The first name most people think about whenever the conversation turns to rap and hip-hop in Nashville is Young Buck.
But someone whose national recognition and buzz factor has grown dramatically over the past three years is the verbally fierce, business smart individual known as All Star. His rise not only speaks volumes about the city’s busy, continually emerging (if often under-publicized) hip-hop community, it’s also a model for how to succeed as a performer in today’s splintered music business universe.
“I started out putting my music straight to the street,” All Star said. “I used mixtapes as a vehicle, but I packaged them like albums. The displays were creative, the music was diverse and it was a way to get the music directly in the hands of the fans without having to deal with all the other layers out there.”
Mixtapes are discs made by area rappers and DJs that usually (but not always) feature the performer rapping over instrumental tracks from a major label performer’s recording.
While there are some murky areas involving these discs — notably issues regarding music clearances and the legality of selling items often bearing a “promotional use only” imprint — they remain a key way for new rappers to build a fan base and develop a reputation.
All Star quickly established himself in the competitive mixtape market, selling them at everything from basketball games to clubs and house parties. He not only earned the nickname “Cashville’s Prince” for his aggressive style and business acumen, but he began getting national attention. His narratives had a stark, aggressive flow and gritty sound, while also often being quite vivid and detailed in their outlook and appraisal of what life was like for young black men in the 21st century.
The next major step came with the underground single “Grey Goose” in 2005. A collaboration with Young Jeezy and Yo Gotti, it blew up regionally and led to All Star being signed to Yo Gotti’s Inevitable Entertainment imprint and subsequently securing a deal with Cash Money records.
Since that time he’s been featured on singles with Birdman and Lil’ Wayne, had his own double-disc release Starlito’s Way 2, which he calls “my best work to date,” and recently issued a straight to the Internet mixtape The $.Lito files (the lost sessions), which people can download free by simply going to his Web site at grindhardonline.com.
The Web site includes clips of recent videos such as “Pop Bottles” which pairs him with Birdman as well as links to his MySpace and You Tube sites. Fans can order merchandise, get updated information on appearances, get past releases and track his artistic progress.
“I got 7,000 downloads in four days once I put this up,” All Star said. “It enables me to keep pushing the envelope stylistically, and keep something in the mixtape and regional markets. I’m also doing some things with retail, but the Internet and the street are the primary ways of getting the music to the people. I’ve heard from people ranging from Hawaii to Germany, and also using both Myspace and Facebook, you keep control over your image and your music, but you also maintain contact with your fans and audience directly.”
Eventually All Stars want to use the Internet to establish a multi-media enterprise, he said.
“For me, this is really about a lot more than just making some discs and getting my name out. It’s about entrepreneurship and empowerment, being able to hire people as part of my street team and get them involved in marketing and publicity, showing them how to get a foothold in the business and having a positive impact in the community.
“My raps have tended to be very much directed toward the street, because that’s a reflection of the things I’ve seen and my background, but my vision extends far beyond what’s in the music. It’s truly about self-help and uplift, the kind of things that Dr. King talked about in the latter stages of his life, and others that have followed in his footsteps since then.”
He’s also very much interested in education, and plans to establish a scholarship fund soon for aspiring rappers interested in formally learning about the music industry.
Besides eventually planning to go back to college and earn a degree, All Star’s been active in voter registration drives teaming with City Council member Lonnell Matthews, Jr. (who also assisted him at one time in a managerial capacity), and feels that while an artist’s music doesn’t necessarily need to be overtly political, their community involvement and awareness should never be compromised solely for record sales.
Meanwhile, among many other upcoming plans and projects, the biggest item on his agenda involves teaming with Young Buck on a new CD later this summer titled Starbucks.
“Young Buck, in my book, has been the man in terms of rap in Nashville, someone that all of us should pay great respect to and admire for what’s he’s done nationally,” All Star said. “It’s a big thing and major coup for me to team with him on a project, and it’s going to be something that we think will take Nashville rap to the next level.”
As to the hip-hop community in Nashville, All Star said he’s very upbeat and positive.
“I think we all need to concentrate more on the craft, and keep making progress,” he said. “I’ve never looked at myself as just a recording artist, but as someone involved in an enterprise that can benefit a community. I think that’s what rap has done at its best, and that what’s it can continue to do when artists think about many other things besides just what might sell some CDs.”