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.

Local rappers

Do it again.

This must be the twentieth pass rapper Akio Gray has taken through his new song's tortuous third verse, a tongue-tripping slide through women and the workaday week. Reading the lyrics from his two-way's illuminated screen in the darkness of Phat Buddha's recording studio, Gray has been stumbling over retake after retake for nearly an hour, trying to nail the verse with the force he imagined when he first punched the lines to "Old School" into the Sidekick.

So far no luck.

"Let me hear it again," Gray tells the hulking producer seated behind an incline of levers, buttons and knobs. With a few keystrokes, Chris Robinson — baldheaded, Buddha-serene and sporting a Redd Foxx T-shirt that bears the late St. Louis comedian's signature Sanford and Son line: "You Big Dummy!" — calmly cues up the verse.

"Damn," Gray says as he listens to the loop. "Let's do it again."

By now Gray, better known by his stage name, Potzee, has the verse memorized. As the loop cycles through for the umpteenth time, he shuts the studio door, holsters his two-way and launches into the song's thicket of vowels with fresh resolve. His bobbing head, a cascade of shoulder-length micro-dreads framed by a pair of lightly tinted sunglasses, punctuates the beat. His hands jab instinctively, reinforcing his growing fluency with the lyrics, which blast through the darkened studio's five-foot speakers, polished at last:

The paparazzi's there to keep it stupid
Getting paid, they can't do it the way I do it
Tuesday to Sunday I take Monday off,
Cause I'm buck-naked with you broad, gonna get mine off.

"Old School" has a catchy horn section that counterweights Potzee's boastfest about his skill with the ladies. But despite the nice beat and the long hours spent hammering down the delivery, the song will most likely be shelved — along with most of the more than 100 songs the rapper says he has recorded since inking a deal with Asylum Records back in 2004.

In the nebulous world of up-and-coming St. Louis rappers, Potzee is one of the city's brightest lights. Affable, good-looking and charismatic, he has already tasted success with "Dat Girl," an infectious single that hit big enough locally to earn him a video shoot with Asylum. Working with St. Lunatic Murphy Lee, he has cofounded the record label U.C. Me Entertainment. He performs regularly in clubs and schools. He spends many of his nights going over songs and recording in the studio. In other words, he's grinding.

"I feel blessed for real," says Potzee, who's wearing an oversize T-shirt that features a wind-blown honey in a rhinestone bikini, her flesh formed of overlapping $100 bills. "St. Louis is still an untapped market. We've got a lot of people who are kind of incubating right now. So we're like the next Texas, and everybody wants to make sure they put their stuff out there at the right time."

Incubating is right: Three years after signing with Asylum, Potzee's debut album, Hongry, has yet to materialize. Slated for release in July 2006, it was first pushed back to late summer, then postponed again in August.

Potzee says he's not discouraged by the delays and hopes to release the album sometime this spring. But he is only one of many St. Louis hip-hop acts that have been signed to a record label for a year or more and have yet to release an album.

Raw Resse, Clyph, Penelope Jones, Ali and Gipp, Potzee, Da Banggaz314, Baby Huey — the list of signed St. Louis hip-hop artists goes on. But for all the recording industry's apparent interest in St. Louis artists, Jibbs and Chingy are the only acts that managed to release a hip-hop album in 2006.

"A lot of the major labels get panicked. They see all this stuff coming out of St. Louis. They don't want to be last ones, and so they rush into signing someone. But it's like the proverbial dog on the street corner chasing cars. What will that dog do if it ever catches one?" says Emmett McAuliffe, a local entertainment lawyer who has represented artists Baby Huey and Da Hol' 9. "There are a lot of look-see deals out there — and that doesn't amount to much more than a one-way option, which could mean absolutely nothing."

Former Capitol artist Ebony Williams is more blunt.

"Artists are like: 'I got a deal!' That don't mean shit — nothing," says Williams, who sampled fame two years ago under her stage name, Ebony Eyez. "Artists think that once they get the deal they can fall back and let the label do the work. But getting signed means just that: You're signed. It doesn't mean you're going to get a video, or radio spins. It just means you're signed. Some of these artists think it's going to happen for them like it happened for Nelly — but the music business has changed."

Jibbs feat. Jibbs, the quasi-eponymous first album by sixteen-year-old St. Louisan Javon Campbell, a.k.a. Jibbs, brought with it the hope that the young rapper would prove to the world at large that this city's hip-hop catalog goes deeper than Nelly and Chingy.

Released on the strength of the ubiquitous single, "Chain Hang Low," the album itself has sold modestly, barely cresting the 125,000 mark — far short of the 500,000 units required for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)'s gold imprimatur, the entry-level benchmark of an album's success.

In that sense the album's anemic sales mirror an industry trend that last year saw total CD sales decline by 5 percent, according to Nielsen SoundScan data. Meanwhile, digital downloads from sites like iTunes surged by more than 30 percent in 2006, according to David Card, a music industry analyst with the research firm JupiterResearch.

Still, Jibbs' sales history reflects a recording industry in transition, in which a "hit" is no longer defined by strong album sales, but rather by respectable sales across a variety of media: Jibbs' may have sold only 125,000 copies, but "Chain Hang Low," his hit single, sold more than 500,000 downloads at roughly 99 cents apiece. More remarkably, that single sold 1.4 million ringtones — at as much as $2.50 apiece. That's platinum.

"Ever since CD sales started declining in 2000, no one's really sure how it's going to shake out. We know there's a semi-revolution going on here, but no one's really sure how to make money off it — yet," says entertainment attorney Emmett McAuliffe. "The record companies obviously want to get with it and make money on the next opportunity, but then the traditional model is getting short shrift, and artists are getting back-burnered while they try to figure out new media."

Last year digital downloads accounted for roughly $800 million in sales, according to a report released by JupiterResearch. While this represented a 30 percent increase over the previous year and the firm estimated that by 2011 digital music will account for $2.5 billion in sales, the report's authors stressed that digital sales are not compensating for declining CD sales — a market that shipped an estimated $10.5 billion worth of product in 2005, according to the RIAA. Downloading remains a small revenue stream for record companies, whose total combined CD and digital sales declined last year by 1.2 percent.

Clearly, downloaded music is eroding the primacy of the CD, which has been the recording industry's economic bedrock for two decades. RIAA representatives say they do not have the ability to calculate the economic impact of pirated digital music, though the trade group speculates that, conservatively, physical counterfeits (chiefly illegally reproduced CDs) cost the industry $300 million annually. Most telling: According to SoundScan, the top 100 albums in 2005 cumulatively sold 128.1 million units at record stores, compared to 153.3 million units in 2004.

In this new landscape where songs may be sliced, diced and reproduced ad infinitum, labels are retrenching, concentrating less on strong album sales and opting instead to concentrate on micro-sales — those 99-cents-a-download songs at services like iTunes, or those $2.50 ringtones that seem to be everywhere on the Internet.

Shifting media, declining profits, belt-tightening, a market crowded by other media such as video games and movies combined with an increasingly fickle fan base — record labels aren't in a gambling mood these days when it comes to artists.

"If you're not creating that buzz, they're not going to put you out," says Cordell Baham, a distributor with Houston's Ground Floor Music Group. "To release an album on a major label costs at least $2 million. They have to be able to guarantee plain and simple — once those wheels start turning with the studio time, the radio, the video, the publicity — that they're going to make money on the album."

Whereas once upon a time a label might have worked with an artist — providing studio time, cranking up the promotional machinery, backing tours, expecting two or three albums before the artist broke big — today's artists understand that a label will let them languish on the roster until they show they can sell.

"There's no more 'from scratch.' When you're in a situation with a label, they want you to come in with everything ready-made," says Potzee, who says he intends to submit an album that's all but finished. "You're not just going to be a raw talent that they'll develop. Those days are over."

Eunice Davis, Potzee's friend and artistic collaborator, agrees.

"Now they sign you, and they say, 'Get your city behind you,'" says Davis, who performs as Youvee. "They want you to have substantial radio spins in your area. They want to see that you've got a local fan base and that you've sold records in your region. Otherwise, you don't have nothing goin'."

Youvee and others worry that even if they do manage to get enough radio spins to merit an album release, the labels' concentration on ringtone sales and bite-size digital downloads will force them — if they're lucky, that is — into a short-lived, one-hit-wonder stardom.

"People are not buying Jibbs; they buying 'Chain Hang Low,'" says Youvee. "They not selling albums anymore; they selling ringtones; they selling songs. Fans are not getting to know artists; they're getting to know songs. They'll know the song, but they won't know who sings it. If you want a career, you've got to build your fan base."

It would be hard to overstate the effect that the 2000 release of Nelly's Country Grammar has had on St. Louis' hip-hop scene. On the one hand, the album's club-friendly tracks put the city on the nation's radar, igniting the labels' interest in the city's rap scene. It also spawned a host of fevered fantasies that St. Louis would produce another star of equal wattage.

"This 'next Nelly' idea — that's so far-fetched. Especially in little old St. Louis, for the next Nelly? C'mon! Nelly's an icon," says Waiel Yaghnam, known as Wally, a co-owner of the production company Basement Beats, which produced several tracks on Country Grammar.

"But," adds Yaghnam, "that's the effect of Nelly."

Over the course of the decade a handful of acts like Chingy, Murphy Lee and J-Kwon have managed to emerge from the pace-setter's very long shadow, but many up-and-coming rappers say they still struggle with what they see as the country's expectation that anything coming out of St. Louis will have Nelly's sound.

"They expect everything to be 'herre' and 'therre,'" says Ebony Eyez, a petite Parkway Central High School graduate dressed in a three-quarter-length leather coat. "It's to the point where if you don't have 'herre' and 'therre' and 'yerre' in your rap — people will be like: 'You from St. Louis?' I'm guilty of it too. I'm constantly having to go back and put those words in my rap, because it's important that people know I'm from St. Louis."

Younger artists might look to model their careers after Nelly, but given the industry's transitional nature, they can learn plenty from Ebony Eyez and her brief tenure as a "signed" artist.

When she inked a deal with the Trackboyz production duo, who'd worked with Nelly and J-Kwon, Ebony Eyez was one of the city's hottest talents.

"She's a dope MC," says Jayson Bridges, known as Koko, a co-owner and producer at Basement Beats who says he often saw her perform at clubs around town. "I heard her single like 8 million times."

The Trackboyz proceeded to shop her music around to the labels, and Capitol Records bit.

That's typical of the way deals in St. Louis are structured these days: The artist has a contract with the production company; the production company has a contract with the record label. In other words, the artist doesn't have a deal with the label; the production company does.

"That affects you a lot, because it's a middleman speaking for you: I have to hear from them what the label said, and the label has to hear from them what I said," says Ebony Eyez, who has since been released from her contract with the Trackboyz. "In my case it turned out I wasn't even really on Capitol's radar."

Nonetheless, in the early days of the contract her single, "In Ya Face," got a lot of radio spins locally. The Trackboyz had released the song, a club banger about boy-toy empowerment, just to get her name out. But the song took off.

"It was just catching on so fast: They threw my song out, and a few months later we were doing the video. It blew my mind," Ebony Eyez recalls. "I thought it was on and poppin' from there."

Then came word that Capitol wanted to release an album.

"It was too soon. We didn't have time to get me into the magazines or out traveling to get known," says Ebony Eyez, adding that she fought to have the album's release delayed in order to allow time to build a buzz. "Once the Trackboyz turned the album in, it was out of my hands. I tried to fight it, but Capitol was like, 'We're going with it. If you don't want to do any shows or interviews, that's on you. It's going to hurt you.'"

"In Ya Face" peaked at No. 82 on Billboard's Hot R&B Chart. Capitol followed it up with "Take Me Back," a down-tempo R&B number that didn't grab much attention. In the end, the album, 7 Day Cycle, sold modestly, peaking at No. 137 on the Billboard 200.

Not long afterward Ebony Eyez severed ties with the Trackboyz and, by extension, Capitol. She's now working with several different producers on a second album she hopes to release in 2008.

"What happened to the days of artist development?" she asks. "You get a few spins on the radio, and the labels are like, 'Here, we'll give you a deal.'"

A lot of those deals are one-way options for the label, she adds, and artist advances are humble at best.

"People aren't getting advances," she asserts. "I could be wrong, but with young black men and women you know when somebody's got some money in they pocket: from the cars they drive and the clothes they wearing. But I know people are staying in the same place. They're driving the same old car.

"But they're signed. The labels are selling dreams around here."

Last July Lawrence Franks Jr. made waves when he became the first artist to ink a deal with the new Jive Records/Hitz Committee imprint from the Zomba Label Group, a division of Sony BMG Entertainment.

What was most interesting about Franks' deal is not its reported worth ($2.5 million), but rather that the rapper, known as Baby Huey, broke with the recent St. Louis trend and signed directly with Jive.

"With Huey's deal it was Huey and his aunt [and manager Angela Richardson] storming the Bastille and then getting a deal directly with the company. It's old-fashioned in that sense," says attorney McAuliffe, who helped finalize the contract. "When artists get their deals through production companies, they don't have privity of contract. So they don't have access to timetables, release schedules, budgets — anything. So those artists are really only going to find out what the production company, or middleman, is going to tell them."

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.

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.

"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 right 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."

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