In June 2004, Dan Weiss was walking with someone he calls "something of a friend" to a meeting the other man had arranged, supposedly with a sound engineer who admired Weiss's music. Weiss, a rapper from Rogers Park who performs as Verbal Kent, had just released his first solo album, What Box, and he was eager to do all the networking he could. They were headed down an empty alley near Clark and Pratt, he says, when without warning his friend turned on him in a fury and slashed his throat. Flooded by "an adrenaline rush," Weiss ran from his attacker. He broke through a wooden gate in someone's backyard, jumped in his car, and sped at 85 miles per hour down one-way side streets to Saint Francis Hospital in Evanston. In the rearview mirror he caught a glimpse of the blood pouring from his wound and felt sure he was going to die.
Weiss needed nearly 100 stitches, but the blade had missed the major blood vessels in his neck by less than a centimeter. He left the hospital three hours later. When he walked outside, he says, he was struck by how "bright and vivacious and amplified everything looked."
Weiss still isn't sure of his attacker's motive. "The guy literally just lost his mind and decided he wanted to kill me," he says. "I don't know if it was personal or not." He claims he filed a police report, but that nothing came of it because the perpetrator skipped town. Today he has a scar that stretches across his neck and ends just below his ear, and he prefers not to mention his former friend's name.
Since What Box dropped, Weiss, 32, has released another solo album almost every year. Save Yourself, which came out Tuesday on his own Rapmechanics label, is his sixth. But not one of those albums mentions the attempt on his life. "I haven't even been able to write a song about it," he says. "Every day, I move away from it, and the longer I'm away from that moment is for the better." His press materials don't try to pimp out his brush with death for publicity either—in the release for Save Yourself, the attack gets about two sentences, down toward the bottom of the page.
This would be unremarkable but for the obvious examples of successful MCs playing up the drama and trauma in their backstories. After being shot nine times in a drug-related dispute, 50 Cent resurrected himself as a bulletproof rapper; Rick Ross fabricated a background for himself as the head of a coast-to-coast cocaine cartel; Kanye West had a near fatal car accident, then used that as a talking point during the launch of his debut album. But Weiss doesn't want to be part of a hip-hop world where rappers will seize on any ugliness or controversy—or even invent criminal mythologies for themselves—to get their names in front of more eyes. Boosting sales figures or drumming up huge download numbers just isn't that big a deal to him.
The press release for Save Yourself explains that Weiss's goal is "connecting wholly with 10 people," not "touching 10,000 on the surface." Like many underground hip-hop artists, he's cultivating so-called superfans—people who don't just buy albums, attend shows, and raid the merch table but who keep coming back and doing it again, year after year. The thinking is that even a modest number of fans like this has more monetary value than, say, millions of YouTube views. Soulja Boy's career, such as it is, makes a good object lesson. In 2007, explaining the viral success of his hit "Crank That," he told me, "I labeled my song 'In da Club,' the 50 Cent song, when I started uploading it." He soon reached 17 million views on YouTube, at a rate he estimates at 30,000 a day, and signed a deal with Interscope. But he also discovered how fleeting viral popularity can be. His major-label debut sold a respectable 117,000 copies in its first week; his latest release, just 13,000. The early gawkers have moved along to the next buzz—they're probably downloading songs by Lil B.
Weiss is looking to create bonds with fans that will hold up over the long haul. At a show in Athens, Greece, he says, "This guy came up and he barely spoke English and he said, 'I can't believe Verbal Kent is here! I'm a fan since your first record, What Box. It's surreal!' And I looked at him and said, 'It's surreal for me to be here!' We looked at each other and had this amazing connection. That connection explains everything for me."
He recalls walking into a record store in Paris, introducing himself, and asking if he could sell his merch there—at which point the DJ behind the counter exclaimed, "Verbal Kent from Chicago? Of course!" Lord Faz, a French DJ who runs an online hip-hop radio site called mixlawax.com, books about half of Weiss's dates when he tours overseas. These "pockets of connections," as Weiss calls them, add up to a career he hopes will be about longevity. Having a friend who will still be able to set up shows for him in Paris ten years from now is more important to him than reaching 100,000 zShare downloads with this week's free mix tape.
"I'm on Facebook a lot," Weiss says. "I search message boards and hip-hop forums globally to see who's talking about me, and then I reach out to them direct." It's not a revolutionary tactic, but a direct message from an artist you like can still be a thrill, even if you're accustomed to following the minutiae of Kanye's day on Twitter.
Given what kind of album Save Yourself is, Weiss's decision to focus on carefully targeted promotion—as he puts it, to "try to get as much exposure as possible, but among the people that like my music"—is an astute one. It's a thoroughly noncommercial record, unlikely to appeal to the mainstream. There's no AutoTune, not a single sample of early-90s European rave music, and no Nicki Minaj verse. Many of the guests, like Masta Ace and Pete Rock, are revered by hip-hop heads familiar with the so-called golden era of the late 80s and early 90s, but they made their best work decades ago, and even then they didn't have huge audiences. If Lil Wayne was your introduction to rap, you're not likely to be impressed by the presence of onetime Brand Nubian member Sadat X.
Sadat represents New York on the album's standout track, "My City," where he joins Weiss and Boston-based rapper Edo G as each pays homage to his hometown over a soulful, horn-imbued midtempo beat with a wistful feel. Masta Ace, who appears on "Last Laugh," has been releasing music himself since 1988, and he sees Weiss as upholding some of the virtues that shaped hip-hop back then. "Verbal Kent is a classic wordplay lyricist," he says. "People like myself who love clever lyricism gravitate to Kent's music."
Lots of independent rappers understand that they're working beneath the glass ceiling of underground hip-hop, and they've all got their own ways of sustaining themselves. Selling things besides music can definitely help. Weiss mentions Ill Bill and the La Coka Nostra collective as rappers who've gotten "crazy with the merch game." It's not unkind to suggest that La Coka Nostra have sold more T-shirts than albums—the band's website currently offers 13 styles. And of course touring remains a hugely important potential income source. Weiss refers to what he calls "the Rhymesayers method," which the group Atmosphere pioneered in the early 2000s: not just touring relentlessly but hitting small, off-the-beaten-track venues that other rappers usually pass over. "It worked brilliantly for them," he says. "[Atmosphere MC] Slug was the first underground rapper that literally made a new best friend in every town." So many people have followed that path since, though, that Weiss says it's now much harder to get shows.
The approach he's decided works best for him isn't to build a merch empire or live the road-dog lifestyle for nine months a year. And he's unwilling to rely on fan funding for albums through outlets like Kickstarter—he sees it as charity he doesn't need. "I don't want people to pay for me to make my record," he says. "I'm not looking for short cuts. I want to work and fund my own music." Over the past five years he's owned stakes in six businesses, among them successful coffee shops in Lincoln Park, Lake View, and the Loop—and he's in the process of selling his shares in all of them so he can focus entirely on music.
Weiss's contribution to the science of sourcing superfans, given that money doesn't have to be his first priority, is to add an old-fashioned hands-on touch to the connections that the Internet makes possible. In 2009 Chilean rapper Papitas Freestyle, part of the crew Family de MCs, contacted him through MySpace, and Weiss kept up a regular correspondence, using Google Translate to communicate. He and Family de MCs made plans to release a full-length collaboration as Club Kaos, and in September 2010 he traveled to Santiago for two weeks and recorded his parts—the album's due this summer. Also scheduled for release this summer is a full-length collaboration with UK producer Kelakovski. They've had some face time on Weiss's overseas tours, but they too first got in touch via MySpace—it may be stone-cold dead as a competitor to Facebook, but it's yet to lose all the musicians who adopted it as a promotional tool.
Weiss sees the relationships he builds, whether with fans or artists, as mutually fulfilling—they provide the "small life moments" that fuel his music. So if someone listens to Save Yourself and gets inspired to e-mail him or contact him through Facebook, he'll likely write back. Connections like that are his barometer of success. "I'm not gonna put a number on how many copies of the album I want to sell," he says. "To me, success is based on six months after the record comes out and asking what's different in my life and who's around me. That's motivation to keep doing what I do until I don't have a throat."