It's the last Friday in August and rapper Dom Kennedy's Other People's Money camp is throwing a promotional party at Little Tokyo's RIF consignment store; the suffocatingly hot half that's been cleared of merchandise is serving as a VIP area for the night. Outside are food trucks, and slinking around the corner a line that will barely let up over two hours. Inside is a mix of selfie-ready Tumblr guys and girls donned in streetwear, throwback sneakers and snap-back caps.
Dom Kennedy (né Dominic Hunn), 29, comes in pretty much unheralded. Wearing a Mighty Ducks jersey and a Dodgers fitted cap, he poses for pictures and makes small talk with a noticeable lack of gravity, considering the whole event revolves around his presence.
For the past four years, he has been building a fan base that exists outside of mainstream awareness and the hype cycles of the hip-hop Internet. With no label support, he has released at least a half-dozen albums, only one of which — 2011's From the Westside, With Love II — was actually available for purchase. Even last year's airy and smooth Yellow Album, which featured appearances by Kendrick Lamar, Rick Ross and Too $hort and yielded a small radio hit in "My Type of Party," was distributed for free online.
But the Other People's Money label is pursuing commerce in other, unique ways. It has struck a deal with Best Buy to get Kennedy's coming LP, Get Home Safely, on the chain's shelves for its Oct. 15 release date. An artist going directly to a major chain is unheard of. Even the independent artists who have been making waves — Macklemore, Mac Miller, Tech N9ne — use record distributors such as American Distribution Alliance and Fontana to get their works in stores.
Though Kennedy is largely ignored by critics, his fan base is passionate, which is demonstrated again the night after the Little Tokyo event, when he headlines a sold-out show at the Observatory in Santa Ana. The only other artists on the bill are his crew's acts, and the crowd is multicultural — truly so. Neither blacks nor whites seem to be the norm, giving over to all-ages shades of browns and reds and yellows shooting up vapor pens. They're mostly girls, wearing short shorts and baring long legs. One bottle blonde who looks like a lost sorority member stares into her phone for most of the night, but when Dom comes on, she, like most everyone else, knows all the words to his songs. When Tha Dogg Pound's Kurupt comes out during the headlining set, it's clearly Kennedy doing the legendary rapper a favor, not the other way around.
Weeks later, during a mastering session for Get Home Safely in Burbank's Boom Boom Room studios, Kennedy recalls that, after putting out his first two albums, he was still living with his family, with a suspended license but not enough money to get his car out of police impound, without even a cellphone. "At this time, I'm eating two Whopper Jrs. [for] 99 cents [each]," he confesses. "I had my spots around the neighborhood: Chicken spot $5, A1 Burger on Vernon — $3.50 for the burger, fries and a soda." Still, he says he only made From the Westside, With Love II available for sale because his first-born son was coming. "I never wanted nothing from rap up until now. That's how naive but how pure my vision and my heart was for what I'm doing," he says. "My goal was always to get it to the people that really needed it and wanted to hear it, not to everybody else. I sacrificed a lot to do what I'm doing now, to be happy."
Kennedy's music is quintessential L.A. cruising music — easygoing and leaned back, calm and sunny. It's empowered by a breadth of subjects and tropes without holding onto anything too tightly. He has an Everyman appeal: He's streetwise but not overly gangsta, hazy but not necessarily potheaded, aspirational but not greedy, sensual but not lusty. "You can't talk about a street you ain't never been to," he raps on "Graduate" from Westside II. "You always yappin' about them girls you ain't never been through/She call my phone cryin', I give her more than tissue."
The video for "South Central Love," the first single from Get Home Safely, is full of small slices of life — croker sacks and Vans, washing cars in the driveway and rolling dice in the alley, guns and racial profiling, courting around-the-way girls and positive pregnancy tests, domino games with Nipsey Hussle and hanging with Baron Davis on the couch. No one image is centered on for too long. It's all a mosaic of the commonplace and the foreboding. And, with a $15,000 budget, it's the camp's largest production to date.
Kennedy's manager and partner, Archie Davis, is sitting at OPM headquarters in the Fairfax District, right above street-culture emporia the Hundreds and Supreme. The office is about the size of a small bedroom; they initially snagged it three years ago because they knew the owners, which allowed them to circumvent a credit check neither of them would have passed. A friend put in floors and a sound booth.
The room is full of randomness — a Liemert Boulevard street sign, KAWS Hennessy bottles, Warhol Campbell's Soup cans, figurines, scattered sneakers, a wine cooler, the bike Kennedy used to ride to the studio.
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Davis and Kennedy met late in 2009; the former had just started working A&R for Interscope and unsuccessfully tried to get Kennedy signed. "It's not that he didn't want it," Davis says of the proposed deal, which Kennedy rejected because it was a "360" — the now-standard recording contracts that taxes all of an artist's earnings. "The 360 terms may have been good for some people, but it just didn't make sense," he adds.
Davis has since joined Kennedy's camp, and they've entertained offers from numerous major labels, independent distributors and rappers with vanity imprints, they say — until it became more cost-effective to ignore most offers. "If the shit didn't look right, we not finna be calling you back," Davis says. "That costs money; my attorney costs money."
As the music industry continues to morph and atomize and struggle in the face of technology-driven changes in listeners' relationships to music, business models will continue to transform, and more and more micro-stars will emerge who can thrive without the industry gatekeepers. It's a reality that has been years in the making and, where hip-hop is concerned, those who succeed outside the major-label system will be the ones who master the DIY ethos. By going directly to a big-box store with no intermediaries, Other People's Money and Dom Kennedy are not only blazing trails, they're creating reluctant heroes.
"I'm not a entrepreneur," Kennedy says. "I'm not no business genius. I'm on my business because I want to get paid. I did this out of necessity."