Twenty-six-year-old Robert Hardiman, otherwise known as Realla Rezob, stands outside the Walgreens at 39th Street and Broadway in a plain white T-shirt, the straps of a backpack looped loosely over his slim shoulders. Inside the bag are dozens of CDs tucked into yellow envelopes with slips of white paper detailing the contents.
Hardiman sells these mixes for $5 each and packs them with songs by the same artists whom 16-year-old girls breathlessly request on urban radio: Akon, Cupid, T-Pain and Hurricane Chris. For this mix, Hardiman has also sneaked on his own song. Called "J's," it's an anthem dedicated to Nike Jordan shoes.
When an employee in a Walgreens vest comes outside, she doesn't run off Hardiman for soliciting on store property. Instead, she smiles in recognition and goes back inside to get her purse.
Even though he hasn't recorded an album, Hardiman is well-known on the local hip-hop circuit — mostly because of his tireless efforts to sell homemade mixes on street corners.
Hardiman wins over customers with his easy smile, his come-hither eyes and the tale of his latest success. His song "Smashin'" — a hyperactive, danceable beat with a hook that goes Big wheels on our ride, lookin' fly/We smashin' state to state makin' tycoon moves/In our customized whips when we dips on through — was recently included on a collection of songs at SnoopDoggDemo.com, a Web site that offers music for free download.
Hardiman entered "Smashin'" in a Snoop Dogg mix contest after seeing an ad on the Internet.
"I had to send them $250," he says. "But they still chose it over, like, 250 million other songs."
Though Snoop Dogg's photo was on the Web site, the contest didn't appear to be sanctioned by Snoop Dogg or Geffen Records, Snoop's label. (Several of the site's pages simply read "Coming Soon!")
Still, Hardiman figured the $250 was money well spent. Even if the site didn't stick his song in the middle of a downloadable mix of music, he believed that the site's operators might remember the track and use it for a future mix.
But he didn't receive any hard copies of the CD, something that similar companies promise and deliver. Hardiman might have been better served by simply uploading his song to a MySpace page for free — which he eventually did.
Meanwhile, last month, SnoopDoggDemo.com went dark.
Dewayne Holmes, who works for Geffen's Midwest urban-promotions department, says he is unfamiliar with the Snoop Dogg demo site. "There's a lot of frauds out there, so people have to do their research before they commit to something," he says.
Rappers bump fists and advise one another to stay on their hustle — keep writing rhymes and making beats, keep logging hours in the recording studio, keep selling mixes out of car trunks.
But a swarm of other hustlers waits to skim money from the naïve and the uninitiated. They'll talk novice rappers into paying for slots on tours that fall through or charge a premium to let them open for national acts visiting Kansas City or fleece them for airtime on local radio.
Some of these hustles are illegal, others simply unethical. But all are hurting local artists.
In Anti-Crew's short career, the lucky breaks have outweighed the unlucky ones. The two MCs, Matt Peters and Jeffery Shafer, formed their hip-hop duo in 2000. They rocked mics at the Peanut at Ninth Street and Broadway before they could legally drink at the bar, and they had recorded an album, The Progressive Movement (which earned positive reviews in The Pitch and The Kansas City Star), before they graduated from Lincoln Prep Academy.
To get so far so young, Peters and Shafer had to have some business savvy. They knew enough to put together a professional-looking press kit to send to newspapers and to set up their own Web site and MySpace pages to attract people to their music.
They figured the effort was paying off when they got an e-mail from a New York company called 721 Productions.
By then, Shafer was in his freshman year at Columbia College in Chicago, where he studies marketing and communications while taking courses in music business. Peters had left Columbia College and returned to Kansas City after his father, Kansas City Symphony bassist Steven Peters, was murdered in a botched robbery. (Steven Peters' killer received a 25-year prison sentence last year.)
721 Productions asked Peters and Shafer to send their press kit and some music samples, plus a registration fee of $20, to be considered for future 721 projects. Shafer and Peters did so, and on December 15, 2005, they received a letter in the mail.
According to the letter, Anti-Crew had been chosen to join 721 Productions' "Tour 2005/2006" lineup; nationally famous rap acts Styles P, Mobb Deep, Fat Joe and Redman would also be on the tour. For $1,000, the letter promised, Anti-Crew could join the performers on a five-city leg. The money would pay for transportation, hotel rooms, plugs on urban radio stations, and promotion on fliers and posters.
Shafer researched the company the best way he knew how: He Googled it. His Web search found several small newspaper stories about 721-sponsored shows in the New York area. The invitation letter included the company's address and phone number as well as information on refunds.
Peters and Shafer sent their money.
About a month later, they got a packet and chose a list of dates when they'd be available. Then they started talking on the phone with people at 721. They learned that Ludacris had been added to the tour.
"I was in steady contact with them, and they had answers to everything," Shafer recalls. "They would even call me on occasion."
But on February 15, 2006, Shafer and Peters received an e-mail.
"Our staff at 721 Productions have made a unanimous decision to cancel this year's Tour 2006 Season due to a sudden death in our staff in early January 2006," it read. "We lost our Financial Coordinator and Sponsor Correspondent and as a result we will begin reorganizing and changing the structure of our endeavors beginning April 1st 2006."
The letter explained how refunds could be obtained for a period of 180 days and included an e-mail address and a phone number to contact with questions. Shafer and Peters followed the instructions but have yet to receive their money.
"What's kind of embarrassing, too, is that it was money we made from our album sales," Shafer says of their $1,000. He says he can't get anyone from 721 Productions to return his calls.
No one from 721 returned The Pitch's call, either.
Shafer says he and Peters have consulted an entertainment lawyer to decide what to do next. But the company is in New York, Shafer and Peters are in Illinois, and their music keeps them busy.
"This really humbled me," Shafer says. "Nobody should ever pay to play. We don't charge plumbers to fix our water pipes, so why charge artists to play music?"
Until September, Club Kandi was located in a low-profile building between abandoned-looking storefronts advertising Black Cat fireworks in the industrial West Bottoms.
Not every night was poppin' there, but when touring acts came through — Club Kandi booked the Youngbloodz, Slim Thug, E-40 and Trina in 2006 — the place was packed with smoke, bass and people out to see and be seen. Cars with spinning rims and custom paint jobs lined North James Street.
In June 2006, Dem Franchize Boyz, a group from Atlanta that had been signed to Jermaine Dupri's So So Def record label, was scheduled to perform there.
The show would be huge — everyone knew the words to the group's song "Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It" and had its snap-dance moves down as soon as the video hit YouTube.
Vell Williams, a 26-year-old member of AllInOne, was looking for a way to get his group heard. So far, they'd printed water-bottle labels with their logo and rapped for a Mr. Goodcents ad (which still hasn't made it to the airwaves). Getting out in front of 2,000 people at Club Kandi seemed like the promotional break his crew was looking for.
"People have heard us perform before, so we have a reputation of doing good shows — remembering our lyrics and not having our hands on our crotches the whole time," Williams says.
He approached Club Kandi owner Chad Waldrop about opening for Dem Franchize Boyz. Williams says the two of them drew up the standard Club Kandi contract: $500 would pay for AllInOne to perform a few songs before the headliners took the stage. Williams says Waldrop never asked to hear his music.
The show was unforgettable for Williams and his trio — people in the crowd tried to slap their hands and nearly drowned out the music with their approving shouts.
"I was getting pulled off the stage. That was exciting like hell," Williams says. "The amount of respect we got from that — it was real."
Williams vacillates between thinking it was worth $500 and thinking that paying to play is wrong. He acknowledges that club owners who spend thousands of dollars to bring in a national touring act want to recoup their investment. And Williams admits that nobody twisted his arm to pay for the chance to play. But he wishes that club owners would give artists a break. "Charging us to perform — that's not even an even trade," he says. After all, it costs money to record with top-of-the-line equipment, buy beats from producers, print T-shirts and press CDs. "It's hard out here for a rapper. Easy for a pimp."
Waldrop now runs the Hurricane in Westport and has changed Club Kandi to a nonhip-hop format. He says he never kept the $500 fees he charged artists to open at Club Kandi.
"A lot of the promoters are from out of town, so we collect money for the promoters, and when they get in town to do their event, we give them the money when they get here. That's how it goes. The club doesn't get that money. Wish we did."
But Waldrop acknowledges that the Hurricane doesn't charge rock and punk bands to play. "Not at all," he says. "Rock bands ain't got no money. They're barely alive, living day to day, where most of these rappers are funded by drugs."
"He ain't talking about me and AllInOne," Williams counters. "That didn't ever fund my music, and it don't fund my music now. I know my people in my crew. Anything we get, we earned, and we work hard."
Akbar Akram — DJ Ak — gazes out at a gyrating cauldron of arms and legs and shaking booties. He's making a November guest appearance in the basement of Skybox, a smoky den where the walls are painted with half-finished graffiti murals.
Akram has played with an impressive list of performers — he has connected with Shadyville, a group of DJs who have access to artists on Interscope Records, and has toured with Bubba Sparxxx, Fonzworth Bentley and the Ying Yang Twins. Recently, Akram has been DJ-ing behind the Shop Boyz, promoting their hit "Party Like a Rock Star." His voice-mail recording features a personalized greeting from 50 Cent.
In KC, most DJs don't touch a microphone, but Akram is talking to the crowd all the time, introducing new remixes and shouting out the tracks by local rappers. To do so is second nature, considering his last radio gig in town.
In 2005 and 2006, Akram hosted The Takeover, an hourlong show featuring local hip-hop that aired every Saturday at midnight on KPRS 103.3, a locally owned station with the highest ratings in Kansas City.
According to Akram, KPRS first approached him about hosting a weekly local mix show. Akram would own the show, station reps told him, because he would pay for his airtime: $250 a week for a total of $1,000 a month.
Akram named his show The Takeover to let local artists know that he was putting the power in their hands. Before his show started, he says, local hip-hop got airplay maybe twice a year. But he played area artists every week.
"This was funded right here," Akram tells The Pitch, patting the pockets of his jeans three times for emphasis. "Nobody else gave me money to try and launch this. It's not like I'm a millionaire or I'm rich."
To meet his monthly fee, Akram solicited advertising. Dayton Wheel and Tire, a shop in Belton, paid to sponsor Akram's show, as did the owners of urban clothing stores in places such as the Blue Ridge Shopping Center and the now-closed Bannister Mall, Akram says. "My sponsors were only paying $500 or $1,000, whatever it may be, but they were getting endorsements they could reuse."
He also held a launch party at the Red Vine restaurant (which has since gone out of business) at 18th Street and Vine. DeShai Hampton, aka Mz Shai, who hosts The Show-Me Mix Show on community radio station KKFI 90.1, remembers a line of local hip-hop heads trailing out the door. The cover charge was $10, and it cost more money for rappers to audition for Akram — Hampton says figures varied from $50 to $150.
"So, OK, they're going to charge you to get in, charge you to perform, and at the end there's no guarantee he'll ever play their music," Hampton says. "There's no need to do all that to people."
Akram says it was a matter of simple economics. "They [KPRS] didn't want me to charge people to be on my show or charge sponsors or anything, but they expected me to pay them," he says. "It doesn't make sense."
Artists had plenty of opportunities to recoup the money they paid him, Akram says. He'd set up autograph sessions for them at the clothing stores that sponsored him, he says, which gave them the chance to sell their CDs and T-shirts.
But Akram clashed with KPRS Program Director Myron Fears. Akram says Fears reserved the right to edit The Takeover, which offended Akram because he'd paid to own the show. Akram says Fears once declared a song too profane because Fears thought he heard the artist Cam'Ron say "dipshit" when he was really shouting out the name of his hip-hop crew and its record label, the Diplomats, by saying "Dipset."
KPRS discontinued The Takeover in the spring of 2006. "Basically, the guy was hard to work with, he did not follow directions, and he thought he knew everything," Fears says of Akram. "In terms of pay-for-play, that is not what we're all about here at [KPRS owner] Carter Broadcast Group."
Akram now works for Shadyville's Sirius satellite-radio station, Shady 45, where he occasionally hosts programs such as the uncensored, two-hour mix show Rep Yo Set, which airs on Sundays.
Kenny Roberts, known on the air as Kenny Diamonds, replaced Akram as the host of KPRS's local radio show in the summer of 2006. The show moved to Fridays at midnight and is called Underground Heat. Roberts dishes out street slang on the air, but he holds a master's degree in communications from Central Missouri State University. (He pledged the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, symbolized by a diamond, hence the nickname "Diamonds.")
"For the first year of my show, I was my sponsor — $200 a week out of my pocket," Roberts says from behind a desk at the KPRS studios. He has just finished recording an interview with two young rappers called Flash (Steven Brundidge) and Jae Casino (Justin Ewing, who is Roberts' brother).
Roberts worked in the promotional department at KPRS before he landed his show, so he was often on location for remote broadcasts at cell-phone depots and clubs. Roberts says people would come up and ask why it was so expensive to get their music played on KPRS.
"For me it was like, 'Well, it's not supposed to cost. That's illegal,'" Roberts says. "You can't play music [in return] for money."
Answering those questions was embarrassing for Roberts, so he decided to handle fundraising differently.
"You can definitely sell commercials, just like any syndicated show," Roberts says. To avoid conflicts of interest, he says, he lets the station's sales department sell ads rather than doing it himself.
But Roberts has found a way to turn his job at KPRS into additional business.
"Basically, I turned Underground Heat into a marketing company," Roberts says. He'll sponsor a mix or put on a concert and charge unknown artists to open for bigger acts, which helps him defray the cost of booking a big name. "If I can put your name on a flier and get 800 people to go to the show, I'll pay you," Roberts explains. "But if I keep your name off the flier and I can still get 800 people to go to the show, you pay me. It's a cold game. But it's what you think it's worth."
Roberts also charges fees for his knowledge of the music industry. For a price, he can put together a promotional package for an artist and help the artist shop it to labels around the country.
He used to share his knowledge for free, but after a while, he started to see people he'd mentored paying others for access to their connections. "At least my connections are real," he says.
Keejuan Carter, 28, opens the door to his east-side apartment wearing a white sleeveless shirt and sweatpants. Then he settles back down on his couch. A game show is blaring on TV.
Carter is the manager of Van Brunt Entertainment, a collective of rappers who grew up together near Van Brunt and 27th Street. The artists have each put out solo albums, but they promote one another together. They won't speak to journalists individually, preferring that all media contact go through Carter.
Carter explains that the group began with a rapper called D-Loc da Chop, who recorded a song with Tech N9ne (one of Kansas City's few successful hip-hop exports) when D-Loc was only 17. D-Loc's friend, a rapper who now goes by Cash Image, told him to get serious about the music.
"He [Cash Image] was like, 'We gonna call [producer] Don Juan. We gonna get you about 10 beats, gonna get a suite, bring up a boom box. We gonna write, and we gonna buy some studio time,'" Carter explains. "D-Loc da Chop started Van Brunt Entertainment there."
Another rapper, Slopp da Gambla, played a song for D-Loc, and D-Loc declared Slopp his rapping partner on the spot, Carter says. D-Loc, Slopp and Cash Image got busy recording. They also got their promotional materials together, splashing the Van Brunt Entertainment logo across T-shirts that they wore in clubs and on the street.
Carter made sure that the Van Brunt artists took care of licensing and registering their music with organizations such as ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.), which protect artists' music while making sure they get royalties for each spin.
This year, Cash Image came out with a hit song, "In My Chevy," which was heavily requested on Underground Heat. Carter and his crew found a way to get "In My Chevy" on a ring tone that their fans could download.
Van Brunt Entertainment has been able to make pay-for-play work for them.
"We paid our dues, and it eventually works — if you got talent. I've seen with my own eyes: You pay $200, $300 for a 15-minute set, that's four songs. If you got a table set up in the back with merch, it's a given. Eight hundred people are falling in love with you after four songs, and you can make that $200 back in CD sales."
But even they fell for a recent contest that wasn't what it seemed.
On Wednesday, September 5, one of the regular contributors to a forum at hiphopkc.com posted this message: "I was in Westport tonight and some guys were handing out fliers outside the Hurricane. They gave me a flier and said they were promoters for the Source and that the Source is having a contest at the Emerald House on Main on Friday night where they'll pick one singer/rapper from KC (who wants to pay $75 to enter the contest) to advance to another contest in New York where the winner will be the Source's next Unsigned Hype. Regular admission is a whopping twenty bucks!!!"
During the days of Tupac and Biggie, hip-hoppers pored over the glossy pages of The Source each month. But in recent years, the magazine's influence has waned. When that Friday night rolled around, the crowd at the Emerald House was lackluster, but local musicians stepped up to compete. Cash Image paid the $75 to enter, and his infectious hooks won over the judges.
As Carter understands it, the prize for winning was that Cash Image would be flown to New York City to compete in the next round of the contest. But when the November date grew near, Cash Image passed on the opportunity.
"We were thinking that they were going to pay for the tickets and things of that sort, but they didn't," Carter says. "We would have had to pay for them ourselves, at the last minute."
Carter and Cash Image weren't the only ones who misunderstood the rules of the contest.
The phone number on the contest flier rings Willie Williams, a promoter from Illinois. Williams tells The Pitch that he signed on to The Source's tour under the impression that he was working for employees of the magazine. Under his contract, he says, he was to pay for Source representatives to fly to a handful of cities on the 30-city contest tour, where they would judge the contest. Williams says he paid for the judges' hotel rooms, meals and airfare, along with $5,000 a night to handle the advertising that would lure contestants and audiences to each tour stop.
If that sounds backward, it is.
But for his end of the deal, Williams kept the $75 that each contestant paid to enter the contest and collected all the cash from the door. If he did his job well, he had the potential to rake in more than he spent.
But at the Emerald House, it didn't work out that way. "I think I lost $7,000 in Kansas City. Probably more than that," Williams says.
A bigger surprise came at his next tour stop.
In Houston, Williams says, he ran into some people he knows who actually do work for The Source. They told him that the people he was working for weren't affiliated with the magazine. Rather, they were with a St. Louis company called Fyreboy Records.
Williams says it was embarrassing for him because he was the one who would be blamed for any miscommunication, given that his number was on the flier. He felt misled.
Fyreboy Records owner Willie Spratt tells The Pitch that his company ran The Source's contest for the magazine as a marketing strategy. "I have a contract with them. It states there would be no money exchanged between my company and The Source but that this was to be a straight marketing venture between us and The Source for us to find artists for them to feature in their magazine."
Spratt acknowledges that Fyreboy collected money from small promoters like Williams, who in turn paid for the privilege of promoting the shows and collecting money from audiences and contestants.
"I think I paid them a total of $16,000 alone," Williams says. "And they did about 30 cities."
It seems that everyone involved with the Unsigned Hype contest, from the contestants to the judges, paid money to make money.
Ché Johnson is the executive vice president of brand development at The Source. In an e-mail, he told The Pitch, "I am able to let you know that technically FryeBoy [sic] was allowed to execute events in conjunction with The Source. They operated completely independently however and I have heard of countless issues and problems with the execution. Of course I am the last person that they would let know what transpired as I opted not to get involved with their promotion because I foresaw problems in execution that would potentially damage The Source's already tarnished name and reputation."
Williams says he ended his involvement with the tour that night in Houston. "I lost $3,000 because I couldn't get my money back. But I didn't want to take advantage of people."
Spratt says his company tried to be upfront about the terms of the contest.
Meanwhile, Fyreboy Records' CDs were on sale at every stop on The Source contest circuit, and the label's artists performed live each night. "They got their record label's name out there," Williams says. "It was a good hustle."
On the upside, the KC leg of the contest tour made Williams a fan of Cash Image. Now, Williams says, "I listen to his CD all the time."