INTERVIEW: We talk with the CEO of Rap Snacks, James Lindsay, about the return of the hip-hop munchies brand, working with artists, and advice for young black entrepreneurs.
With the decline of blog culture and print magazines, artists are forever looking for new ways to expand their brand and reach new audiences. The rise of social media, Instagram in particular, has slowly transformed artist exposure into more and more of a bite-sized initiative, complete with easily digestible packaging. Somewhere at this juncture between snacking and marketing, stands entrepreneur James Lindsay, the CEO and Founder of Rap Snacks. To briefly provide some of his backstory, he graduated with a Bachelor of Science, specialized in Marketing. He embodies Rick Ross' "buy back the block" ethos, way before the song cemented the statement. After working at an ethnic hair care company, Johnson Products, for a period of time post graduation, he was inspired enough, by both his simple love of snack food and his knack for business, to create Rap Snacks Inc in 1994. He's grown it into a five million dollar business.
This soon led to an advertising partnership with Universal Records and the inclusion of a number of the label’s artists on the bags. After re-launching in 2016, Rap Snacks was thrust into the limelight once more, especially once Migos immortalized the “Dab of Ranch” flavor in song. Lindsay now has five flavors available, with plans for the release of several more in the coming months. We managed to get on the phone with him to discuss his success, plans for the future, and the potato chip process.
HNHH: So first and foremost what inspired you to create Rap Snacks?
James Lindsay: What inspired me to create rap snacks was, when I was younger, I was the kid who would go to school and eat potato chips in the morning. You know for breakfast for lunch and dinner sometimes. You know like an inner city kid who kinda lacked on the [Laughs] nutritional end of it. Because you know I had a working parent. So I would be the guy who put all the potato chips in a bag and like shake them up. and think about all kinds of flavor profiles and what have you and I said one day I’m gonna do what I like to eat which is produce potato chips. So that basically truly inspired me to make Rap Snacks.
Facts. Poverty is the mother of invention. I eat a lot of snacks myself. I’m from Brooklyn so I’m always on the train and munching on something. You started Rap Snacks in 1994-1995 and Romeo, who still has a flavor named after him, bought the company in 2007? Can you walk us through this timeline -- what happened between 1994 and 2007, and then 2007 to present-day, with the company's current status?
Yeah, so when we brought Rome on the team, basically they came on as partners for me. We were looking at kinda doing a buyout but we decided to do a partnership at the time and you know [Master] P was at the surface at the time. He was really kinda busy and I was busy so it didn’t really work out as we expected. You know? They maintain a small percentage of the business now, but I’m back, and I now own the majority of the company.
Ah copy copy. Rap Snacks have been returning to the public eye quite heavily this past year. Is Romeo still involved with the brand?
Yes, he’s a limited partner.
What’s the process for creating a bag of potato chips? Are you directly involved in the chip-to-bag process. Do you get involved with that?
Yes, I am. I mean, I’m a true entrepreneur. I think that everybody has blessings and my blessing is being able to create flavor profiles and kinda see what’s next in the snack food industry. So what I’ve done is created a number of different flavor profiles and I try to look at different artists that I think may fit with that particular flavor profile. Like for instance the Louisiana Heat.
Yeah with Lil Boosie. So I had something that was almost like a Louisiana hot sauce and I wanted somebody to represent that. I thought Boosie would be the right guy to represent that because Boosie is the kinda guy who has a great fan base. You know whether he has a current hit on the radio or not. I look for those types of brands, and that was something that I connected with, and was kinda easy for me. Same thing with Fab with the New York Deli Cheddar. New York is known for the delis right?
Facts. The bodegas.
So I had designed the Deli Cheddar and yeah Fab’s brand is the same kinda way. He’s an icon. He doesn’t need a hit to kind of be current. So that was the first process of that. And then getting their ideas about what they really like. Because my thinking is that I’ve worked with a lot of artists, consulting with their brands, and endorsement deals and etcetera. I know that one of the most important things about these artists is that they have to like the product. If it’s a food product they’ve gotta like that flavor. I do my homework with these guys so when I connect them with a flavor profile that I’ve developed it’s usually something similar to what they already like.
So how is a potato chip actually manufactured?
Okay so how is a potato chip is manufactured? The process of it is they bring the potatoes in on crates, and they wash the potatoes. They have a slicer that actually slices the potatoes up. There actually are different shaped slicers they put in, before they cut the potato up. There’s a flat chip which is the traditional type of potato chips. Then you have the wavy chip. So then there’s the wavy slicer, which actually has ridges in it, for products like the Louisiana Heat. From there it’s fried, and then after that it goes into a hopper where it’s seasoned on different lines depending on the flavor. After it’s seasoned it goes right into a packaging line where it’s packaged mostly with packaging machines that package over 150 bags per minute.
Nuts. Where are you guys based out of by the way?
We’re currently based in Atlanta.
But you’re from Philly though?
Yup. That I am. Born and raised. [Starts singing the Fresh Prince theme song]
Facts. Okay so we were talking about flavor profiles earlier, you’re pretty creative with the flavor combinations and I heard somewhere that you were one of the first people to make a Honey Barbecue chip?
Yes I was. Yeah I was the first person to create a Honey Barbecue chip...
Legendary. What’s your favorite flavor that you’ve designed?
Ummm. All of them are. [Laughs] I say that because what might be my favorite might not be everybody else’s favorite right? But, if I had to pick one. Maybe I’d say the Honey Barbecue because it was my first one. Or maybe the Sour Cream with a Dab of Ranch because that’s my best seller right now.
I actually saw that you guys have the Dab of Ranch popcorn coming out soon right
Yup the White Cheddar with a Dab of Ranch. That Dab of Ranch is gonna be like a category that I’m gonna expand on. Yeah the people love that flavor.
Yeah it’s a good one and people really connect with the Migos.
They do. They do.
How does the flavor come to fruition? You said you like to match your flavors to the ideals of the artists but how involved are the artists in the creative process, do they taste-test the flavour?
Yeah, so basically, I have these flavor profiles that I create and I like put them in a cup and put them on the shelf and I wait for some of the artists that I’m connecting with that I think it might fit. And then what I’ll do is I’ll send them samples. And I’ll ask them, “Do you really like this or what have you?” Then they’ll tell me, “Yes,” or they’ll tell me, “No.” Because again, like I said, it’s important to me for the guys to really like it. But I do most of the development of the flavor profiles because I've been doing this for a long time so I kinda know what direction I’m tryna go in.
Yeah, you’ve been doing this for a long time. I can’t imagine you have like Fetty Wap in the lab cooking it up with you.
[Laughs] Well you know what? It’s kinda funny you say that because he really wanted to do the honey barbeque. And I wanted to keep Romeo on the honey-barbeque and I told him, “Look I’ve got something for you.” He still was like, “No no I want the Honey Barbecue.” As soon as I sent him that Honey Jalapeno, he was like, “Oh okay. I see what you’re talking about. This is better.” They just gotta trust the process, this is what I do every day.
Where can we find these chips? I’m in New York and have been searching for them ever since the relaunch was announced but I haven’t seen them around.
Right. I mean it’s kinda scarce because within the last six months we’ve been having some issues with being able to produce enough product because it’s been so crazy popular. But we have them up there. Now we’re starting to be able to produce a lot more products so you’re gonna start seeing a lot more out there. But I can get you some stores though. I’ve got three distributors up there. But you know New York is a big market so it takes a long time to get full distribution out there. We’re not in any supermarkets but we’re in a lot of the mom and pop stores.
I’m gonna have to hit you up later for the store locator or something.
[Laughs] Oh for sure. We can most definitely find you some.
You have two new flavors coming out with Lil Yachty, and they're curls rather than chips. Tell me how that connection happened and why you chose to go in that direction.
So I’ve been working with umm...you know Lil Yatchy’s on Quality Control?
Yeah. Coach K and Co.
Yeah, so I've been working with Coach K and P. I been working with P, and you know, those guys they’re really forward-thinkers, and they really believe in Rap Snacks. So I told them I would do a couple of their artists and work with them. I was there before they signed Yatchy, so I kinda knew what it was gonna be before any of us knew. Like Coach K came to me and showed me, and said I’m about to sign this kid, and I think he’s gonna be the next thing. So you know I’ve always believed in him.
Did Yachty want to do the crunchy curls and hot cheese fries, or why did you deviate from the classic potato chip formula?
Oh so to answer your question further about Lil Yatchy. Yatchy loves the hot products. That’s what he eats. So I told him, “I got something for you but it’s gonna take a little while.” They have hot fries so I came up with the hot cheese fries and then I did the hot crunchy curl with the chili lime seasoning. Then I created his little boat concept on the bag. It’s a great looking bag, I think it’s gonna do well, and the product inside the bag is really good. Rap Snacks, you know we connect with the culture, but when you taste the product it tastes like no other product you’ve tasted. Flavor is what we want. If it says it’s a Honey Barbecue its gotta taste like a Honey Barbecue. It’s gotta match what it looks like, and it does, which is why Rap Snacks is so successful.
Yeah it certainly seems like he enjoys the snacks; we see he's been promoting them pretty heavily.
He told me, “I like this. I like that. I like hot stuff. I like Cheetos.” Also you know it matches his hair. Like if you look at the product and it’s the same as his hair.
Yeah the aesthetics match. Are there any other new artists you are trying to work with or trying to establish a connect with?
Okay well have you seen we have the Trina coming out?
I did. Honey Dew I think?
Yeah, the Honey Dew chips and the Honey Jalapeno cheese puffs. And then we have a couple... I can’t mention him cause I want it to be a surprise. But I’ve got an artist who just put out an album that did very well. I’m coming out with something for him. I’ve got like five or six other flavors that are coming out that are really current artists and I think they’re going to be some nice products.
If you could give any artist living or dead a new flavor of chips who would it be,
Hmmm. Okay hold on. I don’t have one prepared but hold on. Biggie would be called umm... It’s called Poppa Corn. You know a B.I.G Poppa Corn.
That’s much better than what I was thinking. I’m 100% on board with that one. What about branching off further from potato chips, have you ever thought about doing candy? Is there anything already in the works?
Yeah we have a brand. It’s called Smackables. So yeah that’s the candy. "Rap Snacks Smackables." We’re definitely gonna be doing candy. We’re gonna do candy with the artists heads. Like a mold of the artists heads as the candy.
We’re gotta talk about that later. That’s incredible. You have previously included some lesser known artists, like Murphy Lee (shoutouts to the Saint Lunatics), do you have any plans to include more underground artists in the future?
Sure. Yeah, so if you notice, with a lot of my products, like even with the Yatchy brand it’s a sub-brand, so it’s Rap Snacks: Oowee. So I have a brand that is really gonna be emerging artists called Rap Snacks: Youngins. For those artists that are underground but are potentially going to be mainstream in a couple of years.
What music have you been listening to recently?
I’ve been listening to Meek Mill. I’ve been listening to 21 Savage. Uhh whats her name the young lady who had the number one song recently?
Carti B. Yo Gotti. You know. Migos. Lil Yatchy. The guy from Philly. Lil Uzi. I like all this music out here man. All the music now is diverging because the music industry is starting to separate categories of people and artists. You know they’ll call it mumble rap but there are some guys who are real spitters. So I like it all.
You ever think about doing bags with legends like A-Z or Jazzy Jeff?
I have some throwback bags I’m gonna do. Definitely gonna do that. I’ve got some artists in mind.
It’s interesting to think about the impact that a bag of chips can have and the capacity with which your snacks allow people to interact with hip-hop. A lot of kids don’t know about guys like A-Z or Jazzy Jeff. It could provide an opportunity for increasing knowledge about hip-hop history in the same way it can promote new artists. I don’t know it that was a question or just a stream of my feelings.
[Laughs] I definitely agree.
Yeah, it’s incredibly important for black people to start their own businesses and own various aspects of the culture. What advice would you give to up-and-coming black entrepreneurs?
Well, first and foremost, is, believe in and have fun with what you do. Because I think a lot of times as young black entrepreneurs we try to get into business just thinking about making money. But I truly enjoy what I do. So that allows me to outwork everybody and my team will attest to that. It’s a 24-hour job with us, but I enjoy what I do. In addition to that I’d say, be first in your industry. I believe that someone who is first in their industry that is bringing it to the culture is gonna win. Because a bit too often it’s where you have a lot of culture vultures that, for years, have made money off of the culture but they haven’t really given anything back to it. Me and my artists we’re 50-50 partners. They make what I make. I’m not paying them any royalties none of that. If they work as hard as I work they’re gonna make as much money as I make. On top of that I’m promoting their brand as a visual. You can’t get no better than that: to make money and I’m promoting your brand everyday. A hundred, thousand, million bags of you across the country. Picking them up. Eating it. Looking you up. It expands your brand in a certain way. So just be creative and don’t be a copycat. Go out there, and research, and find a niche that is going to be effective in the marketplace. Thirdly, is just believe in yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you that this is a dumb idea or what have you. It took me 20 something years to really make Rap Snacks pop. Well, pop like I wanted it to. So never give up. Trust the process.
Yeah I think trusting the process is simultaneously one of the most important and most difficult things to do when you’re going with your gut and creating something out of nothing. Your perseverance is really inspiring.
So we talked about popcorn and candy earlier but what kind of expansion do you envision for you and your company in the future?
I’m looking at the revival of Rap Snacks as a brand and that we can attach to anything that makes sense man. If it’s something that I think fits in the category of the brand then it’s something we’ll probably pursue. I really want to do the snack part of it first but I think that the clothing is probably something we’re going to move into as well. That Dab of Ranch concept is pretty big. We have some ideas for Dab of Ranch clothing.
I think that’s about it. Excellent speaking with you. Any last words?
Thank you man. Oh so let me tell you this. We have an app coming out pretty soon. Right now we’re not online because we couldn’t make enough product, but in the next 45 days we’re going to release an app through the Apple Store that will allow you to buy Rap Snacks online.
Writer's Note: In the time between starting this article and finishing it, I managed to track down the Fetty Wap Honey Jalapeno chips in a bodega on 150th street. The front of the bag features a cartoon stylization of Fetty Wap’s head along with his name and the flavor. The back contains the nutritional facts, a QR code, a photo that Fetty should seriously consider using for the book jacket of his autobiography, and the quote, “NOBODY PUT ME ON. I GOT UP AND WORKED EXTREMELY HARD FOR WHAT I HAVE. NOBODY CAN TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME.” Practically a Snapple Fact. The chips start off sweet like a Honey Barbecue and end with a satisfying spicy aftertaste. Very tasty.