Ten years ago, the self-proclaimed "longest operating independent Hip Hop/Soul/R&B record label in the area" was formed in large part behind local man DeVon Manier's desire to bring his favored style of rap music to a larger audience. His cornerstone artists, Fatal Lucciauno and the recently un-retired D. Black (now known as Nissim, now also operating his own organization, OEMco, to help push his music) have become household names for local hip hop fans, and the roster has expanded to include a handful of notable artists like Spac3man, Fly Moon Royalty, Marissa, and Larry Hawkins. I connected with him over the phone yesterday, and asked him about the state of the label, and if he's where he envisioned he'd be at ten years. The Sportn' Life Records ten year anniversary show is tonight at Barboza, and features the imprint's full roster of talent. Tickets here, Q&A below:
SW: What does the ten-year [anniversary] mean to you?
DeVon: There's been a lot of growth. Thinking about where we started: D. Black and Fatal [Lucciauno]. These guys were like fourteen years old when we started. It's growth, you know. They were performing at community centers, church functions, high school functions - things like that. We recognized the talent, and what we set out to do was to cultivate it, and take things "downtown" so to speak, and it worked out. I like to think that we're more respected in the local music scene, but that's just me saying that.
What do you think that your label, particularly, has done as far as the more hardcore side of rap being accepted by the mainstream local music scene?
I personally wouldn't use the word "hardcore," except for Fatal in a sense. I guess over the years, D. Black was and [Spac3man] - in a sense everyone was - but I try to look at us as more traditional soul sounds, black music, you know what I mean? As opposed to like THEESatisfaction, or Shabazz Palaces - these guys doing a little more experimental things that Seattle naturally gravitates to, which is fine, I listen to it as well. I think one of the things we wanted to prove is...we didn't set out to have to be doing that "alternative" thing just to be accepted in Seattle.
A lot of the music you guys have made is extremely professional, and accomplished, especially with the high level of collaboration that you have been able to enjoy. Commercially, it's not like you've built up a couple of platinum records or anything like that. How do you feel about the trajectory the label has taken? It's been an incline, for sure - a good one - but are you at the height you'd like at a ten-year?
You know, yeah, definitely. With all the talent we manage, the only goals were to just keep moving forward, honestly. There've been tick marks...like D. Black has been invited to CMJ [music festival] before, and we've had a few artists play South by Southwest...Spac3 went on tour with Girl Talk. We've accomplished the sort of things that are, to us, great...We started at ground zero, you know what I mean. Self-funded and everything like that. We're definitely in a nice place, and I personally am in a nice place because I see things a lot clearer now where I want to take things for the next few years.
Speaking of which, over the last couple years, you have branched out a little bit, signing Fly Moon Royalty for example. That was a little bit different. It fit into what you were saying with the more traditional kind of soul. Do you see [Sportn' Life] branching out even further?
We're always open to any genre, it's just a matter if it's something I personally like, and want to get behind. No disrespect to anyone...but that's why you never saw anything new come from us until Fly Moon Royalty...
To go back a question, we always wanted to fill this void that was missing in Seattle hip hop. Coming from the community we come from, and just coming professionally... We felt like we were this little pocket that was missing in Seattle, and I feel like we definitely represent that voice. I feel that people go to us first for certain things.
With the success that a lot of people have been able to have, like Macklemore, without representation from a label, what economically, and as far as promotion in 2012 is a label able to accomplish? I know that Macklemore is going through The Agency promotion group, so it's not like [he and Ryan Lewis have] done it all on their own...
He's got promotion, he's got a booking agent, so he's got the elements there without having to sign things, or give away a lot. In all honestly, we're more of a management kind of thing, to where I've always wanted to fill the void that's been missing in music, and that's the artists' development. It's the part that's been missing from labels for years. They like got rid of that department years ago. We always wanted to act as an artist development label. I do my thing as far as my percentage goes, but I don't think that today's music market requires all the things that a label used to do... We're going to be acting more as a management and artist development [label], and less as a bank. Teaching artists how to market themselves.
So it's more like, get the most out of the promising artists you have, as opposed to just moving from one flash-in-the-pan to the next.