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What did The Joker say in the flick The Dark Knight? "If you're good at something, never do it for free." It's what we were taught by our entrepreneurial mentors growing up. It's simple enough to understand. It makes sense.
But there's a business term that contradicts that phrase and it, too, can have a monetary payoff - later. It's called "sweat equity." It's when you put skin in the game to get long-term, substantial capital gains down the road versus immediate, small ones. Essentially, you work for free, temporarily, until your efforts pay-off big. Let's take it out of the college classroom and bring it to life through hip-hop terms.
Ben Westhoff recently wrote a piece on Chamillionare in the Houston Press, which mentioned that the artist cracked Forbes's list of top-earning rap stars of 2008 at No. 14 with an estimated $10 million. But think of the countless hours Chamillionare spent in the studio, the time it took to guerrilla-market his music to build an awareness, the number of bars spit that were never heard and the countless mixtapes that eventually led to a reputation, that led to a following, that led to low-paying road shows, that led to slowly building a Houston household brand-name, that led to a major-label deal, that finally turned into $10 million.
Everything before those seven zeroes was Chamillionaire's sweat equity. He didn't get paid to hustle, but when he wiped his brow after all that hard work, it wasn't clear sweat drops in the palm of his hand. It was money. There are obvious pros to living in a city so welcoming of independent, out-the-trunk-selling artists where "the hustle" is a normality, but there has to be some cons to it, too, right? A Rosenberg rapper called us last night, named Lee-Coc, who was out in Los Angeles shopping his demo and he tells us it's a place where the Houston hustle is a rarity, not a normality, so he stands out more and that does wonders for him. That's his differentiator. What does that tell us? In Houston, the game is saturated with hustling rappers and it's hard to stand out. Even if you're good, it's hard to stand out. That's a sentiment that we've heard in all our interviews. So what's the one dynamic that can always rise above the crowded, packed-like-sardines Houston rap scene? One word, actually. Free. Give something away for free and it'll stand out. When's the last time you turned down some orange chicken on a toothpick when walking through a crowded Galleria food court? Northside's Stunta da Crook gets that you won't pass up some orange chicken on a toothpick. Especially in an economy where we, personally, know that half of our friend's family is unemployed (extended, not immediate), this Houston rapper, like many in the city, wants to give away a good product he personally crafted gratis. The Coolest Hood was released Tuesday and had 3,000 free downloads in just the first day. Production-wise and lyrically - never mind that it costs nothing - warrants an extended visit to our radio deck. DJ Nawfy does a really good job of spicing it up with scratchy and choppy ingredients and the tracks flow very smoothly from one to the other. We got the feeling that it was a carefully put-together project, but Stunta tells us it's a compilation of tracks he did with other artists and those that belonged to him that were not good enough to make his album to be released in eight months. Well, damn. If that's any indication, we're looking forward to that project, but The Coolest Hood is good enough to hold us over for a bit. Stunta isn't the only one giving out mixtapes for free and this isn't necessarily a new, cutting-edge trend, but it is one rarely talked about and its reasoning hasn't been delved into. In fact, we're seeing and more of it every day. Lucky Luciano told us earlier this week that from now on all of his mixtapes are going to be free to his fans. There is lots of "sheet-talking" about how free music is fucking up the game, Stunta tells us. Especially by those who have the initial business philosophy we mentioned of selling - never giving away - their music. (Sheet-talking, as opposed to shit-talking, is when you shit-talk while tweeting. Yeah, we made it up.) If the customer masses begin to expect a free product, then will they really pay $9.99 for a CD with a cover that looks just like the free one down the street? Maybe not, but Stunta is just trying to get into people's speakers. "The reason I'm doing it for free is I want people to hear my shit," Stunta tells Rocks Off. "I want to get back into people's iPod. There are lots of conversations on twitter that we're messing up the game, especially by the store owners, the Mom and Pop shops." But Stunta also thinks the economy calls for a little generosity. And at the end of the day, if they like what they hear, they are more apt to give him $12.99 for his album later this year. He admits people have told him the last few days that they would have paid for his latest project, but "fans appreciate that shit," he says. "They are the people who are going to put money in your pocket," he continues. "You got to do it for them." You know, The Joker also said in The Dark Knight, "You and your kind, all you care about is money. This city deserves a better class of criminal. And I'm gonna give it to them." Stunta da Crook seems like that better class of criminal, doesn't he? Download The Coolest Hood on Stunta's MySpace and follow him on Twitter. Rolando Rodriguez is the managing editor of www.redbrownandblue.com. Follow him on MySpace and Twitter.