Walking through the Fillmore, it's hard to envision the grand neighborhood that it once was. In the '40s and '50s, the bustling streets were dotted with thriving black-owned businesses, and living legends like Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong performed in some of the hippest nightspots west of New Orleans. But like many urban centers around the nation, the Fillmore fell into decline in the mid-'60s. As shops and restaurants shut their doors and the crime rate grew, it wasn't long before the area became a place you passed through on a trip to somewhere else.
When talks of revitalizing the Fillmore began nearly two decades ago, hope rang eternal for loyal residents. As it turned out, years would pass without so much as a new coat of paint slapped on a building. Today, the vacant lots that dotted so many blocks have been replaced with prosperous family-owned businesses like Marcus Books and fast-food chains like Burger King. One of the most ambitious projects is the Fillmore Center, a community of high-rise apartments surrounded by shops and small companies.
While some of the more visible tenants of the center are Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, tucked away amongst the office suites is one of the most talked about independent record labels in the Bay Area — Get Low Records. Established in 1992, Get Low's featured artist is also its owner: 21-year-old J.T. the Bigga Figga, who made a name for himself in '93 with Playaz N the Game and the regional hit single “Game Recognize Game.”
Get Low's floor is covered with tapes and CDs. Promotional posters touting the label's roster line the walls, along with photos of Black Muslim leaders like Elijah Muhammad and Minister Louis Farrakhan and a “Certificate of Recognition” presented to J.T. by the Nation of Islam, a testament to what can happen when dreams and ingenuity merge.
In between meetings with his mom, who manages the Get Low office, and rapper San Quinn, an upcoming artist on Straight Out Tha Labb, another label owned by J.T., he discusses his struggle to survive in the hip hop industry.
“It's like an ocean filled with sharks and all different types of sea creatures,” J.T. says. “At first, I was just young in the game, not really knowing about the business aspect of the music industry. I was hooked up with a distributor and we were moving a gang of product, but he was greedy, you know, trying to take too much of the money, so I had to pull up out of that.”
J.T. learned a lot about the mechanics of “the business” by simply watching others, he stresses. While he credits Too $hort for laying down the foundation for the Bay Area's thriving rap scene, it's people like Vallejo's E-40 who he praises for “constructing” the local marketplace.
“40 and them came through with an unorthodox way of selling their cassettes and CDs,” J.T. says. “If your manufacturing price is cool, and there's a demand for your product, then lower the price from what everybody else is selling theirs for.” J.T. put this practice into action for himself when he released his first full-length album, Don't Stop 'Til We Major, in '92. Although several big labels came sniffing around, J.T. thumbed his nose at their paltry offers.
“These bigger companies were trying to sign me as an artist, but, you see, they had to respect me as a label because I'm doing what they do,” he says. “I'm getting on the charts, just like their artists. I'm not making millions of dollars, but I'm making noise. And if you don't have that dope, raw product that the people want, then basically your company is ineffective.”
Last year, J.T. earned the respect of Priority Records, which offered him a record deal and a distribution agreement with Get Low that would not only allow him to move product with great ease on a national level, but also maintain control over his burgeoning business. When negotiations first began, he bombarded Priority with questions as evidence of his business acumen. “I was throwing stuff at them, where if I didn't know any better, I could have been gaffled,” he says.
J.T. got his first job at age 11, washing windows for a local grocery store. The rapper says that growing up without a dad had a profound impact on him. “I wanted my father to be around,” he says softly, “and I used to look forward to hooking up with him, and just doing stuff … little things. It didn't go like that, so I hooked up with the streets.”
Frustrated by an inability to make respectable amounts of paper legitimately, J.T. confirms that he fell in with a crowd that sold drugs and robbed people. Eventually locked up, he was driven to serious reflection. “I always knew that I would be successful. I didn't know I would be in the music business, but I knew I was going to have to work at whatever it was,” he says.
After his release, J.T. became interested in the Nation of Islam. “Attending those meetings and reading the papers is what got me focused on having my own company,” he says. “They were talking about the lack of jobs, and how big companies don't invest in the inner city. It opened my eyes. That was the pivotal point in my life.”
Although J.T. wrote lyrics in jail to while away the hours, he didn't consider music a means to an end until 1990. “When I got out, I was seeing rap videos, people having their money from it, and, man, that really had me determined,” he says. Hooking up with rappers like D-Moe, San Quinn, and Seff the Gaffler, he decided to get his business on. “I saw this opportunity,” he says, “and a big old door. I didn't want to go back to jail, so I was like, this is what I'm doing.”
In the three years of its existence, Get Low has released about 10 projects, although the majority of them dropped within the last year. Besides his soon-to-be-released new album, Dwellin' in the Labb, J.T. is juggling new projects by GLP (Get Low Playaz) and San Quinn, not to mention his new major label deal.
“When I was first getting out of the game, I just wanted something to keep me busy,” J.T. laughs of his hectic workload. “Sometimes it's a little frustrating, but it's definitely worth it.