It's only May, but 2004 has already proven to be a golden year for local rappers: Three 6 Mafia are still riding high on the success of Da Unbreakables, while just last month, Yo Gotti inked a deal with TVT Records. And now, underground tape king Criminal Manne -- back in Memphis after a five-year run on the Houston-based Rap-A-Lot label -- is moving in for his piece of the action.
"I was selling 1,000 underground tapes a week," boasts Criminal Manne. "I didn't even have a car when I started out. I was moving tapes by hand. I'd go to the clubs and swing 'em. Man, wherever anybody was at, I was trying to sell 'em a tape."
But despite moderate success as part of the Project Playaz collective -- and myriad promises made by Rap-A-Lot -- Criminal Manne (the 25-year-old South Memphis native picked up his name a decade ago, while he was doing a stint in juvenile detention) is starting over. Determined to make it this time around, he's armed with a new manager (Checliss "Big C" Rice), his own record label (Big Daddy Entertainment), and a hot single ("Tryin' To Bust Something").
The self-described Einstein of the operation, Rice is owner of the local Madhouse Records label and the Exclusive Gang clothing line. He claims to have a meticulous business plan that will help his client earn his first million.
"I grew up in the 'hood -- food stamps, seven people in a two-bedroom apartment, the whole kit and caboodle," Rice says. "I'm determined to make it. I'm going to be Memphis' answer to Puff Daddy or [Cash Money co-founder] Baby." Crediting his real estate background along with the discipline he learned playing high school football, Rice is confident that his battle plan will work.
Criminal Manne, like his manager, understands the market all too well. "A lot of folks get in the rap game and think they're gonna go platinum, but they just sell a few thousand albums," he says. "The market is getting flooded. Everybody thinks they can spit.
"Major labels are coming out with so much bullshit -- all that commercial smoochy-smoochy rap," he continues. "You've got to feed the underground. Niggers wanna get in their car and turn on the radio and hear some shit that's straight gangster, right from the 'hood. It's about the South right now: You can stay down here and sell a million records. Nobody wants to hear [Boogie Down Productions'] 'Stop the Violence' or any of that shit. Everybody wants to get crunk! They wanna hear 'I'm gonna bust your motherfucking head.'" Shaking his head gleefully, Criminal Manne giggles and adds, "It's straight-up!"
Even though Criminal Manne is clearly aware of the economic advantages of playing up the gangster lifestyle, he maintains that his violent content (and moniker) is no put-on. "I rap about my life," he explains. "I don't sugarcoat it. I see and live this shit every day. I'd be a fake if I was rapping otherwise.
"Look at me honestly. What do I look like?" he asks, pointing to his pigtails and mouthful of gold teeth, then to the 26-inch silver rims on his Chevy Tahoe. "It's hard to stay out of jail," he admits. "The shit I speak, I've done. But with rapping I can let a lot of emotions out. It's better than going out and, pow-pow, getting 20-to-life. I want to be the motherfucker who finally makes it. Or, if I don't, people say 'he's still straight.'"
Watching Southern rappers like Lil' Jon and David Banner cash in on the crunk movement just fuels his fire. "I'm seriously hungry, and there's a big plate sitting out there," Criminal Manne says. "They've already got their plates. They're burping, gaining weight, everything. Now I need to get my food.
"Success is based on image, point-blank. If you see a motherfucker at a bus stop swinging some CDs, he might be harder than Tupac. But if you see another motherfucker on the opposite side of the street with a laptop, selling his box of CDs out of a Bentley, who are you gonna buy a CD from first? It shouldn't be like that, but it is. It's like if you don't have no money, we don't see you.
"I want to catch everybody's attention for 30 minutes," Criminal Manne says. "If I get you that long, you're gonna feel me. I can write four or five songs a day. It's simple: Once you have a catchy hook and a thumping beat, you got it."