A little while ago when I was still living back home in Detroit, there was a time when it seemed like you couldn’t go anywhere without running into an artist on the corner that wanted to give you his CD to listen to. During one of these occasions, it just so happened that I was able to get a fly-on-the-wall view of such a transaction taking place. I wasn’t the one that the young rapper approached. Instead, there was an elderly woman going into a convenience store just as I was coming out. The young man proceeded to get the woman’s attention so that he could sell her on purchasing his independently-made and distributed CD. “Well, how much is it?” the elderly woman asked. After nervously stammering, stuttering and falling over his words a bit, the aspiring rapper finally said, “A dollar.” To which the woman replied, “Now son, why in the world would you only wanna sell this for a dollar?” Truly a priceless moment…
This interaction is at the heart of an ideal that Hip Hop has always held true to: Entrepreneurship. Though I doubt the young man sold many CDs that day (highly doubtful that he was able to convince the elderly woman to cop one), the fact is that he got up the courage to put himself out in the world and pursue making money from his musical creation. Too many times, those of us that might be talented enough or charismatic enough lack the will and the desire to at least try creating a career in the music thing. But then again, there are so many examples of those that said “To HELL with everyone and everything else”, threw caution to the wind, stepped out on faith and went ahead with their dream of not only being a Hip Hop artist, but being one that is successful on their own terms.
I know what you might be thinking: we’ve heard this story before. And we have. We hear about the great American dream that upper crust artistpreneurs and hustlers such as Jay-Z, Russell Simmons, Sean Combs, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Ice Cube, and Snoop Dogg have attained. But what about those artists that really and truly decided to go against the grain and make a living in this music thing that fly somewhat under the radar, and are now beginning to get their shine as savvy marketers, grade A grinders and overall brilliant businessmen? Well, I decided that I would try to highlight a few of them here, just to reiterate how strong the ideal of the Hip Hop artistpreneur still is at the indie music level, especially now.
Tech Nina is beginning to get lots of traction and airplay for his interesting blend the Midwestern and the alternative. Having founded Strange Music in 1999 with fellow label CEO Travis O’Guin, N9ne has taken to creating music and recruiting artists that are well outside of what Top 40 radio would consider acceptable for the average listeners palette. But N9ne and his Strange Music army, artists, employees and fans alike, have used this fact to their advantage and have built arguably one of the strongest music followings that the genre of Hip Hop has ever known, and they did it while distributing and selling millions of albums independently, not having to cater to the whims of major label politics. Granted, it probably took N9ne and his people years of sleepless nights and hungry days to get to where they are now, but when you get to keep a good chunk of the profits that you worked so hard for and so long for, the alternative probably doesn’t look all that great. Tech N9ne and Strange music are a true testament to putting in the necessary work for the necessary years, and laughing all the way to the bank when those benefits are reaped.
Those of us from the era of 90s Hip Hop know E-40 very well. The Bay area emcee had a string of hits in the mid to late 90s, experienced a career resurgence earlier in the new millennium by partnering with the likes of T-Pain and Lil Jon, and was at the forefront of the energetic if short-lived Hyphy movement, on top of more studio albums than you can count on both hands (In A Major Way, The Hall of Game, The Element of Surprise, My Ghetto Report Card, The Ball Street Journal, the Revenue Retrievin’ series, etc.) But Forty Water doesn’t get quite as much credit for being astute in business as he does for his music. Take, for example, how he invested in a Fatburger franchise out in California (which is now closed), as well as in Microsoft. He opened a nightclub, wrote his own book of slang, has made several television and movie appearances, and now is primed to open up a few Wingstop restaurants in out Cali way. One could venture to say that E-Feezy figured out a long time ago that only doing music wouldn’t necessarily pay the bills. More artists might stand to gain from his example.
These dudes are no strangers to major label success, having release two albums under Atlantic Records: Watermelon, Chicken and Gritz in 2002 and Wooden Leather in 2003. But ever since then, the Nappy boys have gone the independent route once again by forming Nappy Roots Entertainment Group in 2008 and releasing a stream of mixtapes, albums and singles on the imprint. Innerstate Music, The Humdinger, The Pursuit of Nappyness, Nappy Dot Org and Sh!t’s Beautiful have all been released under NREG, and the Kentucky quartet have no plans of turning back, having built successful relationships along the way. Their latest project, the Sh!t’s Beautiful mixtape, was even released in conjunction with Hip Hop news website heavyweight AllHipHop.com. And just imagine what this quartet can rake in from many different areas of the music biz by doing it on their own: touring, merchandising, management, you name it…it looks like going and staying indie was and is the right move for Nappy Roots.
When you think about it, all of these artists know what it’s like to struggle on a major label. All of them know the highs and lows that can come along with trying to make it in the mainstream rap game. And, because of that, all of them decided to go their own route and try making their own money in their own way with this rap ish. There are tons more artists that we could highlight that have had and are having lots of success as independent Hip Hop artists. But the main point is this: Hip Hop’s entrepreneurial spirit is something that will seemingly never go away, from the high-end, Ibiza-happy excursions of Sean “P. Diddy” Combs to the grassroots-turned-mainstream success of these and other artists and labels. And I personally can’t wait to see what form Hip Hop artistpreneurship will take in the future.