Interview conducted by Dax-Devlon Ross.
The Independence Artist
Part 1 – Lunch
€œHe held out for a long time, an illimitably long time; why stop now, when he was in his best fasting form? Why should he be cheated of the fame he would get for fasting longer, for being not only the record hunger artist of all time…but for beating his own record by a performance beyond human imagination… €
On most any day you €™ll find them on the corner of 8th St. and 6th Ave. If you €™re familiar with Manhattan €™s West Village, you €™ve probably come across them. They stand outside Gray €™s Papaya, just below Fat Beats record store, six or seven deep, hustling homemade CDs. Undoubtedly, one has approached you with a question like, €œYou listen to hip-hop? € or the less abrasive €œCan I have a moment of your time? € Once they get you to slow down, they go in for the hard sell. It €™s their own album, they €™ll say €“ produced, written, pressed and now being sold by them. They are the embodiment of the independent spirit. They can be aggressive, annoying and persistent; they can also be charming and persuasive. If you let them in, they make you feel guilty enough to feign interest. They might catch you on the right day in the right mood. But if you €™re in a hurry or having a bad day, seeing them can bring out the worst.
€œWhen people just keep walkin €™ €š it doesn €™t stop you from doin €™ what you doin €™. At the same time we human beings. If you walk by me and don €™t say shit, I don €™t know what the fuck is wrong with you. Don €™t act like I €™m invisible. You see me out here. It don €™t hurt to say €˜No thank you. €™ €
These are the words of Unknown. He €™s one of the regulars, a wiry backpack-toting tough talker with chiseled features and a menacingly deep voice. Sitting at a table near the back of the BBQs a couple blocks east of their outdoor emporium, Unknown is the only of the three MCs coming off bitter. Being ignored gets to him. Take the white kid wearing a red, yellow and green (the colors on the Jamaican flag) wristband. Unknown tore into the kid when he didn €™t stop for his spiel.
€œThem kids that engulf themselves in hip-hop culture, the style of dress and everything, think they €™re official because they got a Fat Beats backpack, you know what I mean. They don €™t know that this is where it actually came from. €
We all know the story by now, with slight variations: hip-hop started in the Bronx with Black and Latino kids looking to stay out of trouble. The first MCs made tapes and sold them on the streets, out of trunks, at block parties.
€œHonestly, € says Creature, €œwe €™re keeping it as real as it possibly can get. It €™s going back to the roots. Before they had any record deals cats we €™re making tapes, passing their tapes out, selling them that way. Anybody who knows the music knows that we €™re doing it how the forefathers were doing it. We €™re as independent as it gets. There €™s no major labels behind us. We €™re not underground artists. We €™re independent artistpreneurs. €
Creature picked up that term in Chicago while on tour a few months back. It €™s so new that the others, Shake o Blaze (a heavy-set Brooklynite who hides his eyes behind a pair of dark shades) and Unknown, aren €™t even familiar with it. According to Creach (for short) the difference between an artist and an artistpreneur is profound. Says the husky, dreadlocked MC from the Bronx, €œArtists need to be pampered. We €™re bosses. We €™ve taken the role of the General. I don €™t just go into the studio and rap. I sell my shit too. I am the Streets. Artists are a different thing. Them kids who write rhymes and cop a little beat, want somebody to shop it for them, put €˜em in a studio, get €˜em some clothes, make a video. We makin €™ all those moves ourselves. They €™re not nowhere near the level I €™m on. €
Coming from a guy whose office is any street corner, that might sound boastful. The fact is, despite modest digs and record sales (2,000 in the last four months), he puts his money where his mouth is. Creature and every other independent artist arriving from various boroughs puts in a full workday selling what he considers authentic music.
Hip-hop has been Creach €™s life for almost half his 30 years. He €™s gone through industry ups and downs, and been close to being signed to a major recording contract. He €™s traveled overseas and performed alongside artists like Mike Ladd, Rob Sonic, Anti-Pop Consortium and the Executioners. He €™s gone through the angst that mars any artist who believes his work €™s not taken seriously by the public. He smoked and drank and cried a river to anyone that would listen. He had talent. He could rock it. Why couldn €™t the industry see that?
Then Creature decided to quit whining about what he didn €™t have and work with what was his. He quit smoking and drinking and humbled himself to do what he once wouldn €™t have considered: sell his own music on the street. About five months ago with his EP done he shopped it to no avail. Rather than wait, he laced up his boots, tied his locks and hit the streets.
€œI €™m not trying to get signed anymore, € Creature says, defiantly. €œThe most I want is a distribution deal that €™s going to help me get my stuff out to more people. Why go from being a boss to being a fuckin €™ worker? € As boss he can keep overhead low and dictate hours of operation. The cost of a CD is significantly less than a dollar (sometimes half that). He doesn €™t have a payroll, lease space, car note, nothing that would demand he hand over rights for marginal royalties. Moreover, he doesn €™t want to entrust the outcome of his labor to the efforts of a corporate entity. There €™s no guarantee that they €™ll market it properly, and if his record fails all they €™ll do is send him a bill for his arrears, write off the losses and drop him. €œAt the end of the day it doesn €™t make sense to do all the ground work, all the leg work, put all the effort and time in. It €™s like rolling dice and before you see what you rolled you turn away. €
Part II – The Hustle
€œHe might fast as much as he could, and he did so; but nothing could save him now, people passed him by. Just try to explain to anyone the art of fasting! Anyone who has no feeling for it cannot be made to understand it. €
€œFuck off, € yells a young woman wearing iPod earphones. In turn, Creature smiles sardonically, calls the woman an €œidiot € under his breath and keeps moving. She is today €™s first outrage. There will be others, such as the ubiquitous €œGet a job € and €œThat €™s why you €™re selling your shit on the street. € But so far that €™s as ugly as it has gotten. What exactly Creature did to incite the ire of the woman is unclear. He merely walked up to her, as he does to everyone he passes along Broadway, and made one of his comedic remarks. Something like, €œIt €™s me! It €™s really me € or €œMy CD goes great with Diet Coke € or (and this one he reserves specially for white men wearing suits) €œSupport the arts, it €™s a tax write-off. €
€œSome people are trained, € he says moments later, weaving through the after-work crowd. €œThey just feel that if you €™re dope then why aren €™t you on MTV on BET? That €™s the conditioning. € Rather than head back to Fat Beats, Creature and the others have taken their show to Broadway, where last Sunday Creature made $60 in 15 minutes. €œSome people are not supposed to see it when it €™s on the ground level. They don €™t really appreciate it until they see lights and cameras. Then they €™ll be the same people talking €˜bout, €˜I always knew you could do it. €™ €
Notably, Creature says all this without bitterness or irony, as though it is a simple truth that people believe in what they €™re told to. Shake, dispensing thoughts sparingly, adds, €œI appreciate those people more. They €™re not easy. You gotta earn em. € As far as the disses people dish, Shake doesn €™t put much stock in them. €œI laugh at €˜em because they wouldn €™t get what I €™m getting. Even if they try harder. €
While Shake is talking, Creature spots a man wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt. He starts in with his routine, but when the man doesn €™t slow down he pulls out the big guns. €œThat €™s not nice! € he says raspily. €œBob Marley would €™ve loved it. € Sure enough the man stops. Creature starts in like a true showman, a consummate performer. He comes off sincere, charming and witty. Later, after the man has handed over 10 bones in exchange for a CD by an artist he €™s never heard, Creature cheerfully remarks, €œWe got rebuttals for anything you say. Anything you say I gotta fuckin €™ rebuttal. €
However, Creature accepts when people don €™t have money. To him those that stop and listen are valuable investments. €œI €™ve had people walk by me 10 times and on the 11th stop and say €˜I see you out here diligently in the rain and heat. I €™m going to buy your shit. €™ €
€œBut some people go out their way to be mean, to be assholes, € Unknown says. While Creature and Shake take the sluggish, muggy afternoon in stride, Unknown clearly does not. First, it was the white guy with the wristband, then a Japanese kid that bought his album but told him it better not be wack. Then came the store manager who shooed him like a mosquito. Seeing his partner €™s temperature rise, Creach makes jokes to calm him down. In response, Unknown grits his teeth and eases up. As soon as he gets back at it, a trendy young black dude sitting on a hydrant near Houston and Broadway gives him the cold shoulder. Unknown closes his eyes, bites his tongue and crosses.
In his defense there is something peculiar about the fact that people who treat these artists with the greatest disdain are young black men. They turn up noses, roll eyes and offer curt remarks like €œI €™m good € while not breaking stride. Unknown, who never forgets a face, believes some brothers are embarrassed by what they do for a living. Meanwhile, Shake offers insight which years of selling on the streets has hipped him to.
€œThere €™s no €˜hip-hop look €™ anymore. I seen people 60, 70 years old buy my record, listen to the record, come back and can recite the record to me, the titles of the songs, all that. €
Creature agrees. €œIt €™s marketed to kids because it was started by young rebellious kids. But at the same time hip-hop is growing to the point now adults that got family and kids can listen to it. Honestly people buy it because it €™s universal and they want to support independent artists. They believe in the arts. €
All in all the day is slow. They each sell four or five, a modest amount, enough to call a hard day €™s work. On the way back to 6th Avenue Creature €™s phone rings. He failed to mention that he €™s being featured in a documentary about independent artists called €œShow and Prove. € The crew is waiting for him in front of Gray €™s Papaya. Creature tells them that he €™s on his way. Then he gets back to work for another half-hour.
Part III – Night
€œ :it was not the hunger artist who was cheating, he was working honestly, but the world was cheating him of his reward. €
As the group of six MCs, three filmmakers and handful of hangers make their way down North 6th in Williamsburg someone asks if the neighborhood is still part of Brooklyn. Everyone laughs. It has the cliquish, campy feel of a Thursday night in college. A Lower East Side spillover has spawned this new hipster enclave, and tonight the warmth has thrust everyone outdoors and stirred up a pungent scent of vomit.
North 6th is also the name of the club where Creature is performing in an hour. Creature €™s pal and fellow artist, Rob Sonic, is in the basement waiting. Although visibly pissed, he gives everyone a warm greeting from the barber €™s chair he €™s reclined on.
€œThis is some bullshit, € Rob says moments later. The gig was supposed to be at the Knitting Factory. Then it got moved to the venue upstairs. When a two-man band from Georgia was added to the bill, the hip-hop acts got pushed downstairs into the dungeon where there €™s a soggy couch, a few wounded chairs and a stage that maybe two people can stand on. Also, the bathroom stalls are open and smeared with puerile tags, like in jail. €œThe disrespect hip-hop gets is unfuckinbelievable! € Rob adds, appraising the meager environs. He just wants to rock his set and get back to the Bronx.
If everyone squeezed maybe 50 people could fit. Thing is, there may not even be that many present. With just five minutes until Creature goes on, the girl collecting money by the door has made $40, $50 tops. The people here are friends and other artists, Beans from Anti-Pop being one. Were it not for the 3-person camera crew tailing Creature, this picture might even resemble a neighborhood basement party, like the ones that make up hip-hop lore. Beyond nostalgia, though, there €™s harshness to this scene. Creature has been on his feet all day long and now gets to perform in front of 20 people.
On stage he looks like Beanie Segal with dreads and spits like Xhibit or T-Mo from Atl €™s Goody Mob. Though built like a fullback, his feet are light, his motions fluid. Creature has stage personality, and despite the crowds €™ lackluster response skillfully wills himself through a five-song set. His style is aggressive, but if you listen layers emerge, messages, autobiographical sketches and his ever-present humorous sensibility. At the conclusion Creature freestyles a few bars. It €™s the first time he €™s done so in a while and the rust reveals itself when he goes on too long. At the very least, though, it displays showmanship.
Part IV €“ Epilogue
At the close of Franz Kafka €™s €œA Hunger Artist, € a short story about an artist who has dedicated his life to being the greatest faster that ever lived, the artist lies in a cage ignored, emaciated and near death. Upon being asked why he wished not to be admired for his feats, he replies, €œBecause I have to fast, I can €™t help it. € By the same token, artists like Creature make music because they can €™t not do so. By titling his EP Never Say Die, Creature has embraced the notion of himself as a blue-collar hero, perhaps even found a niche in his obscurity. And why not? He €™s on his feet all day and doesn €™t get much praise or pay in the process. For him hip-hop is a job he goes to every day like the rest of us. The only difference is he never plans on retiring. Even when he €™s whipped and dripping with sweat and the night has wandered into loneliness, he tells you straight up: €œGiving up is not an option. €
Thanks, as usual to Dax-Devlon Ross for taking the time out to speak to Creature for Altrap.com. Check him at his own site too: www.daxdevlonross.com