During freshman year he largely put music aside to focus on schoolwork, making friends and playing on Penn’s sprint football team. By sophomore year, he felt himself being pulled back. “I think it just was something that found me again,” he says. “I had played safety on my high-school football team … but I came to the realization that I was not good enough at it to be spending my time doing it at Penn like I was. So music ended up winning, taking my time up, at the end of the day.”
His friends say Hoodie’s music and writing talents became clear. One Penn roommate, Lee Rubenstein W’10, says Hoodie showed an “amazing” ability to freestyle—an improvised form of rapping. “We would be hanging out in our house, there would be girls over, and he would go from one girl to another, singing raps about each one, saying something funny about each one,” he says. “It takes a lot of confidence to just rap off the top of your head like that.” A turning point came when Hoodie posted his music on Facebook, and his friends began sharing it online. “The word just got out,” Hoodie says. It did not hurt that, in an early bit of marketing savvy, he came up with the name Hoodie Allen, as a word play on the famous film director. “I just thought it was a catchy name that applied to me, that applied to my background as a Jewish kid from New York who was doing something unconventional. I thought it stuck in people’s minds, and it has.”
At Penn, R. J. Ferguson W’10 was following a somewhat similar path. Growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, he earned money on the side by performing as a DJ at parties. At Penn, he began producing as a hobby, borrowing bits and pieces from other songs—some horns here, some guitar riffs there—and then mixing in drum patterns, to create, in effect, new music. Ferguson and Hoodie had heard about each other on campus, but they did not strike up a friendship until they found themselves taking Suzanne Diamond’s marketing class at the same time. “Steve was working with another producer, but they split, and Spring Fling was coming up and Hoodie Allen was supposed to perform,” Ferguson told me. “He said it would be cool if he had new material. We said, OK, we should start working on tracks and ideas. It all kind of grew from there.” Their Spring Fling debut, a 45-minute performance in the Lower Quad, was well received, and they decided to continue the collaboration. By now they had both lined up work after graduation, Hoodie—with his degree in marketing and finance—at Google, Ferguson at Blue Flame, a digital marketing company in New York. With their post-graduation futures secured, they found the freedom to concentrate on their music. “I knew that I had this thing that was bubbling up, that I’d finally be able to kind of explore,” Hoodie says.
Two mix tapes under the name Hoodie Allen already had been released online; one of them earned an MTVU Best Music on Campus award in 2009. And Hoodie’s work cultivating bloggers was beginning to pay off. “They started supporting me and started supporting what I was doing. That did add, for one, legitimacy, and then two, a fan base.” But his collaboration with Ferguson took everything to a new level. In June 2010, they released “You are Not a Robot.” The song was listened to 60,000 times the first night, and soared to No. 1 on The Hype Machine, an online aggregator of new music posted on blogs around the world. “There was an instant reaction in a way that had never occurred before,” Hoodie says.
Seeing that reaction, Ferguson began to doubt the strategy of giving away their music. “I was like, ‘Let’s try to make this money now.’ I didn’t see it going further. I didn’t see this going another year. I felt we should enjoy that, and then go on with our lives.” His partner, however, insisted on staying the course. “Steve was thinking about the big picture,” Ferguson says. The release of a new mix tape, “Pep Rally,” soon after Hoodie began working in Silicon Valley, brought even more attention. Friends watching all this realized Hoodie’s days at Google were numbered—not that leaving the Googleplex would be easy. “He was definitely willing to take that risk, but I think there was a certain fear, to an extent,” Rubenstein says. “In the same way he might be passing up a hip-hop career, maybe he was passing up an amazing opportunity to work at a place like Google.”
Shortly after Hoodie left Google, Ferguson quit his marketing job to join him. Through performing and selling Hoodie Allen merchandise, they earn more now than in their corporate days. Soon, income from iTunes will start rolling in. And there is the potential for even more: if Hoodie’s new music sells well, record companies likely will be more eager to sign him, offering more favorable terms than in the past. For his part, Hoodie says he would be open to the right deal.
Ferguson admits it’s a career path he never envisioned at Penn. “It’s pretty surreal to see people do a cover of a song you made, influencing culture in a way I never imagined I would be able to. And doing the shows, seeing that the shows paid pretty well—both of those things came together to overpower what I had set out to do, which was get a job in marketing.”
But Hoodie says a music career is something he secretly dreamed about. He says has no regrets choosing the life of Hoodie Allen over Steven Markowitz.
“This is what I wanted to happen, but it is strange seeing those dreams—it gets different when those dreams come close to coming true, because it is put-up or shut-up time. But you know, my philosophy on everything has really changed, because I very much see things now as, ‘You should seize the moment, and you really should go after what you want in life,’ which might not have been my outlook going into college.”
Joel Siegel is a writer and producer for the ABC News program World News with Diane Sawyer.
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