This is a tale of two hip-hop hustlers from two different cities who have both helped to shape the urban cultural landscape in significant ways. The story begins in 1996, a time very close to the peak of the fabled Golden Age of Bay Area hip-hop. Tupac was still alive, the independent scene was crackin’, and there was considerable major label interest in “Yay Area” artists.
On the other side of the country, New York hip-hop was also operating at a high level. Biggie was still alive, and the lyrical renaissance of the early ‘90s hadn’t yet declined. Innovation, creativity, and competition in the hip-hop scene was flourishing; plus, there was serious money to be made. This combination motivated many street corner businessmen to pick up the microphone and pursue legal hustles.
Back in those days, JT’s independent hustle was pokin’ out like a proverbial nipple. The man they call the Bigga Figga looked like he was in line to become hip-hop’s next tycoon before he reached his 21st birthday. After releasing three solo albums (Don’t Stop Til We Major, Playaz N the Game, and Dwellin in tha Labb), as well as individual efforts by the Get Low Playaz (San Quinn, D-Moe, and Seff tha Gaffla), and popularizing the phrase “game recognize game” (not to mention the “get low” dance which originated on the streets of SF’s Fillmore neighborhood), JT was as hot as anyone in the industry – indie or major.
The GLP’s founder had just inked a distribution deal with Priority, raising hopes his Get Low Records might become a West Coast dynasty along the lines of the NWA family, E-40’s Sic Wid It, Khayree’s Young Black Brotha, Suge and Dre’s Death Row, or Too $hort’s Dangerous Music. In addition to his production finesse and microphone game, JT was well ahead of the curve on marketing and promotions, branding his product with such innovative techniques as advertising upcoming releases on the inside of current albums (a tactic later employed by many in the industry, most notably Master P’s No Limit label).
In contrast, in ’96, Jay-Z was an experienced street hustler, but a relatively unknown rap artist, with just a few cameos (most notably on Jaz-O’s “Hawaiian Sophie” and Original Flavor’s Bring It On ) and a 12-inch single (“In My Lifetime”) to his name. According to legend, Jay and his partner Damon Dash sold copies out of the trunk of their car for two years -- borrowing a page from the same independent grind formula laid down in the Bay by trailblazers from Too $hort to E-40 to JT to Master P.
Jay-Z’s lyrical skill was undeniable, though his cashmere-and-Cristal ostentatiousness and overtly-materialistic themes didn’t quite fit with the gritty, grimy, underground East Coast sound then typified by groups like Smif n Wessun, Black Moon, and the Wu-Tang Clan. Stylistically, Jay-Z was a throwback to an earlier era in African American culture, the flashy Harlem hustler type typified by Bumpy Johnson and Frank “American Gangster” Lucas. His only counterpart in NYC hip-hop at that time was the Notorious B.I.G., who’d just received an image makeover from a pre-Diddy Puff Daddy which transformed him into the Coogi-clad Big Poppa.
Jay-Z’s plan was to leverage the loads of street credibility he’d earned from his association with Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects into industry credibility. After parting ways with Payday, who had released “In My Lifetime,” he scored a one-album distribution deal with Freeze/Priority for his first solo effort, the now-classic Reasonable Doubt, in the process briefly becoming a label mate of JT.
Fate and circumstance conspired to bring Jay-Z and JT together, when promoter Charles Kelly brought the Brooklyn MC—whose song “Ain’t No Nigga” was embraced by West coast audiences—out to San Francisco. The occasion was San Quinn’s record release party for the JT-produced The Hustle Continues, the second GLP release to receive national distribution (after Dwellin’ in the Labb).
JT remembers that Jay-Z had no entourage and no security that night; “it was just him and Damon Dash,” he says. JT and Jay-Z hit it off immediately. Backstage, they traded war stories and discussed the music business. “We chopped it up about the deal he had with Freeze. He told me he had plans to do a deal with Def Jam,” JT recalls.
JT also had big dreams of an industry takeover. Unfortunately, label politics prevented him and the GLP from realizing the destiny which once lay in front of them. The Hustle Continues turned out to be the last album from the crew released through Priority. When JT got into a contract dispute with label executives, Priority pulled the rug out from under the GLP, giving the same deal JT once had—a 76/24 split—to Master P and No Limit (which ended up paying off in a big way, establishing Southern rap as a major market for rap music).
Yet ultimately, the move may have turned out to be fortuitous for JT, who avoided the same fate which befell many rappers who had signed to majors and never learned how to put food on their own table or spread their hustle.
“I didn’t agree to sign over my publishing and my copyrights and my masters, which I owned 100%. Master P did that, so he got that deal,” JT explains. “We was on some independent shit. It was a longer process to keep making money, but over the years I was able to maintain. If I wasn’t gonna let Priority take me at 21, I wasn’t gonna let nobody take me.”
Meanwhile, Jay-Z continued to make power moves, using the critical acclaim and street buzz of Reasonable Doubt, not to mention the leadership void in NYC rap created by Biggie’s death in 1997, to his advantage. After signing with Def Jam records, he churned out a slew of commercially-successful (though increasingly less artistically-inspired) albums, branching off into clothing, nightclub and premium spirits ventures, acquiring a boutique distribution deal for his Roc-a-Fella imprint, and eventually becoming a label executive at Def Jam himself.
3,000 miles away, his major-label dreams abandoned, JT was becoming further entrenched in the West Coast rap scene. As he says, “It pays to be independent.” He remained extremely active as both a producer and rapper—in 2000 alone, he released three solo albums—as well as issuing collaborations with Bay Area legends Mac Mall, and Messy Marv.
JT’s next encounter with Jay-Z came in 2001 at the Soul Train Music Awards in Los Angeles. The two exchanged pleasantries backstage—“we had general conversation,” JT recalls—but the Bigga Figga had an ulterior motive: to confront Memphis Bleek over the East Coast rapper’s use of Get Low Records—the same name as JT’s pre-established label.
“I seen Bleek. He acted real fucked-up and cocky,” JT remembers. “He said, ‘fuck you, we millionaires.’”
Undeterred, JT decided to wait until Bleek came to the Figgarole’s home territory to settle the matter—by force, if necessary. He got his chance the next year, in 2002, at a
Jay-Z/50 Cent concert at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View—just down the peninsula from San Francisco. Wisely, JT sought out Jay-Z himself before approaching Bleek. “Jay-Z’s guidance on that was boss status,” JT says.
“If it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense. Y’all need to resolve that as men,” he remembers Jay-Z saying via Skytel text pager.
“I told him I’ll be there, he said ‘you need to go to a room and handle it’,” JT says, adding, “He knew his little homie could not fuck with me from the hand or the mind.”
For Bleek, JT says, “It was a no-win situation… he didn’t like that Jay-Z didn’t choose sides.”
After arriving at the show, JT made his way backstage. G-Unit’s Young Buck let JT into the dressing room where Bleek was hanging out. “He acted shocked when Young Buck opened the door,” JT says with a laugh. “He knew I was ready for war. Basically, he didn’t want no problems.”
In no uncertain terms, JT told Bleek, “if you gonna use get low, you gotta come through me. You seen me doing my shit and you thought you were just gonna take it because we were independent.”
This time, there was no arrogance on Bleek’s part. According to JT, “His reaction was, he said he knew I had been doing it first and he said he wanted to set it up on the East Coast.”
That pretty much squashed the beef, but the conflict was serious enough that it “could have kicked off an East Coast-West coast thing,” JT says. Ultimately, he adds, “it turned out positive. There was no physical altercation. Right after that, that’s when I signed Game.”
Game, of course, would become a multiplatinum-selling artist, affiliated with 50 Cent’s G-Unit and Dr. Dre and Aftermath records. But in 2002, when JT discovered him, he was an unknown Compton rapper. During the course of his partnership with JT, Game took on Bleek, dissing him on record on several occasions. As JT recalls, “Game heard what happened and he aired it out. He did the song ‘Mem Bleek’ (because) he didn’t like the fact Mem tried to take the Get Low.”
After Game signed with G-Unit/Aftermath, JT recalls meeting with Dr. Dre and 50 Cent and offering to sell them the unreleased material he had produced for a cool $250,000. When the Doctor refused, JT put the music out on his own label. He says he ended up pocketing an even cooler $5 million over a five-year period, selling well over an estimated 100,000 units of the West Coast Resurrection album alone -- at the independent rate of $8 per unit, not the standard major-label rate of 12 cents per CD.
“Game offered me $70,000, but that was four albums of music,” JT recalls. Instead of taking less than he considered the product to be worth, “Young Figgarole ran to the bank with those masters and kept eating.” To this day, he says, “I’m very proud of the Game. I think he’s one of the dopest in the game, period.”
Just as Jay-Z became a mentor for artists like Bleek, Freeway, and Lupe Fiasco, JT shared his knowledge of the indie hustle with established artists like Daz Dillinger, the Outlawz, Juvenile, and Young Buck, who had always relied on others to put out their music for them and had very little hands-on experience in promoting themselves.
After doing two projects with Daz which sold over 100,000 independently, the word got out in the rap community that JT was the man to see in the West if you wanted a piece of independent bread—deriving revenue not just from solo albums, but various side hustles like features on other artists’ projects, as well as DVDs.
Teaming with Atlanta-based producer Zaytoven, JT helped discover and market an up-and-coming Southern rapper named Gucci Mane (who’s since become one of that region’s major artists). “We produced his first project, which was called A to the Bay,” JT says. Referring to all the rappers whose careers he’s helped, he adds, “Look at these guys, they’re stars. Those are my protégés in terms of independent game.”
Eventually, JT was called on to help one of the rap game’s most established, commercially-successful artists maintain his street audience – Snoop Dogg. “I ended up working with Snoop, to help market The Blue Carpet Treatment,” JT explains. “I put the streets behind that project 100%. That album did better than anything he’s done since Doggystyle. Snoop gave me the ball to handle that. From that, we launched Mandatory Business, the magazine.” JT also went on to appear in 2004’s Spike Lee-produced film “Sucker Free City,” soaking up some cinematic game before becoming a film producer and director in his own right.
Though Jay-Z and JT have traveled down different paths since their initial meeting in 1996, “we have a similar grind in terms of consistency,” JT says. “I been freestyling my albums as long as he been freestyling his albums. As far as distribution and business models, our business model was the same early on… He jumped into clothes, I jumped into a magazine. He got a little bit of Russell (Simmons) in him. As a matter of fact, we all got a little Russell in us. I watched Krush Groove, that was my blueprint.”
According to JT, the biggest difference between Jay-Z’s hustle and his own is, “I press all my shit up myself.” While Jay-Z gets a percentage of Roc-A-Fella releases as an executive producer, “I got 100% executive credit for the whole 20 years of my career,” he notes.
Ultimately, Jay-Z will be remembered as perhaps the most corporate-savvy rapper of all time, while JT’s legacy stands as one of the most successful independent hip-hop hustlers ever. As a producer, rapper, label owner and entrepreneur, JT has put out well over 100 albums, including 15 solo records, and has produced and directed 20 movie projects, making him one of the most prolific indie tycoons to ever touch the rap game.
Just as important, if not more, to him is the fact he’s also established a solid track record of community service. “It’s bigger than rap. [There’s a lot of] people rapping, but what about tangible results?,” he ponders.
“Fuck going platinum all the time and then you ain’t helping nobody, when you know you can help a whole city,” he says rather bluntly, adding, “I’m for the people. My biggest dream is for the hood to go platinum, be self-sufficient, so the hood could actually eat.”
In 1997, JT says he and Snoop were instructed by Minister Farrakhan to share their knowledge with the people. Ten years later, that vision came to life, he says, with the 2007 DVD project “Mandatory Business.” JT claims he also helped to put together the original blueprint for what would become Black Wall Street in 2001, and in 2003, he helped bring an end to a violent turf war which had divided his Fillmore neighborhood. Two years later, at the Bay Area Rap Awards, he negotiated another truce, between two Hunters Point factions—Harbor Road and West Point--which had been fighting a bloody battle for eight long years.
As JT says, “I brought out those two groups and Allah blessed us in his name. The war got stopped. Anybody that got killed after that, it was personal business.”
One could argue all day about whether West Coast rap artists in general and Bay Area groups in particular have ever truly gotten a fair shake in the music industry, and whether anyone not from New York could ever attain the status Jay-Z has on a corporate level. One could also point out that with the industry’s precipitous decline in recent years, it makes more sense now than ever to be independent. But one cannot dispute that JT the Bigga Figga has been a pioneer of the independent hip-hop movement and a driving force for economic self-reliance and entrepreneurship in the black community. He started grindin’ in 1992 and hasn’t looked back since. To this day, game still recognize game.
-Eric K. Arnold