Independent rapper Peppaboy Trill McCoy & DJ Tony Tone

*So you’ve decided to join the thousands of rappers who release music independently? Your friends and family told you that you sounded good and that you should put out your own music? Hopefully, they know what they’re talking about.  But chances are they don’t!  It’s not that they’re lying to you.  They just don’t really know what it takes to compete in this business.  And having an MPC, Fruity Loops, Reason, Logic, Pro Tools, or any other hardware/software doesn’t necessarily make you a pro.  Just because you can spit a hot 16 doesn’t automatically make you the next big thing.  Sorry to break it to you but rappers come a dime a dozen!

So before you quit your day job or promise your mom a big house in the hills, check yourself to see if you’re a victim of the 8 Big Mistakes Indie Rappers Make.

  1. Unrealistic Expectations

“We’re about to blow up, son!  We’re taking this to the next level!”  If I only had a dollar for every time I’ve heard some aspiring rapper say that! I don’t mean to rain on your parade but you probably won’t “make it” the way you imagine it to be. It’s like sports.  Millions want to play pro ball but how many actually do? I encourage you to follow your dreams but you may need to define what “making it” means to you. Just like the athlete who never went pro but managed to make a good living off his abilities, you may not become a star but might find a way to maintain a following that allows you to make music, pay your bills, and live comfortably.

Regardless of your definition of success, without hard work, you won’t make it, plain and simple.  Don’t think for a minute that the successful artists you look up to are doing nothing but chillin’ 24/7, countin’ their paper, and hookin’ up with groupies. A lot of hard work goes into making this look easy to you.  Are you willing to invest hours and hours of blood, sweat, and tears into this business? If not, stop right now, get yourself a 9 to 5, and make music as a hobby.  You’re either built for this…or not!

  1. Lack of Creativity

Just because you rap and make beats doesn’t mean you’re actually good at it, no matter how many yes men and women you have around you! Be honest with yourself.  Does anything about your music make you stand out or are you just copying what everyone else is doing?  Will you be the next Lil’ this or Young that like so many others who seem unable to come up with an original name? Did you start rapping or producing to become the next Drake or DJ Premier or are you truly developing a sound of your own?  So many questions!

I recently came across a rapper on the internet who invited people to watch his new YouTube video by posting the following on his Facebook page: “I know that there are hundreds of thousands of rappers in the world but my style is truly different than anyone else and I know you’ll really love my video!”  I gave the cat a chance and checked out the video. First, he was rapping over Kreayshawn’s “Gucci, Gucci” instrumental, he flowed like Gucci Mane, and he talked about his crisp white Tee, cars, money, and women.  I shut him down about a minute into it. Is he likely to make it in this game? You tell me.  In a world full of biters and copy cats, those who have something truly unique to offer are the ones who stand out.  Love her or not, there’s only one Nicki Minaj. Like him or not, there’s just one Kanye. However, being unique isn’t the only thing needed to be successful. Genuine talent and creativity are key. That’s what will ultimately separate one-hit wonders from timeless acts.  Which one will you be?

  1. No Knowledge of the Music Industry

The industry is changing almost everyday. Still, there are certain elements that remain the same.  You need to understand this game and what drives it. It’s easy to be an outsider looking in, watching your favorite rappers on TV flossing and thinking that you’ll put your video on YouTube, get a million views, sign a deal, and become rich.  Do you know what actually happens behind closed doors for that “magic” to take place? Do you know anything about marketing and promotion? Do you know the roles managers, booking agents, publicists, accountants, and lawyers play in an artist’s life? Do you know what ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC are? Have you ever participated in a business meeting or negotiated deals with industry execs? Many of the artists you see actin’ a fool on award shows or spittin’ verses about hood life on the latest joint are actually sharp business men/women who conduct themselves very differently when the cameras are off.  That’s how they stay successful.  Many of them say that the music business is 20% music, 80% business.  If you became successful, could you handle that? 

  1. No Showmanship

Have you ever rocked a show? Do you know how to entertain an audience so that they’ll want to see you again?  The term MC means Master of Ceremony.  In Hip Hop, it means being able to rock a show.  If you don’t know how, you better learn before you find yourself on stage looking like an idiot. There was a time when rappers had to pay their dues before even thinking about pursuing rapping professionally. Paying your dues means that you have developed your talent through trial and error.  Maybe you’ve battled, won some, lost some, but improved your skills in the process.  Maybe you’ve performed in front of an audience at school or a local venue and managed to entertain a crowd.  You didn’t just get on stage with 10 of your boys and mumble on the mic while nervously pacing back and forth for an hour, thinking that you had put on a real show.  You actually took the time to develop your stage presence by learning how to rap clearly over a mic and creating a unique experience to keep audiences entertained. 

When I go to shows, I want to see a performance I’m going to remember for a long time. Up and coming rappers may not have the resources that big acts have access to but that shouldn’t stop them from putting on a memorable show. Imagination and organization go a long way in creating a strong stage presence. I know a crew of up-and-comers whose live show is so entertaining that they make all others acts before and after them look like amateurs.  They have nothing on stage except themselves but their chemistry is so tight that they leave audiences in awe.  Their secret?  They rehearse for days before a show.  Do you? There’s a reason MC’s like KRS-ONE, Big Daddy Kane, and Doug E. Fresh can still rock shows across the world without needing to have any new music out. They’ve developed shows that are so entertaining that people want to see them perform, whether or not their music has mainstream popularity.  If you’re ever lucky enough to make a name for yourself, your showmanship can propel you to great success and help you maintain longevity.

  1. Mediocre Mix

Producing and recording is one thing, mixing and mastering is another.  Just because you know how to make beats doesn’t mean you have an ear for mixing.  If you’ve ever read the liner notes of records, tapes, and CD’s (no go for you digital kids!), you’ll see that the people who mix and master are different then the producers, composers, songwriters, and artists who create the music.  It takes a fine tuned set of ears to get a song to sound just right.  And what sounds good to you as an artist may not be up to industry standards.  Each particular sound in a song needs to be treated with the utmost attention. Everything from a simple hi-hat to your slightest background vocals needs to be worked on individually.  A good song + a bad mix = a bad song. You might be recording in your room but it shouldn’t sound like it. If you don’t know how to mix, let someone who does handle the job. 

  1. Sloppy First Impressions

Do your artist pictures look like you took them with a disposable camera?  Was your video shot with your phone in some dark alley? Do you look clean or do you look like you just rolled out of bed? Are you well spoken and passionate when promoting your music or do you sound ignorant and inarticulate? Does your website, Facebook, or blog contain spelling errors and a confusing layout? First impressions can make you or hurt you.  If the first thing someone sees about you or your product looks low budget, you won’t be taken seriously and probably won’t attract much of a following. Think about how you react when you first see a new artist’s video, picture, website, or album cover.  Do you immediately judge them on their image and presentation?  I know I do and so do most people. I can’t tell you how many unknown rappers have tried to sell me their CD’s with the name and title of the album written with a Sharpie on the actual CD.  I’ve had rappers try to convince me of how great they were but couldn’t form a cohesive sentence to explain why.  I’ve been approached by rappers who dress sloppily, have dirty nails, breath kicking like weed and alcohol, trying to tell me that they’re about to change the game.  I don’t take these artists seriously and never even listen to their music.  Would you? If you can’t make an effort to create an appealing image for yourself, you’re probably not making an effort to make your music sound any better.  You may not have a million dollar budget but making a good impression doesn’t cost a thing when you take genuine pride in your art. 

  1. Poor Online Presence

Everybody and their mama has a Facebook page!  Yet, I still come across artists who have no online presence whatsoever.  With FB, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs available to everyone for free, there’s absolutely no excuse to be offline in 2011.  Actually, there was no excuse ten years ago!  Without an online presence, you can officially count yourself out of having any chance of success in this game.  But I’ll stop here because if you’re not online, you’re not reading this anyway!

  1. No Marketing Plan

So you got your music sounding right, your image is on point, and your online presence looks solid.  But how will people know you exist? You rock local shows but only manage to sell 3 or 4 CD’s afterward.  You post up in front of your local venue where Joell Ortiz just finished performing, CD’s in hand, hoping to catch folks as they walk out, but they just spent their last dollars on drinks and parking and aren’t interested in what you have to sell.  You weave through cars in the Target parking lot, flashing down shoppers while they unload their carts, but they don’t have time to buy a CD from some one they’ve never heard of.  I give you credit for being on your grind because that’s part of paying your dues.  However, at this point, you need a real marketing plan.  Slangin’ CD’s on the block ain’t been hot since the first iPod came out! The truth is you won’t go far if you don’t refine your hustle and use 2011 marketing strategies.  Sure, a CD might come in handy if you bump into your favorite rapper and hand him your music but if you haven’t already made a buzz for yourself on your own, your CD will most likely end up in the trash. A little research into how to coordinate a basic marketing campaign will get you to the next level and closer to your goal. 

These 8 points aren’t intended to discourage anyone but the Hip Hop game is flooded with aspiring artists competing for an opportunity to be heard just like you.  At any given time, only around 30 rappers are in the mainstream public eye with an even smaller handful of underground artists getting a little shine. And there you are among millions of other rappers trying to make it into that small and exclusive group of well known artists.  The chances of “making it” are slim but avoiding these 8 big mistakes will help you improve your odds and give you something to work for.

In the next few installments of this series, we’ll move beyond what not to do and explore ways to promote your music on a larger scale.  Until next time…PEACE!

Sebastien Elkouby is the co-founder of S&H Public Relations, a boutique PR agency which specializes in promoting quality Hip Hop artists and related projects.  For more information about our services, log on to You can also reach us by email at [email protected].  Connect with S&H Public Relations on Facebook at and Twitter at @SNHPR.