Hip-hop can be a culture of extremes. You're either on the corner all night or you have a direct line to (the real) Noreiga. You're either trying to bring the '90s back or making unintelligible trap music. You're either a struggle rapper recording out of your Mom's basement or flying around in that new G8 jet that doesn't actually exist.
Very few of those extremes actually describe the music being made and the real lives of the artists who make it though, which is why I've always gravitated to Torae. In the - shit, could it be? - six years that I've known him he's become an artist who's held true to his New York City roots without becoming trapped by them and as a business man he's managed to carve out that rare thing - a lucrative career that's truly independent.
I know Torae well enough to have been nervous before I pressed play on his new album, Entitled. There's nothing worse for a music writer than when someone you know drops a weak album and then you have to avoid them for a while, afraid they'll ask you to write about it. So I drew a sigh of relief when I finally pressed play and it wasn't just dope, it was some of the best work of his career. Now I was the one calling him with questions about the music and looking for advice about how to keep a career moving for over a decade without any big time co-signs or support.
"I've had a ten year career. Not a lot of guys have had that career. No big co-sign, no big record label behind me, but I'm able to take care of my family and myself. It's a blessing, I'm fortunate. There's a lot of people who came in with my rookie class who aren't here anymore, so I'd rather have a great long career than real real hot and then real not."
We're all familiar with the cliched story of how rappers "blow up," they catch the ear of a major player, maybe even ambush a superstar rapper outside of a radio station with a freestyle, and with that heavyweight in their corner they're catapulted to the masses. But we very rarely get the story of how an artist builds a career for themselves, brick by painstaking brick, without any shortcuts or co-signs.
For Torae, that meant leaving high school with a good job at a bank, happy with the money he was making, but already understanding, "The trap of falling into something that accidentally becomes your life," as he put it. He quit the bank to pursue music but got a part time job working with special needs children to keep him afloat, but when he released his 2006 project, Coalesecence, and it became a top-seller at Fat Beats, he committed fully to music. "I learned if I'm going to do it I can't half step. From there, there was no looking back," he said.
Without a label to do the heavy lifting though, moving forward also meant truly building an independent business from the ground up. It was a work load that demanded a 9-5 schedule in addition to late nights in the studio, but also allowed him the freedom to pursue collaborations with any artist he felt he truly connected with, from Skyzoo to Wale to Sean Price along with producers including 9th Wonder, Pete Rock, Marco Polo and more. So while he's had to shoulder the burden of self-funding his solo albums, For theRecord and Entitled, both released under his own Internal Affairs label, because he doesn't have to split the profits 79 ways like a major label artist does, he's also able to reap some real rewards. Throw in some touring, particularly in Europe where the crowds tend to be much more "underground" hip-hop friendly, and you've got an annual salary the average American would be ecstatic to make solely by doing something he loves.
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I've seen more rappers than I can remember get to that space, begin to build their own careers, but simply find themselves unable to sustain the day in, day out work of running an independent business. Even if things appear to be going well for the artist on the outside, it becomes hard to justify the time and energy spent to still only barely pay the rent. Torae's endurance is what's allowed him to continue on while most have folded, but that endurance has come paired with an "adapt or die" willingness to evolve that's kept him alive.
Impressively, Entitled opens with "Imperial Sound," a track that also includes the groundbreaking poet/musician/Kanye ghostwriter Saul Williams, and from there the album contains hints of live instrumentation, guitar lines and trumpet solos, that transcend the expected. "Sonically, the music I'm making is always going to be in the same lane," said Torae. "But I still want to steer the conversation, do certain things that don't stay totally in my realm."
Honestly, this goes deeper than hip-hop. Like Torae, I left a stable job to pursue a passion that most don't ever turn into a career. Like Torae, I've never had a heavyweight in my corner, we've built DJBooth from the ground up and are one of the only truly independent sites that aren't owned by a larger media company. And like Torae, I'm trying to do all that while being a father.
And so when I see Torae hosting his own radio show now, The Tor Guide, I also see inspiration to go after new opportunities, even if it's in a field I hadn't originally envisioned. And when I hear Entitled, I'm reminded that creating something you can be truly proud of, that represents you without trapping you in your past, is the goal that matters most.
It's easy to be hypnotized by the extremes, to convince yourself that you want what they want, that you've failed because you're not an international superstar. But that's only because those who might look down on you can't see your path, are too scared to walk it. I respect Torae for reasons that extend far past rap, but it doesn't hurt that he can also rap your face off. Living life outside the major label system isn't easy, but if you have the stamina the rewards can be astounding, and if you're looking for someone to show you the path to independence, let Torae be your guide.
By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.
Photo Credit: Robert Adam Mayer.