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.
[Laughs.] That’s the key market these days, the hipster market. I hear that too often.
It is what it is. I’m not a specific type of artist. Once I release a full project, I’ll hit different markets and different types of people with different music. Everyone always judges you on that first single. You get thrown into a box and it makes it harder to get co-signed. People compare you and say, “Oh, you look like Wiz and Tyga, so I’m going to base your whole career off Wiz and Tyga.”
Comparisons to Wiz and to Tyga is definitely something you've gotten a lot. I guess because you’re all tall, light skinned, and have a lot of tattoos.
But when you listen to the music everyone is completely different. We all have similarities in our lifestyles, but when it comes down to personality, everyone’s different.
The funny thing about it, your single "Iz U Down" actually has Tyga on it.
Yeah, man. I think when people hear us on the same record, it helps give people a little more understanding. Me and him have never done a video together and that’s going to be something to make it even better. Same thing when I did the video with Chris Brown, it separated the, “You look exactly like Chris Brown” thing. When we sitting next to each other, people don’t make the joke as much. I don’t know if they’re scared to make the joke or you can really see the difference when people are next to each other.
People compare you and say, “Oh, you look like Wiz and Tyga, so I’m going to base your whole career off Wiz and Tyga.”
How did the Tyga collaboration come together?
We already had a cool relationship. We booked the same studio, so he was in the other room. I had a record that I was just cranking to and we were going through it like, ‘Who would be a dope feature to make single worthy?’ It was like, ‘Yo, Tyga’s next door. You want to run by and play it for him?’ Went next door, played him the record, and it was easy money.
Was that a conscience decision like, ‘People always say I look like Tyga, well, I’m going to do a song with Tyga.’ Were you trying to stepping into the criticism instead of shying away from it?
That’s definitely a mind frame when I went into the decision. Like I can have his fans gravitate towards me and understand [I’m different] from him but they can like us both.
Did you guys ever talk about looking alike?
We brought it up once or twice or made the jokes and talked about the different instances where people called us one or the other person. I mean everybody laughs it off and thinks it’s funny. Even with the Chris Brown thing, we joked about it once. Nobody talks about it around us, everyone acts awkward about it. It’s always just a behind the back joke to be funny.
You also have three songs with DJ Mustard on the album. How did you hook up with Mustard?
I knew him from being in L.A. before he was a producer. When he started producing, I reached out and built a relationship with him. Me, Mustard, and Tyga usually book the same studios, so we’re always in the studio at the same time. I’d run over to his session and grab beats and run back and give him ideas.
For the “Show Me” and “Main Chick,” I ended up bringing him in and going over the ideas. He brought Chris Brown in on both of those. With “Keep It Rolling” there was a zip of beats I had and I was like, “We have a cool vibe together, might as well try to throw another one out.” That was a surprise to him, he didn’t know he was going to get three on there.
I’ll definitely sit down and touch the record and not ask for production credit.
It’s dope to see Mustard grow. I see him on the regular. His girl hangs out with my girl, I see his son all the time. Aside from the music we have a relationship. Mustard will definitely be a big overall type of artist like Lil Jon or something in the future, where he’s making his own records.
Speaking of producers, you started out as a producer but aren’t credited for producing any songs on your album. But did you still have a hand in producing your album?
One hundred percent. I don’t think there’s one record that I don’t [produce on]. Once I get the track from the producers, I really sit down with it. I re-sequence the record, maybe take claps out here, add drums here, builds up here. I’ll definitely sit down and touch the record and not ask for production credit.
Of course, I would want the producer to be there while I’m doing it, I wouldn’t want to sneak behind their back and be like, ‘Yo, I got co-production on that.’ For me, it’s really about making sure everything is perfect. Until I’m actually ready to get back into making the beats, I got to make sure the record sound good.
So you plan to return to producing?
Of course, man. I feel like I just needed to focus a little bit more on Kid Ink as an artist, get my sound together and find my voice.