Demetrius Walker founded dN|Be Apparel with six friends from college in 2005. The company's shirts, featuring messages of black empowerment, became popular with hip-hop fans and have been worn by musicians such as Common and Wyclef Jean. They also drew the attention of Rhymefest, who won a Grammy for co-writing Kanye West's hit "Jesus Walks." After leaving his record label in 2009, the rapper approached Walker and his co-founders about starting their own music venture.
One of my business partners, Gary Mavindidze, met Rhymefest in late 2007. He was performing at a club in Indianapolis. Rhymefest noticed Gary wearing one of our T-shirts. At the time, he was on tour, and Gary let him know that we could get him some of our shirts to wear. After that, we built a rapport with him. We knew he was unhappy with his label situation. One day, he said, "Man, it would be great if we just did this all on our own." We raised $80,000 from our personal accounts and our friends and family, and in June 2009, we officially launched dN|Be Entertainment.
All of us are avid hip-hop fans, so it was a natural progression. My dad ran in the same circles as DJ Kool Herc and spun records with him. My uncle's best friend used to cut hair out of his house, and when I got my hair cut, EPMD or Slick Rick might be there. Hip-hop has been infused in me since birth.
It was a major learning curve. There's a lot that goes into producing a record, mastering it, engineering it, and mixing it so that it's ready to be put on an album. Plus, major record labels have million-dollar budgets, while we were on a shoestring budget. But Rhymefest has been in the industry for a while, so he has a lot of contacts. We did a lot of grass-roots marketing and viral video. We were able to get distribution through EMI, which works with all the major labels, so that was a big plus.
I was surprised at how challenging it is to get on the radio. I thought it was just a matter of a DJ liking a song, coming to the station, and playing it. It's not an organic process at all. Being a new player in the industry is difficult, even though we have an established artist. We were able to get satellite radio airplay, but it was very limited, even within Chicago, Rhymefest's hometown. But we're not too disappointed, because many of our followers rarely turn on the radio. They hit YouTube and the hip-hop blogs, where we got a lot of love.
The great thing was that we had figured out how to be really efficient. Three partners and I handled the entertainment venture, and our other partners focused on the apparel venture. We didn't skip a beat. If anything, the apparel business became stronger. People who knew about Rhymefest but didn't know about dN|Be Apparel now are getting both.
We know how difficult it is for independent albums to sell, so we just wanted to make our money back, and we have. We've sold 15,000 records. There were fans who weren't able to get their hands on a physical copy, because our shipment was limited, so we probably missed out on some sales. If we put out another record, I'm sure we would do three to four times better, based on everything that we've learned.
Rhymefest recently ran for alderman in Chicago and lost by just a few hundred votes, so we haven't started work on another project yet. There are other hip-hop artists we know well who've voiced some interest in working with us. We're also considering doing a film project. There are so many perspectives that haven't been taken into account in the world of black film.
To work with somebody we looked up to so much was a dream of ours. Never in a million years would I have thought that we were going to put out a Rhymefest album. But when you stay dedicated to your mission, the right opportunities will come to you.
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