In North Hills, Valley lawns are dry from no rain. Heat radiates from parked cars, baking under the midday sun.
Damien "Dame" Ritter, 32, sits in his childhood home, blasting the AC and working. He again occupies this house because his parents, now separated, live elsewhere. The touring van and trailer for his hip-hop label, Funk Volume, are parked outside, but he speaks with an authority and clarity he may well have picked up from his previous line of work as an analyst at Goldman Sachs.
Dame worked there shortly after his graduation from Berkeley in 2002, before receiving his MBA and landing a job as a consultant for Deloitte Consulting in Chicago. He was laid off at the end of 2008. "I wasn't mad," he says, adding that the line of work simply wasn't for him.
But his background no doubt has helped him succeed with Funk Volume, which he and rapper Marcus Hopson — who goes simply by Hopsin — started in 2009. The label has since acquired millions of fans, toured around the world and had its MCs Hopsin and Dizzy Wright on XXL covers as part of its coveted "Freshman Class" issues. Though his labelmates like to indulge, Hopsin himself is straight-edge, and his fans love his straight talk. His video "Ill Mind of Hopsin 5" — which decries drinking, doing drugs and lacking a proper work ethic — has about 30 million views.
Emphasizing fan interaction via social media, high-quality merch and high-energy live shows, Dame has helped turn Funk Volume into a force. It's an independent label that often appeals to suburban kids, a model pioneered by rappers like Tech N9ne — with whom Hopsin has collaborated — and Insane Clown Posse.
Dame has created a profitable business at a time when the record industry is floundering, and with next to no radio exposure.
The appearance of the Funk Volume rappers isn't quite as over the top as the above-mentioned artists, who wear face paint, but Hopsin and rapper SwizZz (who is Dame's younger brother) onstage wear contacts that change the colors of their eyes to frightening shades. The latter joined the crew after dropping out of school at UC Irvine. The brothers' parents weren't fans of the decision. "But I could tell he wasn't 100 percent invested in [school]," Dame says. "And I wouldn't encourage anyone to go to college if they're really not going to find their way. It's usually a waste of time and a waste of money."
Taking his money from his white-collar job, Dame invested in the label, and they got to work. But at the time, Hopsin — who was raised in Panorama City — was under contract at Ruthless Records, the gangsta-rap label that failed to recapture its glory days after the death of co-founder Eazy-E in 1995. Things weren't working out. His 2009 debut was not promoted by the imprint, Hopsin says, and he sought a way out of his contract.
Before long Hopsin and SwizZz released their collaborative mixtape, Haywire. It eventually racked up some 100,000 downloads, but because Hopsin was still under contract at Ruthless, Funk Volume could not sell the tape and struggled financially. "I still had to do side consulting gigs," Dame says. "When we started touring, we finally got into the black."
Initially doing small shows around L.A. at venues such as the Airliner, they began to gain momentum outside the area in 2011, just after Hopsin dropped his first solo Funk Volume album, Raw. To DJ, Dame recruited San Fernando Valley producer DJ Hoppa, known for his mixing and scratching talents. Before long Dame signed Las Vegas rapper Dizzy Wright — who put out the well-received album SmokeOut Conversations — and up-and-coming Atlanta rapper Jarren Benton filled out the roster at the end of last year.
When they're not touring remote locales like Australia, Dame studies industry trends and keeps everyone focused. He's made a weekly video conference call mandatory for his labelmates; he says they're critical for keeping everyone up on one another's activity.
"One of the biggest things that makes the label go is the cross-promotion and support of one another," Dame says. "[It's about] maximizing the visibility and the marketing. You got to be able to get behind every artist." It certainly doesn't hurt that Hopsin has more than 1 million Facebook fans.
A key to their success has been practiced, compelling live shows. In an era where many rappers still don't look as if they've rehearsed before they get onstage, a Funk Volume concert is known for its professionalism, as well as its audience interaction — you might see crowd-surfing, or fans brought onstage to rap along. "We have the raw, gritty hip-hop showdown. You're going to jump up and down, you're going to sweat, you're going to scream, we're probably going to jump on you," Hoppa says.
The Funk Volume artists' personalities run the gamut: Hopsin prides himself on spreading a positive message, while SwizZz tempers bursts of political rhymes with nonsensical punch lines. Wright is the laid-back stoner, and Benton spits perverse, sometimes gory rhymes, not unlike early Eminem.
"Every time we bring somebody on, we hope they capture a different demographic," Dame explains. "[We want them to] have a different sound, a different voice, a different perspective."
Hopsin has been the most successful. On his "Ill Mind of Hopsin" YouTube series, he's taken shots at famous rappers like Lil Wayne and Odd Future's Tyler, the Creator: "With wack beats and gap teeth like Tyler, the Creator/Motherfucker, you not dope/So you tryna get some attention by cussing and eating a fucking cockroach?" Hopsin insists these attacks aren't personal, and they're not to draw attention; he performs them simply to get feelings off his chest.
Hopsin has found a fan base among the Juggalos, the rabid followers of Insane Clown Posse, and it was because of him that Dizzy Wright was invited to perform at this year's Gathering of the Juggalos. The appeal isn't immediately clear, but clearly the Juggalos find them to be kindred spirits, and their famous loyalty certainly has helped propel the label.
Funk Volume has a slew of albums on the docket: Benton just released an album called My Grandma's Basement, while Hopsin's third album drops later this year, and Wright and SwizZz also have new projects on the way. Dame says tours, videos and merch will accompany each release, and they're also working on a documentary.
Though Dame says everyone involved is making money, no one wears any chains or drives extravagant cars. "I think they're paying their dues," Dame says of his artists. "And hopefully this road will instill in them a grind that they won't forget."
An obvious comparison would be with South Central–based label Top Dawg Entertainment, also a rap collective whose members are gaining fame as solo artists; though the Funk Volume guys don't quite have the artistic strength of critically acclaimed rappers like Kendrick Lamar, their fan base is similarly accruing at a quick clip.
There's clearly a large upshot for Funk Volume. Who knows? Dame may even end up with better-paid employment than his former colleagues at Goldman Sachs or Deloitte. One thing's for sure: His job now is certainly more fulfilling.