Nowadays, it feels like every time a new artist starts buzzing or a veteran artist leaves their label, there's a debate about whether or not that artist should go independent or sign to a major label. For example, Chance The Rapper was one of the breakout stars of 2013, but when Rolling Stone asked him if he wanted to sign to a major he said, "There's no reason to. It's a dead industry." Meanwhile, although there's been talk of Game signing to Cash Money now that his Interscope contract is up, industry heads like Charlamagne Tha God believe Game doesn't need a label.
After all, going independent—an increasingly easy route, thanks to technological innovation—seems to make more sense than signing one of the dreaded "360" deals that let a label eat so much of an artist's profits. It's easy to look at how successful independent artists like Mac Miller, Macklemore, and Tech N9ne have been and think everyone should follow suit. But in reality, one size rarely fits all.
Take L.A. rapper Kid ink for example. He's been putting out his own music for years. But despite the success he found upon releasing his 2012 album, Up & Away, independently—the album debuted at No. 20 on Billboard—he still made the decision to sign to RCA Records. This week, he released his major label debut album, My Own Lane, which currently sits as the No. 1 overall album on iTunes. We got on the horn with Ink, 27, to talk about why he went to a major label. We also talked about how people always say he looks like Wiz Khalifa and Tyga, how he teamed up with DJ Mustard, and if he'll ever go back to his roots as a producer...
You had an independent fanbase but then signed with a major label. Why did that move make sense to you?
I got independent radio spins before and it was good, but it was just a lot more work. There’s a lot of things you can’t do as an independent artist, you hit this ceiling. I can definitely feel the difference with the label and the markets I’m reaching now. They know different programs and applications coming out, stuff you can’t really keep [up with] when you’re trying to focus on music.
What specifically did the major labels make possible?
A lot of things I did with the radio was a lot of favors, I had to hit the streets. With the TV market being on the East Coast, it’s not as easy to go hit MTV, BET, and Fuse. It’s hard even if you have an appointment to walk in those offices. It’s like a higher level where you’ve got to step into the commercial zone. It’s really business over there. You can meet radio DJs at the club, but you can’t do that with TV personalities. The labels have a nice control over that.
With the TV market being on the East Coast, it’s not as easy to go hit MTV, BET, and Fuse. The labels have a nice control over that.
A lot of rappers these days, they’ll come out and they’ll get gain an independent fanbase. Then they’ll sign to a major and their single comes and people are like, "He’s trying to get on the radio, he’s trying be commercial." Whereas it seems like a commercial sound is your sound and always has been.
That’s why I say it was like a crutch. People were always like, "This sounds like a record that should be on the radio and this should be a mixtape song." People didn’t know how to look at me as an artist. That’s why I feel like I have to express it as far as my own lane and get it across. When I would make mixtapes I wasn’t making them to make mixtapes, I was making them to sound like an album.
When I sat in with Pharrell, at the beginning of the session he was asking me, "What do you do? What is your sound like? What is the vibe?" After doing two records he was like, "Oh, I get it now. From doing one record and and then doing another record, I can understand what your vibe." I feel like people will get it when they hear the whole album.
It’s kind of an insult for people to be like, "Yo, you’re trying to get on the radio, you’re trying to be a commercial artist." But you don’t shy away from that. That’s the thing that you are.
I blame it on being a producer and always feeling like I’m overthinking records and not being content with a mixtape sound. When you first start as a rapper you’re just thinking about your verses. Once you get on, the label gives you a hook. That’s when people usually say, “Oh, he got the radio hook. He just rapping.” But I was always the guy writing the hooks, even if somebody else was singing the hooks.
Right. And songs on the radio have that polish, they sound exactly the way they are supposed to. That’s not something I can say is true for a lot of mixtape rappers.
Right. And, I learned that early from hearing stuff from Timbaland or Dr. Dre. It’d be so polished for sounds that all you needed was the four drums and it’d be the best song ever. You could get a song with 30 sounds and if it’s not mixed right or if the claps are too loud it’ll throw it off and be annoying to the ear.
Speaking of commercial versus underground, what’s interesting is you’re from L.A. and L.A. has this vibrant scene now of a lot of young dudes like Odd Future. But those guys aren’t making radio songs, their music is more grungy and grimey. You’ve gone the opposite way.
It’s just me being me. I really respect those guys and their movement, but I couldn't go out and make an Odd Future record even if I wanted to because I don’t understand that vibe completely. I’m going in the direction of just always wanting to make bigger music. The people that inspired me were just always trying to make big music, the Pharrell's and Timbaland’s and Kanye’s. I set my standards high.
Hip-hop has always been about being big, being number one. But for some people it’s about being “cool.” But being cool, you sometimes end up being smaller, too.
Right. You set a bar I feel like. I could have done another independent year and did the same thing and probably got a little more money. Independent money is good, it’s not like I transferred to the major and started making a lot more money.
Independent money is good, it’s not like I transferred to the major and started making a lot more money. I could have done another year and done the same thing again, but [that means] I would have been content.
I could have done another year and done the same thing again, but [that means] I would have been content. I’m not somebody who’s not really content with setting this bar and be like, "Alright, I’m here and I can continue to do this and this is the regular day job." I’m always trying to do something bigger.
I set my competition high too. My peers that I try to compete with, I look at their things and I’m like, "They did this. I need to at least do this." Or do something better if I want to feel like I’m better than them. Not setting any bars anywhere, whether it be social stuff or music stuff. I always feel like if you want to be better than them or feel like you’re better, you should be doing more.
I feel like the hip-hop audience thinks that it’s better for an artist to go independent than be on a major. But for some artist it makes sense to stay independent and for others it makes sense to go major.
Exactly. I feel like for an artist like Mac Miller it works. But, we may not have the same goals as musicians and our audiences are different. I don’t just make music to feed to the same independent audience. I always had that fight being an independent artist that sounded like a commercial artist, that was the whole thing before I signed the deal. That was a crutch.
It’s harder to please the underground market. To start from there but sound like a commercial artist, of course people want to compare you to other people and say you’re trying to sound like this because you’re not starting from the bottom with your sound. I felt like it didn’t hit the hipsters as hard as it could have.