Braille says Hip Hop IS Music

 |  November 26, 2006

By Quibian Salazar-Moreno

               After toiling for years in the indie hip-hop scene as a solo artist and a member of the celebrated group, Lightheaded, Braille is going the way of a label CEO. He recently launched, Hip-Hop IS Music, a new label specializing on on the musical art form of hip-hop.

            Out the gate, Braille’s label has released three albums from Sivion, Surreal & DJ Balance and Braille’s Box of Rhymes, the compilation project Heavy Rotation and re-released two previous Lightheaded and Braille albums and the year is not even over yet.

            “I want 2006, 2007 to be the Hip Hop IS Music era,” Braille said. “During that time we’re going to have a good 12 or 13 records by the end of 2007, God-willing.”

            In the next year Hip-Hop IS Music is planning to release albums from veteran and new artists including Theory Hazit, Sharlok Poems, Sojourn, a Heavy Rotation Part 2  and a project featuring Omegha Watts, Braille and Surreal called 4 days in Geneva, where on a break from tour they spent four days in a studio.

            We caught up with Braille while promoting his album Box of Rhymes to find out why he decided to launch a label, his place in the industry, and the science behind his new album.


You were doing okay as an artist and a member of Lightheaded, so why the decision to launch a label?


            It’s funny because I look back through my artifacts and my hip-hop music fascination before even starting a label. I’ve been wanting to run my own label since I was 15 years old, which is 10 years ago. I used to make envelopes saying Brian Winchester, CEO, Lung Mechanic and my whole idea was to run this record label called Lung Mechanic. It was going to be a pit stop for artists because I realized at a really young age that some of my favorite artists were really discouraged and frustrated with their music careers. And I was like, “I don’t know what I can do, but maybe I can run a label or something that works differently.” Since then I kind of went off on my own path, signed to other labels as a solo artist, got my own taste of the industry and realized the idea that 15 year old kid had was relevant and maybe I should stand in the gap and help these artists that I don’t feel are getting the opportunities that they deserve, to put out honest and significant hip-hop music.


How’d you get started in the game?


            I started putting out tapes. I’m a young dude, but when I started no one had CD burners or anything, so if you put out something on your own, it was a tape. I’d make my album covers at Kinko’s, gluing pictures to a piece of paper and folding it and handwriting the song titles. Then I would just slang them on the internet. It’s funny because I’ve been selling tapes online for over 10 years now. So back in when I was signed up on AOL, everybody was AOL back in 1996. So I just started putting out tapes that way, but my first official solo CD, Life First, Half the Battle, was actually one of the first full length albums that Kno from Cunninglynguists produced on, Celph Titled did the majority of the production on it, Mood Swing from the Anticon family did production on it, Sixtoo, now on Ninja Tune, did production on it, Storm the Unpredictable was featured on it. That actually came out in 1999 when I was 17. So that was my first official release. My first Lightheaded release didn’t come out until around 2002.



What’s the science behind the label name, Hip-Hop IS Music?


            Growing up I’ve lived in areas of middle class America, never been upper class. I grew up in a middle class family and we went through a lot of financial struggles during various parts of our lives. But nonetheless the middle class respect and appreciation for hip-hop in most of the areas I grew up in Jersey and Oregon, the respect and appreciation for hip-hop as music was very limited. It’s not very often in a mixed crowd, you could say I am a fan of hip-hop and there might be one dude you can actually have a conversation about actual hip-hop. So although hip-hop became one of the most influential genres for art, for advertisements, for entertainment, it was influencing everything but it wasn’t  being portrayed as an art form, it was being portrayed as a trend. Or it was being portrayed as “the new thing.”

            So for me I felt like, I’ve been doing this for so long and half the people that buy my records probably don’t even know how the beats are made. There’s no knowledge of the process or the appreciation of the process of creating a hip-hop record. The label name is just a statement. To some its obvious, to others it’ll make them raise an eyebrow, “Well is it really?” The record label is an opportunity for me to try and put out music that represents that simple statement. This is music, this took talent to create, we didn’t just buy a computer program and make our first demo and press it up on CD. We’ve been doing this for a long time.

            And every artist that is signed to Hip-Hop IS Music has been rapping for over 10 years, some of those guys have been rapping for 15 or more and this might even be their first CD that ever came out. They didn’t grow up in an independent era of music. They grew up in an era where if you wanted to put out a record you had to be signed to a major label. Aside from slanging tapes like I used to do, you might have slanged them in your local area but as far as putting out a CD with distribution it was either signed to a major label or nothing. And if you lived in New York or if you lived in L.A., there was a better chance of you getting a grasp on the marketplace; but if you lived in a smaller city, to really get something rolling it was very difficult.


How do you decide who you want or don’t want to sign to your label?


            When I started the label, I sat down with a piece of paper and I kind of wrote out my ideal roster. There were certain artists that I would love to sign, but they’re already signed, so I can’t write down The Procussions or I can’t write down Mars Ill, so I had to think of artists that haven’t really put out anything or artists that I knew that were in transition. From touring I met a lot of these guys in person. As an artist, you do a show and there’s a local opening act and before the show you have no idea who they are. Then they perform and you’re like “Man, this guy is just more than local talent. This guy deserves to be heard and appreciated on a global scale.” So some of the artists it was a situation like that. With Sivion, I was in Chicago and he had done a couple of features on some other CDs and I heard and I took interest and said this guy is interesting I wonder why I don’t see anything out from him. Then I was at a BBQ in Texas like two weeks later after I took interest and I had a chance to meet him in person because he showed up at the same BBQ. There’s a different story to how I met each artist but ultimately the moment I met them, and you can look back through the Lightheaded releases, like on Pure Thoughts, we had this thing on the end called “Surprise Cipher”. We had Sojourn on there who I have been a fan of for a long time and on the second album, Wrong Way, we had another surprise cipher and we got Sojourn on there, we got Sharlok Poems (of L.A. Symphony) on there, we got Surreal on there, we got Sivion on there and Big Rec is doing an interlude and these artists I was interested in during that whole time and I was like, if I ever started a label, I know who I would go to.


It’s no secret that you guys get love in Christian hip-hop circles, but do you ever get any flack from the industry for not being Christian enough or being too Christian for non-believers?


            As an artist who has shopped his material to other labels, every label has certain types of artists that they’re looking for. I’m not even going to narrow it down to Christian labels but I’m going to say for the most part if you look at Def Jam, Bad Boy, of course some of these labels have altered what they’re looking for based on market trends and so on. But whatever they’re looking for at that moment, if you don’t fit into it and you’ll notice everybody in the mainstream, everybody is hard, everybody hits the gym, and everybody has got some crew that’ll mess you up and everybody just kind of falls under that blanket. So the way I look at it, that’s the current market trend but I’m not hard and I don’t make records about being hard so right now I’m irrelevant to the market place. Unless I make something that is so mind-blowing that it shatters the entire industry, which I would love to do.

            But I realized there needed to be a niche label that specialized in the type of music that I wanted to put out. A lot of Christian labels are centered around Christian market distribution. In order to be successful with Christian market distribution, you need to make records that are good for Christian market radio, which in a lot of people’s mind are kind of bubblegum. I have no beef with that at all, but the thing is I’m not going to make bubblegum records so I can get play on Christian radio. When I started rhyming I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Christian radio, when I started rhyming I wasn’t even a Christian. I started rhyming so I could participate within hip-hop culture and not be limited based on my faith to the avenues for any artist to expose their music.

            That’s the type of avenue I wanted to create for my artists, like hey, you guys are hip-hop artists and what you believe, for any true authentic artist, is going to come through in their records. I don’t think there’s one rapper that doesn’t, unless they’re a puppet, unless someone else is pulling the strings, but if you have an honest artist, whatever they believe in life, whatever they really think, that’s what they’re going to say on their record. The only reason they wouldn’t is like “I’m rapping this way strictly for business.” But the guys we’re working with in Hip-Hop IS Music, they have a genuine love for hip-hop, a genuine love to express themselves through hip-hop music and what they’re saying on their record is exactly where they’re coming from in life. And just because there’s no labels looking for that, that doesn’t mean it’s not good, they’re just not doing what’s popular in the marketplace right now. There needs to be some label that says hey, as far as I’m concerned this is what’s hot and I’m going to put it out anyway. That’s kind of the stance I wanted to take with the label.


So do you even target your marketing to the Christian market?


            The way I look at it is that I’m not ashamed to affiliate myself with the Christian culture at all. I’m more than happy to have Hip-Hop IS Music CDs to sell in Christian bookstores, play on Christian radio, so on and so forth. My point is I’m not going to change who my artists are or who I am as a Christian in order to fit in that bubble. So if that bubble is willing to take us for who we are, my same approach goes to hip-hop culture, any culture that’s willing to take us as we are, any listener, any fan, any critic, anyone who is willing to take a hip-hop record for what it is, that’s what we do this for. If somebody has already shut the door on us because we don’t fit into the bubble or box of what they think we should be, then it wasn’t for them.

            I honestly haven’t been met with any resistance. When it all comes down to it, it’s a matter of to what extent people are willing to get behind you, it comes to down to advertising dollars, marketing dollars, there’s very few people who are willing to get behind you just because they want to get behind it. Those people, I appreciate them more than they can imagine because there’s people who have gotten behind Hip-Hop IS Music and supported us and we haven’t really had much to offer them other than music. At the end of the day, if Hip-Hop IS Music had a million dollar marketing budget for a project, I don’t think anyone would turn us down. It’s like “yeah, you can run an ad in our magazine, we’ll write a review, we’ll do an interview,” that just the way it is. You’re putting marketing dollars in that magazine; you’re putting marketing dollars into that television station or doing a display at a store. Of course they’re going to showcase what you do. Since we don’t have that type of marketing capital, I send out everything from my house. So I just send out as many CDs as I can stomach.


Your new album, Box of Rhymes, what’s the theme behind it and what should people expect?


            I remember the Jungle Brothers song, “The book of rhyme, book of rhyme, book of rhyme pages” and back in the day you would have your rhyme book. Now I’ve been rhyming and writing for so long, I have a rhyme box now. Literally, I have rhyme boxes. When we moved I had boxes and boxes filled with papers of rhymes that I wrote. Eventually I had to start throwing them out because they were taking up so much room. But I held on to it because in my mind it was kind of like those boxes represented how many rhymes I wrote, but at the end of the day, I’m only as good as my next rhyme. Every rhyme that I write today is a culmination of what I’ve learned from all the other rhymes I wrote. So the box of rhymes is kind of like, I can flip through a bunch of old raps and it automatically brings back to different moments in my life, almost like a photo journal. It’s like a journal of the history of me; the last 12 years of my life are documented through rhymes and my thoughts and things that I don’t even remember thinking or things I don’t even remember going through. Ultimately the box of rhymes is the history that leads to the future of who I am as a person, who I am as an artist.