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Michigan's Mixtape King, DJ Graffiti, talks business and Blackness

Posted Jul 30 2008

Michigan’s DJ Graffiti has his hand in so many pots that it’s hard to describe his contributions to the Michigan’s music scene in one interview. As a DJ, marketing and promotions guy, and a graduate of the University of Michigan’s Law School and Business School, he’s been able to successfully earn respect at both the corporate and street level. As a DJ, he’s shared the stage with numerous stars, put out several mix CDs, and performed in countless venues. As corporate America continues to strengthen its hold on hip hop, Graffiti, known in these circle as Martin Smith, has used his marketing ventures to ensure that the hip hop community maintains some control of this multi-billion dollar business. Over the years Graffiti and I have become good friends, so if you’re wondering about bias, yes, it’s here. Then again, like many other people whose work that I respect, we’ve become friends because we connect at a personal level. Incidentally, I kind blew him off when he first introduced himself to me in the late ‘90s when I was DJing a function at the University of Michigan’s Trotter House. It wasn’t personal, I was just burnt out on hip hop, DJing, and Michigan in general. However, we did stay in touch and from time to time we still share equipment or collaborate on other projects and often get into long discussions about life and music. This go around I was passing through Ann Arbor and was able to catch him while he was preparing for a gig that night at the Blind Pig.

First off, what exactly are your affiliations?
Besides DJing, I own Rapture Enterprises,
which is a marketing firm, and I’m a partner in A-Side Worldwide, which is a management company. It includes a marketing component, of which I’m the Vice President. There are eight partners and all of the others recently relocated to Los Angeles. That makes it more difficult to communicate since they’re not immediately here, but of course we have a strong foothold in another major city and that expands the business opportunities.

Can you discuss Rapture Enterprises a bit more in terms of employees, clients, etc?

We specialize in marketing to the hip-hop generation and those touched by hip-hop music. The product or event may or may not have anything specially to do with music itself. We work with a lot of independent contractors but there are four or five core people who work with Rapture Enterprises at least once a month. We basically do anything related to marketing and promotions or have connections to people who can get the job done. Our clients include Rockstar Games, Atari, Scion, Microsoft, MTV, Clear Channel, T Mobile, and Sony.

How did Rockstar Games/Addidas tour go for you?
There were three legs and I managed the Midwest tour. We started in New York, did Jersey, Philly and made our way back here.  We hit college towns mostly, doing things like demonstrations of the games. I didn’t do any DJing at all.

How have your law and business degrees helped you in your career?

The main thing that I do is marketing. I’m always using things I learned in school such as research techniques for campaigns. When it comes to the law school degree, it’s used a lot less often. It’s more of a way of thinking, rather than exact textbook lessons unless I’m doing contract or copyright stuff.

What do you mean by “a way of thinking?”

When going to law school, you don’t really learn the law, you learn how to think like a lawyer. Honestly, it makes a lot of people angry to talk to lawyers. As one example, if we’re having a discussion, I can see that you have a valid point and I accept it, but I also have a valid point and I want you to see that. The average person just wants to win and be right. I’m looking to validate both points and you need to disprove my point, not just prove yours. The main way that it works in a positive way, although the other way is positive because I see multiple perspectives, is that I look for how things can work out for everyone and the best possible option for everybody. In a court case, your lawyer is supposed to take what you want to get out of it and see what’s the most they can get, yet keep the other side happy as well. The happier they are, the more they give you. You want everyone to walk away satisfied. You may have to give up some things that in the larger scheme of things are less important than what you gain.

How have you been able to balance these different worlds, in particular, having the credibility in the business world to get major corporate accounts, yet still maintaining respect from “the streets?”

I just feel that I am the balance. I don’t do anything special. I grew up with a love for the music and the culture so there are some things I’m not willing to do or sell, just to make corporate gains.

Due to your degrees and such, has there been any resistance from artists or any…

Not really. I’m a blunt, honest person in what I’m trying to do. Rather than you being surprised down the road, if I’m doing something for money, I’ll tell you upfront, like “let’s all make some money.” I’m not trying to hide stuff. If I’m taking out 30%, I’ll tell you upfront. There are no surprises. As long as I don’t do anyone dirty, people know me for who I am. There might be some resistance that I don’t see. Maybe some people just don’t come to me because they feel that I’m too corporate.

Do you feel that you get taken less seriously on the corporate side since you also DJ on a regular basis?

I send in proposals all the time that get turned down, but I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s bias, or they just prefer other firms. I don’t necessarily feel tension as I present myself in a professional way and show what I’ve done. Things may happen behind the scenes, but nothing that I’m aware of.

I know you’ve done some work with Clear Channel but since you’re also heavily involved with the underground hip hop scene, has that caused tension? (Clear Channel is often the target of activists concerned about major corporations controlling music and the arts)
No one’s ever said anything. At the end of the day, people want to do what they love and get compensated for it. I mean, if I’m an activist and Clear Channel offers me a major outlet to get my message out, more than likely I’d do it. There’s a small percentage who wouldn’t do it because it’s a major corporation, but most people, even when they’ve been uncomfortable, they’ve done it. Like all these artists going on national tours, they’re connected to some corporation. Having said that, I’m not in the boardroom, I do marketing and I have an outlet to promote many of these artists. All Clear Channel cares about is the dollars. I have a certain audience that I’m good at marketing to and they call me when they want me to promote a certain show. Any company that contacts me, whether that’s a non-profit or a monstrous company, there’s a market they want to reach. Usually they’re promoting something that this market is interested in.

People in hip hop don’t want outside influences promoting to them, forcing something down their throat. They want to hear from someone they can relate to and trust. This is where my personal integrity comes in because my reputation is on the line. What I mean is, I don’t promote Clear Channel directly, but a show they’re doing with an artist that I respect and am a fan of. I don’t take on projects of something I hate. Whether or not I agree with all of Clear Channel’s practices doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re good at spreading the word. If you’re Boots Riley from The Coup and you want that exposure, not many are giving you more than Clear Channel. You have to pick your battles.

Have you ever turned down any projects?

Yes, definitely. I’ve turned down projects I didn’t think fit the hip hop community, but usually it’s because they want me to do a lot for nothing. The positive thing I’ve found is that when people usually want to me to do something for very little, it’s usually something I don’t want to push anyway. Luckily it often works that way. Like, there are many labels that want me to push the hottest artist out, whose music I often don’t agree with, so I pass.

Comments

1. Roman said at July 30, 2008 6:24 pm:

That was a A+ interview. It deserves to be in a magazine, people need to know more about people like Graffiti.

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