December 14, 2008 / 12:50 AM / 9 years ago

Teen rapper Soulja Boy building hip-hop empire

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.

<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>

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

Soulja Boy will use this savvy to promote his sophomore set, “iSouljaBoyTellEm,” due December 16 from Collipark/Interscope Records. T.I., Shawty Lo, Sean Kingston, Yo Gotti and Gucci Mane -- who Soulja Boy calls his mentor -- make guest appearances.

The first single, the dance-inspired “Birdwalk,” is No. 47 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and has sold 10,000 downloads.

“I‘m just beginning to work the song -- it always starts from the bottom up,” Soulja Boy says about the so-far modest sales. “People didn’t see the groundwork that went into ‘Crank That,’ they just saw the success and sales. It probably won’t take as long with ‘Birdwalk,’ but it will still take a little time.”

The accompanying video was filmed at Morris Brown College in Atlanta -- the same place where the footage for “Crank That” was shot -- during a battle of the bands. Soulja Boy has participated in various battles, which consist of a competition between two bands from two colleges.

“It takes place on Sundays, and we have over 30,000 people out there at a time,” he says.

Other tracks on the album include promotional single “Turn My Swag On,” where Soulja Boy addresses the “haters” over double-speed drums and a heavy bassline. Chris Brown wrote the boastful “Yamaha Mama,” and on second single “Kiss Me Thru the Phone,” featuring Sammie, Soulja Boy raps alongside a videogame-like beat about longing for a lover.

He began a promotional tour December 1 that leads up to the album release, and a more extensive mid-January trek is in the works. For the latter, Soulja Boy hopes to partner with fellow rapper Bow Wow, for whom he recently produced the track “Marco Polo.”

BUILDING THE BUSINESS

The rapper/entrepreneur has been busy on other fronts as well. In November, Soulja Boy launched an animated/live-action cartoon, by the creators of Adult Swim’s “Robot Chicken,” on his Web site. He plays a celebrity teenager who has to go back to class and finish the school year. Soulja Boy hopes a TV network will pick up the series, which combines animated and live-action characters, with Alfonso Ribeiro (“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”) as the school principal.

Soulja Boy also aims to branch out into acting. “I‘m a comedic person. I want my first movie role to reflect my actual personality,” he says.

In addition to partnering with apparel company Yums on the Soulja Boy Block Star sneaker and a clothing line, he plans to launch a videogame next year with an undisclosed game maker. That deal, Soulja Boy says, came about the same way he landed his record deal -- from the Internet.

“I put up a video on YouTube challenging Xbox Live players around the world. Next thing you know I got an e-mail from a videogame company -- in the same way Collipark e-mailed me about signing me -- offering me an opportunity to set up a videogame,” he says.

Soulja Boy continues to build his music empire in other ways. In 2004, he launched his independent label, SOD Entertainment (which stands for Stacks on Deck), and recently signed a one-off deal with Universal Republic for his group Show Stoppers’ first single, “Whoop Rico.” Although it didn’t make him the money he’s accustomed to, it was an experience that he hopes will help him down the line.

“I always thought of myself as being hot, but I‘m not going to be hot forever,” Soulja Boy says. “I wanted to test the waters with them before I released my solo artist, Arab. I want to have an artist with a No. 1 song in the country. I want to have the next big thing. I don’t want the next big thing to come kill my career. I want to be the boss.”

Arab, who Soulja Boy has known since the eighth grade, will follow in his footsteps with an album planned for as early as fourth-quarter 2009. Yet Soulja Boy has his hesitations.

“That project is tricky,” he says. “He’s my best friend and I want him to be ready, but I can’t make him be something he doesn’t want to be. I want an artist that’s got passion and drive. I want to see them in the studio, on the Internet promoting themselves -- but I can’t force him to do something he’s not ready to do.”

Arab isn’t the only fellow Atlantan Soulja Boy hopes to help. This month, he’s tapping into charity work, partnering with DJ Hit Man in December for a Toys in the Hood toy drive, where he will give away Christmas gifts to 100 families in Atlanta.

“People know I do good business,” Soulja Boy says. “If I endorse something or say I‘m doing something, then it’s getting done and it’s getting done right. With great power,” he says, quoting a line from the “Spider-Man” movie, “comes great responsibility.”

Reuters/Billboard

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