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The Empire Builder

Rudy Acosta, the would-be castle dweller who runs the hip-hop label the Legion, has a new major-label deal and a raft of releases ready to go.

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In the past year Rudy Acosta has gotten more attention for the construction of his home--an ostentatious castle he's building in Irving Park that's outraged many of his neighbors--than for his hip-hop label, the Legion. That may be because the label has been all but silent since early 2005, when it put out a disc by local group Do or Die--Acosta's first release after signing a distribution pact with Warner Music's Atlantic imprint. The album underperformed, but now Acosta's gearing up for the Legion's rebirth. He has a new major-label partner, a raft of fresh signings, a long list of upcoming releases, and all the confidence you could want in a hip-hop impresario--and then some. "We're about to shock people with all the things we have coming up," he says. "Trust me, we're getting ready to dominate."

A 30-year-old real-estate developer and Pilsen native, Acosta founded the Legion in late 2003. His first signing was Do or Die, who'd scored a pair of gold records in the late 90s. The trio was in a slump when Acosta stepped in, but in the summer of 2004 it had a hit single with "Higher," which featured a cameo by Kanye West. Major labels soon started sniffing around.

"We had the Kanye West record, we had 1,300 spins a week, we had it in video rotation, we had magazine ads, strong marketing and promotion," Acosta says. "[Warner Music Group] saw that there was a label out here that knew what they were doing and were making a strong buzz on the streets. There was an opportunity for them to make money--that's what they're in the business of. And the way I do things, and with the quality I demand, there was no way I was gonna do business with anybody but a major. Lyor Cohen [Warner Music Group's head of recorded music in the U.S.] put the best deal on the table, and I took it."

In January 2005 Warner announced that it had signed the Legion to a multiyear U.S. distribution deal through Atlantic Records, an agreement that also gave Acosta access to Atlantic's marketing and promotional muscle. The press release for the announcement closed with Acosta's declaration of his pugnacious personal motto, which leaped out from the paragraphs of dry corporatespeak: "I specialize in rolling with the punches and I make sure it ends with mine."

Do or Die's album came out a month later, but despite guest spots by West, R. Kelly, and Twista and assists from top-shelf producers like Scott Storch and DJ Quik, D.O.D. struggled, stalling at 40 on Billboard's album chart with no hits. Acosta blames the disc's sluggish sales on the label's inability to keep the disc on the shelves. "We had a bad problem with [Atlantic] undershipping the record," he says. "We ended up having six different major retailers in Chicago alone that sold out of DOD's record the first day, and first-week sales are everything. People are only going to go to one store, maybe two stores if you're lucky. But they're not going to go to several different places if they can't find it. They'll just buy something else."

A chopped-and-screwed version of D.O.D. and a DVD release followed later in 2005, but by then the album had run out of steam. Undaunted, Acosta went on a small signing spree, locking up local MCs like former Motown artist Cap-1, north-side hard-core rapper Payroll, and Speedknot Mobstaz vet and Twista collaborator Turtle Banxx. He also sent his roster into the studio for much of 2005 and early 2006, stockpiling a trove of material that included solo discs by Do or Die's Belo and Hammond MC Ric Jilla. For production duties Acosta recruited local talents like Mush Millions, No ID, Crucial Conflict's Wildstyle, and Legion mainstay the Legendary Traxster, as well as Texas-based Mr. Lee and Mississippi crew the Drum Squad.

But though the label was busy in the studio, albums from the Legion's new artists weren't arriving in stores. Acosta says he held off because he was concerned that any new Legion product would suffer the same distribution woes as D.O.D. Frustrated, he headed to New York in the spring to sit down with Warner management and terminate their agreement. "I went to New York to get my release papers," he says. "I wanted my release from Warner Brothers. I was fed up with the way the whole business was going with Warner. And so I met with them and I dropped a bunch of product on the table--all the records we'd been working on. When they saw that, they were like, 'Whoa, let's really try and rethink this. How can we make this work for you so we can stay in business with each other?'"

In response, Warner offered a new arrangement in which the Legion would join forces with Asylum Records, which unlike Atlantic is exclusively dedicated to working with indie hip-hop labels. Asylum has been operating as an incubator since 2004, and it's struck up successful partnerships with labels like Swishahouse, Rap-a-Lot, and Dee Money; in the past year it's enjoyed a string of chart successes, including Mike Jones's Who Is Mike Jones?, Webbie's Savage Life, Paul Wall's The Peoples Champ, Bun B's Trill, and D4L's Down for Life.

After the meeting in New York, Acosta and Warner renegotiated, and the Legion moved from Atlantic to Asylum. "Ultimately we cut a better deal, and I feel ten times more confident with the way the business is structured," Acosta says. "I feel more protected now."

New contract in hand, Acosta has an ambitious 18 months mapped out for the Legion. On September 26 he'll release Belo's The Truth--the first-ever solo effort from a Do or Die member--followed in October by Ric Jilla's Certified. Chopped-and-screwed versions of both discs, remixed by Paul Wall, will follow, with debut albums from Cap-1, Turtle Banxx, and Payroll set for early 2007; another Do or Die album is in the can, but Acosta says it won't be released until late 2007. (Get That Paper, a collection of unreleased Do or Die tracks, came out on Rap-a-Lot in March.) Acosta says that, all told, the Legion has some 20 titles in the works, starting with a new mix tape in DJ Boogie Boy's "Gangsta Boogie" series, which hits the streets this week.

"The main thing is we're gonna be consistent with our releases," Acosta says. "We're gonna come out strong and not settle down. We're not gonna cause a buzz and then have the buzz go down again."

Correction

In last week's column I misidentified Steve Denekas and Tamar Berk's child: the couple have a daughter, not a son.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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