By Kendra Desrosiers
It’s Yardfest. And while thousands of stylish undergrads, D.C. natives and proud alumni are commandeering the university courtyard for some hardly headliners and overpriced vendors, a band from Atlanta is a few blocks down the hill in a damp hallway, trying to make a name for themselves.
They’re six deep and just squeezed out of a “quaint” campus radio booth eager for exposure, and now two of Thunderkatz’ members are attempting to win over the few straggling Howardites with tales of their days at HU, Hampton University—clearly delusional.
Thunderkatz have been cross-country, pushing their dance single “3 a.m.” and are now in the chocolate city trying to cash in on some Howard love—seemingly they missed the Kanye censure of ’05. But this doesn’t faze the sextet. They were the unlikely victor at BMI Atlanta’s annual unsigned urban music showcase in 2006 so an aloof crowd of amateur critics are small potatoes. A few years have since passed and Tkatz have signed a brand-bending deal with The Inc., gigged nationally, dropped a radio-friendly single and despite their early success, few above the Mason-Dixon know their name.
There are thousands of great acts that have been signed that you’ve never heard of—a million maybe. Record labels are like family heirlooms. They grew dusty over the years, and like grandfather’s Vietnam transistor radio and Dad’s A-trak, they’re now obsolete and merely decorative antiques.
Everything’s digital and the 40 plus record execs can’t wrap their heads around it so your new favorite band never makes it to your myspace or the blog scours. It’s not in the torrents, on the ringtones or the late muxtape (darn RIAA). They get shelved, and according to Thunderkatz—a rock hop band you’ve never heard of— if a band doesn’t get on their viral hustle, they’re exiled to 2.0 oblivion—so much for getting signed.
Luckily for Thunderkatz, their timing is impeccable. Two years ago no one was on the hipster tip. We were still dancing. But now that M.I.A. can remix rap allstars, Janelle Monae has a mainstream audience and The Cool Kids are well, cool, “alternative black music” is no longer an alternative and genre meandering acts can join the ranks of their left predecessors. The industry is changing, as are the tastes of its consumers and now the band from Atlanta can finally get some play.
O8O (Vocals): We didn’t, I don’t even know these people [laughs].
Ginger (Vocals): Yea, I don’t know these guys. Him and I went to high school together, Del [O8O] and I. And they went to college together, Mel and Del.
Jive (Bass): John and Del worked together at the hit factory. And that’s how I met those two guys at the hit factory.
Ginger: Those two have been BFF since the womb or something and when he was working at the hit factory basically that was when everybody met each other up in New York City, and they were a band before I came along.
Ginger: Yea it’s supposed to be released sometime next year, that’s when we’re on the calendar. And right now we’re pushing our single “3 a.m.” We don’t really know what the impact is going to be on that but I mean we’re just trying to get out in clubs right now, get spun and any radio stations that you know have started to pick it up hopefully that just snowballs through.
Juno: We won a BMI contest.
O8O: and I think it was a big deal for urban music too because it was a urban showcase and kind of the fact that we came out with a band and killed it and it was the height of down south music.
Ginger: It was kind of scary. It was cool. It was really the point where things started rolling for us we decided to move down to Atlanta after that.
John: it was like a month later we moved down. Half way back up to New York and New Jersey we had sat down actually in D.C. wasn’t it and we’re like how do you guys feel actually the independent owners at the time we’re like how do you guys feel about moving down here and getting things poppin? So we were like let’s do it! A month later we came down, it was me, Jive and June and we came down and looked for a place to live and its [history] since then.
O8O: I don’t think it’s ever going to be the same. Once we actually start impacting and spreading I think hip hops going to change. I think it’s already starting to change and I think that The Inc is one of the most solid hip hop labels outside of Def Jam and they work very closely with Def Jam so it’s like those two.
Ginger: I think it going to change them too a little bit because when this pops off its going to give them more leverage to do more things like us but sometimes now. Like Ja Rule and Ashanti are who you know and I think that once things start moving for us it’s going to open people’s eyes like to a whole different side of The Inc. it will be good for them.
O8O: I’m not going to say way before any of that but we’re definitely leaders of those packs I know when those people were coming up and they came across our situation especially being in Atlanta a lot of hipster hop, hip hop whatever it is the scene has been budding there and a lot of those people have come across we’ve all crossed paths. The biggest difference between us and a lot of what’s going on there is that we’ve brought music into it and we’ve brought live music into it and that’s a big element we brought the band element into it and I think we kinda like, it’s just like…like Mcdonalds and Burger King. We’re kind of like what they listen to [when they get their start].
Mel: [There'a always something] especially with the business like the music business you know. When you’re new I think you have aspirations and reams of how an artist is supposed to get signed. How things are supped to magically unfold but it’s really just learning how you have to be very tactful and very mindful of what goes on with your business, how to handle it, really knowing contracts the actual process of breaking an artist so its like everybody looks at oh he’s signed I made it he signed a record deal and that’s realistically the very first step and it’s the beginning of the journey to really go up the mountain. I think that has been the frustrating part just learning the business and making it work for us.
John: On a new indie label that’s what it feels like. When we first signed as a band on a independent label it doesn’t feel any different than when we signed with a major label because now a year later we’re still footing it. Like how Mel said the way you thought it was is not how it is until they see a return from you.
O8O: The nature of music business has changed its all about an artist and their impact virally it’s all about the impact virally crossing over into the major media streams like radio everything is touchable now it’s not like before where it was all about a promotions budget and the street team it’s about the artist relationship with their fans.
O8O and Mel: they do not…
Ginger: it’s hard, it really is. We’re pretty savvy when it comes to things that we should do we’re kind of telling people what we want and that’s how things have sort have been happening and we’ve got to figure it out a lot of it ourselves but if we don’t do it nobody else will do it [laughs]
John: or it’s just not gonna get done the way it would. You know there’s like a million other great acts that have been signed that you’ve never heard of it. You’re shelved which is the worst possible scenario.
Mel: Unfortunately, record labels are like dinosaurs now they are used to working a certain way for so long that with the impact of like iTunes and downloading.
Juno: They’re playing catch up.
Mel: They’re really playing catch up and trying to figure out how to make it work for them so that’s a struggle.
Mel: Honestly I think the future of music is really what we’re doing in the sense that people are going to start believing in what they see, they wanna see somebody get in front of them and not be a studio product where you’re working with great songwriters and engineers and mixers but the talent isn’t being showcased. I think that’s what’s happening. People don’t buy albums anymore because they’re like I don’t wanna spend $17 on three songs that I like when I can go to iTunes and download the songs myself but when there’s it always speaks for itself when you fall on an artist who is putting the work in and giving the talent, hitting the road and actually giving shows and tours something that’s really tangible for people to hold on success happens i.e. Lil Wayne, Alicia Keys, Jonas Brothers.
O8O: I think lifestyle has a big impact on music now too. People buy into the whole persona of the artist they like everything from the socks they’re wearing to the type of toothpaste they use. If you buy, I think that if you’re an artist that has an interesting lifestyle that people can get down with you can also have a healthy career of providing all different aspects for your fans.
John: I think that the whole label thing like you know music in its self [inaudible] it’s become very dumbed down and a lot of it’s the same. I know when we first moved down south I was like I can cant event turn on the radio I was not really into that snap, crunk stuff you know what I mean. I guess even that starting to change even that is starting to get more musical. It’s up to you to see what’s positive and grasp that and not so much focus on what’s negative because there’s so much negative stuff in this industry, it will drive you crazy and make you not want to do it.
O8O: Tkatzmusic.com check us out.
John: And come to the show wherever we play.
Ginger: yea check us out.
John: wear soft shoes.
Ginger: you need to see us at a show.
John: be prepared to have beers spilled on you, more or less thrown