It’s two days after Christmas and Dom Kennedy and his manager, Archie Davis, are marveling at the realization that the coming year will mark two decades since 1997. On his 2010 single “1997,” the Los Angeles rapper identifies the titular year as the time he came of age and set forth on his current path. Since emerging from the late-’00s blog rap boom, Kennedy has built a following off a steady flow of mellow, ambient hip-hop — the perfect companion to his around-the-way charm.
Above all, he’s done it on his terms: Despite the lure of major label deals, the 32-year-old has remained independent, while building his own imprint, OPM (Other People’s Money). After releasing projects consistently from 2008 to 2015, Kennedy took what felt like an extended hiatus. That ended at the close of 2016 with Half-A-Mil, his collaborative EP with producer Hit-Boy, and Los Angeles Is Not for Sale, Vol.1, released last month. The latter is a bold statement, and a product of Kennedy’s meticulous approach.
“Trying to be in people’s faces just because? That’s not really what I do,” he explains to Billboard.
Below, the West Coast rep teases the springtime release for Los Angeles Is Not For Sale, Vol. 2 and discusses his approach to sustained success in the rap game.
You took some time off from releasing new music for a while. What have you been up to in 2016?
Working, man. Working on Los Angeles Is Not For Sale, Vol. 2 and working with Hit-Boy a lot. We have some fresh new music that’ll be coming out in 2017. [I’ve been working with] a couple of my artists — Jay 305 and the homie Niko G4, but mostly just that.
There’s so much emphasis on being current and relevant in the music industry, but you never cared about that. How have you learned to succeed while moving at your own pace?
I think sometimes the same things that work for me work against me. It’s hard being such an individual, knowing that time is on your side. To me, music that’s good and real is going to last a lot longer than something that’s just trying to be relevant. You can swing that in your favor; it allows you to stick around, but you definitely want to stay relevant in the rap game, because it’s out of sight, out of mind. There’s going to be a new person that’s current and relevant, there’s always going to be a new this and new that, so I think putting something real in your music gives you longevity.
You rose during the blog rap era of the late 2000s, but you aren’t an “Internet” dude, based on your music and interviews. Why are you so comfortable with falling back where others aren’t?
I look at it as allowing yourself time to come up with something new. You don’t have to show people your car that’s coming out in 2018 when you’re working on it in 2016. That doesn’t mean you don’t have something coming.
There’s also a lot of plagiarism in the music, the styles and everything. Not being involved in that helps my ideas when I do want to drop something, because it allows me to see what I have to add. If you’re always chasing styles or trying to measure up to what’s relevant at the parties you go to every month, you’re never true to yourself or developing anything distinct. That’s something that I’ve always wanted to keep in tact, so I never really worry about rapping over other people’s songs or work with every producer in the meantime. The person who won the ASCAP or BMI award two years ago probably wasn’t even invited this year, so if that’s all we’re talking about, that’s really not relevant to me.
Let’s talk about the new album Los Angeles Is Not For Sale. Can you break down the title for me?
It was the title for a song I had at first. I thought of it a little while ago as a response to things that are always going on in music. The game of rap is like real estate — it’s a monopoly and everything is just out there for sale. The stories I tell, the people I know, they aren’t on an auction block. There’s no bargain; it’s nothing you can buy your way into. It’s nothing that can be manipulated. That title is a mindstate, and I hope people continue to walk and live with that. L.A. is always going to be strong — that’s what it means to me.
Fans typically associate your music with the warmer months given your past release dates but you put out your second album Get Home Safely in October of 2013 and Los Angeles Is Not for Sale, Vol. 1 dropped two days before Christmas in 2016.
When I first started releasing music, it just felt right to me. I knew that music spread better [during the warmer months] — you do more shows and people share music more. That’s just how the timing lined up for me. Los Angeles Is Not for Sale, Vol. 2 is definitely coming out in the springtime, so people can look forward to that, and Vol. 1 is a new realm for me.
Vol. 2 will probably have more of the feel that you were talking about. Around that time, kids’ll be getting out of school. You’ll want that little two-step, graduation-time music that you can ride around to. Get Home Safely wasn’t really attached to a season, but I guess you could call trying to put something out for the summertime the Will Smith approach. When your music comes out in June or July, you’re trying to do a blockbuster, Independence Day-style. [Laughs.]
You’ve been rapping for about a decade now. Have you seen some of your peers get record deals, then regret it later?
Not at all. You have to take the good with the bad, for sure. Maybe something didn’t go right with the deal, but then maybe you didn’t have anything before it. None of the people I know, fortunately, regret anything at all.
What advice do you have for other independent artists in terms of knowing their value and not letting people shortchange them?
I would just say do what’s best for you. Going the independent route definitely isn’t going to work for everyone. There’s a lot of motherf–kers who, if they didn’t have a deal, they wouldn’t be anywhere near the money or status they have now. The independent thing isn’t for everybody, but I’d definitely advise people to read up on the numbers.
It’s not about turning down everything, because you do want to be in business and make a living. I’ve been in all types of situations. The biggest [deal that] came across my table was about three years ago, and I just knew, at the time, that I was willing to take the risk, because I had already made the money I was being offered. If you can’t at least make the money someone is offering you, then you might want to listen and try to work something out. It’s not just about being on your own.
When I came up, ownership was always my interest — that was essential. I honestly wouldn’t be as enthusiastic about the music game if I was just out here trying to battle for popularity. I grew up reading Black Enterprise, reading about Russell Simmons, Puff Daddy, Irv Gotti, Damon Dash and Shawn [Jay Z] Carter. That’s who inspired me; I was never really concerned with simply trying to get on the radio. You have to honor who you truly are; it would’ve crushed my spirits to be a regular, run-of-the-mill artist. But if that’s how you feel and that helps you sleep at night, you might want to be independent.
On the first installation of Los Angeles Is Not For Sale, you talk about rap being temporary and as a means to an end that successful rappers use to do more. Do you want to parlay your music into something else in the future?
Hell yeah, I definitely have big plans. I write more than just rap songs and I’m creative in other ways. Even back in 2011, I was one of the first people I knew of who was designing their own merchandise, and now, everybody has a pop-up shop. Rap has definitely taken me places I couldn’t get without the music but there’s definitely more to it, to me at least, than just being an artist. That’s my number one love and I’m true to it as far as the last six to eight years of my life and probably the next four or five, but there’s definitely more to life than just creating songs.
Through the years, have you ever gotten frustrated and thought about quitting?
I had the most downtime between this new music, and that’s probably why it sounds the way that it does. It’s important for me to say that. After Get Home Safely, I realized you have to challenge yourself. In athletics, you play against a different team. In music, you play against yourself.
Honestly, I had done a lot of things I set out to do, and gotten past a lot of misconceptions. When I started rapping, people didn’t really think you could be a rapper from L.A. if you weren’t in a gang or didn’t portray a certain image. That’s one of the things OPM and myself proved to be untrue. But traveling the world twice, putting out projects people knew internationally, it got to a point where life was coming at me and I really had to sit down and say, “If I’m gonna do this, I have to remember why I love it and contribute something that’s gonna last.” And that’s hard; it takes time.
So I started digging into the music and stopped using samples so I could put out proper albums, and I feel like that’s where the separation really shows. Rap is one thing, and I’ve been rapping for a while, but making great songs is something else. That’s the challenge for me now.
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned over the past decade?
[Pauses.] Just take your craft seriously. Never underestimate anything. I’ve seen things not pan out for truly talented people, and other times, people who aren’t as talented or musically inclined reach certain levels. It makes you wonder why, and I think it has to do with seizing the opportunity.
None of this is forever, though. That goes for the superstar, the up-and-comer and the person music didn’t really work out for. They all get about the same amount of time — it’s just what they do with it. The biggest difference is presentation. Nobody knows what’s in all of these people’s bank accounts or who’s really writing these songs. You don’t know what’s really going on, you just know how much confidence they have when they’re doing it. So I would say don’t take any of that for granted, and study up.