Nappy Roots bring Southern hip-hop to Agave in Avon on Saturday, Jan. 9
There are challenges and rewards that arise from severing ties with a major record label, but after a decade of independence, the Nappy Roots have managed to navigate the sometimes-turbulent waters of the music industry and stay afloat.
They’re celebrating the milestone with a new album, “The 40 Akerz Project,” fourth in a string of independent releases that followed the commercial success of their platinum-selling debut, “Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz,” in 2002 and their sophomore offering, “Wooden Leather,” in 2003, both on Atlantic Records.
“Because of that success, we were able to do a lot of things that most people coming from Kentucky or the South weren’t able to do at the time — sell that many records early on, Grammy nominations,” said the Nappy Roots’ Skinny Deville. “The accolades in our early career were kind of an awe-inspiring thing for us at the time.
“We got smart and decided that being an independent artist would be better for us because of the size of the group, having more of a say in our career path. In 2005, we got off Atlantic Records to go independent.”
Price of independence
Without the promo money from a major label to “throw at the wall” for new projects, Skinny said the Nappy Roots’ fame has dropped off a bit, but the group is cool with it because the tradeoffs are significant.
“We don’t have to tap dance,” he said. “When you’re on a major label, you have to appease your stuff to many different offices — you have a marketing department, A&R (artists and repertoire), finance — and you have to win all these people over to get to the next level of the game, which is coming out and selling a record.”
The process is grueling and can ostensibly take the music out of making music, with all of the “do this, do that” to sell the album or get radio play, he said.
“It’s going outside what you normally do as an artist: You’re creative, crafty and clever,” Skinny said, adding that since going independent, the group no longer has to mess with the mechanics. “We deal with the distribution company, none of this powwow of we need to make this thing a success. We have control of our budget and money; we’ll make our music through the grassroots way, hand to hand and fan to fan.”
Adapt to fan base
Word of mouth has been the Nappy Roots’ best asset, but in order to stay in the music-making game, you also have to adapt to the way consumers find and access your work. When their first independent album, “The Humdinger,” came out in 2008, featuring the single “Good Day,” CD sales were continuing a decline that had begun shortly after the group formed in 1995.
Skinny said the shift from compact disc to the digital arena was visible with “The Humdinger” and grew with the release of “The Pursuit of Nappyness” in 2010. Downloads and streaming were the new “flavor of the month,” he said, and the Nappy Roots were seeing nearly a 50/50 mix of CD sales and digital plays. The demographic of their fan base was also evolving.
“They aren’t buying music anymore,” he said of the “Nappy Heads” that supported the group in its early days. “They have families and bigger things going on than going to the store and buying CDs, or even listening to music. … You don’t have the disposable income you have when you’re a teenager when you’re 30-plus and sending kids to private school.”
The new crop of fans prefers to stream music, rather than purchasing physical albums, Skinny said, so it’s now important to have a presence on Internet stations such as Spotify and YouTube and also put a heavy focus on touring and selling merchandise and CDs on the road. Promoting the Nappy Roots through diverse outlets has become paramount.
“It’s not just selling CDs or digital media,” he said. “We have to look at all of those avenues and figure out how we can independently squeeze the juice out of each avenue.”
‘The 40 Akerz Project’
Self-marketing puts the Nappy Roots on the road for upward of 100 shows a year, and the current tour was driven by the release of “The 40 Akerz Project” in May. Though touted as a Nappy Roots album, Skinny said this one is different.
“It only has two members speaching on it for the most part — myself and Fishscales,” he said. “We enlisted a producer by the name of 808 Blake, from SMKA production company. They’ve done a lot of dope records for artists. Maybe some have broken through; a lot of them are up-and-coming.”
The two-year project started as a four- or five-song EP to hold fans over from the group’s last album, 2011’s “Nappy Dot Org.” Skinny said the goal with “40 Akerz” was to cultivate the Nappy Roots sound and reinvent it for a new generation.
“I feel like this is a perfect album,” he said. “We’ve got no one on our backs telling us ‘this is a single; this is not a single.’ Our producer was honest with his opinion, and we learned to trust each other and work toward the betterment of the brand.”
Despite only two members being featured on “40 Akerz,” when Nappy Roots go on the road, they bring the whole family. No one wants to feel like they’ve been had when they buy a ticket to a show and only get half the group, Skinny said.
“People know us from various songs that we have,” Skinny said. “They might not even want to hear just Skinny and ’Scales, so you get everything. You like chicken? Here you go. You like yams? Here you go. Collard greens? Here you go. Over here is the baked chicken, sassafras chicken — there’s all ways you can do the meal, all different options, so you always leave satisfied. We’re like the Golden Corral of hip-hop.”
A lot of artists like to think of themselves as living in the moment, but if you want to be successful, it’s not about living in the moment; it’s about having a career, Skinny said, and that’s about people coming back again and again to experience the new tracks live for the first time but also to relive those old Southern-fried jams.
“We’re in the service industry,” he said. “We’re providing you with a good time, nostalgic moments, songs that you can say ‘I remember when that came out, I was here, I was 8 years old, my mamma was playing it, we connected on this.’”