When Jim Smith was a teenager he met the then iconic, now infamous rapper South Park Mexican at Trader’s Village. The underground superstar from Houston was selling his music and had a row of Sony Discmans lined up and loaded with his albums and mixtapes. Flipping through the CD booklet to SPM's Dope Moves: The Table, Smith noticed SPM listed out all the prominent hip-hop record labels at the time. He read “Cash Money Records,” “No Limit Records,” “Rap-A-Lot Records,” and a dozen others. It was a small gesture, Smith thought but he immediately caught what SPM was doing — he was networking. SPM was letting these other labels know that he was willing to work with them and that the door was open.
Fast forward more than a decade and the Discmans may have disappeared, but the same ideal applies for Smith in his own career as a rapper. Now working with his longtime friend and collaborator Miguel Fuentes, Smith is using the same sensibilities in trying to build up a young record label called Pearlbase Records that's out to build a base for Hispanic hip hop in Dallas.
Things haven't always gone smoothly for Smith in his quest to get his music out to the world. Several years ago he and Fuentes were part of a Dallas-based music label they’d rather forget about than name publicly. At the time, they had a game plan: The label featured a roster of artists and instead of splitting the pie several ways and promoting each artist at the same time, they would work in intervals giving one artist three to six months of shine then moving to the next. It was a balanced way to give each artist the proper amount of funds for recording time, promotion and shows. The only problem was Smith never got his three to six months of shine.
“We had a certain ideal—to get everyone on board,” Smith says of the situation. “Their game plan was not our game plan. In order to get anywhere you have to do things with other people and egos were getting involved there.”
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Smith grew tired of losing out on opportunities for his career. During a sold-out concert at a Dallas club for his label mate, Smith told him there would be a good opportunity to promote Smith’s recently released album '80s Baby during his partner’s set and tell the crowd CDs are available at the booth. Instead, Smith was told no and that it’d be better to put the CDs on people’s cars in the parking lot.
“We had just left South By Southwest and saw what people did to Rich Home Quan’s CDs and others,” Smith says. “They were just trashing them. People don’t like stuff on their cars even if it’s from a well-known artist.”
Smith refused to let that happen to his work. That was one of the last straws. Soon after Smith left the label even though it was a painful decision because of the time and money that was invested, and he was doubting himself a lot at the time. Fuentes wasn’t doubting him, though. During a late-night meeting, Smith and Fuentes talked about their future in hip-hop and decided they both had a lot left to do and formed the record label Pearlbase Records.
“We really do believe we have a chance,” Smith says. “We’ve had to swallow a lot of our pride and anger and let it go to make decisions to benefit us.”
When the two talk about their business venture, it’s clear that any jealousy or unethical business practices that plagued their goals with previous labels are long gone. The two talk like best friends, but most importantly they are all business. Fuentes handles the day-to-day operations of the label, keeping track of the finances, networking with other labels and artists and promotion.
Smith is the all-around artist. He writes, records, mixes and engineers a lot of his music as well as designing his cover art. The relationship has been beneficial for Smith’s craft. He sees the work and reports Fuentes creates to make sure the small, independent label runs as efficiently as possible and because of that Smith doesn’t take his recording time for granted because he knows the cost and he practices his live shows because he knows they’re important opportunities for the label.
The two are learning from each other, but the greatest things that’s come from their partnership is that the two are finally able to carry out their own game plan. Pearlbase Records is finishing up the production and design on Smith’s latest album titled Mexican Me, which currently has a planned release date of October 31.
On the album, Smith is going to offer his fans an updated sound. On his past albums, Smith unabashedly produced hip-hop tracks straight from the '90s. To him, that was when rap music was the most beautiful music being made. He likes to stick to music from that time frame because it’s easy to get influenced by new trends and lingo. He’s enthralled with the idea of giving listeners a throwback to Pimp C, South Park Mexican, Scarface and Tupac. The new sound Smith is going toward is just part of the progression he’s been working through on all his releases. He compares his music catalog to a full course dinner and so far his fans haven’t been served the entree yet.
“When I write music, I write from experience. When I listen to music I can pick out who’s lying and who’s not,” Smith says. “'Is what he’s saying coming from authenticity?' When I speak, I speak on subjects that are real to me. My music comes from a Mexican point of view.”
When Smith and Fuentes were considering leaving their previous label, they were concerned they’d have to start over with building a new fan base, but to their surprise they didn’t notice any fall off. Smith’s fan base continues to steadily grow through a relationship Pearlbase Records has established with KNON 89.3FM and its DJs Daniel Boom and Kane.
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“As an artist, you doubt yourself, but people really call in and ask for the music,” Smith says. “There’s a song called ‘Hey, Girl,’ that’s the main one they ask for.”
Pearlbase Records having a working relationship with KNON is just one of the benefits to leaving their previous label. Fuentes and Smith can recall numerous trying situations in which reaching out to other artists or groups was a cause for issue. Fuentes remembers liking another artist’s song on Facebook and was instantly called out for it. Now, there’s no limit to who they can work with. On Mexican Me, Smith will feature artists from California, Houston and more. The two are even planning to put together a compilation mixtape of artists from California, Florida and up north. Now that they’re in control they see no limits to their potential. They’re also developing new artists, such as Aaron G who will be releasing music through Pearlbase Records.
“Pearlbase is going to be here for a while and we’re both preparing for the future,” Fuentes says. “We don’t see this as a hobby. We’re spending time and money. We take care of life and we do it right.”