A Letter to “Quitting” Rapper Corduroy or If At First You Don’t Succeed, You Probably Won’t Succeed the Second Time, but Don’t Quit
Dear Kadeem aka Corduroy,
I read your letter about quitting rap with empathy and occasional frustration. I, like you, do this rapping stuff, and I’ve been blessed (dare I say #blessed) with more success than many who are worse or better. But like you, I’m just not quite where I want to be. Given the lavish rewards a precious few have netted from rap, frequently faking the funk about the ease or independence of their ascent, we consequently set outlandish expectations for our own careers. We see effects, rarely causes, products, though not the thorny processes that preceded them. Therefore we come to think artists arrive at near instant acclaim, even tastemaker darlings with hot garbage music, impeccable charisma, and generosity with their drugs, when in reality they did just what you were doing.
That’s right, friend. Before these rappers got their on-the-low deals masked by fake grassroots campaigns or became “overnight successes” where “overnight” really meant “half a dozen failed deals and almost as many style makeovers,” they lived at Mom’s crib. They wrote raps on their phone. They scraped by for studio time or just enough equipment to record something serviceable. They went to event after event, maturing from an awkward barnacle into a confident networker fully embraced by the people who could help make their career what it is. Hell, some of them also just made music and kept sending it out until someone important found it worth posting, allowing them access to broader means of reaching potential fans. Or they’re fucking somebody, which is fine if the fucking is real and loving and not a means to a professional end.
By no means would I ever describe the music industry as a rigorous artistic meritocracy, however until you have almost starved to death for this shit, it’s early yet (though, if you are almost starving for other reasons, that is a dire issue way realer than music industry shit). Now, I’m not saying whether you should keep at it or not. I simply don’t want you or someone who read your letter to conclude that if you face The Bullshit, then you should throw in The Towel. As you stated, you are a “21 year-old black guy from New York City,” and I cannot identify with that besides rapping in New York (and I undeniably benefit from a privileged, unearned Billy Hoyle factor), yet it struck me how young you are and to paraphrase Rod Stewart, time is an asset to you.
Besides youth, you lucked out by being a New Yorker. I cannot emphasize enough that New York still offers countless opportunities for a musician. Forgetting the hype over whether New York hip hop is alive, dead, or buffering, it is still in New York. Almost no city in America and few in the world come close to its combination of media prevalence, cultural capital, and human density. Consequently, succeeding in this city often requires that you jump through more (admittedly stupid) hoops than you might expect based on the popular industry narrative.
The public chronicles of a rapper’s career don’t typically detail the boring legwork, false starts, etc. and when they do, those elements serve to retrospectively romanticize “the struggle.” Granted, it is a struggle, though not in an inspiring way, but rather a really tedious, miserable way that one day makes you feel like you’re Luke Skywalker and then the next day like you’re the guy who was one of the less important Ewoks, signing autographs at a sci-fi convention between depressed swigs of Jim Beam. Until you discover the innards of this business, it’s both seductive, then later demoralizing to see a fellow rapper awash in media exposure, free clothes, and season passes to Blowjob Mountain while you remain on the sidelines. More than you realize, many of those rappers on the come-up have 9-to-5s (or even less enviable or less self-sufficient economic means) or live with their parent(s), all while experiencing the same unglamorous shit you do when the cameras are off.
Does it suck that rappers on the way up don’t always accurately narrate the detours? Or that when they do, that part usually lands on the cutting room floor? Of course, but the music industry along with a number of press outlets tend to fast forward to the triumphs (or terrible falls from grace), so we’re not likely to see a blog headline that reads, “BUZZING RAPPER RELEASES NEW SONG WRITTEN BETWEEN SHIFTS AT PANERA BREAD.” Thus, the game remains quite…gamey. Nevertheless, you cannot win if you forfeit. And if you want a sizeable audience, you have more channels for it than ever. We live in an era of Kanyes, Tech N9nes, Nicki Minajeseses, Danny Browns, Snow Tha Products, Hopsins, and that guy who thought he was gay because he could draw in 3rd grade. They all had varying paths, perhaps turbocharged by an insider helping them over the threshold, but you have to persevere in order to get to that point, regardless of who you are and no single institution or strategy will help accomplish this in isolation. You need to go at this shit from all angles.
You might be thinking “The fuck do YOU, know, though?!? YOU’RE NOT MY REAL DAD. YOU’RE NOT EVEN MY HOLODAD.” True enough, though for what it’s worth, I have been rapping since Joe Clair hosted Rap City. It was not until much later, however, that I made a go at it professionally at age 23, when I moved across ‘Murrica to become a part of the New York hip hop scene. Upon arrival, I worked various jobs while ineptly mopping the floor and helping people find records at Fat Beats. There, I met my crew, the Brown Bag AllStars, who pushed me to become the best Soul Khan I could be. Since then, I dropped an album and five EPs, sorta helped usher in a new golden era in battle rap, performed in many cities, towns, and a few other countries, accrued millions of YouTube views and tens of thousands of social media followers, developed an independent music following, at times with music as my sole income, all while being some people’s most favoritest rapper. I’m not remotely rich, nor famous (yet?!?!?!), though as you know all too well, less talented, less respectable artists continue to prosper. That alone motivates me to steadily hold my Sippy cup of hope and talk my shit.
Is it Ralph tho? Honestly, if it’s never more than this, well shucks, what a life I’ve led. But I’ve gotten this far and most of my favorite rappers (probably some of yours, too), including some newly successful ones, are older than I am, and have been at it mad longer. Plus, I haven’t really had a publicist or booking agent, though I have a great, dedicated manager, a brilliant rap crew, and a miraculous wife. That being said, I still had to prove myself as an artist and person to assemble those vital pillars in my life. And while I’ve been lucky to get on a lot of the blogs that you probably dig, that came with a lot of work on the part of my crew, that I hope I earned by pulling my weight in the studio and on stage to validate their efforts. Furthermore, I have gotten to know the people behind those blogs and they relate to me almost more as a fellow music listener and even semi-tolerable person to drink with. There are still plenty of folks who don’t post my shit, whether due to just not knowing, not caring, or not having any taste. That’s ok, though, because they don’t owe me or you any support, nor does their support break us in its absence.
To make matters worse, I hate superficial schmoozing, and you seem to, as well. Luckily, that does not prevent you from finding some very decent individuals to work with you along the way, sidestepping past those are maybe more influential but engage in more fuckery.
Sure, insincere social butterflies will excel faster, but that’s how it is for a lot of fields including and beyond music (especially in that corporate world you might try to penetrate). Increasingly, these days if you can’t access the in-crowd, you can build your crowd until the in-crowd feels like they’re missing out. Or if you’re willing, you just eat shit because inside the shit, there is a Cadbury Egg. And even when there isn’t, you had the guts and character to find out, and in doing so, you might turn enough heads to hopefully tell them something meaningful.
So, Mr. Corduroy, don’t quit. You seem to really love making music and humble enough to know where you have to grow, something a lot of us don’t learn until we’re unsalvageable. Just be patient, be fiercely critical of the music you make, be persistent (not annoying) in reaching out to people who you think might like the music you’re making, and don’t mistake the letdowns for some kind of omen. The universe is randomly cruel and kind, thus it falls on you to navigate the murky area between until you find your way to whatever you define as success. You can do that while going to college, while working a job you love or hate, and while being a part of a family or community. And yet despite all the best music you could ever create and despite engaging the music scene in a really endearing, positive, smart way, you still might fail. At least it won’t be on account of a lack of effort.
I genuinely hope to see you shine, and since I must quote “Nas Is Like” once a day: much success to you, even if you wish me the opposite.
Love and encouragement,