Local Beat 

It's been a busy summer for Cody Dickinson: He and his North Mississippi Allstars bandmates (brother/guitarist Luther Dickinson and bassist Chris Chew) just mastered their next album, Electric Blue Watermelon. He's written and recorded material for the upcoming Nickelodeon/Paramount animated film Barnyard, which features the Allstars as characters called "The Barn Boys." The band is currently on the road with musician John Hiatt, doing five weeks worth of shows. And just a few months ago, Dickinson launched his own Diamond D Records label.

While on the road with Hiatt, Dickinson's been overseeing the release of Da Midsouth, Diamond D's inaugural effort, via cell phone calls and e-mails to distributors and his friend and collaborator Al Kapone. The 17-song compilation also features appearances from such Memphis rap faves as Gangsta Blac, DJ Squeeky, and DJ Spanish Fly.

"I got a message from Al right after the big Hustle & Flow Hollywood premiere," he says. "He said they rocked it out there - and he sounds so focused and excited about his music."

While the timing of the Kapone-related project is impeccable, Dickinson insists that he's been a fan of rap music since high school. A chance meeting with an old friend, producer Yusef Berkeley, reinvigorated Dickinson's interest in the local gangsta rap scene. "All the time [the Allstars] were on the road, he was building a full studio in his house, and he had some incredible stuff recorded. He asked if I wanted to release some of these songs by Rhollo and DJ Spanish Fly, and at the same time, the screwed and chopped phenomenon and the psychedelic rap stuff like [Outkast's] The Love Below were getting me back into the music," Dickinson says.

Another friend, Birdman Records owner David Katznelson, introduced Dickinson to the Independent Online Distribution Alliance, and, after a handshake deal, Diamond D was born. "It turns out that they're huge," Dickinson says of IOTA, which licenses tracks to Napster, Rhapsody, and iTunes, and creates digital ringtones.

"USA Today reported just last week that the record industry is constantly shrinking," Dickinson says. "What's the best way to lose your fortune? Starting a record label is a sucker move, really."

Yet because Diamond D is heavy on download sales, Dickinson has minimal overhead, so he can offer artists a 50-50 split after expenses. While he doesn't have exclusive rights on tracks, the diverse selection on Da Midsouth - artists on the disc also include newcomers Miscellaneous and The God Brothers, Midtown faves Effingham-N-Wheatstraw, and TVT signee Yo Gotti - ensures plenty of sales and street promotion. And after IOTA got on board, Memphis-based Select-O-Hits offered a physical distribution deal. In just a few weeks, they've shipped 1,000 copies of Da Midsouth.

For Dickinson, working with Select-O-Hits has been part of the fun. "It's no one's fault, but I feel like the Allstars have to do too much business outside the city," he says. "I wish our booking agency wasn't in San Francisco and our manager wasn't in Virginia. Select-O-Hits has a full operation in Memphis. All I needed was a master and some artwork, and we were in business.

"We're drawing up one-sheets and marketing plans, stuff I had no idea about," Dickinson says. "I've spent my whole life learning how to make records. When it comes to playing drums or bass, engineering or mastering, I've picked up bits of knowledge throughout the whole process. Now I'm learning how to sell records."

Dickinson sees Diamond D as an all-inclusive label that will eventually release rock music as well as rap. "Gangsta rap was what I could get my hands on, and what I thought sounded good," he says. "It hasn't been like I have to drum up business. Yesterday I was in Dallas, and this rapper Ness and his manager were at soundcheck, waiting to give me a mixtape and a phone number. That's what it's been like ever since I started."

"I'm talking with Al Kapone about a greatest hits CD," he says. "I'd love to remaster and repackage 'Lyrical Drive-By' and make it available on the Internet. I'd also like to do a full album on Miscellaneous, and finish up at least 10 songs on Rhollo and Spanish Fly.

"This is crazy," he says. "I wish I had more time to hang out in Memphis. I've been gone since Da Midsouth dropped, and I don't even have a copy." n

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