Towards the end of 2018’s scorching summer, amidst the usual political turmoil, I attended a panel discussion at the Beats N Bars hip-hop festival in Durham called “From One MC to Another: Navigating the Industry.” With four poet-musician-novelist-instrumentalist-philosopher thinkers as panelists, those in attendance were immersed in a two-hour discussion covering everything from creative balance and technology to racial identity and how hip-hop works as a tool for self and community betterment.
From One MC to Another Navigating the Industry
by: Andrew Cheek
Pinqy Ring, Chicago-native hip-hop artist and mentor
Dumbfoundead, hip-hop artist, writer, and actor
M8alla, hip-hop artist from D.C. by way of Cameroon
Oace of Spades, hip-hop artist and writer living in Durham
Moderated by: Dasan Ahanu
Author’s note: With the goal of remaining faithful to the panelists’ original ideas and the flow of the conversation, I have assembled below a collection of my notes that are at times fragmentary.
Hip-hop is more than just emcees and rapping.
Rapper Dumbfoundead acts.
Oace of Spades is writing a novel.
And Pinqy Ring has a mentorship workshop called “The Pinqy Project” dedicated to empowering youth through hip-hop, self-awareness, and positive expression. As she said, there is great importance in being an example for other people and in being an educator. One must find mentors in their field and in the same vein eventually become one. And this points back to the reaffirmation of one’s path – why is it we do what we do?
M8alla, having immigrated from Cameroon, touched on her personal influences, the interplay and tension of adopting American elements while being an immigrant, trying to retain her sense of self. For her life is made up of contrasts. When she came to the South, the style was gold grills, twerking, and Trap Rap.
Dumbfoundead: Bedroom emcee-culture is much more common today, too, with digital tools at everyone’s fingertips and social media easing share-ability. Look at how many people are on Soundcloud making music. (Durham hip-hop trio Young Bull began their career on Soundcloud.)
It’s easy, as a result, for there to be lots of appropriation in hip-hop if people don’t know what’s going on or don’t have historical context. There’s a fine line between jokes and being racist. Dumbfoundead added, that’s the great thing about Battle Rap – anyone of any ethnicity can be rapping. In Battle Rap, it’s the nature of the art for emcees to hurl insults and keep their musical swords sharp against opponents in order to win. This acts as a platform for discussion and offers opportunity to address ignorance or appropriation or racism or any other issue head on.
Battles Leagues, adds Oace of Spades, teach discipline and refine thought patterns where you use different parts of your brain. Involved with a Battle League in Durham, Oace said that hip-hop and rap battles are almost like community service. They work, too, as a platform to help youth, to give kids an outlet. Battle Rap is one of many tools that an emcee can use to expand and dial in their creativity.
Technology gives hip-hop another tool.
Everything comes in waves, especially for creative people. There is rarely a never-ending flow of inspiration that doesn’t, at some time, meander and dwindle. No matter your discipline, there are moments of ‘being on’ and moments of boredom or of differing interests. Some days Oace said he’ll be in his music zone, then others in his literature zone. He can switch back and forth depending on his mood because of technology. He uses auto-dictate programs when writing, for example, for days when everything is clicking for him musically but he wants to work on his book – speaking aloud or freestyling to the mic as with music but in the context of narratives and characters.
Don’t forget, the internet can be a big distraction, adds Dumbfoundead. He warns turn off notifications because all of the sudden many hours can slip by. Internet and devices, texting friends, this takes away time – hours.
There’s a recent update to Instagram that sends users a time limit alert. Once you have reached that limit you’re locked out, no matter what.
M8alla, with a smooth voice, brings up the topic of artistic balance.
As a whole, we musicians and artists need to [self] promote… on social media, at venues, through promotional materials, etc. (And marketing as a musician takes time and skill.) All around the room people nodded in agreement to M8alla’s encouragement of scheduling one’s day. She said she often will have allocated time for social media, for promotion or for any marketing aspects of being an artist… from sending booking emails to engaging with fans or replying to tweets. Once you’re done with that, though, leave it alone, she advises (so it doesn’t interrupt artistry). And having a team helps, too, so you don’t have to do it all on your own and can have people to collaborate with.
We’re so attached to results though! And to likes or reactions, shares, comments, etc. What that means or says about who we are as people and musicians. Which is another reason to disconnect. So that our validation isn’t only external and based around what people think of us, good or bad.
As an artist, though, in today’s world, your brand is your person. What if a post does badly?!?
Sure, that can mean something, but it’s not such a big deal. Focus on the art. Listen to what’s being said, but don’t get so caught up that you forget who you are or you spend all your time processing feedback is the advice offered.
M8alla continuing: Disconnecting helps with tapping into originality that’s not based off what others do, too. She said if she spends the morning on Instagram seeing people’s cool ideas, sometimes, later on she’ll have such and such idea, then to her dismay may realize it came from something she saw earlier… or contain some element.
Being fresh, original, and yourself today is a multi-faceted thing – as an artist, person, and as a whole.
Dumbfoundead: “It’s important for me to be original to my story.”
He noted how he used to be ashamed to be Asian. Then he sort of became, as he put it, the cool Asian in his crew (of otherwise non-Asians). It’s important to be proud of one’s identity (without being excessively self-consumed). In his younger years, though, Dumbfoundead said he wanted to be a rapper, not an Asian-American rapper, but a rapper. Now, he doesn’t shy away. He is who he is. And he mentioned not getting his Asian-American story confused with an Asian story, either. There’s a difference.
M8alla added that when you share your world you are helping people who are struggling to find who they are. Telling that story of overcoming your insecurity, or of figuring out who you are, resonates with people because they feel it too. If your art comes from somewhere genuine, and is honest to your experience of life, people will sense that and respond.
Pinqy Ring, speaking on musical identity: Says that while she loves trap rap, and being ratchet [she laughs], she also values lyricism, punchlines, and flow… That’s who she is. And so, in her music she combines those interests and values to make her music her own. One doesn’t have to conform by default to the characteristics of a genre.
Thus enters in the topic of Lost Emcees: Being clones, copying what they see… conforming to a genre as compared to using the genre’s styles alongside one’s own personal aesthetic. As Dumbfounded said, many don’t really identify with the mainstream. Yet, so many people follow what’s trendy.
Imitating an artist or style also reflects how it resonates with you. If you want to rap like Lil Pump, or with the cadences of Kendrick (if you can) – go ahead. Acknowledge your inspiration, but don’t let it take over entirely so that you become a copycat.
Dasan Ahanu, the moderator, sporting an outfit of crisp khaki, steps in to field a question from the audience. In the back, behind me, someone asks about finding recurring inspiration.
The panelists, coming together: Not trying to be relevant is a good starting point.
Dumbfounded then intones that hip-hop today, as a whole genre, is especially youth driven. As an older emcee, comparatively, (though still only thirty-twp), he said something along the lines of not worrying about age, and not worrying about being up to date with everything little thing that’s going on. Which brings to mind what J. Cole rhymed in his song “1985”:
“Now you scramblin’ and hopin’ to get hot again
But you forgot you only popped ‘cause you was ridin’ trends
Now you old news and you goin’ through regrets
‘Cause you never bought that house, but you got a Benz.”
Again, this comes back to finding recurring inspiration through the striking of a balance online (said Dumbfoundead). Keeping a balance between memes and New Yorker articles, for example. Both have value.
M8alla, from the end of the table, shared some advice she was given: Wake up and read. Then write by hand three pages. (She did this for three weeks.)
And in doing so she unearthed so much about herself she never knew she had forgotten… things that color and shape perspective, old twinkling memories, her own life. All of our days are in us. It’s about finding ways to express that colorfully. And how that influences her music and who she is as a person and artist.
Pinqy Ring: “Disconnect and go walk around, leave your phone at home, take a bus somewhere or bike to a museum. Write stuff down, observe, look at nature and people, go to park. Take a day for yourself, for self and for sensation. Be silent, or talk with people. All answers we need are within ourselves. Honor that, and your story.”
Also, says M8alla: Using universe at your fingertips. For example go to Google, say, and look up and explore South African Music. Or Afro-Caribbean music. Learn something new. Take advantage of the resources around you.
Pinqy Ring, with flair her bright neon pink hair giving the room pizzazz: Honor moments when shit doesn’t work, too. And if it really doesn’t work, maybe you need to do something else versus just being creative. But allow yourself to write shitty lyrics. Or, just pull back and let it come when it does without forcing anything. Everything has flow.
“The craft is so much more than the craft,” adds Dumbfoundead. Good writing and good hip-hop come from being outside, from reading books, from playing Xbox with your friends, from listening to music, from petting your cat, from painting a picture, and from more than anything just being and in turn expressing your perceptions. In the vein of what Pinqy Ring said about disconnecting and taking a bus somewhere, or walking around, he adds, it’s important to go beyond your bubble, find new conversations and new experiences.
Another question comes in from the audience like a bluebird landing on a branch. Could the panelists offer some advice as to how to make money as a musician?
Let’s break it down:
Record sales = slim money (especially with so many streaming services).
It’s more about shows now.
And how to package your creative: e.g., merchandise, creating other artworks, etc.
M8alla adds that it’s good to reinvest in order to go further. Take that money you make and buy studio time, pay your team, get new equipment, etc.
It can’t always be about making money and living a luxurious life. Pay your dues first. Invest in yourself before people do in you.
Oace of Spades and Dumbfounded both mention the possibility of grants, as well. Grants can help pay for music videos, equipment, expenses, promotional materials, whatever you need related to your art.
Pinqy Ring: Being able to teach what you know helps, too – podcasts, panels, symposiums, festivals (as I think, like us being here right now).
“Networking is a currency,” says Pinqy Ring. Helping others. You only get the love you give.
Don’t assume every other rapper sells, either, and that there’s just one chance for a “big break,” adds Dumbfoundead.
There are many arts grants for artists out there, though. In Durham. And you don’t have to be a non-profit, either.
M8alla, on how to get a grant: Have a business plan and your story down. Show how you do what you do… with a promotional or music video, pictures, footage from concerts. In short, have proof that you can do what you say you think you can do.
If you don’t win the grant, ask what can you do to be better! Grant givers are receptive and want people to succeed. Feedback can be very beneficial.
Define your target audience and know who you’re trying to reach. At the same time, you can’t fully choose your fans and you may be surprised by who likes your work.
Oace of Spades, as the conversation nears a close, mentions the overall importance of creative expression. Being an emcee is more than just rhymes – we write and create to remain sane and stay grounded. Whatever you do, go at it 100%. You can overcome struggles and past mistakes, then use your story to help others do the same. Just look at Kid Cudi’s music. Or Mac Miller’s music.
Nestled in every work of art is a glimmer of failure. a story of struggle, and the remedy.
“Grow with the people around you,” says Pinqy Ring.
How to deal with our traumas? For Pinqy Ring, through art, she says. And through our talents and what we do best. Our traumas don’t have to define us. Our voices are powerful and can help others. Don’t let it get to bricks. But don’t shy away from skeletons.
Read the rest of Andrew Cheek’s Beats N Bars coverage here.