being on top of the rap charts.

What You Can Learn From Lil Dicky, The Chart-Topping MC Who Worked At An Ad Agency
[Photos: Danny Gevirtz]

The most credible new rapper at the moment is probably Fetty Wap, the cycloptic force of nature whose singles have dominated car stereo speakers all summer. A couple of weeks ago, Fetty appeared in a video to support someone who, at least on paper, might seem like the least credible new rapper at the moment–a guy by the name of Lil Dicky.

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In hip-hop, like so many hustles, it’s a struggle to be taken seriously. When it comes to comedy hip-hop, though, that struggle becomes unwinnable. Comedy hip-hop often is far more comedy than hip-hop–and bad comedy, at that. Aside from the Halley’s Comet-rare emergence of a unit like The Lonely Island, professional comedians who are legit rap fans, this subgenre consists of pure corniness where hip-hop itself is the saggy-pantsed butt of the joke. But while Lil Dicky started out as a funny-rapping YouTuber with a goofy name, in two years he’s ascended to a level where his recent debut album landed on top of Billboard charts for both Comedy and Rap. Nobody’s laughing now. Well, actually, they are, because even though Lil Dicky is indeed being taken seriously, he’s still seriously funny.

So, how has he maintained his connection with YouTube comedy kids while getting the nod from offline, barbershop-beloved rappers? Aside from a surplus of sheer talent that metastasized with practice, Lil Dicky, a/k/a David Burd, didn’t make one wrong move between posting his first video online and releasing his first album. He may have also cribbed some notes on marketing and self-presentation, though, from the time he spent working at San Francisco ad agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners.

“I don’t necessarily think that when I graduated college, I had a plan to work at an ad agency,” Burd says. “I had a plan in terms of getting the best job I could, like just whatever normal job. But I think deep down I always knew that I had to make some sort of attempt at being an entertainer.”

For the first year and a half of his job at Goodby, Burd wasn’t working on music. Then one day, a head of the Doritos account was changing positions in the company, so Frito-Lay asked the agency to make a funny, internal send-off video. At the time, Burd worked in account management, but the task fell to his team to make the video, lest the company end up billing hours to creative. It was this moment, in making a Frito-Lay-related, jokey rap video, that Burd realized that the kind of work he wished he was doing was actually achievable—and without very much time or a budget.

“This video, if you could watch it now, I don’t think you’d be impressed,” he says. “But at the time, for what it was, it was mind-blowing.”

The video certainly made an impression on everybody who saw it, earning Burd a new job in the creative department. He spent a year writing TV commercials, while working a second shift writing rap songs and dreaming up video concepts. At a certain point, Burd realized it was now or never, so he quit his job to make silly-smart videos like “Ex Boyfriend” full-time, and he hasn’t looked back since. Here’s how he did it.

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Realistic Proof of Concept

I always knew that I was going to try something in the comedy realm. But if I wrote a script, I didn’t have many people to hand it to. I thought actually filming comedy shorts would be a harder proof of concept in terms of showing off who I am. I really wanted to not rely on external factors. And so rapping and music felt like something that I could really do 100% on my own and not have to rely on other actors. It really felt like something I could take control of. Beyond that, obviously giving it a natural differentiation of it being music with jokes in it, it’s easier to stand out that way.

Burn Through The Wrong Ideas To Get To The Right Ones

I spent a year and a half making the music for my mixtape. And I made probably about 75 songs, 17 of which were chosen for it. So there was certainly trial and error in the song-making process. A lot of those songs sucked and I got better and better and better. So by the time I felt like I had 17 solid songs, I thought I didn’t need anymore than that for this project. And then it became very clear that there were certain songs that could have the biggest impact as music videos. So “Ex-Boyfriend” is a really funny story that is that much funnier when you have visuals attached to it as opposed to just hearing it. I couldn’t let a song like that go un-video’d.

If You Believe In Yourself, Invest In Yourself

There was a moment with “Ex Boyfriend” where I knew it, I felt like I knew that it was going to work, like I felt the validation and I thought “You made the right decision.” But I was confident enough early on to spend money on it. From a time investment perspective too, I went all in. I had a girlfriend, I had a job, and when you combine that with this, there was absolutely no personal time. That to me means giving up more than whatever money the initial videos cost. Once I made the decision that I was really going for it, I could never half go for it. At this point, you have to try as hard as you can, see what ends up happening, and have no regrets on the effort put in. It can’t be my fault if it doesn’t work.

A Visual Signature

All of the videos begin with “Lil Dicky Presents,” and the title in cursive. It felt very natural and logical to be consistent. Perhaps working at the ad agency contributed to that. Working at the ad agency showed me just how possible things were from a production standpoint. I think maybe simple things like a title card every time. But, like, how can you not have a consistent title card? [Ed. Note: so many YouTubers do not! So many!] To me, it’s just kinda logic.

Train People To Fiend For Your New Material

My strategy was I was gonna do this thing called Lil Dicky Hump Days where every Wednesday, I would put out something new. So sometimes it was a video for one of those 17 songs, sometimes it’s a new song. “The Lion King” was just one of those new things. People knew when to tune in and fortunately, the very first one went viral, so I had eyes on me Week Two. Whereas, like, I was kind of expecting a slow build, maybe by the end of it I’d have eyes on it. But I had eyes on it from the jump, which made none of my content go wasted. I was always two months ahead of time in terms of content. And then eventually time caught up with me.

It’s All In The Timing

Sometimes I want to be completely outlandish and funny but sometimes I feel the need to prove myself as a rapper. So I didn’t want my album to be a gimmicky album. I wanted it to feel like a strong rap album. So what better way to start it than get all these misconceptions out of the way that I’m a joke rapper and really explain why I deserve to be taken seriously, than with a legend like Snoop Dogg?

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There were three videos leading up to the album, and those all kind of just kept the wave going, but then the day the album came out, I put out the video for “Professional Rapper,” with Snoop Dogg. In the process of making the album, I found out guys like him, T-Pain, Fetty Wap, Rich Homie Quan–they all really like what I’m doing, and it felt very validating. And when I knew that the rap community saw it was real, I knew that there would be no issue with the listeners finding it real.