It's December 2005. Adam Fichman, a junior at Illinois Wesleyan University, where he's a business major, is home visiting his family. He's hanging out with two buddies, Austin and Zach Hurst, twins who are freshmen at the University of Kansas, and his girlfriend, Emma Bland.
For Christmas, Bland has received a first-generation video iPod. It can play videos, but only ones that she has bought and downloaded from Apple's iTunes Store. What she really wants to put on her iPod is a home video of her dogs.
This, Apple doesn't allow.
The dogs are a labradoodle named Paris — as in the ancient Trojan, not the modern hotel heiress — and a toy poodle named Ramesses.
Fichman and the Hursts start trying to figure out how to get Bland's dogs on her iPod.
And they know what they're doing.
At the rather ridiculous age of 14, Austin Hurst started a Web-design company called Dominant Design Group. (It was his second business; at 11, he ran his own eBay resale company.) One of Dominant Design's clients was Fichman's father, Jan Fichman, who owns the record store 7th Heaven.
They find a couple of software programs that will convert other video files to the iPod's format, but they cost between $60 and $80.
So Zach Hurst has an idea: Why not build a Web site, like YouTube, that lets people post their videos online and then convert them to whatever format they need for their iPods or cell phones?
Austin calls his software developer for Dominant Design, a man named John Jawed, who is working as a database manager for Time Warner in Torrance, California. He asks Jawed whether it's possible to develop the transcoding technology to get a video of a couple of dogs from a camera to a Web site to an iPod.
"Within a few days, he [Jawed] had figured it out and had a working prototype," Austin says.
Fichman goes back to school in Bloomington, Illinois. Over the next few months, the Hurst twins drop out of KU and move to Bloomington, too.
Working out of Fichman's garage, they start up a company. They name it 1Dawg, in honor of Paris.
To bankroll their business, they need advertisers. But there's no standard for advertising on video sites. As Fichman puts it now, "Companies were worried: Hey, what if my product shows up next to a video of a kid who's farting and lighting his fart on fire?" Today, he notes, companies spend millions on one ad campaign on MySpace or YouTube, but they wouldn't back then.
So Fichman, the Hursts and Jawed take on a new partner. Chicago-born Wesleyan student Kevin Sweeney is a history and psychology major with a head for business and skills in graphic design.
By October 2006, Google has bought YouTube for $1.65 billion, proving the commercial viability of user-generated video sites.
1Dawg.com launches in December of that year.
It starts out being compatible only with Verizon, but the 1Dawg technology will eventually grow to support 131 international carriers.
It catches on. Within four and a half months, 6 million users are connected to 1Dawg.com, which is now ranked 17th among online video sites.
"Every day was something new," Austin Hurst says. "We were constantly meeting new people, constantly going to the conventions and hooking up with companies that thought they could use our technology."
At the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas — the industry's biggest convention — Fichman stays up one night until 5 a.m., printing thousands of 1Dawg.com decals at a Kinko's and then tagging the convention's free magazines with them.
A venture-capital firm run by a Hollywood talent manager, working with a hugely famous celebrity of the heartthrob variety (whose name, unfortunately, cannot be disclosed), flies them to Los Angeles and puts them up for a week in the presidential suite of the W Hotel. This potential client is developing a social networking site aimed at kids that would trade on the celebrity's fame. The deal doesn't work out, but the business experience is priceless.
The young Midwestern entrepreneurs meet with more venture capitalists, media companies and equity groups, who are all impressed with their product, but 1Dawg.com still isn't outfitted to sell ads.
The problem, Austin Hurst says, is that advertisers are still relating online video sites to television. "When you can get 16 million views twice for a 30-second commercial during an episode of Grey's Anatomy, how do you get that exact, parallel amount of views for your same ad on a video Web site?"
With Google behind it, YouTube will answer that question. Smaller sites like 1Dawg, however, are getting left behind.
Still, 1Dawg's video-transcoding technology remains peerless and possibly worth millions.
"We were young and proud of our product, and we weren't going to let anyone have it without serious, serious money," Fichman says.
But their company is growing so fast that its expenses are flying out of control. Bandwidth costs and legal fees — necessitated by the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which regulates the dissemination of copyrighted material over the Internet — rise into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Fichman is getting 20 letters a day demanding that their videos be taken down in accordance with the act. After April 17, 2007, when The Wall Street Journal names 1Dawg.com in an article about "guerrilla video sites," the number of letters goes up to 30 a day.
1Dawg.com must come down.
Theirs could have been Web 2.0's wonder-boy success story. To this day, YouTube still doesn't let you send a video to your cell phone, as 1Dawg did.
In one of the many dirty, forgotten back rooms of a warehouse complex, underneath Troost near 77th Street, is a scene that looks a bit like it's from 24.
An FBI agent interrogates a Kansas City rapper named Sliccs Gotcha.
The fed empties manila folders full of black-and-white, 8-by-10 photos, spreading them on the table. As Sliccs scowls, the single hanging light ignites sparkles on his gem-encrusted canines. He lights up his Bidi, one of those pungent, brown-leaf Indian cigarettes.
The fed is smoking an ultra-light. He's wearing black slacks and a white buttoned shirt with a laminated badge hanging from his pocket. He and Sliccs are having a blow-it-in-the-other-guy's-face contest, and Sliccs is winning. Sliccs shakes his head, waving away the evidence like a bad omelet. He flips the bird in the agent's face.
"All right," a voice says.
Cameras stop rolling.
On this bitterly cold day in early January, a crew of filmmakers, ad hoc actors and extras have assembled to shoot a video for "Off Da Chain," a single from Sliccs' latest album, Prince of Whales. The cherubic 25-year-old rapper is a member of Major Factor Records, the city's pre-eminent independent rap collective.
The video crew is two local cameramen, Dale Roe and Chad Chamberlain. The director is 23-year-old Marcus McNeil, who lives in Houston but bases his business in Kansas City.
Sliccs' half-brother, a wiry rapper who goes by the name Felix "the Billionaire" Mitchell (after the notorious Oakland gangster) is here. So is Rushin' Roolet, another longtime member of Major Factor Records.
Also present: members of the Hispanic rap group Kwik Cash, based in Kansas City, Kansas; a bouncer at a local nightclub, who's playing an FBI thug; and four nerdy white dudes, all of them somewhat miscast as FBI agents.
These faux feds are the reason this shoot is even happening.
After 1Dawg stopped operating its Web site, Jawed eventually left for a job at Google. But Fichman and the Hursts started licensing their video-transcoding technology to other businesses.
They renovated a small, windowless, two-story warehouse at 7601 Troost owned by Jan Fichman. There, they took on miscellaneous contracts, such as helping Sprint explore video delivery on its network and working with Verizon to use 1Dawg.com to demonstrate its Internet-capable phones.
They also brought in Rob Scott, a Blue Valley North High School friend of Fichman's who fit the profile: a college dropout with business sense and computer skills.
While 1Dawg sold $100,000 or $300,000 contracts to Fortune 500 companies, Scott says, he marketed a more basic version of the technology in the $5,000 range.
But differences began to divide the 1Dawg camp.
Fichman and Sweeney liked to dress casually and work with small businesses. The Hurst brothers were focused on the technology side and envisioned working in a more corporate landscape.
By early 2008, 1Dawg existed only as a software product. The Hurst brothers founded Hurst Consulting, LLC, and moved into an office in a condo tower downtown. There, they help other online startups get on their feet.
Left to their own devices at 76th Street and Troost and working shifts at the 7th Heaven counter, Sweeney, Fichman and Scott soon found, right outside their front door, a vast customer base.
At half past 10 on a Wednesday morning, a white Cadillac Escalade with shiny chrome rims is parked outside 7601 Troost. It's three days before Sliccs' video shoot, and it's business-as-usual at the company that's now called Lifted Logic.
Since Fichman, Sweeney and Scott started Lifted Logic in early 2008, they've built about 100 custom MySpace pages and about 20 full Web sites; duplicated 12,000 to 15,000 CDs for two dozen Kansas City artists; designed fliers, posters and album covers; orchestrated high-quality photo shoots; and distributed digital music. Lifted Logic does everything for its musician clients except record their music. Soon, they'll do that, too.
The Escalade outside their blue-painted cinder-block office belongs to the rapper Fatboy Chubb, for whom Lifted Logic is designing a tricked-out MySpace page and a Web site. Cost: $1,800. Eventually Chubb, talking on his cell phone, sidles in with a friend.
The three white Logicians see no need to dress the part of folks who work in urban music. With a full beard, dark-rimmed glasses and a variety of piercings in ear and nose, Fichman's look could be described as alt-prep. The only style feature he shares with most of his clients is the tendency for his jeans to sag, showing a good 5 to 6 inches of boxer brief.
Sweeney's preferred look is tight jeans, plus a baseball cap or hipster fedora and brightly colored wrestling shoes. Scott comes closest to urban style, often sporting baggy hoodies and equally baggy jeans and an ornate ball cap. They drive old cars — "A car is a bad investment," Fichman says — and they shun the trappings of the VIP lifestyle. Aside from owning homes, worldly goods are not a priority. Most of the money they make goes back into the company.
They smoke cigarettes and Bidis like the world is about to end.
And they almost never say no to anyone who has money and an idea, no matter how strange the idea.
The next customer through the door is Dennis A. Lakin, a man who looks to be in his late 40s or early 50s.
Lakin, who goes by "Dal," has been a manual laborer most of his life. He has also written more than a dozen books, though most resemble pamphlets. One is a how-to guide for starting a manual-labor business, such as scooping dog poop. Another is a weight-loss guide that mostly relates a series of mishaps involving human excretory processes. (It climaxes with a Filipino named Pedro drinking a dietary supplement and creating a 4-foot-long turd.)
His masterwork appears to be Lyme Disease: The Untold Story, a 174-page, glossy-covered paperback, in which Dal tells of his battle with a self-diagnosed case of the illness.
He discovered Lifted Logic through his friend Nate Dawg, a homeless man who does odd jobs around the 7th Heaven grounds and has achieved a certain level of local fame by appearing in ads for the store.
Today, the guys at Lifted are finishing a Web page that Dal will use to sell his books online. They've charged him a one-time setup fee of $500 plus some traded labor. Dal will keep all the proceeds from his sales.
"He has money, and we have something we can help him with," Fichman says after Dal has left.
Just before 11 a.m., Sliccs arrives, talking on his cell phone and doling out handshakes. On a tip from Fichman's father, Sliccs approached the guys a year ago about building a Web site. Since then, he has been indispensable, drumming up business for the company and acting as a liaison between the nerdy white dudes and their urban clientele — an "interpreter," to use Sliccs' term.
He's the first artist for whom the company built an online MP3 store that's separate from iTunes, Amazon or any other music retailer. Through a simple but elegant interface on sliccsgotcha.com, fans can shop for songs or albums, place them in a virtual shopping cart and check out through PayPal. Minus whatever fee PayPal deducts, every cent goes to Sliccs.
Leaving Sliccs and a few of his friends to watch the office, Sweeney, Fichman and Scott walk outside to check the progress on their new office, a few hundred feet away in a vacant room in a warehouse adjacent to 7th Heaven. They tread through a narrow and treacherous walkway littered with the hulks of several junked cars, pass through a gravel parking lot, and enter through an unmarked door on the side of a corrugated-steel building — the part of the complex where they will shoot video scenes in a few days.
Inside, up a flight of wooden stairs, Nate Dawg is working on insulating the ceiling of the main room. The walls have been stripped to reveal the original sprayed-on insulation, which covers the inside of the outer wall in filthy curds of hard foam. These will be covered with something more modern. The dusty old wooden floor, too, will be replaced with shiny new hardwood.
In one of the adjacent rooms, Lifted will build a studio to the specifications of their friend Max Groove, a Kansas City jazz keyboardist who will serve as the studio's engineer.
Before long, it's time for a beer run. Fichman walks to the liquor store across 76th Street for a 12-pack of Heineken. Not long ago, Fichman helped the owners rescue their Excel inventory database from a computer malfunction.
Back at the office, Mitchell arrives. So does Skiem Hiem, who has recently released an album with Rappin' Twan. J.T. Quick, the 6-10 p.m. weekday host on KPRS 103.3, shows up to check the progress of his Web site and to talk about a promotional video for his club DJ services.
The day's biggest customer is an event promoter who's paying Lifted Logic $10,000 to produce a promotional CD-DVD package. The job includes, among other things, contracting with a studio to record and produce 15 tracks for the CD, mastering them, designing the insert, shrink-wrapping the CD, designing and shrink-wrapping the DVD box (the video has already been produced), adding the UPC bar code, designing and printing fliers and posters, producing a 30-second radio commercial, and holding an in-store release party at 7th Heaven with a two-hour radio remote.
The promoter is watching Scott touch up a logo for his business. "Out of the gate, it says class," the promoter says, positively doting on the design.
Breaking the chain of rappers is the tall and soft-spoken Vincent Moss, proprietor of Grit 'n Gravy, which sells hot lunches to downtowners out of a catering truck at 13th Street and Oak. He's having Lifted build him a Web site and MySpace page and design some menus.
"We teach at the same time," Sliccs observes. "[A lot of our customers] didn't know the importance of the next level or the importance of the look of the next level, or even how to get there."
They're used to getting orders on short notice — often for products outside of the digital realm.
"If someone came to us five hours before a show and said, Dude, I need a merch table, we could do it," Fichman says.
"When artists see what we can do," Sweeney says, "they usually come back."
Next on the agenda is a photo shoot for Rappin' Twan. Fichman, Sliccs, Sweeney and Scott hang a bright-green tablecloth against a wall in the upstairs room of the office and shoot a couple of dozen photos of the rapper posing in front of it, sometimes grabbing the brim of his ball cap, sometimes blowing plumes of Bidi smoke out his nostrils.
On his computer, Scott takes the best shot and crops out the background, splicing Twan into a bombed-out downtown setting with a dramatic, high-contrast cloudy sky overhead. While he's at it, he purchases the domain rappintwan.com.
It's well past 5 p.m., and business seems to have ebbed for the day. But there's one more meeting.
Unkcanny and Al Slikc do not turn up in flashy threads. These men look a little older, and each appears to have put in a hard day's work. They've got on heavy coats and work boots.
They, too, are looking to get to the next level.
As Fichman shows examples of what Lifted Logic can do on MySpace, Unkcanny (whose real name is Lamont Foster) starts getting wound up and begins spouting philosophical non sequiturs. "We conduct ourselves in a humble, old-school manner," he announces. "We self-contained. We respect each other and we respect other people."
Back in December, the two rappers held an in-store release at 7th Heaven to celebrate their solo albums, and people turned up in droves. The store sold every copy of their CDs.
"I haven't seen people show up for an album like that since I've been working at the store," Sweeney says.
Around the time Al Slikc takes off, in comes Je'Rome Ray, the owner of Eternal Life Records (Slikc's and Unkcanny's label). He's also in his mid to late 30s, sporting dreadlocks and a Bluetooth earpiece. With him is an attractive, young, aspiring singer who goes by the name Del Shay. For an hour or so, they talk about MySpace designs with Fichman, then make their departure amid hugs and promises to keep working together.
Fichman, still dressed like a fed, is playing with a fist-sized wad of $5 bills.
The video shoot is going slowly. In six hours, they've filmed only three brief scenes. One more scene needs to be set up and filmed in the adjoining warehouse: a shot of some extras in black T-shirts filling boxes with Sliccs Gotcha merchandise. The setting is inspired by Nas' video for "Hip Hop Is Dead," which depicts the underground artist's struggle to get his music out despite the Man's efforts.
The whole thing has been thrown together in three days. The original idea was to borrow a friend's mansion for the shoot, but burst pipes put an end to that plan.
"You can give these guys a blank room," Sweeney says of director McNeil and his crew. "They're used to coming up with more from less."
Less will become the theme for the rest of this Saturday evening.
Once the last warehouse scene is shot, the crew and the rappers head to the next location: downtown's Hotel Phillips.
Everyone is hungry — most haven't eaten since breakfast — but there's no time for a break.
A jazz combo is noodling away in 12 Baltimore, the Phillips' nightclub, as the crew arrives and finds its way to the top-floor room that has been provided by the hotel's marketing director.
It's not what they've been expecting. Earlier in the day, they were thinking penthouse or presidential suite, but Room 2009 is neither. And it certainly won't hold the concert-afterparty scene that's on the agenda. There's a couch, a bed, a TV and not much else. Unsure what else to do, McNeil and his crew set up their cameras.
Still wearing his counterfeit FBI badge, Fichman goes down to the lobby, puts on a smile, and approaches the woman at the front desk. He explains the predicament. "We want a room that's, like, wow," he says.
The woman politely tells Fichman that she'll call the manager.
Most of the rappers, including Mitchell and Rappin' Twan, have settled on the mezzanine. "It's smelling like a Grateful Dead concert," Sweeney tells them. He encourages them to air out their clothes a bit.
As time passes and neither dinner nor a better room seems forthcoming, a gloom descends upon the overheated mezzanine.
Still, it's an accomplishment that they're here at all. Most of them wouldn't be allowed through the entrance of the nearby Power & Light District.
Around 10, they decide to push on.
As Sweeney is dispatched to the Pizza Hut at 10th Street and Broadway, the film crew gets footage of Sliccs emerging from the bathroom in a gray undershirt and putting on his watch, T-shirt, gleaming white Adidas jacket and white KC stocking cap.
For the next scene, Christina — a stunning, longhaired Latina — is brought into the frame. While Sliccs sits at the foot of the bed and raps, she sits near the nightstand, looking hot and pretending to send text messages.
Finally, the pizza arrives. As everyone digs in to the pile of gooey cheese and mouth-scorching sauce, the pall lifts.
Men who have barely spoken to one another all day are now chatting casually. McNeil is suddenly garrulous, running down the highlights from the day's shoots and boldly describing how they are going to go and conquer a nightclub for the final scene. The plan is to invade a concert and birthday party for the local R&B singer Boy Big at club Zen and basically borrow the scene; however, no one is sure whether permission has been acquired.
They tidy up the room and film Sliccs rapping in the elevator on the way down to the lobby.
Next, they relocate to the roof of the adjoining parking garage to get a scene that has some semblance of the downtown skyline in the background.
Sucking on a Middleton's Black & Mild cigarillo, Mitchell pulls his Cadillac 2008 STS to the edge of the roof. He opens the door, and the car stereo begins bumpin' "Off Da Chain."
Sliccs and Rappin' Twan get beside the front of the car and make like rappers, shouting the chorus, bobbing with their knees bent and shoulders hunched and arms slicing the air.
The crew members have probably heard the song 30 times today, but they're still bouncing to the beat.
Building custom MySpace pages for gangsta rappers may seem like a step down from the world where 1Dawg began. The roof of the Phillips parking garage is no W Hotel presidential suite.
But Fichman and his crew couldn't be more satisfied. They are making money and supporting a cause, nestled into a scene that is decidedly regional and desperate to have its voice heard.
"I wake up, and I'm happy," Fichman says. "I wouldn't trade that for anything."
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