KNOW THE SCIENCE
It would help if you knew something about the actual music you're trying to create. Sadly, this is the step most commonly skipped. Look, you might think you're blazing a trail from here to the mansion in the hills with your spendidly unique sound and groundbreaking lyrics, but trust me, it's been done before. And probably it was done better. Do some research. Yeah, it ain't fun and it's kinda like school, but when someone corners you in an interview and asks you about your influences, you better have something better to say than Lil' Wayne or your screwed. Name drop, but name drop intelligently. Go way back. Like 1992 or earlier. The further back you go the better. Stay away from Snoop, Dr. Dre, NWA or Geto Boys because those are common answers and stink of horseshit. Try EPMD, Black Moon (one of my favorites), Jeru the Damaja, but know what you're talking about or someone might challenge you on it and start asking for your favorite song. You can also just throw out a rediculous answer like "I really built my flow around that Color Me Badd style." The interviewer will laugh and maybe even forget what he/she actually asked and move on to the next question. Question successfully dodged.
But know something about the music, it's history, it's social context, it's key figures or you're gonna get played when you meet someone with some serious knowledge. That person might be sitting behind a desk and nice six-digit contract one day with a pen in hand waiting for you to answer with the first four Public Enemy albums before letting you sign.
LABELS KNOW NUTTIN'
Labels, for the most part, are just out to exploit you, ring you like a slot machine and then discard you. It's a money game and you're a commodity. These days, their interest is not you and your budding rap career. It's seeing how quickly they can cash you in and get rid of you. Labels don't like rappers because they mean trouble and they're a liability. As unfair as it is, do you really think labels like dealing with all the legal troubles, insane video budgets, lavish transport, gonzo release parties, entourages, stabbings and drug possession charges? Nah, they'd rather have a chick like Norah Jones who works hard, works quietly and craps a million records. With this being said, labels generally speaking, have not dedicated the forces necessary to properly work a rap record, moreover, a rap career. And since rappers know this and have compensated for the lack of support and attention from their labels and, essentially, done all the work themselves you won't find any label jumping to bring more people on when you're doing the work of 50 people. You'll hear similiar tales from many, now successful rappers, about how they did so much hustling and pushing for the label because they didn't know what they were doing. Hell, is it any coincidence that so many rappers are now working for labels as A&R's and even CEO's? Here's what I'm getting at: thinking that once you signed, your work is done could not be further from the truth. Labels know nuttin and are trusting you do. Know the finer point of industry connections, fax machines and proper dimensions for standard cover art because you never know.
RADIO AND RETAIL DON'T NEED YOU
When all is said and done, you won't sell much at retail without radio and radio doesn't really need you because they already have a playlist that's six songs deep and you're gonna have to sleep with the program manager (if they have one) to get your silly song on the air. Radio doesn't like tacky-mouthed rappers up in the studio waiting around for a chance to make it and retail will stock (see also HOLD) your product, but they're not hounding you for five more units of your Xeroxed CD-R because they got a new Young Jeezy to sell. Be humble when dealing with anyone from either radio or retail because, let's face it--they don't need you. It's just the game you're going to have to play. Sorry, bro.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
A little math. Take your age and divide it by two and then multiply that number by your street address and that's how many rappers are trying to make it within a 50 mile radius of your house. Time to hit the road and see what a big world it is out there. You're not alone and like your moms would probably say, "Statistically, the odds are not in your favor." Unless, maybe, you're the first rapper from North Dakota. More on locale further down.
IT AIN'T EQUIPMENT THAT GETS YOU SIGNED
Common myth. As a rapper/producer, don't fall for the "gotta get the biggest board and the nicest decks" jive. You gotta watch your costs in the early going. You'll be spending some money, but you don't buy the nicest guitar in the store if you're just learning. The rap world is obsessed with having the best recording equipment, the most expensive mic, a converted studio with track lighting--it's a trap. It's talent that gets you signed, not equipment.
IT AIN'T TALENT THAT GETS YOU SIGNED EITHER
Look at Biz Markie. Dude couldn't really rap at all, but he had hella personality and he also could spin records. He had charisma, heart and weighed about 300 pounds. Plus he was goofy as a muddah. He's still booking gigs to this day. Mike Jones ain't really that fresh, but he put in that work and did his damn thing. He's platinum now.
IT TAKES MONEY TO MAKE MONEY
You're gonna have to work harder than you ever have in your life because of all the things that the music industry isn't, it's cheap. Get a full time and a part time job and hump hard. You can forget that Hustle and Flow fantasy that you have--thinking it just takes a po' pimp and a Fisher Price keyboard. You're gonna need money, but as we said before, spend wisely. Which leads me to my next piece of advise.
AVOID THE THREE W'S: WEED, WEAPONS AND WOMEN
The most common traps of "local" rappers is the lure of the rapper lifestyle and adopting elements of it before they're really rappers. It's like a sundae without the ice cream. Weed will cloud your already delusional perspective. Weapons can be turned against you. And women will only encourage your belief that you're something special, much like mind altering drugs. Not only that, but women (in multiples) will sponge up all your financial resources before they even accrue. If you're already married or involved in a relationship with a woman, good for you. The likeliness that she'll turn on you and take everything you have is slim, but you'll be lucky if she stays with you because you aspire to be a rapper. You're gonna have to do some 'splaining.
REP YOUR AREA
If you're from Abilene, then you ain't from Dallas. If you're from Nacogdoches, then you ain't from Houston. It ain't your fault that's where your parents decided to squat down and live. Don't be ashamed of it. This will be very difficult because you might find yourself in conversation saying, "Yeah, right now I'm out of Dallas," like your homeless or something. Like you just travel so damn much that home is a pillow and a phone charger. No one's buying it. Say you're from El Paso and flex like you know somethin. Sure, I wouldn't go acting hard if you're from a metropolis that's less than 70,000 people because you're gonna get clowned. And I wouldn't act hard if there's no "other side" of the tracks because there's no actual tracks. But rep your area. Atmosphere put Minneapolis on the map, Three Six Mafia put Memphis on the map and Mac Lethal reps Lawrence, Kansas to the fullest. You'll get more respect if you don't lie about your origin, plus you don't want someone calling you out or it could be your downfall. Flex like Arnold and sell those CDs by the carload.
I must disclaim however, you can not act hard (see also "hawd") if the area you're reppin' doesn't meet the following criterium:
1) A MURDER RATE HIGHER THAN 3
2) MORE THAN FOUR MULTI-LEVEL BUILDINGS WITHIN VIEW AT ALL TIMES
3) A LEXUS DEALERSHIP
4) MORE THAN THREE PLACES OF "CULTURAL INTEREST"***
5) A PLACE TO BUY QUALITY MUSIC OTHER THAN WAL-MART
***not including city parks during cultural events, rallies or rennaisance fair
That includes the crap games. Look, you're already gambling with your life wanting to be a rapper, don't gamble your money away too. It's the very definition of stupidity. Save that money for gas, malt liquor for those late night studio sessions or a new pair of boxers. But gambling in your hopes for rapper glory is like picking up a hitch hiker with a meth pipe and a shotgun named "Lester" in the backroads of Texas on the way to California. Take up a habit like recycling cans or, say, making good music instead.
YOU CAN'T SIGN A GOOD CONTRACTIf you're looking for that Ludacris cash, you're gonna have to wait because, realistically, you can't sign a good contract. Every term of that contract is designed to lessen the liability of having you on board. Let's face it, from record executives to that little old lady at the grocery store that always eyes you like you're gonna stab her like a cellmate with a grudge and a shank, people don't like rappers. You'd get a better deal as a 12-year old cowgirl with a dream and guitar. You can try and sweet talk 'em to death, but you won't get a good deal. You could have Scott Boras as your manager and you're not gonna squeak out more than enough money for a nice Honda Accord at first. Remember this, all that gear in the videos is all rented from the cars, the palace on the hill with the green grass and waterfall pool, the dancers, the jewelry, the white tigers, the helicopters--it's all rented at a cheap rate by the record label to give you the appearance of an accomplished artist. Since you are not an accomplished artist, all that excess will have to wait until you can accomplish a triple-platinum record.
GO TO SCHOOL, HOMIE
The second you stop learning, is the second you stop living. Go to school. A freaking community college--it doesn't matter. Forever, rappers have lived with the unfair perception as uneducated embeciles acting in unending thuggery and, as a representative of the culture, it's your responsibilty to make an attempt to reverse this perception. Educate yourself. Soak in all the great stuff that these wonderful institutions have to offer. You might even discover how futile your dreams of being a rapper actually are and you might finally make a prudent decision for once in your life and pursue a life as an accountant instead.
Rappers get shot. Producers don't. It's a general rule, but fairly accurate. If that's not enough of a reason to pick up another element, try longevity. Old rappers, with few exceptions, are corny. I hate to say it because I still enjoy older cats on the mic, but it's hard to rap about rapper things when you're pushing 50 and have grandkids on the way. Pick up producing. Not only is it a way you can work the game after you're past your prime, you can stand to make much more money through your work as a producer.
There you have it.
In other news, I was jamming my favorite podcast straight outta Oslo, Norway (where hip hop originated) today, Goodshit Radio and Fred Fades compiled one of the most rediculously spectacular mix of funk and jazz. Gorgeous music. It's so good, I just gotta share it with everyone. It's entitled "Tuna & Beer Mix" and it won't let you down. Check out their site where there's a link to download the mp3 or just subscribe to their infinitely ill podcast.
Trust me. It's the real deal.
Someone please give me a new Jean Grae release. I'm dying over here.