South for the Winter
When Turning a Profit in Baltimore Got Harder, Little Clayway Set Up Shop in Atlanta
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Since selling his first two-song cassingle on the streets of Baltimore a decade ago, Roger Clay has been the city's living epitome of the independent rapper as a business-minded hustler. After releasing five albums as Little Clayway, though, he realized that something strange was happening: Baltimore hip-hop was getting more press and recognition than ever, but it was getting harder and harder to make a dollar doing it.
"The money is just not like it used to be," Clayway says over a couple of beers on a recent afternoon at a Northern Parkway bar. "It's money in Maryland and Baltimore, in the rap market, but not for independent local artists."
Though the closing of many of the mom-and-pop record stores that once sold his product was a contributing factor, he feels there has been a larger sea change in local hip-hop audiences, including lower concert turnout. "They support big artists, mainstream artists, but they just not supportin' us," he says.
So in 2006 Clayway picked up and moved his family to a city where money is still being made off of rap: Atlanta, the hub of Southern hip-hop's commercial explosion in recent years. While his new surroundings have given him greater access to the music industry, Clayway says that the real benefit is a larger base of consumers that still frequent record stores. "I'm focusin' on Atlanta," he says. "As far as me bein' an independent, that's my solid market. They buyin' music, they buyin' a lot of music."
Befriending music chain owner Big Oomp, Clay says he spent his first few months in Atlanta camping out in Big Oomp Records personally moving his product. "I sat in his record store like the whole summer," Clay says. "It was like a job, so I would get there, and I would sell."
With much of his attention on another city's market, however, Clay hasn't abandoned his roots. "I still have a lot of stuff goin' on in Baltimore, this is my hometown, they still support me, and it keeps me balanced," he says. He frequently catches flights back from Atlanta to touch base in Maryland and visit family or play shows. This summer alone, he popped up for performances at Sonar, 5 Seasons, and the Making the Right Moves Entertainment Conference. "The plane ride being only an hour and a half, it's really nothin'," he shrugs. "Now that I do it so often, people look at me like, `You the man, what you doin' here?' It don't take no longer than you catchin' the bus outside of Baltimore."
But aside from the business benefits of living in Atlanta, Clay says he's enjoyed being in a more relaxed atmosphere down South, and has noticed some worrying cultural developments back at home when he visits Baltimore. "When I started, it wasn't no such thing as gangs in B-more," he says. "When you go to a strip club, and you got Crips on one side and Bloods on the other side, this ain't somethin' I been used to. I got pulled over here, man, for wearin' blue, 'cause I was out in Brooklyn somewhere in South Baltimore. They not only thought I was flyin' the colors, [the police] pulled me over and searched me and asked me what I was doin' in a Blood neighborhood with blue on.
"It's so many different people that live in Atlanta now, it's not like the old Atlanta. Everybody's from somewhere else, New York, Alabama, New Orleans," he says, noting that he often runs into other Baltimore transplants like rapper Mullyman and record store owner Jerome "Rome" Brooks, who relocated his Sounds N Da Hood shop to Georgia. "I connected with Mully, Rome, a lot of guys that come from here."
Little Clayway's sixth album, A New Beginning, which he's been distributing advance copies of at recent concerts, shows little evidence of his new surroundings. Instead of chasing Southern rap trends or deliberately gearing his music toward the Atlanta strip clubs where he now tests out new tracks, the album is stocked with beats by Baltimore producers Fontane, Jay Funk, and Bernie Dozier, as well as guest appearances by longtime peers like Backland, Comp, and Tim Trees. He plans on adding some new songs to the album, like the live favorite "Get Your Cigarello," before releasing it officially by the end of the year.
Already well into his career, Clay is wary of the stigma against older rappers and, when asked about his age, laughs and deflects the question by saying, "My rap age is 29, right?" Still, A New Beginning is undoubtedly a mature hip-hop album from a grown man and dedicated father. "Columbo" features unusual boasts like, "At 6 on the dot I'm with my family eatin' dinner," and on "Robert Clay" he passionately mourns his late uncle, a construction contractor who taught him much of what he knows about business today.
Throughout his career, Clay has released all his music through his own label, Clayway Records, but has always envisioned it as more than just a single-artist vanity imprint. But between the death of one rapper on his roster, C.D.S., and several other artists he signed not panning out, it's been rough going. "I've been the biggest artist on my label, because a lot of the people that I've put some of the money into, I turn around and lose it," he says, attributing that problem to artists who may have unrealistic expectations about the music industry. "When you've been watching it on TV all your life, you get a false sense of reality."
Understandably, when Clay's little sister, who remains in Baltimore, came to him for help with her own aspirations as a rapper, he brushed her off at first. Performing under the name April Love, she decided that instead of waiting for her big brother to give her a leg up, she surprised him by recording a CD on her own. "So I think, Well, I'm just gonna go ahead and do my recording, get it mixed, and then give him the finished product to show him that I am serious and this is what I wanna do," Love, 27, explains.
Even after getting a local buzz going with a single and several collaborations and live appearances with her brother, ultimately April Love decided to hold off on letting Clayway Records release the album she'd completed in 2006. "I'm a perfectionist, I guess," she says. "Everybody else thought I should've put it out." After years of additional recording, she now has a whole new album's worth of songs, which she plans to release in early 2009. Meanwhile, she's been linking up with other local MCs outside of the label for collaborations, including Nik Stylz, who happens to be Mullyman's sister.
While Clay has been able to live off of music for years now, a goal few of his peers have achieved, he's fully aware that the stakes are higher than ever to keep building on that success. And after scoring national distribution for his last two albums with Baltimore-based Morphius, Clayway is still itching to find the next step up on the ladder, whether it's in Atlanta or at home. "I got two cars, a five-bedroom house, and kids, man," he says. "I'm a grown man, I'm not in it just playin' games. I wanna be makin' good music, and that's what I concentrate on. I have to generate money. If it's not makin' me a dime, it's a waste of time." H