"We are trying to show the rest of America that South Florida consists of more than Rick Ross, strip clubs, and cocaine," declares Tim McClure, a blue-collar Fort Lauderdale MC better-known as Protoman. Engulfed in wafting aerosol vapors at the South Florida Graffiti Expo held in late August at Kevro's Art Bar in Delray Beach, McClure is referring to Footwork4Self (FW4S), an upstart hip-hop record label based in Lake Worth.
In less than a year, FW4S has emerged as a South Florida locus for underground rappers, producers, and b-boys — not only putting out recordings but functioning as a promotion and management company to its artists. The 400 people who attended the graffiti event prove that these efforts are working locally, and a strategic alliance with artists on Rhymesayers Entertainment — a Minneapolis indie label that has released albums from MF Doom, Freeway, Brother Ali, and Atmosphere — has helped bring national talent like Toki Wright to Florida and land out-of-state bookings for its South Florida signees.
So who is behind this rapidly rising collective?
"He's the Nick Carter-looking dude over there," says Protoman, pointing New Times in the direction of FW4S CEO Ryan Kolquist. On the surface, the cocksure 29-year-old is an average Joe hip-hop fan: a fitted baseball cap tilted to the side and a T-shirt reimagining the AC/DC thunderbolt logo as "MC/DJ." But beneath Kolquist's affable persona is a razor-sharp business acumen. Since his 2003 move from Duluth, Minnesota, to Palm Beach County, this entrepreneur has built three companies from the ground up.
"I took an idea that started in a garage to a global business that has increased in sales by 20 to 30 percent each year," said the shrewd Kolquist about J-KO, a floor-mat-cleaning-device company owned by his father, Jon. The younger Kolquist honed his Billy Mays-style pitchman skills while accompanying his father to a Las Vegas trade show four years ago. He says they sold 50 machines ranging from $4,000 to $8,000 in one day. Before that, his father had averaged 50 per year.
Kolquist, who was a left wing for the University of Minnesota-Crookston hockey team, first thought to apply his sell-ice-to-an-Eskimo talent to the rap game after a chance run-in with an old pal from Duluth, Ryan "Jabrjaw" Britt, at South Beach's Purdy Lounge in 2004. Britt and his recording and performing partner, DJ Dee Dubbs, AKA Dan Wilkes, had come up with the concept of Footwork4Self at the time but did not have the expertise to push things forward. "When the time is right, let's make some moves," Britt told Kolquist at the time.
After assisting with some shows throughout the years, Kolquist decided ten months ago to go "all in," forming a solid infrastructure and lining up all the company's copyright and trademark matters. He's now a one-third owner of the label, and Jabrjaw and DJ Dee Dubbs make up the other two-thirds.
The first matter of business was building a roster. "This past year, I went to hundreds of shows in the Florida area and networked," Kolquist explains. "I feel that I've got the most talented people on my team that are willing to do whatever the fuck it takes to be successful. Nowadays, everybody expects success to fall out of the sky; it doesn't happen that way, especially in the music business."
Two recent additions are Detroit's Chief and Miami-based Serum. According to Kolquist, Chief's smooth flow has the most pop appeal and can easily draw up to 500 people in his hometown. Serum, a more experimental hip-hop act, already has a hit called "The Blade Rack" that reached number five on the Rap Attack college radio hip-hop charts.
Filling out the label is the aforementioned flagship FW4S act Jabrjaw & DJ Dee Dubbs, who do what Kolquist calls the "boom bap" style of rap. Joining them is fresh-faced Lox tha Rippa, who "freestyles better that most people can write music," and "just a fucking psychotic spitter" in Protoman.
Kolquist eagerly introduces the inked-up Chief, AKA Dave Reginek, who is already a ten-year veteran of the Motor City's underground rap scene. The two hooked up last year after Kolquist, already a fan, emailed Chief to set up a show with him in Detroit. As luck would have it, the rapper had just relocated to Delray Beach.
Reginek, who garnered the nickname "Chief" from drug dealers in Detroit's ghetto while on missions to score weed, says he's all "mash potatoes" when recalling the exact details of who initially emailed who. Having semiretired from the rap biz when he encountered Kolquist, Reginek didn't immediately take to his message. "I'd been so gassed up with everybody trying to fill my head with hopes and dreams that I wasn't trying to hear Ryan when he first stepped up to me." It took a solid recommendation months later from hometown friend and Kid Rock DJ Paradime to finally convince him to join forces with Kolquist.
As a former pill-popper from Detroit with what he calls his "woe is me" rap style, Eminem comparisons for Chief are easy. "I've heard it a million and one times," he says. "Besides the color of our skin and the fact we are both from Detroit, if you listen to our records, they don't sound anything alike."
Chief is ready to branch out from his struggling ways, though. "I'm almost 30 years old; being broke is not something that's cool anymore." As he said that, the personable artist is approached and congratulated for his raucous set — by a six-foot-five effeminate black man and an expectant mother. Chief leans over and says, "You see, pregnant ladies and gay black dudes dig me. I've got what they call mass appeal."
Chief's debut EP via FW4S is set for an early 2011 release. Joining him at Friday's "Stackin' tha Roster" event at Propaganda, as well as anticipating his own EP through the label next year, is Serum, a self-proclaimed "graffer" or graffiti artist, who is spray-painting a bulbous, alien-like caricature in jailhouse garbs on a large board at Kevro's.
The MC from Kendall in Miami-Dade doesn't seem to think his partnership with the FW4S dudes from Palm Beach County is so unusual. "In reality, it's not so far-fetched," says Serum, AKA Andre Brevil, in his deep baritone delivery. "The b-boys, graffiti artists, and DJs all know each other in South Florida; there is much more tricounty camaraderie than you would expect."
Serum, who also puts out records on his own label, Tyranno Serum Records, says he appreciates that FW4S is booking so many out-of-state shows because he is eager to show the rest of the country that South Florida has legitimate "tru-skoolers" in its midst.
"Rap these days has lost touch with its audience," interjects Kolquist, citing the Rhymesayers label as an exception. "Those guys started by jumping vans and rocking shows for 50 people at a time until it spread like wildfire."
After befriending Rhymesayers' Toki Wright by attending small shows in the Twin Cities eight years ago, Kolquist was able to arrange a few shows in Minneapolis for his crew, a dream come true. "When I got into this, I said to myself, 'I got to rock a show in uptown Minneapolis.' "
Kolquist is not modest about his ambitions and believes that if the label stays true to its vision and keeps "busting ass," it will soon take the public by storm. "They say it takes a small business five years to get up and running," he says. "We have been in business for ten months and are accomplishing more than bigger companies with hundreds of thousands of dollars backing them."