There are no free rides for hip-hop heroes who achieve worldwide acclaim. The Grouch, founding member of the internationally known Living Legends crew, can attest that even when you sell records, pack your shows, and maintain control of your music, the headaches remain.
"I know my records aren't in enough stores," he says. "You gotta play a bunch of games, and a lot of times I wonder if it's all worth it. I used to put my CDs only in mom-and-pop stores. Now I'm in chain stores, and I sell more copies, but it doesn't seem like I make any more money."
The Grouch, along with the Living Legends, built a fanbase and rep on the DIY hip-hop ethic of the mid-1990s, back when selling tapes outside local record stores was a novel idea. Through a decade of recording and touring, he has built a respectable career and carved out a comfortable existence. The Oakland native lives in the San Fernando Valley with his wife and their 2-year-old daughter. He has released six solo albums, two with Living Legends partner Eligh (as part of G&E), three with Living Legends, and one with Bay Area compatriot Zion I. On April 8, he'll drop his seventh solo album, Show You the World, through the Legendary Music imprint, which he helps run.
On Show You the World, Grouch continues his meat-and-potatoes approach. Though he leaves the lion's share of production to others, the album maintains a cohesive feel. Highlights include "The Bay to L.A.," where Grouch and Legends homie MURS celebrate the similarities between the regions, and "Mom and Pop Killer," where Grouch laments the increasing homogenization of consumer culture. Another high point is "Artsy," where, over a soul flute sample and banging drums, he playfully skewers people who "shop at Whole Foods in open-toed shoes." "I know people are saying, 'You're dissing your whole fanbase with that song,'" he says, "but it's all in good fun."
Hustling for his music is still an everyday part of the Grouch's existence, though. Gone are the days where all eight members of the Legends crew had to pony up $25 to rent a tour van; they've now set up a bank account for expenses. But the MC still deals with many of the indie record stores personally, while also wrangling with Best Buy to get Show You the World in its stores. He's well aware that being unsigned and independent doesn't carry the same currency that it used to. Being visible and readily available online is important these days. "There's so many people doing the independent thing now," he says. "When [Living Legends] were at SXSW, there's, like, 800 acts vying for people's attention. ... It's easier to get stuff on iTunes and MySpace, but it's much harder to get noticed."
To promote his album, the Grouch booked a dozen live dates along the West Coast this month on trips he turns into family affairs. On the last two Living Legends mini-tours, he drove his vegetable-oil-fueled truck. He likes the idea of taking his daughter around the country, and spends his off-time visiting national parks. "It's better than just sitting in the hotel room, which I've done many times," he says.
The Grouch knows these much-needed respites from the grind of the music biz will be fleeting; there's no shortage of work if you want to stay in control of your career.