Cornering The Market

One entrepreneur gives exposure to hip-hoppers through "mobin' -- recording rhymes as they happen on the streets

May 19, 2008|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,Sun reporter

Clustered on a grubby West Baltimore sidewalk, a dozen MCs spit rhymes into a microphone and sweat under the Saturday afternoon sun.

Pedestrians and nearby street vendors pay little mind to the group of young men in their teens and early 20s. But a heated verbal battle is playing out in the middle of the pack.

A confident and commanding Emmanuel "Tu-Khindz" Johnson faces a hesitant challenger in Sterling "Lil Geezy Hot" Barksdale. As cameras roll, Johnson unleashes a steady stream of barbs and ego-boosters.

"So many stones in my chain, my neck looks like a cemetery," Johnson says.

When the freestyle finishes, Barksdale stutters and then shuts down. He can't come back with anything and loses the face-off.

A few steps away, George "LJ" Gray Jr. leans against his idling black Jeep with a video camera, recording their rhymes. A Web camera set on top of the Jeep broadcasts the scene live on the Internet.

Without the microphone and cameras, this would be just another street-corner freestyle session. But by documenting the scene, Gray hopes to get the word out about his business and bolster the city's hip-hop scene at the same time.

"Hip-hop started on the streets," Gray says. "We're taking it back to where it was."

Gray owns and operates the video and recording company Yo Trakz Mobile Recording Studio. He makes beats, records raps, films music videos and sells CDs and DVDs for local rappers hand to hand -- the DVDs are also in local stores for $10.

Most Saturdays, weather permitting, he sets up his recording rig near Park Heights Avenue and Cold Spring Lane to capture the sounds of the street.

These weekly outdoor sessions give MCs free exposure through on-the-spot freestyles and interviews, and also turn potential clients onto Yo Trakz.

"Studios out there -- how do they get attention except through word of mouth or maybe on the Internet?" said Gray, 39. "Those are very slow methods of soliciting business. This, you can't miss it. It's crazy. Guys on the street corner recording? It opens up the conversation."

It's not uncommon for recording-studio owners to branch out into other mediums. Amanda Beale, aka Amotion, who owns Deep Flow Studios in South Baltimore, has an Internet radio show and a cable TV show and sponsors events at area clubs.

"In our business nowadays, you have to be entrepreneurs," Beale said. "If all you can offer an artist is a recording studio, they can find any recording studio. They can get their own equipment. They can hire their own producer. You need to be able to offer them exposure as well to really make an impact."

But Gray is the only studio owner consistently hitting the streets to record. He coined the term "mobin'" (a combination of the words "mobile recording") to describe the tapings. So far, his strategy has paid off. He aims to produce audio recordings and videos for three hip-hop artists at a time -- a goal he said he has no problem meeting and occasionally exceeding.

"I end up sometimes losing customers because they can't wait," he said.

Gray said he can doctor outside recordings to make them sound as good as studio recordings.

"The average person, if we didn't tell them, they wouldn't know," he said.

Whether or not those recordings sound good, they're going to generate hype -- which is more important, said Juan Donovan Bell. Bell is one half of the critically acclaimed Baltimore beat-making duo Darkroom Productions. He's never heard of someone else doing what Gray does, and he thinks it's a great way of marketing a recording business.

"It's definitely an innovative idea," Bell said. "The idea of it is going to get people talking. That's pretty much the game now."

Audio recording has been a staple of Gray's life for more than a decade. He first started working at a studio on 33rd and St. Paul streets in 1995 while studying music composition at Towson University.

"I fell in love with recording," he said. "It has the ability to shape and manipulate sound -- to be able to enhance sound."

A licensed practical nurse with the U.S. Army Reserve, Gray worked at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which helped pay for his recording equipment. He started Manna Productions, a recording outfit that worked exclusively with gospel musicians, and ran it until 2005. That's when he started Yo Trakz and began working primarily with hip-hop artists.

"I wanted to be able to go into people's homes -- be mobile and record them," he said. "In order to get attention for that, I wanted to be out on the corner."

A few years ago, Gray met aspiring rapper Andre "Hot Spitta" Allen. Allen had pleaded guilty to attempted armed robbery in 2006 and wanted to turn his life around. Gray offered to help through Yo Trakz.

Allen became Yo Trakz's flagship freestyler and now helps host the weekly sidewalk tapings. Both Allen and Gray have benefited from the partnership; Allen says he's stayed out of trouble, and Gray has seen his business blossom.

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