Prolific: Rewards of the DIY ethos, and indie innovation, Canadian-style
by David Urbanic
Life is full of unrealistic expectations. Just ask Toronto-based rapper, Prolific. Today he is the archetype of the modern DIY musician: active in the local scene, nurturing collaborations on his own and other artist’s releases, and energetically investing in the power of social media. But, like many, he started with nothing but the youthful fantasy of being discovered, and whisked to notoriety based on the most menial of effort.
Originally hailing from Lennoxville, Quebec, Prolific got his start much like anyone: with the necessity to fill a void. Wandering the surrounding countryside of a dead-end town, with lots of time to kill and an active mind filled with bigger dreams than the only English speaking community in Quebec could confine, Prolific was like any frustrated kid looking for an outlet. “It's sort of an eerie place, right near the train tracks,” says Prolific. “When you live in a place like that you have to find things to do. You explore the train tracks and abandoned houses, you get really drunk by bonfires. You fight. I started rapping because I was always a writer… writing down ideas on the sides of notebooks, and sketches and whatever, but I didn’t have a form. Then I discovered rap and all those ideas started turning into verses. Then those verses became things to drop when I was hanging around with my friends. Man, there was one other rapper in the whole area. He had a boombox and we'd go to the park and freestyle for like six hours straight and drink forties. But, the more I started reflecting on what rap was, I realized how powerful it could be: music, poetry and performance all in one.”
The transition from William Rideout, the small town picnic table MC, to Prolific, the aptly named and versatile writer, performer and producer culminated with the 2007 release of Think. A full-length album of surprising depth, Think confidently blends the seemingly black and white worlds of bombastic hip-hop bravado, with delicately rendered poetic dreamscapes, without seeming contrived or forced. An amazing album—let alone a debut album—for anyone, let alone a virtual unknown, only nineteen years of age, from the back-country of the Canadian hip-hop scene! But despite the undeniably strong performance delivered on Think, both the album and the artist seem to have suffered, at the time, from an unsavory period of succumbing to the demons of unrealistic expectations. Even for those actually capable of crafting stunning displays of artistic prowess very early on, it is that notion of instantly being “discovered” that can at least abbreviate the advancement of an inspired career.
“I absolutely subscribed to this notion,” says Prolific. “I even subscribed to it unconsciously once I had rejected it rationally. The concept was so deeply ingrained that the music world was this magical land of opportunity where you get swept to stardom.”
But, just as William Rideout emerged as Prolific by artistically wrestling himself out of a constricting small town existence, so too did Prolific wrestle against his preconceived notions of immediate mainstream reward. In essence, while many artists spend far too much time expecting to be canonized by the church (read: the mainstream music industry) for their first miracle (read: album), Prolific is among the few that change the course of their devotion (read: expectation), opting instead for a lengthy period of challenging, but more realistically rewarding, missionary work (read: DIY work ethic).
As independent artists, it is important to respect our artistic endeavors as a business. And no business succeeds without tireless self-promotion, a structure of partners and collaborators, and strategy.
“I have recognized the music world as an industry no different than any other,” says Prolific of his new career approach. “Previously it was all just a shot in the dark, and even though I was making progress because I was hitting the scene, the approach was very scattered. I thought it was okay because it was ‘the music scene’ and ‘that is how things work’. But, that is not the case, and if you approach an industry without strategy you will not succeed.”
“My real awakening came about at Euphonic Sound, under the influence of James Pew,” Prolific explains. “James had been pushing a development project for independent artists called Studio 2.0, which seemed too good to be true.”
Run by Pew, and with the slogan, “Turning band into brand”, Studio 2.0 is an innovative approach to developing the artist as a whole, rather than just recording a collection of songs. “Studio 2.0 offers unlimited studio time for six months,” James explains. “Hours are not counted or considered. If an artist needs to train up their ear and/or voice (which commonly is the case), or get their gear (sound) together, then that is what we do. Basically I analyze where an artist is at, technically, artistically, with their attitude, then I criticize, coach and do everything in my power to make them a better artist who is much more aware of the realities of the Canadian music climate. The program… empowers them to go further than they would have if they only worked with a producer who’s approach was simply to make a recording.”
Perhaps the most innovative slant to Studio 2.0 is the emphasis on accountability. If your voice is terrible, it doesn’t matter how good your album is, because your live show will suffer. If you don’t know how to get the most out of your gear, then it doesn’t matter how many hours you spend in the studio or on stage.
“With this American Idol culture, so many people have this delusion that their talent is special and that they sound amazing even though they have had no training,” James laments. “They are convinced that they sound fine the way they are. They often defend their ‘whack-ness’ by playing the artist integrity card, or saying they are after a ‘raw’ sound. These artists are unfortunately quite common and not very fulfilling to work with.” However, James says, “[Prolific] is a joy to work with because he is authentically interested in getting better, takes my criticism to heart, works very hard and shows improvement very quickly. I can’t ask for much more than that!”
Possibly the most refreshing element of the program is the “all you can eat buffet” style which allows for maximum results, while also shining a blinding light on the stark reality of the indie music world: most artists do not need to set meaningless deadlines. “Unless you already have a substantial fan-base who is anticipating your next release, there is no need for a deadline,” says Pew. “Sometimes more time is needed in the artist development process... Rushing a substandard product to market that no one is waiting to buy is a great way to make sure no one ever buys it, or ‘buys into’ the artist.”
With all the talk of the last several years about how the music industry has changed, the structure of power and influence has shifted, and how technology has evolved to revolutionize the opportunities for self promotion, it is a wonder that more producers have not adopted a similar approach to developing their artists. After all, if a producer can effectively prolong the career or their client, the longer that artist will remain their client! But, fiscal prudence aside, it is at least refreshing to see immediate results, and a sense of genuine satisfaction on the face of the artist.
“I now feel entirely in control of my career,” says Prolific of his newfound embrace of the DIY ethos. “Everything that happens in my career will be the direct result of my own effort. If I am helped along the way, amazing, but I do not expect it.”
Prolific’s humble approach to his craft is refreshing, especially coming from an artist working within a genre smeared with the stigma of brazen egotism. “I think the biggest hurdle in rap is to get over yourself,” says Prolific. “All of us rappers are instilled with this ‘I'm the dopest MC’ mentality from the moment we start listening to hip-hop. I think there is a lot to be gained by being humble, and of becoming a fan of the scene before you start asking it to give you something.”
Humble attitude, and newfound perspective and self-worth is great, certainly making you ever more likable. But, for Prolific, having the scales peeled away from his eyes of ambition has made him not only a more effective self-promoter, communicator, and collaborator within the Canadian hip-hop scene, but finally able to achieve the satisfaction of completing his own dreamwork. Currently Prolific is nearing completion of his third release, and second full-length album, his ambitious magnum opus, Amor Fati.
If Prolific’s excited dialogue on the subject is any indication of the energy surrounding the project, Amor Fati should be much more than a mere hip-hop record. From the buzz surrounding it, and the few demos Prolific has leaked to privileged ears, it appears to promise the delivery of remarkable musical and lyrical scope, within a structure of thematically intertwined individual tracks to create the narrative arc of a meticulously crafted concept album.
“I spent a long time waiting for a record deal to make the album of my dreams,” says Prolific of his transition from one of unrealistic expectations, to creator of one’s own destiny. “But with the money saved from a year's worth of work, along with my own innovation and resourcefulness, I'll have that album. And I will own the rights, and more importantly, it will be representative of my own creative vision.”
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