by Khari Gzifa
I thought today I would give a few tips. Consider this an advice column of sorts for unsolicited (nonetheless, very needed) career guidance. This particularly goes out to the artists that don’t have the marquee names and the big budgets, indeed the ones who YouTube intends to evict from their space. As I see it, most of the "underground" artists of today are essentially carbon copies of the "mainstream" rappers. I mean they rap about the same things. So much so, that based on hearing many of their songs I wonder why any of them would ever want a major label deal at all, seeing as how they already have the identical lifestyle AND no 360 deal draining away profits that they could keep for themselves. Unless of course, the lyrics are not "keeping it real," but instead are "keeping it fraudulent". A lesson that many artists seem to have missed is that NOBODY likes to be lied to. Whether it’s in business, personal life, or even in the art they purchase, respect, trade, etc. The underlying statement in any lie after all is, "...and you're too dumb to know any better". Not exactly a great message to send to someone you are courting as a potential fan or investor. I’m going to just take a few minutes to offer my 3 tips on how an artist can avoid being one amongst a million, and instead be one of a kind, which is what they were always meant to be.
First tip, you (Mr. and Ms. underground artist, from here on referred to as simply you) can’t say what they say. They, being the anointed few who seem to have unfettered access to the airwaves, TV coverage, award show nominations, etc. You know the usual suspects, your Kanye’s, Jays, Ross', Wayne’s, Drakes, etc. Their lives are not yours. It comes off as dishonest and insulting to the audience when you keep presenting a fantasy as if its reality. I mean beyond that, some of it is just ridiculous anyway. Come on son, bragging about all this dealing and shooting people, and on and on. If you were ever even slightly involved in any of that, you would be an absolute idiot to be recording and releasing those potentially incriminating statements on CD. Everyone knows this, and it prevents you from being taken seriously. I know many, emcees especially, will say that "they are not speaking about themselves personally and these are stories from the artist’s experience". I don’t deny that, but that is not the way they market and promote themselves. They are truly selling an image that is in direct opposition to the lives they actually live and the very real lessons they have learned in that life. I believe that is a big reason many artists are not able to amass a following. You need to have trust from both sides of the equation, both the artist and the audience, and when you blatantly lie and exaggerate in your "conversations" with your listeners, then that trust just isn’t there.
Second tip, time and time again it has been proven that the most effective way to win an audience is to present your authentic self in your art. The only way you can really give your best performance is when you’re 100% committed to what you’re saying. Because then, you are really not saying anything, you are just being yourself, in a completely unrestricted way. And let me tell you, history informs us that out of that type of freedom, often comes some of the most amazing music ever heard or made by humanity! So, here’s a really good question; "What you got to lose"? If you are searching for a deal and you don’t have one. Well, you can’t get any further away from your goal by trying something new. The upside is that it’s quite possible that by tapping into that power of connecting and being in tune with lyrics and image, you might begin to make that impact on people and really start to hold their attention. Having been weaned on Golden Era music, it’s frustrating to hear EVERYBODY rapping about the same things, To illustrate my point I will quote the timeless Jeru the Damaja from his latest effort, the unheralded, The Hammer. On "Point Blank" he rhymes " 'Member, when the game used to be diverse, Now almost every single record - one repetitive verse". I do remember when we had ATCQ, PE, X-Clan, Luke/2Live, Hit Squad, and hell, even PM Dawn, Me Phi Me, The Goats and Masta Ace! Just in that list you have such a wide variety of perspectives, styles and subject matters that you could follow just one thread deeper down into a whole subgenre that could keep you from even hearing any of the other material. And all of these acts had videos in rotation at the same time, sometimes songs on the radio and mix shows simultaneously. That gave listeners a smorgasbord to choose from and we were stimulated by those various influences. But today its one perspective, that of a corporate front man selling everything from high fashion clothing to alcohol and every type of illicit drug one can think of. Ultimately this lack of originality and diversity punishes everyone, the audience is deprived of some incredible insights and viewpoints that are locked away in their minds because they are made to believe that exposing those thoughts could somehow cut them out of the money. The artists themselves are made to suffer as well because they are like beautiful birds housed in cages that won’t even allow them to fully extend their wings. Eventually it will take its toll on them, despite how much money may line the bottom of the cage.
Third tip; and this is the one of the biggest secrets in the industry right now. Everyone clearly sees it but no one dare speak it aloud. Of course I couldn’t care less, so I will tell it.... The industry is broke and dying. So they simply don’t have the same number of spots that they used to have. Not when they know they only have capacity for a handful of successful releases in a year. They have a couple of acts that they invest heavily in because they know they can flip them and make some money. But they no longer have spots available for the 2nd and 3rd string like they used to, they can’t afford it. So just by sheer numbers alone your chances of making it into one of those coveted spots is miniscule at best. So why bother to conform to rules that apply to a group that you may never be a part of? You have the freedom to write your own rules, ones that will allow you to shine in ways that only you know how. Why roll up on the plantation and ask to be shackled? Being marooned outside of the corporate system may be the biggest blessing the game can offer you. It can allow you to be your true self and that’s something that no one else can copy. It’s like having a patent or copyright for a product or service -- you get exclusive rights to sell it. Think IPhone, Windows OS, Pay per View, that’s the type of control you have over your product, and if the quality is there as well, it’s a no-lose situation!
In closing, I hope artists really hear what I'm saying here. I’m not trying to diss anybody; I’m not saying you are not good enough to make it. I’m saying, question yourself on if you even wanna "make it" in this new configuration of the music business, first. Then if you decide to do it, then do it! Don’t come in and copy what someone else is doing, (we used to call that biting back in the day and it was a major violation) come in and give us who you really are; because there’s 7 billion people on this spaceship we call Earth and out of all of them... you are the only one who can!! Like I said, there are only a few slots left nowadays so if you want one of them or you want to be able to support yourself without one; you're gonna have to differentiate yourself from the pack. Just think about it, when people blow up, is there somebody else doing the same thing at the same time?! No!! Snoop Dogg, Nikki Minaj, The Roots, Outkast, you name it - when they came out, they were unique, they had something that no one else had. Just like you do. But you gotta stop being scared to show it. After all, to quote some ancient hustler wisdom, "Scared money don’t make money." Good luck, y'all!