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There might not be another strain of music more perpetually misunderstood than gangsta rap was in its golden age. Though most commonly associated with its superficial negativity — comically absurd slasher film violence (often directed at women) and vulgarity played for laughs that became more problematic as the music was embraced by the American mainstream and left the musicians vulnerable to rhetoric from parental groups and conservative outsiders — the first wave of street-minded hip-hop was also brimming with a more constructive energy.
Its greatest artists took deeply emotional looks at the criminal cultures and ghettos of America while explicitly indicting the systems that created them. For a brief moment, as both a vehicle for a revolutionary message and a source of economic independence, it felt like a legitimate threat to the status quo.
Perhaps no other label embodied this conscious rebel spirit better than Rap-A-Lot Records. Borne in 1987 out of founder J. Prince's used car lot as a way to keep his little brother off the street, the label quickly grew into a pillar of the Houston hip-hop community. Prince was the entrepreneur at the heart of the enterprise, assembling its flagship act, the Geto Boys, who put Southern hardcore rap on the map. Over the next two decades he operated independently within a system created by the major labels to benefit them, and wound up inventing a business model that both circumvented those corporations and used their muscle to his advantage.
Language Advisory: This song and the rest on this post contain language and subject matter some might find offensive.
Late '90s Southern rap empires like Suave House, No Limit and Cash Money followed his blueprint to mainstream fame. Prince groomed the early careers of turn of the century underground rap heroes like the hilariously introverted stoner Devin The Dude and the tragically introverted loner Z-Ro, while continuing to provide an outlet for Texas rap legacy acts like Scarface of the Geto Boys and UGK's Bun B and Pimp C.
With the 25th anniversary of the label upon us, they're celebrating with the just released and aptly titled Rap-A-Lot 25th Anniversary box set, which includes a DVD documentary, two CDs of greatest hits and a third tribute disc featuring covers of those classics by the likes of Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, T.I. and more. I sat down with Prince to talk about the rise of his empire and the dismal fate faced by prospective independent rap labels of today.
So how did Rap-A-Lot come into existence?
My brother was a rapper and his name was Sir Rap-A-Lot. I actually started the company for him because I didn't want my brother on the streets, hustling in the jungle that we were living in at the time [and] I felt like it'd be a good business move to give him another opportunity. So that's what I did. I extended that invitation to him along with a couple other guys that was not going to school and I told them if they would go to school I'd support them in rap.
What had you been doing for work prior to that?
Prior to that I had a car lot. I was selling cars. There's a street called Shepard St. in Houston, Texas, that's full of car lots and that was my thing at the time. I knew all these different people — the guys that was in the street and all the athletes, so I was able to have an edge on your average car salesman. That was my foundation.
You were selling used cars?
Used cars. But it was exotic used cars that some of my associates had that they would let me get on consignment. So it was really easy for me to get one [from one] of my football guys or one of my other friends and slap me a five or ten thousand dollar profit on a vehicle.
What do you think it was about your personality that drove you to build those relationships?
Well I grew up where poverty was a serious burden on my family and that had a major part in my mind developing. I wanted to break that poverty curse that existed. Even as a kid I was somewhat abnormal for my age when it came to trying to have a dollar. I was seven or eight years old and a lot of [other kids] were thinking about playing but I was thinking about how to get a dollar, whether it was through cutting yards or whatever it may have been.
How did you guys end up forming the Geto Boys?
I fell in love with the name first. That was a name that I came up with because I felt like there were ghettos all over the world and I thought that it was a name that I could replenish over and over again if I wanted to. From there I had to figure out the members. I had to keep trying things over and over again until I got the chemistry that I wanted to have. Eventually it consisted of Scarface, Willie D and Bushwick [Bill] — three guys that didn't know one another but had a strong passion for rapping and was willing to follow my vision.
Yeah those first few records, back when they still had the "H" in their name, were more on the Run-D.M.C. tip.
Oh yeah, well of course. The members was different. In the beginning stages I let the other guys write with their own visions because I didn't have the time [to give them input]. I was in another business trying to make money. But eventually I had invested so much money into the group I came to a stage where I said, "This is my last piece of money and I'mma do this my way." That became a problem with the [original members] because they felt like my lyrics, the subject matter that I wanted them to write about was too deep.
So I got rid of all of them and got people that was willing to make my lyrics that I was writing rhyme. I wasn't a rapper so I couldn't make raps rhyme or nothing but I had subjects and different events that I was way more familiar with than the rappers were.
What do you think pushed you into that darker and more explicit territory?
I think it had a lot to do with 5th Ward, our hood. We were only holding a mirror up to things that we had lived through in our surroundings, which are the same [things] that exist in ghettos around the world. So it was easy for people to embrace our subject matter.
How did your brother feel about getting shuffled out of the group?
I don't think my brother liked it. A lot of my family members didn't like it. But they didn't understand that you had to separate personal things from business. A lot of them didn't understand it until I bought them houses and cars later ... I was a genius then. But during the storm it was hard to embrace me replacing [my brother with] Scarface.
How do you jump into making records in those days? Where did you find the knowledge necessary to get them out there?
Through trial and error I was able to figure out things rather quickly. When you're from the hood, when you're from a situation where sharks swim around you every 24-hours, then it's almost a part of your character to figure out how to survive. This was something that I was used to. Even though it was corporate America the principles of survival were the same.
Were there any existing record labels that you looked at as a blueprint?
Well I was inspired by the thing that Russell Simmons and Def Jam was doing but I didn't have any insight from a business perspective to how they was doing it. Being from the South I was totally isolated from getting wisdom from those guys. Matter of fact, some [people in the industry] that I'd seek wisdom from gave me the wrong information to try to get rid of me.
But once again, [being from] where I'm from, I understood. It was almost like a turf situation, to give you an analogy from a street perspective. In the streets where I'm from they play the turf game, [people] want to control certain blocks. It was the same principle where the music game was concerned. So I understood the game a lot of the New Yorkers and East Coast guys was playing right away. They even had a lot of their DJs and their people in Houston, Texas, that was controlling the airwaves. They had their s--- together.
So I had to figure out a way to circumvent them monopolizing the South the way they was doing. So we figured that out and a lot of times it wasn't always pretty but the results were fruitful and that's the reason the South is so dominant today. It's because of the trails that we blazed way back then.
When you say it wasn't pretty what are some examples of that?
People don't just volunteer and smile and give you a hug and say, "Come and take my place." Sometimes you have to get creative and make different things happen to let one know that [you're] for real. And that's about as clear as I can get on that.
What other challenges did you face as an indie?
It was a challenge selling the records and then collecting on the records. We had to figure out how to collect our money [from distributors]. Which, you know, some exciting events took place because some of these guys would sell your records and then hire the police to stop you from collecting. [Laughs] So we had to figure out how to maneuver around those events and get paid. So I was glad to graduate from that independent world.
When did you make that step towards the majors?
Well my first move was with Rick Rubin, that was my first deal I cut because of the respect I had for him being one of the creators of Def Jam. At the time Rick Rubin was with Geffen Records so I had done some homework on David Geffen and they had a real powerful machine at the time. So I did a deal with Rick [for The Geto Boys]. After doing that deal David Geffen heard our stuff and, you know, he really exercised his racism when he heard our music. I say that because he had heavy metal artists that had the same lyrical content, if not worse than what we were doing.
[Ed. note: This is not a new charge by Prince. Both he and Geffen have spoken about the 1990 controversy before. When reached for comment, Geffen said this: "The lyrics of that record describes cutting off a woman's breasts and f---ing the dead body. etc, etc etc. I suggest that NPR listen to the record and decide for themselves. I refused to release any record with lyrics that glamorize violence against women."]
But, long story short, Rick Rubin was able to get dropped from his deal because of [Geffen] not wanting to distribute the Geto Boys. He went on to do a real lucrative deal with Warner Brothers. That album that I gave Rick Rubin, it was the same album [Grip It! On Another Level, later reissued as The Geto Boys] that I had already sold a million units on [independently] and I put four new songs on that same album and then did another half a million under the Warner Brothers situation. But I had signed the deal because I wanted that David Geffen machine behind the group, so after that I had to convince Rick Rubin to give me my freedom. And I went on and did a deal with Priority.
How did the Priority situation come to be?
Once I had established that I could sell records, all of the record labels that had turned me down prior was trying to get at me. But what was attractive about Priority was that they were an established independent with a major distribution deal but then they actually had people in there that knew how to work the records properly at retail. They had an edge on a lot of the record labels. So I hurried up and embraced that deal and sold a bunch of records.
I created and blazed a trail that everybody came in and followed. I started releasing a crazy amount of records a year. Prior to that that was foreign land to a lot of the labels, they didn't feel like one should be releasing that many albums like that. I was letting them go left and right and that's the formula that all my good friends from Master P to Cash Money to Tony Draper, all of these guys followed and successfully was doing.
How were you going about finding the talent to sustain that pace?
Back then it was coming at me left and right. S---, wherever we would stop I was getting hundreds and thousands of [demos]. We was hot so I guess we attracted a lot of talent. It was like flies coming to honey.
Are there any records from that era that you thought were underrated?
One that jumps out at me immediately was the Odd Squad. The Odd Squad was a group before their time. But there had been quite a few of them. Matter of fact, basically everything we released was slept on to a certain extent because we didn't have the muscle that a lot of the majors had to get the maximum amount of sales.
What do you think about the recent changes in the music industry? Do you think there's still opportunity for someone to build an indie empire on the level that you did?
Well ... no not really. A few years ago I used to say that there was a conspiracy taking place to kill off and destroy all future black entrepreneurs, to [prevent them from doing] the same thing that myself and Cash Money and all of them did. And I was right. When I was making that statement people were looking at me like I was crazy and now it's reality.
Not only are the record labels not giving out those type of deals anymore the whole structure of being able to get that kind of money [is gone]. S--- look at 360 [deals], which is the deal that the majors like to give out now, where they're involved in every aspect. I remember when I started up with that 360 format and they told me I was wrong. They was like, "There's no way you're supposed to manage and [run the label]." And now they're trying to survive with that same contract.
How is Rap-A-Lot adapting to the current marketplace?
I mean ... I'll tell you man ... this whole game right now is a game that I'm not that excited about anymore because of the new structure and all these different ways of being able to get music without paying. It kind of kills my spirit from an entrepreneurial perspective.
At what point did that disenchantment set in?
When that Internet became so dominant where it enabled the bootleggers to steal the music so much more rapidly. It hit independents so hard, even from a retail end and the Mom and Pop store point of view. That was a major killing point of the game, to not be able to control that which you've created and worked so hard on.
Well it seems like the label's still trucking along. You're still at it.
Yeah right now we're working on Juvenile's album, Z-Ro and a few other groups but it's not like it used to be. Trust me when I tell you that it's nowhere even close to where it used to be. The majors are more in control now than they have been in a long time.
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