Chicago Hip-hop’s Big Deal

In one room of the south-side headquarters of Creator’s Way Records, as rapper Twista answers a reporter’s questions on the phone, several employees shoot the shit around a mahogany desk, occasionally digging into one of several huge plastic bins of bubble gum and hard candy on top of it. Leroy “Lucky” Burton, one of the label’s three founders, is chasing a recording engineer in a loop through several adjoining rooms. Not quite the behavior you’d expect from businessmen who recently inked a serious deal with Atlantic Records. Then again, maybe it’s exactly what you’d expect from a group of pals who convinced a major label to spend a reported $4 million on one of their records.

Entrepreneur Burton and rappers Sam “the Legendary Traxster” Lindley and Kevin “Rappalot” Brinson started Creator’s Way–which is also a recording studio, production company, and management company–just three years ago, and although they’ve released only four singles so far, they’ve been remarkably successful. Along with nonaffiliated acts Common Sense and Crucial Conflict, Creator’s Way has been instrumental in putting Chicago on the hip-hop map, primarily with Do or Die’s smash single “Po Pimp” and now Twista’s “Emotions,” which led to the deal with Atlantic.

According to Lindley the change in local fortunes can be attributed more specifically to an attitudinal shift in which local artists stopped emulating established stars. “In the last few years Chicago has figured out that as long as what you’re doing is tight, you don’t have to sound like nobody else,” says Lindley.

“The midwest wasn’t getting the respect we thought it deserved,” says Burton. “We figured we had to get out and earn that respect.” They set about that task with a small eight-track studio and office in an apartment building in early 1994, and six months later moved into a large but run-down office space that they renovated with the help of friends and family.

“The whole idea was to be self-sufficient,” says Lindley. “We hired friends to work the records, and we used our cars to get the records into stores. We did all the graphics on a little Macintosh. Apart from the manufacturing, everything was done in-house, and that kept everything low cost.”

“As the reputation has grown we’ve had more people soliciting us for beats, the price of the beats has gone up, and we’ve had a snowball effect in terms of reinvesting in the company,” Brinson adds. Indeed, Lindley’s production skills have earned him a widening array of high-profile gigs. He’s the primary architect of the Creator’s Way sound–a hodgepodge of west-coast g-funk, Miami bass, soul, and house–and has been sought out by popular acts like Mystikal, Ice Cube, and E-40; Do or Die (now signed to the Virgin-distributed, Houston-based Rap-a-Lot) and Psycho Drama (Chicagoans who just signed to the Universal-distributed Suave House) continue to work with him.

Creator’s Way had already attracted industry attention with “Po Pimp,” but it was the return of Twista (ne Terrell Mitchell) that lured the sharks in for the kill. Back in 1992, then called Tung Twista, he had skirted success with his debut, Runnin’ Off at da Mouth (Loud/RCA), but though it got him into The Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s fastest rapper, it didn’t come close to breaking any sales records. In subsequent years, Twista retreated to the underground to try to find his footing, but it was a cameo on “Po Pimp” that finally thrust him into the limelight. Last fall Creator’s Way released his “Emotions” single, which sold a phenomenal 20,000 copies locally, and Twista’s full-length Adrenaline Rush (due out June 24) became a hot property.

With London, Arista, Epic, Elektra, MCA, Atlantic, and Virgin all lobbying for a deal with Twista and/or Creator’s Way, the label turned for help to New Yorker Wendy Day, who runs the not-for-profit Rap Coalition. Day’s organization, which boasts Chuck D of Public Enemy and Schoolly D as advisers, primarily helps artists get out of bad label deals, which she says are a dime a dozen in the world of hip-hop because labels have taken advantage of some rappers’ desperate socioeconomic circumstances; it also offers health and dental insurance to rappers and conducts nuts-and-bolts seminars on the music business. The deal she helped broker for Creator’s Way is astonishing, and not just for the multimillion-dollar figure. Under its terms, Atlantic can’t spend money or make marketing decisions without the approval of Creator’s Way. Even more unusual, however, is the profit split: rather than the 15 percent an indie usually gets from a major (out of which it usually pays the artist’s 12 percent), Creator’s Way is entitled to a whopping 50 percent. (The percentage it’ll pay Twista was not available at press time.)

Day reasons that Atlantic is looking to use Twista to build its credibility in the eyes of other Chicago acts. “There is more talent in Chicago than any place I’ve ever been in the country,” says Day. “It’s all different kinds of talent. Artists in Chicago are far more open-minded than artists in other places.”

Of course, money has a way of inducing tunnel vision in the most open of minds, but Brinson, Lindley, and Burton seem to have remained clear-eyed. “We’re still evolving,” says Lindley. “Every time we come in here we’re going to experiment with something that we haven’t done before, or perfect something that we have.

“But don’t get me wrong,” he adds. “If the public likes what we do, we’re gonna keep giving it to them.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sam “The Legendary Traxter” Lindley, Leroy “Lucky” Burton, and Twista.