In the past year, Los Angeles rapper Hopsin and his Funk Volume label has grown into one of the hip-hop world's brands to watch. Following Hop's own XXL Freshman honor, the indie label has broken two others -- rising acts, Dizzy Wright and Jarren Benton -- proving they're more than a fly-by-night operation and a collective to pay attention to.
Fresh off the announcement of his long awaited new album, Knock Madness, we caught up with Hopsin and Funk Volume CEO Damien Ritter for an exclusive interview, as well as a photoshoot with famed photographer Estevan Oriol.
During the sit-down, the pair delved into the inner-workings of Funk Volume, from its beginnings, hiccups, and struggles, to building a foundation, growing fanbase, and of course, the future.
In our first interview in early 2012, Hopsin explained that when he first launched Funk Volume, he literally went on LegalZoom.com, set up the business, and got the papers in the mail. From then, until now, what has changed?
Hopsin: A lot has changed. My buzz has gotten bigger. The whole world is waiting for Knock Madness... and Dizzy Wright and Jarren Benton are on the label.
Dame: In the beginning, from a business prespective, it was kinda a "fake it 'til you make it" situation. From the outside looking in, it looked like we had everything structured and everything was on point, but a lot of the contracts were kinda like "copy-paste". Since then, we've gotten real contracts, real lawyers, real business managers, real publicists, and real booking agents. The foundation is straight, the business is solid, the guys' taxes are taken care of, and no one's going to jail.
The business is super solid, and like he said, the fanbase has grown tremendously. You gotta have that strong foundation to continue to build.
In the last year, Funk Volume has grown. What's the ride been like for both of you? And, did you expect it?
Hopsin: We expected it. You become immune to everything that happens, so you challenge yourself to do new things. We have bigger plans in the future, and I'm sure we will accomplish them. There's definitely big obstacles, but it's Planet Earth and we're human beings, so we can do it. It's been a good journey from a few years ago until now.
Dame: It's been a lot of work. I think we expected to be here. I'm excited, because I feel like we're operating at like 30%. Nobody's heard anything from Hopsin in two-and-a-half years. You haven't heard anything from SwizZz, period. You know, Jarren just put out his first album. And, Dizzy's best music is still to come. So, I feel like nobody's seen the team operate at 100%. I feel like we're only 30% percent there... it's only the beginning.
Can you tell us how both of you first teamed up?
Dame: [Hopsin] and SwizZz went to high school together. The timing worked out perfect... At the end of 2008, I got laid off from my job -- I was living in Chicago at the time. SwizZz hit me up and said he wasn't happy with his situation at UC Irvine, and wanted to do music full-time. It just so happened, Hopsin was stuck in the Ruthless situaiton -- he was signed to Ruthless Records at the time. They weren't doing much with his project, so they both wanted to do their own thing... and that was Funk Volume. It was Hop's idea. It took us coming together to make it a reality, an actual business... and it started moving from there.
When we got together, they put out a mixtape called Haywire. It was for free, because Hop was still in his deal. We eventually got him out of his deal, and then, we've been a label ever since.
Dame, what did you see in Hopsin that made you want to partner with him?
Dame: He's super-talented. It's not only that he can rap, he kinda has it in him to do anything he wants. If he doesn't have access to resources, he figures it out. That's how he became multi-talented, in the sense that he can do his own videos, and he can mix and master his own project. We saved a lot of money in the beginning because he can come to me and be like, "Dame, here's my album."
I remember listening to his stuff before talking to SwizZZ about doing Funk Volume. You could tell then that he had the talent, from the medlodies and beats. It just stands out when you see it.
And Hopsin, same question. Why was Dame a good fit to come in and run things?
Hopsin: SwizZz came to me and was like, "Yo fool, this guy really knows business, man." I didn't know... I trust SwizZz. We kinda just figured it out along the way. [Dame] would throw out business and marketing ideas to make us look structured as a business, because me and SwiZzz didn't have any. We put stuff out on Youtube, hoping it was gonna grow. He brought structure to us.
I didn't know any business, but since I was coming from the Ruthless deal, I thought I knew how the game worked. I'm like, "Ok, we're business partners, but I don't know how this is supposed to work." Sometimes, I'd jump the gun and think I'm supposed to get more... or things are supposed to go the way I know. But, as time went on, I realized Dame knows what he's doing. Me and SwizZz are raw talent, and he guides us. If it was up to me, we wouldn't have a website and a Juggalo dude would book our tours.
Dame: It took a while to get to this point. But with any relationship, it takes a while to build trust. Hopsin had history of being stepped on a little bit and doing stuff himself, so he eventually let go of that and started to trust me.
Where did the idea come from to actually launch Funk Volume? And, was it difficult, starting off, to figure out a plan and strategy?
Dame: It was real difficult. I was frustrated because I was looking at these cats... and I always want more, right? From the business side, I want more music, more videos, more content to put out. But, you realize you can't do that with artists. You can't just crank sh** out like. From my end, I learned to be more patient.
We got good at getting the most out of everything we put out. Then, doing stuff around it, whether it's contests or touring to continue building the brand. It was frustrating as sh** at first, though.
Obviously, Hopsin is on the creative side. But, what's the process like, when making business decisions? Does Hopsin give input, or just stay focused on the music and leave it to you, Dame?
Hopsin: First, I let Dame know that the creative stuff has to be done first before any business. If the business stuff comes in and the music isn't done, it's gonna clash. Then, you gonna have to end up rushing it on the creative end, which defeats the purpose, because if you don't have a good product then everything's not gonna work.
Once everything's done, we figure out the timeline of the creative stuff, and Dame takes it from there to formulate a plan for marketing and promotion. We understand that now, but it took a while to get on the same page. Now, I make my album and then we make the business for it.
I recall seeing a Funk Volume Facebook post in recent months that read something like... you've taken a lot of label meetings, but no one shares your same vision. What's that vision? And, what is it the majors aren't seeing?
Dame: Essentially, we've had a lot of meetings. A lot of labels have reached out for various business dealings. I just feel like, in general, when negoiating with anything, if the other party doesn't understand or recognize the total value, how can they offer you something that makes sense? We're only operating at 30%, so they're only gonna offer for that 30% percent that you've seen. I can't prove it to you, because we're not out there enough, but I know what we're capable of. So, it wouldn't make sense for us to get into any long-term agreement at this point, if they haven't seen what we're capable of.
Like after we drop a Funk Volume album, then you'll be able to see what is possible from us, which would follow the build-up and anticipation of what Hopsin's album will do.
I made that post, because it doesn't make any sense right now.
Hopsin, in the past, you've said you will never go back to a major label situation. But, as your career takes off, have you ever re-thought those feelings?
Hopsin: No. Funk Volume needs to be the label. If I go to the majors, that still makes them the authority over us and I don't want that. That would mean that they call the shots and that's glorifying them. I don't like how any of these major labels are being ran. What I vision is Funk Volume being that mega label, where they come to us if they need something. So, if they need producers, dope videos, dope features, or whatever, they come to us.
I just don't see us contributing to a major, and being dependent on them like, "Oh yes, we need you please. Can you help us do this? We can't do this without you. We need your help." F*** that. It's the fans, at the end of the day, that provide all the money for the music business. It doesn't grow outta nowhere. If we have all the fans, why can't we do that? We don't have that giant office, but we're get it... a year from now, or maybe even sooner.
Dame: Movies, fame... it's all possible. Going our route, the fans don't go anywhere. Relationships don't go anywhere. Eventually, it'll catch the eye of a producer that's putting together a movie or TV show. If Hop wants to be on TV, we can make it happen.
Artists, these days, wanna take shortcuts. They don't wanna put in that work. If you wanna go the lottery route, look for a deal. But, if you want a solid career, you gotta build a foundation from the ground up. It's just a longer route to get there.
Strange Music has grown into a multi-million dollar empire, all in-house. I know you guys have a relationship with them. What kind of advice, or blueprint, do you take from them as you move forward?
Dame: More than anything, I like their structure within the organization. So, we take a little bit from what they've done. But, we definitely have our own twist to what we're doing as well. We're not modeling anything directly off of somebody. We are definitely taking some of the best things and applying it to what we do.
Since Hopsin' 2012 XXL Freshman cover, Dizzy Wright has followed up with the 2013 honor... and now, Jarren Benton is making noise. A lot of labels struggle to push one artist, so what's it been like to see the success of your other artists?
Hopsin: I think it's cool. I love seeing that. I love seeing em come in all broke with nothing. Dizzy Wright wasn't all broke or bummy or nothing, but it's cool to see the early stages. Because me and Dame can see it... like their talent. If I see him in the past with a stressed look, I'm just like "This guy... he doesn't know that three months from now, how it's going be." I remember going to a show and I introduced Dizzy to some fans and nobody seemed interested. But now, you go and everybody's on his nuts. So, it's cool seeing it, because I literally saw a change from nothing to something. Same thing with Jarren Benton, when he first comes on.... fans might not take to him right away, but later, they're like "He's the best artist on Funk Volume hands down!!!"
Then, it's just cool to see how they're personality turns up more. Like before they come out, they're a lil more timid, and then they get comfortable, turn up more, and all the sudden they're crowd surfing.
Dame: Seeing Dizzy and Jarren do well is just kind of a sigh of relief that all the bullsh** I be talking on the Funk Volume page actually works. But, it's not surprising though... when you track things and watch the numbers, you kind of know what to expect.
One of the primary things that plays a role in their success in the cross promotion and the support the guys give one another. If Hop had the only platform and it was just him with everybody super-below him, it wouldn't add much value back to Hop. Dizzy's gotta get a big push, so that when Hop's album comes around, he also supports the album. Everyone's just supporting one another and moving in the same direction.