Ray Pierce Jr., known to the city's hip-hop fans as Steddy P, takes a break from editing a video on his computer and smiles. In a little more than a week, IndyGround Entertainment, the record label he founded, will celebrate its sixth anniversary. He leans back in his chair, and his eyes get big. He pauses, as if considering the significance of the occasion for the first time.
"Holy shit," he says. "We're still doing this."
Six years is an eternity in rap. It's enough time to get locked up, fade into apathy or collide with the harsh reality of trying to live off music. Yet Pierce has dipped and dodged his way through a range of challenges to commandeer one of Kansas City's most formidable independent hip-hop labels.
And it all began with stolen books.
In 2004, Pierce was an aspiring MC passing his time as a full-time student at the University of Missouri. He met Eddy English, a fellow student and upstart rap artist, through mutual acquaintances. Pierce had grown up in Grandview, listening to what he describes as "Kansas City, Bay-ish shit," and English hipped him to independent rap. English introduced Pierce to such artists as Murs and Brother Ali, rappers who pimped intellect and prized philosophy, art, literature and personal revelation in place of the everyday violence of the streets.
"That shit really fucked me up," Pierce says.
With little outside financial support and few hip-hop labels in Columbia to turn to, the two MCs decided to pave their own path. "No one wanted to help me do shit," Pierce explains. So they formed their own group, Steddy English, and set out learning how to promote, distribute and market their own music.
In the process, they stumbled onto an unusual source of guidance: the campus bookstore. They regularly scanned the aisles and copped any piece of literature they thought might help school them in the music business. "We'd take whatever we could get our hands on. Stuff about running music labels, The 38 Laws of Power," Pierce says, "whatever we could get." The knowledge helped Pierce register his own label, IndyGround Entertainment. He's been building ever since.
Years later, Pierce still has the books he collected. They sit on a small shelf in the back of his office. They include Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums, a volume titled Postmodernism, and poetry by spoken-word artist Saul Williams. Pierce requires everyone at IndyGround to read them. The mandatory reading is a litmus test, he explains, to see if new artists and other label employees have the discipline needed for the grind of the music industry. Given the philosophical themes of many of the books, they seem to double as spiritual initiation.
The crash course in literature aside, Pierce expects a lot of his artists. But he doesn't take IndyGround's success for granted. The fact that the label has an office space at all, he says, is "a blessing in disguise."
Last July, on his way back from an out-of-town show, Pierce returned to his old studio space in Waldo to find that the place had been flooded. His prized vinyl collection — including original pressings of Miles Davis and John Coltrane — had been ruined. The loss was devastating. In a hurry to find a new IndyGround home, Pierce came across a new space downtown near 16th Street and Walnut, a small palace compared with the label's formerly cramped digs.
"It was almost too good to be true," he says. Though he doesn't consider himself a businessman — he maintains that he runs the business only "'cause I'm sick of people not seeing my shit" — Pierce has guided IndyGround to a remarkable level of success. The label features a deep bench of local and regional artists (including DJ Mahf, DJ G Train, Farout, Dallas, and Magic8), enough branded merchandise to clothe half the city, and regular tours throughout the country. Now Pierce and his IndyGround cohorts bring the party home on Friday to celebrate the label's anniversary by throwing a free, all-ages show.
Pierce is humble about his own talent. "There are so many MCs who are much better than me but just can't do it because they can't get their shit together," he says. But he offers the city's hip-hop scene something different. His lyrical content favors the offbeat and the philosophical. And his delivery, a psychedelic spitfire of personal musings that burns like acid through the limitations of beat, is closer to underground artist Doom than to Kansas City's hip-hop patriarch, Tech N9ne.
Despite his accomplishments in the local-music industry, Pierce has begun to see his talents in a different light. He would like to draw on his interests in art, philosophy and online media and eventually become known as a "multimedia artist."
Given his success over the past six years, the horizon for his newest vision looks bright. And if he needs guidance, surely there's a bookstore somewhere with a lazy-eyed cashier.