It was a rainy weekend in the city in 2006. Murs was hosting his first Paid Dues Festival at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California. Originally scheduled to take place in San Bernardino, a last minute venue change landed the event back where Murs began his career as an aspiring emcee. The lineup for the day included some of Murs’ close, independent associates: Aesop Rock, Brother Ali, Slug of Atmosphere and Cage, among others. Murs performed three sets that evening, hoping that this day would grow to become something even more special.
Fast-forward to 2013 and it’s hard to knock that dream. According to Murs, he’s surpassed any goals he set for himself with the first Paid Dues. He is now preparing for what will be the largest Paid Dues to date. The eighth annual Paid Dues will play host to more than 20,000 attendees on March 30, all looking for a mixture of old favorites, new favorites and undiscovered acts. The size and growth of this is hard for Murs to describe without saying that he can’t believe it.
“I never thought that would happen,” he says only days before Paid Dues, reflecting on how big this festival has become. That dream he had in 2006 has been more than realized.
The dream has also come with some headaches. Murs has encountered backlash from fans and fellow artists. He’s had to hear it about everything from set-times to line-ups and he’s witnessed it all from behind-the-scenes. In this conversation with HipHopDX, Murs discusses all of this but does so while still speaking on the positives. Here, he celebrates the success of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, calls Black Hippy “the best rappers in the world” and shares early experiences with these emcees. He also opens up about admiration and respect he has for Tech N9ne while calling Strange Music “the most professional and family-like organization I’ve ever seen.” Finally, he talks about how Paid Dues has opened new lanes for him to continue dreaming as he shares his plans to help children have a better future.
Murs On Kendrick Lamar And Black Hippy’s Success
HipHopDX: A lot of people may not know that you met Black Hippy a long time ago, before most people knew about them. What do you remember about the first time you met the Black Hippy cats?
Murs: The first time I met them, Kendrick [Lamar] was supposed to perform at Paid Dues 5. It was some political B.S. that he wasn’t able to. So I told Top [Dawg] and Jay Rock called me...I had become friends with him. K. Dot, DJ Quik, Kurupt and I and Jay hopped on a song for NBA Jam 2009. After that, K. Dot hit me up on MySpace or something. This was when he was still K. Dot. He was like, “Yo, check my shit out.” I heard him and I was like, “Who raps like this from Compton? Who are you?” You know? I was like, “Bro, I have no idea what I could do for you, but if you ever need anything, advice or whatever, hit me.” He may have had like 200 followers on Twitter or 1,000. I don’t know. But I told my A&R at Warner [Bros.] at the time—he always gives me credit to this day—I was like, “Yo! This kid is phenomenal. You need to sign him.” So Paid Dues came around, and I got a call from the camp. I was like, “Yo, I love this kid. Unfortunately, because of whatever’s going on, I can’t do it. We’re already booked.” But I was on tour at the time, so I was like, “I would love to have him come open for me, if he wants to do that.” That’s the night I met everybody. They were like, “Black Hippy.” I was like, “What the fuck is this? What kind of name is this?” They explained the whole concept and I was like, “This is amazing!” Knowing [ScHoolboy Q] and his background, knowing Jay Rock and his background, seeing Ab[-Soul] for the first time and knowing Kendrick’s music , I was like, “Yo, you guys are the future of this city. Don’t ever let anybody tell you guys anything fuckin’ different. You guys are amazing.”
Sometimes I can’t watch the openers because people want to take pictures and shit. But I was such a fan of “P&P (Pussy & Patron)” and their whole movement so I was like, “I’m gonna watch this set.” So I went up to the balcony and I watched. It was so funny because the crowd was so unresponsive, and I’m up there going crazy! They did “Say Wassup” for the first time. They were like, “We just recorded this song. Let’s do it!” I was like, “Yo!” This mothafucka Ab-Soul said, “My teacher used to call my momma on me. Now I’m older and I could fuck my momma’s homies.” I was like, “Oh!” I remember screaming, “Oh my God! This kid is so ill!” And their energy together? I was like, “These dudes are amazing! This is the future of L.A.” but no one in the crowd was responding. To me, they weren’t giving enough love because to me, they were the best rappers I’d seen in a long time from any coast. That’s my first Black Hippy experience as a whole. But before that, before I booked them, “Zip That Chop That” was like…I worked out to that song every morning. Black Hippy was just my playlist for the longest. This was probably 2009, 2010.
HipHopDX: Ab-Soul has a Paid Dues tattoo so we know this event means a lot to him personally. What did you think when you first saw the tattoo? What does that mean to you?
Murs: I was taken aback. I had put him on the Road to Paid Dues tour with me. I wasn’t paying him what he deserved. I thought he was brilliant from the moment I got into his music. He’s younger than me, but his understanding of the art of Rap is so deep. At that stage, I considered us to be peers, if not, him to be more advanced than me.
So anyway, we were on tour in Seattle, and he wanted to go get a tattoo. He went with my cousin and when he came back, he had a Paid Dues tattoo. I was like, “Yo! I don’t even know what to say.” It wasn’t some kid on the street that got a tattoo. This is an artist I respect and someone I considered a friend after we’d been on the road for so long. It just keeps me open to making—not open but—making this brand relevant. I know it means a lot to people. Every year it seems to hit me deeper how much this means to my city and Hip Hop heads around the world, so I take this as a serious responsibility.
HipHopDX: But what does it [Paid Dues] mean to you personally?
Murs: On the business side, it means a lot of headaches, a lot of hate, a lot of bull crap. It used to be a party for me and my friends. And now it’s, um…Damn. I don’t even know, man. It’s out of control, basically. Last year, it felt so big. I told my partner, “This doesn’t feel right. I want to throw something smaller.”
Murs Addresses Paid Dues’ Growth And Critics
HipHopDX: And yet it almost seems like it just got bigger.
Murs: Yeah, I started the Road to Paid Dues [tour] because I used to be able to handle everything from the road and then get there the day of and be cool. But now this may be the last Road to Paid Dues that I perform on, because I gotta be on this shit 24/7. With the venue change, with all the artists, politics and relations I gotta deal with to make shit run smoothly, I can’t be out here anymore. We already outsold last year’s pre-sale. Last year was our biggest year, and I think we had 18,000 people on-site. We’re past that already. I can’t manage three stages, 46 artists and probably what’s gonna be 20,000 plus attendees properly [from the road]. Now my tour manager left from the tour a week ago. So, now I’m driving the van, settling with the venue, headlining a show and handling all of the Paid Dues logistics. We have Johnny Cupcakes collaboration this year. We have all this shit going on. I’m managing all of this everyday. I got a tour with 14 other dudes on it. I drive the van. I park the van. It’s insanity.
Then yesterday, I went to speak at three schools to these kids for a program I have in the Bay area called Pangaea 316. We finished our show in Sacramento at 4 am. I was up by 8 am and at the schools all day. I was at the venue for sound check by 6 [pm] and then didn’t get home until 3 am last night. All the while, I’m checking Paid Dues ticket sales. Then, set times come out and I’m upset because of the venue change. I had to put some artists earlier than I wanted to. Then, I’m calling those artists, and I want all artists to know, “I don’t intend on disrespect. If I wanted to disrespect you, I wouldn’t put you on my festival.” But there’s artists I respect that aren’t on the festival. It really has very little to do with my personal preference at the end of the day but people get in their feelings sometimes. I had to call my brothers like, “Look, man, this is what it is.”
I have to say picking a bill is a tough decision and then making the set times is an even fuckin’ tougher decision. It’s so hard. I get to the point where I’m so stressed that I want to call somebody and chop it up about advice or have someone share my pain. And there’s no one on the planet Earth, in this Rap game at least, like me. There’s no one that throws one of the best festivals who still is an artist. No one understands. I wish people would understand before they start hating me. I perform this song [“It’s Over”] every night because it feels so good to say, “If you have a problem with Paid Dues, start your own festival.” I don’t mean that with any hate or malice. Do it. Then you’ll understand what I go through, number one, and then there’ll be another option. I think there’s a gang of artists who deserve to be on stage. Why are you all waiting on me?
Trinidad James And Murs’ Thoughts On Paid Dues Artists
DX: It’s a valid question...
Murs: If I was sitting around waiting on Rock the Bells to put me and my friends on, we wouldn’t have Paid Dues. Go start your own thing. I’m thankful for all the love and that it means so much to you, but homie, this is my thing. People always ask me how you get on Paid Dues. You get on Paid Dues by…I feel like you deserve to be on there. If I don’t feel like you don’t deserve to be on there, it doesn’t mean you haven’t paid your dues. You don’t have to be on Paid Dues. I’m glad you think my word is God, but my word isn’t God. If you’re on my stage, it doesn’t mean you have paid dues and if you’re not, it doesn’t mean you haven’t. It just means this is my artistic vision for this year. These are the people I felt like my fans wanted to see. I work for the people. The more people hate on me, the more tickets I sell, so I know I’m doing the right thing by the people. Artists can come and go, but this culture belongs to the people. If I was doing the wrong thing, there’d be less people coming, so I must be doing the right thing.
People are also mad about who I choose. I had a good friend of mine go at me on Twitter about it, about adding Trinidad James. It’s so funny because that night, I went to a show in Chicago. I have a fan who brings her nieces out every year and they’re 15, 13, 14 years old. She was like, “They want to see Kendrick and they want to see Trinidad James. They don’t really want to see anyone else, but now that they know they’re going, they’ve gone through the list of every artist and downloaded something or watched at least one video from every artist on the bill. They’ve been in a festival two years in a row now, and they know they’re gonna be there all day so they’re looking for new people to like.” I say it all the time—that’s why I do it but now that I know it really happens, that’s why I do it. Okay, you may not like the headliners but this is not about…
If Summer Jam is the only place where kids can see Trinidad James then the youth are never gonna get exposed to De La Soul, Grouch & Eligh, Binary Star or Ugly Duckling. You know? They’re not paying $82 and just showing up at 10 o’clock to just see Kendrick Lamar. They’re gonna be there all day, and they’re hungry for music, but we have to provide a platform that encourages their curiosity. If young people are anything, they’re curious. If you feed their curiosity in a proper manner, it works. You can tell it’s working, because it’s growing, and I like to think it has something to do with the success of good music. When I started Paid Dues, I didn’t think we would have this. But the guy with the number one record in America, Macklemore, was on Paid Dues last year and is on Paid Dues this year. To me, the best rappers in the world, Black Hippy, are on Paid Dues. I never thought that would happen. Technically, Black Hippy is still an independent group. TDE is an independent label. Macklemore is still an independent artist and that’s crazy to me. Eight years ago, this wasn’t even a dream of mine. I think it says something about mainstream Rap. That’s what I was getting at. Hopefully, I don’t think it plays a huge part, but Paid Dues has played a small part in changing the quality of mainstream music. I think technology is really responsible for that, but the number one and two rappers in America are standup lyricists.
Murs On Macklemore’s Growth & “Thrift Shop’s” Success
HipHopDX: I saw Macklemore at last year’s Paid Dues and this was obviously before “Thrift Shop’s” success. He was performing at the smaller stage then, the indoor stage, and he was on very early in the day. What did you see in Macklemore that made you originally put him on the bill and how have you seen that help his transition to the stardom he’s earned?
Murs: Macklemore’s a grinder, man. Every year, there’s people I leave off the list. CunninLynguists have been on the list for years, and it just never worked out or I’m like, “Fuck. I can’t book them.” The same thing goes for Binary Star, Ugly Duckling. People Under the Stairs didn’t get on until year four. I have to make hard decisions and Macklemore is one of those guys. He’s opened for Living Legends. He’d been around. I’d heard his name. Usually my requirement was that I had to have seen your show before, and I hadn’t seen his show because I was so busy being an artist. So he ended up performing at the Paid Dues stage at Rock the Bells, which I don’t book. So when I saw him at Rock the Bells, the first thing I said to him was, “I’m Murs. It’s nice to meet you and I’m sorry, man. You should have been on Paid Dues three years ago.” This was way before “Thrift Shop.” He was a new artist but I knew he was talented. And once I saw his live show, I was like, “Yo, you’re amazing. I’m sorry you haven’t been on Paid Dues, but I promise you, next year.” I don’t even think I put him on the year after that. It was a year after that. He’d been working hard. He stayed true to himself, and he’s worked his ass off, man. And he gives a hell of a performance, and he’s definitely a student of the game. He’s a student of the game with a serious work ethic and a tremendous amount of talent. I think all of those things contributed to his well-deserved success, and I can say the same about the TDE camp.
Murs On Strange Music & Tech N9ne’s Professionalism
HipHopDX: You’ve been on tour with Tech N9ne and have had a cool relationship with Strange Music. They represent Paid Dues’ independent spirit. What do you think is the most valuable lesson fans and fellow artists can learn from what they’ve accomplished independently?
Murs: Be loyal, be disciplined and have everybody on the team play their role. Travis O’Guin and Tech are great leaders and they run a very tight ship. But they’re also very fair and men of their word. I’ve never dealt with a label that’s been more on point and that’s shown me more love. This is no disrespect [to other labels]. I’ve dealt with Duck Down. I’ve dealt with Warner. I’ve dealt with every label possible, almost. But from major to minor, to indie to underground, Strange Music is the most professional and family-like organization I’ve ever seen. They take care of their people. I see the same faces year after year. They’re good people. I’m friends with everyone from the executive assistants to the guy who drives the truck. I’ve just seen them conduct themselves in a way that no other label does. They have a special place in my heart, and they’re an inspiration. I wish more people knew how they get down, but their success is amazing and they deserve it.
I wish I could tell everything but like, when I call Tech and I’m like, “I’m sorry about the set times, bro.” They have a multimillionaire tell me, “Murs, we love you. It’s your show. Whatever you need us to do, we’re gonna do it.” They’re like soldiers. You know? When I’m with them, I behave the same way. If I could have 46 Strange Music artists on my bill, I would because they conduct themselves like professionals. They know what they deserve. They’re not gonna let you shortchange them, but there’s not a whole lot of ego and bullshit or passive aggressive bullshit.
There are a lot of people who claim they’re real niggas or real dudes who’re really out here and all that stuff. But to me, that’s Strange Music. We’re not always gonna agree, but when we don’t agree, we can disagree like gentlemen and continue to do business. I don’t honestly think we’ve even had a disagreement, because when you’re like that, there’s very little to disagree about. They know who they are and know what they deserve and they get it all the time because of how they conduct themselves. They’re gonna continue to succeed. They have amazing groups coming up like the Ces Cru and Rittz. I think they’re gonna be around for a long time and they’re gonna succeed. I tell them all the time, “You guys know I Rap, right? If you guys ever want to send an offer my way, I’m open.”
HipHopDX: Do you think that will happen?
Murs: I don’t know, man. I’m a lot to deal with. I have a lot of friends that don’t sign me and it’s probably for good reason. It’s the same thing with Rhymesayers and Duck Down. I’m a particular mothafucka, man. I wouldn’t wish me on anyone. My wife is a great woman because she deals with me.
HipHopDX: In what way are you a particular person?
Murs: I can’t really know, because I can’t jump outside of myself. But I know enough to know that I’m a difficult person. I’m not that much of an asshole to think that I’m a saint and a walk in the park. I’m indecisive. I’m very moody. I’m a fuckin’ Pisces. I definitely have my issues.
Murs Details His Outreach Work With Children
HipHopDX: You mentioned the talks in schools. I saw an image of you speaking to kids recently. How did that start? What are your talks about and what do you hope kids get out of it?
Murs: The first school I ever spoke at was Crenshaw High [in Los Angeles]. A teacher in New Orleans then reached out to me. On the road, people have reached out. But most recently, a friend of mine named Safari who’s been doing programs in Oakland came to me. We started this organization named Pangaea 316. Right now, I’m working in Richmond, [California] with a group called Mindful Life, and they do yoga with the kids. They do breathing exercises with second graders. Richmond is a very, very, very rough area of Northern California. A teacher came in and took it upon himself to start an organization that works with kids on simple parts of life like breathing, being mindful of gratitude and yoga. So yesterday, with the second graders, we were beat boxing and b-boying. B-boying gets out that restless energy little boys and girls have. Then we talked about being grateful why they should be grateful.
They asked me if I make a lot of money and if I’m rich. I was like, “Yeah, I’m rich. But I’m rich because I’m here with you guys and I have a wonderful wife and a child I just adopted. But I do have a lot of money.” They were like, [making a child’s voice] “Do you live in a mansion?” I was like, “No. I bought an apartment complex.” I was like, “Do you live in an apartment complex?” A couple of them said, “Yeah.” I said, “I live in one apartment with my wife and my family. Then we rent it out and everybody pays me rent.” They were like, “Wow!” The second graders even got it. It’s so funny how when I was in second grade, I wasn’t doing nothing but people are so in tune with money these days that they got it immediately. They were like, “Wow, that’s so smart! You’re gonna be even richer!” I was like, “Yeah, but also, I’m giving people a place to live. I’m doing a service to my community.” They were like, “Oh!” They were like, “When you get your mansion, you’re gonna have to have a chef.” I was like, “Right. So if you pay your chef well, what is your chef gonna do?” One kid was like, “My dad’s a chef. He cooks now and with his money, he always wastes his money on rent and food!” I was like, “He’s not wasting it. But you’re gonna one day have to grow up and give somebody a job like your dad has, when you grow up to be rich and famous.” I was explaining those concepts to the kids.
Then I went in with the sixth graders. The sixth grade boys were crazy! They were like, “You look like Taco from Odd Future!” And you know, they were restless so then I put out my phone. Taco’s my favorite member of Odd Future. He’s the only rapper on Paid Dues that I’ve ever taken a picture with, I think, because I love him so much. So I showed them a picture of me and Taco on my phone and they were like, “You know Taco?” They had little to no idea about what I do and who I was as a rapper, but the fact that I knew Taco was amazing to them. Then we talked to them about who they look up to and why they look up to them. Most of them were just like, “Because they spend time with me.” A lot of artists just throw money at these people, but these kids want you to come out and hug them, freestyle with them and do silly dances. They want you spend time with them. That’s what we want to start with this organization. Eventually, we want to get to a point where we have a Saturday school for inner city children. A lot of Jewish kids have Hebrew school. A lot of Asian kids have different Saturday programs to teach them their language and their culture but especially when it comes to young Black kids to do. You play sports. You go to practice. You play a football game. But that’s not teaching you culture. It’s not teaching you discipline. It’s not teaching you self-confidence, and it’s not giving you self-esteem. It’s not teaching you that there are people outside of your household, in your community, that look like you, that care about you. We’re trying to do that.
Then the sixth grade girls came in and you saw the difference between boys and girls. They were like, “We love Kendrick Lamar.” I was like, “Why do you love Kendrick Lamar?” They were like, “Because he has substance. He’s saying something.” I was like, “You’re in sixth grade! What do you know about substance?” That’s how much Rap has changed. Three years ago, those girls would have been like—and I’m a Plies fan—but they would have been like, “I love Plies!” I love Plies too but for different reasons. You know? It’s better than saying I love ‘Whoop! There it is!’” You know? I love that Kendrick is making this music and that sixth grade girls listening to him and Drake on “Poetic Justice,” who I think give a more favorable impression of women than a lot of songs I grew up listening to. Then they freestyled for me, and they were amazing. To have Hip Hop culture in schools for an hour a day is just amazing. It opens the door to talk about other things or to talk about, “Oh, I have a boyfriend.” When someone’s rapping with you and freestyling off the top of the head, you can talk about anything and you feel safe. Especially in our community, they know that there’s men who are there for them to protect them and to guide them. That’s the most important thing to me. It’s paramount. I don’t care if I sell another record if I can continue to work with these children and have their respect. That’s another thing about Paid Dues. I never thought it would come in handy, but I was like, “I know Kendrick.” They’re like, “Oh, you know Kendrick? Really?” I could show them I did a song with him or, “Here’s me and him interviewing.” They want to listen to me more. They believe, “Oh, he knows somebody cool and somebody cool respects him.” You know? I don’t care. I don’t need Macklemore on a feature or anything like that. Just the fact that these artists show me love and respect me allows me to get love and respect from these children. I’m thankful to all of the artists on Paid Dues that allow me to work with them because it gives me credibility where it matters most, in my community.