Local rappers ink major-label contracts, only to be left wondering: Deal or no deal?

And some St. Louis hip-hop artists take their future into their own hands.

Of course, each deal is customized, and for artists like Potzee, who is signed to Asylum Records through the production company Unauthorized Entertainment, going through a middleman has certain advantages. He says he has learned from cautionary tales like Ebony Eyez's.

"I'm not in a rush at all," he says. "Our situation? We're gonna stretch it out as much as we can."

But other artists signed through a production company aren't nearly so sanguine. Signed in February 2006 to Rap-a-Lot Records, Maurice Hines, known as Raw Resse, says he has no idea when his album will be released.

The era of the independent hustler: Ruka Puff isn't just looking for a deal -- he's looking for the right deal.
Jennifer Silverberg
The era of the independent hustler: Ruka Puff isn't just looking for a deal -- he's looking for the right deal.
Ebony Eyez hit big with her single "In Ya Face." Now that she's left Capitol Records, she's looking for a new deal.
Jennifer Silverberg
Ebony Eyez hit big with her single "In Ya Face." Now that she's left Capitol Records, she's looking for a new deal.

He says the label has yet to set a date in part because his single, "24's," isn't getting the radio play it deserves.

"The label's been calling us, telling us they're going to give us a release date," says the dark-skinned, slender rapper, who grew up in East St. Louis. "But the messed-up thing about the situation is that we're really not getting the spins that we should be getting. The streets and everybody love us, but without the spins it makes our label look at us like we're not doing our job. Our buzz can be real big in the street, but [Rap-a-Lot Records] wants to see what the radio's doing, what the people are requesting."

Raw Resse is not alone. Working with the Atlanta rapper Gipp, St. Lunatic Ali's terminally forthcoming album, Kinfolk, though released last December in Europe, has already missed several domestic release dates.

Asked about the delay, Shirronda Sweet, the duo's publicity representative at Universal, says, "They started putting new songs on the album. They just needed to change some things."

J Records, a division of Sony BMG, shows no signs of releasing an album by St. Louis rapper Clyph, who has been signed since mid-2005. J Records publicity representative Viola Borden says she's unsure of Clyph's status with the label, adding that J Records has no clear plans regarding how to move forward with the artist.

"So far we've done nothing with him," says Borden. "He might come out fourth quarter; he might not, but right now I don't have him on my release schedule."

It was these sorts of delays that prompted DJ Kaos, who in 2002 landed a deal with MCA/Universal with his band Da Hol' 9, to drop outside production companies for good.

"We got signed and everything was great. We were supposed to be the next big thing," says Kaos, whose 2002 hit single "Urbody in the Club Up" became a local anthem. "But we were going back and forth with lawyers: The producers' lawyers were talking to the label's lawyers who would get back to our lawyers. All of this was going on while our song was peaking: We've already done shot the video. Everything's ready to go, but we can't play the video until we've got the clearance on the producer agreements — so the producer can hold your whole project up."

In the end, Kaos (who declines to provide his given name) says the song's popularity began to wane and the label decided to hold off on releasing the album. Undeterred, he walked away from MCA/Universal with the rights to the album's masters.

But when he tried to release the album independently, it wasn't the same.

"We didn't have the muscle that the big label gave us," Kaos says. "What did I learn from that? I don't deal with producers anymore."

In late January the Adam's Mark hotel in downtown St. Louis hosted the first annual Midwest Monsters Music Conference. Aspiring rappers from around the state paid the $25 admission fee to listen to panels of rappers, distributors, DJs and producers discuss issues like how to make it in the industry without a major-label deal, how to get a deal and how to negotiate publishing rights and radio play.

Outside the conference rooms, companies like Hollow Wear Apparel Inc., which makes music videos for many unsigned artists, hawked their wares. Derrty Entertainment had a booth selling Pimp Juice products and the end of the conference was marked by a showcase of unsigned St. Louis acts.

The conference was organized by an unsigned St. Louis rapper known as Ruka Puff, who knows more than a little about the pitfalls of modern music contracts. In the summer of 2005, Ruka Puff (real name: Byron Waters) signed with Los Angeles artist Mack 10's Hoo-Bangin' Records. At the time Mack 10 had a deal with Capitol Records. The plan was that once Mack 10's album was released, he'd promote Ruka Puff to the label.

"It didn't go as expected. He sold 40,000 or 50,000 — but for Capitol that was a flop. And he couldn't get Capitol to bite on my record because his record didn't do what it was supposed to do," says Ruka, who only recently got out of his deal with Hoo-Bangin'. "It was real ghetto. We never even got around to the recording process because, you see, it was a waiting game."

A beefy rapper who wears his hair braided but for a spiked mohawk and is given to pronouncements like "This is the age of the overweight MC," Ruka Puff has gone on to place his music with Fox Sports as well as the Indiana Pacers basketball team. He says he has come to realize there are plenty of ways to pull money from the music, and he's convinced that getting signed is only half the battle.

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