Ten Rules to Success in the Modern Rap Industry

With much respect to Eminem and NWA, aspiring artists sometimes watch movies like 8 Mile and Straight Outta Compton’ and automatically presume launching a Hip Hop career works the same way they see in these films. Here at Studio 11, we meet and work with a lot of unsigned, aspiring rappers on an everyday basis. Because Hip Hop and Rap are a multi-billion dollar industry, one of the most frequent questions we get asked here in the studio is what should the artist do with their music in order to have the best chance of launching a successful career. 90% of the work we do in the studio is related to the hip hop industry, so we get asked these questions pretty frequently. Luckily, in the 20 years Studio 11 has been in existence, we have encountered plenty of A&R’s, big name artists, executives, and music producers who have made a heavy mark for themselves inside the industry.

So the following suggestions come from our years of experience and association within this industry with artists like Chief Keef, Crucial Conflict, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, R Kelly, Twista and the managers and producers who have worked with them as well. When rappers aspire to get promoted on various Hip Hop/Rap blogs and sites, these are the people they basically hope to excite and work with. So to help answer these questions, we put together this list that focus’s on advice that can potentially help you get your stuff online as well as be an overall ‘how to’ guide to obtaining success as an independent artist.

Remember, this advice doesn’t necessarily guarantee success in getting into the industry. But between our experience and associations in the industry, we have personally seen what it takes for artists to go from having zero success to having that ‘Kanye West’ success. For what its worth, I used to wash cars at a Toyota Dealership before getting involved with audio engineering and production in the music industry. I had to make the hard decision between keeping the same job which paid me, or to quit and pursue my passion by starting as an unpaid intern with a major production studio in Chicago. For me as well as the rest of the Studio 11 staff, its easy for us to relate to the aspiring artist’s and rappers out there selling cd’s out of their trunk in pursuit of their dreams. From what we learned, advice from the major industry players you hope to someday work with, along with intelligent planning, muscle and a dash of luck, is the one of the best remedies to start a blossoming career.

Rule 1: Research, Research, Research

“In the current atmosphere of the music business, making the evolution from your grandmother’s basement to the world wide stage can be extremely difficult. Taking a chance on an artist, especially a rapper without any buzz or traction is something most record labels generally don’t do anymore, especially for male artists or rappers. When we say buzz, we mean attributable data about you or your brand. The data we are talking about can be summed up in the fashion of trackable Broadcast Data Systems (BDS), media based radio plays, huge hype on a mix tape or album (thousands of online digital sales, blogs or reviews and acclaim from credible publications), online presence on important music websites, significant Music Video streams on Youtube, endorsements from outside entities or noteworthy artists, etc.

Many aspiring artists and rappers wonder how this specific criteria can be accomplished when other artists or ‘competition’ has the funding, business contacts, and managers. In order to get signed or become a successful independent artist like ‘Chance The Rapper’ takes a well orchestrated and thorough plan.

Rule 2: What You Got and How You Use It

“Make sure you have a job: There is a good chance that you will not make much or any money as you get started working on your life’s passion. For many, this can induce a stressful state of being and really disrupt your creativity, especially if you are just scraping by and living day to day. Find work that will allow you to pay your bills and put food in your fridge, that is until your purposeful hobby blossoms into a ‘paying occupation.”

“Determination: This is the attribute that will keep you moving in a positive direction as apprehension sets in, as you reach those ‘going nowhere’ times when absolutely nothing happens or even when you are making progress.

“Artistry: It all starts with the ability to stand out from the rest of the pack. Even if you discover you are heading in a direction that other aspiring artists are pursuing (producing, rapping, singing), you should find your own little pocket or niche that will help you stand out from your peers and completely set you apart.

“The Resources: Learn how to make a little bit go a long way. You can essentially do almost as much with a couple people as you can with many, especially if it’s all you have to go with. Remember Nas’s saying “All I Need is One Mic”. To sum p this analogy, he essentially means that with this one simple tiny thing (the mic), he has the power to do a lot and potentially change the world because he is going to use it (the mic) for everything he can get out of it. Learning to prioritize and work in the smartest most productive manner with the barest of what you need will force you into a habit of always making the best of what you have.

“Game Plan: Once you’ve developed a cohesive and reliable system with what you have going, then it becomes important to exploit the little you have with an approach that is strategic. Make the smallest steps count towards the much bigger steps.

“Foresight: Have a coherent (and realistic) blueprint of where you want to be as well as what you think it will take to get you there. Understand that 99.9% of the time, success will not happen overnight. Through trial and error, it will take you time as you develop the proper pace and rhythm, which will ultimately tighten up your strategy and reveal the artist you were meant to be. Don’t be afraid to try things!

Rule 3: Be the Best Artist You Can Be

“The one main thing new recording artists forget these days is that it’s all about the music. It really is the most important thing.The recording artist will not get very far if their song or music doesn’t immediately resonate with an audience you do not personally know. Just like Crystal Pepsi, if your product sucks, you just aren’t going to get anywhere with it. Count on your friends and family for support, but try to keep their opinions to the side (unless your friend or family is in the music business). Always take into account how people you do not know react when hearing your music, especially people who are more likely to enjoy your music than not. That is the best gauge.

Now, if you wanna get that mojo going, produce or find the best beats/instrumentals that not only define your artistic vision, but allow you to write indisputable commercial hits. And more importantly, keep writing and writing and writing. The rule is, the more songs you write for a given project, the more opportunities there will be to produce a big commercial hit or multiple commercial hits. Take your time and make sure your words are well written and rehearsed. The flow and energy of the words you deliver is whats really gonna sell the song. Ya, this might not sound that easy, but remember, if it was easy, everyone would be a multi platinum selling recording artist. It takes hours and hours of ungrateful, taxing work, integrated with heartbreaking repudiation and soul searching to become a commercial success as a recording artist.

Rule 4: Multi-task It

The main thing to lock into your head as a recording artist is that it all falls on you, regardless if you’re independent or signed to a record label, whether big or small. It’s important to have a team assembled around you that can undertake multiple responsibilities as well as understanding their specific role in the team. If record labels are looking to sign you, make sure you choose the label that not only understands you and your brand, but also knows how to expand on it in a way that’s positive for your artistic identity and vision. Its also important to build up your relationships with people within the industry, whether they are record label exec’s, to radio and club djs, venue owners and promoters, and podcaster’s and music reporters. Be consistent and persistent, but not overbearing. More importantly, just like we said in ‘Rule 3’, you gotta have an amazing product and the dedication to be great.

Rule 5: The Edge of Independence

Without trying to crap on major labels, learn to enjoy and take full advantage of your independence. The more buzz, money and notoriety you can manufacture independently, the more you will be able to bargain and negotiate a better deal for yourself when labels approach you. Remember, it is better for the record label to be at your mercy than for you to be at the mercy of the label. The only way to create this kind of environment to negotiate from is by being the best independent artist you can be. Its all about putting yourself in a position of undeniable strength when the time comes to deal with record labels. What opens up a contract is when the label understands that you don’t necessarily need them to be ultra successful.

Rule 6: Developing a Winning Brand

There are no universal guarantees in the rules or advice given to ambitious young recording artists who desire to get out of their family’s house and make it as a professional in the industry. However, there are multi steps one can take to help solidify their chances of having future success. If you make music and don’t do anything with it, how can one expect and ensure success? These basic steps consist of but certainly aren’t limited to: obtaining a team of people with the expertise who believe whole-heartedly in your vision and music, coming up with an image as an artist that brands who you are and your music properly, and developing a product that is undeniable in its ability to sell itself.

Rule 7: Speak Softly But Carry a Big Stick

In order for the opportunity of getting out of your parents house to work for an artist, many things need to occur as well as a little dash of luck. Its important that the recording artist keeps and maintains a realistically good head on their shoulders. You won’t make it very far if you have a bloated opinion of oneself or of the whole approach. Be unpretentious, don’t follow others or industry trends just cause, and most importantly be yourself. When you work really hard for yourself, generally, the results will speak for themselves. Finally, don’t spam or consistently agitate people who you are trying to sell yourself and your music to. This can push people away. Give them the bread, but allow them to decide if and when they wanna take that first bite.

Rule 8: See Me, Hear Me, Know Me

The last 10 years have seen a trend in the concept of needing an online presence to obtain success. While an online presence is certainly needed to build your career, it definitely has its pro’s and con’s. Many artists like to promote their music by sending out links to potential fans via social networks such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The problem is many of these people consider this spam because of the callous or unmotivating approach of the promotion.

The real world truth is its all about developing a proactive balance between an online and physical presence. The internet is a vital thing to a recording artist’s success, but networking, performing and physically promoting are uniformly important to building the fan base. Remember, back in the day, people didn’t have the internet to promote their music. They had their music and the trunk of their car to sell and promote it out of. Not only did this help create some of the most successful recording artists in the world, but it helped spawn and promote new genres of music and sound which are at the forefront of trends today.

Rule 9: The Wolf of Wallstreet

One of the biggest mental misconceptions recording artists have is the belief people owe them something because they made and released a song. Just because you a made a song or songs and are able to perform them doesn’t obligate a venue to pay you for your time. In order to facilitate paid bookings, the recording artist must be able to sell tickets and or bring heads (audience) which in turn helps generate additional revenue for the venue or company from the beverages, food and other products they sell within the confines.

The business of music is really a business. Its crucial that the recording artist invest in themselves and their business until a healthy revenue starts making its way back into their pockets. There are more ways to invest than just money. Time is an investment. Emotions are and investment. Persistence and devotion are investments too. If you are not receiving revenue from performing or being featured on other artists music, then it is quite evident you have not taken the time to truly invest in yourself. Going the independent route in the beginning is a smart way to go because it can be done a small budget, but it is still some kind of budget regardless of how big or small it is. Until the artist recognizes this and wisely invests in their business, the whole thing is just a hobby which doesn’t generate revenue.

The opposite of this philosophy is that if the final goal is to achieve a major record deal, it is imperative that the recording artist invests the correct sum of money to ensure that their ‘business of music’ becomes a success. Usually this means investing hundreds of thousands of dollars. That money doesn’t fall from the sky, though it would be nice. It happens as a result of laser focus and dedication on the continuous growth and development of their business. If a recording artist should expect large returns to be generated by their music business, which is what record labels look for in potential artists, then they must invest heavily and wisely in themselves. 

Overall, the artist must understand that both directions (independent vs label) cost time, money and of course a whole lot of effort and unbelievable talent. But realize, in 2017, you don’t necessarily need the major label like you did 10-20 years ago. There are many more avenues available to the independent artist which can generate sufficient revenue by simply investing in your independent ‘music business’ until the cash starts to flow. Chance The Rapper is amazing example. But remember, he didn’t get to where he is now by slackin. He got there because of the 100% belief he had in his music business by investing everything he could into it.

Rule 10: Cultivating and Preserving Consistency

Lastly, one of the most important things a recording artist needs to maintain in today’s music market is visibility. At the end of the day, if you’re producing the best music the world could ever hear and nobody actually hears it, what is the point? So you gotta be out there, be visible, heard and seen, touched, even smelled if you catch my drift. Get out there and perform as much as you can, wherever you can. Learn how to be hated, learn how to be appreciated. Learn what works and what doesn’t. You gotta make it air tight. The more you perform, the more you master the craft of live performance. Many artists have defined their careers through their live performance. Record your performances and show them on sites like Youtube and Vimeo. These websites have helped create many recognizable names in the industry, so definitely have your stuff uploaded and available links to share.

Its also important to give music away for free. There are so many out there who are also trying to make it as a recording artist in the industry that its important to do things that allow people to become fans without them initially investing in you. Like we said earlier, social networking has become an important avenue for promotion. You gotta be up on all the sites, Facebook, Twitter, etc, reaching out to people from all walks of life. The key to these sites is understanding the best mechanisms to reach potential fans. A lot of times it revolves around the things you post on your page, the creativity behind these posts, and the specific goal in mind to each post. Don’t think of it as a thing where you can reach people with your music, think of it as a thing where it can help tell your story. Remember, all people like a good story. And when people like a good story they are gonna care about everything attributed to it such as the music, content, and products, as well as help spread the word and promote it. At the end, this results in revenue for your music business and when record labels see that people care about you, they are going to want to care about you too.

Meet JXL – The Future of the Chicago Progressive Rap Movement

Studio 11 is proud to announce Chicago artist JXL’s latest album, Document 37. Undoubtedly, JXL is one of Studio 11’s flagship talents in the hip-hop arena. For achieving JXL’s crisp, sexy sonic vision, Document 37 was completed entirely with Studio 11’s expert engineer, Kris Anderson, using gear from Digidesign, Audio Technica, Waves, Manley, and White Lines Audio. JXL’s Document 37 has been grossing since its May 1st release.

Document 37

JXL has separated himself as one of the fastest rappers and freestylers in the city, a feat which he credits to his teenage appreciation of Tech N9ne’s clear annunciation of fast rap. Amazingly, JXL has been mastering his craft since the early age of 11. Music has always been his medicine. Today, as a full time rapper, JXL attributes his vast, spontaneous vocabulary to an “inter-dimensional realm” within his head. Document 37’s ninth track, Eat Sleep Rap, solidifies rapping as JXL’s religion. Positively, Document 37, demonstrates JXL’s veteran status as a hip-hop artist.

With an in-your-face, rebellious chorus, one of the hardest hitting JXL singles from Document 37 is track one, “Fuck Retail.” The energy of the lively single immediately called for a supplementary music video! Like all audiovisual projects from JXL, the “Fuck Retail” video is one a kind – a truly classic addition to the JXL media repertoire. If you’re tired of your day job, JXL may have a word of advice – witness his furious music video here:

The eighteen tracks featured on Document 37 showcase JXL’s nasty, wickedly witty, speedy rapping and explicit critiques of modern society. Identifying as a progressive rapper, JXL refuses to adhere with any hip-hop “rules” or “norms,” or the notion of “real hip-hop” itself. The classification equally entails an artistic duty to remain conscious of advancing society – in maintaining health, spirit, diversity, the environment, and above all, a rejection of any and all conservative values. In the day of 2016 hip-hop, saturated by destructive themes and the mainstream industry, consciousness is a trend valued by JXL.

All in all, we are proud to call JXL’s Document 37 an undeniable success. Not only is the eighteen-track collection musically effective, the exigency of the album reaches beyond the average hip-hop artist, seeking to wake society up! Undoubtedly, with Document 37, JXL is leading the charge for progressive rap. Check out JXL’s album – we know few listeners will be disappointed with his musicianship and pure skill…so check out Document 37 and experience the greatness!

After listening, continue to be on the look out for JXL in 2016. New installments of melody-driven, lyrical juiciness accompanied by vibrant visuals are not far away!

Check Out JXL on the Web:

JXL’s Document 37 is easily available on Amazon, iTunes, and BandCamp: https://jxlraps.bandcamp.com/releases

Follow the great JXL on Twitter & Instagram: @jxlrap

The official JXL Website: jxlrap.com



Please visit our latest FMA blog for complete coverage of the term Chi-Raq, originally implemented by the Dollar Boyz recording at Studio 11 in 2005 “Welcome To Chi-Raq). We caught up with rapper Greazzy for an interview to reflect on the 10 year old recording. The album, as well as Volumes 2 & 3 will be available for free download in the archive.


The Gradur Sessions. The Art Of Recording French Rap.

On August 25th, the young and talented Millenium Barclay / Universal Music France signed rapper ‘Gradur’ arrived at Studio 11 to begin work on his new 13 song untitled mix tape. According to his manager, their reasons for choosing Studio 11 were quite simple. They wanted that “grimey” chicago drill/rap/trap sound and heard that we were the best place in Chicago at delivering. We also assisted them with meet greets, video locations, city tours, and other specialized amenities.


Gradur Studio 11

Gradur At Studio 11 Chicago

We were excited to meet and begin working with him, as our research discovered that he was on the verge of becoming the next big rap star out of France. His sound is very similar to some of the big name Chicago trap/drill rappers of the moment, but in our opinion, was a little more eclectic and artsy because of the beats Gradur and his management decided to use.

The vocal recording sessions occurred over a 7 day period of time primarily in Studio 11’s B room, although the A room was used occasionally for listening sessions with other producers such as C-Sick and Johnny May Cash (Young Chop’s brother).

Going in, we knew that the sessions should be fairly simple. Gradur would be rapping and singing over instrumental 2-tracks, which is a fairly common process used when recording rap based music in the studio today. In the B room, we decided to stick with the microphone we had already set up, the Audio Technica AT 4060. Gradur had a bigger, chestier sound, and we found the AT 4060 did a great job at preserving the detail and aggressive character of his voice. The AT 4060 signal was then routed into our Manley Voxbox for amplification into Pro Tools. Some additional equalization and compression was added to his voice on the Voxbox to add additional clarity and depth.

Since Gradur enjoyed a big sound to his voice, it was decided that doubling all verses and tripling all hooks would be the best way to produce his raps. Two “in out or embellishment” tracks were also added for each verse to help add additional expression to key words and phrases. These tracks were then panned 50% left and right. An occasional “adlib or atmosphere” track was added to the verses as well, but was not used in every song. The occasional in out track was added to the hooks as well, though we found not every song needed one.

The hardest thing going in our sessions with Gradur, was our English/French language barrier. Our engineer Kris was not too fluent with the French language as Gradur wasn’t with the English language. Some simple hand signs and gestures were invented to help speed along the lines of communication during the sessions, and by the end of the week, communication was no longer an issue.

Once all recording was done for a song, the vocals were then mixed in with its corresponding instrumental using plugins like the Sony Oxford GML EQ and Waves REQ for equalization. For all dynamic processing, (compression, de-essing, expansion) we used the Waves RAxe, RCompressor, RDeesser, RVox. For effects like chorus and reverb we used Digidesign’s Short Delay and Reverb One, Waves Metaflanger, and the Sonnox Oxford Reverb. For special effects like delay, distortion and filtering, we used the Digidesign Delay, DFi and EQ series as well as the Waves Metaflanger, Multi-tap and H Delay. We used Antares Autotune for all auto tuning. Additional post production tricks were then added such as beat cutting, stutter edits, record stops, and instrumental manipulation. Each final mix was then routed into the Waves C4 multiband compressor/expander to glue the instrumental and vocals together a little better, and then routed into the Waves L3 for maximization to match current industry standard RMS models.

On the final day of recording the last few bounces were made and files transferred. We all said our goodbyes. Hand shakes, bad jokes, and smiles filled the room and photos were taken. We all knew that this would not be the last time working with each other as over the course of 7 days, good friendships and business relationships were definitely made.

Overall, the Gradur recording sessions went extremely well. Gradur and his management originally planned to record only 9 songs, but because of our effectiveness at keeping recording sessions moving along quickly and productively, they were able to actually record 13 songs. This of course, is how we like to do things here at Studio 11. Keep it fun, keep it productive, keep it professional, and most importantly, keep it simple.


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