JMU graduates find careers in the hip-hop industry
By Adam Dove
Few rappers get the opportunity to open for artists such as Jason Derulo, Wale and Vanilla Ice before they graduate from college. Not every producer can collaborate with J.R. Rotem to make hits for B.o.B., and not every publicist’s firm works with clients like Drake, Keri Hilson and Big Boi. But the combined resume of three JMU graduates boasts all of the above accomplishments, less than one year after their graduations. Each is taking a different route to break into the music industry, but a strong passion for hip-hop is constant among the trio.
‘Everybody has their own struggle’
When Kyle Scott was in fourth grade, he and his friends would sometimes sneak out of class. But instead of ditching school or causing serious mischief, they took their cassette players to the bathroom to listen to Bone Thugs-n-Harmony tapes.
“We were just so into it, and so into them,” said Scott.
By age 14, Scott began writing his own raps, and in high school he took the emcee name Kase Munny. Hip-hop became a means to cope with the “trials and tribulations” that happened in his life.
While growing up, Scott’s favorite artist was 2Pac. “He was just being real, being relative and trying to relate to people,” Scott said. “You could hear his conviction behind what he was saying.” Scott found himself trying to emulate 2Pac’s ability to create an emotional connection with his listeners.
“I talk to people day to day, and they may not have the same struggle as me, but everybody has their own struggle…You hear a lot of club and pop-type rap and it’s all about celebration, but there’s a whole other side of life too, and you can’t ignore that.”
Scott, who majored in communication studies, is currently living in Brooklyn and working as an intern for The Chamber Group, a publicity firm that works with artists such as Big Boi, Drake and Keri Hilson.
“It’s great because you get to see these people that you grew up listening to…I always had an impression that there was something spectacular or untouchable about them,” Scott said. “But you see them and you realize they’re just real, regular people and it just gives you that extra motivation and reassurance.”
‘I want to pull a Kanye West’
Mike Williams’ path to the hip-hop scene wasn’t as predictable as Kyle Scott’s grade school Bone Thugs sessions. Originally, Williams was into rock bands such as Nirvana and Led Zeppelin and he learned to play guitar. But he always struggled to keep a group of reliable band mates together.
“Every single time I started a band, somebody would bulls — or something would fall through,” Williams said. “I got sick of relying on other people.”
So he got a music software program called Reason as a sophomore in high school, and started making beats and writing rhymes. He recalls things “coming together” at that point, when he could do everything himself and didn’t have to rely on other people.
While attending JMU as a media arts and design major, Williams (Mikey Mike) performed at house parties and a show in Charlottesville, among other venues. He and Kunal Jhanjee (MC Presto, below) even opened for Wale and Jason Derulo at the Convocation Center last spring. Williams said it’s hard to top the feeling of performing live for an enthusiastic crowd.
“Once I got on stage rapping for 600 or 700 people at the U.Va. show, it was the craziest feeling,” Williams said. “Ever since then I was like, ‘I gotta keep rapping. I gotta do this for a living.’”
Today, Williams works as a producer and writer for Beluga Heights Records, an Los Angeles-based label founded by J.R. Rotem and known for discovering artists such as Sean Kingston and Jason Derulo. Williams wrote the singer Auburn’s hit single, “All About Him,” and co-produced a currently untitled track with Rotem that he’s hoping will make B.O.B.’s next album.
With musical genres such as pop, hip-hop and rock merging together in today’s music scene, Williams thinks his background in rock and guitar gives him an advantage as a producer.
“I think that’s what’s made me the producer that I am today, that I’m willing to listen to everything,” he said. “The fact that I started on guitar and started listening to rock gives me an edge, because now that music’s going that way I have all these tools.”
Williams plans to move from Salisbury, Md., to L.A. in the near future, where he will continue to produce for some of Beluga’s bigger artists. His ultimate career goal? “To become the biggest producer in the world, really,” he said. “I want to pull a Kanye West: kind of get in on production and writing for other people, and then start putting out my own stuff.”
But as Williams has learned, the road to hip-hop stardom isn’t an easy one. The gatekeepers who run the business aspect of the industry often don’t have the same musical ear or overall vision as the artists and producers, he said.
“You’re creating music you know is solid, and then you send it of to some dumbass sitting in a chair at a record label…It’s just some kid who got a job as an A&R (Artists & Repertoire Executive) and he’s supposed to decide what’s hot and what’s not,” Williams said.
Still, Williams is optimistic and encourages aspiring artists to chase their dreams. He believes that for those who are passionate and want something badly enough, the world will align and allow it to happen.
“If you make good enough music, at some point, somebody’s gonna listen.”
1,000 songs later, the ‘perfect album’ nears release
While at JMU, Mikey Mike spent one semester living with Kunal Jhanjee, an independent hip-hop artist who goes by MC Presto. The duo’s other two roommates each had their own musical taste: one was an R&B and pop singer, and the other played guitar.
“You’d walk into the house, and there would just be sound coming from every direction,” Jhanjee recalled.
The exposure to different types of music was a good learning experience for Jhanjee, who was previously set in stone about his preference in underground, uncommercialized hip-hop.
“I realized that just because something’s commercial, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s evil,” he said.
Still, Jhanjee prefers to remain an independent, unsigned artist — for now at least — to maintain creative control of his music.
“I don’t want anybody whispering in my ear,” he said. “I can rap about whatever the hell I want, whatever comes into my head.”
Jhanjee has recorded more than 1,000 tracks since he started rapping at age 14. He’s never released an album or mixtape, but he’s currently working his first album, “Out With The Old.” The project will be a compilation of his best work since he was 16 and he hopes to release it in May.
“I just never released anything because I was trying to put together the perfect album,” he said. “I’m very self-critical when it comes to my music…I’ll make something and like it, and then 10 minutes later I’ll hate the s— out of it.”
Jhanjee describes his music as having an “old school feel” — think Nas, Big L and Atmosphere rolled into one emcee. His songs vary from the goofy and lighthearted to serious and introspective. He tries to cover universal topics that people everywhere can relate to.
“Obviously I can’t rap about the hood, because I didn’t grow up there, so I rap about things like love, hate, anger, frustration, confusion,” Jhanjee said. “It’s a good way to express yourself in a positive way. When I’m angry, instead of punching someone in the face, I just punch myself in the face through the microphone.”