Signing with Small Town Records

As he works with the student-run label, a sophomore with music on his mind begins reconciling his artistic ambitions and his professional goals.
January 25, 2018

In the Duke Coffeehouse on East Campus, against a backdrop of glitzy streamers and dodecahedral disco balls, Serges Himbaza saunters around onstage, enlivening the feverish crowd. There are nine talented artists here tonight, he explains; they’ll each play two pieces. The audience—staring down both barrels at course registration, Family Weekend, and the fiery 2016 election—has earned an emotional outlet. Roars greet every song. After Himbaza, the emcee, cedes the microphone, he retreats and takes the scene in: the performance, the crowd response, the potential. Soon, he and his cohort will have decisions to make.

Himbaza ’17 is president of Small Town Records, the student-run record label that’s one of Duke University Union’s thirteen committees. Tonight is the label’s audition show, during which it’ll find the next artists to follow in the footsteps of Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Mike Posner ’09, as well as Ian Hölljes ’07 and Eric Hölljes ’09 of Delta Rae, who all played for Small Town Records while at Duke. As Himbaza explained a few weeks earlier, it’s the chance to find the “people who have the music in them,” and to make sure they foster it through their time on campus. “It’s definitely something that’s a gift,” he says. “And if you don’t treat it well, you’ll notice.”

The sixth performer is sophomore Kalif Jeremiah, a spoken-word poet from Brooklyn auditioning as a rapper. Two days earlier, he finalized and memorized “Soul to Take,” his original composition about not fitting in, frustration with the world, and striving in spite of both. In the next year, he would build a fifteen-song repertoire and record in one of the country’s top studios; he would be streaming on Apple Music and Spotify, have a music video, and star in Duke’s version of National Public Radio’s “Tiny Desk Concert,” recorded in a few Blue Zone parking spaces.

But first, there is the audition, and for Jeremiah the audition is momentous. Nearly a year later, his dreams of becoming a rapper are no longer mere fantasies; more than ever, they’re palpable. “Before Small Town, I didn’t take music as a career seriously. I think I was always ambitious enough to hope,” he says, “but I think now it’s more of a plan.”

In the spring of 2006, Colin Tierney ’09 wanted to build something. After playing music through high school, running his school’s radio station, and hearing a Duke alumnus mention his regret in not starting a record label, an inspired Tierney drew up a $12,000 budget to pitch Small Town Records to Duke Union (now DUU). That fall, the studio opened in the basement of West Union (now the Brodhead Center). Despite a break-in that cost the label its early recordings, STR managed to remain afloat, recruiting more than thirty students to the team and creating “a home,” Tierney says, “for musicians and music fans who previously didn’t have the resources or the opportunity to pursue music.”

Over the years, the organization’s operation has evolved: Originally, artists weren’t formally signed; instead the label, which was open to anyone looking to improve as a musician or launch a career, produced compilation albums for physical and digital distribution, including on iTunes U. Live performances, too, found an audience at Duke. Tierney recalls an STR event his senior year that transformed Durham restaurants Alivia’s, Mt. Fuji, and Skewers into music clubs, all three brimming with students.

Almost a decade later, Himbaza wants to find that same energy with live shows and informal jam sessions on campus and by nurturing artists. Under his leadership, the executive board reorganized; its six departmental vice presidents now head their own teams. Artists, too, have different support structures; each signee now has a full student network—manager, marketer, producer(s), etc.—to aid in making music and building a brand.

With no returning artists in the fall of 2016, the label had to reload; from seventy applicants it signs five—including Jeremiah—in December. To underpin this larger portfolio of artists, STR’s general body mushrooms from twenty people to sixty-five. “It needed to expand because Duke’s investment in the arts is expanding, and I think as a label we need to expand because we have a unique stake in this arts conversation,” Himbaza said in October of that year. The studio, also home to Duke Student Broadcasting, has grown from a storage closet to a professional-caliber environment: When rapper Wale came to campus for the annual K-Ville concert the following spring, he popped in to punch up a recording.

Himbaza rediscovered music’s value in its absence—that is, when he shoved his songs aside to major in economics and electrical engineering. A multi-instrumentalist (much like Tierney), he had to revive his latent musical talents, jamming on a friend’s guitar for eight hours daily over his sophomore summer. “To come back and for it not to feel the same really made me say, ‘Okay, this Small Town thing is important.’ Because if there’s another student like me that’s like, ‘I can’t do this music thing, because I want to pursue this business track, or I want to pursue such-and-such...,’ ” he says. “There has to be something that expands the conversation of music and says there’s more room at the table.”

In one sense, Small Town Records operates like a crash course in entrepreneurship, providing students the chance to run a venture in a riskless space. The bonus, of course, is that students get this experience while writing songs and cutting albums. It’s “a little trick,” Himbaza says: They learn keys to business but never have to forfeit their artistic ambitions. “If you can interrupt the track you’re on, or even just color it or inform it with all the music that you can make—I think that’s a job well done.”

During the first week of February 2017, Jeremiah is running late for an interview. A member of the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program that’s shared between Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he’s trying to return to Durham, but today a water failure in Orange County causes the line for buses back to swell. Jeremiah’s manager, sophomore Chris Welland, covers for him, dutifully explaining it’s not his client’s fault.

STR likes to pair managers with artists whose style they appreciate. “Some rap lacks substance in a way, but I feel that [Jeremiah’s] really interested in having lyrics that mean something and have a social-justice message,” says Welland, a math and public policy double-major who finds small businesses like STR intriguing. And given that Jeremiah is in the nascent stages of his music career, Welland’s role becomes more interesting. The artist’s brand right now is putty; Jeremiah hasn’t even found a stage name. “We’re figuring out who he wants to be,” says Welland.

Upon Jeremiah’s arrival, he tells his story, starting from his encounter with the STR studio as a freshman, when he wrote an intro for an EP by three of his fraternity brothers. He paints the leap to auditioning for the label as a logical next step. But he’ll later admit that had he known the final show would be in front of a packed Coffeehouse, he wouldn’t have done it. He’s a perfectionist, wary of taking such a public risk on untested work. Growing up, he would stay quiet in social settings, preferring to go home and write. He never shared any of his compositions with a wider audience until his junior year of high school, when he helped form the school’s spoken-word club.

While Jeremiah tries to build his own sound, he lists Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Eminem as influences as well as the spoken-word poet Anthony McPherson. His lyrics don’t hold back. Thirty seconds into the first verse he wrote for the audition, he’s confronting race relations and examples of police brutality in America—like the death of Eric Garner just six miles from his high school.

“Our problem don’t got solution /

Ain’t no potion for pollution /

He’s confused, what’s the confusion? /

All he said was that he’s human /

He’s only breathing, why you shooting? Why you shooting? /

I said he’s only breathing, why you shooting?”

In the subsequent lines, he relishes the chance to have an audience, while also acknowledging that his efforts to effect change will, most certainly, be futile.

“Don’t talk much, nah, but got a lot on his mind /

If he speak, they don’t hear him only listen to rhymes /

He spit it on the ones and twos, now they hear him just fine /

But they way too busy bumping to even notice the signs”

He thinks his music may contrast enough with the standard party fare to find an audience. “Most of what you hear on a conversation basis on a college campus is very surface-level,” Jeremiah says. “If you can go to a performance and hear someone preach to those other parts that maybe they don’t get to talk about all the time, then that connection can be made.”

Regarding long-term goals, however, he hesitates. While this is intriguing, ultimately he wants to pursue law. “But I want to get as far as I can [with rap] in the next two years,” he says, “and then I can hopefully re-assess at the end of that and see where it takes me.”

Any journey will start with the debut single. On his Instagram, Jeremiah shares his personal philosophy that “sleep is for the successful,” a luxury the driven-but-unaccomplished can’t afford. Later that February, the motto seems apt when the studio—tucked behind the Bryan Center—begins filling up at 10 on a Tuesday night. Jeremiah, Welland, and Himbaza are all there, as are producer Justin Baez and engineer Eric Morgenstern, both sophomores. Symphony Webber, a fellow sophomore who delivers the chorus for the single, shows up after a few minutes, tackling her homework on a couch beneath a lighting panel dotted with neon tape until she’s needed. Baez, “too stressed” to sit, makes small talk with her about Fitbits while Himbaza fiddles on the keyboard.

The single—“Cannot Stay,” a restructured version of “Soul to Take” with a new chorus—should be out the following week. But the right vibe for the song proves evasive. Himbaza, helping produce, isn’t happy with the bass and wants more “boom in the pads”; once that’s settled, he wants the beat to “groove, not move.” He shuffles the layout of the tracks in the Ableton Live recording tool. The puzzle pieces are there; the final product isn’t.

Himbaza likes the new cut (“that chorus bangs!”), but the fix has created inconsistencies. “I listened to the beat to get the vibe for the song,” says Jeremiah. “So when you change the beat….” It’s an imperfect science. Himbaza takes the controls again; the others bet on whether the result will work or not. Production is a meticulous, binary exercise: Either the song’s right, or it needs tweaking.

Jeremiah finally approves the beat, much to Himbaza’s relief. “There’s a moment at the end of every project when you’re like, ‘This is s—-, f—- everything,’ ” says Himbaza. “And we’re past that point. Hopefully.”

The producers call upon Webber. She warms up (“mama made me mash my M&Ms”) as Morgenstern adjusts the mic to prevent feedback as well as “clipping” (too loud sounds that lead to distorted recordings). Her voice a necessary salve to Jeremiah's lyrics, Webber glides through countless takes, well past the point when everyone can recite the refrain of both disenchantment and endurance:

“Seen the same walls since I was little /

Holding my breath till I see the light /

Had to let it fall to survive /

I cannot stay, no”

Himbaza gets a good cut and layers it—twice, three times to build a more robust sound. But once momentum has built, Himbaza seems to make the wrong keystroke and suddenly delete all the team’s work and progress. “You can’t blame Ableton for that,” says Morgenstern, with a laugh.

The crisis, thankfully, is a false alarm. Still, it’s past midnight, and Jeremiah hasn’t recorded. The song won’t come out on time.

Four weeks later, the newly signed STR artists deliver their first live show on the outdoor patio by Devil’s Krafthouse, right below the Plaza. With students getting wristbands to earn access to the roped-off area, it’s the rare concert that occurs fifty feet from an Au Bon Pain.

The nervous energy of November has vanished, superseded by a free-flowing ebullience fitting for the open bar. “You see that white thing back there?” Himbaza says between songs, pointing to the red-carpet photo backdrop stationed in front of ABP. “We paid for that, so please use it.”

Himbaza, in his sendoff for the show, gives thanks to STR’s advisers, Ali Shumar and Tom Wilson. The two work for University Center Activities & Events (UCAE)—Shumar as the assistant director for arts and media on the student-involvement team, Wilson as the production supervisor on the media-services team—and meet with STR’s president and vice president each week. They’re informal counselors, keeping an eye toward preventing burnout, making sure the students stay “holistically healthy.” Calling them taskmasters is too severe, but they aid in the minutiae involved with running a record label— hitting deadlines, submitting samples to awards shows. A checklist for STR and other DUU groups consumes Shumar’s entire office whiteboard.

What’s daunting for the group is maintaining year-to-year momentum. Jeremiah has to focus on the trajectory and progression of his music, but he at least has the benefit of continuity. The STR executive board cycles through each spring; shortly after the signed artist show, Himbaza will step down for rising senior Samantha McLendon (although until his graduation, he’ll help with the transition). Each April, when the DUU budget gets finalized, STR’s focus invariably shifts. “Every one of them has their different vision—this student wanted to buy all this new equipment, but this one wants to do more live shows,” Wilson says. “You try to funnel in a certain direction so the program keeps building.”

But even with the advice and counsel Wilson and Shumar provide, the students remain the catalysts. “They really do run their own ship,” says Shumar. “We’re here to help navigate the ins and outs of the semester...but they are the ones—the president and executive vice president and leadership—they’re the ones moving it forward.” And without the professional guidance that’s available at a performing-arts school, these students bear an extra responsibility: When it comes to actually making the music, Wilson says, “these guys are on their own.”

In August, Jeremiah sends an e-mail that reads, almost to the letter, like his correspondence in late March. “The single is estimated to be released next Friday…. Trust me, I know it’s very frustrating.”

Still, the intervening months represent a step forward. The Robertson Scholars program features an “Exploration Summer” meant to target academic and cultural interests. Originally, Jeremiah anticipated traveling to South America to teach English. But with the winds of STR behind him, he changed course and instead spent the summer studying at the University of California-Los Angeles with music producer Adam Moseley, who has worked with (among others) John Cale, U2, and Beck.

The six-week schooling affirmed his interest. Moseley, who broke into the industry by working as a cook at a music studio, helped instill patience; in August, Jeremiah cites Kendrick Lamar’s careful, inching development—Lamar signed onto a label but didn’t release a debut album for seven years—as a path worth appreciating. And once Jeremiah spent time surrounded by music figures, with the chance to record at UCLA’s top-tier studio, his mentality changed. He started writing daily. He journaled, trying to find the fat to eliminate in his artistic diet. Mostly, he now aims for his output to reflect more consistency. “The best people don’t just have one hit,” he says. “They work at their craft every day, and they get to a point where they’re good enough to consistently put out music.”

That commitment contributed to the delays with “Cannot Stay,” which saw many edits and multiple final versions. The delays also reflect the fact that STR is a college label with high turnover; at one point, the files get sent off to be mixed and mastered, but they’re damaged. The originals only exist on the computer in the STR studio, which this summer gets renovated. And the communication for a fix remains in the inbox of the now-graduated, now-working Himbaza.

Once the single is eventually finalized, the timing’s poor. It doesn’t make sense to release such a song in July, Jeremiah notes, as the campus buzz will be subdued; they delay the launch until the fall semester. “I feel as though I’ve created much better music since then,” he says, disappointed by all the hiccups. “So for me, the more time that passed, I felt like I’d be releasing something that’d be farther and farther away from my current capability, which is always something that I’m cognizant of, because I want my best to be out there.”

He beelines to the studio before the fall semester, knowing that’s the best chance to record before classwork starts competing for his time. He finds new producers on Central Campus whose apartments are a short walk away; they’ll be perfect collaborators. Even without the unreleased EP he completed over the summer, on Soundcloud his tracklist ticks upward throughout the fall semester, from four to seven.

As his audience builds, it validates his decision to resist making trendy, “cool” music. The notion became cemented when he chose his stage name, Apollo J. It stems from a few interests—his appreciation of Greek mythology, his childhood fascination with space, his conception of himself as “the man on the moon, an outcast.” The lengthy search resolved once he embraced himself. “That was the first time [in music] that I learned that just being honest is better,” he says. “People were like, ‘Yeah, I really like the name Apollo J,’ even before I explained what it meant to me.... So I thought, ‘You can just be honest, Kalif, and sometimes it’ll come out better.’ ”

Days before fall break, STR artists liven up PricePalooza, the carnival-esque portion of President Vincent E. Price’s inauguration. The performance, set between Giles and Wilson dormitories, features the singular backdrop of fair attractions and inflatable slides. A few buildings down, it’s impossible to hear the music over the elated screams and generators keeping the toys aerated.

Apollo J closes the show. Seconds after taking the stage, he’s imploring the audience to get moving, fighting to take the vibe from the autumnal picnic to something a bit more buoyant. He shouts out the men’s basketball team members in attendance; he describes a song that features United in Praise, Duke’s gospel choir, as “trap music for Jesus.” “I don’t know if you can have a classic if you’ve been rapping for nine months,” he says, teasing his final freestyle, “but this is the one people like the most.”

By the end of the six-song, twenty-minute set, the crowd has transformed from four rows to eight, now all standing. The last couple of lines underscore both his new assuredness and his same old celestial focus: “Got a grip on his bars / Aim high, might fall on the stars.”

“I’m more confident in the music I have now,” Jeremiah says matter-of-factly two weeks later, during a recording session with Eric Morgenstern, now STR’s vice president of audio engineering. “When I like my music, that translates into more energy for the show.”

They take an hour and a half to record a two-minute freestyle, six-or-so seconds at a time. Reading off his phone in his right hand, scything his left through the air to mark his rhythm, Jeremiah gets the beat fed through his headphones and raps in the pin-drop-quiet studio. Every word—every syllable—is up for debate. “You can still go low,” says Morgenstern, regarding the entry to the last word of a line, “but you need that energy.”

When Jeremiah listens to the playback, he’ll clasp the mic stand, almost as if to brace himself against a bad recording. He yelps, at his rapping volume, when he doesn’t like it. “This sounded better in my head,” he says, or, more than once, “Delete that right now!” Morgenstern, a longtime collaborator and aspiring rapper himself, needles Jeremiah when he uses the same vocal warmups as always, not to mention when he tries to see past Morgenstern’s unflappable façade. (Morgenstern: “Analyzing my facial expressions?” Jeremiah: “Your faces tell a whole story, bro.”)

STR creates two things: music and communities—between the artists and support players, among the performers who disseminate ideas from their particular genres, and across the arts, business, and myriad other wings of student life. The label has traditional success stories, but mostly the joy stems from livening up campus. “I try to not think of everything in terms of boosting my career. I think that’s a very, like, Duke mindset,” says now-president McLendon. “If I’m enjoying something and if I’m creating something that’s cool that other people are enjoying, too, then that’s good enough for me.”

Moreover, it shows students something new, opening doors that had been locked or obscured. Jeremiah, from signing with STR and “being forced to talk” to people with whom he never discussed his music, has begun to heed his older brother’s advice to give music “the attention that you would give anything that you’ve done before in school,” he recalls.

Jeremiah still thinks he’ll go into law—just not yet. The two-year allocation for rap he mentioned in February is now four years, maybe five. It’s a moving of deadlines that echoes the resistance Himbaza described when he thought he’d have to give up his music at Duke: “You can’t cut out that much time—that entire part of your life—that quickly,” he said.

Back in the studio, the recording appears finished until Jeremiah asks to hear the full version. “Whoa, that’s where I started?” he asks, concerned about his low energy level in the first verse. He and Morgenstern trace back, locating where the sound is acceptable and, more importantly, where they need to go to work.

Jeremiah admits he’s a tough critic, but he has a threshold in mind. “The songs [of mine] that I really like,” he says, “I can listen to them forever.” The constant tinkering and pursuit of perfection are features, not bugs. On “Cannot Stay,” at Himbaza’s suggestion, the final edit—implemented months after the song’s conception—added a sample of a preacher’s exhortation. “You want something? Take it!” the preacher screams over the roar of the crowd. “You want it? You want it? Take it!” And there, the song fades out.

As Jeremiah prepares to finalize the freestyle, it’s almost like he’s answering the preacher. “We’ll get it,” he says, partly to Morgenstern, partly—maybe mostly—to himself.

And with that, Jeremiah puts his headset on and returns to the microphone.

  • Lucas Hubbard '14 is the Clay Felker Fellow staff writer at Duke Magazine.