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Making Waves with ... SKEWBY - Jul 12, 2010

“The biggest misconception is that people think I have a huge team behind me when really it’s just us two working - I do all the graphic designs for my pages, the Twitter, MySpace, blog, sending out music …”

picture Establishing a successful music career is not reliant on the promo muscle and moolah of a label any longer. In fact most record companies expect artists to have already attracted a sizable following and buzz by themselves before they’ll even take them on. But how can you make a name for yourself on your own without the might of a label? As part of a new feature called ‘Making Waves’, we ask self-made success stories from across the genres that very question.

In this first edition The Source’s tip for hip-hop, Memphis rapper Skewby, tells HitQuarters how he bagged a support slot for ‘Lil Wayne, got the blogosphere gushing with praise for his debut mixtape and managed to attract the radar of the “bible of hip-hop music”.

How did you first start trying to make a name for yourself as an artist?

I started off on the Internet. The city I was in really didn’t have an open mind as far as making any other type of music than southern gangsta music, so I began to market myself on sites like MySpace and BlackPlanet.

And when was this approximately?

I would say it was about 2003/2004. Before that I was just burning hundreds of CDs, taking them to every school, every party, rapping at the mall, just however I could get my name out at the time … It was way before Twitter and Facebook and all of that.

You’ve said that you started producing because you had no one else to do it for you. What kind of kit did you start out with?

I started out around 12 years old and I was at my friend’s house and he had this beat programme called FruityLoops, and that was the first time I ever saw production on a computer.

Like I said I was 12 years old and couldn’t afford MPCs and some big heavy machinery myself, but I knew I could get that software and start creating my own music. So that’s what I started out and I’ve been producing ever since.

Would you therefore say it’s a good idea for all young rappers to learn production as well?

I would say it’s a great idea to be educated about every aspect of the art form. You also have that production input in your own art, and can also produce for other artists.

One of the reasons for the attention is because your music doesn’t fit into the typical Memphis Gangsta and Crunk scenes and so sounds very fresh. Do you think it’s hard for rappers to stay outside the influence of local scenes and create their own kind of music?

I don’t think it’s hard. I think it’s all about individuality. You can’t be insecure in the rap industry like a lot of people are - that’s why they choose to copy off other people because they know they’re safe. They know if they make the kind of music that’s popular right now, they won’t have nobody looking at them crazy. So it comes from insecurity of other hip-hop artists.

All you have to do is be confident in yourself, believe in yourself and with that you can go anywhere.

You’d think young rappers would want to be trying to break the mould so as to get noticed in the crowd?

They should definitely try to break the mould, definitely do something different. At the end of the day, as long as you’re being yourself you’re always going to shine through the rest of the artists.

If you look at a person like Gucci Mane, he doesn’t necessarily do different music than everybody else, but he’s himself. I can’t see Gucci Mane doing any other type of music. I believe he’s so popular and a lot of people’s favourite artist because he stays true to himself.

You been said to be part of a ‘New Memphis’ scene – does this actually exist or are you on an entirely solo quest?

It is an entirely solo quest for me. When you come down here nobody really knows what the ‘New Memphis’ scene is.

When I started to become popular, people started saying I was ‘The New Memphis’. I don’t want to say I’m The New Memphis because when Nano comes out of New York, people don’t call him The New New York, when Lil Wayne came out of New Orleans they didn’t call him The New New Orleans … I just want to represent for my whole city in its entirety, I don’t want to be ‘new’, I don’t want to be ‘old’, I just want to be a part of this great city and represent Memphis to the fullest.

You said earlier that Memphis isn’t so open-minded with regards to non-gangsta music. So what’s it actually like in terms of encouraging its hip-hop community and providing facilities and opportunities to perform?

That’s not really what they do. It’s a negative place - not in a hater sense - but when you drive through Memphis you see people with their heads down. It’s a really depressed city.

I keep the city in my prayers and I do what I can to bring positivity, but there has been years and years of negativity going on through the place. You have to stay strong as an individual and that’s what I’ve done - I have never let anything in this city affect me in what I do.

9th Wonder name dropped you when we interviewed him recently – how did he first hear of you?

9th Wonder was speaking at a Red Bull event in Memphis and I had done a tour with Red Bull (Southern College Tour) the year prior to him coming here and so the guy that picked him up from the airport was playing my music for him in the background, and that’s the first time he heard of me.

A couple of hours later the guy from Red Bull actually called my manager and I was like, “Wow! 9th Wonder loved the stuff.” I thought he was exaggerating because people don’t want to let you down, but when 9th Wonder actually met me he let me know how much he appreciated my music.

Of course, I let him know how much I’m a huge fan of his music, and any time he mentions me, I feel so blessed that somebody like that is a fan of my music.

Besides championing you, has 9th Wonder offered any advice or help?

The only advice he gave me was keep doing me. He really told me that. He was looking at me like, “Why you even ask me any questions?” He just gave me encouragement to keep on doing what I’m doing, no matter what - never put my head down.

Aside from your manager Antonio Tubbs, do you have any other people working for you?

No, not really. The biggest misconception is that people think I’m on a label - people think I have a huge team behind me when it’s really just us - I do all the graphic designs for my pages, the Twitter, the MySpace, the blog, sending out music. That’s all between us - we’re a two-man force out here.

How did you first hook up with him?

My DJ knew him - because he was working with him before I even met him - and he told me he was a real good guy. We met up when Antonio came to the studio and before we even talked of business we became great mutual friends. To me that’s how any great business relationship should start off. So, he’s like my brother and that’s just how we’re rolling now.

As part of a two-man team, you clearly have to do a lot of non-music activities in terms of networking and marketing. What kind of things are you involved with?

Social networking on the Internet is where the whole future is held for me because it allows me to do so many other things, and it made things happen a lot faster than it would me going state to state. I love social networking as far as entertainment purposes goes - connecting with my fans - but I don’t really care for it with my personal life [laughs].

How has having a Twitter account, your own blog, YouTube channel, MySpace etc helped?

They’re the reason that we’re on the phone right now, because you can Google me.

Have you used any other online tools to help further your career?

I make sure I upload my music to all the correct music sites, but honestly, my biggest thing is my blog - I used Tumblr to set up my blog. Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, those are my favourite three things right now. Of course, you know, with the Internet it all changes every six months.

You’ve said that if you weren’t doing music you’d be “finding artists“. Where do you get to hear promising young artists?

I pay attention to the blogs, I pay attention to the Internet … Of course in Memphis it’s a very small city and every time I’m at a venue, every time I’m out, people are doing music, performing, rapping, and that’s something I’m really into.

I’m in to helping other people get their things out as much as I can. I’m no P. Diddy and so I can’t really do too much, but I do offer whatever I can because I really want to see other people making it. If you’re talented, I want your voice to shine.

Music wise you have some regular collaborators in DJs Crumbz and Charlie White. Firstly, how did you first get together with Charlie?

Charlie White was heavy on the college scene. I used to work with a guy named DJ Chev at the University of Memphis. I used to go to the studio over there and make beats, and I’d collaborate with him because he’s a great producer. He told me he knew this white guy that was real cool and wanted me to meet him.

As soon as I met Charlie White I told him, “Hey, you need to be with us, man, because you’re talented.” He was open to it.

How about with Crumbz?

The next year I was in Atlanta doing a whole bunch of producer stuff out there, just trying to get my buzz out in Atlanta, and Crumbz called me from Memphis.

I had a song I called ‘The Girl Song’ and it was doing real good on MySpace and he wanted to play it on the radio, and said he wanted to meet me. As soon as I got back to Memphis, I met with him, he believed in me, and he’s the person that got me on the railroad. He was like, “Yo, man, we need to go on tour together.”

Your 2009 mixtape ‘Proving You Wrong Since 1988’ has attracted a great response, but what actual effect has it had on the ground? What has changed for you?

Everything has changed for me. I have a lot more fans than I had before it came out. For me, that’s the most important thing, because having that word-of-mouth changes everything.

The mixtape got me on tour with [Lil] Wayne. The mixtape got me in the ‘Unsigned Hype’ in The Source, which was great exposure.

As you say, the feature in The Source’s ‘Unsigned Hype’ column was fantastic exposure. How did they actually first hear about you?

I believe they first heard about me through my video ‘Talk 2 em’ that we released November/December last year. ‘Talk 2 em’ was all over the place. It was on a lot of high profile blogs.

We also send out everything we do to every magazine and anybody who does media - whether they respond or not and a lot of the time they don’t respond - but we sent ‘Talk 2 em’ and they did respond with like, “We really like the video.”

Was featuring in The Source a career aim for you?

It’s something I wanted to do, but it’s like the further I go with music the less expectations I have. I never said I want to get somewhere, I just do it, and whatever happens happens. I’ll always expect the best. The Source is one of those things like, “I can’t believe this is happening!” It wasn’t an aim per se, but I was definitely happy it happened because I looked up to everybody who was on ‘Unsigned Hype’.

How did you actually record the mixtape – did you have it demoed and ready and then just book studio time?

There’s a big studio on Memphis College, on Young Avenue. They had the best sound and I wanted good quality. So we did a whole bunch of pre-production either at my crib or Charlie White’s, as far as the beats and all of that, and then I just rolled out the rhymes in the studio.

How did you finance it?

Just grinding, man. Like I do a whole bunch on the side, doing beats and graphic design. I privately do this under different names [laughs]. So doing it like that means we can now run out solo, and that’s a blessing.

You’ve established yourself now as a name to watch but, as your first mixtape how did you promote it? How did you first get to the blogs, to the fans etc?

It came from us sitting up all night email blasting it out. We sent it to every blog, asking for their blessing, like, “Yo, could you please check this out. I know you get emails every day but listen to this, if you like it post it - that’s all we ask.”

Some people liked it and posted it. Before that, just for my fans, I think I had like maybe like 400/500 when I was on Twitter, and everybody re-Twittered it, everybody on Facebook downloaded it, everybody on MySpace downloaded it. The fan base I had prior to this all downloaded and shared it with their friends. That’s really how it got to where it is now.

How important are blogs to you in comparison to mainstream media in terms of generating good publicity?

Blogs are very important. For underground artists like myself, blogs are our mainstream media, and the mainstream media is just dying every day [laughs]. Kids don’t like MTV no more, they don’t listen to the radio no more, they’re all on the Internet.

That’s why you get artists like Drake and Wiz Khalifa doing songs based off the Internet because that’s where it’s all moving to. I believe mainstream will probably get redefined in the next five to ten years.

For you what are the more influential hip-hop based blogs?

2dopeboyz, illRoots, CookinWitGrease and Governed By Loyalty - those are my favourite ones.

Mixtapes are an ever popular way for hip-hop artists to promote their skills. Can you outline what a mixtape should and shouldn’t do?

A mixtape should introduce people to you as a person - you should feel like you are having a conversation with them. What it shouldn’t do is when you get down listening to it you’re like, “Wow, that sounds like so and so’s songs!”

Over the past five years, the definition of mixtape has changed. A mixtape used to be where you grab all the popular instrumentals and rap over them. Nowadays it’s like a free album. It’s all original beats, it’s your own sound process and you use whatever samples you want to. Nowadays mixtapes are free albums before your actual album comes out.

Is there therefore a danger with mixtapes of giving too much away? Aren’t you wanting to hold back your best stuff for an official release?

To me it’s like a present. You get a person like Lil Wayne, who releases hundreds of mixtapes of free music, and that’s what lets him sell 1 million actual albums.

And then you get a person like Lupe Fiasco, who never releases free music, but his fan base is hardcore. Those 500,000 people are going to come out and buy his music no matter what.

So, a person like me, I just love to share free music because that’s what got me to who I am now. Hopefully, through my relationship with my fans, they’ll come out and buy the real thing whenever it comes out.

Aside from mixtapes, how else can young artists create a buzz about their music?

Be active on social networks, be active in your neighbourhood, at your college, wherever you are, on a day to day basis. Try to just develop relationships with your fan base.

If you don’t have a relationship with your fan base, whether it’s 1 person or 1 million people, you’re nothing.

You have also had great exposure in securing a slot opening for Lil Wayne on his Farewell Tour – how did that happen?

They were missing a few artists coming in to our region of America, and when they asked who was bubbling, who was hot, my name came up.

Who was it that brought you to their attention?

DJ Crumbz.

How about with MTV’s Spring Break 2009?

I was out performing at a band’s birthday party - named Sore Eyes (HQ Interview) - and I did good, and one of the people from MTV was there, and he was like, “If you want to do this same thing on MTV’s Spring Break, you’re more than welcome.” [laughs] I say yeah.

Did both live up to expectation and prove successful in attracting a new audience and getting some positive industry attention?

They’ve led to some more shows. After we did a show in Arkansas opening up for Lil Wayne, I’m now coming back to Arkansas and doing shows entirely by myself. Other than that, it’s word-of-mouth, booting up the place, getting a following in whatever city I’m in.

The most important thing is getting those fans, because the industry is done already. With a person like me coming up, I’ve already accomplished so much by myself, why would I need a record label?

So if you have no interest in securing a label deal then what are your future aims?

Unless they’re talking about big stupid humongous money, I really don’t care for a record deal right now. I’ve done so much on my own, even before having a team or anything like that. I’m taking it as far as I can before I ever sign with a record deal. As far as a major release, after the new mixtape ‘More or Less’, I’m planning it to put out an album on iTunes by myself.

What’s your view on the current hip-hop culture?

I think it’s pretty valid. I think people have options now and what more can you ask for?

You still have your Gangsta culture popping, you got artists now like Kid Cudi, and people who will do what they want to do no matter what like The Cool Kids. I feel it is all in one culture so I’m pretty proud of hip-hop at the moment.

When is the next mixtape due and what’s been inspiring you this time?

This project is going to be pretty interesting because I’m really just still learning more about myself. I’m only 21 years old so every day I’m learning and taking it all in. But my inspiration has been coming from music, from movies, from art, articles and books that I read, and just life in general.

The new mixtape is going to be free album, all new production, everything original on there. After we drop that, we’re going to hit the road.

Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman

Next week: How Metric, Interpol, Dandy Warhols and The Pixies have turned fans into customers using direct-to-fan platform Topspin

Read On ...

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* Producer legend and Skewby champion, 9th Wonder, on teaching hip-hop's roots
* Sonicbids founder Panos Panay on how to book gigs online