Exclusive: Chamillionaire gives up some serious game about the "smoke and mirrors" of the music business and details his own recent lessons learned in regards to industry rule #4080.
The average rapper is always late for interviews. Always.
But Chamillionaire is not your average rapper.
Cham called five minutes before his scheduled telephone interview with HipHopDX was to begin. Clearly, the saying “bout my business” is an understatement when it comes to one of Hip Hop’s consummate grinders.
Unfortunately, even with his above average work ethic one of the pillars of the Houston Hip Hop scene found himself over the last few years staring face-to-face with the same indifferent industry types that don’t care whether you succeed with hard work or just dumb luck. And so once Koopa’s sophomore solo effort, 2007’s Ultimate Victory, failed to match the nearly double-platinum success of his breakthrough debut, 2005’s The Sound of Revenge, and there were no more Grammy Awards and millions of dollars being made in ringtone sales like Cham netted for his now ubiquitous sing-a-long song about police harassment, “Ridin’,” his label, Universal Records, went into stereotypical panic mode. The rapid-fire rhymer and hypnotic hook crafter was subsequently pushed to make increasingly more Pop fare (ala his Tom Petty-sampling single “Good Morning” in 2009) and even at one point had the pen pulled from his own hand, finding himself in a room with the same electric-guitar playing mountain climbers GZA bemoaned 20 years ago attempting to write a song for one of Hip Hop’s most impressive songwriters.
And so, tired of the tactics of his desperate-for-a-hit recording home, Chamillionaire chucked the deuce to the major-label system and is now out to show the entire industry what revenge really sounds like by proving that projects like his just-released Ammunition EP can be sold directly from artist to fan without the interference of stubbornly single-driven record companies.
During his must-read discussion with DX for any aspiring artist, Cham elaborated on his “test” to see just how far an artist can go without a label (or even iTunes and Amazon). The “Tech Conference Tourist,” as he bills himself on his Twitter page, additionally revealed what “the biggest lie ever told” to artists by record company staffers actually is, and what lies artists themselves tell to fool you the consumer.
Chamillionaire Explains Keeping His Grammy Award In The Box
HipHopDX: I wanna start off by asking you about something you mentioned in “Let’s Get That” from your just released Ammunition EP. After five years have you really still not taken your Grammy award for “Ridin’” out of the box?
Chamillionaire: I’ve taken it out the box before, but it’s in the box though. Yeah, it’s still in the box.
I appreciate the Grammy and everything, but sometimes people will come to my house - there’s a guy that comes and cleans the fish tank, it’s all kinds of people - so I don’t have anything really revealing in my crib that people will know it’s me. Sometimes they’ll come and they will have no idea who I am, and I just don’t like questions. [Laughs] So I don’t put like all these awards hanging up all over the house and all that type of stuff. If you come to the house you wouldn’t really even know that I live there. I like it like that.
DX: I gotta ask you about something else you spit on your new EP. On the melodic lead single, “Won’t Change” , you mention something in the second verse about running with Paul Wall in what sounds like the past tense. Are you guys officially not working together again?
Chamillionaire: Me and Paul [Wall], we got to a place where we’re really cool. We don’t have the same issues that we used to have. I think we got over a lot of that type of stuff and matured.
The quote was referring to people always be like, “Man, you and Paul had a run.” But it’s always in the past tense like, “You had a run.” … That was referring to people who say, “Well, you and Paul did all this, can you still go out there and do a bunch of dope things?” And I’m like, “Yeah!” That has nothing to do with anything that happens from this day forward. We did that, we made history, but I don’t think about that when I move.
Chamillionaire Reveals His Business Model With Ammunition EP & Mixtapes
DX: Now, the real talking point about Ammunition isn’t so much anything you said on the EP but more so how you’re selling this project. Why did you decide to bypass iTunes and Amazon and become the direct connect to your supporters?
Chamillionaire: I been going to tech conferences for a while and just trying to find new ways to do things. Now I’m not saying [with] everything. I’m not saying your major-label album has to come out that way, but I think it’s definitely worth a try to actually put out content and see if the fans think you’re worthy enough of paying for it.
Everybody’s just on this mission to stay on the blogs for two days so they just throw their music out for free. And everybody’s just competing for the space. But you can throw out so much music and you’re spending money and the time and it’s just burning [a hole in your pocket]. It’s not a real smart business model.
There are some people that are worth spending on. So I just wanted to see where I was at. And then I put it out, and then instantly, the first day, I looked at how much it sold and I was like, “Okay, this is really gonna work.”
You never really know how much you’re worth to people. Maybe it was because it was such a [long] hiatus – I was gone for so long – that so many people purchased, or maybe they just think [like], “Well, Chamillionaire’s gonna give me some quality music.” ‘Cause I believe I been putting out so many quality mixtapes for a long time that I feel like I’m worth it. So that test was a test to see if I was, and it proved me right.
There are a lot of rappers that’ll go out there and talk about all kind of stuff, but I believe when it’s all said and done I just know how to get money. And then I know how to use it right and give it back to my fans. It’s not like I’m going and buying [Rolls Royce] Phantoms with it. I spend it back on the quality. I go get my stuff mastered. I have physical CDs that actually have booklets in ‘em. Even the graphics, I can’t think of too many artists that even have a logo. I spend on stuff like that to make sure that they feel like it’s quality. And the people that mess with me, they proved it when I did that. I don’t wanna talk numbers, but I’m very impressed with the amount of people that purchased and are still purchasing right now.
DX: Now, I gotta pit your approach here against your Gulf Coast comrade David Banner by asking you if you think your approach of having supporters pay standard retail prices for product will prove more effective than Banner’s new movement to have fans donate just $1 as payment for his otherwise free project, Sex, Drugs and Video Games? Can he really get two million $1 donations, or can you really sell 200,000 pieces at about $10 a pop on your own, or can neither realistically happen?
Chamillionaire: Can neither really [happen]? I know what I’m doing can work. It’s already working right now. And I’ve done it before in the past.
I know the real. I’ve seen rappers say, “I just put out this mixtape and I got a million downloads in a day.” I know that’s a lie. But, I just sit back in my corner and just let them do what they do, while we’re over here making the money.
As far as [David] Banner’s concerned, me and Banner’s had a lot of conversations and me and him be on the same wavelength. How many rappers you know that just go complain all day about the label? Complain they did me wrong, they did me this, [but] when is it gonna come to a point where people just take it into their own hands? … Banner’s just trying to find a solution to being able to exist on his own: put out music and it’s a direct relationship with the fans. Now, is it possible to get two million people to spend a dollar? I don’t know. I have no idea, but I think it’s worth trying. I think it’s a noble thing to try to go after that and do it on his own two feet instead of begging somebody else for a check.
We spend a lot of money to do this stuff and I think many people just don’t realize that. Like, he was saying something about Chris Brown and Big K.R.I.T. and all these [features for his mixtape] and it costs money for these people. The beats, the studio time – sometimes I’ll spend $1,000 a day in the studio, which people don’t even realize how much that stuff adds up. But, when you can get the fans to support it, and actually help you with that, then it’s less dependency you have on somebody else that’s actually gonna change up the music. And that’s all it is, everybody’s just trying to keep their music authentic and find a way. So salute to him.
DX: Speaking of that fan support, Public Enemy, Ras Kass and other artists have recently solicited donations to record albums. Do you see artists being funded by fans on the front and/or back end being a viable way to eat from your art long-term, or do artists honestly need that major-label bread to have their music heard and seen by the bigger, broader masses to make ends really meet?
Chamillionaire: It depends on what you’re in it for. If you’re in it for fame and you wanna be big and you wanna have a whole bunch more views and you wanna do some of the biggest shows ever, the possibility of you getting that on a major-label is greater. I’ll even admit that.
But, that’s the difference. There’s so many people out there that have their symbol of what success is. They have their idea of what success is, and to most young kids that are on blogs their symbol of success is you have to have a Phantom Rolls Royce, you have to have ten platinum records …. And the artist might not have that same goal.
I’m not even on Universal [Records anymore] and I make 50% of everything sold. If somebody buys “Ridin’” today I make half. … And I don’t owe them no money, nothing. I think that’s a wonderful way to exist as an artist. Now, every artist can’t say that. There’s a lot of people that don’t own their publishing. Every song they come out with somebody else is making [their money]. It hits #1 and they make no money off of it. Who wants to live like that? It looks successful but it’s not.
So, all these artists that are out there trying to find a way to actually exist on their own, that’s why. Because, it’s the smoke and mirrors out there that people are fooled by. There’s a lot of people not getting money. There’s a lot of people that are behind the scenes that don’t actually make music at all that are making all the money. But the artist, because of how these young kids view them, they have to go out there and lie and tell you that they’re making millions. They have to go out there and tell you so many things. And I’m sitting behind the scenes looking at it and it’s just like I understand why they do that. I understand why they lie.
They almost have to. You have to, to survive sometimes. But some people just choose not to. … And then on the [independent side], there’s a lot of people that say, “Hey, man, I’m independent, we’re making $7 a CD,” and that’s a lie too. As an independent a lot of times you spend a lot more money. When you break it all down you pretty much make the same as the artist that’s not making money on a major.
It’s just some people get it. Some people know how to find a way to make the numbers add up. And that’s what I try to do. [But] I can’t say you can’t have the #1 record [on a major-label]. There’s a lot of things and politics on a major-label that can make things bigger. Even some video channels won’t play certain things if it’s not coming through a certain hand. Some radio stations won’t touch your record if a certain major-label A&R didn’t come in there with it. There’s all kind of politics that keep an independent artist from reaching certain levels that you can on a major, [and so] if that’s what you want, go sign with a major.
And there’s some people, like Mac Miller, that take a different route. I don’t know if people talk about him as much, but I see what they’re doing with [Rostrum Records], and I just think that’s honorable. Even somebody like Tech N9ne. Like, man! For a long time he’s been killing it and making a bunch of money independent, but people are just now starting to find out who he is. It’s just, some people are cool with the smoke and mirrors and some people aren’t.
DX: It sounds like you’re done with the smoke and mirrors, which leads me to my next question: Which label was it that you noted in the “Already Dead” intro from Major Pain 1.5 that you hung up on recently?
Chamillionaire: I don’t wanna call nobody out, man. Because, I don’t want people to think that I hate them. It’s not like I hate major labels, I just hate the way their business is done.
There’s a lot of things like you could have a contract and the contract will say they owe you $10 million on April 1st, and when April 1st comes you don’t get the $10 million – even if you have a contract. So then you gotta fight to get the $10 million. And then you fought and you spent so much money to get the $10 million that it’s down to $5 million now. … The major-label system is set up like that. It’s set up to pay people way later after they’ve made all the money. You could’ve sold enough to get $10 million and then they’ll say, “Oh, well you owe us this much money and we have to take it out.” But it’ll be just some made-up numbers.
So that’s the kind of stuff that I have a problem with. It’s not real business. Like, if you and me do a handshake and you say you’re gonna do something, I expect you to do it just off of that. But their business doesn’t work like that.
They tell you, “Oh, you can just do Rap shows, that’s where you get the money at.” How you get the money doing Rap shows? Because, we’re not Rock & Rollers, we can’t extend and live for a hundred years doing shows. They trying to push you out once you get 30! So that’s the biggest lie ever told, “Oh, don’t worry about it, just worry about the show money.” Nah, I’m a different breed. We don’t worry about just show money. I worry about the money that’s owed to me I don’t care where it’s at. I don’t care if it’s a promoter, I don’t care if it’s anybody across the spectrum, whoever it is, if you owe me a $1 you owe me a $1.
It’s just fairness. And it’s all because the ultimate goal is to have your money making money for you. “Ridin’” is the perfect example. They just put it in a Volkswagen commercial, and they have to call me and ask me for permission. They gotta do a deal with me, everything. Like, who wouldn’t wanna be in that position? The person calling the shots, the person that’s in control of their destiny. And I like that, some people don’t. They don’t wanna deal with that, they just wanna make music, and those be the ones later that be mad at themselves.
So to answer your question … I get a bunch of homies that always call me and they like try to convince me to go back to a major [label] and they’ll be like, “I got this deal over here that I can run you through.” And it’s just like, man, I’m not against that type of stuff, but right now I’m just on a mission to get myself where I know I can get myself.
I’ve done it before. Rap is all about talking trash … but this is fact: In my life, I’ve rarely ever lost. My first album independently with Paul [Wall, Get Ya Mind Correct, was] like the biggest album coming out of Texas [at the time]. We was nominated for “Independent Album Of The Year” in The Source …. My first mixtape, [The Mixtape Messiah], was the biggest mixtape ever [in Texas].
I was supposed to get nominated for another Grammy category and I got disqualified because they said I had dropped too many albums in a year. And I was like, I had only dropped one album. But all these bootleggers were scanning my mixtapes that they were bootlegging and they were on the charts. So they thought I had dropped like 20 albums so they disqualified me from the “Best New Artist” category [at the] Grammy’s, which I believe I would have won. So maybe I woulda had two Grammy’s.
Chamillionaire Reveals Why He Left Universal Records
DX: Before we bring everything contemporary, I just wanna get a once and for all clarification on what actually happened with Universal [Records]. Since you had this 50/50 split, did you walk away from that voluntarily, did they sort of force you out of that? How did that actually go down?
Chamillionaire: They were not trying to get rid of me, at all. I actually had conversations where they were like, “Well, why would you wanna go back to selling independent mixtapes?” And I actually looked at that like, What do you mean? Why do you think that’s what I’m gonna go do? How do you know I’m not gonna go be an astronaut? How do you know I’m not gonna go try to be the President of The United States? How do you know I’m not gonna go try to invest in tech [companies]? Like, is that all we can do?
They just figured like, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to sit here and deal with this? All of us arguing over what type of Pop records to make and not putting out no records for three years. Like, I think it’s common sense, who wants to do that?
At one point I was walking into a session, and it was all these people in there trying to write a song for me. When it gets to the point where you’re not even writing the records no more, what’s making you stay in that situation? So I felt this is like an abusive relationship [and] why are we even in this relationship? They’re mad at me, I’m mad at them, [so] I was like, “Let’s let this go.”
And I guess they just figured [like], "Man, he might take all the records that he did and go to Def Jam [Records] or some other label," so they was like – I’m not gonna tell you what conversation was said, but I was convincing enough to get them to let me go. And then they were like, “Well, he can’t take all this stuff to another label and go get signed, so the only way [we’ll let you go] is if you completely give up everything. No music, you can’t put out nothing [from Venom].” So I was like, “Cool.” And everybody just looked at me like I was crazy like, “Why would he do that?”
But I was like, they can’t take my voice. I can go do this tomorrow. I’ve done it before. I can create on my own. Nobody can tell me what to create. The singles that came out, everything that people might look at me a certain way because of certain songs that came out, it wasn’t me. I might make a bunch of songs, sometimes I’m trying to be creative, but when it comes to the decision of what song’s coming out it’s their way or the highway and I don’t like that.
I’m creative by nature, so sometimes I might make a whatever record, a “Hip Hop Police” or whatever. But, I’m very realistic about the way people view me … so I was being honest with them about what I wanna do and a lot of times they were like, “No.”
They would always be like, “You’re a bigger artist, you can’t jump on all these people’s songs ‘cause it makes you look small.” Especially when it comes to Texas [artists], they was like, “Nah, forget that Texas stuff,” and would just stop me from doing things. If I wanted to go do a song with Ciara, I might wanna make some money off of this song but they might charge so much money to Ciara just to clear me that it’s like, “Damn, I gotta do this song for free,” just so she don’t gotta pay a $100,000.
It was just too much of that, man. It was just like, “If that’s the way this business works and the way y’all do it, cool, but I can’t rock with a lot of that stuff.” So I was just like, “Man, let’s split.”
DX: So bringing things back to now, do I understand the strategy correctly: that you’re done with the free releases and everything from Ammunition forward will be for sale solely?
Chamillionaire: Nah, nah, nah, I’m just testing things. I got a lot of things I’ma test, like actually today I’ma launch something from my website where I’ma give a bunch of fans [memorabilia]. I got a lot of stuff that’s autographed like plaques, the hoodie I wore in the “Ridin’” video that was only worn once, I got a lot of stuff like that. And I’ma just give that stuff away to fans on the site.
I believe that engaging with an audience is one thing, but engaging with them enough to where they feel like spending with you, or they feel like they know you, is another thing. And also, to where they feel comfortable enough to be like, “Hey, I want you to have my email address, and I want you to contact me. I want you to hit me with everything you’re doing.” That’s the whole mission here.
People see the money that I just made off of this EP but I see the email addresses. I got so many email addresses and people are in contact directly. If I wanna give away plaques, I can email ‘em all and they all gonna [appreciate that]. I’m just trying to create consistency with [my supporters], because they come and they’re your fans for a long time, then you don’t drop nothing and then they leave and go to wherever, Maybach Music. [Laughs] And then you’re on this mission to keep trying to regain and retain fans. Some people think, “Oh, well I got a million followers on Twitter, I’m doing it,” but do you have any of their email addresses? What I’m doing is collecting email addresses and trying to build a way to connect with all these people, and I’m doing a very good job of it and not really saying much. So when it’s all said and done and I need to put out this album, which is the big goal, then it’s gonna be a monster. Everything’s gonna be right. I’m just building everything up to that.
So I might not sell the next thing. I might throw out something next week for free. It’s just whatever my mind thinks up …. I wanna make sure that I’m being spontaneous with my fans and doing stuff that’s outside of the box, stuff that the average person wouldn’t do.