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Sage Against the Machine
Murs' Paid Dues fest gives indie hip-hop a major platform
At first glance, Paid Dues looks like any other 'palooza. But the 3-year-old hip-hop festival, the brainchild of LA MC Murs, doesn't have corporate funding or a single act with major-label backing.
"I wanted to show people there's a lot going on between the guy selling CD-Rs out of his trunk and the rap you hear on the radio," Murs explains. Instead of Lil Wayne, you get Little Brother and Jedi Mind Tricks; instead of Eminem, you get Sage Francis and SoCal favorites Dilated Peoples, as well as Living Legends, Murs' home crew. "We were the first ones to tour coast-to-coast on our own," Murs claims.
They still do; Murs is talking from a Living Legends stop in Colorado. The festival—and Living Legends—are two of the less-precarious plates Murs has spinning on the ends of various sticks right now, the most precarious of which is his 2-year-old deal with Warner Bros. Murs for President is slated to come out sometime this year, and the Warner-funded video for "Better Than the Best" is on YouTube, showing the dreadlocked Murs in a suit campaigning in skate parks and record stores over a sped-up Four Tops sample. The song, he says, won't be on the album. In fact, he's not sure what songs will, owing to the wealth of material recorded in all kinds of major-label situations ("At one point, I'm in a studio with Kanye and Pharrell next door, and Rihanna's upstairs") and samples that are taking longer to clear.
Just a few years ago, Murs had a nice little niche carved out for himself as the lone West Coast rapper on El-P's prestigious Brooklyn indie Definitive Jux. "I don't even know how these kids start listening to my music," he says. "It's so different from Aesop Rock. I rap about hanging out on the block, getting drunk. I use 'bitch' and 'ho.' I'm very literal."
Still, Murs spans a lot of demographics. "I enjoy Sage Francis and Lil Wayne. One's a great poet, one's a great rapper; one wants to make change, one wants to make money," he says. "My business model's been closer to Sage Francis', but I'll be damned if I don't want to listen to Lil Wayne."
An audience of backpackers and bohos can only get you so far, though. Now with Warner, he's thinking bigger.
"A lot of people I want to reach I can only get through MTV and radio. I could be selling 50,000 records, making $5 apiece on an indie," he says. "I actually took a pay cut to sign with Warner."
Not that he hasn't spent money. "I started working with these big producers, but it just didn't work out," he laments. "[Warner] gave me about a third of the resources they give everybody else. As long as they only expect about a third of the results."
Murs has higher expectations for Paid Dues. "We need to be able to reach kids in the 12-to-18 demo, so kids can come and be blown away by live hip-hop and buy a shirt and have an experience [like they do with] any other big touring festival," he says.
And with or without Warner, Murs has done it—is doing it.
Says Dilated Peoples' MC Rakka, "Labels sign stuff and may not understand it. Some A&R guy's like, 'Who's this guy with dreadlocks on my daughter's wall who's not Bob Marley? I gotta sign him because if I don't, someone else'll get him.' But [Murs is] gonna be fine. Paid Dues shows just how much he sees the bigger picture. He's not just giving kids a platform to see these artists; he's giving these artists a legitimate platform to reach these kids."
Paid Dues featuring Murs, Kool Keith, Sage Francis, Dilated Peoples, Lil Brother, Living Legends, Busdriver and others at the NOS Events Center, 689 S. E St., San Bernardino, (909) 888-8788; www.guerillaunion.com/paiddues. Sat., 4 p.m. $40; VIP, $100.