News Column

Hip Hop artists explores entrepreneurship

August 25, 2013


Aug. 25--"Hip-hop is a young man's game."

And with those words, former Three 6 Mafia member-turned Christian rap artist Mr. Del encapsulates a career strategy that will see him transitioning from musical entertainer to entrepreneurial musician.

For the native Memphian, whose real name is Delmar Lawrence, swapping live performances for studio productions is a logical step in a career that's been anything but traditional.

"I'm not giving up music at all, I'm just shifting my focus," said Del, who turned 35 in June. "With very few exceptions, you can't be 40 and up on stage performing hip-hop because kids don't want to listen to that. Everybody can't be Jay-Z. You have to be smart and take an entrepreneurial approach and that's where I'm headed because I plan to be in this industry for a long time to come."

Now that's he's entering the final stage of his professional recording career, Del emphasizes that he's been following a specific plan he developed years ago.

After graduating from Germantown High School, Del joined Three 6 Mafia and performed and recorded with the group until he experienced a religious conversion in 2000. After leaving the group, he launched a solo career and began releasing Christian recordings that earned him new fans and respect in the recording industry, including Grammy and Dove nominations.

From the start, he planned to release 10 albums -- a number he chose to refer to his birth date, June 10, and his home state Tennessee. And as a reference to his faith.

"Ten is the percentage we're supposed to give back to God. It's our tithe and for me, that all fits together in my music," Del said. "I've been away for a minute, but now I'm back with my seventh album and that means I'm close to finishing out this phase."

In June, Del released his new album "Faith Walka" on his Universal/Dedicated Music Group label. And in September, he'll be at the Booksellers at Laurelwood signing copies of that CD, along with his just-released book, "Soul Ties: How to Detox From Toxic Relationships."

The budding multimedia entrepreneur plans to publish more titles with a spiritual focus, incorporating some of the messages he preaches at the City of Refuge congregation that he founded about a decade ago. The group meets at 11 a.m. on Sundays at Woodland Hills in Cordova.

And he's working to sign more artists to his DMG label, particularly those in the urban/gospel hip-hop genres. Along with signing up-and-coming artists, Del is expanding his music industry efforts by arranging and producing albums for other performers and providing his expertise in the recording studio. He'll also continue his career as a songwriter, although he acknowledges that many of his musical creations in the future may be recorded by other artists.

"To stay relevant and appeal to new audiences, you have to reinvent yourself and stay fresh," Del said. "That doesn't mean you have to change your message, but you may need to change the method of delivery."

That's a smart move, said Roby Williams, resident of the Black Business Association of Memphis.

"Starting his own label is wise and searching for new artists to sign is a sharp way of keeping involved in the industry and still being creative," Williams said. "The important thing that many artists don't realize is that you can be creative and a good business person at the same time. They're not mutually exclusive. Being one doesn't cancel out being the other."

One artist who has "done it right" is Shelby County native Justin Timberlake, Del said. From his evolution as a member of a boy band to solo artist, actor and entrepreneur, Timberlake has made wise career decisions that Del said serve as examples of merging creative and business interests.

"JT has done a great job of sustaining his career by diversifying and evolving," Del said. "You've got to make smart choices. Music is a springboard for culture, but you shouldn't feel limited to one particular part of the industry. There are plenty of options to explore."

Embracing innovation has helped Del craft a sustainable image and allowed him to expand his fan base, said Cameron Mann, director of the Music Resource Center at the Memphis Music Foundation. Counting more than 2,600 musician members, the MMF offers regular programming -- most of it free -- to help local artists develop the kind of business savvy that Del espouses.

"To his credit, Mr. Del practices what he preaches, both in his career as a minister and in his career as a musical artist," Mann said. "He keeps updated on technology and he's always looking for new opportunities and he stays on the bleeding edge of what's new in the industry. He really gets it."

Capitalizing on the entrepreneurial side of the music industry is more vital -- and potentially more lucrative -- than ever before, Mann said. Artists have myriad platforms for monetizing their works, their likenesses and their logos and ever-increasing social media venues to promote those efforts. And because of the challenging state of the corporate music industry that has seen many artists dropped from major labels, growing numbers are forming their own labels and setting up websites to sell music and merchandise directly to fans.

"There's a sense of ownership for artists today that hasn't really existed this way before," Mann said. "There are lots of opportunities, but you have to know how to take advantage of them and Mr. Del is someone who does."


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