Back in February, when Dallas rapper Big Chief announced that he'd signed a recording contract with Cash Money Records, home to rap superstars Lil Wayne, Drake and Nicki Minaj among others, it came as something of a surprise. Not because Chief was some sort of no-name, though.
Anyone who's paid even the slightest amount of attention to the local hip-hop scene at any single point in the past decade can attest that Chief's been around for some time now, dropping mixtapes at an alarming clip. This prolific nature very much earned him a reputation around town—and a good one, too. For years, before his signing announcement came, when anyone with an ear to the streets was asked who the Next Big Dallas Rapper would be, the answer was Chief. For this set, the most surprising thing about Chief's signing wasn't that it happened, but that it didn't happen earlier.
What's most interesting about his signing from an industry standpoint, though, is how it happened. During his rise, Chief might not have fully ignored the social media outlets that work so well for others, but he hardly used them as his main method of song and information dissemination. For him and the many other rappers currently making a name for themselves on the Dallas streets, the Internet has been and remains mostly an afterthought.
Big T Bazaar
And let's face it: After years of hearing about how the Internet is affecting the music industry—be it through Napster, iTunes or, most recently, Amazon's decision to sell songs via a "cloud" service that provides web-hosting for downloaded songs—that kind of logic seems insane. And especially so, given all the success stories that the Internet boasts.
For a recent example, take a look at the ongoing success of Los Angeles rap crew Odd Future and their rambunctious leader, Tyler, the Creator. They were the most buzzing act at this year's South by Southwest Music Conference and now stand at the center of a bidding war that has established rap legends such as Jay-Z and Kanye West shoving to the front of the line. And they've reached this point almost exclusively online: Odd Future has, up until now, mostly survived as an independent entity, relying primarily on the group members' individual Twitter feeds and a Tumblr blog to get the word out. Furthermore, every album in the group's catalog to this point has been given out for free.
A few local acts have followed this format—acts such as Sore Losers, A.Dd+ and Damaged Good$, for instance, who've all released free mixtape downloads in the past 12 months. But for the local acts that actually get played on the radio (and with resounding frequency in this market), the most successful business model has always been different.
In Dallas, as has been the case for years now, ground zero for substantial hip-hop success is right on the streets. And the No. 1 outlet for this street-level promotion is in the city's many bazaars—sprawling inner-city flea markets that serve as hubs for urban culture and style. Without question, the king of Dallas' bazaars is Oak Cliff's Big T Bazaar, which houses a number of music outlets within its confines.
A little primer for the uninitiated: Walk into Big T and you can expect to find $160 grills (the kind that go in your mouth), walls and walls of shoes (many wrapped in protective Saran wrap), essential oils and fragrances, a place to get your hair cut, faux diamond-encrusted belt buckles, rims for your car and any item of clothing from booty shorts to Sunday church suits—all in one convenient place that operates with a cash-only policy.
The highlight here, though, is the number of music vendors that exist under Big T's roof. A stroll into any one of these outlets will reveal a gold mine of CD compilations that collect the street's most clamored-after tracks, many of which sell in numbers that would make any retail shop struggling to keep its doors open jealous. An example: one of the latest releases, Texas T. This four-disc set compiles more than 50 of the latest and hottest tracks from Dallas and Houston artists, as well as 50 videos from names like Treal Lee and Prince Rick, Dorrough, Tum Tum, Big Chief, Lil Twist and a ton more. It's been selling up to 200 copies a week—and that's just at Big T. Its sale price: $20.
"If you want to know what's going on in Dallas, you have to come to the hood," says DJ Cap, who runs Tha Bomb Music, the busiest outlet for music in Big T. Cap just shakes his head when discussing the Internet—mostly because, he says, most of the music he carries isn't even online yet. "This is the pipeline," he says, motioning to the numerous CDs and posters hanging inside of his heavily stocked booth.
To the untrained eye, it doesn't look like much. Many of the mixtape covers and promotional posters retain a similar aesthetic style that has been de rigueur for years now—lots of big diamonds, big cars, references to drug sales and rappers posing with giant stacks of cash in their hands. But if you come in here looking for something new and original, you're kind of missing the point.
That's because the clientele that comes into Tha Bomb isn't looking toward the leading edge of rap—there's no Odd Future in here. Instead, DJ Caps says, what sells in the hood is what's already been done before. And, so long as the production is solid and not too different from what's been done in years past, it will sell. Like hotcakes, even.
Yes, it's something of an anomaly, how the derivative music and methods are able to make all this money change hands. But, then again, it doesn't show any signs of slowing down any time soon.
A perusal through the titles of the mixtapes around Big T give off a fair idea of what's going on here. Sometimes it's a riff off of a popular movie about time travel (Back to the Hustle), an old sitcom (Married to the Hustle), a game show (Deals of Fortune) or even a hardware store (The Hustle Depot). Sound ridiculous? Don't mock it: This retro mentality is about the only thing that moves a significant amount of physical CDs in the music industry today.
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Take a step back and look at how human beings work, and what's going on here starts to make perfect sense. People like what they are comfortable with. Making strides in new directions takes work. In this world, the casual customer can tell what's new not by the freshness of the sound of the music, but rather by the timely references on the covers of the CDs. You see something subtitled The Charlie Sheen Edition, and you can be sure that you're gonna hear some stuff that you've never heard before.
It's marketing genius, to a degree. And it's a beautiful thing. In a world where artists with "Lil'" and "Big" at the beginning of their rap names continue to proliferate, vendors like Tha Bomb and the local artists that they support are doing something that very few in the year 2011 can accomplish—they're moving units at a decent pace.
At Big T, using street-level promotions—where fliers are still printed and passed out in huge numbers, where hard-hitting bass lines are all you need to sell records, where cash is the only way to make a purchase, and where "shoplifters will be dealt with on a street level" (an actual sign you'll see at Big T)—is still a successful model.
Because at Big T, the future is the past. Just ask Big Chief.