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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.

"This is really the era for the independent hustler. Back in the day, the record labels used to do a lot of this stuff for you, but in this day and age the mindset is more entrepreneur. That's the mindset of most of the artists that are winning: They're super entrepreneurs.

"A lot of the artists coming out don't have backbone," he continues. "They don't have no kind of fan base, they don't have the streets. So you might find your little ditty pop that the record label built from top to bottom, but most of the people that are winning is the entrepreneur cats that were able to get it on their own — without the record companies."

That's not to say Ruka would turn up his nose if a major label came calling, but as he says: "It's not really getting a deal; it's getting the rightdeal."

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.

Artist Greg Lawary, known by the stage name Gena, is in a similar situation. Handsome, with short-cropped hair and the slightest dusting of a goatee, Gena signed to Basement Beats.

"I hooked up with these dudes and my life's been crazy ever since," says the East St. Louis native, who until recently was living at the Basement Beats studio while his single, "Dope Boy Fresh," captured attention locally.

"I went from being broke as hell to getting paid for sho'," he says. "It's a blessing. I'm happy right now. I ain't worried about no record deal. Because I know I didn't sign just to a label, I signed to a family. They give a damn about me, so I'm cool, and I won't be a fool. Like if [a deal] comes, and they are talking the right math, then we're good. But that's the main reason we're not signed right now, because people aren't talking the right math."

That's not a rapper's idle talk: The production company recently walked away from a deal offered by Atlantic.

"Gena is a strong enough artist that he can hit as an artist; he doesn't have to hit as a song. Deals are getting offered him. But first things first: We got to make a living. We don't want to get in a situation that we're going to hate," says Basement Beats co-owner Wally. "So for now we're forced to push him independently, because that's the way the game works right now."

For Gena that means collaborating with other artists and working to raise his own profile. So far the strategy appears to be working. Over Super Bowl weekend Basement Beats got Gena and Kanjia (their other signed artist) gigs at P. Diddy's postgame party.

"If this was 2000, both Gena and Kanjia would probably already be signed to a major," says Basement Beats co-owner Koko. "But these days they'll sign you to a single deal. [They] want you to do the legwork, they want you to become the machine. It's like: Why the hell would I come to you all if I'm the machine? But that's what the game's turned into. That's the dream they've been selling the artists.

"It's a shame, and that's right where we don't want to be: You do all the work, and then at the end of the day it doesn't work and you're dropped or you're stuck. That's what we're trying to avoid."

Contact the author malcolm.gay@riverfronttimes.com

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