Duo Live: Live At Five

How many independent artists can attest to moving 220,000 units on the streets of New York, recognition in some of today’s most popular urban music magazines, and garnering the praise from the snootiest of industry types? You might be at a loss for words, but the dynamic duo, known as Duo Live, has a lot to say. From selling mixtapes on the streets of New York, working with Alicia Keys and Angie Stone, to the fulfillment of their second album The Color of Money, Fre and Sid V have flipped the script on what it means to be an independent artist and are demanding the respect they deserve.So how do two regular dudes from Brooklyn become arguably the most successful independent group in New York City? AllHipHop.com asked the conscious MC and prolific DJ/producer to give us the ups, downs, ins and outs to making it as an independent artist. Relax and take notes. Rule 1: Master Your CraftFre: We are the self-proclaimed pioneers of the “Stop Light Hustle.” We were the first cats in 1996, in the city of New York, to actually organize, mobilize and sell what was then a cassette tape at stop lights, on the corners, running up on cars, etc. Today we’ve sold 220,000 records the same way. Anyway, to get there you have to realize that as an independent, you are David versus Goliath. When you do something independently, you are stepping outside of the box, not following the in-crowd; you are creating your own-in-crowd. In doing so, you have to be better, not just comparable, better than the mainstream. Because if you’re not, you’ll never get the recognition or even be seen as an independent, unless you can almost overshadow your mainstream competition. Sid: And by competition we don’t mean the underground scene, because being independent doesn’t necessarily make you underground. You have to be better than everybody. Fre: We went from 1989 to 1996 without ever putting one record out. We had studios in my house, in Sid’s house. We got offers from major labels in ’96. In fact, we got a development deal offer from Atlantic [Records], but they were telling us s**t that we didn’t want to hear. They loved my voice, they loved Sid’s beats, but they just weren’t sold on us doing our own thing. They wanted us to do what everyone else does, and we didn’t want to do that. So we spent all of that time building ourselves as artists. We didn’t put our first single out until ’96, and we still didn’t put our first album out until 2000. So, 11 years without putting an album out… How many cats can say that they were working on their f***in’ craft for eleven years before putting an album out? And that’s why when we came out, we were better than everybody on the underground and independent circuit. People don’t want to hear wack music, and because you sellin’ it independently doesn’t make it okay. When we would pitch to people, we would say that we were somewhere between Jay-Z and The Fugees. We wanted you to know that our music was comparable to your favorite Hip-Hop artist, ‘cause that’s what it was. Cats have to work and perfect their craft. You have to be a musician first. What happened to being a musician before you try to sell some music? Being a salesman is cute, but Hip-Hop is art and we need to get back to that.Rule 2: Strength in Numbers/OrganizationSid: Once you master your craft, people begin to notice and appreciate your music, and you create a following. Like, my cousin was feelin’ our movement and got down and started helping sell CDs, you know? And once we started assembling a team, we developed a presence in the streets. A lot of these dudes out here selling their music independently, it might be them by themselves, or one other person. They don’t understand that there is strength in numbers and organization.Fre: Let me tell you, the rise and fall of Duo Live all revolves around organization. We grew and blew because of organization, and the reason we reached that glass ceiling and started to come back down the pole was lack of organization at the same time. One thing that Black people are not taught is how to organize and mobilize, collectively. We are taught to be independent thinkers, these European concepts of business, relationships and life in general. There was a time when we were making 10,000 dollars a month, in the streets, more than most of these drug dealers hollering about moving crack. N****s ain’t sell as much crack as I sold CDs. And the same reason a drug dealer falls is the same reason Duo Live fell, because we were not taught how to organize and manage money, and how to sustain it. That’s exactly why our album is called The Color of Money, because the color of money was our lesson. Rule 3: Blood, Sweat and TearsSid: After you mobilize you just have to persevere.Fre: Yo! We fought, cried, bled on the streets of the city. One interesting story… a little personal. We had two teams out there working with us, selling the album in Miami. We had a team on Lincoln Road and a team that worked Ocean Drive. We had a van, our office, parked on Lincoln Road and I get a call from one of my dudes saying that the police were chasing another one of my guys on Ocean Drive. Imagine that. We literally run to my van, I’m running red lights and everything just to get a few blocks over to Ocean to find out what the f**k is going on. When I get there the police have my guy sitting with Tasers still stuck in his chest. I run over and try to pull them out and the police are rushing me now. And all this happened because we were making so much money along the strip that a lot of the workers and store owners felt like we were taking their money. Some girl that worked at this spot called The Clevelander literally tried to shoo my guy. I mean, how disrespectful. He’s like, “I’m workin’ like you workin’.” So the cops come running. It was so f***ed up because we worked really hard to build relationships with the businesses. Like, “Look, we’re bringing people into your restaurant and such. We are a business entity too. We respect your hustle so respect ours.” These n****s used to call police on us regularly. It was crazy. But anyway, we had to bail him out of jail, and guess what we did? We wrapped my dude in a Duo Live flag that we used to carry in the street, and the next day we were back on the motherf****n’ strip. Cops couldn’t tell us s**t and we sold more CDs than we sold the day before. That’s the kind of s**t that Duo Live did. S**t felt like Rocky. [Laughs] That’s why we’re legendary in the streets for our grind, because our grind could not be stopped. That’s what we mean by blood, sweat and tears. Rule 4: Things Change/AdaptationFre: You have to have the ability, especially in the music industry, to change with the times. The digital revolution came in and it not only affected retail sales, it affected our street hustle. We didn’t think it would. We were like, “That s**t ain’t got nothin’ to do with us,” but it changed everything. That’s when Duo Live had to change and figure out how to get this music out and step it up a notch; which brings us to where we at now. Change is not easy, especially when you’re doing well. You know, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix the s**t. LL Cool J is one of the greatest figures in Hip-Hop music, and it is for that reason. He has managed to change with the times, and that’s why he’s still relevant to Hip-Hop. He’s more relevant than any of his predecessors. If the music changes and the beat changes, he gets those producers. If he needs to change his look, style, whatever, he does that. We are still changing too, in a different way. There was a time that we made music for ourselves, and our clique. We make Rasta rap. We had to change our whole thought process and realize that we weren’t following the footsteps on his Imperial Majesty if we are limiting ourselves and limiting our music. So we started to evolve, and this latest album is the beginning of the evolution.Sid: We also changed because initially we were based in New York City, and once we made the transition to Miami, it was like a whole new world. What they listen to is totally different than what we listen to in New York, and of course we wanted to make music that the people down here where we live could listen to. In New York, the strip club is not culture. In Miami, the strip club is culture, so we do the strip clubs down here, and that changes your music. Fre: Like, we never popped bottles in New York. We drank 40s in the stair case. Out here in the south, it changed our lifestyle. We pop bottles now. And that whole thing changes your music, your perspective. You realize now what people in other places are listening to. Before, I couldn’t relate to a lot of Bad Boy music. Now, I listen back and I get it. We’ve been traveling a lot and it’s helping us grow as artists. Like, some of the music Duo Live is about to put out, some of our existing fans may be like “What the f**k are they doing?” But trust me; it’s going to open us up to even more fans because of the message. The key is the message, and our message has never changed. We make freedom music. We make music for the people, and that’s what we still puttin’ out.Rule 5: To Be Determined…Sid: You know, that’s where we are right now-changing, growing, etcetera. Fre: We will come back to AllHipHop once we figure out what rule five is. We are at rule four. Once we figure out how this works out, we will let you guys know. The next chapter is going to be crazy, because the next rule is going to be the one. Like, it might be something like, “Never sign with a distribution company.” [Laughs] Or it could be something like, “Scratch all the rules and start here, ‘cause we have figured some other s**t out.” But those are the four most important rules for independent artists, labels, and Black businesses period, brought to you by Duo Live.