The paradigm of giving music away for free is something all artists, especially rappers, have learned to accept these days. But what about when it comes to giving away information? When was the last time your favorite rapper or producer made a podcast or YouTube video breaking down their production tricks behind their hit songs, sharing practical advice about building a fanbase or retracing the steps they took behind the scenes that led to their success? These were questions San Bernardino rapper Curtiss King asked himself when he turned his iPhone camera on himself over a year ago and began a series of informational workshop and critical analysis videos on YouTube, decoding the game for today's rappers and disregarding one of the most sacred taboos in hip-hop—never share your secrets.
“In the entrepreneur world, it’s the norm to be a teacher in some capacity, whether it’s software, whether it’s webinars, it’s a norm out there, but it’s not a norm in hip-hop,” King says sitting down for a sushi lunch in Fountain Valley on a recent Tuesday afternoon. “Like if you’re helping somebody, it means you’re over the hill or done with your career. For me I was like 'Why is that?'"
As a rapper and producer who’s worked with artists like Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, Murs and battle rapper Daylyt (the latter actually worked side by side with him at Quizno’s back in the day), you might suspect that King (born Dwan Howard) knows what he’s talking about. The 32 year-old West Coast emcee with a pension for honest, biographical rhymes over his sleek, contemporary beats has the musical influence of hip-hop’s younger generation but the life experience and wisdom of a veteran emcee. Hip-Hop DX even named his 2015 album, Raging Waters, one of the Top 25 albums of the year. But even enviable accolades only gave a short-lived sense of accomplishment, the same way that everyone always tends to ask “what’s next?” after a rapper drops a hot album.
“I was grateful but there was something missing,” King says. “And all these accomplishments kept coming up but I still felt this level of emptiness. I realized that the times when I’m most fulfilled are when I’m giving something—knowledge, information, support, motivation.”
Few local independent artists capture the DIY spirit like King, who spent years learning to control every facet of his personal music business from beats and bars to copyrights and contracts—and everything in between. A big chunk of that knowledge came from studying music business at Orange Coast College back when he as starting out as a producer. These are the kind of lessons he shares in his weekly video series on YouTube with videos with titles like “How to Survive Your 1st Rap Tour,” “Are You a Marketable Rapper?” or “The Power of Consistency.” It’s a move that he says contributed to his greatest achievement to date—having his latest EP, Jubilee Year, land at #4 on the iTunes Hip-Hop Chart right between Smoke DZA and J. Cole.
It might sound crazy, but King says this surreal accomplishment came from literally giving away every piece of knowledge he had to his YouTube audience that watched his tutorials millions of times of the past 12 months, starting with his first video called “The Biggest Lie in Hip-Hop” that got 70,000 views in the first 24 hours it was posted (it's since been re-uploaded on his channel). The next one was "Why You Shouldn’t Tag Strangers on Facebook." That one got 50,000 in 24 hours.
On the day Jubilee Year came out last December, King remembers visualizing his blue album cover on the iTunes charts somewhere between Meek Mill and Drake. After a solid online advertising push album actually entered the charts at No. 32—not too shabby for a idealistic indie rapper for the IE.
“So I started hitting my fans up saying ok people we’re at Number 32 and all of the sudden people are commenting back at me saying ‘nope you’re at No. 10,” King said. He checked the charts again and they were actually right. “So I put it on Facebook saying thanks to everybody for helping me get to Number 10 and someone said 'No that’s a lie, you’re at Number 8.' So I went to check and it wasn’t at Number 8 it was at Number 5." Twenty minutes later, King's EP inched up even higher to its peak position at No. 4.
“It was proof that the work I did over the last year,” King says in between bites of yellowtail sushi. “When you give the right value, the people will take care of whatever need that you have.”
From there, while he continued to work on videos and songs for Jubilee Year with his friend, producer and collaborator OhGoshLeotus, he would make aa new video every few days. As they became popular, a ground swell of interested emcees surfing the web turned into loyal fans and people that went on to help him top the charts, something that’s unheard of for any artist without a marquee name or major label backing.
For King, the success is nothing but a product of giving and overcoming adversity. Growing up blue collar as one of several children, King says he’s gone through his share of economic ups and downs. There were days growing up where he wasn’t sure where he’d be living from week to week.
“There was a time when my mom and my sisters were staying in a motel room right across the street from my high school growing up,” King says. “To try to explain to a teacher why you can’t get your homework done because you don’t know what your living situation is gonna be, that’s not even a rap, that’s just life.”
Those financial issues followed him as a young rapper entering adulthood—evictions, repos, unemployment. Living out his dream as a rapper trying to reach the next level the way many artists do was often met with a lot of harsh realities.
“There’s been times where I had no transportation,” King says. “My first major beat placement was with Glasses Malone and Mack 10 and I didn’t have enough gas to go down to L.A. and track the beats out there with them. That's an embarrassing conversation to have with a artist who you're trying to start a relationship with."
There was even a time, after one of his potentially lucrative producing gigs fell through, he contemplated suicide, wrapped up in a momentary failure.
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The only thing that stopped him was a photo of one of his sisters that caught his attention as he was having his breakdown.
“There’s a form of music business PTSD,” King says. “it’s not the same thing as people fighting in war but it affects your emotions in a way that tells you no matter what you get, it’s only short lived. You become distrusting of people and good luck.”
Part of his recovery from depression that plenty of artists go through was turning the camera on himself and helping others with his life experience and industry knowledge. Looking back on his time making videos that help simplify the music business, it’s fitting that the central theme of his EP Jubilee Year is about getting back everything you’ve lost in the past by opening your heart and being receptive to positive change. It’s also the reason he does one of the most taboo things you can do in rap outside of give away all your trade secrets—he goes out of his way to smile a lot, even in photos, act like a goof. Sometimes he even uses a trampoline in his studio to jump up and down until he shakes any bad vibes out of his system, just another example of a spiritual life hack that King says artists are welcome to take from him, should it ever come in handy.
“Sometimes people look at me and go ‘why you so happy?’ King says. “I try to be a shining light, because if I don’t get myself pumped up like it’s game day, it’s not gonna happen...If I can provide something that’s significant to a rapper today and it’s not just all about social media, if I can provide him with a mindset to approach this industry with, that’s something that could live on for the next 20 years."
Curtiss King performs tonight at Low End Theory with Oh Gosh Leotus and Sincere. $10, 18+. For full info, click here.