Denzel Curry and the Power of Staying Indie: “Congratulations, I Didn’t Play Myself”
Denzel Curry is enjoying the fruits of his labor. Though the Carol City, Fla. rapper is only 21 years old, he's dropped three albums, toured the world and amassed a faithful, devoted fan base -- and he's done it all on his own. Rapping professionally since he was 16, Zel has managed to remain an independent artist in a genre where many of his peers rush into a label deal. Thanks to his talent and a close-knit team, Young Raven Miyagi has earned millions of plays online and nearly 300,000 followers (and counting) on social media.
Curry's been making a name for himself for quite some time, but there's no doubt that 2016 has been his year. In June, he was dubbed a 2016 XXL Freshman alongside Dave East, Desiigner and Lil Uzi Vert, among others. From there, his song "Ultimate" popped up in a national Adidas commercial. And earlier this month, the rhymer announced that after years of doing things his way, he signed a distribution deal with Loma Vista Records and would be re-releasing his 2016 album Imperial.
While he was in New York celebrating the re-release of Imperial, Zel and his managers, Rees Escobar and Mark Maturah, stopped by XXL to break down their new deal, talk about the direction of his next album and explain the power of staying indie.
XXL: So, how have you been since the XXL Freshman cover dropped? It’s been almost six months.
Denzel Curry: Good, goddamn. Shit has been wild.
Denzel: Tour. I’m going to be on another Europe tour again. And you know, all the pandemonium. Getting all these cosigns.
What kind of cosigns have you gotten since Freshman?
Rees Escobar: The Adidas thing. Huge.
Was that in the works before Freshman?
Denzel: Rockstar Games reached out to me. People want me to do acting now.
You gonna be in a movie?
Denzel: I don’t know.
Rees: They want him to read for a movie with Sean Penn.
Wow! So basically, your stock has risen.
How has your day-to-day changed?
Denzel: Still hang with the same fools. Had to cut a couple people off but that’s pretty much it. I still hang with the same people, do the same things. I travel a lot now. It’s been a lot of traveling back and forth.
Have you been able to do bigger venues or countries that you couldn’t do before?
Denzel: Yeah, when it comes down to bigger stuff, we just do festivals. Overseas, this year we did Splash Fest. Originally, we were on a smaller stage last year, but they put us on a bigger stage this year. We did FYF Fest. We Made In America, which is huge. We was on a small stage there but they said out of the two days, our set had the biggest [audience] out of everybody.
Have you gotten any cosigns from bigger artists that you’re surprised by?
Denzel: Oh man! At FYF, I ran into the RZA and he like, “Hey, what’s up fellas?” and we said, "What’s up?" and we think he’s going to keep on walking past because I was talking to this other dude, but then he comes back and he looks at me. He’s like, “Can my son have a picture of you?” And I’m like, “Yeah!” That’s when he told me his son listens to my music all the time around the house. Like “He plays it around the house all the time. You’re Denzel Curry right?” And I was like, “Oh hell naw. That shit’s gangsta as fuck.” And I told him, “I just want to say you killed the Kill Bill soundtrack.” That was it.
Was that the first time someone you look up to gave you a cosign like that?
Denzel: Yeah, I think so. That…I flipped my wig that day. Like, Enter the 36 Chambers, that shit’s gangsta.
Is there anyone you started working with now that you don’t think you could’ve been with a year ago?
Denzel: I still work with the same people. That hasn’t happened yet. Pretty much the people is Loomis, Diplo, [Rick] Ross, Joey [Bada$$], Kirk Knight, Raury. Nothing really too big. Just like the relationships are already built from back then. It’s starting to make it’s way now.
What about any of the former Freshmen from your class? You said you wanted to work with Kodak in your Freshman interview.
Denzel: Hell yeah!
What about anyone else on the cover?
Denzel: I mean, I’m cool wit Yachty, I’m cool with Uzi. Me and Uzi seen each other at Made in America and shit. We was chillin’. I seen Anderson .Paak overseas at Splash Festival. He had a stage and I had a stage. We was choppin’ it up, it was cool. I really mess with his people, his band and everybody; they’re cool guys. They seem pretty much down to Earth and everything.
And now that you’re on the other side of it, you’ve gone through the whole experience, been dubbed a “Freshman,” how do you feel about it?
Denzel: It was a great opportunity. I was pretty stubborn at first when I first came in here, acting like I didn’t give a fuck about it. But looking back, it did help me a lot, so I appreciate the fact that it did help me. I’m very appreciative.
And you just got this distro deal. It was inked in September?
How long did it take?
Rees: June is when we kind of started open up the doors, like, “Hey, we’re ready.” Between June and July is when we met with everybody. I think by August, the decision was sort of made, but we held it from everybody for a bit, closer to late August. And then the deal finally got inked in September.
You guys were doing so well on your own though. Why even open the doors in June?
Denzel: Because even though we was doing it ourselves and progressing, we still needed that machine behind us. But we had to get the machine behind us on our terms because I didn’t want to just sign away the rights to my music to just any label. And most of those labels that I met up with pretty much wanted the same thing and that was Ultimate. Everybody wanted Ultimate. And when I found a label or people that wanted to work with me, they was just like, “We like the catalog, not just that one thing.”
So I felt like if they like the catalog, they would like various things I did on that catalog instead of just getting this one thing that everybody else wanted and expecting me to recreate every time. That’s what the choice was. And the demands that were put on the table had to be what I wanted, which was pretty much protecting my craft, creative control, owning my masters. They provided me with that—with the stuff that we really wanted and more.
Rees: Yeah, it’s a million dollar deal.
Are you speaking figuratively?
Rees: No, literally a million dollars.
Rees: So, the thing is like with all these majors, what they do is, they want 80 percent of everything. They want money from your publishing, they want your touring, your merch and they’re giving you what? Eighteen percent at the end of your record sales, owning your masters and they give you that big ass check at the beginning like, “Oh, we’re ready to spend a million dollars on marketing if you can give us a hit record and all that."
And with Zel, off rip he was like, “I don’t want a big check. I make money, I’m good.” What we built, we built a brand and it was like a business. So he’s touring, his albums are doing well. He doesn’t need that big check. So that gave us that bargaining power. So the majors had nothing on us. A lot of labels were offering half a mill up front, but we knew like, that’s a loan, we don’t want that.
Denzel: I basically see it like drug dealing. Like a bank, when you get a loan from a bank, you’re expected to pay that back with interest. And when you get fronted work, you’re expected to pay all that back with interest in order to get more work to flip. And we’ve been doing it ourselves for like five years now, why would I let somebody come in and take what I built, you know?
Rees: The drug game is very much how we approach things [laughs]. You buy it, you re-up. That’s how it was, so we’re like, “Aight, so we just made $10,000 this month and flip it and put it back into my career so next month I make 20,” and so on and so forth to where he’s at the point where he doesn’t need a big major label deal with a big check. So went into these meetings like, “We don’t want that upfront check but we want those marketing dollars. We want y’all to be able to spend a half a million on an album without blinking an eye.” And Loma came at us like, “Okay, cool.”
So you came in with your plan and they agree to do it 100 percent on your terms.
Rees: Yeah, and I think labels will hate us if he’s successful because that changes the game for independent artists. Once they know about this type of deal and they know a label is willing to do it, you know…because at this point, who does want 30 percent of what Chance [The Rapper] is doing? Any label will take it. So we looked at it like, Chance is doing it, we don’t have the investors he has. So what do we have to do?
Obviously, we have to go to the label as an investor. But we’re not giving the label ownership of our records, 80 percent of our profits and then 20 or 30 percent of everything else we do. Loma is basically a distribution deal, they get 30 percent and that’s it.
Why specifically did you guys go with Loma? They’re more known for indie rock acts.
Rees: Well, I mean you got Tom Whally, who signed ‘Pac and still runs the estate. Ryan Whally signed Theophilus London at Warner. They get it. They understand the marketing department and everything they do. Like all the stuff that we like to do, all Zel’s merch, even stuff we’re gonna give away for free, they’re not going to make any money back on, a label would be like, “Naw, that’s a waste of money.” But they’re like “Y’all wanna do that cool, that’s dope.” They get excited about it. It’s just their point of view is what works for us.
Denzel: Tom is cool, man. Like, when it came down to it, they invited us to their crib. I thought we was just going to meet in an office. Every other label I met up with, we met up in an office. Like, when I meet up with these guys, I sit across from them and they were nice but I was like, “Okay, y’all don’t really know my shit like that, y’all just know that I’m good.”
They were just looking at me like, “Get him,” you feel me? And I’m not the type of person to chase money like that. My parents didn’t raise me to worship Jordans or new clothes, stuff like that. They’d tell me “Money’s the root of all evil, just make it, don’t let it make you.” So, when it came down to [the labels], I knew they was cool and everything, but I don’t know, I just a certain vibe about them. But then when I met Tom Whally, he was cool.
Rees: He had us at his house, just barbecuing, hanging out.
Denzel: Yeah. One of the Outlawz was there. Tupac’s aunt was there. And when we was talking to Tom, we just made our demands and he was like, “Done.”
Rees: Like, think about it, who was the last million dollar signing deal? Bobby [Shmurda] for however many mill. They got him for six albums. Zel, this is a two-album deal, you know what I’m saying? It’s a one plus two, so Imperial the re-release, and then two new complete brand new albums. It allows Zel to get to a point to get to whatever point he wants. Who knows how big he’ll be in two albums? So we’ll have the freedom to do whatever we want two albums from now. If all goes well, we’ll probably resign with them. But we have that option, we’re not stuck for the next 12 years of our lives with one of these major labels when the industry’s changing every day.
Denzel: Yeah and whatever I do the same team is still going to be with me. We’re all progressing.
Mark Maturah: And I think the main thing that stood out with Tom when I met him was he said something like, “We’re not interested in a hit single. If you get a hit single, cool. But we’re more interested in crafting a solid body of work and if a hit song comes out of that, then that’s just a bonus.” So, they’re down for the long hall. They just want to create a solid body of work.
Rees: Everything a major label offers they offer. Tom is one of those guys in the industry, he’s a heavy hitter, he’s just a lot more low-key about it.
Do you think there’s power in staying indie these days? A lot of artists try to come off to the fans as indie but they’re not really indie.
Denzel: Yeah, but they have majors backing them.
Right. What kind of power do you think you hold now?
Denzel: I feel like I’m just staying in touch with what I’ve been trying to do for a long time. Like if I went to a major, you never know, what if they don’t like the stuff I do? I could just get shelved. And then I’m stuck in a contract and I can’t leave. And if that happens, you’re gonna realize, you’re going to start hating it, so the power with being indie is you could do whatever you want. It’s freedom. Everybody wants freedom, you don’t want to be shackled, especially as an artist. Nobody wants to be shackled at the end of the day.
And with the fact that it’s indie, your craft will probably get ten times better because you’ll really know what you want. You don’t have ten people in your ear like, “You should do this.” Just editing your work constantly. I’ll let these [his management] edit my work because they know what’s in my best interest. I ain’t gonna let an outside motherfucker who just met me do it. If you do that, whatever type of fans you get, they’re going to know you for the new shit and the old fans who started with you are gonna be like, “I don’t fuck with this.”
They’ll sense it?
Denzel: Yeah, they going to sense it’s not original and not authentic. So, that’s why staying indie helps you with a new fan base because of those marketing dollars but at the same time you keep that original fan base. The fans, in their minds, they think once you signed a deal, you sold out. So, in staying independent, I keep my freedom and I’m not selling out.
Was there ever a time when you guys were close to signing a deal?
Denzel: Naw, these guys kept me away from that. I remember when Nostalgic 64 first dropped and it became popular, Shady wanted to sign me at one point.
Rees: Yeah, we met with people. Interscope. Atlantic, APG guys, RCA, they came after him early.
Denzel: But it just wasn’t time. It would’ve stunted me. This allowed me to learn my mistakes on my own.
And with all the alternative indie and rock acts Loma Vista has, do you think you’d collab with them? Little Dragon, Iggy Pop?
Denzel: Yeah, probably! We’re all on the same label, that’d be dope.
And looking forward, you have your eyes set on a debut from Loma Vista?
Denzel: Mhm, Taboo.
Is there a timetable for that?
Denzel: I’m just working on it now because I won’t have time for it later. Every other project I did, like Nostalgic 64 didn’t have a set date. When we did 32 Zel/Planet Shrooms, due to depression, we had set dates but it kept getting pushed back and then when it finally came out, it didn’t really reach what I wanted to get because some of the songs was old and people didn’t really accept the new experimental sounds that I was doing. Then, working on Imperial, I was working on that way before it was scheduled to drop so I had time to get a whole bunch of skeletons. That’s why I’m working on Taboo now so it’ll give me more time to plan later.
Rees: We’re taking the first half of the year off of touring so he can work and make music. It’ll be 2017.
Denzel: We startin’ early because once you’re on time, you’re late. If you early, you’re on time.
Do you already have your theme or anything? What type of concept are you going for?
Denzel: The ugliest situations possible because what do you think of first when you think of the word “taboo”?
Things that are forbidden, not socially acceptable.
Denzel: Exactly. And you see what everybody rapping about these days—every time you turn on the radio it’s the same thing. But back in the day, that was taboo to certain people. In the ‘90s, it was like, “This is crazy, forbidden, why you rapping about this? Gangsta rap?” Now it’s acceptable. And I just feel like the stuff that people don’t talk about that happens every day, out of the norm stuff that happens, people don’t talk about because truth is stranger than fiction should be talked about. That’s why I want to do Taboo. But I want to do it in a way where the ugliest situations sound so beautiful, you know?
Can you give me an example?
Denzel: You know, molestation, teen insecurities, stuff like death, what love really is, people don’t talk about that anymore. Everything’s like “I’ma fuck a bitch/I’ma get lit/I’ma pop a molly like a pop a fuckin’ zit.” That bullshit [laughs]. But you know those things used to be forbidden.
You’re trying to push the envelope further?
Denzel: Right because people do not, I repeat, do not talk about. You don’t hear songs like that, or if you do, they sound so serious you don’t hear it in a club or somewhere… But the whole album is based around ugly situations and what I’m going to experiment with this is if you listen to Quiet Storm, Sade, Anita Baker, poetry… a little more R&B. It’s still going to be dark. I’m still going to rap on this shit, it’s just that I want to structure it to where I don’t want to just make songs. I don’t want to just make a watered down Imperial, I want to make something far greater than Imperial.
Will you work with any R&B artists that you haven’t worked with before?
Denzel: I am the R&B artist.
Who else would you work with as an R&B artist?
Denzel: When it comes down to it…shit, I want to work with CeeLo, The Weeknd, SZA, Twelve'Len, that’s family. I mean, I feel like, I ain’t gonna lie I have dude fans, most of my fans are dudes. I only get a minimum of girls.
So like “This Life” off Imperial?
Denzel: “This Life” definitely! That’s my favorite song off Imperial, period. Like, yeah I like “Zone 3,” “I like “Ultimate” but “This Life” is my favorite because I didn’t have to rap fast, I had a different subject to talk about and I actually felt it. I actually felt pain and that was me projecting pain in a way that was beautiful.
Is signing everything you’d hoped it would be?
Rees: It’s funny, it doesn’t really feel any different. People throw parties and pop champagne. I think we were up in Vermont and the label sent us a few bottles of champagne and those things lasted for like three weeks [laughs]. I think Boogie was on tour with us, he drank most of it. It’s just not how we are. It’s not a celebration yet.
Denzel: The celebration is winning a Grammy, five Grammys. That’s when we’ll celebrate. Those are ultimate goals.
Rees: Yeah, those are ultimate goals. Signing a deal, that’s just the next step.
Denzel: Yeah, it’s just the beginning really. We don’t celebrate yet. Congratulations, I didn’t play myself.
See Behind-the-Scenes Photos of Denzel Curry at 2016 XXL Freshman Class Cover Shoot