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Running toward the Internet

CrookediI went to a youth center in Hollywood earlier today to watch Thoryn Stephens of Syncopate teach some of the digital music basics to some at-risk teens and young adults. Also on the event's bill was a rapper from Long Beach who goes by the stage name Crooked-I, who shared a bit of his life story in the hope it would encourage the aspiring musicians, actors and artists in the audience to persevere. It's a great story -- after a childhood pock-marked by poverty and homelessness, he built a career in the music business by tirelessly promoting his work and by networking adroitly.

He's now an executive as well as a rapper, leading his own label (Dynasty Entertainment) and carrying the title of senior vice president at another (Treacherous Records in Glendale). One of the organizers of the program asked him whether he felt threatened by the Web, noting that some of his fellow artists and execs were trying to distance themselves from it. No, the rapper said, "I'm running toward the Internet."

He then outlined one of the things he's doing online: posting a new, free song each week on sites such as hiphopdx.com. He's put out a little more than three dozen tracks so far in the "Hip-Hop Weekly" series, aiming for a total of 52. (The effort recalls The Wedding Present's Hit Parade of 12 singles -- one per month -- but his pace makes those guys look like slackers.)

Crooked-I may be more prolific than most artists, but his online strategy is pretty typical. Unlike Universal Music Group, which is busy truncating the songs its artists put on their MySpace pages, Crooked-I lauds MySpace (and YouTube) and is doing everything he can to get heard online. Not much of a computer user, he needed help setting up his MySpace page. Yet he had no trouble discerning what the Net could do for his career. "I saw, this is where it's going. This is the future.... You can't run from it, because pretty soon you're going to be watching everyone's music videos on your cellphone." He also recognized that people don't like having to pay for music online. Hence the stream of giveaways, which have reaped attention in lieu of royalties. As Crooked-I put it, "It's almost impossible to log onto a hip hop website and not see me."

While he has a variety of ways to cash in on the popularity he's building online, the most conventional route would be to release a CD. Unfortunately, CDs have been anything but a routine business proposition for Crooked-I. He's recorded at least two CDs in past years that were never released. In fact, troubles at his previous labels, Virgin and Death Row, have kept him from releasing any full-length recordings. Instead, he's done mixtapes, made guest appearances on other artists' CDs and contributed tracks to compilations. Perhaps the next time will be charmed for Crooked-I: Treacherous Records plans to release his long-delayed debut disc in March.

The photo of Crooked-I is courtesy of his MySpace page.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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