The next big thing: forging a hip hop partnership

After connecting on YouTube, two area high school students teamed up to produce a record two years ago, and maybe make Memphis' next music star. With a new label and a first album out now, the enterprising duo is already making their mark on the local hip hop scene.
It's Saturday afternoon, and 20-year-old rapper Michael Royal and his unlikely manager, 19-year-old Nick Riley, are perched in front of an intimidatingly huge, intricately outfitted soundboard. The goal for the day: one more step toward that first hit record.

The setup is a far cry from what the duo used the first time they sat down together to record. Both were high school seniors, Riley at Christian Brothers and Royal at White Station. The only equipment they had was the standard-issue audio software on Riley's laptop.

"I was not hooked up at all," Riley recalls with a chuckle.

The pair aren't old friends, but rather recently united entreprenuerial artists who saw potential in one another. Riley initially contacted Royal after seeing him in a group rap, or cypher, that some White Station High School students posted on YouTube for Black History Month. The video has more than 12,000 views to date. When he made it, Royal saw rapping as just a hobby.

Riley, on the other hand, knew even as a high school student that he wanted a career in hip hop--not as an artist, but as a manager. He was starting a label--Filth Posh Records--and he knew right away that he wanted the label to feature Royal.

So the young ambitious musician and the young ambitious manager got started with the tools they had: Riley's laptop and typical social media outlets like SoundCloud, YouTube and Instagram. Bit by bit, they built a catalog of songs. And in May, with help from Memphis producer Alan Hayes, Royal released his debut album, The Gemini.

Today Hayes is beside them again, running a control panel that looks like it could fly a jet, working on a fresh track. Hayes is known for his success with such hip hop artists as Waka Waka Flame, members of Three 6 Mafia and Alphonso "Al Kapone" Bailey--people Royal and Riley have admired for years.

Al Kapone now calls himself a Royal fan. He's such a fan, in fact, that the Hustle & Flow soundtrack star has done a remix of the track "Susan Glenn" from Royal's debut album, and he has booked Royal to open for him on September 6 as part of Rock for Love, a fundraiser for the Church Health Center.

"I hear a lot of people, but he has something really elite that I could see right away," said Kapone, who took an interest after Royal reached out to him through Instagram. He particularly liked the imagery in Royal's lyrics. "To be honest, I was excited. He has a lot of room to get better, but he is already that good right now."

That kind of praise is music to Riley's ears. Hip hop is not generating much of an income for him and Royal yet, but if buzz keeps building, he thinks there are possibilities. Artistic entrepreneurs like Riley see opportunities in a place like Memphis, where succesful predecssors--like Kapone--broke through with similar determination, hard work and patience.

So far, Royal and Riley have been working regular jobs to pay for studio time and expenses, in addition to attending college. Royal has earned an avionics license at Southwest Tennessee Community College, and Riley attends Memphis College of Art.

Lean times are normal in the beginning, Kapone said. Too many artists, he said, look for big paychecks too soon. "It's important to stay humble while you're developing your sound and your identity," he said. "Do as much free stuff as you can. When your name can attract people to a venue, then you can charge. Don't lose your opportunities because you think you need to get paid."

Life experiences--good and bad--have played a part in teaching Royal the importance of seizing opportunities and not giving up. Royal's family moved to Memphis in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina forced them from their home in New Orleans' Ninth Ward.

Adapting to that loss was a challenge, but writing poetry became an outlet for Royal, and that led to rapping. Now, encouragement and support from people who have already established themselves in the music business--as well as people who just want to see good things happen for Memphis musicians--make it easy to stay humble and positive.

"Stuff like that makes me feel like I've already made it, because it makes me feel good," he said. "It makes me able to be like, 'OK, I'm just enjoying the moment.'"

Read more articles by Amy French.

Amy French is a Memphis-born freelance writer and communication consultant who got her start as an award-winning journalist for The Huntsville Times in Alabama and The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina.
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