Confidence, self-sufficiency and a certain amount of audacity were the themes of an hour-plus-long appearance by DIY rapper Russ at New York University’s Steinhardt School on Wednesday, where he told the story behind his own path to success and gave advice on the positives and pitfalls along the way. The 25-year-old Atlanta-based MC’s official debut album, “There’s Really a Wolf,” was released last May on his own Russ My Way label through Columbia, debuted on the Billboard 200 at No. 7 and has been certified gold by the RIAA; the singles “What They Want” and “Losin’ Control” are certified platinum; he’s clocked over 675 million total YouTube views. Russ (full name: Russell Vitale) writes, produces, engineers, mixes and masters his recordings entirely by himself.
Interviewed by Larry Miller, director of NYU Steinhardt’s Music Business Program, Russ peppered his history with career advice. (The panel was hosted by NYU Steinhardt and presented by MAC Presents and Cara Lewis Group, members of which appear in the photo above with the students and Russ — who is front and center — and his team.) Asked what inspired him to take such a DIY approach, “It was just a means of survival,” he replied. “When you’re sitting in the basement trying to get on, you have no choice — you’ve gotta figure out how to make a song. ‘I’ve gotta bang on these buttons until it sounds good.’ What inspired me was the love of making music and having no one around and just saying ‘I’ve gotta figure this out.’”
He began releasing music on long-gone music sites “like Limewire and Mediafire,” he recalled with a laugh, until he and childhood friend Bugus launched a website for Russ’ music under the name DIEMON (“Do it every day, music or nothing”), which has gradually morphed into their production company. They made some efforts to go bigger, but even attracting the attention of more established collaborators, such as Kendrick Lamar/TDE vet Mixed by Ali (aka Derek Ali), just drove Russ to be more DIY.
“We used to just talk sh– on twitter to get people’s attention, like Mixed by Ali — which is funny, people do that to me now,” he laughs. “We got his attention and he was mixing some of our songs, and he was great and we loved some of the mixes, but it got to the point where instead of waiting for a week or whatever, we said why don’t we just do it by ourselves?
“We’re still doing it that way,” he emphasizes. “It’s still me sitting the basement using Logic, I make the beats in logic 9 record the vocals, mix it and master it in logic Pro.”
He also comically recalled an early meeting with a huckster who claimed to be a cousin of legendary Motown founder Berry Gordy that, predictably, went nowhere. “I think he’s in jail now for fraud,” he laughed. “But early on, you take those dead-end meetings because you’re so desperate to get on.”
That’s not simply because it’s a way to save money — and because he loves working alone: “If I’m doing sh– by myself? LIT!” — it’s also because he’s wisely reluctant to mess with something that’s working.
“Look, I was always in love with my stuff,” he said. “But once your taste gets confirmed on a huge level and it’s working, why would you do it differently? I don’t deviate — once you get validated for being you, I don’t know why you would deviate. I stick to my gut and my taste.”
A key in that directive is “if it’s working.” Russ released 11 albums on SoundCloud but still hadn’t really gotten noticed, so he changed up his approach.
“I was working on the twelfth album,” he recalled. “And I noticed that the first song on all the albums always had a lot more plays than the others. So I said, ‘What if I drop one song every week instead?’”
That change in approach worked, as did playing hardball with a potential manager — Milan Ackerman, who was also in attendance. “I said, don’t even talk to me until you get me Cara Lewis,” one of the most powerful booking agents in hip-hop, who was also at the talk and is now Russ’ agent (that’s her in the photo above, standing on Russ’ immediate right). “You gotta understand, this was coming off of the Berry Gordy fake-cousin meeting,” he said, to laughter. “Four months later, I’m sitting in Charlotte airport on my way to New York, and Milan calls saying, ‘I got you a meeting with Cara Lewis at 4:30 today.’ He didn’t even know I was going to New York!”
Needless to say, Ackerman got the gig.
And while another hour could have been filled with talk about how a new artist and his team manages and stays on top of newly found success, Russ’ main advice to the audience was more ground-level. The closing minutes of the talk was practically a motivational speech:
“Advice number one: listen to your gut — it’s never gonna lead you wrong,” he said. “Number two: trust yourself. The root of everything is self-belief. You know what you like, you don’t have to worry about competing with other people — compete with yourself and be better than you were before.
“You can’t let money be your main motivation, you’ll do a lot of dumb sh– if it is.
“If you’re working and paying bills, people relate to that. You’ve gotta flip it: I was working at Off Broadway [shoe store] in the Gwinnett Mall, and I put stacking shoes into the second verse of ‘Pull the Trigger,’ which just went gold. That’s what gives it substance.
“Celebrate the small wins and look at the long game, it doesn’t happen right away. But if you poke the universe long enough, it’ll turn around and say, ‘What’s up?’
And finally, “I’m not confident because I got on. I got on because I was confident.”
Nearly an hour after the talk officially ended, Russ was still talking with students and answering questions.