Curren$y, Damon Dash, and Hip Hop’s Warm Indie Heart

How would you like to release an album on a label with absolutely no deal in writing? Does it sound risky? Or is the real risk in this climate making a deal, and signing on the dotted line?

currensy1Take, for example, the case of Curren$y. Don’t let the dollar sign in his name fool you. This New Orleans-born emcee is hot, and he’s not the clueless commercial rapper his name implies. In fact, he’s probably learned more about the rap game over the last decade than more folks learn in their lives, and for the release of his first album, the already highly acclaimed Pilot Talk, it was no-deals no-contracts all the way.

Pilot Talk was released on July 15th through the newly-resurrected Roc-A-Fella Records label. Sort of.

Setting The Stage For Indie Hip Hop Heroes

You remember what happened with Roc-A-Fella, right? The label was started by Jay-Z and friends Damon Dash and Biggs Burke because they couldn’t find a major label willing to get behind Jay-Z (hero moment #1). Then, once they hit it big, Roc-A-Fella got bought by Def Jam (boo!), which made Jay-Z its CEO and president (boo!), and saw Dash and Burke quickly go their own way after they realized they had nothing like control of their label anymore (hero moment #2).

That was in 2004. By 2007, Jay-Z’s was stepping down as president of Def Jam, the Roc-A-Fella brand was back up for grabs, and Dash grabbed it, hoping to bring the label back to life to release Pilot Talk. In the end, however, the legal finagling around using the brand was a bit much (boo!), so the album came out under Dash’s existing independent label, DD172/BluRoc (hero moment #3).

Wait A Second! Back It Up!

What does the dissolution of Roc-A-Fella have to do with Curren$y? As it turns out, quite a bit.

Curren$y experienced an unpleasant side of the hip hop industry that we’ve seen before. The 29-year old rapper was on Master P’s No Limits label until 2005. Then he moved to Lil Wayne’s CashMoney label. The story was the same at both labels. While Curren$y got paid, got his voice on a few tracks, and a ton of buzz surrounded him, talk of an album kept getting delayed. Why? Because it’s a common practice for rap labels to ‘stable’ talented newcomers, getting them to sign contracts and putting them on the roster just to prevent them from releasing new music that could threaten the label’s existing talent.

Although he’s never come out and said it in the media, and swears that there is no beef between him and his former labels, it wasn’t long before Curren$y figured out which way the wind was blowing. In 2007, he left CashMoney and decided to go it alone.

currensy2The Indie Hip Hop Hero Is Back

For the last two years, Curren$y has been releasing some shockingly good – albeit still underground – mixtapes, building hype around his name and gaining fans. Finally, in 2009, he left New Orleans for New York, met Damon Dash, and that’s when his career really started to flow.

The release of Pilot Talk marks a new beginning for Curren$y and Dash, and just maybe for the entire hip hop scene. Dash was motivated to resurrect Roc-A-Fella thanks to artists like Curren$y, Jay Electronica and others with a unique sound. But he was also inspired by the friendship they developed. Dash feels that Curren$y represents a lot of the positive things about hip hop that were lost during the era of Roc-A-Fella’s dissolution:

“The funny thing is, people don’t know that Roc-A-Fella wasn’t meant to sell records. It was meant to show the respect and the honor amongst each other as friends. It was a friendship thing. That’s what people liked. It’s what made Roc-A-Fella appealing,” Dash told MTV about his partnership with Curren$y. “I liked him as a friend. Then I start seeing he’s super nice with the rhymes, then I started seeing his influence. It’s similar to the way we felt back in those days. It’s working out.”

“Deals Aren’t That Cool”

What’s working out, according to Curren$y, is a partnership based not on contracts and signed away talent, but on the oldschool language of handshakes and trust among friends. “I don’t know outside of me how the business is run, as far as DD172, but [with] me and dude,” he says, “there is no physical, no black or white, nothing on no paper. It’s just understood, nothing had to be said.”

Which might sound like the height of naivety, if we weren’t talking about an artist who was forced to go indie after the contracts he signed with other labels amounted to nothing more than the chaining of his talent for the better part of a decade.

Check out Pilot Talk, Curren$y is an intelligent, original, insightful voice in hip hop today, and it was an excess, rather than a lack of, ink on paper that kept him down until now.

“Deals and shit aren’t really that cool,” he says, and maybe young artists should listen up. At a time when the music industry is so starved for radio hits that it’s embracing hacks that can be manipulated and repressing original talent, signing on the dotted line could be a career killer.

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