C: Kellee, we're not exactly the first name in rap or hip hop, so what led you to Business Know-How?
K: Well, I've been doing a lot of work sort of focused around finding sources that, not only can help my business but that also that specifically might have an interest in working with me, because I realize my story is a bit different than most, and so we just thought it might be interesting. We checked out your blog and I was reading some different things and thought, well, it would be great to see if there was some interest you had in my story and the things that I've been doing, and I feel a lot of what I've been doing could be helpful to others, as well, so I figured, why not?
C: Absolutely. Tell us how you got started in the music business. How does a pretty blonde from central Pennsylvania get people to take her seriously as a rapper?
K: Well, I've been singing in rhyme and sort of talking in rhyme in my head since I was a little kid. It was sort of one of those things that- my mom said I was dancing and singing before I could walk and talk. And I've always been a performer and I fell in love with hip-hop at a pretty young age. When I was nine, I remember I actually started my first rap group, modeled after Salt-N-Pepa with my best friends. We didn't really get very far but you know, that was my first little experience and from that point forward I performed when I would be at church or choir or anything like that throughout my teens and when I went to college, hip-hop really became the central focus of my life. I had a radio show and was involved in a group at the University of Pittsburgh that was kind of like a consortium of emcees and singers and dancers and deejays, and I just kind of always stood in the background. I was not that confident necessarily but I was writing a lot and kind of doing it behind the scenes, and learning a lot about events and promotions and radio and all that kind of stuff. And I just built my business and my work - I worked at the local independent new weekly here in Pittsburgh for five years and I just really involved myself in the hip-hop community all the time, and I've always been someone that likes to support local artists so when I started pushing my own music and whatnot, I was very well received from the hip-hop community, because I was always being really supportive in turn. I had a lot of friends that were involved, and a lot of producers that I worked with and a one thing kind of led to another. I met up with my partner in business, in music, who really is a genius when it comes to online marketing and he's been able to take it to the next level and really solidify myself beyond Pittsburgh, hopefully building a viable music career.
C: What do you think is the bigger challenge for you, being a white rapper or being female?
K: I don't really tend to think too much about race. It's something that- I've never really identified that much with race necessarily. I mean I'm very aware of the injustices that are associated with race, and social justice and equality and things like that have always been - that's why I was into hip-hop, was really because I was an activist, and I found it as an outlet to spread love and kind of try to combat hate. So, I don't really think of it too much myself, and I was adopted so I didn't ever really know my ethnic background. I mean, obviously I look white so I'm white, but I was always not knowing very much about myself in that regard, it's so it's never really identifiable to me, and so I haven't really thought about it much, honestly. People certainly write about it and say different things and ask me questions like this but I tend to just try to focus on the work.
And as far as being a female in the industry, that's definitely another interesting thing that I didn't think too, too much about overall just because, like I said - in Pittsburgh I've always been a part of the community and so I've never felt like I was not getting any love or whatever because I was a woman, but I do see that there's just a lot of amazing female emcees out there that don't get the same amount of respect or opportunity as men. I think that's changing. I think the world's changing, so... I think that men have been running the world for a long, long time and I think women are finally becoming in positions of influence and art follows right behind that. So hopefully it won't be a conversation in the near future.
C: Right... You're getting a lot of international attention from music bloggers. You were featured in Mashable's Free Music Monday. How have you used the internet and social media and YouTube to build your reputation and your distribution?
K: It was an organic process to a degree. I released my album in January and linked up with my partner in business. Näkturnal is a big part of promoting my music, but he really had the know-how and taught my company how to just sort of relentlessly find people that are writing blogs, and really just research and learn about what's going on online and once you know, and once you know who to contact, you can start sending emails and start really creating relationships with people that you could mutually support. And we've helped in a lot of ways, I feel, by promoting my blog article, for example, on Mashable or on Jamendo or on whatever it may be, we're in turn helping them so it's kind of like a symbiotic relationship.
Facebook and Twitter and my own website have just been incredible forums for me to connect with my fans. You know, that's been a huge, huge part of -I think- of this working for me, and in terms of being organic and sustainable, is that I've really tried to maintain, at every step of the way, constant communication with people that are supporting me. And you know, once we do get an article written, we make sure that every time something new is featured or a video is dropped or a new song is out, we make sure that we contact them and let them know, and it creates a lasting relationship. And I really value them, and really see the bloggers as being a big part of what has helped me and so I'll forever provide them with updates of my music and promote them in exchange.
C: Do you think you could have launched a career this way without ever performing live?
K: Well, I mean, I think performing live is where you get the opportunity, particularly in hip-hop, it's an opportunity to get a response from the crowd and test new material and new ideas and see what people like and people don't like. And so, you know, I think it's possible, I think there are probably some successful internet-only artists who make videos and whatnot and really don't do any shows. I myself have done hundreds at this point in the Pittsburgh area, and I've travelled a little bit. I do plan on going on tour eventually, it's just - I think the most important thing to me right now is just working on my craft and getting better as an artist and as a writer and releasing music and connecting with people virtually and online. And eventually I'll start doing shows again, but you know, you could probably get away with not doing shows. But I think what it comes down to at the end of the day, once you've built a really strong fan base, they want to see you live; they want to feel that energy connection with the performer. I know I personally love going to live shows and seeing artists that I care about and learn from or have been inspired by.
C: Your latest album is a free download through Amazon and FrostWire. Why did you decide to give your music away, and is the decision is paying off for you?
K: Well, it's not paying off at this point in dollars and cents, but that wasn't really part of the plan. The plan was really, you know, from an artistic perspective, and the reason that I make music... you know, I'm a very spiritual person and so for me; it's much bigger than me. I feel as though my work has been like channeling something bigger, and so for me it's a way that I feel I can help people and inspire as I've been inspired and helped by music. So, I love the idea of giving it away for free. As soon as that kind of came up as an idea, I was all about it, and of course you know, people like yourself are wondering, well - what's the point and why, and how are you going to be able to sustain. And to that, and from a business perspective and that side of me, it's really about building a fan base, because the music that I make is a little bit left of center. There's not a lot of comparables. It's not like people have heard a lot of what I'm doing. Not to say that it's not happening, but in the mainstream it's certainly not happening. So, you know, by giving it away for free, you're automatically increasing the potential of someone hearing it and liking it. And if they don't ever get the opportunity to hear it, because they don't want to give money to someone they've never heard of, well then, you're just - you're kind of stuck anyway. So we just sort of looked at it as, you know - we've built the fan base. We give it away for free, and we'll probably give away my music for free to my core fan base that's been developing over the last year, for forever. And that's my hope and my dream that I can always do that because they will have been the tipping point, if you will, for myself and hopefully the hundreds and hundreds if not thousands, if not millions of like-minded artists of all kinds to have an opportunity to be heard beyond their little... beyond their sphere. So once I do build a large enough fan base, the goal would be to be selling music on a regular basis, so that I can sustain this and also helpfully help other artists. And I have a lot of bigger things that I want to do from a humanitarian perspective, and things that I believe in that I want to see happen. So my hope is that this does become successful and that I can turn a profit in the future, so that I can do more and more things.
C: You released your albums through your own company. What's it like being your own client?
K: Well, you know because I am working with people that I love, it's kind of like, I don't necessarily - I mean, I make a lot of decisions, obviously I make all the creative decisions - but as far as how I'm marketed and what I do at shows and things like that... It's been very challenging when it's just me doing it. And a lot of situations, it has to be, just due to - you know, we don't have the funds or whatever. But more often than not, I do have the input and insight of the three most important people in my life other than my family, so it's not like I feel like it's an extra stress level or something because it's me that's being promoted. I feel supported and loved, and so it's not too difficult. I can deal with the criticism from the public, for example, or whatever because I'm surrounded by people that are willing to give me the hard news and tell me it like it is and be honest with me, but it's not like it's coming from some person that I don't know. It's a little bit easier to deal with issues or problems or whatever. And I've fortunately, because of the expertise outside of myself in terms of online marketing, I haven't had to maybe do quite as much as I would normally on a different client because, you know, my main responsibility in this regard is making the music. So, not to say that that's easy, but staying in touch with fans and making the music and doing some viral PR is pretty much my primary goal and everyone else is really taking charge of the other elements of it.
C: Your latest album, Aligned Archetype, was #12 in on Amazon's top 100 free mp3 albums across the board, and you're Frostwire's most downloaded artist ever... You've gotten all this attention without the support of a major label, so it must be hard paying for studio time, video production, bandwidth for downloads. How do you handle that?
K: Well, right now I'm very blessed in that I have been working in this city for awhile and that there are incredibly talented, talented people in Pittsburgh that are making videos, that are doing makeup, that are producing, that run studios, that give me incredible pricing that is very reasonable and manageable for me and then I also do have investment coming in from sort of my other half, with the understanding that , when I do turn a profit, that will obviously need to be paid back. It really is an investment at this point, and we just have faith that it will continue to grow. We're making enough here and there on, like iTunes and things - iTunes is pretty much the only one at this point where I charge. You can't be free there. So fortunately we do turn a bit of a profit there each month and we're able to put that back into the music. But like I said, the investment's really nominal because the work is either done by us or like for example I've been saving up for a long time now to build a studio in my house and I'm pretty much at the point where I can record myself and do a lot of the work myself that I would normally have to pay for. And there are so many colleges and things like that; there's a lot of young really hungry, really talented people that have the same passion that I do and are doing it for the same reasons I am, so they really give us a good deal. So we got lucky in that sense.
You can find Kellee's music at http://www.kelleemaize.com. We'll talk about her business venture, Näkturnal, in Part II of our interview with Kellee Maize.