If you’ve walked through any major city in the past decade, chances are you’ve at least once overheard a voice on your commute saying, “Check out my music, fam.” Whether you consider them independent auteurs, hustlers, or just artists looking for a way to get their music out there, rappers taking to the streets with their CDs (or CD-Rs) have become something of the black sheep of local music scenes. Everyone knows they’re there, everyone encounters them, but life in the city has conditioned many to compartmentalize these interactions, with some even surprised they still exist.
Perhaps Times Square staple Squala Orphan sums it up best: “It’s at the point where CDs don’t sell no more, so a lot of people don’t understand it.”
It does at first seem peculiar to think about. While New York City is the birthplace of hip-hop, the five boroughs seemed to make it quite clear by 2010—after major music chains like Virgin Megastore and beloved indie outlets like Fat Beats closed their doors—that it no longer cared for physical media. Yet, despite there being fewer places to purchase CDs each year, plenty of aspiring rap artists seem to be picking up the trade, burning a stack of merchandise, and hitting the street to cold-call potential listeners in person.
before these seemingly trying times for the compact disc, the hand-to-hand hip-hop marketplace was a viable and even thriving lane of the indie rap grind.
But before these seemingly trying times for the compact disc, the hand-to-hand hip-hop marketplace was a viable and even thriving lane of the indie rap grind. Most point to veteran MC Percee-P as the pioneer, who would record his vinyl singles and frequent guest appearances (with everyone from Lord Finesse to Jurassic 5 to Aesop Rock) on to one cassette, and later CD, and sell them directly to rap fans outside Fat Beats and whichever hip-hop shows were in the area. This trailblazing made him a legitimate living legend, eventually landing him on the Stones Throw roster after relocating to Los Angeles.
While a handful attempted to follow suit, only a select few were able to carve out respectable niches and made encountering them rites of passage for aspiring hip-hoppers. In the early-to-mid-2000s, rap duo Lucky & Sdaerd condensed their hustle to the corner of West Fourth Street and Broadway in front of Tower Records, daily wearing a full suit and offering to perform excerpts of their albums for customers already in the market for music.
The most visible name of the past decade has been Creature. Originally one-third of Hydra Records’ the Triflicts in the ’90s, Creature thrived as a solo artist in the mid-aughts thanks to the perfect balance of pedigree and persistence. “In 2004,” Creature says of his first taking the streets to sell CDs, “that was kind of the leftovers I had coming off of tour. [My] money dwindled, and I thought I had to sell some CDs. I was down to $30-40, and I had 70 CDs on me. I took the CDs and thought, ‘I know how to do this.’”
By March 2005, Creature began selling his album Never Say Die (which featured Slug of Atmosphere, Jin of Ruff Ryders, and Busdriver) in front of Fat Beats as well as up and down Broadway during the day and at night at big music events. Soon, his visibility on the streets and endeavors on other people’s projects made him something of a living landmark and created a regular, profitable revenue. “People started putting it together. ‘You’re the same Creature from the MF Doom album. I heard you on Rob Sonic’s album.’ That made it easier.” But even then, the notoriety was a double-edged sword. “You get the reputation for ‘that guy.’ It’s a good reputation, and it’s another reputation for ‘Oh, here they come. No, I bought your album already. No, I’m not buying it.’”
In the years since, dozens of artists selling their CDs have continued to proliferate on the streets, many unknown, hoping for some exposure and/or quick monetary turnaround for their music. Some of the hustlers I spoke to even mentioned recalling Fetty Wap selling his music in a comparable way before blowing up.
But today the artists still selling CDs hand to hand aren’t just reluctant hangers-on of a bygone era as some interactions would suggest. Their relationship with the consumer doesn’t begin and end with the exchange of cash for a CD, but rather they see that as a first step in directly reaching a fanbase. I accompanied Brooklyn rap artist Sav Killz, who has been selling CDs between performances since 2008, as he promoted his new album, Immovable Kings. The album, which features Planet Asia, Duck Down’s Ruste Juxx, and Math Hoffa, has more star power than most CDs you’ll find sold on the street, and Sav’s charismatic profile has seen him sell copies to and from an interview with Peter Rosenberg on Hot 97.
“It’s all about the network and building relationships,” Sav says. “People see the long-term goal, and they know you’re not out here just to sell somebody a CD and rip somebody off. We’re legitimate artists. You meet investors, people who do business, people who do things you can learn from.” For Sav’s new album, while it’s available on iTunes, Amazon, and all major online music retailers, he still sees value in compact discs. “There’s the traditional people who still love CDs, or the people who just want to support because it’s local. You have to diversify.”
For Sav, a day of selling CDs takes him usually from Wall Street through Soho, and then sometimes up to Union Square and even Central Park, with the most success usually coming from the 23rd Street area. “I post for about 4-6 hours, move on an average like 15, maybe 25 CDs for a reasonable donation. We say $10, but if you want to give $7, or if you’re a real fan and want to support hip-hop, I’ll give it for $3.” Of course, not everyone is receptive to the pitch. “Don’t feed into the negativity. It builds you up. We get a lot of ‘No’s.’ It builds your character in the long run.”
One of the Times Square regulars, Squala Orphan, whose new album, RadicalEyez, features the Alchemist and Royce da 5’9”, says he’s even faced opposition from local law enforcement. “I got locked up three times in one week. I beat those cases, and it was dismissed. Last month they had a sweep and locked up 30 CD guys because one had a situation with a customer.” It’s the rare aggressive sellers like the one in 2009 who had a shootout with police who cause the stigma to persist. Last year, a group of Times Square CD hustlers even sued the NYPD over harassment.
But despite the adversity of both the sheer amount of sellers and those who respond antagonistically, Squala remains undeterred. “With Times Square being such an epicenter of people, with five CD sellers and 20,000 people walking by, I never had a problem with competition.” While Squala is looking into flashdrives, he’s adamant about sticking to the CD format. “OK, technology is changing, and CDs aren’t flying off the shelves like they used to. They also want something they can hold on to like a trinket that has sentimental value, something they bought in New York. I thought that the technology might vanquish us, but CDs are still selling, people are buying them.”
The hand-to-hand CD culture still thrives because of this, and the buyers aren’t just suckers from out of town. Celebrities are picking them up too, with the most frequent names coming up in my discussions being Slaughterhouse member Crooked I and Sex and the City actress Kim Cattrall. Whether they actually like the music, or want to support something local, or just want a souvenir, potential listeners are still being reached this way. “I feel if you don’t do shows or have any sort of resume, and nobody sees you at open mics or showcases, you’re out just to get a buck,” says Creature. “That was never my thing. Money definitely was important, but it was about an outlet to get my music out. I’m trying to build something with supporters who want to support me. That’s why when people want to talk about selling music now, I’m kinda like, ‘Oh man, I’ve done so much more than that.’ But, I understand that’s the vehicle.”