July 29, 2007

Chances are if you’re reading this you probably already know, Zilla Rocca, 1/2 of Philadelphia rap duo Clean Guns, and one of the founders of Beat Garden Entertainment. I’ve posted about them once, or twice, or thrice in the past year, and though I’m probably biased, I sincerely believe these guys to be the most exciting new rap collective to emerge from the underground since Def Jux and Rhymesayers bubbled up a half dozen years ago. With the major labels in a perpetual state of panic, I was curious to hear Zilla’s thoughts and experiences in getting a label off the ground at a time when the music industry seems more tenuous than ever.

Running a label is like being the general manager of a basketball team. You’re always looking for a balanced squad: someone to bring the ball up the court, cats to clear the boards, shooters to hit open three’s, etc. But then there’s always the question of team chemistry. We’ve had to let some people go due to toxic personalities and lack of contributions. Things always move faster once you drop dead weight. With everyone on board, you can move forward and focus on marketing and promotion, figuring out which venues to establish contacts with, which big purchases you should get next (i.e. CD/DVD burner) and who to take shit from and who to tell to go fuck themselves.

Most importantly, you need to constantly work on the music. I don’t mean that in the Lil’ Wayne/2Pac, doing 23 songs a day way. But there always needs to be a project for your crew to get on. That way MC’s stay sharp and producers stay hungry. That’s what made the Wu great—RZA cut whole verses from cats because they weren’t as good as someone else’s bars. What hip hop needs is quality control. I hear at least 20-30 new hip hop songs a week. I end up re-listening to less than half .

In Philly, EVERYONE has a mixtape, a DVD, a company, a “movement,” etc. This causes everyone in town to hate each other off the bat because a) they assume the next man is garbage (most of the time they’re right) and b) that next artist is taking up their spot. What separates us from the pack is that we try to be cool with everybody. We maintain positive relationships with people we collaborate with, as well as with people from out of state who have only seen our stuff online.

Do Not Believe the Rumors: Vanilla Ice Has Not Signed to Beat Garden

Of course, there’s daily nonsense to deal with. Paramount above all is the fact that Clean Guns is comprised of two white guys. It’s amazing that this is still a “weakness” for MC’s in 2007. I honestly never think about it. But the rest of the world must think that white dudes are still Vanilla Ice-ing it because people are SHOCKED when they hears us for the first time and our racial identities are revealed. We just did a show at Liquid Charm in Philly where the crowd was overwhelmingly African-American and hadn’t heard us before. The moment we set foot on-stage, people ice-grilled me, knowing that we’d waste their time, hoping we’d be corny. Halfway through “Watch How it Go Down,” the crowd was in our hands. By the end of the four song, 10-minute set, (“Econo-rap” says Sean Price), damn near everybody in Liquid Charm rushed up to us with pounds, business cards, flyers and CDs, saying “Yo that was CRAZY! Oh my god, let me get some music. Here’s my info, where y’all playing next?!!?” I felt like Hendrix at Woodstock. Except I was wearing a “crack is wack” shirt. We put out our debut record last August and only now have heads in Philly really started to open up to us, asking us to do shows and get on tracks. We rehearse before every show. We constantly write new songs. We try to maintain a presence online as well as venues and clubs and shows. Songs from our album are getting spins on college radio. And the company meets every month to go over whatever’s clever to make sure we’re all focused on the common good. It’s a full-scale operation that never stops.If I’m not checking my email, the MySpace accounts, all the hip hop blogs plus the forums on 215hiphop.com, I feel lazy. I need to know what’s going on from a business standpoint, but also because I’m still a big fan.

From now on, the fifth element of hip hop will be the computer. Not the internet, but the computer. Cats make beats on computers—shit, I do exclusively. Cats write rhymes on computers—Nico does exclusively! Cats design their little mixtape covers on Microsoft Paint and print them out on their HP inkjets (really, no excuse for this but I see it all the time). People bitch about the Internet, but the Internet is a byproduct of owning or having access to a computer, which does more than just let you get the new T.I. album for free. The computer and with it the Internet, allows artists to get an instant response for whatever they’re doing. The bad news is that it birthed MySpace rappers. But ultimately, I don’t care if people download or burn our music for free—the fact that they want to own it, hear it is money in the bank to me. The truth is, Nas was wrong. Hip hop isn’t dead—CD’s are.

Download the first installment in the Beat Garden Producer Series.
ZIP: Clean Guns-“World Domination” (left-click)

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