Murs on Bringing Back Paid Dues Festival: 'Hopefully I Won't Have to Sacrifice My Career This Time'

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Murs photographed at RT Studio on April 2, 2015 in New York City. 

Following a four-year hiatus, Murs has announced that Paid Dues -- the indie-leaning hip-hop festival he founded in 2006 -- is making its return to Los Angeles this September. The veteran rapper says this year’s revival, which boasts Lil Wayne, Ab-Soul, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah as headliners, is meant to fill the void that was left behind when the event was initially forced to shut down following its 2013 edition due to financial reasons.

“Time will tell if it’s the right time, but it feels like the right time,” Murs tells Billboard about bringing the festival back. “Personally, I’m back in Los Angeles and the void is something I feel on a daily basis. Whether it’s a Dodger game, gas station or the movies, someone is saying, ‘Thank you for Paid Dues! When’s it coming back?’ I love the city, so when I hear my community crying out for something, I want to do that. It’s taken a while, but we’re up and running.”

Before the two-day event, set to take place Sept. 16-17 in Los Angeles’ Pershing Square, Murs spoke with Billboard about the festival’s history, resurgence and growing pains. With nine years of experience working on them behind the scenes, Captain California also provided insight on the festival landscape, which continues producing successes like Coachella and, more recently, high-profile blunders like Fyre Festival. Plus, he explained how he’s doing all of this while fighting back from a personal tragedy.

Billboard: What have you learned from other festivals and from past Paid Dues events that you’re bringing into this year?

Murs: I haven’t seen anyone succeed where we failed, so I’ve learned that I can be confident, that I bring something unique to hip-hop. There have been a lot of people trying to fill that void but [they] haven’t been able to do it successfully. Paid Dues is still, sadly enough, the only festival breaking artists. To me, if you have an opener or mid-carder, it should go to someone local. There should be more diversity on the bill, be it local, female, Asian, Latino -- I’m always looking to build bills like that and I don’t think a lot of sponsors do. A lot of sponsors aren’t homegrown; they’re big corporations with a budget, so they don’t care about the community. They care about success and big names.

What are some of the Paid Dues moments that make you the most proud?

The moments I was most proud of were always on the next day, when I didn’t hear about an incident or about someone drunk driving, when everyone was home safely, when I could live with myself knowing I provided a safe haven. As for musical moments, being able to see Black Hippy perform [in 2011]. I remember that day, how excited they were as young men to be doing the festival, just grateful for the opportunity. [I’m proud] to see where they are now, to be able to have that perspective of their journey.

I don’t really get to live these moments, but seeing the picture of Tyler, the Creator watching Dipset perform, him geeking out [made me proud]. I put a lot of effort into getting Odd Future to play Paid Dues, and also [worked] behind the scenes to make sure that [Odd Future's and Dipset's] sets were right after one another so they can see them, and that their dressing rooms were next to each other so [Tyler] could meet someone he admired. From what I hear, after that he was inspired to start his own festival, and out of the four years that there’s been an Odd Future Carnival, I’ve been on two bills, which is nice. He continued to support me as I supported him and I love that, for young black men, doing business with each other.

There have been so many other moments. Sean Price is no longer with us, but I remember being able to see him and catch up. Because of [shuttered hip-hop festival] Rock the Bells and Paid Dues, I knew I’d see him at least once a year and I’d look forward to that. He was a huge inspiration. All of us in this brotherhood are part of an elite group of artists who rap for a living and we’d get to check in with each other. There was also a gentleman by the name of J. Arch from Rebel Arms with Immortal Technique who would come and speak to my parents every year. He was part of the crew, but never got a chance to be on the bill [before passing in 2014].

It goes for everyone involved. From the security company, CSC, there was a gentleman by the name of Chidou, who also passed away. He was so great. He was one of the higher-ups in one of the biggest security companies in America but he always made sure to come and talk to me. So that type of camaraderie adds to many moments. I can’t tell you that it was as great as seeing Kendrick Lamar or Macklemore blow up, but those moments probably mean more to me.

As you mentioned with Tyler, more and more artists are developing their own festivals. Why do you think that’s happening more often in recent years?

It’s lucrative to be in live music and I think I’ve set an international example to show that it’s possible. B-Real [Cypress Hill's Smokeout Festival] and Perry Farrell [Lollapalooza] did it very successfully before me, but once you see someone do it, you’re like, “I can do that as well.” Especially in hip-hop, that’s the spirit. Russell Simmons gets a clothing company, then Puffy, Wu-Tang Clan and Roc-a-Fella get clothing companies. It’s kind of turned into a gold rush.

When I see Odd Future's Carnival, I’ve always praised that. Tyler’s doing things that are smarter than what I was able to do with Paid Dues. He’s doing amazing things with it, with the rides and stuff. Mine is more grassroots, but I’m happy that it’s inspired people and hope that it continues. 

I just hope people are doing it for the right reasons and not just for a check. It’s a lot of work. A lot of people are just attaching their names to things and not doing the work. That disappoints me, because I do the work. I look at the whole bill and try to curate an experience for the artists as well as the fans. I hope that continues and that people who are doing it for the right reasons get to stay doing it.

Along those lines, there have been several ill-fated festivals, like Fyre and Karoondinha, in the news this year. Why do you think that’s been happening more often?

It could be over-saturation. I came into this with a partner in Guerrilla Union and [its founder] Chang Weisberg, who taught me so much and I’m grateful. I got into business with Chang after enjoying [Guerilla Union-produced] Rock the Bells. I gave him the idea [for Paid Dues] and told him to do it himself because he did it so well and he involved me out of the kindness and graciousness of his heart, to take me under his wing. I don’t know what’s happening to these other festivals, but I would suggest having someone that has experience and success. Don’t let social media or the success of other festivals give you a false sense of confidence. It’s real work.

What are the pros and cons of running a festival as an artist?

When Paid Dues started, I was selling around 70,000 records a year. I was the No. 1 African-American independent artist in the city, or at least top tier. Every year after that, the festival grew, but my career suffered, because life has a limited amount of energy. People that were opening for me started to sell more units and I started opening for them.

I started [Paid Dues] as a ladder for people coming behind me because the generation before me didn’t throw any ladders back -- aside from Project Blowed, which I’m grateful to Freestyle Fellowship and Aceyalone for -- but there wasn’t a lot of help coming our way. On the West Coast, the gangsta rappers weren’t helping Freestyle Fellowship or The Pharcyde the way Nas, Wu-Tang and Puffy did business with each other, or JAY-Z shouted out Talib Kweli and Common. We didn’t have that going on out here, so I wanted to create a platform to get the gangsta rappers like G Perico and Mozzy along with Caleborate and Ill Camille.

I wanted to go forward knowing that I left something behind, a platform for artists. That was my idea, but I definitely sacrificed my personal career to build that. And when Paid Dues collapsed, I had nothing.

The collapse of Paid Dues had nothing to do with Paid Dues. I created a solvent brand that was in the black every year. I did nothing wrong, but unforeseen circumstances are the nature of this business. When it all crumbled, all I had was my rap career, which I had partially neglected to build this festival. So I had to get back to work as an artist. I signed to Strange Music and took another label deal, but building my brand back up as a rapper was difficult. I wasn’t able to throw another festival and I was owed a significant amount of money. That’s another reason I was resistant to throwing it again.

The only reason people came to Paid Dues in the beginning was because I was a good rapper. The only reason the young Kendrick Lamar's, Dom Kennedy's and Mac Miller's wanted to do it was because they knew me as a rapper, not as a concert promoter. Then, me as a rapper started to take a backseat to me as a promoter. To younger people, I became the guy that people wanted to talk to to get on; kind of like how Ice Cube became the guy from Are We There Yet? to some people, I became the Paid Dues guy. When Paid Dues disappeared, being an artist fed my family. I’m trying to structure it so that it doesn’t happen again. The city really needed it so I’m signing up. Hopefully, I won’t have to sacrifice my career this time.

The pros? If it’s done right and there are no unforeseen circumstances, you can make a lot of money. But for someone like me, that’s not really a pro. The pros are, I know I contributed to the scene. No one can say, with the rise of independent hip-hop -- specifically West Coast hip-hop -- that Paid Dues wasn’t a huge reason. It’s called a platform because it elevates, and that platform elevated our whole scene, our whole coast. That’s a pro. If more rappers in our community, especially people of color, aimed to create things that are bigger than themselves and benefit others in the community, we would be a lot better off.

Let’s talk about the lineup. Why Lil Wayne as this year’s headliner?

Wayne inspired a lot of what you see going on in music and he’s been forced -- because of reasons beyond his control, kind of like Paid Dues -- to sit out for a few years. He’s seen Drake, someone he loves and respects, do well and not be able to contribute. I’m sure all he wants to do is contribute. So for us to be able to come back together -- and hopefully Wayne will be able to release Tha Carter V soon -- he’s at least getting out there more. His journey has been very similar to Paid Dues...and I like that similarity.

Ab-Soul, who’s got a Paid Dues tattoo, is also headlining this year.

He’s someone who literally worked his way from the bottom of the flyer to the top of the flyer. I couldn’t have chosen a better headliner. Ab-Soul was perfect because he’s been down with the brand since the beginning. It was a goal of his to be down with the bill in any capacity, then it was a goal of his to headline, and to watch him achieve both of those goals, he’s someone I consider family. It’s really important to have homegrown talent and Ab grew up on this bill.

What kept Paid Dues sitting out on the sidelines?

Just finances. Paid Dues was closely linked to Rock the Bells and Rock the Bells had a difficult year [in 2013]. One feeds off the other. Publicly, I can take no credit or fault for Rock the Bells; that’s not my business and never was. So it was just unfortunate, but I still learned a lot from that. I saw my partner [Weisberg] who’s been in this business for many years and who’s done so much for the hip-hop community -- the last Wu-Tang show ever, with all of the members living, was because of him fighting with blood, sweat and tears -- and I’ve seen people turn on him and publicly talk bad about him for a bad year. It’s a very unforgiving business and it makes me cautious going forward about who I call a friend and who I call an acquaintance.

I guess those are the unforeseen circumstances. I won’t get into the specifics, but that’s the nature of the game. Promoting shows is a gamble. At the end of the day, all artists want their money. But the business gets in the way of the vision, because I don’t see a lot of fans who are happy that Rock the Bells and Paid Dues had to go away. I’ve met people who may not like the bill 100 percent this year, but nobody’s told me they wish it didn’t come back. Often, in the music business, people forget about the fans.


You released your album Captain California in March. What did you hope to accomplish with that project and what do you have coming up next?

I wanted to celebrate home and promote my storytelling ability. I just wanted to tell stories about Los Angeles that represented us without the ego, without my face on the cover, something for the state to document what I saw going on.

But I had a personal tragedy with my fiancée. At nine months, our child was stillborn. It prevented me from promoting the album and I had to cancel a lot of shows for the first time in my career. We’ve just been home, dealing with that loss. It was nine months building up to the album, nine months building up to the baby, everything was building up to that. It was just a huge, huge blow. So there were no more videos and it kind of disappeared.

It’s an album I love and am proud of, but now my fiancée and I are picking up the pieces. It’s just been a difficult time. But we’re going to shoot some more videos coming up this week. The label is still very much behind the album and they believe in it. Up next for me, I’ll continue to promote this record, make up the dates that I had to cancel in the spring and see where that takes me. After getting a divorce and relocating to Los Angeles, it’s been a very tumultuous year for me. So getting this show off will be a concrete step in a positive direction for me, personally and professionally.


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