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Q-Tip, of A Tribe Called Quest, stated his distaste for the music industry as Industry Rule No. 4080: “Record-company people are shady.” Nowadays, “indie-urban” seems the way to go for rap artists, as independent record companies have become as important to rap music as they have been to rock and punk. With the success of home-grown upstarts like Master P and an increasing unwillingness by major labels to sign and cultivate new artists, independent record labels are springing up in cities all over the country. Often they are started by artists trying to launch their own product; but just as frequently, they are run by opportunistic entrepreneurs aspiring to the much-heralded and much-hated position of big-time record exec.
Daniel Clark could be one of those guys. The 45-year-old Clark, who used to lay fiber-optic cable, has been running his Fresh Gruv Records label out of a small apartment in Southwest D.C. for more than four years. He has no staff besides himself and the occasional volunteer. His artist roster consists of about a dozen talented but unpolished hopefulsmostly teenswho look to him as their guide into the glorious music business. He conducts all his label’s business on a shoestring: Sometimes he is able to persuade studios to donate their time and production assistance, but Fresh Gruv’s work proceeds mostly according to Clark’s ability to put together a meager budgethis artists do talent showcases and small benefits to raise money for the label.
None of which is unusual. Most fledgling record-label heads will tell you that this is how it goes when you are trying to launch a new company and start making a profit. They may also regale you with their unrealistic dreams about success in the independent music business. In his homewhich serves as his officesurrounded by the young artists who make up Fresh Gruv, the balding, didactic Clark is indistinguishable from a father emboldening his children. He muses loftily, “Just imagine if these guys’ No. 1 song hits and they sell a couple of million copies.”
But Clark does not
remotely fit the image of
your typical money-grubbing record exec. He is too idealistic.Apart from pushing records, Clark pours his real passion into an organization he created called the Mayday Mayday Project, which tries to lift kids from lousy circumstances into gainful careers in the entertainment industry. Mayday’s slogan is simple: “Don’t incarcerate. Educate.”
For the past several weeks, Clark has been hustling to get a four-song EP by the rap duo Relentless into stores around D.C. He’s already helped out 18-year-old Jamil Johnson by having him work as an intern at the recording studio where his album was produced, and also contributed equipment to Johnson’s studio at home.
Johnson’s partner, 18-
year-old Samuel Keys,
who describes himself as
a “wild guy” and a “runaway,” is getting a
different kind of help. Clark, who balks at
discussing the existence of his own estranged son, is pushing Keys to move back in with
his mother and finish high school. Keys is
resisting his advice, but he appreciates that someone is at least looking out for his best
“I am one of his acts, but…he treats me like I’m his child,” Keys says. “He’s not just my manager; he’s also like a mentor. He’ll tell you the right thing to do. He’ll never let you go astray, because he doesn’t want to see anybody fall. He’s always going to look out for you, no matter how hardheaded you are.”
Clark speaks more enthusiastically about his vision for Mayday than he does about his forays into music production. His long-term plan is to create what he calls the Mayday Mayday Project Entertainment, Arts, and Crafts Academy. He sees it as a top-to-bottom enterprise with a studio, sound and lighting equipment, photography shopeven voice lessons with professional instructors. “Basically every aspect of the music industry,” Clark says, “even the music business”even though he himself has no formal education in any of these areas. All he really has at this point is drive.
But it takes money to build a nonprofit organization, and Clark has not yet begun to scrape together the hundreds of dollars necessary just to begin applying for formal nonprofit status. Unless he gets it, additional funding for Mayday from outside sources is unlikely, Clark laments: “Without [nonprofit status], they don’t really want to talk to you.”
As a self-taught marketing director and unflappable optimist, Clark came up with a plan to raise money for Mayday: Eight artists in the program will get to produce and release their own musical product, with 10 percent of
the profit going back into Mayday. He calls
it, perhaps melodramatically, “Buy-a-Tape,
Save-Our-Youth.” At times it seems that Clark
may just be juggling catch phrases, but in his world, the term “at-risk youth” is anything
Rodney Perry, aka Kaos, is a 23-year-old rapper under the Fresh Gruv banner. He came to Clark in 1995, a father and two-time felon. He picked up his third strikefor armed robberyafter he had already recorded one album for Fresh Gruv and been involved with the Mayday project. The album, Mind Stimuli, is a violent one, filled with tales of the horrors of street life in D.C. Many artists have exploited these ideas for profit, but for Perry, ghetto survival is his sheer reality. And his
matter-of-fact attitude toward his third arrest and incarceration illustrates the immensity of the task that Clark has set out for himself.
“I’ve been on my own since I was 16 and I was a single parent,” says Perry. “I was down to do whatever for me and my son to eat. If [music] wasn’t putting food on the table at the time, we still had to eat. The rent was due….” Perry reflects: “Like I say, if you go to the suburbs for a week to stay at your friend’s house, when you come back to the projects, you’re still back in the projects. I still had to come back home, and I still had to deal with the situation I was in. And I
didn’t know how to deal with it.”
Clark and the Mayday Project intervened on behalf of Perry, writing letters to the judge and communicating with his mother throughout the ordeal. Clark even went to court once to help convince the judge that Perry was a victim of
circumstance. It is not out of the ordinary for a record label to get involved in the legal affairs of its artists, but Rodney Perry is not a platinum-selling rapper like Tupac Shakur or Snoop Dogg, who earned their respective labels millions of dollars a year.
Perry recognizes Clark’s generosity and is grateful: “This man kind of like put me under his wing like a father figure. So it gave me somebody to look up to. And when I came home to a halfway house, this man turned around and got me a job. And it wasn’t just any job. He got me employed [at his company], and we worked together.” Originally facing 47 years to life
in prison, Perry spent less than a year in jail.
He is now back in the studio working on his
Clark, the man with “a lot of other people’s kids,” beams as he plays a song, “Mama, I Love You” by one of his “Buy-a-Tape, Save-Our-Youth” artists, 12-year-old singer Maria Dickens. The song is a dedication to Maria’s mother, Robin, who is sitting in Clark’s living room
along with Maria and the rest of her extended Fresh Gruv family.
Robin Dickens says she has grown to trust Clark despite her initial wariness. Indeed, he is very protective of her daughter, even rewarding her for good grades with money out of the company budget. Clark says that he has recently been encouraging Maria to think about becoming an entertainment lawyer. The idea seems almost absurd: a record label executive urging an artist to learn more about the business. But to Clark, it all makes sense: “Don’t just think about being an artist in this business,” he remarks, “because, basically, it is the artist who makes
the least money.”
As for himself, Clark is not overly concerned with money. “If I had a million dollars or 2 million dollars right now, it wouldn’t mean anything, because of what I’m trying to do,” he says. “I’m trying to build and establish an organization that will provide a better way of living for people.” Especially, he adds, for young people.CP