Balance has always been a do-it-yourselfer. Since 2004, The Bay Area Mixtape King has been releasing a steady slew of quality mixtapes and albums without the help of a major label. And despite that, or maybe because of that, Balance is still churning out quality tracks without the jaded view of the game possessed by his peers. Balance sits down with HipHopGame to discuss his latest mixtape We All In, his unique marketing approach and what he’s watching when he’s not working with the likes of Freeway, Jay Rock and Glasses Malone.
Your new mixtape We All In is finally out. You did this one on your own, like every other project. Are you the most efficient self-contained artist in the game today?
Yeah. I feel like I’ve been around for a minute. I try to drop a project every year. I try to stay current because if you don’t, the fans will forget about you, man. That’s the advice I got from other artists. Don’t over-flood the game, but at the same time you gotta be current. I’ll drop an album and three months later, the fans want the next one. You gotta find a common ground. I’m not going to drop an album every three months but at the same time you gotta supply the fans with what they want.
How would you describe the changes from when you entered the game in ’04 to now?
First off, you know, the internet wasn’t as big in ’04. I think the biggest internet thing we had to get music was probably Napster or something. Now there’s tons of different sites and now there’s actually iTunes and websites like HipHopGame are huge places where people go to find music. In 2004 magazines were the place for you to find out what’s hot and now the internet and the websites are where you find out what’s new and what’s hot.
And record labels declined since 2004. Records would sell anywhere between 10-20,000 units and now that’s more like 2-5,000. So record sales across the board have went down. 2004, 2005, 2006, it was very mix-CD heavy and it was the way to get on and now the internet is the way to get on.
You embraced the internet from the beginning of your career when other artists were still focusing on magazines and radio. Do you feel like you were ahead of the curve?
Yeah, I think by accident. I think our interview was probably one of my first internet interviews on a big site and I can’t even remember how it happened, but somehow we connected. I think in 2006, the label my album was being distributed through told me I should put together a website. I put together a website and I had a forum. I kind of did embrace the internet early. I got my MySpace page early when MySpace was cracking and now I got Twitter. I try to stay current on those things because that’s where the fans are.
Do you enjoy the social networking aspect of the game or do you look at it like it’s something you have to do?
I actually enjoy it. I’ve actually had my PR person tell me to stop responding to everybody. I actually try to respond to everybody’s Twits, as long as the question makes sense. But I actually like being able to talk to my fans because the closer the fans feel they are to you, the closer they feel they are and that’s why your music spreads. A real fan will burn your CD, talk about you all the time whenever music discussions come up with their friends and they’ll tell their friends to check you out. Somebody who likes one song only is not going to do that. They might dance to it or they might buy that ringtone, but I’m really looking for real fans of my music and I’m trying to cultivate them. I like talking to them.
You have a lot of notable features on this project, like Freeway, Jay Rock and Glasses Malone. What was it like putting We All In together?
I really tried to reach out and do some stuff with some East Coast rappers. I did a song with Freeway. He’s somebody that I really looked up to. When I got the Jay-Z albums I was a fan of his work. I got to work with Jay Rock from L.A. I got to work with Fashawn and U-N-I. I got to mix it up. I don’t ever want to be pigeonholed and only being a mixtape artist or a Bay Area artist. I want to be respected as a hip-hop artist that does his brand of music. It took a long time. Really, I didn’t want to do a mixtape. The last time we talked I told you Unsigned Legend was going to be my last mixtape. I’m never going to say it’s going to be my last ever again! I was working on my album and I hooked up with two DJs, Ill Will and Rockstar, and I wanted to put this out now. It’s more an album than a mixtape. I got all my favorite artists on it and it’s a dope project, man. 13 songs, all for free. Shit. What more could you ask for?
We’re talking semantics here, but does it matter when you call a project a “street album” or “mixtape”?
The reason I called it a mixtape is because there’s a few beats I rapped over that have been out, but the regular listener probably won’t know what it is. It’s not like I’m rapping over Rihanna or Waka Flocka or something. The reason I call it a mixtape is because there’s a fanbase for mixtapes. There’s a plus and a minus. If you call it a street album, the mixtape fans might not want to hear it, but with my history for dropping mixtapes, it kind if gets my fans excited again. I’m going to drop an album and that’s going to be an “album.” This is my “mixtape,” and later on an “album” will come.
When you look at how you played the game, you’ve really done everything on your own. Do you regret not targeting the major labels earlier in your career?
I think everything happens for a reason. I’ve seen artists get signed and never have an album come out. On one hand, I’m happy that I’ve never been signed because people can’t say they heard about that and then I got dropped. But on the other hand, I feel like when I was getting a lot of press back in 2006, I didn’t have a manager and I didn’t have a lawyer that could represent me. When I was getting all that press, I couldn’t benefit from that directly. I should have flown to New York and had meetings. In the Bay, we’re really used to doing things independently. We don’t fly out to New York for a month but I’m pretty sure if I had done that then I woulda got a deal.
But I feel like I’m a better rapper than I was in 2004 and 2005. I feel like in 2005 I would have done whatever was needed to get on. They probably would have had me doing some crazy kind of song because that’s what was popular at that time. Now I know exactly what I want my lane to be and I’m carving that lane so when a label does come I already have my shit in order. I think if I got signed in 2004 o 2005, they really would have had more control.
That could also be why you’ve had a longer lifespan.
Plus, I’ve been in meetings with labels and I don’t really look like the typical rapper. I don’t wear gold chains and I don’t have 12 tattoos and it’s no diss to artists who do that, but in 2004, 2005, 2006, when I went to these meetings, I didn’t look like a rapper. I hate that saying – “He doesn’t look like a rapper.’ What the fuck does a rapper look like? I have a baseball hat, t-shirt and jeans. What does a rapper look like? But because I didn’t have chains or smoking weed in the lobby before the meeting and I didn’t have four goons with me, I didn’t look like a rapper and that was some ridiculous bullshit that I had to go through then. That’s why I’m happy that artists like Drake and Kid Cudi and a lot of the new artists, now there are artists who don’t have tattoos all over themselves and all that. Even if you look at Dre and N.W.A, they didn’t have hella shit. They had black shirts and some fucking Adidas and Run DMC had leather jackets and Adidas. They wanted to define me by my look and I think my look and being from the Bay Area was the reason I didn’t get signed.
Hearing the music that’s out now, do you relate more to the newer artists because you haven’t been completely jaded by bad business of the major labels?
Yeah. I relate more to the new artists coming up because it’s hard for a new artist to come up and be successful. I see a lot of new artists get signed and never fucking come out. I think by sitting back and watching for the last four or five years, I’ve been able to see why some artists have come out and why did these other people not. Why did this person blow up? All these things will make it easier and better for me when I get a deal. They’re bound to happen. It’s not like rocket science. If you create a large enough deal for your music, an investor will come and a record label will come. There’s tons of people who get signed every day and I don’t just want a deal. I want a chance to come out and be successful. I want a shot.
Where do you see yourself going in 2010?
I got personal goals. One of my goals is this mixtape, I want to get a certain number of downloads. This year, I’m really going to embrace the free music movement. I feel like in the past, the only way to get your music out to people was to offer it for free and to regulate it and you would have to get it from these places and come back six months later for something else. I’m really trying to control the stream of free music because you can’t fight it and I’m going to give out free music for a year. But if you really believe your music is dope enough and hot enough, then give that shit away for free and it should be able to travel on its own and if it’s really dope, it will travel on its own. I’m really on my free music tip because I know people don’t have money to shell out $20 for a CD.
It’s also hard to get your CDs out in New York. Brotha Lynch Hung just dropped a new album and my brother couldn’t find his album in New York. There are no more stores in the ‘hood that sell CDs. Cool. How am I going to attack it? I’m going to give it out for free. If it’s wack, it doesn’t matter how free it is. But if it’s dope, that music will spread and take on a life of its own.
In today’s free download age, what do you need that you don’t have to make yourself a household name?
Really, I think it’s having an investor. I used to say money rules the world and it’s true as far as that it allows you to do things faster. Right now I’m working with a budget that I make off of shows and CDs and a regular nine to five. I feel like if I had a lump sum of money that is basically loaned to you from the label, I could make things happen faster.
I dropped a song last March and it took me three months before I could shoot the video and after that it went to radio and I had to come up with a radio budget. If you’re on a major label, you can do the song, shoot the video and get it to radio in the same week. In order to move faster you need the money to do that and that’s why I’m doing this for free. Instead of selling 2,000 units the first week on iTunes, I’d rather have 20,000 downloads for free. I’m touching 20,000 people instead of 2,000. It’s not rocket science. It’s 10 times more. Instead of doing my stuff like major labels, I’m just going to give my shit away for free.
Whenever we talk, we always talk about what we’ve been watching on TV. What have you been on lately?
I’ve been watching Breaking Bad, which is hella good. Man, it’s hella fucking good, man! Basically it’s a show about this teacher and he gets cancer and as we all know, teachers don’t make money. And he ran to his ex-student of his who was trying to sell meth and he was a horrible meth seller. As a result, the teacher teaches chemistry and he cooks up the best fucking meth in the nation and he makes loot selling the meth with the student. I saw they just had Season 2 out.
I was also on True Blood. I’m not gonna front. I watch True Blood religiously. It’s a vampire show that comes on HBO and I still like Californication.
Are you still watching Dexter?
Yeah! You know what’s funny, Dexter had one of his best seasons this year. I’m still watching Dexter and that’s one of my favorites. I still watch Dexter and Entourage but some crazy shit happened this year and it shocked the shit out of me.
In all honesty, I still watch Entourage but I just don’t find it funny anymore.
It’s kind of like, where’s it going? Like, when I’m watching it, I’m like, where are we going with this story though? I think that’s one of those things they’re trying to figure out. It’s still entertaining as shit because the characters are fucking funny, but at the same time, it’s kind of like are we going to come to an ending or something? And I think they know that. I think this next season is their last season.
I mean, Season 1, 2 and 3 was the shit though. When that first came on, I was addicted to that. Have you watched the Kid Cudi show about how to make it in America?
I watched a few episodes. It was cool. I gotta delve more into it.
I can’t get into his music.
(laughs) You weren’t feeling that album?
I tried. Half-heartedly. Am I just getting old?
I understand. What was the last thing you’ve liked though?
Raekwon, Cormega, Freeway…
Raekwon’s album was fucking dope! Because of Raekwon’s album, I can’t wait to hear the Wu Massacre album.
Is there something wrong with me or is it the music?
You know what I think it is? You and I have both been listening to hip-hop for a long time and I think something with hip-hop is it recycles itself and there will be a new artist and he’ll be the hottest thing since sliced bread but he’ll be a lesser version of an artist you liked 10 years ago and to you it’s not something different but to the kids it’s something new and different because they didn’t grow up on it like we grew up on Ice Cube, Nas and all that. I think there’s a lot of trash music and there’s more music being made than ever, so there’s a lot of weaker shit, but it’s kind of like we heard it all. We like the Public Enemy album more or the Raekwon album more because when we listen to it we have memories of where we were at that time.
Who’s the last new artist you’ve felt?
I have to say I think J. Cole is worth the hype for me because I think he possesses a certain thing that would have allowed him to survive back in the day. He has the ability to tell stories and talk about many different topics. I thought the song “Lights Please” was super-clever. I got the chance to see him perform live in Texas and he’s a dope live performer. He’s a good live performer. I feel like after seeing him perform live in Texas, he’s the real deal. MCing means moving the crowd as well as being able to tell stories and battle and do everything. For me, there’s major levels of being an MC and I think sometimes people blow up because of their affiliation or who they’re signed with or their hype. J. Cole is not as hyped as other artists but he’s fucking deserving. He’s fucking good, man.
And when’s your album coming?
After the We All In mixtape, I’m going to drop an album for free online called The Exit and that’s going to come in August and I got a hip-hop compilation I Do It for Hip-Hop that’s going to feature Murs, Chino XL, Fashawn, Gift of Gab and all of my favorite hip-hop artists I ever wanted to work with. I’ve done Bay Area compilations where I’ve worked with my favorite artists but now I want to work with all of my favorite artists. Me and Chino got a crazy song called “Forgive Me Father” where we talk about murdering MCs and we’re murderers. It’s crazy-ass concepts, man. Me and Zion I got a song called “Chips and Cheese” where we talk about how bad rap music is like eating fast food. It’s some crazy, conceptual shit. So look out for those two projects.