Noz put up a motivational post on Monday urging rappers to get on their grind and build local buzz before they step to all the critics and bloggers out there. Sage advice, to be sure. But I found myself wondering for the last few days how many guys even know where to start on that. Judging from the emails I get, and the number of lost souls I’ve encountered at hip-hop panels over the years, I get the sense that a lot of underground rappers don’t know how to go about getting their hustle on. I get a lot of dudes sending me one-line emails and MySpace messages demanding press coverage, advice, and introductions. Clearly, some ways of hustling work better than others. I still have loads to learn myself, but allow me to pass on a couple things I’ve learned over the last couple years:
Always have a day job.
Honestly, I think this is the single most important piece of the puzzle. Trust me, I’ve learned this one the hard way. I tried to freelance without a base income for years and it didn’t work particularly well. I’m much happier now that I have a full time job. And more productive. The thing about success in general—and the music industry in particular—is that positive energy attracts more success. Frantically broke folks don’t often get the big break they are waiting for. Despite what a lot of hip-hop music may tell you, you don’t want to be too hungry for it. People can smell desperation from a mile away. The best position to go into any discussion is not needing anything from the other person, and being there genuinely interested in what could come of the collaboration. Which is why a lot of dudes take the shady route to build up cash reserves. This decision will, of course, come back to haunt you later, and will more than likely derail everything you have worked so hard to build. Take a normal, humble day job. The peace of mind that you have knowing your bills are taken care of will give you the stability and confidence you need to move forward. You’ll find that your off hours are way more productive when you’re not obsessing about how the hell you’re going to pay your cell phone bill before they cut it off.
Find a mentor.
Look around and find someone who comes from where you come from and has gotten where you want to go. When I first started writing, I reached out to the two female Canadian writers who had managed to publish in New York. Over the years, I’ve conferred with them at times when I needed help with my game plan. If you don’t have access to someone you admire, don’t worry, you just don’t have access to them yet. Identify you who you want to talk to. Don’t limit yourself. If that person is Dr. Dre, it’s Dr. Dre. If you’re clear of purpose, you’ll find a way to get in contact with them. Keep up on what the person is doing, and find a way to approach them that doesn’t require a lot of time or energy from them. Just reach out, let them know you like their work. Wait a couple months, and then find another reason to contact them. Once they see that you are not going to demand much from them, they’ll be more amenable to fostering a relationship with you. Send them a track (or article) you’re proud of, but make it clear you’re just sharing with them, you don’t expect anything from them. Go to their city. Ask if you could drop by their office and introduce yourself. Don’t stay long. Over time, you will be able to build a relationship. At some point after you have established contact for some time, offer to work for free part-time for them. (This goes back to point #1. Unless you have rich parents, you won’t have the freedom to take this important step if you haven’t got a day job.) Mentoring is key, but remember that nobody is going to put you on but you.
If you don’t live in a hip-hop hub, move.
Seriously. I’ve watched so many Canadian rappers stick it out in this country, when we simply don’t have the music industry to support their careers. I imagine it’s the same in different regions of the States. Go where you are going to be around people who are doing what you’re doing. Go where the energy is, where the industry is, where the open mic nights are. Go where the money is.
Do the legwork.
Work as much as you can to get your name out there. If you write and you haven’t been able to get published, start a blog. If you write for a local newspaper and you want to go for nationals, send press clips and then follow up. Always call instead of emailing. Don’t sound pushy on the phone. If you rap, do a million mixtapes. Send them to all the people you’d like to work with. You never know, maybe someone will actually listen and get back to you. Get a website up. Foster relationships with the local press. Get some clips together. Send them to the rap mags. Email a journalist when you like something they’ve written. Always, always follow up with a thank you note if they give you coverage. Even if it’s negative. Any press is good press.
It’s not enough to work hard, you have to work smart. Figure out where you want to be a year from now, and then break your goal down into monthly and weekly action plans. More often than not, big accomplishments come from taking a bunch of small steps over time.
Dream big, but don’t be grandiose.
Know where you want to go. Pick a label you want to work with, or a magazine you want to write for. And then do anything and everything you can to go there. Be realistic about where you are. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
It’s not all about you.
Don’t spend all your time tooting your own horn. A little bit of interest in other people’s projects goes a long way. Take any opportunity you can to support other people’s dreams, to mentor younger artists/writers, to do volunteer work in your community. You get what you put out there.