Labels come and go. Not long ago, Moedoe and Frisco Street Show were among the most important outlets for Bay Area rap. Now both manufacture energy drinks instead: Hyphy Juice and Hunid Racks, respectively. Rap frequently favors money over artistry, but eliminating the art entirely is a bit much. To pose the Jacka's musical question, "What happened to comin' the dopest?"
The answer may be found at 21st and Mission streets, home of SMC Recordings.
"Rap's a hustle because of where it's from," 26-year-old co-owner and A&R head Will Bronson says. "I understand that, but in the end it's still about making good music."
A shocking philosophy in today's industry, but SMC makes it work. Not only has the company released some of the biggest recent Bay rap discs including 2007's Da Baydestrian by Mistah FAB and Da Bidnes by PSD, Keak, and Messy Marv but it's also building a national roster. Atlanta acquisitions like Pastor Troy and Killer Mike, whose current I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind 2 received critical acclaim, hitting No. 16 on Billboard's rap chart, have raised the label's nationwide profile.
"It's going well," Killer Mike reports. "Major labels spend money on you, but never listen. SMC entertains every idea." This includes everything from letting Mike executive-produce his disc to approving his risky lead single, "Bang," attacking what he sees as the present lameness of Atlanta hip-hop.
"In rap it's OK to be yourself," Bronson says. "No matter what level they're on, the artists we sign are loved by their fans. Our records sell longer due to their quality."
SMC's success wasn't overnight: it evolved from late '90s imprint UTR, whose founders included SMC co-owner Ralph Tashjian. The industry veteran long dreamed of starting a label here in his hometown. When his partners bailed, Tashjian brought in former UTR intern Bronson to continue as the Navarre-distributed Sumday Entertainment, whose successes included Keak's Copium (2003), co-released with Moedoe, and Messy Marv's Disobayish (2004). Switching distributors in 2005, when Bronson became a full partner, prompted another name change.
"Independent distribution is the future," Tashjian says. "Independent distributors are all successful while the majors are dying. As that began, Universal launched its own independent distribution, Fontana. We were one of their first labels. We had no obligation to Navarre, but for appearances we changed the name to SMC: Sumday Music Corp."
Such powerful distribution and an artist-friendly environment artists own their masters, for example, which the label licenses have helped SMC score bigger acts. It's even invaded New York City, signing Capone-N-Noreaga for their third album. In a late-breaking development, SMC has now entered into a joint venture with the legendary Rakim, though details have yet to be announced.
Such moves, unprecedented for an independent Frisco hip-hop label, come at an interesting juncture in the Bay's post-hyphy moment. There are cross-regional promotional opportunities; Mess, for example, is on Killer Mike's disc, which includes an ad directing listeners to Mess' upcoming project. Most important, as it goes national, SMC has reaffirmed its local role, partnering with Thizz Entertainment to launch two series, Town Thizzness for Oakland acts and Thizz City for SF, at the consumer-friendly price of $9.99. Town Thizzness has already released the two hands-down best local discs this year, Beeda Weeda's Da Thizzness and J-Stalin's Gas Nation. And the Bay isn't confined to these series, as the upcoming San Quinn album, From a Boy to a Man, due Nov. 25, attests.
These series, Bronson says, "testify to our commitment to the Bay. We're in SF so we need a marquee Bay Area artist.