At an age normally reserved for acne remedies and orthodonture, Soulja Boy signed to the inimitable roster at Interscope Records. So how did this 16-year-old rapper/producer go from irritating teachers at South Panola High School in Batesville, Mississippi to inking deals in Jimmy Iovine's plush office? Let's fill in some gaps.
Soulja Boy, born DeAndre Way in Chicago, moved to Atlanta at age 6. A-town, today the boiling cauldron of musical creativity, had begun to seriously bubble by the mid-90s. Artists like OutKast, Usher, Jermaine Dupri, and Goodie Mob were rising from local heavyweights into national sensations, shoving the South inexorably into prominence.
A young Soulja, taking cues from his surroundings, mustered his fledgling foray into music alongside then-partner, Young Kwon: " He was the one who taught me how to make beats and record; he recorded the first songs I ever did," Soulja reveals. "He taught me what he knew about snap beats in the studio in his house." His appetite whetted, Soulja began to hone his production chops. But while his time was abundant, resources were not. "I didn't like growing up, we grew up poor," Soulja admits. "When I was staying with my Momma, it was me and my little brother. We didn't have much money. I ain't have nothing to do, just go to school. I used to be real smart, a straight A student. But music affected my grades, I ain't gonna lie."
Ironically, it was Soulja's subsequent departure from Atlanta that prompted the next step in his musical march. While in 8th grade, he moved to nearby Mississippi with his father. "I moved with my daddy because he had a little money, he could provide more for me," Soulja notes. "That's where I got access to a computer. When I went to Mississippi, I had to adjust to what was going on. But it was really a blessing in disguise, because if I would've never moved to Mississippi I wouldn't be where I'm at today. I wouldn't have had access to no computer, no internet, no camera to film my dancing. I took the hood to where the money was at. If I didn't have no money behind it, nobody would've ever known about it."
By "it," he means the grass-roots groundswell he created via the internet. Soulja collaborated with classmate and co-conspirator Arab to form the duo The 30/30 Boys. The pair cooked up jocular songs and beamed them out over the web. "First we uploaded songs to SoundClick, where people can comment on your songs, rate them, and download them," Soulja explains. "We were getting good responses, so I set up my website, www.souljaboytellem.com to help push my name." Having opened this new portal --and alongside manager Michael Sykes, a.k.a Miami Mike-- Soulja was able to display his full palate of attributes. "I don't think it's just the music, I think it's me that people like," he asserts. "My personality come through, and my style. I think somebody who just hears my music and doesn't know me won't like me as much as somebody who's seen me perform. That's Soulja boy, that's that dude. You gonna be like that, `Dang, I wanna be like that dude right there.'"
At first glance, such a statement seems more a measure of Soulja Boy's age than his credibility. But upon further inspection, this claim shows Soulja's head to be level, rather than big. In fact, old ally Arab remains a close friend, and his current tour hypeman. And Mr. Collipark, who via his Collipark Music imprint brought Soulja Boy to Interscope's attention, echoes the sentiment. "To an adult who doesn't know what's going on with him, it appears to be a fad. But if you do the research and look at the real fans, his presence is like a cult. Matter of fact, he didn't even have a single per se when I signed him. It was beyond a record; it was his whole lifestyle: how he dressed, his shades with his name on them, the shoes he chose to wear. It was all of that and the music was another part of what he brought to the table. Part of Soulja's magic that blew him up, even before I got to him, was that the kids looked at his music as something that was just theirs. It was something they could have that nobody else could have. But if you not hip to it, you gonna look at him as some one hit wonder."
Soulja returned to Atlanta in 2004, wearing Mississippi on his back like a David Banner tattoo. "Down in Mississippi, there's rappers for days trying to make it," he maintains. "If more people in Mississippi just had some way to let the world see what they doing, there'd be a lot more dudes who can do better than what's out there right now. It's controversial because people saying the South killing hip hop, but I feel it's new and different, and people still stuck on the old stuff. It's changing; I'm fitting to be the next generation." Riding high off his internet celebrity, Soulja was determined to translate this notoriety into US currency. "When I moved back to Atlanta, I was like `I gotta get my momma out of this right here,'" he says. "Then my career started to jump off, and the money started coming in." He paired with Atlanta-based manager Derrick Crooms, who'd been responsible for shaping the Ying-Yang Twins' successes. Soulja landed his first live performance at the grizzled age of 15, at a teen nightclub in Indianapolis, Indiana. "The first time I stepped onstage was wild," he recalls. "The show was so crunk that I was worried about doing a wack show. But then I just calmed down and did it." That stage-stealing three-song showcase parlayed into more eye-catching engagements. "As a businessman, his savvy at 16 years old is incredible," attests Mr. Collipark. "He puts his shows together, his songs together, he produces all his own music. This is only the beginning."
Collipark takes it a step further: "The more I'm around the kid, the more I see how special he is. I think he's the future of the way music's going. Coming into the game, he's done all the work for the record company who's trying to find an artist with substance and an existing fan base. The game right now is based on somebody lucking up and finding a hit record, but that somebody has no substance. Soulja Boy comes with that substance already built in. He has a better chance of selling a million records than a lot of established artists do. Whether we as adults get it or not doesn't matter; it's a fact that he's already selling out shows by himself-- headlining across the country. He's really an entertainer. His stage show is phenomenal. I put his stage show up against anybody, right now, and he's only 16 years old."
This may sound a bit like rose-colored rhetoric, so perhaps some simple arithmetic is in order: nearly 10 million people have visited Soulja Boy's MySpace page since its inception. His legion of fans uploads YouTube clips daily, emulating his epidemic self-titled dance routines. His "Crank Dat Soulja Boy" anthem is scalding radio. He's set to release his debut album on Interscope Records, aptly called SouljaBoytellem.com. Fittingly, he references labelmate 50 Cent as motivation: "50 Cent inspired me a lot: he's sold millions of records, done movies, he's got clothes and a videogame. I want all that too and more." Daring to use 16-year-old rapper and track record in the same breath, Soulja has set the requisite precedent for success. And he's leaving doubters powerless. When asked how he distinguishes himself from other artists on the come-up, he drops his boyish grin and answers steadfastly: "I'm different, in terms of my style, what I rap about, what I do, how I do it, the way I put it together. I switch up doing comedy, the snap, the dance, the party, the happy, the sad, all of that." It's a convincing pitch. When further pressed about how he'll deal with haters, he seems unconcerned. "I don't respond to skepticism because they not gonna be skeptical for long," he states. "My life right now is like a TV show; you watch every day to see a new episode