The death of touring over the last 12 months has left most musicians in tight spots — furloughed, hemorrhaging money and relying on digital streaming to reach audiences.
Not Denver’s Trev Rich, who already had scaled down before the COVID-19 pandemic. The rapper and songwriter burst out of the gate in 2016 by signing to the legendary Cash Money Records (Drake, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne), and followed it up by contributing to the song “Elevate” on 2018’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse” soundtrack (as Trevor Rich, with DJ Khalil, Denzel Curry, YBN Cordae and Swayvay).
The soundtrack for the Oscar-winning, animated film was nominated for a Grammy and featured heavy-hitters such as Minaj, Wayne and Post Malone. But even with that boost, Rich’s solo career stalled. He continued to crank out lyrically dense, heavy-hitting albums while writing songs for other artists. He gathered accolades for his forceful, personal lyrics and commanding stage presence.
But none of that translated to money or fame. He stepped back, feeling like he had blown his chance.
“This is an industry where it’s really all on you as a solo artist,” said Rich, 31, over the phone from Aurora’s Bright Future Media last week. “There’s no one and nothing you can blame.”
That may not be entirely true, given the shadowy dimensions of an industry designed to enrich labels and short-change musicians, but Rich has taken it to heart. No one is responsible for his happiness but him, he said. And one night, an alluring idea materialized during a psychedelic mushroom trip (see “Out the Dark’s” excellent cover art by Denver artist and designer Graffiti).
“I work with a lot of artists, and the biggest thing they hope for is fan interaction,” Rich said. “But you have to be proactive about it. I was going out and talking to streaming services about working with my new album. And then I had this idea.”
For his new album “Out the Dark,” which was released April 5, the hip-hop artist turned fans into label reps, marketers, PR minions and retail wholesalers. In order to “unlock” songs from the album, they needed to check digital boxes: buy $2,000 in merchandise; rack up 150,000 views for a single video on YouTube; sell 100 album “pre-saves” (preorders); and make five pieces of fan art.
The fealty, he figured, would justify the album’s existence before it was fully released. If it failed, it would join the dust pile of music-world digital experiments.
“I was highly surprised we pulled it off,” Rich said. “The response was so dope, seeing that people wanted to be part of something larger.”
“The way he rolled out this album was incredibly creative and unique,” said Tim Gelt, a hip-hop manager and publicist with Taglife21 PR who’s been helping Rich promote the new album. “The feeling among people in the local hip-hop scenes is that this is Trev’s best work to date.”
Some media outlets, such as All Hip Hop, described it as “gamifying” Rich’s fan base, given the digital tasks, goals and endgame results. But for Rich, it went a step beyond pre-selling the album, or trying to inflate streaming numbers to join all-important editorial playlists of Spotify or Apple Music.
“This is really the microwave age in music, bro,” Rich said. “Even if you got something legendary, you have to do more than just put it out and hope people will listen.”
Rich rode out the pandemic by staying busy. In addition to writing and recording “Out the Dark,” he’s continued penning songs for other artists — having moved away from live, solo shows in recent years — and doubling down on whatever his gut tells him. He started bi-weekly therapy sessions and found his spiritual center, he said.
“Out the Dark” is selling better and charting higher than any of his previous albums, Rich and his publicist said, and the surfeit of videos accompanying it doesn’t hurt. A YouTube search for Rich’s name pulls up more than a dozen sleek, arresting, often surprisingly funny music videos directed by a mix of Rich’s cohorts. Most videos for the new album arrived thanks to his collaboration with old buddy Leland Schmidt.
Filmed around Denver against George Floyd murals, under overpasses, on rain-slicked city streets, and in front of iconic buildings and sculptures (such as “Dancers,” the 60-foot-tall “dancing aliens” outside Denver Performing Arts Complex), the videos make the argument that Denver’s hip-hop scene has been woefully underestimated.
“How many stitches mend a broken heart?” he raps on “Built,” produced by Denver’s Mic Coats. “All these open wounds turned into scars. They had me (messed) up when they dealt my cards. But I played ’em, like I played my part. And life is hard, but I’m built … I’m built for this.”
“It’s a reintroduction and a rejuvenation of who I’ve been,” he said of the videos, which include the masterful, melodic “Gandhi Shxt,” arguably one of the best videos ever to come out Denver. It finds a black-and-white Rich confronting three heads sticking out of the cracked Colorado soil (all him) as a battered TV plays images of the Ku Klux Klan and dashboard video of police stops. At times, white hoods with ragged eye-holes and police-officer caps appear on Rich’s copied-and-pasted heads.
“It’s the Fortune 500, but fortunately, all that fortune and fame became just fortune for me,” he raps. “See, I traded my fame in for my portion of peace. Can’t put no horse on a leash, so why ya’ll Porches be leased? (People) starve in that trap just to go corporate and feast.”
“People in this industry who are using $30,000 and $40,000 music-video budgets aren’t making videos as good as ours,” Rich boasted — and he’s right. “Most just want to show how rich they are in their videos. I’m focused on creating art, and working on my inner peace.”
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