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On an overcast Saturday morning, in a small but packed classroom at the Better Family Life Cultural, Educational and Business Center in Hamilton Heights, an audience reacts to Naheem Houston like he's a preacher in church. Though this is usually a weekly meeting to discuss problems within the community, Houston is one of the center's success stories, and the group is eager to hear how life is going for the soft-spoken young man.
"I got off probation early; I got out early by going to school and volunteering at Better Family Life," he tells the all African American crowd, with children and teenagers seated in the first two rows. "It took me five years to raise hell in my life and another five years to clean it up. I'm on the right track."
A baby-faced 24-year-old, save for the thin mustache over his lip, Houston rattles off his accomplishments — an undergraduate degree in business, a career in radio — and the crowd punctuates each sentence with loud applause.
"I'm so proud of him," says James Clark, director of outreach at the center and Houston's former mentor. "This is the savior of black America."
Houston still remembers the day in 2008 when Clark approached him and tried to talk him off the corner where he was selling crack, marijuana and, as he puts it, "whatever I could get my hands on." Though he resisted at first, Houston says he was tiring of the arrests, jail time and the violence he saw around him. He eventually began thinking about the people he was dealing to.
"It was my friends' moms and stuff like that. Friends' dads," says Houston. "They'll bring their kids with them to come get some. I just started thinking, like, it just started playing my conscience."
Houston says he's using the same hustle that made him a good drug dealer to make a name for himself in the music business, and not in the typical way. Although he is a rapper, performing under the name Yung B from Farlin, Houston has far greater ambitions.
"I developed this Web platform. I was seeing the need to help artists get into the music scene," he tells the crowd at Better Family Life. "It's the first Web platform in the world, not just in the U.S., but the world."
Minutes after the meeting is over, Houston sits at a long conference room table talking excitedly about search-engine optimization and software algorithms. He says he realized there was a lack of guidance for young aspiring musicians when he was working as a college intern for a radio station in Dallas. As he screened music submissions for airplay, he noticed young, inexperienced rappers and singers making the same mistakes. For example, one of the easiest ways to get rejected was to send in a recording with profanity. Houston recalled his early days rapping as a teenager and how, after he got frustrated with his lack of progress, he quit and started dealing.
"All we knew was, 'Record, perform. Record, perform.' But at the end of the day, that's really not handling the business. That's just one side of it," says Houston. "We didn't have no mentors."
Houston began conceptualizing a service that could break down the less glamorous side of the industry for new artists into easy steps — how to copyright music, how to start a business and apply for the appropriate licenses, how to have an effective Web presence, how to draw up and follow a business plan.
"He had a whole business plan mapped out, which a lot of people don't do," recalls Bridges of meeting Houston. "His CD didn't have Sharpie marker all over it...it's just the professionalism in him. That's what I liked."
Houston's single "Shittin' on the Game" wound up on a mixtape compilation called This That Southern Smoke Vol. 2, hosted by T.I. and DJ Smallz. The song's music video has nearly 60,000 views on YouTube. Hip-hop blogs soon picked up the track and shared it with their readers.
"I used myself as the prototype," says Houston.
Feeling that his own success could be replicated, he pulled together a team that includes an attorney, an accountant, video and audio producers, and a street team. Thus, 7 Star Dreams was born. For a flat, one-time fee, users start a profile, enter in information about their budget and their goals, and upload a song. Houston and his team then assess the music, make recommendations, then walk the artist through the steps to build their business, including how to have a strong Web presence with a personal website, social media and song streaming sites.
It's not just a how-to guide — Houston also promises to cover the how-not-to's of the music industry.
"This is the blueprint to not have your material stolen, to not have to pay to play a show," says Kenneth McClain, another BFL success story, Houston's best friend and a member of the 7 Star street team. "Nobody's going to tell you, 'Oh, you need to go do this, you need to do this.' They're going to try to get over on you."
Tales of bad contracts, shifty promoters and all manner of cons that target young artists are common.
"A lot of people take advantage," warns Bridges. "There's a lot of loopholes, and it's a tricky game."
Gregory Ballard Jr., a student at University of Missouri-St.Louis and a rapper who goes by the name PhaGinBaum FaNess, says one of the mistakes he made was to pay a company $2,000 upfront to produce his music and promote him as an artist. He says he recorded an album but never heard from his so-called marketing representative. He can't afford an attorney to deal with the situation, and for a time the company withheld his master recording.
"I really didn't understand the logistics in the contract," says Ballard. "My eyes were kind of blinded."
Sequoi Edwards, a local producer, says he almost lost his career after signing a contract he didn't fully understand. Legal know-how is crucial, he says.
"There's a lot of song stealing," he says. "It's crazy. I hear it a lot."
Ballard, who has become one of 7 Star Dreams' first customers, says he knows that all the preparation in the world won't necessarily prevent bad things from happening to an artist. But he says if someone like Houston had been around to talk about these issues when he was first getting started, that could have helped.
"In the game it gets real complex," Ballard says. "This will help you be aware of what you'll probably have to face and certain logistics to the business you might not be aware of."
For Houston, who just got a job in Dallas but is keeping 7 Star Dreams based in St. Louis, the greater mission is to give back to the city and the community that helped him get his life straight.
"You can't be in the streets and do music at the same time. It's not going to work," he says. "It's helping people pursue their passion. With the music and treating it like a business, you can do something positive with your time rather than doing something negative."