There’s a door in place that separates the secrets of the music industry from public view. At times the door cracks; a secret will scurry out like a dirty rodent across a clean kitchen floor, and we all stare in awe. Assumptions are easy to make, and context clues help to connect the dots, but there’s a difference once you gain access to what awaits beyond the door when the lines of fantasy and reality are no longer blurred.
Russ, a longtime DJBooth favorite and Top Prospect, has reached the point in his career where he’s gaining access to the music industry’s inner sanctums, and he doesn't like what he discovered. The kitchen isn’t clean and the dirty rodents are everywhere, we just don’t know it. The veil being removed from Russ’ eyes inspired his new single “Exposed” - a passionate assault against artists lying about being independent when they’re really signed to a major label with an entire team backing them.
“You go from making songs in your basements, on the outside of the industry, and then you end up in the industry. You end up behind those closed doors. You end up learning the mechanics, and I was left baffled,” is how Russ began our phone call discussing his most recent release.
He recalled meeting with labels and hearing the news of rappers being signed, rappers he believed to be independent artists. These weren’t new signees, but deals that have been firmly in place for almost a year. It’s about giving off the perception of independence, the underground underdog with mainstream resources. This news, of course, isn’t breaking - our former managing editor Nathan Slavik coined the term “Mindie” to label this kind of artist. “Exposed” is the “Mindie” theme song: it takes a good, hard look at some of the stranger things occurring in the industry and why they happen.
“They’re lying to the people. They’re using the narrative of someone like me to try and get fans. Fans want to root for the underdog. That’s what hip-hop is about. They can’t wait for you to get signed. So it’s like they’re manipulating the people, finessing them. Controlling them using a false narrative to get the people to root for them. But you’re signed, you have a label behind you, you're a weirdo industry plant, don’t fucking lie.”
Russ doesn’t take the label “independent” lightly. Before signing his deal, he wore independence like a badge of honor. For over 10 years he’s been making music and doing it completely D.I.Y. Rapping, singing, producing, engineering, mixing and PR - Russ did it all, and he did it with pride. Before any SoundCloud notoriety, he released 11 albums. He went from albums to singles, uploading a new song once a week on SoundCloud until his page was filled with music from top to bottom. His hands have touched every release - his blood, sweat, and tears can be heard on every record, and that’s why he was sickened by the reality that there are artists claiming independence but not living the title. The realization of what’s really going on is why he begins “Exposed” by saying, “I feel like I’m the only one,” the only one being 115% truthful about everything in his life, everything in this industry.
“When I signed with Columbia, I announced it seconds after putting it on paper. I had my boy film it and put it up on Instagram the day of. I needed to announce it the day that I signed so everyone knows up until this second, up until this day, I think it was June 24, everything before that was 117% me. If I would’ve waited a year or never announced it, certain people would’ve been shocked if the news of me being on Columbia came out. They would think I been lying to them. I didn’t want anyone trying to take something away from me. As if I didn’t do what I really did. I wanted people to know I was never with anyone”
When Russ talks about his Columbia deal, it’s never in dollar amounts. In the past, artists have been swift to highlight what they received in advance - signing for hundreds of thousands or even millions is worthy of headlines. Russ’ deal with Columbia is worth highlighting, because of the terms and not the monetary amount. He explained his situation and why he decided to sign:
“You can get a shit ton of money and still be in a shitty deal. I partnered with Columbia. I didn’t sign, I wanted to make that clear. I signed, but it’s a 50/50 profit split. Basically, you either get a profit split deal or you get a royalty deal. Royalty deals are shit but new artists aren’t getting profit split deals out the gate. I was able to. That has to be part of the narrative. If you really bust your ass, do your D.I.Y shit, and get a real fan base, do it independently, and be real about it, it will pay off. You’ll get a deal that doesn’t suck. I was the most anti-major label artist but that’s because I was listening to a bunch of rappers who had shitty deals talking with major labels. My deal is crazy. I’m fine with the label.”
The label signs the artist, they encourage them to keep the deal quiet, and the rappers push the agenda. It’s the rappers who continue to perpetuate the falseness of independence. The lies, the smoke, the mirrors - it makes you question what’s real. That’s why Russ found it important to shine a light on all these artists who keep their deals in the shadows. You can hear the agitation in Russ’ voice as he raps, “It’s fucked up the standard that I held you to.”
“Exposed” feels like a song cut from Eminem’s cloth - production, flow, attitude - with Russ channeling a modern day Marshall Mathers who is fed up with all the lying. The Eminem influence is fitting, as it was Em and the G-Unit era of sick melodies, hard-hitting drums, crazy choruses and crazier raps that made a young Russ fall in love with hip-hop. Eminem had a knack for ruffling feathers and stirring things up, and Russ has that same innate desire to say what others won’t; to speak the truth instead of biting his tongue.
I put Russ in the same class as Anderson .Paak - an artist who put in years of work and is just now enjoying the fruits of the tireless labor that went into chasing this dream. His company and crew DIEMON, an acronym for "Do It Everyday, Music Or Nothing," is more than just a cool phrase, it’s his life. A decade of creating around and within this industry has given him the seniority to speak on all the things he’s heard and seen - from rappers to bloggers, to labels: “When you're watching an NBA game, and Charles Barkley and Shaq are commentating and critiquing other players jump shots, no one is tripping. Do you want some average Joe talking about the NBA or do you want people in the NBA talking about the NBA? I feel like I’m more qualified than just some average Joe to speak on this rap shit. I’m in it. I do it.”
“I feel a responsibility. That’s why I said in “Exposed,” ‘Call me bitter, call me jealous’ because I know people will think I’m bitter. But how am I bitter? Look at my life. My life is fantastic. This song isn’t coming from someone who is losing. This song is coming from someone who’s winning. It’s not someone that’s crying about not being on, bro, my planned worked. I’m a headlined, touring act. I have a catalog. It’s important for me now to pass information onto the next artist coming up and be all the way truthful about it. I want to tell the whole narrative from start to finish. This is what I did: I dropped 11 albums and it didn’t work. I was still in my basement. Then I started dropping a song a week on SoundCloud and I randomly started to pick up traction. The industry weirdo started to reach out, and I ignored them. I don’t want to skip steps. Be honest so the next person can feel like they can do it to. If I can do it, you can do it. I was in my basement just like you.”
Honesty is all Russ wants from the industry and his colleagues. Upcoming artists need a narrative, a genuine narrative that doesn’t skip steps or hide secrets. There are so many stories being told that leave out the necessary information. That’s one aspect of the game Russ finds discouraging. Having to watch artists promote their progress as if all you need to do is release the right song or shoot the right video to change your life, but leaving out all the details to guarantee success. “Exposed” dares to call out the bullshit and deception, but there’s a lot of wisdom in his words. The way Russ juxtaposes being an artist in the industry versus being an industry artist is what fellow artists need to absorb. It’s more than exposing what is fake, but shedding light on why he’s in his current position. He is the tortoise, not the hare.
Russ isn’t selling a quick story. He isn’t promising overnight success, but the long, rewarding journey to the top.
By Yoh, aka IndieYoh, aka @Yoh31.
Photo Credit: Edgar Esteves