Why L.A. Rapper Wax Is OK With Being Dropped by His Label
This story first appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Before you send me f---ing sympathy cards and flowers, it's OK -- I'm-a be all right," said budding Los Angeles rapper Wax (né Michael Jones) in a YouTube video he posted in August announcing that he was leaving Island Def Jam after nearly two years with label. Describing the constant presence of format-obsessed executives, he explained, peering directly into the camera with honest optimism, "This is actually a really positive thing."
Unlike most "dropped" artists, the 32-year-old had been lobbying for months to be let out of his contract -- one that had the Universal Music-owned company shell out an advance of more than $1 million, according to a source, with recording budget allowances on top. The deal also guaranteed the big-eared white rapper two albums, music videos (he had shot one, for the SoCal stoner anthem "Dispensary Girl"), marketing and radio promotion -- the kind of deep-pocket expenditures required to set up a future star.
"It f---ed me up," he says of the major label experience. "It's hard to explain, but I guarantee there's others out there who know exactly what I'm talking about. It made me depressed."
It's a long way from the bubbly chitchat and tequila shots he and manager Brian Washington, a former Interscope Records staffer and marketing consultant, shared with L.A. Reid at the Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge in November 2010. Then the chairman of IDJ, Reid was the man who had launched TLC, Outkast, Usher and Kanye West, and he was taken with Wax's lyrical ability and sound -- using acoustic guitar as the core of an accessible and often comedic mishmash of genres. Washington and Wax had discussed among themselves potentially signing a major-label deal, but only after achieving some success on their own.
Indeed, Wax had momentum and millions of YouTube views on his side. With a video production team of friends that he still uses, he found an audience for his quirky, freestyle improvisations and low-budget music clips (among his fans: actor Ryan Phillippe, who sang Wax's praises on Jimmy Kimmel Live!) and eventually quit his day job delivering groceries around Hollywood, supporting himself solely on merchandise sales, ad revenue from YouTube and two jingle contests he won (for A.1. Steak Sauce and the HoodieBuddie sweatshirt with built-in headphones). What did he need a major label for?
"Kids run away from marketing," says the 33-year-old Washington of their hesitation about joining a roster alongside Justin Bieber and Rihanna. "You have to be very careful what you try to force on them. It has to take on a life of its own and get discovered organically. If people like it, they will share it. If enough people share it, you have something."
But Reid's pull was hard to resist, and 36 hours after a poolside audition that found the executive referencing obscure lines from Wax songs, they agreed to a 50-50 joint-venture deal. "It all happened way sooner than I expected," says Washington. "I was like: 'F---, how do we turn this down?' We're talking about a deal that 50 Cent and Eminem got after selling millions of records. Basically, it was a no-lose situation."
Or was it? Four months in, things were going swimmingly, and then, as had been rumored, Reid left the label to head Epic Records and, soon after, join The X Factor. As for new IDJ boss Barry Weiss? He wasn't like the old boss, and Reid's leftovers, while not shunned, weren't favored either.
But it wasn't lack of attention that spoiled Wax's deal with Island Def Jam; it was the opposite. The label teamed Wax with a host of songwriters and producers, among them Greg Wells, Jim Jonsin and Polow da Don. Wax, who worked alone almost exclusively, saw his songs dissected during creation then overanalyzed by boardrooms full of executives for their profitability and radio potential. With every song turned in, someone would say, "It's good, but it's not the one," recalls Washington.
Adds Wax, "You're constantly thinking about the result rather than the process."
"You're dealing with executives that don't care about cool music or good music -- they care whether it's a hit or not," Washington elaborates. "And it's what they think a hit is … that's when it becomes a science project. You have so many opinions, you don't know who to listen to." An IDJ insider disagrees: "You can't manufacture artists. To understand who Wax was, we had to ask a lot of questions. Maybe he took that literally, and it confused him."
Curiously, says Wax, "I have a lot of sympathy for them. I'm a weird project. Most artists you could describe in a tweet. I wouldn't want to be my A&R guy. It's not easy."
You could say the same of most artists' experiences when trying to walk away from a major-label contract. But because of smart negotiating on the part of attorneys Darrell Miller and Julian Petty of Fox Rothschild, who had inserted provisions should Reid leave the label and also secured the second-album option, Wax was able to part ways with his benefactors and take his music with him. The split, says Wax, was mostly amicable.
As Washington knows from his stint at Interscope, the label undoubtedly debated the project's worth, crunching numbers to calculate how much more it would cost to take Wax to radio (which can run $300,000 and $400,000 for a pop push), put an album out then produce and release another. Ultimately, IDJ decided to cut its losses. By not accepting the album Wax turned in, they walked away from the contract, and he exited without having to recoup money already spent.
But by no means is Wax laughing his way to the bank. His label cash-out hardly afforded him Rolls Royces -- it can be seen in the living room corner of his Venice apartment, where the home-recording setup he purchased using a fraction of his IDJ advance sits, along with computers, microphones, synthesizers and speakers stacked on a plastic folding table. Parked outside is the Nissan Sentra he bought as well.
Still, some might say he gamed the system -- and the investment, as much as he didn't like it, seems to have paid off in other ways. For his album-release show at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, Wax had fans lined up to the corner. A week later, his album Continue …, featuring four songs written and recorded under his IDJ contract, debuted at No. 150 on the Billboard 200, No. 3 on the Heatseekers chart and No. 16 on the rap chart with 3,000 units sold in its first week. Says Washington, "It's a marathon, not a sprint." Perhaps most important, Wax felt a flood of creativity return, along with his DIY ethos.
Granted, Wax isn't the first modern rapper to make an independent approach work. In recent years, L.A. misfits Odd Future have developed a rabid following with an engaging online presence, free mixtapes and videos dispensed through Tumblr and Twitter. Pittsburgh's Mac Miller was the first independent artist since 1995 to release a No. 1 album with his 2011 debut, Blue Slide Park. More recently, Seattle's Macklemore topped the Billboard Hot 100 with his hit "Thrift Shop."
For Wax's album, digital distribution is handled by flat-fee service TuneCore, which added Continue … to all online music retailers and streaming services. Another online service, Topspin Media, handles merchandise orders, and this year Wax will focus on touring, with CAA's Cara Lewis -- a hip-hop heavyweight who has represented Kanye West and Eminem -- as his agent. And he will continue to work the album, with no expectations for peak positions or sales. It's a lesson in credibility that was learned the hard way. Says Washington: "Don't think you're going to get in a major label and be like, 'We're gonna change the game.' Because you're going to be very frustrated."
Wax corrects his manager: "Every once in a while, there's somebody who changes the game. But for every Adele and Gotye, there's hundreds of Waxes."