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GET ON THE MIKE

The Baltimore Sun

You've got lyrical style and flow and think you can make it as an MC.

But it takes loads of ambition and hard work to build up a large enough fan base and a solid reputation. If your goal is a record deal with a major label, you have to start on the street and work your way up.

Knowing the right ways to promote yourself, from cutting a mixtape to booking your first gig, can give you a big advantage. This is your guide to getting ahead.

Getting started

One of the first ways to build buzz is by freestyling on the street. Maniak Dre, aka Gary Andr? Watson, built up a bigger vocabulary and worked on his flow by facing other rappers on the street. Freestyling also helps you size up other MCs, he said.

"To me, the whole rap game is competition," Dre said. "If he's better than you, he's going to sell more albums than you; if he's better than you, he's going to get more people to shows than you."

In the past year or so, more and more MCs have started MySpace pages as a way to spread their music. Local promoters are now looking at MySpace pages to decide which rapper to book.

"I remember a year ago, most everybody that came in here didn't know how to use the Internet -- didn't know anything about it," said Amanda Beale, aka Amotion, who owns Deep Flow Studios in South Baltimore.

"Now, most everyone that comes in here has a MySpace page. It's definitely growing," she says.

Getting in with a group of other MCs can be a good or bad thing, depending on what kind of crew it is.

"If everybody's on the same page, there's always strength in numbers," said Steven Loney, aka Low Key. "If you do all the right things and everybody's on the same page, it's a beautiful thing."

Cutting a mixtape

Mixtapes are a cheap way to get your name out and show people what you can do lyrically. Usually, mixtape beats are sampled from hit songs and paired with fresh raps.

Some rappers prefer to make beats and record at home using computer programs such as Fruity Loops. But recording studios are still the main go-to for plenty of MCs.

A mixtape can cost $1,000-$2,000 if it's recorded in a studio. Pressing 1,000 copies of the mixtape will run you $800-$1,100, depending on how much money you want to spend on the layout.

Mixtapes have 20, sometimes even 30 tracks. To get that many, you should record 35 and cut a few, Amotion said. That way you wind up with your strongest tracks.

Set a timeline and stick with it. A mixtape should take about two months to record, if you cut a couple of songs a week, Amotion said. If it takes much longer, you're not serious enough.

Be sure to have two or three original beats on the mixtape, which you can send to radio stations, Amotion said. Because samples are copyrighted, you can't sell them legally without clearing them first. And clearing samples costs money.

"If you want to get taken seriously, you need to be rocking as many original beats as possible," Amotion said.

Beats can cost anywhere from $50 to $500, depending on the quality. Some producers give out beats for free to MCs they think are good enough.

"The beat is the song," Dre said. "If the beat is trash, the song is trash."

If you're trying to make a name and a sound for yourself, look for a young producer, said beatmaker Juan Donovan Bell of Darkroom Productions. Early on, he and Jamal Roberts teamed up with rapper Diablo. Diablo and Darkroom fed off each other, and both benefited.

"You all do your thinking together and create a sound together. That's the best way these days," Donovan said. When you've got a mixtape cut and you're ready to start getting your name out there, live shows are the next step.

Booking a gig

Even the best MCs can't sit home and expect fans and the industry to come to them. Reputations and record contracts are built on quality music and self-promotion.

"People think a big deal is going to come their way because they have hot music," Amotion said. "It's not. You have to go out there and make a name for yourself."

The 5 Seasons (830 Guilford Ave., 410-625-9787) is a mini-mecca for local hip-hop. Lawrence Miller, aka Sonny Brown, hosts a weekly showcase there called Hip Hop 101 Mondays.

Brown, who books MCs for the show, said he mainly spots talent on MySpace. A rapper's talent is important, but so is the caliber of the music.

"I try to listen to a song's quality -- if it's been mixed and mastered correctly," Brown said.

When Hip Hop 101 Mondays started about three years ago, hardly anyone came. Now, about 80 people show up every week, Brown said. The crowd is a mix of rappers and the general public. Performing in front of random people is one of the best ways to gauge your music, because they'll give you an honest response.

"Some nights it seems like the Apollo [in Harlem] in there," Brown said. "You might get booed or people might start saying stuff ... but that's the kind of crowd you want to test your skills in front of."

Low Key promotes Strength in Numbers, an open mike every second and fourth Friday at the 5 Seasons. First-come, first-served, it's a chance for unknown MCs to show off in front of a fresh, diverse audience, he said.

"It especially brings a lot of people together that normally wouldn't deal with each other," Low Key said. "Everybody shows each other love. It's better than hate. That's what feels really good to me."

The Elements Party sponsors hip-hop shows at venues such as Sonar. It books national talent and brings in local MCs to open.

For a local MC to be seriously considered as an opener, he or she has to have a solid mixtape and show some ambition, said Elements Party co-founder Pete Lynch, aka DJ P-Funk.

P-Funk and the other Elements Party members are willing to put relatively unknown rappers on stage as long as they're committed to the music and the scene.

Even if you're not going to be on stage, get out as much as possible, P-Funk said. Go to other MCs' shows and show your support. Take some copies of your mixtape with you, and hand them out. Shake some hands. Get your name out there.

"The unspoken main thing is to show up at events," P-Funk said. "Support the scene, whether you're performing or not. As much as possible, support the scene. That's the only way it's going to work."

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

STUDIO TIME

Here are some local recording studios:

Architects Recording Studio 4325 Harford Road 410-444-1984

Deep Flow Studios 3725 S. Hanover St. 410-354-3456 deepflowstudios.com

Street Legal Entertainment 2220 N. Charles St. 410-467-7797 streetlegalent.com

Unruly Records 7455 N. New Ridge Road, Hanover 410-691-0010 unrulyonline.com

WHERE TO GO

Here is a list of local venues and shows:

THE 5 SEASONS

830 Guilford Ave.

410-625-9787

Lawrence "Sonny Brown" Miller hosts Hip Hop 101 Monday, a local showcase, at 9 p.m. every week. Admission is $10 for men and $5 for women. Message Miller through his MySpace site, myspace.com/sonnybrown2.

Promoter Steven "Low Key" Loney runs the Strength in Numbers showcase, an open mike every second and fourth Friday. First-come, first-served. Admission is $10 for men and $5 for women. The event starts at 9 p.m. For more information, go to teamfifty.com.

Sonar

407 E. Saratoga St.

410-327-8333

The Elements Party sponsors hip-hop shows with national headliners and local openers about once a month.

Mail CDs and press packets to Elements Party, P.O. Box 631, Timonium 21094 or go to elementsparty.com

The Turntable Club

2139 Jefferson St.

myspace.com/theturntableclub

Hosts live shows, particularly hip-hop, Friday and Saturday nights.

E-mail turntableclubmd@yahoo.com

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