Last Friday, Twin Cities pantry conglomerate Hamburger Helper released a hip-hop mixtape entitled Watch the Stove.
The General Mills brand’s perplexing creation went capital-V viral almost instantaneously, racking up delirious SoundCloud play counts — around 7 million at the moment — with track "Feed the Streets" from Twin Cities artists DJ Tiiiiiiiiiip and Bobby Raps leading the charge.
The mixtape inspired hordes of thinkpieces featuring interviews with the local talent involved in its creation. Ad Week, BuzzFeed, Billboard, Entertainment Weekly, and poor, gullible City Pages all took the bait.
If your reaction to this news has been WTF [flummoxed emoji], you are not alone. WTF is this? WTF does this tell us about our modern world? Ourselves? How did we get here? And what kind of Hamburger Helper does God eat?
Today we will attempt to unravel the mysterious entity that is Watch the Stove with a comprehensive thinkpiece including interviews with the local talent involved.
First up — WTF is this? /// A: An internet marketing stunt.
What will thrive and what will die online is still a mystery for those of us without an advanced understanding of internet economics. There’s no simple, back-of-the-box recipe for content creators to follow, just as there’s no use prognosticating what the next great attention-seizer will be.
What’s obvious is that making a splash online is one of the most sought-after commodities in our modern world. Equally obvious: Our priorities our severely imbalanced.
We know it’s highly lucrative for brands to get their hooks inside the millennial circus tent of the internet, and that a campaign like Watch the Stove is clearly designed to provoke the circus. This isn’t an accidental phenomenon like Damn Daniel. Serious resources were allocated for its design.
From the top down, there’s the deep-pocketed corporation that wants our bellies to be as swollen with their product as possible. Then there’s the creative team entrusted with the absurd task of creating campaigns zany enough for us to retweet.
The creative team then has a leader, who in this case is named Robb McNeill and he’s actually a really nice guy. Robb wakes up one glorious morning with this mixtape idea. He pitches it. The powers approve. It’s the best day of Robb’s life.
Now the General Mills squad responsible for Watch the Stove is rolling, but no one in the office can rap or make beats, so they reach out to McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul. There’s possibly some dark-alley handshake agreement between General Mills and McNally that happens at this juncture, but no one would comment on it for this story. Then the college filled with local hip-hop talent is on board.
Local rapper and McNally program director Toki Wright takes the lead and inspires the young talent to rap about ground-beef-enhancer Hamburger Helper. The General Mills PR wing is tasked with an insane press release. Then journalists get curious emails about the mixtape in advance of its release, which are so fucking ridiculous of course we’re going to bite.
This is, of course, a condensed list of ingredients for virality.
The mixtape then explodes on the internet. A vacuum that feeds itself is forged. The campaign is a wild, game-changing success. Expect more like it.
Q: WTF does this tell us about our modern world? /// A: The modern world is chaos — for small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.
The future we inhabit is so vast and volatile we’re now preset to expect the unexpected. Consistency is for the birds. Millions of messages are competing desperately for our waning attention. Insanity weeds its way into the fore. Today, it seems, the only thing you can count on is that the terrifying specter of the off-course, unpredictable universe will continue meandering in off-course, unpredictable ways.
Brand marketers hip to our current dystopia are now tasked with creating ad campaigns outlandish enough to cut through the noise that so loudly permeates our lives. For reference, just picture the last deodorant ad you saw.
We offer most of these campaigns a glance and then shrug them off. We sigh and moan, “Nay, advertising. Your pithy tricks attempting to hijack the chaos of modernity only deepen the void. I’m just going to maintain my allegiance to the brands that remind me of the more consistent days of yore. Life is pointless.”
However, once in awhile something brilliant comes along and grips our attention violently. We discover it’s still possible for a brand to find un-mined vulnerabilities in our armor.
The fork with which Watch the Stove has cut into our world with is two pronged. On one end, the idea of a hip hop mixtape inspired and created by Hamburger Helper is so bananas it was destined to entertain us on the surface of its conceit alone.
On the other end, the product is so much better than it needed to be that it's maintained our attention longer than General Mills could have imagined in their wildest, wettest dreams.
The music is actually good. The visuals are fun. In the case of DJ Tiiiiiiiiiip and Bobby Raps' “Feed the Streets,” performed under their Dequexatron X000 moniker, the project becomes so cohesive and perfectly synthesized one can’t help but love it.
And love is all we have in the terrifying future that a Hamburger Helper mixtape shares with the likes of Donald Trump and ISIS, amiright?
Q: WTF does Watch the Stove tell us about ourselves? /// A: We are sheep.
We are collectively lost on a rock floating through the galaxy. It’s always been this way but now we’re on the internet. One day we squint through the fog and ask, “Is that Hamburger Helper mascot Lefty? Wait, he’s got a hip-hop mixtape?” We are pleased with this information. It entertains us.
The moment is fleeting. One day we will die.
Q: How did we get here? /// A: Passionate people are capable of anything.
We could dive deep starting with Charles Darwin or the Industrial Revolution or the Invention of Pasta, but we’ve decided to respect the boundaries of your attention span. Lord knows you’ve probably got other things to do on the internet today.
Instead, we’re going to use this space to speak with project creator Robb McNeill of General Mills and DJ Tiiiiiiiiiip about their involvement in the mixtape and how they’ve come to find themselves at such curious destinations in a young man's life.
We start with DJ Tiiiiiiiiiip of the aforementioned “Feed the Streets.”
City Pages: How did you become involved with this ridiculous project?
DJ Tiiiiiiiiiip: My guy Robb works for General Mills. He asked me about it and I brought the idea to Bobby [Raps] who said he was down. For the most part it’s Bobby. He wrote the raps. He’s an amazing producer.
CP: Do you have free Hamburger Helper for life now?
DJT: Honestly we got a shit-load of Hamburger Helper. Before we even signed on there was a cart full of like every flavor. And they gave us these little hands for inspiration. I would see that hand at my place and it was like a reminder — “Don’t forget. Finish that song.” I’ve busted open a couple boxes.
CP: What has your life been like since the release of Watch the Stove?
DJT: It’s been pretty cool. It’s been a personal goal of mine to have something like this happen. Some people in our crew have had some online viral-ness before so it’s just cool to have our little time. It’s cool to be an internet sensation for a little while. It’s our turn, I guess. It’s a little more goofy than you’d imagine but we don’t care.
CP: Do you think this project says anything about the state of the modern world?
DJT: Absolutely not. It may be saying something about motherfuckers that need to step their game up a little bit. If you’re getting beat out by a Hamburger Helper mixtape ... It just goes to show if you have good music and it’s a fun, funny idea, that’s all you need.
Motherfuckers need to start having more fun. There’s a reason this popped off. It’s more simple than people think. I don’t think it says anything about the modern world. The world hasn’t gone to shit.
CP: What’s weird about your collaboration is that it’s really good. The song bangs, which is unexpected given the source material. Did you know you were onto internet gold when you were working on this?
DJT: I’m not sure. Every time me and Bobby work on a song we put a lot of effort into it. We wouldn’t send it in if we didn’t think it was good. But we did not think it was going to be like this, no. We didn’t know how they were going to release it or what was going to happen. There was no plan to make it viral.
CP: Do you watch the whole video or do you just skip to the parts that turn you on?
DJT: I do a little bit of skipping. Skip to the action. I’m not going sit around all day watching porn. I’m a skipper.
Robb McNeill, the man responsible for this project.
City Pages: First off, congratulations. Have you been promoted to oversee all future General Mills projects?
Robb McNeill: Not quite. However, right before the mixtape dropped I was actually promoted to become one of three lead creatives in our newly formed internal agency, The Bellshop. So I will get to focus on these types of projects and campaigns moving forward.
CP: Where did you get the idea for this project?
RM: Over the past few years the @Helper Twitter account has had a lot of fun being a part of the conversation that surrounds the hip-hop culture and music industry.
For instance, when Drake released the album art for “Hotline Bling,” which featured repeating white type over a pink background that read “1800-HOTLINEBLING,” I took it upon myself to photoshop an alternate version which read “1-800-HOTLEANBEEF.”
What ultimately led to this mixtape becoming a reality was another Drake tweet by my coworker Pete Basgen from October 2014, which said, “The mixtape is almost ready.” It featured an image which was a play on Drake’s “Nothing was the Same” album art, featuring our mascot Lefty over a blue sky with clouds background, and it said “No Dinner was the Same.”
CP: Is this your first mixtape release? Did you have any experience writing raps about food?
RM: This is indeed my first mixtape release, and no, I can’t say I have any experience in writing bars about food. I have to give all the credit to the artists we worked with. We gave them complete creative control other than the requirement that their songs remained somewhat family friendly.
CP: How does Watch the Stove fit into the modern world?
RM: I’ve never seen so many fire emojis in my life.
CP: What was your initial reaction when you heard the music that had been made for Watch the Stove?
RM: I was most involved in working with Bobby Raps and DJ Tiiiiiiiiiip. Nothing could have prepared me for when I first heard the beat for “Feed the Streets.” The guys invited me out to their studio in Northeast to get an initial read on the beat and direction for the song. I about fell off my chair when I heard the beat. Bobby is a genius with the production, and Tiiiiiiiiiip is a master curator.
CP: Were you at all nervous about pitching the idea?
RM: Not really! From pretty early on the brand team gave us their blessing and let us run with it. Also, my boss Mark Skeba thankfully did most of the heavy lifting in terms of convincing the suits that this was a good idea.
CP: What’s it like utilizing your artistic voice for a giant faceless corporation?
RM: It’s a dream come true. Ever since I picked up a paintbrush as a small child while eating one of many fine cereals that General Mills produces, I knew it was my destiny to use my God-given talents to help sell pre-packaged food.
CP: Is your family proud of you?
RM: I’d like to think so. I don’t think they quite understand, though. However, they were pretty impressed when I told them we made Bloomberg, Time, and Yahoo Finance. They were less impressed by the fact that we made it to the front page of Reddit, were trending No. 1 on Twitter and were covered by Noisey/VICE.
Q: WTF kind of Hamburger Helper does God eat? /// A: Gold-plated macaroni, probably.
DJ Tiiiiiiiiiip: He’s probably got his own flavor. Something extravagant. Golden flavor.
RM: As Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch, aka Snoop Dogg, said, “God, the greatest Mack of all." So God definitely eats the true OG of Hamburger Helper flavors: Cheeseburger Macaroni.
So there you have it — all your burning Watch the Stove questions have been answered. Now that you’ve finished this article please feel free to click on some of our sweet banner ads.