Business as Unusual

BUSINESS AS UNUSUAL

A like-minded locus walks the tightrope between industry and intuition.

SAMUEL HYLAND

On the outskirts of Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, where industrial shipping yards pose odd contrasts to scenic seasides, a lengthy stretch of pre-Civil War warehouses border the Erie Basin like a rusting beach. One balmy afternoon in mid-August, Naavin Karimbux and Abraham El Makawy were tucked away in one of them, each entrenched in his own all-consuming busywork. Opened shortly after the pandemic, the pair’s shared headquarters is listed on Google Maps as “General Waste Business as Unusual” — an inside joke of sorts, but also a catch-all term for its long-unpinnable function. Assuming you didn’t trip over anything, a wall-to-wall walk across its stained floors offered a sentient timeline of past and present creative endeavors: one-off merchandise items; larger-than-life concert posters; plastic-wrapped streetwear; duct-taped cardboard boxes; days-old vinyl pressings; years-old sculptures featuring taxidermied pigeons. “What comes to mind is how in the Mafia, or organized crime, they always have a ‘front’ — what they pretend the business is,” El Makawy, who runs AINT WET through the depot, mused at one point, leaning back in a fold-up chair. “Maybe a waste management company, or some shell corporation. General Waste is the ‘front.’ There’s the term ‘business as usual,’ but there’s nothing usual about what we get to do.” The “we” in question, like General Waste at-large, represents a hefty grab-bag of interconnected clientele with an even heftier grab-bag of artistic agendas, often overlapping. Now more than ever, though, as both audience and expectations expand, it’s becoming increasingly necessary to place firm definitions where loose ones used to suffice.

“We’ve been doing it for so long, when we finally put that discography page up, I was like, ‘Shit. I didn’t even realize we did this much.’”

El Makawy repairs a machine at General Waste. PHOTO: Samuel Hyland

Among the most usual things on General Waste’s unusual floor-plan was a modest black desk, where Karimbux sat glaring, stone-faced, at a laptop. For the past several years, he’s served as the primary shot-caller for 10k, an independent record imprint revered as a linchpin of New York’s burgeoning hip-hop underground, but quickly skyrocketing beyond the confines of its longtime locale. His desk serves as 10k’s official “office,” and that afternoon in August, contrasts between its unassuming air and larger-than-life implications were difficult not to notice. Strewn across its surface was a litany of humble ephemera: a mini-ecosystem of snaking wires, a pair of old plug-in speakers, a snow globe emblazoned with the word “Grabba.” Towering over the desk a few feet away, in contrast, was a humongous poster — about the height and width of a short king — duct-taped to a nearby wall. The poster commemorated the third annual installation of “Young World,” a sprawling concert-qua-festival hosted by the Brooklyn rapper MIKE, 10k’s founding signee. One month prior, it packed its Herbert Von King Park venue to capacity, boasting sponsorships by the likes of Supreme, and appearances by the likes of Noname and Earl Sweatshirt. As lofty as it looked in the warehouse, the big poster paled in comparison to how much bigger things were shortly bound to get. Among the day’s orders of business, for instance, was the discussion of a sizable, to-be-revealed billboard overlooking Canal Street. Of several meetings Karimbux attended in Manhattan that week, two were with a global footwear brand that had been scouting out a long-term partnership. Within the next few months, General Waste would have its fingerprints on a number of widely-streamed projects, including MIKE’s fourth album in five years.

Though the name “10k” has silently appeared underneath a slew of releases dating back to 2017, its push to forge a concrete identity of its own is fairly new. A bit earlier on in August, Karimbux digitized the label’s entire catalog on a long-dormant website: a convincing motion towards placing firm borders where there used to be shapeless mystique. “It was probably around the start of this year that people — not just us, but fans — started to ask about it a little bit,” he said. “That’s when we were like, ‘okay, it makes more sense to do some more centralized stuff: make an Instagram, put the discography in one place, et cetera.’ We’ve been doing it for so long, when we finally put that discography page up, I was like, ‘Shit. I didn’t even realize we did this much.’”

10k Headquarters. PHOTO: Samuel Hyland

Moments like these, where it’s difficult to deny the label’s hulking presence, have grown increasingly frequent over the past few years. Outside of a 2021 concert in Nashville — featuring MIKE, the R&B singer Liv.e, and 10k artists Niontay, Cruzin, and SALIMATA — while throngs of revelers packed into a blue-bathed ballroom, a pair of visibly-curious elderly security guards stopped a teenager to ask a question: “What is this group?” They had never heard of them, they explained, but they had also never seen a turnout quite like this one. More recently, at Young World III this past July, Karimbux trotted up the steps to a mammoth trailer-qua-stage and hoisted his cell phone high over his head, camera panning across a sea of bobbing umbrellas. It was, to date, among the largest crowds 10k had amassed on its own merit, but also nothing new: another day on the job, business as unusual. “I’m doing things that I’ve done before, but I feel like I’m doing them with a second chance — way smarter than I’ve done them in the past,” El Makawy said, echoing sentiments shared by the group. “It’s almost like Groundhog Day, where you’re reliving something you’re somewhat familiar with, but you have all of the previous understanding. That exists in a million different ways.” 

“There’s nothing label-y about it at all in my eyes. They’re just friends and family, period.”

The outward crux of 10k, and the determined locus of creatives it stands for, seems to hinge more heavily on symbiotic vision-steering than paycheck-minded shortcuts. That afternoon in August, a recent viral report asserted that music industry executives were “increasingly depressed” at bleak opportunities to mold arena-caliber talent. For Karimbux’s label, despite its existence in the realm of “regardless” — particularly, “regardless of what an arena may think” — it just so happens that, interestingly enough, several arenas’ worth of people are not only seeing the vision, but believing in it, too. While the question of what’s to be done with said belief looms, the answer, straightforward as ever, doesn’t seem to have changed: make more music. “It’s not a business strategy, or even something we really consciously talk about,” Karimbux said of the labels feverish output. Its just the best creative flow for us.


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“For us, it’s always been about taking the knowledge we gained from going through situations that weren’t great, and being able to pass that down and help other people skip that step of making mistakes.”

Sculpture by El Makawy, currently on display at General Waste (if you can find it). PHOTO: Samuel Hyland

Though 10k has accrued the sort of presence typically engineered via air-tight industry standards — strict contractual ground-laying, five-year plans, the looming threat of a “drop” list — its modus operandi is relatively laxed. “Even calling it a record label is… for sure it’s accurate, because we’re making physicals for people and distributing music digitally and all of that,” Karimbux admitted, walking back to General Waste HQ from a nearby grocery store. “But it’s not like you’re signing a contract and you’re locked up in a multi-album deal, you know? The perception before there was an IG and a website was probably that it was more of a collective, which isn’t totally off-base.” A few days later that August, Frank Dorrey was holed up in a hazy Brooklyn apartment, walls adorned with residue of several recent projects: a set of plastic-wrapped skate decks designed for William Strobeck’s Violet imprint; a sizeable canvas tucked behind a vanity; assorted artworks strewn across the space above his bed. Dorrey is known primarily for his work in visual mediums — not long prior, a piece of his was revealed to be the cover art for Noname’s Sundial — but in his free time, depending on how he’s feeling, he also makes chirpy rap music under the moniker DORIS, most of which is thrown onto a SoundCloud page he’s owned since high school. The first song he ever made, which dates back to about tenth grade, was quickly deleted because he hated the sound of his voice: “I was too shy,” he said, with a laugh. Much of that shyness remains. At a listening party for Steve Lacy’s Gemini Rights two summers ago, the musician offered a hand-clasp to a slight doppelganger, thanking “Frank Dorrey” for being there. The real Frank Dorrey had to decline the invite because of (1) a scheduling conflict, and (2) an aversion to large crowds.

“No rain can stop this. No lightning can stop this. No thunder can stop this.”

But among the few large gatherings Dorrey had recently attended was Young World III, 10k’s third annual concert-slash-festival at Herbert Von King. And unlike most gatherings like it, it made him more comfortable than uncomfortable. “It comes through with the promotion, the lineup, the vendors, the ambience, that it’s really sincere,” he said. “Nothing crazy. It’s just a celebration of music and people and Brooklyn.” Two years ago, he released a DORIS single on similar “nothing crazy” whims. Titled “Usher” and featuring endearingly-candid cover art, the song finds Dorrey lobbing light-hearted rambles about weed and solitude over a wistful soul sample, Smokey Robinson’s familiar inflection buoying his sonic swagger. He’d been in a good mood the day he made it, and ridden the whimsy into putting it on his SoundCloud page, until friends from 10k offered to distribute it on digital service providers (DSPs) on his behalf. As of the writing of this sentence, though he hasn’t distributed anything through them since then, DORIS remains an official “signee” to 10k’s roster: free to put anything out across platforms whenever he wants, but not subject to repercussions if he doesn’t. “There’s nothing label-y about it at all in my eyes,” Dorrey said of the imprint. “They’re just friends and family, period.”

Canvas in Dorrey’s apartment. PHOTO: Samuel Hyland

In some sense, by operating as a label without entirely identifying as one, 10k is able to eschew an industry-wide treadmill into dystopic, historically-familiar territory. Regardless of how friendly or familial its ethos may be, a through-and-through “record label” is tasked, before anything else, with turning loose potential into hard cash — a system inextricable from capitalism, and therefore also inextricable from an inherent priority towards capital. The impulse to divert isn’t necessarily a new one: when the early aughts heralded a power shift from business-savvy conglomerates to internet-savvy homies, the tightrope between self-sufficiency and reliable backing was common, if not guaranteed ground. But even beyond that generative stretch, when corporate entities learned to play catch-up, kindred dynamics spawned at the executive level, somewhat mirroring back-and-forths hovering over the rap internet. “On a major label, fledgling artists may feel constrained by the demands of a multinational corporation—or neglected, as executives cater to dozens of high-profile acts,” Matthew Trammell wrote in a 2017 New Yorker profile of XL Recordings. “On an indie label, artists enjoy more creative freedom, but they can feel limited by smaller budgets, which don’t allow for the marketing that attracts large audiences. This creates a maddening dichotomy: sign to a powerful label without taste and sacrifice artistry, or sign to a tasteful label without power and sacrifice reach.”

“At first, reading it, I was like, ‘What the fuck is this? This shit is nasty.’ But this shit happens in real life. You can’t just act as if it doesn’t.”

10k feels like an outgrowth of that period’s spiritual detritus, a place where art-curation among like-minded peers takes precedence over outcome-conscious pandering. What makes it intriguing, if not insoluble, is that it doesn’t seem to be as damned by the indie-label catch-22: with so much of its legend established before it was ever a technical “label,” its ethos alone remains enough to pack venues, sell records, and convert throngs of believers. For an entity that’s accomplished so much by working backwards — step 1, release the music; step 2, convince the masses; step 3, sign the artist  — the only task that remains, interestingly enough, is the logical first one: solidifying an identity. And the more 10k comes into its own image, it seems, the further away it gets from the industry treadmill it was created to subvert. “When (MIKE) and I were both coming up, we went through kind of fucked-up situations in the music industry as far as deals and stuff like that,” Karimbux said. “We learned a lot about being able to do things by yourself. I think for us, it’s always been about taking the knowledge we gained from going through situations that weren’t great, and being able to pass that down and help other people skip that step of making mistakes.”

MIKE performs at Young World III. PHOTO: Xin Wang

In the immediate aftermath of Young World III last July, it seemed the only mistakes discernible were outside of the label’s control — and even those imperfections were bulldozed with the precision of a well-oiled machine, programmed for yet another day of business as unusual. Chief among those challenges was nature: as evidenced by the sea of umbrellas captured by Karimbux’s cell-phone camera, there was rain, and a lot of it. The grassy space backstage was packed with energetic associates and fellow-artists; every now and then, one would creep up to a makeshift peeping-hole between the slightly-elevated platform and a set of covered instruments, peering out at the soaked congregation that lay on the other side. Midway through MIKE’s set, Earl Sweatshirt leapt up like a kid on time-out, unable to bear being dormant any longer. “Nah, stop playing with it,” he belted, jolting up the metal steps. A roar emerged from the ocean of umbrellas, and a steady line of artists and friends followed suit, trailing behind one another up the creaking hardware beneath their feet.

Freshly removed from a ten-minute lightning break, and with a forcefield of support spilling out from behind him, MIKE hurled an echoey address upon the ocean of damp afros that lay ahead. “No rain can stop this,” his voice boomed, “no lightning can stop this. No thunder can stop this.” A term he’d been quoting consistently around then — more understandable, perhaps, in retrospect — was “Burning Desire”; before he lurched into his next selection, he asked the dripping-wet audience whether it had one. There was a resounding affirmative, and in that moment, with “yes” sounding like one uniform holler, it was interesting to imagine how many individual yeses existed within it. 

“You go to a club show, or you go to the Bowery Ballroom or some shit, and it’s very limited to people who can afford the tickets. With this, it’s just everyone being on the same level. And it’s beautiful.”

Midway through Burning Desire, the ambitious 24-track album MIKE would release the following October, a track called “They Don’t Stop in the Rain” opens with a brief retelling of the day’s dilemma. “One of the hosts for the show had come up and told us that we’d have to stop the show for a bit, until the storm or the clouds passed over our heads,” Taka, MIKE’s longtime friend and live DJ, says in a jazz-backed monologue that sounds ripped from loose conversation. “And everything will be cool as long as it doesn’t rain. And as soon as the moment passed, we started playing the music again. The first song that was played was Burning Desire.” Much of 10k’s ethos seems to center moments, and ambitions, like these: less about feigning control over situations, and more about wresting it away in real time, alongside listeners eager to do the same in their own lives. The label predominantly comprises rappers of a lyrical category, who ride murky soundscapes into tales of murkier realities. MIKE’s earliest records were raw and bassy, weighted down by his complicated coming-of-age, and seemingly created for unforgiving New York winters. (“People go through crazy shit and nobody ever knows about it because people are too scared to hear about it,” he said of Adam Rapp’s Punkzilla in an unpublished 2017 interview recording, packaged as a bonus track on May God Bless Your Hustle vinyls. “At first, reading it, I was like, ‘What the fuck is this? This shit is nasty.’ But this shit happens in real life. You can’t just act as if it doesn’t.”) In the years following his own emergence, a fresher crop of 10k signees have taken its spirit into compelling, albeit kindred, territory — like Niontay, whose serpentine soliloquies snake through searing streets, or SALIMATA, who traipses through jazz-band abodes with meandering, matter-of-fact monologues. Perhaps more by incident than intention, the acts who make up the imprint feel like puzzle-pieces to a unified listening experience. Lived-in differences aside, they each seem to be figuring it out in public, and extending an open invite for us to do so, too.

Elise, Karimbux, Earl Sweatshirt, and 454 backstage at Young World III. PHOTO: D’andre Williams

At the close of Noname’s damp headlining set, as Summerstage personnel hustled to pack up equipment, Karimbux pinballed from one frantic conversation to the next — some over the phone, others on the ground — over a backdrop of shouting fans and congratulatory hand-clasps. The day had been a long one for the 10k unit, complete with break-of-dawn alarm clocks, an hours-long setup process, an hours-long show, and now, an hours-long cleanup. But in a way, as is consistently true for the label at-large, the “business as unusual” sentiment found means of revealing itself through the most taxing of circumstances. It was indeed unusual business, perhaps most evident in the fact that it wasn’t really capital-B “business” at all: unlike the typical festival that features Jay Critch, Earl Sweatshirt and Noname, Young World III — identical to its two predecessors — was completely free of charge. “This shit right here, bro… just being able to look out at the audience,” Karimbux told a journalist during a rare break, leaning up against a trailer. The question was something to the effect of what makes any of this worth it, and before it could fully be asked, he was scanning his surroundings. “You go to a club show, or you go to the Bowery Ballroom or some shit, and it’s very limited to people who can afford the tickets. With this, it’s just everyone being on the same level. And it’s beautiful.” He started saying something else, but couldn’t finish over the noise: to his point, Noname had emerged from the trailer behind him, and was greeting an assemblage of shrieking fans, one by one.


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“We don’t want people to go through what we went through in order to realize that they don’t have to.”

African masks in MIKE’s apartment. PHOTO: Samuel Hyland

Years ago, when he was an eighth-grade student at the prestigious Boston K-through-12 giant Milton Academy, Karimbux snooped through message-boards dedicated to the high school’s hip-hop club. Milton Academy is predominantly-white and known for its unrelenting academic rigor. (“Close your eyes and see my Milton,” Touré, a Black journalist and famed alumnus of the institution, wrote in an unpublished 2000 essay. “Maybe you’ll begin to know how I felt at yours.”) Available solely to students in grades nine and above, the hip-hop club was led by Matthew Trammell, an upstart writer four grades above Karimbux, and one of few people bridging Milton to a larger, more compelling, cultural infrastructure. The club threw raucous performances by noteworthy early-aughts rappers, spending the interim time theorizing about hip-hop’s new web-borne realities. Though he’d never get to meet Trammell at the institution — by his freshman year at its high school, the upper-class Trammell had already graduated — he kept tabs on his work, fascinated by its current, lived-in insights. “He was the only one who was into the type of shit I was into,” he said one afternoon in December, seated next to MIKE in the rapper’s Brooklyn apartment. Beside the pair, MIKE’s dog, a pint-sized Boston Terrier named Mezcal, whimpered quizzically over hip-hop music playing from a nearby speaker. “Even beyond music — fashion, clothes, brands — he was writing about all of it.”

When Karimbux graduated from Milton and moved to New York, he decided to cold-email Trammell, then a prominent staff writer at the Fader. Fresh out of school, Karimbux had been running a magazine of his own: for a self-envisioned culture publication called Jackpot, he helmed deep-dive features on streetwear startups like Fuct, furnishing issues with D-I-Y editorial shoots and lengthy Q&As. But unlike most 20-something cultural savants, he’d also garnered exposure to another industry dimension — beyond just upstart content creation — via a job with Orienteer, then a young PR company loosely headquartered in Manhattan and Los Angeles. While a dual infatuation with hip-hop and streetwear gave him two-pronged proximity, a presence both behind-the-scenes and on music’s front-lines made him something of a business-savvy juggernaut. Before he graduated college, he’d organized interviews with the likes of Lee Spielman and Erik Brunetti; by the time he was 23, he was throwing shows for acts like Chief Keef.

“It immediately hit. It was the greatest music I had ever heard.”

Trammell had good things to say about Jackpot over email, and invited Karimbux to attend a local event. It was the start of a friendship that bridged common artistic interests, the kind that subsists on shared concert experiences and DMed SoundCloud links. Among these links, sent by Trammell with zero context, was a track from WINTER NEW YORK, one of several intense self-releases by a prodigious 17-year-old named Mike. Featuring disillusioned New York upstarts like Caleb Giles and Sixpress, the project was sludgy and disarming, buoyed by militant pubescent voices, and their precocious, city-borne grievances. It was a refreshing sound, particularly for the not-so-refreshing things it lugged into center-stage. This is, in part, because in 2016, while New York City found itself ravaged by infrastructural ills and near-deadly weed variants, its ambassadors tended to proffer distant gospels — like the A$AP Mob, who boasted come-ups from gritty Harlem streets to SoHo shopping sprees, or Pro Era, who often seemed more infatuated with the city’s golden age than its murky present. Now, not only was a 17-year-old kid from the Bronx yelling into the void, but he was yelling about K2 and the SYEP. “It immediately hit. It was the greatest music I had ever heard,” Karimbux said. “I think part of it was the context of 2015-2016 New York. At that time, I was listening to Ratking” — the brash, short-lived collective comprising Wiki, MC Hak, and Sporting Life — “and it had some of what I liked about their stuff, but also took it in a completely new direction.”

Mezcal takes a rest. PHOTO: Samuel Hyland

Through Trammell, Karimbux met an 18-year-old MIKE at a late-night party, buying a beer for the too-young prodigy centering an interesting new movement. The list of things MIKE was too young for — especially as a fledgling, public-facing rapper — didn’t stop at alcoholic beverages. By the summer of 2017, when he self-released his statement debut May God Bless Your Hustle, grassroots support was so profuse that labels were completely out of the question. “My PayPal went up,” he said, Mezcal in-hand, breaking into a guffaw. “I was going crazy. That’s the thing: I had no passport, no ID, no credit card, nothing… just PayPal. So I was off that shit the whole summer. Just UberEats, Ubering everywhere. Tay-K ‘The Race’ had just come out that year too, so we were just in the Uber going crazy in that joint.”

At a certain point, though, as would soon also be the case for Tay-K, temporary riches gave way to looming, longer-term rock-bottoms. For much of that summer, MIKE had been happy to swipe away emails from fiendish record execs, all eager to snag New York’s youngest prophet, and all proffering enticing paydays. Then the stash started running low. “The thing about the PayPal shit is that it would go down, but then the next day, the money would go back up,” he recalled, between laughs. “Then towards September, it just kept going down. Mind you, that whole summer, mad labels had been emailing me, and I’m just ignoring all that shit, because my PayPal is going stupid. Soon as it hit September, I was like, ‘Lowkey… lemme start going back through some of these.’”

He ended up settling on an offer from Lex Records, the independent UK label known for its quirky taste and underground sensibility. Heightening the stakes were urgent financial commitments, far more important than cross-city Uber rides — aside from his own day-to-day needs, his mother was unwell abroad, and he was the only one in his family able to care for her. As a shot at finessing a tough situation, he asked Tom Brown, Lex’s CEO, to have him along for an “artist residency” in London: a move that allowed him to live with his mom for three months, albeit without necessarily doing much to lift growing long-term burdens. (In retrospect, Karimbux and MIKE agree that the period was fruitful, even if only artistically: over their stint there, they met collaborators like Jadasea and Pretty V for the first time, each of whom remain very close associates.)

Packaged streetwear items at General Waste. PHOTO: Samuel Hyland

But upon their return to the United States, the plot thickened, and not in a way conducive to art-making, let alone comfortable living. Because of a label hiccup, Brown had been hanging onto the advance for MIKE’s forthcoming album, regardless of how clear it became that its monetary value extended far beyond music. “I was like, bro: you’re putting us in a crazy situation,” MIKE said. “You’re begging us for music, but when we need the money, you’re not supplying it. I can’t make music under these circumstances.” Maddening, also, was the fact that as all this was going on, Lex was actively seeking to make MIKE its star: the primary thing on its webpage, for a while, was a blown-up image of his face. “One other thing I’ll say, having been in this shit for a minute, is that anyone — especially a label head — knows what’s going on when they’re having a kid sign a contract without talking to a lawyer,” Karimbux interjected. “The first half of this situation was just Mike and the label head emailing. That’s not a normal situation at all.”

And so, eventually, emailing duties were informally transferred from MIKE to Karimbux: the first definitive instance, beyond preliminary conversations, of Karimbux stepping into a role as MIKE’s manager. The impasse gave way to a drawn-out, increasingly-tense back-and-forth between the young duo and a crazed Brown, who desperately wanted streaming rights to May God Bless Your Hustle, and was willing to shell out incrementally-large sums to get his wish. “Every week, (Brown) would hit me up and be like, ‘Look, I know you’re going through some shit right now, but if you just give me May God Bless Your Hustle, I’ll give you this amount of bread,’” MIKE said. (Though they’re tight-lipped about specific totals, the duo comfirm an amount well within six-figure range.) After weeks of bartering, Karimbux sent a definitive, strongly-worded message that sealed the process, and the pair’s past, for good: they no longer had any interest in working with Lex — or any label for that matter — and from this point on, they would opt to do things fully on their own. 

Over a near-decade of lofty offers, many far higher than any of Brown’s, neither MIKE nor Karimbux seem to have done much looking back. “I think the goal is to provide the infrastructure that, through years of being independent, we figured out how to create for ourselves,” Karimbux said. “We don’t want people to go through what we went through in order to realize that they don’t have to.” Seated alongside one another in MIKE’s apartment — surrounded by ephemera, of various shapes and various sizes, of their success — it was hard to tell that they’d gone through it at all.


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“When we did that tour, I didn’t think anything of (audience numbers). I was just stoked that we were getting in a van and playing music.”

MIKE and Karimbux, circa December 2023. PHOTO: Samuel Hyland

The night before Thanksgiving, if you were to climb up the Graham Avenue L Train steps around 7-ish, you might have met a slow-walking pilgrimage of cultured 20-somethings, all seemingly slouching towards a common destination. Along the C-shaped right turn hugging Woodpoint Road, a snake of revelers—most wearing fitteds—led loosely into the mouth of Brooklyn Steel, a warehouse-looking building that does little justice to the bustling live music factory breathing in its walls. Earl Sweatshirt was in town, which meant that for this tour in particular, so was MIKE: a known son of New York, but also a dexterous MC with global command, sprawling, much like his label, far beyond the confines of his East-Coast origins. On “Sentry,” a recent tag-team effort between the two, MIKE’s entrance—sudden, off-kilter, and unbelievable once the flow clicks—sounds as if he’s lifting the sample’s hood, rewiring it against its permission. 

MIKE and Earl Sweatshirt have each done a fair amount of rewiring. Whether you cringe at the term or not, the pair have roots in the same oft-debated “underground,” an amorphous territory that exists in countless foreign lands: early-aughts Los Angeles, mid-2010s Brooklyn, pandemic-era SoundCloud, high-school lunch tables, music blogs, Twitter. Emerging from any “underground,” regardless of what yours may look like, entails not only flipping something on its head, but enabling a legion of others to see, and follow, the same radical vision. For staples of the early hip-hop internet, being singular demanded a reckoning between asking for permission—from tastemakers, from labels, from what was “hot”—and deciding, permanently, that you would hone that vision on your own, regardless of whether it was palatable now or later. Years ago, when tonight’s headliners respectively committed to the visions they saw, they did so in front of computers, and by their own volition. The difference, at Brooklyn Steel, was that a physical, sold-out crowd—beyond Tumblr, beyond 2DopeBoyz, beyond Bandcamp—not only saw the vision too, but had paid good money to see the people who saw it first.

“All the work that Mike had to put in — the 15-person shows, the motions of being a new artist and growing your fanbase — I kind of got to skip a bit of that. Because I have a guy like Mike who can say yo, go fuck with this nigga. This is my dawg, he’s hard. I fully appreciate what they had to do for me to even be here.”

A half-hour or so before showtime, Karimbux stood in a cluttered backstage foyer, busily presiding over a vision of his own. A few footsteps behind him, a doorway led into a cramped corridor peppered with framed concert posters, the way platinum plaques might furnish a major-label office. Stationed across from one another were MIKE and Earl Sweatshirt’s green rooms, each stuffed to capacity with cheery friends who ventured in and out with wide grins and frothy beverages. Every now and then, you might have heard a faint roar over the din; peer into MIKE’s space, and you’d have found him playing Call of Duty with a boisterous, spirited cortège.

To every giddy passerby who asked how he was doing — Wiki, 454, each of their tour managers, Earl Sweatshirt, a journalist — Karimbux offered the same stoic “a little burnt out,” before throwing back a robotic how ya feelin’? Good as he’d been at hiding it, the burnout made sense in context: for the entirety of the Voir Dire tour, save for one recent Monday, he had traveled with MIKE and Taka across the U.S on a taxing gauntlet of early rises, earlier flights, late nights (if you consider 4 AM “night”), and perpetual show-prep. Given that this particular tour was relatively larger in scale, the necessary labor was upped several antes from the usual. But it had been difficult before, and had it not been for those grueling days, none of tonight’s fun would be remotely possible. Midway through Earl Sweatshirt’s lengthy set, for instance, the venue thumped to “real hiphop,” a standout posse cut from Niontay’s then-latest EP Demon Muppy. Two autumns prior, at the aforementioned Nashville show, few-to-none in the audience knew who Niontay was, nor could they recite any of the songs he’d performed. “I one-hundred percent benefit off the work that Mike and them already put in,” he said in a November phone call. “All the work that Mike had to put in — the 15-person shows, the motions of being a new artist and growing your fanbase — I kind of got to skip a bit of that. Because I have a guy like Mike who can say yo, go fuck with this nigga. This is my dawg, he’s hard. I fully appreciate what they had to do for me to even be here.”

Niontay backstage at Young World III. PHOTO: Xin Wang

Taxing as those sparse early shows were, they were also, perhaps most importantly, extremely fun — a quality that, hundreds of concerts, thousands of fans, and thousands of dollars later, doesn’t really seem to have gone anywhere. Backstage, as the muffled roar of the crowd raged from behind the curtain, an interesting interplay existed between its intimidating clamor, and the energetic noise emanating from the dressing rooms. Regardless of how early they woke up, or how late they’d be going to sleep that night, this pending sonic marriage — when the veil inevitably parted, and would no longer separate an eager crowd from its just-as-eager heroes — made it as worthwhile now as it had ever been, metrics aside. “It was exciting, even doing shows when 10-15 people were coming,” Karimbux said of himself and MIKE’s first-ever string of DIY outings, nearly a decade in the rearview. “When we did that tour, I didn’t think anything of (audience numbers). I was just stoked that we were getting in a van and playing music.”

Tonight, more than one van was parked outside, and far more acts than those advertised were in the building. The industry-standard model of a rap concert, especially with artists of this caliber, is somewhat clear-cut: a pre-set time slot for opening acts, then a slightly-lengthier pre-set time slot for headliners. Although it tried to follow suit, the Brooklyn Steel show reached a point, eventually, where entropy won out over structure — a never-ending cypher of sorts, complete with impromptu appearances, candid quippage, and a sprawling, head-bobbing entourage on-stage at all times. Both before and after his set, MIKE was to be found either atop the platform or against its staircase, lip-syncing along with whoever happened to have the microphone. 

“Really, I say what makes us different is that, bro: if we all stopped making music tomorrow, if Abe stopped screenprinting tomorrow, if Naav stopped managing tomorrow… we would all still be best friends.”

Looking on, it was difficult not to notice that 10k had long outgrown the sparse, post-midnight underground functions integral to its earliest rumblings. But while the venues were getting bigger, its ego remained perfectly fittable, after all these years, in any of the derelict shoebox-spaces it once called home — obsessed with extracting the “person” from personnel, and infatuated with art before it was infatuated with artistry.  It’s what makes 10k both a proficient label, and not really a label at all: its intimacy with music, let alone the people making it, has never necessarily been dependent on releasing it. “I guess we’re a label? Because we drop music and shit? But I don’t know if that makes us a label, necessarily,” Niontay said, over the phone. “Really, I say what makes us different is that, bro: if we all stopped making music tomorrow, if Abe stopped screenprinting tomorrow, if Naav stopped managing tomorrow… we would all still be best friends.” 23-year-old musician MKYFM, whose involvement with 10k stemmed from a SoundCloud correspondence-turned-Call of Duty kinship with MIKE, said in a phone call that it’s “crazy to see people this committed — the way they go about their business is the most eye-opening thing to me. They wake up in the morning, and this shit is all that matters.”

But when all is said and done, it’s “just a bunch of talented people who are literally all family,” he continued. “Strictly family. That’s literally all it is.”

MIKE performs at Young World III. PHOTO: Xin Wang

A night before the Brooklyn Steel show, El Makawy had attended a low-key performance by DORIS (Dorrey) and King Carter, a fellow 10k signee, at a converted podcast studio in Times Square. Midway through Earl Sweatshirt’s set, he ambled backstage with others who had been there, holding court over drinks around a cluttered fold-up table. “I’m not gonna lie, bro,” someone started, until El Makawy interjected: “So don’t lie! Just say what you have to say.”

The friend let off a steady chuckle. “True. When niggas say ‘I’m not gonna lie,’ it really just be the gears turning. But that shit you said about the music having a ‘freebase’ quality to it… I’m not gonna lie. That shit got me thinking.”

A few days afterward, El Makawy clarified to an eavesdropping journalist, over the phone, that the “freebase” remark was in reference to Dorrey’s potence-over-polish approach — a faux-pas from a purist perspective, but also the very quality that, like raw cocaine, makes his work undeniably serpentine, and undeniably addictive. “He’s just doing: he’s not thinking about the why, he’s just creating and figuring it out as he goes along,” he said, at the tail-end of a riveting monologue that spanned art theory, live-venue egalitarianism, and the ways works might shift depending on their mediums. “So when you see him up there, it almost feels like he’s doing a karaoke version of a song that no one’s ever heard of before. And he’s competing with the audio of himself, which isn’t even mixed properly for the speakers. But everyone is feeling it. They’re feeling something. Which, at the end of the day, is what art’s about. Feeling something.”

An hour or so after Earl Sweatshirt’s closing number, when venue staff had long gotten rid of straggling teenagers— “Get them out of here, Bryan, get them OUT of here!!” — Karimbux and co. fraternized in the green rooms until they, too, were ushered out by lurking security, past a covert back door, and into the frigid November dusk to figure out next moves. Chilly post-midnights in back-alleys, especially to patrolling cops, are notorious sites of a different “freebase” and its exchange. But the raw substance that had been exchanged here was really, all in all, just that: raw substance. Raw substance permeated the music, bled through its barriers, and made it worth creating, consuming, laboring for. It was why between a near-decade ago and tonight, as much as their circumstances had changed, the people at its center were exactly who they’d always been: a group of friends, braving the New York brisk like everyone else, in search of whatever was next.

6 replies on “Business as Unusual”

Lovely piece man. Thank you for doing what u do and presenting it to us interested fans. The new internet fr bruh, very excited to keep reading what u put out, and it was fun reading this and being able to piece together little tidbits that i had gleaned from prior conversations/story posts/etc, and come to realize what they all had come together to form, aka this piece

Thank you so much for this article, I’ve grown to love 10k over this past year, I always try to learn what their formula is, but it’s just amazing people doing amazing things with music together. It’s hard for me to buy into lots of people in hip hop/music because everything seems so profit and label driven instead of getting back to the art. The idea of a label being built off of the music first and collaboration between a family of artists is how great music can be made in the future.

Been a fan of MIKE since War In My Pen dropped. Saw Earl on a Instagram live video shout him out around the time of the release. I’ve never looked back since. Peace to the 10k gang

I’ve been telling ppl to listen close to what’s going on with [sLUms] and now 10k for years, so excited to read an article doing it all justice – it’s really about the collective thought behind it and a whole stance towards an increasingly capital-oriented culture. Finally someone talking about DORIS also…

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