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Toycos are feelin’ the hip-hop DJ groove

Crossing over from subculture to pop culture, DJs and hip-hop are an increasingly important part of the mainstream kid consciousness. Pop superstars like Britney Spears are taking hot turntable performers on tour to back them, and DJ classes are replacing piano lessons for kids in urban meccas like New York and L.A. And as hip-hop music continues to age down and grow new roots in the tween market, toy companies are tapping into the spinning trend with lines of urban-inspired playthings.
June 1, 2003

Crossing over from subculture to pop culture, DJs and hip-hop are an increasingly important part of the mainstream kid consciousness. Pop superstars like Britney Spears are taking hot turntable performers on tour to back them, and DJ classes are replacing piano lessons for kids in urban meccas like New York and L.A. And as hip-hop music continues to age down and grow new roots in the tween market, toy companies are tapping into the spinning trend with lines of urban-inspired playthings.

DSI Toys has hooked up with MTV personality DJ Skribble to launch a line of six-inch action figures-cum-turntables called DJ Skribble’s Spinheads next month. ‘Kids download an awful lot of music, and they don’t just listen to it. They will actually do their own custom mixes so they can listen the way they want to listen,’ says Bob Erickson, VP of marketing for Houston, Texas-based DSI. ‘That trend is ripe to have a toy associated with it.’

The figures (US$14.99) play a looping rhythm, and by manipulating the head like a joystick, kids can activate six scratch effects or sayings. The DJ Skribble’s Spinheads Vinylizer (US$29.99) turntable will come with nine dance tracks and effects, and it can be hooked up to either the Spinheads figures or an MP3 player so kids can scratch over top of their favorite songs. Rounding out the line are the DJ Skribble’s Spinheads Phat Ride car-shaped speakers (US$19.99), which come with special-edition Spinheads. DSI plans to ship up to a million figures in its initial run.

Erikson says fashion is a very important element in the music scene, and is therefore key to the toy. The 10 Spinheads characters each have their own distinct personality and fashion sense based on the style of music they represent, whether it’s hip-hopper Dzak with his afro and Timberlands, or neo-punk Troi with chunky blond streaks and a goatee. Mixing fashion figures with music toys creates an open-ended play pattern that Erikson says leaves plenty of room for product expansion. DSI is already looking at growing DJ Skribble’s line to include music toys, and is currently in discussions with potential licensees to create an apparel range.

While Erikson says DJ Skribble isn’t that well-known amongst tweens yet, he will be by the time the product rolls out. DJ Skribble appeared on Nickelodeon’s Slime Time Live in May and will be making other guest appearances leading up to the product launch in order to increase his kid-friendly quotient. ‘There are plenty of six- to 11-year-olds watching MTV,’ Erikson says. ‘It and the DJ Skribble’s toys offer kids a way of interacting with music without the heaviness of the club scene, which isn’t accessible to them yet.’

Hong Kong’s Play Mind Toys chose break-dancing as the urban culture hook behind a new Titanium-branded line of figures called Body Rockers that are launching internationally this month. ‘Break-dancing is generally regarded as an ’80s throwback, but we’re starting to see it on TV and in videos alongside the resurgence of retro style in fashion and design,’ says Play Mind’s head product designer Nathan Tabor. Besides the ’80s influence, Tabor says some inspiration for Body Rockers came from the Asian urban vinyl action figure trend. Cast in soft vinyl or premium plastics, urban vinyl figures are highly detailed fashion and music figures produced in limited quantities by well-known artists. The toy style originated in Hong Kong in 1999 and has been gaining popularity in the collector market ever since.

The Body Rockers line will include four figures (US$12 each): Flare, Uprock, Freeze and UFO. Partially comprised of die-cast steel, the six-inch figures come with a boom box that plays two different hip-hop tunes, as well as a graffitied cardboard style base for breaking on. Titanium figures have 32 points of articulation, which Tabor says made them a natural conduit for the complex moves that are the hallmark of break-dancers. ‘Toy companies have to really know what they are doing when they try to develop a subculture figure or toy line,’ Tabor says. ‘If they don’t get it right, they get it very wrong, and boring, badly done products can dilute a fun and interesting category.’

Play Mind is already working on a second line of hip-hop figures to go with the Body Rockers crew. Though licensing out the characters is a future possibility, the toyco is focusing on building the brand first.

North Hills, California-based MGA Entertainment is designing its own line of urban music figures, due out in spring 2004. The Musikids line is also influenced by urban vinyl style, and the six-inch figures will be bundled with a CD trading card. Targeted at tween girls, the cards will play music and an animated short with a cliff-hanger ending that continues on the Musikids website, which will also feature games and more music. The characters – three girls and a boy – each have their own style and personality that coordinates with the type of music they listen to. MGA CEO Isaac Larian says the company wants to develop the toys as characters and plans to launch a licensing program for Musikids at Licensing Show 2004.

For kids who want to skip the figures and get straight to spinning, Tualatin, Oregon-based Oregon Scientific offers the WavDJ (US$120), a turntable and mixing board that hooks up to a PC and allows kids to mix over favorite songs or create their own tunes. Budding composers can choose from a number of background rhythms and lay down up to 16 keyboard, drum or vocal tracks. The song can be plotted and manipulated on a music graph on the computer, and then sent to friends via the Internet.

Oregon Scientific executive VP Steve Jackson says the toy has sold 20,000 units since its release in Q4 2001, despite its high price point. Because computer peripheral toys are difficult to place in mass-market retailers, the WavDJ is sold mostly through catalogues. ‘Contemporary pop music is coming down in age range, so kids are coming into music as early as age seven or eight. We’ve seen it in the toy industry – kids want boom boxes and CD players at an earlier age, which has cut into traditional toy sales,’ Jackson says. ‘The whole genre is more important to kids today, and toys that appeal to that shared interest can have great success.’

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