The Beauty of Independence is an ongoing series in which Ben Carter (of HipHopNumbers) chats with independent artists about the challenges and the triumphs of existing outside of the major label system. These are the stories rarely told because these are the artists doing it all themselves. Discover the beauty of having total creative control, but understand the cost to achieve it.
All the positive shit that happens in our lives is a direct result of all the negative shit. If you can learn to embrace the emotions that come along with the negative shit, I think you’ll be better off.” – Cal Scruby for CentralSauce
I really like Cal Scruby. His calm, laidback demeanour on our May 5 interview might indicate a man experiencing a level of zen in his current state. It’s not always the case. We caught up twice, — first informally and second on record — and as our conversations traverse topics as varied as coming to terms with mental health issues, the internal struggle of being independent and comparing yourself to those who aren’t, and the challenges of having larger than average testicles with a below average penis, Cal’s depth and intelligence shines in every answer. His words are presented below in italics, lightly edited for clarity.
These are like my favourite conversations to have — just like the philosophy of trying to become a better version of yourself.
You may gather from the title of his 2019 album Unsigned that he’s escaped the clutches of the major label system and struck out on his own as an independent artist. The eloquence with which he speaks when talking about it actually inspired the name of this entire series – The Beauty of Independence. Beauty in this sense is not effortless. You can see the stretch marks, the worry lines, the stress etched into the seams of his music, but the beauty of being a self-sufficient artist with total creative control lives in everything Cal says and does.
I want people to know the difference between an artist who’s doing it independently and an artist who’s doing it through a major label. Not that there’s a right way or a wrong way, or that my way is the right way… One is just about popularity and data, and one is about making your own path and own business. I’m sitting on my couch in my studio next to a bunch of packages ready to go out because we ship our own merch. It’s just a different beast because a lot of us independent artists aren’t able to go into the studio, record the rap and then leave, and end up with a finished product. The merch gets fulfilled through a warehouse, and the tour gets lined up through a booking agent, appearances are flooding in through the publicist, it’s just so many facets of a major label artist that us, as independent artists, we just don’t have those luxuries. Frankly at this point in my career, I just don’t want those. I feel better doing shit my own way and doing what I want to do anyway… I would hate for somebody to tell me what to do.
There is so much more time and energy that goes into independence. Cal spoke in our first informal chat about learning to mix and master — comparing that to learning how to snowboard as an adult – and how steep that learning curve is. Independent creatives don’t have engineers, graphics teams, social media teams, publicists, managers. They do it all themselves. Cal Scruby books his own shows, ships his own merch, shoots his own videos. The amount of time and energy that goes into that? You HAVE to be passionate about yourself and your career. You have to believe in yourself. Our conversation starts to drift into that territory — how hard is it to constantly reinvest your money in yourself? For an artist like Cal, there’s no major label cheque in the mail. Whatever he makes he keeps, but it means when it comes time to create his next album all the costs are on him.
Being broke for so long was the best thing for me. The best investment I ever made in myself was to learn to record and mix my own shit. It was costing me $150 a mix and I was just thinking I don’t have $1,500 to make a 10 track album so I better do this myself. Ultimately it got me to a place where there’s no overhead costs for me… It cost me no money to make those albums (‘Unsigned’ & ‘While You Were Sleeping’) and that’s probably [what] I’m most proud of.
Photos provided by Scruby. Director of photography: Adam Shattuck
Naturally, this begins to bring up questions of success. What does success actually look like for an independent artist? The social media account I run, HipHopNumbers, betrays my true feelings on this, because it reports on RIAA Certifications, Billboard weeks, No. 1 albums, all metrics of success for major label artists but almost entirely invalid for measuring the success of independent artists. As an independent outlet myself, I have to be careful not to fall prey to the typical markers — followers, engagement, likes, retweets, algorithm success. Exactly how can an independent artist measure success?
I would consider myself to be commercially successful. I don’t have major label reach but I look at major label artists that, in order to make the same amount of money that I make off streaming, have to get like five times as many streams as I do just because of the percentage they have of their own masters and stuff like that.
There is one key point that underpins both our conversations: success is creative control.
Success to me is doing something that affords me the ability to keep doing it. I make enough money to keep doing this, and I’m at a state that I’m happy with and I’m creating music and art that I’m comfortable creating and I can continue to do that, to me that’s success
A key element of creative control is that it allows an artist to deliver exactly what they want to the listener or the consumer. Labels have standards for success that they demand of their artists — you only have to look to this tweet from DJBooth’s Editor in Chief, Z — and if you fall short of those demands, your art isn’t deemed a priority. This void has consumed some brilliant artists and so many albums that Complex even had enough for a Top 50 unreleased albums list. This isn’t limited to hip hop. The second major casualty, possibly even more damaging, is the loss of personality artists experience when they’re stuck trying to appease the label and adhere to outlandish commercial requirements. At one point in the interview Cal speaks on his lengthy hair — an indulgence compared to his management deal days when he was expected to look like a “popstar” and get a haircut before every video shoot. Cal’s description of growing into himself once he achieved independence is beautiful.
I get a picture with A$AP Rocky, and I don’t know Rocky. I’m just next to Rocky. And then the internet looks at me like ‘oh he knows Rocky.’ No. We don’t know each other, that’s kind of just a moment. And that’s kind of what Instagram has always been, an opportunity for people to flex even if they don’t really have it like that. I never really had it like that, and I think as a result the energy behind my music was just weak. I just couldn’t stand behind the things I was trying to be and play this weird role I really didn’t think I was. Once I just gave up on that and started to be myself, that’s when I really started to pick up fans. Especially my core fan base, I mean my real fans who actually give a shit.
Cal’s brushes with fame are legendary, but an instance in which Russ speaks about Cal with Edgar Esteves, the successful videographer, really highlights the enthusiasm about Cal’s current direction and further confirms just how essential authenticity and personality is in getting people invested in you and your art. Labels love a blank slate — someone with the key ingredients (some talent, a lot of looks, the ability to draw a crowd) whom they can slather on a concocted image. Cal Scruby provided this in his early days and it’s no surprise fame sought him out, but Russ’ words and Cal’s experience growing his fanbase the last two years showcase how devoid of anything tangible that blank slate really is.
My friend Edgar Esteves who is a videographer, he actually shoots a lot of Russ’ videos… He had told me once he was playing my shit on the way to some festival that Russ was playing, and Russ was like ‘Yo who is this?’ Edgar brings up my shit and shows it to Russ, and Russ was like, ‘he’s nice but he has no image. What’s his image’ Edgar asked Russ ‘how would you describe him?’ And Russ was like ‘I don’t know… White. Blonde.’ Exactly, there’s nothing there.
With that, our conversation twists and turns again. The subject of mental health is entwined in my DNA, and speaking to Cal about his struggles and his journey is fascinating. There’s an added layer of difficulty for anyone struggling psychologically who is stuck in the public eye. You could argue people susceptible to low moods and anxious periods could just leave and do something else, but creativity has a way of overpowering even our most fearful responses and pushing us back in the ring when our brain is trying to pull us out. Cal had literally dropped the video to his new song “Locked in a Box” five minutes before we hopped on our call, and the visuals are dark — straightjackets, jail cells, dark filters. It’s not isolated – we speak about “Worst Day of my Life” — a call to arms for people looking to bounce back from setbacks and challenges
“Worst Day of my Life’ is, I think, the only song I’ve ever created with other people in mind. I want it to be like an outlet, I want it to be something like if you got in your car after a really shitty day, then you just start belting those lyrics, and it’s still an enjoyable experience instead of just getting in your car and sulking after a bad day.
The remnants of his days in L.A. are strewn all over Unsigned and “Locked in a Box”, which is a leftover of the era. During his minidoc Cal mentions the devastating effect his L.A. apartment was having on his mental health.
I lived in this apartment for almost 2 years & I hit my lowest lows here… After ‘Unsigned’ I went through this same cycle of downward spiral of depression, and built back up by just creating as much as I possibly could, just climbing out of the hole. I just feel like this hole that I’ve been climbing out of is this room and this building and this environment and this view.
Recovery from a longstanding mental health issue is not linear, it’s not a fairytale, it’s not easy, and it doesn’t always mean eliminating the issue. Some of these afflictions sit with us for life, they infect all our interactions, they shape who we are and every thought we have. Happiness is not a permanent state of being, it’s merely an emotion we experience in response to certain things in our life. What’s more important than trying to seek some sort of “happily ever after” is to build our resilience, understand that life moves up and down. Endure the downs and celebrate the ups.
As time moves on I think everybody is just searching for this happiness and peace, but really I just think the most important thing is you get better at dealing with certain mental states that you might find yourself in. I still hit very deep anxiety and depression but it almost doesn’t hurt as much anymore, there’s almost not as much physical pain associated with it, because I just kind of know that it will pass at some point, and I know that it’s just kind of a part of life to deal with it. So I can almost embrace it more than I used to because I tried to avoid it for so long.
Then the sweet spot of mental health – fear. The anxious mind thrives on fear. Fear is a great motivator, it can prompt extreme patterns of behaviour at both ends of the spectrum – good and bad. Being chased by a tiger? Okay, run like you’ve never run in your entire life. Good. Terrified to leave the house because of a deep OCD problem? Okay, stay inside for 4 years. Bad.
Everything comes down to fear. Usually we don’t recognise it as fear, but at the end of [the] day avoidance is fear. Me not dropping a song for 8 months, that’s fear. As time goes on it gets harder for me to drop a song because I start running through situations in my head like ‘Maybe I’m not good anymore’ or ‘maybe my fans don’t like my shit anymore.’ I sit here like, maybe I should rest on the fact my first two albums were a relative success, because then I won’t have to challenge my identity… Ultimately that just boils down to the fear that I’m not who I think I am.
I think this is where our chat really delved into the kind of existential discussion I truly believe challenges minds, changes perspectives, moves someone’s life onto a slightly different track with a whole new outcome waiting at the end of it. What exactly is it like when you have large testicles and a small penis? This is a topic dear to my heart — I’ve been part of this club my whole life, and only twice in my 32 years have I found a kindred spirit, or at least someone brave enough to speak on such an important issue.
I have that itis, the syndrome where I have the shrunken upstairs and the big downstairs.
When Cal mentions this I get VERY excited. A topic dear to my heart, and someone willing to delve into it with me. I try my absolute best to keep this as calm as possible, I wasn’t sure how deep Cal wanted to (or was even capable to…) go, and I didn’t want to scare him off. I ended up blurting out:
The thing I’ve found with the big balls and the small penis thing is I pee on my own balls a lot of the time and it dribbles under and you’ve gotta wipe it, it’s a bit of a mess.
Ok so I didn’t do too well at disguising my excitement. Cal dives right in with me though, and his solution for those of us born with the shrunken upstairs and the engorged downstairs?
Sometimes I put a little bib on it just to kind of prevent that… The Ball Bib.
There’s a patent pending on everything we spoke about in this section, so if you do steal this frankly genius idea, please be prepared for litigation. I suggest you skip to this section if you too suffer from this affliction. Help is at hand.
I actually feel really blessed to have been able to chat to Cal Scruby. Normally I get quite anxious doing these interviews, I try to avoid awkwardness at all costs and it’s quite a difficult process to stay calm and collected. With Cal I just felt totally at ease, and I credit him with that. Down to earth, honest, open, vulnerable. These are qualities I value very highly, and Cal embodies them.
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