Since local rap moguls Jack Frost and Nakia Shine joined forces in 2000, they've banked frequent-flyer miles traveling to New York City to sell beats, blazed down the interstate to Atlanta for studio time at Stankonia, and burned the midnight oil making contacts in cities such as Houston and New Orleans.
Last weekend, the duo performed at Texas Southern University, in Blytheville, Arkansas, and in Nashville. The whirlwind trip was just the latest round of 14 dates they're doing as part of BET's Black College Tour, set up by Universal Music.
"Same grind, different day," says Shine.
The Frayser-born rapper is playing it cool, but since he and Frost inked a pair of deals -- as an artist, Shine is now officially a member of the Universal stable, while the pair signed a contract linking their group/production company Rap Hustlaz with Skeleton Key/EMI -- the "grind" has certainly picked up speed.
In the late '90s, Frost made his name on the local scene with his company Lootchase Inc., releasing CDs such as A Million Ain't Enough, which featured Kingpin Skinny Pimp and Playa Fly. At the same time, Shine started up his own label, Diamond Cut Entertainment, with albums such as L.I.'s Slummagedon.
"He had a great hustle," Shine says of Frost's business acumen. "He sold 40,000 copies of Skinny Pimp's record, and I respected that."
"[Shine] didn't have the financial backing he needed, but he was grinding," Frost recalls. "We'd talk about trying to make it. We noticed that all the big companies were merging, and we thought, we're independent and trying to come up, so why not merge too?"
Just like that, Rap Hustlaz was born.
Within a year, Frost and Shine were working with rising local stars such as Yo Gotti, Criminal Manne, Mista Ian, and Lootchase holdover Kingpin Skinny Pimp. They began collecting beats from Swizzo, Slice T, Drumma Boy, and Paragon and selling them to producers in New York.
"I got ahold of a copy of the A&R Registry," says Frost, "and from there, I just started calling and e-mailing people who were prevalent in the game. Cash Money was trying to sign Playa Fly, and we made contact with [Cash Money/Universal rep] Dino Delvaille, who was our anchor; he'd plug us to other people. In Memphis, we'd have House of Blues locked down for months. Then we'd use Northwest Airlines buddy passes and fly to New York, where we signed a publishing deal with Universal."
"Anyone can make a beat -- the tough part is being able to sell it," Shine elaborates. "A producer might make 100 beats and think they're all hot, but we had good ears, and we'd put together these classic beat CDs where every track was banging. We'd get up to New York, and we'd get offers on the whole CD.
"We knew we were on the cusp of something great," he says. "Business flourished. We got the publishing deal and started signing artists within six months. Nobody in Memphis gave a fuck about us, and all of a sudden we were the new niggas, a factor in the game."
Then, in 2002, after dropping Memphis classics such as Gangsta Blac's The Mayor and the Pimp and Kingpin Skinny Pimp's Pimpin' and Hustlin', their future looked bleak when Frost went to jail after a drug bust.
"Everything fell apart," Frost says, still remembering the sting. "Everyone thought I had a life sentence, and nobody stuck with us."
Released two years later, he and Shine recruited local femme fatale La Chat for 2004's Dramatize, but the relationship quickly soured.
"It was an 'a-ha' moment," Frost notes. "Fuck dealing with other people. We're gonna do it ourselves, and we're gonna rap."
Last year, Shine, who had already laid down vocals on songs such as Skinny Pimp's "TV's Remix (24s and Wangs)" and Yo Gotti's "Dirty South Soldiers," began putting together hooks. "People were respecting my voice, so I knew I was onto something, but finding my flow and figuring out what was gonna be a hit proved to be something else. I wanted to be different, more commercially viable than other people coming out of Memphis."
Remarkably, his first solo single, "Respect My Fresh," and Rap Hustlaz' follow-up, "Stunna Frames," began getting airplay overnight. On Shine's MySpace page, www.MySpace.com/KinfolkNakiaShine, "Respect My Fresh" has received nearly 9,000 plays; "Stunna Frames" has gotten twice as many.
"We cut 'Stunna Frames' at Stankonia in Atlanta in April, and when we put it on the Internet, it was gone," says Frost. "Like a lot of our records, we made the beats and wrote the rhymes right in the studio -- like making a cake from scratch. It was a collaborative effort between everyone in the studio, and it worked."
Now, when Shine and Frost aren't on the road, they're holed up in Midtown's Young Avenue Sound recording studio with DJ Flip and production team Street Knok, putting the finishing touches on a pair of mixtapes, tentatively titled The Kush and The Haze.
Shine's debut album, Due Season, is on deck next, with an April 2007 release date already on the books for Universal.
"Right now, we're focusing on us, because that's what's been working for the last year and a half," Frost maintains. "We don't want to complicate the situation or stir the chemistry by adding anyone else to the mix."