Matt Zingler and Tariq Cherif may deal in hip-hop, but, along with the headliners they put onstage, they’re the festival world’s newest rock stars.
The founders of the Miami-based Rolling Loud have rapidly expanded their empire since launching in 2015, after years of laying the groundwork promoting shows in Florida’s underground rap scene. Zingler, 30, is a lifelong festivalgoer with an extreme tattoo habit; Cherif, 29, is a hip-hop expert who can quote back issues of XXL. The duo was in the business at the right time, laser-focused on hip-hop before the genre exploded on streaming services, helping draw a millennial crowd to Miami in year one and prompting an expansion to the West Coast in 2017. “You’ve got hip-hop guys performing with full bands. They dress like rock stars from the ’80s and ’90s, like metal bands,” says Cherif, who will speak on a panel of hip-hop’s next generation of festival promoters at Billboard’s Live Music Summit in Los Angeles on Nov. 13. “You can’t even categorize hip-hop in a specific lane anymore.” They’ll launch overseas in 2019. Here’s how they made Rolling Loud into a destination for rap fans and artists alike.
WORK WITH YOUR BFF
Zingler and Cherif met in fourth grade and remained tight as teenagers while attending different colleges. Cherif’s passion for rap music, Zingler’s love of festivals and their mutual ambition to create something groundbreaking in the hip-hop space -- along with the shorthand fostered by two decades of friendship -- made them ideal business partners.
“If there’s a negotiation about money, nine times out of 10, I’m like, ‘Matt, handle this,’” says Cherif. “If it’s a relationship or music thing, it’s like, ‘Tariq, handle it.’ We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and trust each other to maintain the mission.” Their longtime connection has also erased any hint of ego. At the first Rolling Loud, recalls Zingler, “I remember picking up trash because we were going to have to pay a cleaning fee if it wasn't left the right way. Tariq and I definitely do a lot of work people might think is beneath us, but it’s because we care. We’re not above anything.”
SHOW UP EARLY
In 2010, Cherif and Zingler started producing shows in their native South Florida, doing one-off nights and booking about-to-blow artists like Kendrick Lamar for three-city runs around the state. By summer 2013, their monthly events in Miami were hosting up-and-comers like Travis Scott and Denzel Curry. Many of these early shows lost money, but the duo recognized the importance of consistency, building a fan base and -- perhaps most crucially -- collecting data from attendees that helped them target the right fans with ads, get a sense for how many tickets certain artists could move and, in time, accurately estimate the first Rolling Loud’s ticket sales.
Meanwhile, the 2013 demise of Rock the Bells -- the rap festival launched in Southern California in 2004 that expanded throughout the United States and into Europe to become the genre’s biggest live draw -- left the international circuit without a large-scale event dedicated exclusively to hip-hop, right as a new generation of young artists like Drake, J. Cole and Lamar was pushing the genre to new levels of mainstream ubiquity. When Rolling Loud launched in 2015, the market was primed for a hip-hop extravaganza, and Cherif and Zingler were ready to throw it.
“It was five years of creating the building blocks to fill that [market] void,” says Cherif. “And then all of a sudden, it went from a void to a fan base.”
GROW WITH THE SCENE
Before launching Rolling Loud, Cherif and Zingler were regularly selling out 1,500- to 2,000-capacity rooms but didn’t have access to the bigger venues their acts wanted as their profiles rose. Without this access, the guys lost artists they had developed to mega promoters like AEG and Live Nation.
“We were about to lose Schoolboy Q just like we had lost a number of other artists,” says Zingler. “That was the wake-up call: ‘We need to adapt, or we won’t have a business.’”
The guys realized a festival would allow them to capitalize on years of artist development while continuing to work with acts as they hit the big time. They booked Miami’s Soho Studios as a venue and filled the lineup with frequent collaborators like Curren$y and Scott. Rolling Loud launched as a single-day festival in February 2015, with Schoolboy Q headlining. Ticket prices started at $50, and 6,500 people showed up.
Rolling Loud’s inception coincided with the rise of Florida’s fertile SoundCloud rap scene, with artists including Lil Pump, Ski Mask the Slump God, Smokepurpp and the late XXXTentacion -- a built-in crop of homegrown artists for Cherif and Zingler to develop. Cherif says these acts, along with Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, Lil Yachty, Robb Banks, Kodak Black and Curry “really exemplify the core Rolling Loud champion artists that we got early and who grew with us and became mainstream.”
“They were creating performance opportunities for the entire Florida rap scene at a time when no one was really checkin’ for these guys,” says Julieanna Goddard, aka YesJulz, the Florida-born media entrepreneur who hosted Rolling Loud in 2016 and 2017. “Matt and Tariq know how to curate and promote a show and, most importantly, can identify key talent early on. Because of this, they have the support of the underground scene and the youth. That’s a strong audience and a hard one to grasp.”
SET A HIGH BAR
Even early on, Cherif and Zingler viewed Live Nation and AEG as their primary competitors. “Our long-term goal wasn’t just doing these shows in Florida,” says Cherif, “so I never considered any local promoter a competitor because I knew they didn’t have the long-term vision we had.”
In just four years, they have made good on that vision. Rolling Loud hosted 180,000 fans over three days in May at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, with general admission tickets going for $299. (Zingler and Cherif decline to comment on their revenue.) In late 2017, Rolling Loud made its West Coast debut with a pair of events in the Bay Area and SoCal, major festival markets with historic connections to hip-hop.
Cherif and Zingler have looked to Electric Daisy Carnival, the EDM festival produced by Live Nation property Insomniac, as a model in terms of fan experience and say that “currently, Insomniac is our local partner for shows in California,” though they own 100 percent of the Rolling Loud brand. EDC has also expanded well beyond its flagship Las Vegas event to other venues in the United States, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Asia and beyond, and Rolling Loud plans to capitalize on hip-hop’s worldwide explosion in the same way EDC has ridden the EDM boom. Rolling Loud will go overseas in 2019, with shows announced in China, Japan and the United Kingdom.
“Not everyone likes to travel internationally, but there’s a comfort with the Rolling Loud brand,” says Erin Larsen, an agent at Paradigm who has booked artists including Lil Uzi Vert and Playboi Carti at every Rolling Loud since 2015. “Tariq and Matt have done a great job with how they’ve branded the festival and how they take care of artists’ teams, so I think artists will go” and support them in foreign markets.
SELL THE LIFESTYLE
The guys rattle off mega-corporations -- “Starbucks! McDonald’s! Coca-Cola!” -- when describing their plans to grow Rolling Loud into a lifestyle brand in which the festival lives alongside a record label, media company, clothing line and liquor brand. “If these guys do it right, they can become [one of] the most powerful players in music-centric content,” says Goddard. “Rolling Loud can be our version of MTV.”
Cherif and Zingler say they would entertain an offer for the company -- if they could continue to lead it. “Every business is technically always built to sell,” says Zingler. But “we wouldn’t just allow somebody to come in and take control of the brand. It’s about the culture and our fans, so we have to put our financial gains aside and do what’s right.” Cherif says it’s “almost a noble responsibility, which brings a lot of anxiety. At the end of the day, though, it feels great to tell my son I started something from nothing.”