Category: Blog Post

Key! and Upto₩n Boy Band

Key!

Photo Credit: Sarah Llewelyn

Atlanta rapper Key! hit up StudioBar on June 16. You’ve probably heard Key! on OG Maco’s banger ‘U Guessed It’. Self-styled as ‘Fatman Key’, the 26-year-old has a gravitas and self-awareness that belies his age. He comes on the cusp of a new generation of rappers. Broaching subjects like mental illness and difficult pasts; he has no problems standing apart in the crowd.

What the Future Holds for Key!

As Key! gains popularity among the new guard of hiphop, he has refused to curry favor with the mainstream industry. It’s gained him admirers, and it’s clear he doesn’t take himself too seriously. By his second song he shared the stage with a crush of opening acts, which included ACV, Upto₩n Boyband, Deadboyye Dre and Johnny Darko.

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Photo Credit: Sarah Llewelyn

Among the opening acts was Upto₩n Boy Band. There’s three boys in this band, but just don’t call them N’Sync wannabes. Justin Trash, Joe Rascal, and Roclee are a cohort of rappers whose style runs the gamut. They’re out of hand onstage, spitting lines in English and Korean.

“Sammy (Roclee) and I met in high school. He went to Korea and learned production from G2’s people. When he came back to Toronto we recorded ‘Summer Man’ together. These days Kpop is huge, and they’re all boy bands. We’re the opposite of that. The name is satire,” says Joe.

Justin rounds out the trio.  He circled back to Toronto after living in the US for a spell. “I met (Roc and Joe) through a mutual friend. We clicked and wanted to do Uptown together. We’re not trying to be Kpop level, but we’ll get that Kpop money though,” he adds.

 

0V4A2658Photo Credit: Sarah Llewelyn

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Photo Credit: Sarah Llewelyn

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Photo Credit: Sarah Llewelyn

The Independent Shuffle

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Source: Google Images

There’s a big kerfuffle these days regarding artists and their independence. With the likes of Russ (an artist who blew up thanks to SoundCloud), being a recent outspoken critic of the perception of “independent” artists who are really backed by major labels through their distribution deals or Action Bronson who appeared in the news recently decrying his album being in major label limbo.

In an era where artists can reach their fans directly, is there still any benefit to signing on a major label? I’m still inclined to say, yes. While an artist can get preliminary exposure through mixtapes via independent means, I am dubious that they would still have the same flourishing career and had the same opportunities present themselves.

Firstly, indie labels come and go with few exceptions. Not everyone can be Stones Throw Records. And even big indie labels perish – r.i.p. Def Jux. Secondly, true indie artists can grind for close to 10 years before making an impact. So while I can sympathize with Action Bronson being frustrated with having a project ready only to be lagged by things outside of his control – he really shouldn’t complain after having his face plastered all over VICE.* VICE records is a division of Atlantic records.

The success of Odd Future while meteoric is an anomaly. Not everyone gets to be an indie darling and move on to great commercial success. As not every indie label is created equally, so must the business of performing being filled with pitfalls. Indie labels simply don’t have the same resources to compete with say, the Interscope machine.  While artists can breakout via new technology, they would be wise to hang onto something with footing. Technology is simply too volatile to be relied upon. Vine is no longer with us, and YouTube is too precarious. So the question becomes, where would the artists who broke there go now?

There is no easy answer. So what do Indie labels offer? Well, they offer a path to develop a loyal fanbase. There may be fewer people buying an indie artist’s album but they’re buying merch and more often. A smart indie label would be wise to capitalize on that. The success of ICP and Psychopathic records cultivated loyal fanbases and did precisely that.

It’s worth noting that indie labels fail artists as well – they just don’t get the same flak for it. While people can be up in arms about the shadiness of the recording industry’s business practices, many artists simply do not have the luxury to reach so many people without backing. New technology has helped artists gain support but can’t be continuously relied on. Smart indie labels find ways in which artists can develop cult followings and build. Either way, artists need to be prepared to cut their losses or be left in the wind.

 

Can an Artist Un-Sellout?

by Brian Capitao

Snoop Dogg sitting at a mirrored table

Snoop Dogg was recently in the news for his politically charged video, Lavender, that featured an effigy of Donald Trump dressed in clown makeup, and drew the ire of the sitting president. After achieving his fame and success, he’s taking aim at the establishment. After having his own porn channel and playing Huggy Bear in Starsky and Hutch – the man has become a pointed critic.

As an article by Big Think points out, Snoop has become a burgeoning voice in the political discussion over the last few years. And perhaps, it started when he vocalized support for the stay of execution for former Crip gang leader, Tookie Williams. Maybe, it was that failure, that made him want to fully engage in activism.

Growing up in Toronto, far removed from the disparate realities of Compton I was enthralled with Snoop’s magnetism. Gin and Juice was the video that got me into rap. And so, Snoop has always been a fascinating character to me.

Snoop Dogg embodied simultaneously what an artist could do with great success but also at the time, what I perceived to be the lack of integrity that came with it. He became a caricature of himself. It was crass. A pimp who was whoring himself out for money. But the more I learned about Snoop Dogg – the more I came to have a begrudging respect for him.

I came to have expectations. That one day, Snoop would tire of his pimp schtick and return to pushing out verses so hard; so gangster; they had their own G-force. That he would again make an impact. And the surprising thing – is that he did. He renewed interest.

He UNSOLD out. He proved to me that he still had the same artistic integrity from where  he started; by putting out projects like Rhythm and Gangsta and Tha Blue Carpet Treatment. That was a revelation to me.

After having several commercial projects and notably being signed to No Limit Records; post-Deathrow, Snoop has maintained a public persona that was built on being cheeky and playful. Arguably, he would not have achieved the altitude of success he’s received if he had not deftly crafted a persona to carve out a lane for himself.

An artist like Snoop knows when they put out rehashed and tired songs like Gin and Juice II or  Still a G Thang; that by revisiting familiar material, they are capitalizing on an existing fanbase who are hoping their favorite artist will recreate the magic of the original song. Da Game is to be Sold, Not Told is a blatant attempt at him being an opportunist.

So where is the line? What can artist get away with and what is irredeemable? I think there has been a time when Snoop has let money get in the way of music. Now, this may have been due to legal issues in the past but my point is we don’t hold it against him.

Can an artist successfully sellout, and by that I mean, let the money overtake the artistic integrity over a period of time of their careers and then return with critical acclaim unscathed? Ludacris in the early 2000s was one of the most notable rappers of the aughts but he clearly sold out after cutting his braids and did a hit song with a teenage Justin Bieber. Can he somehow command enough respect to make a comeback?

It seems doubtful. Is that because of the initial reverence we had for an artist like Snoop Dogg supersedes any perceived slight we have as fans or is it because we feel that artists like Ludacris don’t care enough about their images and are therefore reviled?

In Summary

I am of the opinion that artists face a decision. They cannot have both commercial and artistic success without sacrificing one for the other. Rarely, there are exceptions.  Jay-Z most notably achieved commercial and critical acclaim in the rap stratosphere, however he’ll be the first to tell you that he sold out with line like these:

I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars
They criticized me for it, yet they all yell “holla”

If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did 5 mill’ – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since

– Jay-Z on Moment of Clarity

It seems as if it’s a zero-sum game. We can’t fault artists who have been in the spotlight for wanting to achieve commercial success. All we can hope for is that they retain some sense of self-respect and hopefully ours in the process.

 

OPINION: Drake IS More 50 than Kanye

Written by Brian Capitao

Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa are next line to be considered Chi-town’s finest- long considered students of the game and proteges of the conscious Kanye West that made records like Through the Wire and Touch the Sky.

Chicago is well-represented with emcees like Common, Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, and now Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa. The inspiration and influence of Mr.West is noticeable on the latter artists.

But what about Drake?

Drake at a concert holding hand up

Long before Chance crooned to us, was Drake with his pop sensibilities and sensitive feelings. Drake serenaded us with songs like Best I Ever Had and Replacement Girl. He had a sound that was his own and yet at the same time, very much a carbon print of the existing sound.

Enter 808’s and Heartbreak. Kanye had radically changed his sound. However those who were paying attention saw Kanye heading in this direction once he joined forces with T-Pain on Good Life.The song was so feel good; so high-fructose; that it was an undeniable hit. The song itself went platinum. In an era of Music downloads, the song itself went on to be platinum.

And Drake saw an opportunity. He more or less adopted a similar style to Kanye and went to become a success. Drake found the pop audience he needed. The tides had turned and rappers could no longer dismiss artists with alluring sonorous voices.

Then again, there’s 50 cent.

50 was a war machine. Like a turret, he mowed down artists in his path. 50 cent took Ja Rule’s steez and ran with it. He decimated his opponents with blunt business moves.  And he signed promising artists that had some hype to them only for them to be swallowed by his juggernaut label G-unit.

And if we examine the playbook, is what Drake did over the last few years any different? Sure, he’s the hometown hero but he has been ruthless.

Drake made a deal with fellow Toronto artist The Weeknd. Weeknd leant a large helping hand in Drake’s sophomore project, Take Care. But why shouldn’t he get some love back after he helped propel Weeknd to fame? Fair’s fair. Right?

Sure. But Drake’s label OVO has signed its own fair share of promising artists, only for their careers to meet a timely demise. ILoveMakkonnen? PartyNexTDoor? Majid Jordan? Sure those last two artists are still on the label but they feel like they’re there to benefit Drake’s career and maintain the spotlight than to become their own artists. As Noisey aptly described, it feels like Drake’s own personal hit factory.

Will he be the next 50 cent?

Sound familiar? This was the main discrepancy between The Game and 50 cent that led to the whole G-Unot movement. Drake has cannibalized his artists for personal gain. Kind of like how 50 cent used the hype of signing M.O.P and Mobb Deep to strengthen his career. But while 50 had used his artists, he still sounded like himself. Drake, interestingly, has become the rap equivalent of Kirby – absorbing rapper’s abilities to suit him as he sees fit. As Drake’s influence and power only increase, only time will tell what kind of legacy he will have- the self-effacing hometown hero he purports or a ruthless and cunning businessman.

*A correction has been made. Stat Quo and Cashis were never signed to G-unit Records, they were under the Shady/Aftermath division of Interscope.