Elevator Muzik

•May 12, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Rain tempers Mardi Gras celebrations along Bourbon Street, confining the debauchery inside the bars and strip clubs. Miles away in Metairie, La., rapper Curren$y doesn’t partake in festivities. Driving his massive, black Dodge pickup truck that engulfs his 5-foot-five-inch, freshly dressed frame — head to toe in apparel from popular street wear brand, 10 Deep — he’s headed to the recording studio.

After locating a joint in one of the many shoeboxes that fill the cab of his truck, he lights it and turns on the stereo for a listen of his new album. Fittingly, he skips to the third track. The chorus blares through the speakers: “This is elevator muzik, all we do is ride around and get high to it.”

Throughout the ride, he nods his head to the music in approval. “It’s like Charles Barkley’s ring,” he says later. Unlike the basketball legend who failed to win a championship, Curren$y has accomplished the one thing that he’s had “hanging over his head” — releasing his debut album, “This Ain’t No Mixtape.” More importantly, he’s done so on his own terms.

Photgraphed by Alex Burner

Photgraphed by Alex Burner

His pursuit of rap success is also a mission to prove his independence. Along with weed and recording, it’s his obsession. “Without having to deal with any of the politics of the industry, I can do this shit myself and be on the same level as the major players,” he says.

Measured against the best, he’s been labeled “the best rapper from New Orleans” by Asmi “Eskay” Rawlins, the founder of popular hip-hop website NahRight.com.  It’s a bold statement considering Lil Wayne, the best-selling artist of 2008, is from the same city. Yet with his smooth but complex polysyllabic rhymes, Curren$y proves it’s within reason.

Record labels spotted his talent early, his first deal coming with No Limit Records in 2002.  However, their crowded roster left little room for his album. In 2004, he joined another New Orleans-based label, Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment. After appearing on Wayne’s breakthrough album, “Tha Carter II,” Curren$y seemed next in line to drop an album of his own, but it never materialized due to a failed first single and the label’s focus on Wayne. And so, in December 2007, as Wayne was prepping “The Carter III,” — the triple-platinum album that would elevate the status of both Wayne and his label — Curren$y left.

“You’re not gonna work at Burger King if you can go open your own and make [similar] money,” said Curren$y late last year of his decision to try the independent route. “I can make hamburgers, too, so I got my own thing.”

Photographed by Alex Burner

Photographed by Alex Burner

In March 2008, he resurfaced with a free online mixtape appropriately titled “Independence Day.” Releasing mixtapes monthly until October, Curren$y gained national exposure — via the Internet — for the first time.

Eventually, he landed on the November 2008 cover of the top-selling rap magazine XXL as one of their “Top Freshman of ’09.” Nine others joined him on the cover, five of whom were signed to a major label at the time. By April, only two remained unsigned — one of which was Curren$y.

“The music business caters to quick fixes nowadays,” says rap journalist Trent Clark. “People mainly listen to one song — hits or club jams. Music is undervalued for content and Curren$y doesn’t have a signature song under his belt at the moment.”

“The music that I make is more of what people want to hear, not what they’re forced to hear,” says Curren$y.  He prefers “elevator muzik,” a combination of the laid back, stoner-rap vibes and synth-heavy beats tailored for booming car sound systems. “[It] emulates his persona to a tee,” says Clark. “Fly, spaced-out, and carefree. That’s Curren$y all day.”

Curren$y’s days usually begin with relaxing, marijuana-filled mornings, according to his Twitter messages reading, “I waketh, I baketh.” With his roommate, rapper Trademark The SkyDiver, he’ll routinely watch one of the many DVDs they own, such as “Heat” and “King of New York.” Once over, it’s time for another smoke and a replay of what they just saw, sometimes repeating the process until they pass out. “That’s how you remember all the lines,” says Trademark.

As a result, famous phrases from film and television creep into Curren$y’s lyrics, endearing him to his listeners. Relatable cartoon references — “My pockets fatter than Peter Griffin,” he raps on ”Elevator Muzik,” alluding to the hefty “Family Guy” protagonist — also enhance his laid-back, “everydude” image.

Photographed by Alex Burner

Photographed by Alex Burner

In his own words, he’s a “modern-day hippie.” “I just like to be around positive vibes, good weed, and good music — to just keep easy,” he says. However, it’s the very reason he’s not cut out for the cutthroat record industry, one that demands maturity and forcefulness.

“I definitely know the politics of the industry aren’t for me so that’s why I keep to myself and try to handle everything on my own,” he says. Thus, he chose to release his album as a payable download through the online distributor Amalgam Digital, forgoing a traditional deal.

“We’re not going through the same channels as everybody else,” he says. “A lot of people would’ve stopped running after this many hurdles. A lot of people expected me to stop. I think I proved to them that I knew that I could do it on my own and that they’re people out there really listening to me because I wouldn’t have [made an album] if I didn’t feel like there was a market.”

Unfortunately, the online market is small. On the release date of “This Ain’t No Mixtape,” Eskay wrote on his website, “If there was any justice in the world and a rapper’s success level was directly tied to his skill level, Curren$y would be selling as many copies as [Lil Wayne].”

Yet justice was served – Curren$y made no compromises. “If I say I’ma do it, consider it done. My track record will prove it,” he raps on “Elevator Muzik.” For now, he can keep driving around New Orleans, getting high as he revels in the fulfillment of his mission.


Rap Shows To Not Suck Donkey Dick?

•May 12, 2009 • Leave a Comment
Bobby Ray at SxSW with Curren$y

Bobby Ray at SxSW with Curren$y

Drink tickets are all gone. Sweat stains the faces of even the barely dressed. Eight hours of hip-hop nears its conclusion at Peckerhead’s bar in hot Austin, Tex. Headliner and Atlanta rapper Bobby Ray finally hits the stage with his band — complete with a guitarist, horn player, and drummer named Alien — but immediately, problems arise as the sound for every member cuts out repeatedly, the first time all day.

“Most sound crews that deal with hip-hop may not be ready to work with a live band,” reasons organizer Tyler “Gotty” King, in a recap of the show days later. If so, then the Peckerhead’s crew certainly had little opportunity to work out any kinks — Bobby Ray was the only performer with a band.

The showcase — an entirely hip-hop one — was a rarity as well, given the rock-centric landscape of Austin’s South by Southwest festival. Yet the presence of high-profile rappers such as Def Jam Recordings’ Kanye West and Jadakiss in Austin proved that live hip-hop is on the rise. Additionally, rappers no longer wait for their record labels to push them out on the road as part of “package” tours. Had West and Jadakiss been Def Jam artists a decade earlier, they would’ve embarked on the “Hard Knock Life” tour, which featured the label’s entire roster at the time.

Now, the onus falls on the individual emcees to embrace touring as a viable revenue stream — but not without coercion. “With the flood of mp3s in circulation for every artist and piracy at unprecedented levels, hip-hop artists have to be good performers now if they want to eat,” says Timmhotep Aku, deputy editor at lifestyle website Street Level and veteran writer of hip-hop publications such as XXL magazine. Never ones to do much dancing like their pop contemporaries, rappers are now looking to rockers, adding band ensembles to enhance the drawing power of their live performances. The Peckerhead’s sound crew will need to prepare, soon enough.

Hip-hop’s ascendancy to the forefront of mainstream music has naturally caused the increase in the interest in live shows. “Larger promoters, venues, and festivals are willing to do business with hip-hop artists because of the money that it generates. This was not the case in the past — you had to deal with a lot of shady club owners in 300 to 1,000-person capacity venues,” says Chris Barnett, a former promoter who has worked with the likes of Eminem and Mos Def.

In 2008, Kanye West sold out New York’s 20,000-seat arena Madison Square Garden three times during his “Glow In The Dark” tour. Yet just three years earlier, West only did one New York show during his “Touch The Sky Tour” — at the 2000-seat WaMuTheater inside Madison Square Garden.

Kanye West during the "Glow in the Dark" tour

Kanye West during the "Glow in the Dark" tour

Even for the smaller venues, the forward-thinking West performed with a 12-piece accompaniment, avoiding the pitfalls of rap concerts past. “About 10 years ago in Ego Trip magazine, Jonathan Schecter, founder of The Source magazine, wrote an opinion piece titled ‘Why Rap Shows Suck Big Donkey Dick,’” reminisces Aku. “One thing he said was that artists tend to pace around on stage like a caged animal and it’s not interesting at all. Another thing he mentioned was that the entourage doesn’t do anything. If you’ve ever been to a rap show, you’ve seen a show with up to 30 people on stage who have nothing better to do but look at you. They’re not getting hyped, they’re not part of the show, they’re just looking at the crowd. So that’s a failure.”

Aku continues, “As opposed to having people onstage who are just standing there, a band can improvise and break from the norm in the performance so it isn’t just the same experience the person gets from a record. The drummer can do a solo or the band can cover another song. It keeps the crowd more interested.”

Because a considerable degree of rap’s allure rests in its lyrical content, fans can easily lose interest at a concert if unfamiliar with the words. “A band allows you this flexibility where you can pull people into what you’re doing without them knowing what the material is,” argues Aku.

While the presence of a band may endear a rap concert to the paying pubic, the financial prospects that have drawn hip-hop acts to bands may differ from the harsh realities. The Roots, a band by nature — and undoubtedly hip-hop’s most successful at that — have been touring since the early ’90s, amassing most of their fortune on the road.

However, member Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter believes that artists who begin touring now will not be able to emulate his group’s success. “It’s a day late and a dollar short because anyone who’s getting a deal now is getting a 360 deal where your label gets the money from the shows you do anyway,” he says.

Trotter cites a new business model in the record industry, “one in which artists share not just revenue from their album sales but concert, merchandise, and other earnings with their label in exchange for comprehensive career support,” writes Jeff Leeds of The New York Times.

Black Thought of The Roots with Joell Ortiz

Black Thought of The Roots with Joell Ortiz

Even if 360 deals are avoidable, a rapper’s finances still stand to suffer. “The cost of touring with a band is very expensive and cuts into the bottom line,” adds Barnett. Thus, the rappers who have made live bands en vogue, such as Kanye West and Jay-Z are the ones with the financial means to afford elaborate stage shows. Jay-Z’s “Heart of The City” tour was hip-hop’s highest grossing, as well as one of the more expensive, featuring The Roots as the backing band for many dates.

Yet to release an album, Bobby Ray may not be well equipped financially for a band.  However, as he did In Texas despite malfunctioning equipment, he’s willing to play on unfazed. The crowd, in rapture during his performance, got their money’s worth.  If Ray keeps it up, in the long run, he may reap the benefits of his investment as well.

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Clue Who? The Death of the DJ

•April 9, 2009 • Leave a Comment



“I commandeer the turntable that’s my first mission/‘Cause the DJ ain’t spinnin’, he bullshittin’,” raps Atlanta native Clifford Joseph Harris, Jr., better known as T.I., on the track “Popped Off.” The self-proclaimed “King of the South,” T.I. doesn’t necessarily need the DJ’s cooperation to get his records played — and it’s not because he’s rap royalty.

Last week, neither New York’s Hot 97 (WQHT) radio station nor LA’s Power 106 (KPWR) — arguably the two rap radio stations with the highest number of listeners in the nation — were first to play the song from T.I. Indicative of a growing trend, it was a blog — in this case NahRight.com — that was first to debut the song, a purported single from the highly anticipated, decade-in-the-making Detox from the legendary Dr. Dre. By being the first to play and thus popularize records from artists big and small — and in turn, creating interest in those smaller artists as well — blogs are diminishing the long-standing role of the hip-hop DJ.

“Without a doubt, the blog community is becoming the first point of reference where people hear music first,” says Kwasi Asare, president of New Media at Bad Boy Entertainment, the record label owned by Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. “Before, it was all about the clubs,” he adds.

In clubs such as Disco Fever in the South Bronx, as well as during street block parties, DJs in the late 1970s were the first to play post-Disco era dance tunes that featured the first instances of rapping. Spinning and scratching songs such as Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” DJs didn’t just popularize those records, they essentially birthed the genre of hip-hop itself. Ever since, whether near a dance floor or in a radio studio, DJs have helped foster the evolution of the genre by being the ones to bring new music to the listeners.

Lovebug Starski at Disco Fever

Lovebug Starski at Disco Fever

However, with the dawn of the downloading of music, computer-savvy listeners began bypassing the DJ via file-sharing networks. Eventually, the RIAA suppressed the Napsters and Limewires of the world, but in time, blogs — with the added bonus of a section for comments that allows immediate feedback to be gauged — have arisen to replace them.

Though downloading in general has had a profound negative financial impact on the music industry, there is a flip side. Asare explains, “It’s cost-prohibitive to get your music spun in the club. You have to basically pay [the DJs] to play. Imagine printing out 4 to 5,000 pieces of vinyl and you hope the song’s a hit and it isn’t. Then, you just spent two grand for nothing. Whereas, if you send the music out to the blogs and you see it’s not really getting the feedback, then it helps you avoid the other problem.”

Saving money by avoiding the DJ doesn’t equate with making money, admits Rizoh, the blogger behind TheRapUp.com. “I definitely don’t see much of the online buzz translating into sales, which is still the industry’s primary measure of success. Blogs are great for generating buzz, but the process of turning that buzz into a [successful] music career is still a work in progress.”

Bronx rapper Mickey Factz, born Michael A. Williams, might be one of the first to make a breakthrough. Last year, over the course of 36 weeks, Mickey released a new song weekly on NahRight as part of a series entitled The Leak. Initially, Factz’s songs tracked only a few hundred downloads, but by the end of the series, the songs were totaling about 20,000 downloads. Honda took note of his increasing buzz and tapped him to be their spokesman for the Accord.

Mickey Factzs The Leak

Mickey Factz's "The Leak"

For the most part, popular emcees such as T.I. and Cam’ron who get radio and club play by the DJs are also featured on blogs. For some rappers such as Factz and John “Blu” Barnes who receive a lot of blog exposure, they remain relative strangers to radio and club playlists.

“Hip-hop bloggers offer an unfiltered voice that you won’t find with most DJs,” points out Enigmatik Inviktus, creator of the blog Boo Goo Doo Boom. “Most DJs don’t have free reign to give their opinions on different issues and artists because at the end of the day, they have to play whatever they’re told to play. Bloggers post what they want to post and say pretty much whatever they want to say.” He adds, “The ability to get new music quickly and offer a much broader variety besides the mainstream artists is a huge advantage that bloggers have over traditional avenues.”

Blogs can also offer a faster means of distribution, which is of great service even to DJs, explains rapper Cameron “Cam’ron” Giles. “Right now, it’s easy access. If a DJ likes your song, he can go [download it] and put it on radio right away.”

Last week, “Topless,” another track from Detox, debuted on Hot 97 on the 2 p.m. radio show spun by DJ Envy. Keeping the track for himself, Envy ensured that “Topless” could only be heard on his radio show. However, by 3:45 p.m., NahRight had a radio rip of the song available for download on its site.

Having both the blogger and the DJ around — to liberate the music and then keep it flowing on radio airwaves and floating around on the Internet — may be best for the listener. As Dominik “Crooked I” Whitfield, a Long Beach, CA rapper, details, “[Fans] come up to me all the time asking me where they can hear my music. I tell them it’s all over the blogs, but they say they don’t have access to them when they go to use a computer at a library. People forget, as hard as it is to believe, that not everyone owns their own computer.”

Rizoh adds, “I think DJs and bloggers can coexist in harmony, unless someone makes a device that can replace car radios with blogs.” Until then — or the day in which computers are at everyone’s fingertips — consider the DJ’s position safe.