In the ever-changing, financially unstable business of music, many artists claim to be independent.
In reality, few are.
Behind the fresh faces, slick hooks and viral marketing strategies stand silent investors, polished songwriters and major labels.
But every rule comes with an exception.
Enter Oakland, California’s Gerald Gillum, or G-Eazy as he’s affectionately known.
In 2009, as a music industry major at Loyola University, Gillum parlayed his classroom teachings with an ear for hooks and a voracious drive for success. The result was 400,000 plays on myspace.com and an mtvU Woodie award nomination.
In 2011, his Endless Summer mixtape garnered critical acclaim and widespread attention after its lead single, “Runaround Sue”, amassed over 1.1 million views on YouTube.
In the summer of 2012, Gillum joined forces with the Vans Warped Tour for all 41 of the festival’s North American dates.
Not bad for a 23-year-old programming beats in his bedroom.
On September 26, G-Eazy will unveil his latest effort, Must Be Nice. Written, recorded and released independently, the sample-less album represents a marked shift in the direction of Gillum’s young career.
I sat down with G-Eazy to discuss the benefits of remaining independent, his longstanding influences, and the benchmarks of success going forward. Our discussion is presented below.
1. You grew up in Oakland. Tell me about the city’s music scene and the influence it had on you.
Oakland is full of character. It’s full of weirdos, but it has a very strong hip-hop culture. The whole Bay Area is full of musicians. My mom is an artist. My aunt and uncle played in a surf rock band that rehearsed in our basement. When I was in high school, the hyphy movement with Mac Dre, E-40 and Keak da Sneak was massive. It all started in the Bay Area. To us, that was even bigger than 50 Cent, Lil Jon, or whatever was popular in rap at the time. That definitely shaped me.
2. You graduated from Loyola University in 2011. How did the city of New Orleans influence your career?
New Orleans has a rich culture, especially in terms of live music. That city taught me how to put on a show. In Oakland, during high school, we’d just go to house parties. But in New Orleans, during freshman year, I started going to shows. I got into that whole culture and learned to appreciate live music. It’s also where I got my first opportunity to perform. That was huge.
3. One of the most intriguing aspects of your career is that you’re an independent artist. Have you actively sought out a major label deal, or did you actually choose to remain independent?
When I started, signing to a major label was definitely a goal. The idea is extremely attractive. It’s the benchmark that says “hey, you made it”. But the thing is – music has grown out of that.
By the time I got to college, Myspace and Facebook were massive. There were a ton of artists building a fan base, on their own, via social media. I went to school for music industry studies, and every day I’d hear “you can do it yourself….here’s how you do it….here’s how you write a marketing strategy…here’s how you write a finance plan…these are the members you need on your team”. So when music started getting serious for me, that’s what I was learning about. Since then, the goal has been to do it ourselves. We have a really small team, but I think we’re all ‘A’ players. My teachers used to tell me “if you have a team of ‘A’ players, you can do it yourself”. So we are.
4. So in five years, best case scenario, you’re still independent?
Ideally. If the business grows to a point where we can’t manage it ourselves, we’ll consider a label. But I honestly believe our team has the know-how to get it done on our own.
Plus, it’s just like anything else. You feel a greater sense of accomplishment when you look at a house after it’s built and say “I designed the blue print, I hired the guys, and this is my baby”. At Warped Tour this year, we were going to cities I’d never heard of. We were playing to crowds of 500 people that knew all the words. To me, that was the equivalent of standing in front of a house I built. It was a great feeling knowing we did it without any investors, labels or anything official.
5. You’re responsible for producing a lot of your own music. Talk to me about the freedom that affords you, both personally and creatively.
In my mind, I know how I want a record to sound. I know what style I’m going after. I may not finish in one sitting, but I have the patience and work-ethic to spend the time to get the results I want. When you work with other people, it’s hard to stay on the same page. It’s hard to work the same number of hours on the same schedule. But when I work on my own, I can sit in my room for 10 straight hours and pound something out. It gives me the freedom to achieve any sound I want. It’s the ultimate creative control.
A lot of people have great ideas for songs, but they haven’t truly learned the craft. They haven’t put eight years into making beats. They don’t have the technical skills, musicianship and experience it takes to create the sound they want. When I was younger, I put in the hours. Because of that, when someone tells me they like a song, I can take pride knowing I made it from scratch. It’s not like the producer and songwriter did a great job and I filled in the blanks. This is something I made out of thin-air.
6. When you listen back to mixes, what are you listening through? Beats headphones?
I want to listen on everything from laptop speakers to a shitty car system. I have House of Marley headphones that are designed for studio work. I have Beats. I have Bose earbuds and headphones. But those aren’t the best way to listen. You have to realize that not everyone has Beats headphones or high quality studio monitors. In reality, 70% of consumers are going to listen on a shitty system. So, you need to make sure it sounds good everywhere.
7. Last summer, you generated a ton of buzz with ‘Runaround Sue’. Obviously, when you sample a hit like that, it’s significantly easier to get people’s attention. Was that the whole point?
We definitely knew that. If you mix something that people already like, it puts you on their radar. It helps you get in the door. It’s kind of like a crutch, when you look at it that way. “Runaround Sue” is a story that’s been told a thousand times in rap music. Rhythmically, it’s perfect. When it kicks in, it reminds me of Kanye West’s “Power”. I didn’t have to speed it up, or chop it to pieces. Rhythmically, it was ready to go.
But from now on, I’m not going to rely on samples. I love flipping songs and “Runaround Sue” was a great experience, but I want to prove I can do it on my own. Now that people are paying attention, I’m taking the lessons I learned from de-constructing – like figuring out which progressions and rhythms I liked – and making something from scratch. Plus, I want to avoid the lawsuits. I still wake up every day wondering if “Runaround Sue” has been taken off YouTube or if there’s a cease-and-desist letter in the mailbox.
8. You toured with Shwayze and Cisco Adler in 2011. Those guys put a huge emphasis on big hooks and catchy choruses. That draws people in. In my opinion, a lot of young rappers and producers aren’t mindful of that. Are you?
I’m extremely mindful of that. I write 95% of my choruses because I know that’s true. You’re exactly right. Big choruses draw people to the music and the brand. A lot of young artists focus too much on rapping. You can rap your ass off, but if you can’t make songs, you’re not going to tour, sell records or have a lasting career. If you want to play the rap game, you’re going up against Jadakiss and Nas. Great songs establish an emotional connection with your fanbase. You need big choruses, chord progressions and melodies. Sure, you can rap your ass off and I’ll be impressed the first time, but I’m not going to listen 100 more times. It doesn’t give the same emotional response.
9. I know you’ve had some support from the Young Money team. Do you think Lil Wayne has heard “Runaround Sue”?
Probably not. I think he’s a lot like the Wizard of Oz. When people get that big, they’re so cut off from everything. You don’t even see them. They come out, do their show, and go back to the bus. It’s such an isolated world they live in. But his manager Ted, who also manages Drake, has been looking out for me for a long time. He’s helped out a lot.
10. Must be Nice drops September 26th. What’s the logical goal or benchmark? Is there a level of success or career path you look at and say “yeah…I want to get there…and I can get there”?
I think we’re establishing new benchmarks because we’re playing on a different field. I’m not on a major label with a $200,000 promotional budget. I don’t have a radio guy and I won’t be on TV. But I look at what Hoodie Allen did. He sold 30,000 records in his first week. He’s not even signed to an independent label. If an artist on a major label did that, they’d consider dropping them.
For guys like me and Hoodie Allen, we make our records in-house for nothing. In our world, 30,000 records is a lot of money. At $10 a record, after iTunes takes their cut, that’s doctor money. If you continue to tour on your own and release one record per year, that business model is incredible. You’re not splitting it with a million people, either.
11. Growing up, was there a particular album that made you want to be a musician?
For me, it has to be Dr. Dre’s 2001. That was a record I played to death. I loved the idea that Dre programmed the beats, brought in all the artists and was the mastermind behind the whole album. When I started, that was the role I had. I didn’t rap on everything. I had friends who rapped. I produced and directed.
12. Do you think he’ll ever release Detox?
I hope he doesn’t. It would be like finding out Santa Clause isn’t real. It would just let me down. He should have walked away after 2001.