Sylvan Lacue shares his journey as an independent artist: He talks about the good times, the bad times, the broke times and everything in between.
Sylvan Lacue is a testimony to all aspiring independent artists. For nearly a decade, the Miami-born rapper has been consistent in putting out hip-hop with a purpose, delivering a message aimed to uplift those in need.
For years Sylvan released music under the name QuESt. And then, in 2015 he did something drastic: he dropped QuESt, and decided to use his birth name instead. The incident occurred after a chance encounter with a barista, who saw Sylvan LaCue on the screen and said “This fits you a hell of a lot better than QuESt. Just saying.”
Since then he’s put out some of the most adventurous material of his career, starting with 2016’s “Far From Familiar,” which features the anthemic “Loner.” At the top of 2018, he dropped Apologies In Advance, a concept album centered around an AA meeting, with each song representing a different emotion.
Last month, Sylvan Lacue released a surprise visual album called Florida Man which finds Lacue mourning the loss of his grandmother. Sylvan, who also owns his own label called WiseUp & Co, is what you envision when you think of an independent artist out here just grinding it out.
So we decided to sit down with him and have him share his journey as an independent artist: the grind, the good times, the bad times, the broke times and everything in between.
Read Sylvan talk about his journey in his own words below.
As told to Shirley Ju.
Professionally, I would say I started really trying when I was like 17 years old. I always rapped, began at seven and started recording myself when I was 15. But around 17, I entered this contest held by Jermaine Dupri called Survival of the Freshest, and I ended up winning it all in all. I was supposed to essentially win a chance to record a demo with Jermaine Dupri in Atlanta, and I got awarded $5,000 in cash. It was a really cool moment. That was around the time Jermaine Dupri invested in TAG Records. Long story short, that kind of folded and the opportunity never came into fruition.
Which is OK because at the same time the blog era was starting to happen. In the blog era, it was all about putting out mixtapes, hard copies, letting friends hear it, recording demos, trying to get to New York City or get it to someone who may know somebody who could get you an opportunity to be put on. All of a sudden, from a click of a button, I could put my music online. And DatPiff was becoming more prominent, so that’s how I was getting my feet somewhat tapped into the “industry.” I was going by QuESt at the time so I was really more or less a product of the blog era.
[The name change] happened later in my career. It was in 2015 when I separated from Visionary Music Group as QuESt. I wanted to have a fresh new start, and I had a whole new vision. I started my own record company, WiseUp & Co. And I wanted to be more authentic to myself and my artistry, so I decided to go by my real name: Sylvan Lacue.
The good times are definitely the excitement. The dream of making it is so pure because you don’t know anything about it. You don’t know know what it really takes, you don’t know what really happens, you just see it on TV and you want it. It’s amazing. It’s a godly feeling, a dream-like feeling. It’s something that as my career has progressed, that I struggle to hold on to, because that feeling feels so good. The excitement of “making it.”
The bad times are usually just the expectations you place on yourself: I want to make it, how come I haven’t made it? How come it’s taking so long? Self-doubt. Struggling financially, of course, because as an independent artist, you’re fighting for yourself. There’s a lot of physical and mental things that you have to bypass as an independent artist to really get yourself moving forward. Because it’s not roses and daisies, it’s pretty rough. It’s hard. That’s why you gotta love what you do. Making the music is always the ultimate reward. You sacrifice a lot for the love of making the music.
I think what people misinterpret is that there is no right and wrong. I think that’s the number one thing, that there is no right way to do this or there is no wrong way to do this. It’s just the way that you do it. I wish that I got that advice from the beginning. Because when I came up, Drake dropped the So Far Gone mixtape and all of sudden, he’s on the Grammys. We all wanted to be Drake. Everybody that I know that rapped, wanted to be Drake. We saw him become a superstar so we all emulated that formula. In fact, everybody emulated that formula. The truth of the matter is, there’s no way to be put on, there’s no science to this, there’s no math to this. There’s literally your path and you have to define it. If you don’t define it, someone will define it for you.
My resources are what I get back. [Laughs] Whatever I put out and whatever is consumed and whatever is paid for, we’re regurgitating. That’s the life of an independent artist at first. As time goes on and your popularity becomes to rise — especially with the implement of social media being a major factor, if not the most important factor for independent artists — you’ll come across opportunities that can allow a few racks here and some financial support.
But for the most part, you’re paying for what’s needed out of your own pocket. If you need to travel, if you need studio time, if you need to pay your producers, your management. That money is coming directly from you. Everything is self-funded unless you find an investor or you have people that are helping you out with partnerships with other people. Nine times out of ten, it’s all coming out of your own pocket. It’s all coming out of my own pocket.
Touring is critical. It’s everything. It’s essential. It’s what keeps the lights on. It’s your twenty-five, thirty-year 401(k) as an artist. [laughs] You hit the road as much as you humanly possibly can. If you can hit the road, hit it. If you can do 200 shows every year, do it. It’ll be rigorous, but the more people you get in front of, the more people you can win over. People become your bank and life support. You gotta be President. You gotta be Senate. You gotta be in front of people’s faces until you get to that point where you’re JAY-Z.
I really don’t like to charge for verses. It doesn’t feel genuine for me. Not saying I wouldn’t in the future for financial purposes. As of right now, it’s not about that. It’s usually about if I want to work with you or not, that’s kind of where it starts at. I’m not big on doing features now, so it’s more like, “Hey, let’s collaborate.” If I like you and you like me, then we can really make some great music together and figure out logistics later. I’m not a guest verses for sale type of guy, that’s not my swag.
My relationships are all organic. My mentor and manager, Amir Abbassy, is key on organic. I feel like relationships have to start with a real genuine curiosity. It has to come from a genuine interest in what that person does. You have to go into it without knowing or wanting anything, but to be informed. In my opinion, that’s the truth of real relationships. Real relationships take time. They’re organic, not forced, and they don’t come with an agenda. They come with a pure interest in what people have going on. Amir is really great at that, where he loves something so much that he just wants to know what’s going on. It’s not like, “Hey, can you do this for me?” It’s not what can you do for me, it’s “Hey, this is great. If there’s anything I can do to help, I’m a call away.” He’s genuinely interested and that’s where real relationships happen. If you’re lucky enough, some of these relationships turn to friendships.
Florida Man was self-funded by me, out of my pocket. I hired my director, Jonathan Benavente, who is also the President and Co-Founder of my company WiseUp & Co. I hired everyone that I knew what that was from Florida to put together this experience. The artwork was done by Uncle Luke, who is a major staple in Miami creativity. What I wanted to do with this project was to honor my grandmother, whom I loved dearly. It was like her whole purpose in life was to keep the family together. Now, we’re more together than we ever been, so how can I honor that legacy with what I do? And that’s how Florida Man came about.
I didn’t want to make it about streaming numbers or getting on Spotify. I wanted it to be a real experience. I wanted to send people videos that they can see that represent my grandma and my relationship with Florida. Because it was a beautiful experience, hard but beautiful. People don’t see that side of Florida. It’s always a different headline, it’s always Florida this or this what is going on with hip-hop over here in South Florida, but this my reality and a dedication to my grandmother. I don’t want anything from it, that’s why we direct people to the charity list on WiseUp & Co. Don’t give me money, I’m fine. If you want to help, visit the charities listed on the site and read about them and give them the money. That’s the best way you can help because this is about the city and my grandmother. I wanted it to be visual to force people to see it. It’s not about numbers, it’s about legacy, deeper than anything else.
Shirley Ju is a Los Angeles-based writer who grew up in the Bay Area. She lives, breathes, and sleeps hip-hop, and is literally on top of new music the moment it is released. If there’s a show in L.A., you can find her there. Follow the latest on her fomoblog.com and on Twitter @shirju.