SXSW 2011: Inglewood rapper Shawn Chrystopher not hung up on any label deal: ‘I’m happy where I am’
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Shawn Chrystopher looked more academic than hip-hop when he emerged onstage for a recent gig at West Hollywood’s Key Club. His thick, black-framed spectacles, cropped jacket, skinny jeans, tucked-in dress shirt and baseball cap looked more polished than the performers who followed.
Backed by three hype men, Chrystopher dove into an abbreviated set of tracks from his first full-length album, “You and Only You,” and cluster of mixtapes, offering a warm-up for the live showings he plans to deliver at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas.
The Inglewood native strives to stand apart from the influx of emcees coming out of the Southland, which he does in other ways beside his fashion sense. Instead of rapping about cars, money, curvy girls and popping bottles, his lyrics traverse more emotional terrain such as an ex-girlfriend aborting their child without telling him, and breaking the news to his mother that he was quitting undergrad.
Not following a typical hip-hop mold is a reflection of the 24-year-old’s less than traditional path to music. An aspiring filmmaker, he spent his high school years going to school six days a week taking film classes at the University of Southern California -- they eventually offered him a scholarship. He put his proficiency of five instruments to use by scoring the music to the films he was working on in school.
Chrystopher said it was only a matter of time before he began pairing the music he was crafting with his affinity for poetry –- a marriage that proved problematic once he began college.
“It was like a year straight where I couldn’t be in class without writing music. I didn’t know anything about time management when I got to college. My grades were suffering. I was trying to balance school and music and I was making mediocre music and getting mediocre grades and that was never me,” he said. “I had to make the decision that one of them had to be put on the back burner and I figured I could always come back to school.” Before walking away from college, he worked out a deal to have his scholarship deferred, but the decision didn’t make his mother happy.
“I was that savior child -- the one that was going to save the family. I skipped from kindergarten to second grade’ and graduated high school at 16, he said with a laugh. “She had friends that had sons who wanted to be rappers, so she didn’t get why [I would leave]. It was hard for her.”
Making things more challenging was Chrystopher’s steadfast resolve to strike gold without the backing of a label. And so far, he’s made a buzzy name for himself, all while passing on baits from majors.
His official music videos have reached nearly 250,000 views on YouTube; his tracks have garnered more than 1 million spins on his MySpace page; and he boasts more than 10,500 Twitter followers. His single, “Catch Me If You Can,” recently landed a video premiere on BET’s countdown, “106 & Park.”
Chrystopher’s first release, 2009’s “A City With No Seasons,” logged more than 105,000 downloads while his 2010 EP “The Audition” pulled more than 185,000 downloads. He’s offering “You and Only You” as a free download, and added in with all that, he created the album’s packaging from the cover down to the smart-phone-enabled bar code on the back of the disc.
Positioning himself as more than just a local artist, Chrystopher has landed endorsement deals with LRG Clothing, Guinness beer, AMP Energy, MySpace and WOWIO eBooks, which included sponsorship for two sold-out nationwide tours.
His anti-label stance is based wholly in this belief: “What can a label do for me that I can’t do for myself?”
“A lot of artists want to be signed to say they are signed. But not understanding that if you go into a label and you are not the priority, you’re not doing anything. Now you have to ask someone else to put out music. You’re just recording, eating up a budget and you can’t put any music out. As an artist, why do you want that?” he said.
“I can leave this interview, go home and say, ‘I want to put out a project tomorrow,’ and I don’t have to ask anybody anything.”
This hasn’t stopped labels from chasing him (“I’ve sat in offices with probably every last one of them -- from Interscope to Universal Motown,” he offers), though he maintains he hasn’t completely ruled it out.
“I’m gonna do everything I can on my own before I look for help. I’m not at a point where I’m starving. If you come to me and say, ‘I’m going to give you $50,000 [to sign],’ that’s cool, that’s a lot of money, but what am I giving up for 50 grand? We’re going on tours, putting out albums, selling out shows, and I don’t need anything [from a label] unless you can present me with something that we can’t do as a team. Until that day comes, I’m happy where I am.”
Ironically, his set at Key Club was an opening slot for Def Jam artist Mann, an artist working inside the very machine he rebels against. And although Mann was headlining on the strength of his single “Buzzin,’” he had considerably less hype from the audience than openers Chrystopher and the Rej3ctz.
Chrystopher, like those others, is part of a sizable wave of Los Angeles-based acts such as Dom Kennedy, Tyga, YG, New Boyz and Cali Swag District that are offering up a different brand of West Coast rap and making music far removed from the trademark Gangsta Rap sound that vets like Snoop, Ice Cube and the Game still pump out.
This ‘new West’ sound hasn’t been ignored, as Vibe Magazine has tapped Chyrstopher for its ‘Respect the West’ Showcase at SXSW (just one of a handful of performances he will be doing in Austin).
Despite making it on his own -- he does have a publicist and a small management team –- he is vocal about its downfalls.
“There are certain doors that only open with certain relationships. There’s just some things that no matter how good you are as a person, or as an artist, you can’t get in without having certain relationships,” he said. “Let’s say at a certain radio station a DJ likes my record a lot, he can’t play it because his boss won’t let him. If he plays any record that’s not on his list he could get fired. That’s the hard part.”
When pressed if he feels snubbed from radio stations in his hometown, he doesn’t let any frustrations show on his face.
“I’ve been on Power 106, but out here we don’t have that much market for hip-hop. You turn on 106 and they are playing Gaga or they are playing Far East Movement. I know that in New York DJ Enuff was touching my record every time he spun, out there they can break records -- especially rap records,” Chyrstopher said. “I understand the game, but it sucks. It’s just something else to knock down.”
If you’re at SXSW
Catch Shawn Chrystopher in Austin:
‘Respect the West’ Showcase, presented by Vibe Magazine, Cashmere Agency and Stampede Management
More SXSW gigs expected to be announced on his site.
-- Gerrick D. Kennedy