by: Amy Boyd
Becoming a rapper seems like becoming an astronaut, or at least to me it does. You see people who do it, whether you believe we landed on the moon or on a soundstage in Burbank, but it can seem out of reach or far from where you are right now. That's how everyone feels starting out though. Lil Dicky is proof that you can start with nothing, do things your way and make it in the game. Did I say that right?
Lil Dicky’s debut album, Professional Rapper, opened at no. 1 on multiple Billboard charts, and features Fetty Wap, Rich Homie Quan, T-Pain and Snoop Dogg. A quick Google search of his name returns a myriad of viral videos with tens of millions of views. He’s gained a lot of notice because he fuses rap and comedy in a way that shows his serious talent and still gets laughs.
He talked with us about getting started without a producer or label, building momentum and working the Internet, as well as what fuels his success, the challenges that dog him and his advice to rappers who are starting out.
Why did you decide to become a rapper?
Well, for me it was a little bit different because I always dreamed of being a comedian. So, my initial decision to be a rapper was really to use a unique way to be noticed for being funny. You see comedians rely on stand up to get noticed. I've always loved rap, and could rap reasonably well, so it felt like a unique way in. And then it just blossomed and developed into a legitimate music career.
How did you get started in your music career?
I began by downloading beats online and honing my craft, and making songs over other people's beats. I didn't know anybody in the industry, no producers, so this was my only option. Luckily, the way the internet works nowadays, there are so many amazing beats online, you just have to find them. So it began with me in my room, by myself. Then I put my stuff online for free, because a) I didn't own the rights to the music because I simply downloaded the beats online, and b) because when you are building a fan base from scratch, you cannot charge initially. You have to build up a reputation to where people then want to pay money for your music. But you won't build that without giving stuff out for free initially, if you don't have a major label behind you - which i didn't.
What are the steps someone typically takes to become a rapper?
Nowadays you don't need to sign with a label due to the power of the internet. So the beautiful thing about this industry is that the power is in your hands, in terms of getting it off the ground. All I needed was a mic, some equipment to run the mic through, my macbook and I could make very legitimate music, in my room. Overall it cost me like 500 bucks (and a macbook pro) to get this thing started.
Once you find success though, you will end up needing team members. For me, manager was first and foremost. It's a lot of legwork, and it's probably in the artist's best interest to focus on the art, and not the logistics/business. I'm still hands on, but getting a manager took so much off my plate. Plus, at the end of the day it is a business, so you need someone capable of running that business. I was fortunate enough to have a business degree so I kind of understood the bare bones of it all, but if I didn't, I would probably have wanted a manager even sooner.
Then when you start doing concerts, you'll likely want a booking agent. I've never not had one since I've been doing shows. I visited all the talent agencies, picked one, and they then book my shows for me.
What are the costs of making an album?
Depends on the album, but there's studio time first and foremost. That's the studio space itself, and then you will likely have to pay an engineer to record the music. If you have features (guest verses/hooks) on the project, you'll likely have to pay those people. Then you'll have to get it mixed properly, and that costs money.
And if you have more money, I'd think about marketing - which can be fueled by music videos. For me, a majority of my expenses actually came with my music videos, which aren't the album - but they were the key to people even finding out about the album. You must get people to notice you, and you typically have to pay something to create something worth noticing.
How does someone make an income as a rapper?
Someone could sign a record deal, but that money ends up being recoupable, so it's not even real money because you have to pay it back eventually. It's more of a loan.
The main source of income for me is touring. Concerts make me a lot more money than recorded music sales (though you make money from that as well). I get money for merch sales. I get money for streams on youtube/spotify. I get money from brand sponsorships, and synch deals (one of my songs is in an old navy tv campaign, and I get paid for that). But the majority of a rapper's income likely comes from the live show. So it's crucial to build up your guarantee.
What are the best parts of being a rapper?
For me, the best parts are having a voice to convey my perspective on life, along with the overall notion of being your own boss, and doing exactly what you want at all times. I have no one to report to (but I am unsigned, so that probably helps), I can just do as I feel when I feel like it.
But it's such an expressive art form, that it's fairly therapeutic. I feel like I can get everything off my chest at all times because of the music. It's also great to connect with people, and see how happy or inspired people can be by your words.
What are the biggest challenges in being a rapper?
Well, my biggest fear is running out of stuff to say. With rap, there are so many words in each song, so you're consistently saying a lot of things, each song. I just never want to run out of uniquely interesting things to talk about. You hear a lot of rappers eventually start saying the same stuff over and over again, and that's not something I'm interested in. So it's constantly reinventing yourself, your subject matter, your style, your flows, etc.
You must evolve as well. Year 1 should sound nothing like year 5. And evolving isn't easy because people end up being into what they hear. And when you change, it's basically like putting yourself out there over and over again. Which can be scary. But your real fans will end up staying with you if it's clear you are invested, and your heart is still in it.
What advice would you give to other rappers?
The main thing that's fueled my success is that I'm completely myself at all times, and not trying to be a stereotypical rapper. So many rappers fall into the trap of rapping about the same things, because that's kind of what we've come to expect out of rap. But it's so much harder to stand out that way.
I stand out automatically by rapping about stuff that's completely unique to my brain, and that makes it harder to replicate. And as a result, you end up offering society a very unique product. I kind of feel like I have a monopoly over my product - nobody else is making music like I do. And people like it. So now all of a sudden there's a product people like, and where's the only place they can get it? Right here. Because I was insistent on being unique and myself. Just makes it way easier to stand out, and then upon being noticed, you'll be the sole provider of a valued product.
Any helpful resources or links on this topic? (websites, book or blog recommendations)
To rappers starting out, and don't necessarily know any producers, visit hipstrumentals.com every day. They upload beats every day, and virtually my entire mixtape was sourced through this site. It's great.
You should also visit blogs like nahright.com that post everything that goes on in the hip hop world - because it's important to stay in tune and touch with the current ongoings of the genre. Stylistically, it helps to know what's hot. Doesn't mean you have to do what's hot, but it's always important to understand what's going on, and what people are doing. Plus looking at other rapper's success, asking yourself "why are they winning?" it's all useful. The more you immerse yourself in the game, the more aware you'll become on what type of rapper YOU want to be.