Teen rapper Soulja Boy building hip-hop empire

Sat Dec 13, 2008 7:48pm EST
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By Mariel Concepcion

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Looking like a spoiled kid forced to sit in on his dad's business meeting, DeAndre "Soulja Boy Tell'em" Way slumps in a black leather chair at Billboard's New York offices, twiddling his thumbs on his two-way. He's distracted.

With BlackBerry in hand, the 18-year-old rapper/producer laughs out loud at an incoming message, then looks up at his best friend, Arab, who is smirking back at him. The two have tuned out the dialogue around them, leaving Soulja Boy's manager, Derrick Crooms, to handle the matters at hand. They are having their own chuckle-worthy conversation via their mobile devices, and they're not letting anyone else in on the joke.

It's easy to dismiss Soulja Boy as a run-of-the-mill teenager, but appearances can be deceiving. His breakthrough was due in part to his Internet fame, and many consider him a Web-savvy business prodigy.

By the time Soulja Boy signed to Collipark/Interscope Records in summer 2007, he'd already garnered a huge online following from his YouTube channel and MySpace page.

"I was one of the first artists to have a YouTube account, if not the first. I joined two months after the site launched," Soulja Boy says. "I faked it until I made it. I acted like I was a celebrity. I was signing autographs, taking pictures, but I had no record deal. I was living the life of a star, but I was just a regular kid then."

Soulja Boy then released "Crank That," the top-selling digital track of 2007, according to Nielsen SoundScan, which at 3.9 million digital copies sold is the third-biggest song download since such data started being tracked in 2003. He's gone on to sell 943,000 copies of his debut album, "SouljaBoyTellEm," making him one of the few artists to sell so many digital singles and also sell a decent amount of physical copies of an album. When it comes to ringtones, "Crank That" has tallied 2.4 million, according to Nielsen RingScan.

"He's a smart kid," Crooms says. "Change in the music industry always comes with resistance, but he handles it all very well. He understands this business more than most grown men I know."

NEW ALBUM   Continued...

<p>Hip hop artist Soulja Boy arrives at the 2008 BET Awards in Los Angeles in this June 24, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Fred Prouser</p>