By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
The formula worked. After inking a modest distribution deal with Bayside Records in 2000, Get Low began rapidly expanding, releasing nearly 20 albums a year (a typical label of Get Low's size puts out half that amount). The individual releases are nearly interchangeable, featuring a similar production aesthetic, a steady procession of guest spots from everyone from Snoop Dogg to Daz Dillinger, and janky album-cover graphics. Musically, JT's work adopted smoother R&B tones, while his lyrics became increasingly hard. Despite its sparse beginnings, to date, Get Low has sold nearly 7 million records, and established itself as one of the country's most successful independents.
While Get Low is JT's bread and butter, Black Wall Street is clearly his baby. When he starts talking about it, he puts down his sandwich and looks me in the eye, his voice pulsing with the same pinging cadence that you sometimes hear in his music. The inspiration, if not the actual idea, came when JT attended the '97 Hip Hop Summit organized by Farrakhan and Simmons in the aftermath of the East Coast/West Coast feud that left two of hip hop's greatest, the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, dead. "After being at that conference," JT says, "I saw hip hop as having more value. I was getting disgusted with the rap game because it was so violent. ... [The conference] provided me with an insight into what hip hop could be and where it really came from. If I stay independent, I could add something positive to the world."
Although the seeds of BWS were planted that day, it took more than five years to implement the program, and it didn't really get off the ground until JT recruited celebrated Bay Area MCs Mac Mall and Ray Luv -- who are, in effect, JT's partners in the venture. While the involvement of these legendary figures almost guarantees success, much of Black Wall Street's potential lies in the fact that while the Bay Area is suffused with more hip hop talent than at any time since the glory days in the early/mid-'90s, our finest artists have been unable to capitalize due to both the fractured nature of the scene and widespread major-label apathy.
To combat the first problem, JT and his associates have begun unifying disparate and often discordant communities. They recently brokered a gang truce between warring Hunters Point and Fillmore factions, distributing a song called "Peace Treaty" that features MCs Mac Mall and JT. "I'm very proud that these brothers resolved their problems without any violence," JT says about the truce. "They were warring over lies, deceptions, and confusion. We had the OGs from the Fillmore and members of the Nation of Islam come together and resolve this. 'Peace Treaty' is the song that came out of that meeting. It was something that was burning in my heart. It was the best feeling that I've had in a long time." Black Wall Street also recently installed offices in Oakland, where it'll be offering classes on everything from video editing to music distribution as part of what JT calls Black Wall Street Business College.
As a record label, BWS's involvement with its talent -- which includes 2 Face, Lil' Brah, Joi Patrice, and Mob Figaz -- is looser, less taxing, and less restrictive. JT provides his young artists with access to the various contacts, networks, and knowledge that he and other senior members of the scene have accumulated over the years, and it's up to them to do the rest. If a major label is like an overzealous parent, micromanaging every move in the pursuit of its goals, then BWS is an older brother -- well-meaning and occasionally assertive, but generally willing to let the artist make his own moves.
The label is currently preparing to release its first album, a compilation that leans heavily on new material from its principals as well as tracks from a new generation of MCs, most notably Lil' Brah from Oakland. After that, BWS will put out a collaborative album between Mac Mall and JT titled Illegal Game.
As JT finishes off his sandwich, Mac and Ray Love walk into the tiny shop and find a table.
"It's about building the entrepreneurs and CEOs of tomorrow," Ray Love tells me as JT steps outside to survey the Lower Haight and smoke the second half of a joint. "We're trying to build a future for not only ourselves, but our peers. ... If we don't do it, nobody else will."
Mac Mall quickly chimes in: "That's the position we in. Nobody listens to the politicians or teachers, but they listen to us. After my first record I realized this. Working on it, I thought it was just me, but going to Miami, Texas, and all these other cities, I realized the power of what we have."
"We try to be the example for other cats that want to get into the business," Ray Love adds. "Everybody feels that they need a major to come in and save them. But you can start small and build on it. We want [Black Wall Street] to be the sixth major."