Car ads could help put hip-hop career in gear

Rapper: A Glen Burnie artist's flair led an auto dealer to tap him for TV and radio spots - exposure hoped to drive his success to the next level.

January 23, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Hip-hop musician Senica Lee can rap about a range of topics, from poverty and violence to automobiles and oil changes.

The latter topics have been earning the 22-year-old Glen Burnie resident some local fame since he won a contest sponsored by Win Kelly Mitsubishi in Clarksville. His competition was nine other musical acts.

"Senica was so overwhelming in meeting with us, with his energy and ... his star quality," said Kevin Bell, president of the Win Kelly Automotive Super Stores.

In addition to giving Lee the original prize of $1,500 and using his music in radio and television commercials, the company hired him to appear in five television ads for its Mitsubishi, Kia and Chevrolet dealerships.

The ads - which will include Lee talking, dancing and doing flips in addition to making music - will appear on cable stations in Howard, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

For Lee, the advertisements are another opportunity for exposure on a long road to a successful musical career.

An early start

Raised in the Severn area, Lee began performing at age 7. He made up raps over songs on the radio and recorded music, comedy and magic routines with his neighbor's video camera.

At 11, Lee won a local talent competition and earned a chance to perform at the Apollo Theater in New York. A production deal with a local musician and promoter followed. But the two disagreed about Lee's career path and parted.

After attending MacArthur Middle School at Fort Meade, Lee moved with his family to Oklahoma in 1994. There, he threw himself into his music, including concerts, competitions, commercials and other outlets. He was host of his school's weekly television program and performed on radio station Fresh Jams 105.3 in Tulsa.

"I noticed he was a very skilled emcee for being such a young age," said the station's assistant program manger, Aaron Bernard. Among the many young people hoping to make it big in music, Bernard said, Lee definitely has the potential to succeed.

Lee's family has believed that all along. "My mom, she's always been 100 percent supportive," he said.

According to Lee, she was encouraging - even when he was a teen-ager sleeping overnight at the recording studio and going on tour in Oklahoma and Arkansas with the rap group Bone thugs-n-harmony.

"She wants it more than I do," he said of his success. "Ever since I was 7, she saw that in me."

Lee's brother, Danny, 26, is his business manager and president of their independent recording studio, Touch One Records, based in the basement of the Glen Burnie home they share.

"I'd [perform] for free, 'cause that the way I am," Lee said. "Without my brother being around, I would never get paid."

Danny Lee, who also works for an apartment management company, encouraged his brother to move back to Anne Arundel County in 1998. Not long after that, he accompanied Senica to a meeting with Columbia Records that was part of the prize for a local radio station's rap contest.

That meeting convinced the two that they could say no to a major record label and hold out for a better deal.

Nobody's puppet

In addition to low pay and long-term commitment, which is common in contracts for lesser-known artists, Senica Lee feared he wouldn't be able to control his music and his image.

He said he learned early that he didn't want anyone else to write his songs or manufacture his image. "Hip-hop," he said, "is not about puppeteering; it is about real life. It comes from you and your heart.

"We're going to actually put our music out ourselves."

When he and his brother sell enough copies of his coming solo album, Sidewalks -N- Aves, and develop a fan base, they will try to negotiate a more favorable deal. The plan is to "get your name known and then they [record labels] will come to you," Senica Lee said.

When that day comes, he is eager to give something back to the neighborhood of Pioneer City, a high-crime area in Anne Arundel County where he spent his early years. He dreams about a recreation center or programs for youths.

"This is my inspiration, actually, because there is so much talent, but then so much poverty, and crime is real high," he said.

If he succeeds after growing up in Pioneer City, he said, "it's actually going to be an inspiration to a lot of people that are from there."

Other irons in the fire

While he works on his album, Lee is a customer service representative for Miss Utility, a company that helps people with building projects avoid underground power lines. He spent two years at Anne Arundel Community College, but he wants to decide on a major before he continues his education.

He is also pursuing acting and had his first staring role last year when Evan Naides, a student filmmaker at the University of Miami in Florida cast him as an inner-city free-style rapper, the lead in The Dozens.

Naides, who grew up in Owings Mills, shot the film in Baltimore. "I knew right away [Senica] was the guy for my part," Naides said. He was impressed when Lee broke out in a rap using parts of the script that had been handed to him a few minutes earlier.

Lee said music is a difficult business in which "you might end up being 35 or 40 years old without a career. ... You're still loving your music, but you're broke."

But he prefers to be optimistic, saying, "If you are sincerely true about it in your heart, you have no choice but to succeed."

The Win Kelly contest is a chance to get more exposure, which means more leverage for a favorable record deal, he said. And he has no trouble singing the praises of car dealerships.

"That's the thing about hip-hop ... there are no boundaries, no limits," he said. "I can write about anything and make it creative."

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