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Ask major-label record execs about the music biz and they’ll start muttering about the myriad problems affecting the industry, from illegal downloading to a precipitous drop in retail sales to layoffs and shutdowns. Ask the principals of San Francisco–based indie SMC Recordings the same question, however, and they’ll tell you they’re having a blast. “We’re having the time of our lives,” says A&R head Will Bronson.
In the past five years, Bronson, 25, and his partners Ralph Tashjian, 59, and George Nauful, 56, have built an impressive roster of hip-hop talent, hosting regional sensations looking to make a wider impact and major-label castaways no longer deemed profitable by the suits. They have the Bay Area rap scene on lockdown, working with Oakland's Keak Da Sneak, Mistah F.A.B., Balance, and V-White; San Francisco's Messy Marv, Guce, and San Quinn; East Palo Alto's Dem Hoodstarz; and Vallejo's B-Legit, PSD, and Thizz Nation, to name a few. They've also released albums by Ohio's Bizzy Bone and Georgia's Pastor Troy. Recent signees, like Texas' Scarface and New York's Capone, increase the label's national presence, and SMC has even branched out into rock music with Detroit's Critical Bill.
SMC combines the industry savvy of a major label with the down-to-earth vibe of a smaller boutique outfit. The owners keep their overhead low, focusing on records that move anywhere from 10,000 to 60,000 units apiece, which they're able to get in stores around the globe through Fontana, an independent distributor owned by Universal. "We aren't selling records to a top-40 listener," Bronson explains. "We're selling to people that are fans of these artists." He feels the genre is returning to its origins in "small, crazy, exciting booms out of [regional scenes]."
For the Bay Area, that boom has focused for the past four or five years on hyphy — a soundtrack for youth-identified urban culture which has become a genre in and of itself. National labels have swooped in and signed everyone from Clyde Carson to the A'z and Keak Da Sneak, but hyphy's momentum has cooled while artists wait for their records to come out — the Federation's It's Whateva, for instance, was finally released October 2, after being in label limbo for a year and a half. SMC has the distinct advantage of having relationships with hot local acts and being able to fast-track their projects so the music is out on the streets in as little as 90 days. As Bronson says, "We're smaller, more self-contained. We're able to react faster anytime we see a change or a shift" in the marketplace.
Hyphy's crown prince, 25-year-old Oakland rapper Mistah F.A.B., has been working with SMC's Bronson since both were teenagers. F.A.B. signed to Atlantic, but maintains a relationship with SMC as well, noting of the indie, "They'll work as hard as you work. ... They do so much for your project a lot of major labels won't do." This was the case with F.A.B.'s "Ghost Ride It" video, which SMC helped promote, even though it had no financial ties to the single. And when Atlantic got cold feet about releasing F.A.B.'s major-label debut Yellow Bus Rydah this past summer, SMC stepped in and put out the rapper's Da Baydestrian in a timely manner.
As a small label, SMC also offers its artists both creative and personal freedom. Though he's mainly known for fairly fun subject matter, F.A.B. is planning to do an album on SMC showcasing his socially conscious side. "I have a song about the Jena 6," he says, referring to the six black teenagers charged with beating a white teen in Jena, Louisiana. "Another label, they're not gonna put that out."
While many indies survive by licensing songs to TV shows, hawking merchandise, or offering digital downloads, SMC still makes money the old-fashioned way — through CDs. As reported in Billboard last January, its 2006 sales were up 33 percent over 2005 — contrasting with an overall decline in rap sales to the tune of 20 percent in that same period.
To S.F. rapper San Quinn, SMC represents "the closest thing to a major" in the Bay Area. What separates the company from other labels and distributors, he says, is the personal attention the employees give to each release: "They really get behind the record."
SMC also puts a lot of effort into knowing its markets. For Pastor Troy's 2007 release Tool Musiq, the label hired street teams in Atlanta, Alabama, and Mississippi to spread the word. The album's title (originally Saddam) was changed so as not to offend Troy's large contingent of fans in the military. Having crunk's most volatile lyricist on board gives SMC a foothold in the lucrative Southern market, which has dominated rap in recent years.
SMC's road hasn't been without obstacles, however. "Where we're based out of, there is no industry," Bronson laments. Because of the Bay Area's relative isolation from media centers like Los Angeles and New York, it wasn't enough just to put out local records; "they had to be good records." Bronson points to San Quinn and EA-Ski's "Hell Yeah" as an example of a competitive single that could hold its own against national hits in terms of getting reactions from both club crowds and radio phone lines.