Approaching 2 billion YouTube views and still hot enough to sell pool party products, learn the makeshift marketing behind Drake’s Grammy-grabbing, Diamond-certified summer smash.
In the heat of 2015, Drake was always on call.
The 6 God’s iPhone 5 illuminated without rest, vibrating through texts from models, threats from rappers, and invoices from Jordan Brand.
All the buzz came to a head on a July evening in Toronto when the MC grabbed the aux cord at his barber’s wedding.
Touching down in his hometown after a private jet from London, Drake treated the bridal party at York Mills Gallery to an unreleased record.
While the evening was about romance being realized, Drake shared a single about an unforgotten fling from his adored home province of Ontario.
You used to call me on my cell phone
Late night when you need my love
Tuxedo on his back, heart on his sleeve, friends-turned-fans moved their feet and pulled out their own phones.
Call me on my cell phone
Late night when you need my love
This spontaneous combination of dancing and viral videos forecasted what would be the song of said summer and pop culture Platinum.
The song now known as “Hotline Bling” would ring off as its name implied, topping charts in 2015 and going Diamond in the time since.
The man, the meme, the legend, Boardroom breaks down the summer smash that made Drake an international icon and crowned king of the Internet.
The summer of 2015 was to be one of rest.
In 2014, Drake dominated Soundcloud and Billboard, releasing loosies like “0 to 100” that went from rap fan fodder to two-time Platinum plaques. To make matters more magnificent, he spent much of the year on tour, glowing up in Glasgow and owning Oslo.
Conversely, 2015 was to be spent working on Views, the follow-up to 2013’s four-time Platinum Nothing Was the Same.
Still, he continued to feed fans, releasing his first mixtape in over half a decade and appearing on the albums of his closest peers.
The aura was real as Big Sean’s “Blessings” and Nicki Minaj’s “Only” ascended with an assist from The Boy.
Based on expectations, Meek Mill’s “R.I.C.O.” did not.
Despite debuting at No. 1, Meek’s second studio album, Dreams Worth More Than Money, carried the weight of lofty sales goals.
It was assumed by Meek that Drake would Tweet the iTunes link to said sophomore album — Drake did not. Thus, the promotional faux pas theoretically cost the Maybach Music Group rapper a slew of sales.
Irate, Meek took to Twitter to take shots at Drake, suggesting the Toronto MC had someone else writing his rhymes.
Rather than type a reply, Drake went straight to the studio just days after his friend’s wedding to record a calm but ominous response, “Charged Up.”
Sensing the energy around him and writer’s block from his friend-turned-foe, Drake dropped a three-pack of songs straight for online download on the same day.
One was “Right Hand,” an eery take on the bouncy beats popularized on rap radio by DJ Mustard. The other was “Charged Up,” the Meek Mill temperature check, while the third track was the song he recently previewed at a wedding.
Fans ate each one up, enjoying the dancey records but awaiting what would be rap’s biggest battle of the 2010s.
Drake waited. Fans waited. The world waited.
A week later, “Back to Back” happened.
“I woke up to my phone ringing at 4 a.m. and it was 40,” OVO President Mr. Morgan told Boardroom in February. “He was like, ‘Hey, did you listen to that text I sent you? Listen to it and call me back.'”
Hearing for the first time Drake’s double-down diss track full of hilariously harsh punchlines over a club-banging beat, the OVO President had a text from The Boy before he could even hit 40 back.
“Drake hit me with, ‘Hey, make sure you get it to Charlamagne and The Breakfast Club. Make sure he gets the bottles,'” Morgan says. “I called Angela Yee, who’s a friend of mine. I had to scramble to do that.”
At an hour most make eggs, Morgan was scheduling a Drizly order from Drizzy to Power 105. It appeared as the peak of the chaos, however, it was only the beginning.
“We didn’t know that ‘Back to Back’ was going to be the phenomenon that it was,” says Morgan. “His label at the time really wanted to work ‘Back to Back.’ They were showing us all this research and numbers from Shazam.”
Peaking at No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 and going two-time Platinum in the US, the resting rapper was now a monster awakened.
Still, he was in album mode. Views was the priority, not cameos in Beef DVDs.
Despite the momentum and metrics behind “Back to Back,” it was a sleeper song in the summer three-pack that truly moved Drake. An affection that pointed to selling out arenas overseas and making fans feel like dancing, not fighting.
“He really believed in ‘Hotline Bling,'” Morgan says. “We all knew it was amazing, but he was like, ‘That’s the one.'”
If Drake said the cell phone song was the one, it was the one.
But what was it actually called?
When Drake grabbed the aux cord at his barber’s wedding, he was wise enough to expect attendees to grab their iPhones.
What he didn’t expect was Apple Music to move just as fast.
“Drake had played an unreleased version of [‘Hotline Bling’] at his barber’s wedding,” the song’s producer, Nineteen85, told Boardroom in January. “Somebody recorded it on their phone, uploaded it to the internet, and people couldn’t really hear it.”
From there, assumptions were made.
“People thought Drake made a remix of ‘Cha Cha,'” 85 says. “Because nobody knew what the song was and it just stuck.”
At the time, DRAM’s “Cha Cha” was simmering on Soundcloud and appearing at No. 1 on the Billboard’s Bubbling Under Hot R&B/Hip-Hop singles chart. In previous years, Drake had used his ear for what was next to boost both the record and his A&R appeal.
Famously, this run included adding verses to Migos’ “Versace,” “Tuesday” by ILoveMakonnen, and “My Way” by Fetty Wap — each being tracks that charted with a collaborative co-sign from Drake.
Because the audio on the wedding video was fuzzy and the melody of the song was somewhat similar to that of DRAM’s rising record, people around the Internet and industry assumed it was Aubrey aligning with “Cha Cha.” So much so that when the official audio debuted on OVO Sound’s Apple Music show, an employee labeled it as such.
However, it was not the case.
“There was no relation to ‘Cha Cha,'” 85 says. “But I think somebody at Apple made a mistake when they uploaded it. So, when it debuted on Apple Radio, it said ‘Cha Cha Remix.’ The person who put it up was like, ‘I think Drake has a remix to the Cha Cha song.’ But it had nothing to do with it.”
From there, both context and controversy grew around each catchy song.
Infamously, the unintended error caused confusion and got the narrative twisted for both tracks.
In actuality, the issues were more about a misunderstanding behind backend logistics than wave riding or subliminal shots. In a sense, it was also a preview of where modern music was going with regard to influence from a Caribbean country.
“In Jamaica, you’ll have a riddim and everyone has to do a song on that,” Drake told FADER in 2015. “Imagine that in rap or in R&B. Imagine if we got one beat and every person — me, this guy, this guy, all these guys — had to do a song on that one beat.”
Though Drake was not hopping on “Cha Cha” itself, his eyes were on island vibes even if “Back to Back” spoke to scary hours.
“So, sometimes I’ll pick a beat that’s a bit sunnier than usual, and try my hand at it,” Drake continued. “That’s kind of what ‘Hotline Bling’ was. And I loved it.”
Seeing ahead, Drake envisioned a world where songs like “Passionfruit” and “One Dance” would take him — and listeners — to new places both figuratively and literally. This meant working with new sounds, even if they sounded like similar songs to the untrained ear.
“Our song is based on a sample that we had to clear and their song is based on a sample that’s completely different,” says 85. “They might be similar vibes, but we literally had to clear the songs with completely different artists!”
For reference, “Hotline Bling” is based on a sample of Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together.”
Much like Aubrey’s homage, its lyrics evoke heartbreak while its melody evokes movements.
Conversely, “Cha Cha” amplifies Super Mario sounds in an all-around upbeat manner that’s similarly strong in its silliness but entirely all its own.
While the world wondered who sampled who, the buzz around “Hotline Bling” began to build. But how could you sell a song that people didn’t even know the actual name of?
More so, why would Drake drive a dance song when he was riding off the high of “Back to Back” being absolutely on fire online and on the radio?
As noted, industry execs pushed OVO to push the diss track. Not moving on that time, Drake demanded the momentum be switched to “Hotline Bling.”
“We were like, ‘No, we’re not working this record. Let’s focus on this record,'” Morgan says. “They kept showing us all these charts! But we were like, ‘No, focus on this record.'”
It was an unpredictable pivot during unpredictable times.
In a sense, it was proof in the pudding that OVO moves more like a boutique label than an oversized conglomerate.
“People often think we have this whole machine and everything is this huge strategic play. For the most part? It’s four or five of us on a group text,” says Morgan.
“Drake, Future [the Prince], 40, Oliver, Noel, and myself. We’re literally in there having conversations as we move, bouncing ideas off each other.”
As alluded to before, these are conversations that involve sending champagne to Charlamagne at 5 a.m. in the morning.
Conversations that only October’s Very Own insiders advise. Conversations that yield impossible ideas.
Ideas like taking the summer smash Drake so believed into a whole new world of music video virality that would make “Hotline Bling” even bigger.
X Gon’ Give it to Ya
Back when Mr. Morgan was cutting his teeth in the music industry and Drake was an aspiring actor on Degrassi, the two strangers shared an artist of adoration: Sean Paul.
In 2002, Mr. Morgan was running radio station to radio station, working Sean’s single, “Gimmie the Light.”
At that time, reggae music was not mainstream pop like Bad Bunny today or Bob Marley decades prior. Getting an American audience to embrace an international singer with an accent and unorthodox style was a tough sell.
Thankfully, Morgan made it happen.
Thankfully, he had some help.
Although much of Sean Paul’s traction came from his hit single’s catchy melody, the parallel part was the song’s dancey Director X music video.
Making the rounds from TRL to 106 & Park, the visual for “Gimmie the Light” was worth waiting in front of the TV to see. Morgan worked on it in real-time while a young Drake devoured it after school. Inspired and aligned, the OVO family reached out to Director X to take his hand at “Hotline Bling.”
“When he showed us the first cut of the video? We go, ‘You know this about to go crazy?'” Morgan says.
In the industry, connections pay off. Just as Morgan’s ties to Sean Paul played a part in the Director X homage, other relationships played a part in the video’s funding.
Although Apple made a boo-boo by uploading “Hotline Bling” online as “Cha Cha Remix,” it made up for its mistake by financing the song’s visual that’s since amassed over 2 million YouTube views.
Breaking the bank, the video was inspired by two light legends: Sean Paul and James Turrell. The minimal nature and amateur dance moves depicted in “Hotline Bling” were instantly iconic, making it meme fodder immediately.
What’s wilder? Drake knew it was going to work all along.
“He has such a pulse on everything and always has,” Morgan says. “[He knew] this is outta here — and it truly was.”
Long Distance Dial
As a friend turned foe once said, there’s levels to this shit.
Such is true of “Hotline Bling.” As a hit record, the song absolutely stuck, penetrating pop culture literally all over the globe.
“It transcended so many lines of bringing in a new audience,” Morgan says. “But the core audience still loved it. It worked on so many levels.”
From seven-time Platinum plaques in Australia to similar status in Sweden, Italy, and the UK, Drake’s decision to back off beef and lean into something more moving worked masterfully.
“‘Back to Back’ took a longer life than we ever expected,” Morgan says. “But seeing ‘Hotline Bling’ grow and grow? It was a phenomenon. When it gets to performing and you’re actually touching an audience and seeing that reaction in London or France? It’s really pivotal.”
In the context of history, “Hotline Bling” lives as a forever favorite and former song of the summer. As a capsule of culture, it marks a place in time when life was an absolute blur for Drake and the OVO family.
“There was a lot happening when ‘Hotline Bling’ came out,” 85 says. “That was in the middle of the Drake/Meek Mill situation. [Later], I found out it went Diamond twice on the same day.”
For 85, the song’s prolific producer, “Hotline Bling” is as massive a milestone as the Toronto Raptors winning a championship.
Around the industry, the song the label wanted on the backburner was instantly transcendent. It became the catalyst for Billie Eilish and Justin Beiber covers.
It inspired an entire Erykah Badu mixtape and received Pitchfork praise amid Top 40 success.
In pop culture, the video was referenced on Saturday Night Live skits and in T-Mobile Super Bowl commercials.
Proving his pulse, the video for “Hotline Bling” serves almost as an advertisement itself. Visually, the track is Aubrey’s most magnified moment as an Air Jordan ambassador thanks to his Jumpman tee.
It also sent a surge to the outwear market, with Drake’s bright red Moncler puffer seeing a surge in sales, driving double the numbers on its Raya jacket than typical.
This summer — eight years after its arrival — “Hotline Bling” is the catalyst for $69 towels and inflatable floaties.
It’s all happening at the same time Drake is releasing his first book, launching another Nike NOCTA collection, and announcing a new tour.
Like the last time, he’ll be on tour while it all takes place.
These days, “Hotline Bling” still rings off when played on the radio, at weddings, or in arenas from France to Tokyo.
Meek and Drake are friends once again, with Aubrey holding weight as both a battle-tested MC and dance music multimillionaire.
“I could write a book about it,” says Mr. Morgan.
“When we released those records, Drake had a vision.”
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