Last week we went in depth with Dru Ha regarding the founding of Duck Down, the massive collaboration that almost was with 2Pac, and how Eminem nearly ended up on the Duck Down roster. This week Dru spreads some knowledge on why certain artists hit while other don’t, how he gets around some of the issues that come about from being an independent label, and what he would like to see more artists do with their demos.

Adam Bernard: I hang out with quite a few.
Dru Ha: Again, who you’re with means so much. I knew Juelz Santana and he was in a group called Draft Pick and they were on Priority for three years. They had nothing to do with Duck Down but we were in the Priority offices. It didn’t happen for them. They recorded an album, they put the album out. It took Jim Jones and Cam’Ron and that movement to bring the shine out of Juelz Santana. I’m not judging him, but the point is that he’s an artist that’s selling, that is popular, that is handling his fan base. I don’t think it’s an accident anymore today when artists go gold and platinum. Hip-Hop is so advanced now when dudes complain, I don’t do that. I so remove myself from that “hey underground Hip-Hop man that’s it,” or “yo I’m the purest.” The dudes of today that are on the top, even Juelz Santana, Ludacris, Jay-Z, these guys are some of the most talented, skilled people in the game and they’re not underground but if they were they would come in and they would be able to come in and rule that world. Ten years ago what we defined as a commercial MC was Young MC or Salt N Pepa winning the Grammy. Not taking away anything from their contributions but it was a different type of Hip-Hop artist that was the one that you would see at the Grammys or you would see at the music awards. It was MC Hammer, today it’s not MC Hammer, today it’s Ludacris, today it’s Jay, today it’s Nas. The dudes that are on top right now, in my opinion, those are the skilled ones so I don’t think you just put together a marketing campaign and fool the public anymore, Hip-Hop is so advanced and so studied that you really have to be a talent at it to succeed.

“I don’t think it’s cool to be independent at all, independent just so happens to be A way but it’s not THE way.”

AB: It seems a lot of indy labels have sprouted up in the past decade, the vast majority of which have failed. Why is it that so many indy labels never make it?
DH: Because one, they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s like if you came from a major and then all of a sudden say well I’m gonna, because I have no choice but to be independent now. See I feel that a lot of these people think that’s it’s cool to say that they’re independent like yo I’m doing the independent thing. Nah, I don’t think it’s cool to be independent at all, independent just so happens to be A way but it’s not THE way. Being independent is way that you can still put out music without giving up. Let’s be honest, it’s a way that you can still keep putting the music out and still exist in the game and it gives you another chance to make another record and have another platform with hope that that music goes to a certain level. We play the game still to this day, maybe that phone call will come in one day from a Kevin Lyles or a Lyor Cohen or a Jay-Z saying yo let’s do something with Sean Price, you guys did a good job with him in that world but let’s bring him up a notch. And I think a lot of people go into the independent game thinking they can dominate it because they hear the word independent or they maybe came from a major and it didn’t work out and now they’re like well fuck that I’ve got fifty thousand dollar, a hundred grand, I can do this, but they don’t have the training.

It’s like you can just go into real estate if you’ve never studied real estate and that’s why there are so many athletes, and I was just talking to Buck about this, how many record labels can we name from athletes or actors and just like basketball players that are just like yo I wanna start my record label, and where are Roy Jones, Mike Tyson, Derrick Coleman, there’s tons of ’em. I’m sure there’s been hundreds and it doesn’t work because you can’t just hire your cousin, or your man who rhymes, and then think that you understand the independent Hip-Hop game. You’ve got to put your time into that like any other piece of work and study it and learn it and understand it and then try to put it into effect and I just think for us we came up as an indy, we learned about independent. Another word for independent can be having little money. So if you start out with that mentality then you have to learn how to maximize and make the most out of it. If you start doing independent Hip-Hop but just spending hundreds of thousands of dollars then most likely when you get those independent sales back you’re not gonna recoup your money.

AB: You’re not independent at that point, you’re in the red.
DH: {*laughs*} It’s like you made the comment, and honestly I read the review of our party and we hadn’t even spoke at that time, there was no influence, you being influenced by me or vice versa, and you just made the remark and I was like that’s why we’re successful because you noticed and that shit made me feel so good because you noticed what we think. We are so aware of what we did and we are so aware of how we planned, that’s what makes us successful. You’ve got to find a way and it doesn’t always revolve around money, but it’s like alright study the game, see it and say damn I know these writers have to be sick of going to these clubs like I am, we’re not gonna be able to rent the real nice ones because we can’t. I went to an Ice Cube listening party and it was off the hook, it was beautiful, Ice Cube shut down the Canal Room and the bar was open and that is the way you want to do it if you have that type of money, but if you don’t don’t just try to get some bullshit club, get the bullshit liquor and blast music, so we said let’s go do some research, find a cool spot, something in our budget and yeah it was all the way on the west side and that’s why we were able to get the deal that we got, but it was a cool space, it was interesting. That’s a micro example of how we operate period. We try to do that with our artwork, we try to do that with our videos. It’s harder to do that with the music because now you’re incorporating the artist and the artists are always going to paint the picture and make the music so you can only influence them but so much. You can’t enforce your will, you can suggest, but we don’t try to totally dictate or ever impose our will on the type of music they’re gonna make. I think that’s what’s made us successful, the ability to understand what we’re working with and try to be creative and be a little different.

AB: I was about to ask you how important do you feel it is to be creative?
DH: That’s’ everything. If they’re taking out ten ads and you can only take out one you better hope that that one ad fits and that’s why we come up with things like triple threat. That whole campaign was designed to not only save money but to bring more shine to each project by cross marketing them, coming up with a cool concept with artwork, if you put all three album covers together they form one picture, and that was the ad. That allowed us to take one ad out for three artists but still made the artists feel comfortable. It wasn’t like seeing three album covers, new music from Duck Down, that’s too like everyone else. I love to be creative. I don’t like to dress like other people all the time and I don’t dress outlandish but I always want to have some type of twist that is gonna give me some separation. It’s too easy just to do what everyone else is doing. We were some of the first people to do the van raps and to do movie concepts in videos. Some people will roll their eyes when they read that like shut the fuck up, no you weren’t, but there’s not many people that can say when we were down at How can I Be Down in 1993 and had the Duck Down van wrapped up and painted. We didn’t have shit but we had that van out there and Red Alert and all the DJ’s were around our van like holy shit! The next year there were three vans blowin our shit out the frame. We had like the old A-Team van, it was all black and had the look, the next year the record labels bought the brand new, extra shiny, so you gotta move on. It’s like alright you did that, now they understood what you did, they copied it and they blow you out the frame and you gotta come up with something else.

AB: So you’ve always got to be on what’s next before everybody else is.
DH: Yeah and sometimes it’s being humble enough to recognize when someone else is doing something that works and at least try to put your own twist on it. I study what other people are doing and take ideas.

“Cam’Ron was like fuck that I’m supposed to be getting six, seven dollars a record, I got nowhere near that.”

AB: With the climate the way it is in the music industry in 2006, do you feel now is a good time to be an indy? Do you think independent can be successful in ’06?
DH: It depends who your distributor is, get your business right. A lot of people have to understand that, too, when you’re independent you still need a distribution network, there’s no one that has their own distribution network. Fat Beats goes through Razor and Tie who goes through Sony BMG. Even the companies that you think are independent completely you need distribution. I haven’t seen an independent distributor yet. So all of us as independent record labels we go through distributors and you gotta find the right deals in order to be successful, that’s very important. I sold more records on Koch, we were with Koch from 2001 – 2005 and then I just switched over to Navarre in 2005. I sold more records with Koch than we have with Navarre but I’ve made twice as much money with Navarre as I did with Koch because it’s a better deal and they treat you so much better as a business partner than my relationship with Koch. Going back to what I’m saying, to answer the question was is it a good time to be independent, can you be successful in the business, that’s a key, making sure that your deal is right. You can be independent all day long and even j some success, but if you don’t have the right structure in your deal, which takes a lot of experience and good lawyers and good negotiating and not being desperate to jump at the first thing thrown at you, then yeah you can be very successful. But the other side of that is you can sell a lot of records independently and b getting jerked in your deal and you can ask anyone at Koch, from Alchemist to even Jim Jones and them I don’t think they think that they were getting what they should be getting over there. I’m not speaking for them, I read that in XXL. I read that Cam’Ron was like fuck that I’m supposed to be getting six, seven dollars a record, I got nowhere near that, I’m out.

AB: Being in your position you hear A LOT of artists. What do you see too much of and what do you see not enough of?
DH: Well I see too much of them putting too many songs on the demo, that’s number one. Some artists think more is more, just put two or three songs, we all are the same, like me and you both would recognize something if it’s hot after maybe 16 bars, now of course you want to hear how he flows over one beat versus another so I think three songs is a good demo. If you don’t get me by three then four, five, six, seven’s not gonna matter. If anything it’s gonna frustrate me because I’m like maybe I’ll have to got through this to find the one decent one form you to give you your fair shot. I think that’s one thing and I think not enough of, that’s a tough question, it’s tough for new artists to break through and get the right people’s attention, even mine. I try to listen to a lot of demos, sometimes it’s like roulette, I might pick up stuff from my PO Box and there’ll be like seven of them and I just open up two of them, I don’t which two I’m opening up, and I just put em on, and that’s not really fair to the other five but I might throw those to one of the street team guys or one of the marketing guys, because I’m not gonna listen to all for them, but I try to do a sampling, enough that I’m putting my ear out for it but it’s very hard man. For a new artist it’s very difficult to get the right person’s attention and to get their ear. Most of the time it takes them needing a certain producer like oh 9th Wonder produced the track? Or how’d you get that track with 9th? Then people want to know, oh Just Blaze did a beat? How’d that happen? It must be hot. I think we all fall victim to that. And you know what else, it’s like you’re in your office, that’s your work environment, that’s never when I listen to music. A producer will come in and say they want to have a meeting with me and I’m like you want to have a meeting with me for what? The last thing I want to do is sit in front of my computer in the middle of a business day, of business hours, and listen to your beats, because that’s not how I would listen to your beats. How I would listen to your beats is after a couple of drinks, laying back, or being in my car, or going somewhere, or being relaxed, and that’s also difficult to even have a work environment and try to get into music. You listen to most of your music in your free time as a consumer, as a fan, so that’s really what we are, we have to be fans first and I get stressed out during the day so I don’t really maybe have time to give something my full attention.

AB: You know I won’t listen to an advance if it has anti-piracy drops.
DH: I understand that. We do it. We try to make it part of the CD, but today the downloading for us is not like the question was three or four years ago. Hey how do you feel about downloading? And dudes would be politically correct in their answer, but today it’s outright, I’m telling you downloading kills us because we’re selling to a niche market. That niche market is 20-30,000 kids that we call those “purists,” the kids that are really like yo I’m for Hip-Hop. That kids on the computer, that kids not in the mall, he’s not the teenager the teeny bopper that’s buying T.I.’s record, it’s the kid that’s on the computer and when you download it and it’s gone that’s when he listens to the whole album online and he doesn’t need to buy it, that’s eating into our sales completely. A leak for us on the internet is just deadly. It may not be deadly for 50 because he’s gonna sell eight million copies so big deal if 200,000 people download it, but for us if 15,000 of our fans get it they may not buy it and it dramatically effects our result of what we’re gonna sell.

“You can make a record on your computer. 9th Wonder and Buckshot made Chemistry in 9th’s fuckin studio apartment.”

AB: Any advice for those currently attempting to start labels other than don’t?
DH: {*laughs*} Nah, DO. Go for it, take it slow, don’t try to bit off more than you can chew. Test something out in the market today with the internet man it can work so in your advantage, technology today is not what we were dealing with even six, seven years ago. You can make a record on your computer. 9th Wonder and Buckshot made Chemistry in 9th’s fuckin studio apartment. That’s word to everything. If you saw how they recorded that album you wouldn’t even believe you, you’d think they were in some studio somewhere, but they weren’t. There was a microphone in the same room as 9th’s computer with Buckshot on the floor writing his raps and then standing up right next to 9th and recording the whole album. So today for kids that are doing it, that are starting their own labels, don’t’ think that you have to have the best of everything, don’t run out and buy everything hat you may not need. Start slow and get some music going. Make sure that you have the product that you like and take it outside of your immediate friends, get some real feedback and real criticism and then slowly start putting your money into it as one things leads to another. You’ll know when the time is right that you gotta pour it on. Just take your time, nothing is built over night and no artist was broken over night. Pay attention and study the game, read the magazines, read the bottom of the ads and see what companies are doing what and pay attention to what people are doing.