Welcome to the third installment of “Tracking Down,” a new Stereogum franchise in which we talk to artists who have been out of the spotlight for a minute.
Ten years ago, Shawn Mims, aka Mims, was briefly one of the most inescapable rappers in the world, when he unleashed the memorably minimalist chest-bump anthem “This Is Why I’m Hot” onto the unsuspecting chart landscape. Full of eyebrow-raising koans like “I’m hot ’cause I’m fly / You ain’t ’cause you not” like some twist on Veruca Salt’s “Seether” where the seether is you, “Hot” was both lauded for its triumphalist inanity and side-eyed along with Soulja Boy as helping usher in an era where lyrics didn’t matter as much as a snappy catchphrase and a ringtone-ready beat.
Nearly everyone jumped on the radar-blip sound and frantic snare rolls of “Hot” in late 2007 — including Lil Wayne at his peak, who chose it to open his fearsome, all-freestyles two-disc opus Da Drought 3 — but like so many promising major-label signees, Mims charted with a couple modest follow-ups (particularly “Like This”) before releasing a fraught, underpromoted follow-up (2009’s Guilt) and disappearing from public view as quickly as he appeared.
But after his brief brush with the limelight, Mims all but retired from making music altogether, instead steeping himself in Silicon Valley. He created an award-winning app, RecordGram, with industry vet Erik Mendelson and “This Is Why I’m Hot” producer DJ Blackout this year as a means to help artists and producers get in touch with each other with fewer middlemen from an industry where record labels are quickly becoming superfluous. RecordGram already won a $50,000 prize at TechCrunch Disrupt’s 2017 Startup Battlefield competition and received $1M in funding a month later. For the latest edition of Tracking Down, Mims reflected on how the industry jaded him as an artist and how he hopes to change it for the better.
STEREOGUM: I wanted to congratulate you on the success of RecordGram, and I’m also curious about what’s been happening with you musically since your last album, 2009’s Guilt, and the Open Bars mixtape seven years ago.
MIMS: Thank you. Yeah, it’s been a minute since I’ve actually released any type of music. Where do I start? Obviously, I’m a New York-based MC. I’ve lived here my whole life. And [at the time of] “This Is Why I’m Hot,” it was very difficult for any New York MC to get validation in New York because it’s just an overcrowded city, so I took my talents to South Beach, down to Miami, and that’s where we launched the record, in South Florida.
My career has always kinda been a little out of the norm because it took a Southern style record, as everyone would say, for a New York MC to get recognition. I was identified as this kinda bubblegum-ish rapper who released records like “This Is Why I’m Hot” that didn’t have much lyrical content, and I was aware of that at the time. And I did that on purpose. It was actually done strategically because — it was actually done out of frustration because the music that I had been working on didn’t work out for me.
So finally I landed a big, huge deal with Capitol Records and had the #1 record in the country, but the finances that were attached to being the biggest superstar on the planet [from a rap standpoint at that time] didn’t match up. Like, the check that I got was my first taste of disappointment. So, even at that time, I didn’t really want to be an artist anymore. And I took a step back. Even going into the second album, it felt more like a job than it did like something I was passionate about. And the second album, everything about that went horribly bad between my relationship with the label, that after that process, I decided that I would never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever be signed to another record label again.
MIMS: And, lo and behold, I think a lot of those negative situations lumped me into the world of technology. That’s why I was able to create an app like RecordGram, because I wanted to democratize the way music works, give the power back to the artist and the producers. I wanted them to have the power. I wanted to get producers paid, and I want artists to have an outlet for their music that isn’t there traditionally unless you have a big, major label behind them.
STEREOGUM: Right. Let’s go back for a moment, though. How long had you been rapping before “This Is Why I’m Hot” broke?
MIMS: I think might’ve started around 16, 17. It wasn’t until 18, 19 when I was really convinced by some executives at record labels that I had what it took to be in the music industry and that’s when I started my progression toward being an actual rap artist as opposed to just doing it as a hobby.
STEREOGUM: You said your biggest hit was kind of a light and easy thing on purpose, with not a lot of lyrical content. What things were you rapping about before then that weren’t getting the attention?
MIMS: I mean, it depends. I’ve always considered myself a writer more than anything. My topics ranged anywhere from love and relationships to politics to fun, just having fun and partying, so I mean I wrote mostly about what I experienced in life and what my mentality was at the time. I think that the difference between those records and “This Is Why I’m Hot,” per se, is that to do “This Is Why I’m Hot,” it was completely outside of my characteristic to rap on a beat that sounded that way, to keep my rap vocals simplistic. One of the biggest lines people have criticized is “I don’t gotta rap / I can sell a mil saying nothing on the track,” which is honestly a double entendre because it says that I’m so confident that I don’t even need to say anything in order for people to receive me well, and the other half of it was about the state of hip-hop, where, you know, someone could literally have no lyrical content whatsoever and become an overnight celebrity or make millions of dollars doing it.
STEREOGUM: I remember a lot of backlash when Diddy said “I don’t write rhymes / I write checks,” but by the time your song happened, I didn’t really hear a lot of grumbling about it. I think it was somewhat accepted at that point that you had a lot of rappers where the main appeal wasn’t like, “this is like the brainiest thing I’ve ever heard.” There’s other elements that people like about it.
MIMS: I agree with you. Yeah. There’s two different points of view for that particular record itself. There’s the people who just enjoy, you know, music that sounds great to our ears aesthetically. And then there’s obviously the people who pick apart every line, every single quote. I still tour a lot, and I perform that song at every show that I do. And the reception that I get from it is no different than the reception I got when I first launched it. If anything, people love it more now because it brings them nostalgia. It brings them back to a period in their life ten years ago when maybe that, maybe, they were a little more worry-free ’cause there’s a lot more problems that have happened post-“This Is Why I’m Hot.” I think pre-“This Is Why I’m Hot,” life was great, and post-“This is Why I’m Hot,” a lot of shit transpired that changed a lot of people’s lives.
STEREOGUM: To go back to what that you said about having a #1 hit and getting a check smaller than what you wanted it to be, is part of that because of the Dr. Dre sample for like two seconds on the song?
MIMS: Nah, it’s definitely more complicated than that. We had an agreement with the label I was in partnership with. I was never signed as a conventional artist, and, the accounting there was done a lot differently from the way accounting would be done for other people’s deals. And I think there was a lot of funny stuff done with the accounting at the end of the day, and I ended up in a seven-year litigation against my former record label. I’ve had a successful life post-“This Is Why I’m Hot,” so I’m grateful for that, but I also know what I’m worth, and I also know that that year we grossed maybe about 14, 15 million dollars alone with the record, and my check didn’t [reflect] what we grossed as an artist. I was an independent artist while that record was rising up the charts, so it wasn’t “get signed to a label, do the A&R work, go in the studio, make a record.” Everything that we did with that record at the time, my team did. My team made it happen to even make it visible. So when you get a check and it doesn’t reflect the work that you put in, not just for me but for the team that was involved with it, it’s the worst thing that you can do to a man, because now you gotta look to your team and say, “Hey, guys, this didn’t end up the way it was supposed to, and you guys are not gonna get your checks that you were supposed to from this, because whoever’s at the label that’s burying the bones decided that they want to take a little extra off the top.”
STEREOGUM: Your story is not unfamiliar in the industry. There are so many artists, especially rappers, who’ve been screwed over by labels and stuff. Are there any peers you found a kinship with over similar stuff, people getting their albums shelved, all kinds of bullshit…
MIMS: Well, I don’t necessarily compare my situation to anyone else’s because we didn’t go into it blindly. Many artists get the hefty front check, and they don’t read the contract. That wasn’t the case with us. We understood everything that was on paper. We understood the amount that we should’ve been expecting to make. The issue was that, you know, because the deal that I had was so rare, they understood how to maneuver a lot of the accounting that allowed them to take money away from us. I don’t even want to dive too much into it, but yes, a lot of artists get screwed over because they fail to read the rest of the contract and rightfully so. Most of these people come from nothing. But the difference between me and them is that I could’ve continued. I had a five-album deal in place. I could’ve continued to create content and be part of the system. I decided to walk away on my own. Because, yes, even though I left millions of dollars on the table, as someone would say, I walked away with my integrity. And I walked away knowing that this is not the way that I want business to be handled in my life. Thankfully, we’re at a point now with technology stuff and RecordGram that we have the ability to be our own bosses and decide our own fate. And we treat people fairly. Even though I’m a “boss,” and I can cut a check now, I understand what I’ve been through, so I try to treat people fairly based on what I’ve been through.
STEREOGUM: You said you were also feeling artistically uninspired by the time you decided to stop making Mims records. Was there a specific moment where you were trying to write music and you were just not feeling what was coming out?
MIMS: My counterparts and peers have begged me to get back in the studio and once in a while I’ll drop some crazy verse, but I don’t think it’s about the artistic side more than it’s about the principle. I create music now for fun, and that’s the way it always should’ve intended to be. Money is a great catalyst for change, but it’s not necessarily going to make you happy or feel better about yourself. I’m no longer motivated by the amount of money in my bank account more than the amount of people’s lives I can change. I know that sounds cliché, but it’s the truth. The industry dangles a big fat check in front of you, and then you become a slave to the system. I don’t judge anyone for staying in that position, it’s just not what motivates me.
STEREOGUM: It’s a shame because even though the industry will always have all kinds of bullshit, it seems like now the major labels have finally stopped trying to make some artists something they’re not; it doesn’t seem like Vince Staples is being pressured to do a pop song.
MIMS: The problem with the labels is you go in as an artist to create the music, and then 15 people have to approve it. Everyone is giving their opinion and then the art is getting diluted. For example, if I put in a record, “I stopped by McDonalds just to grab a cheeseburger,” and someone from the marketing department says, “Oh, well I just spoke to Burger King last week, and they’re willing to cut a $50,000 check, do you think that we could get the artist to change this?” And you as an artist get diluted. If you’re motivated by money, by any means, do what you’ve got to do. I just realized that isn’t me. If you listen to the intro of my second album, Guilt, a lot of what I was going through at the time and thoughts about my success and the music industry were mentioned in it. I felt guilty because the person people saw wasn’t the person who I was.
STEREOGUM: It feels like someone in your position 20 years ago would’ve started an indie label of their own, but instead you decided to start an app.
MIMS: I grew up in Washington Heights and have spent most of my later years in Long Island, but from the culture of people I grew up with, there’s only a few options that are considered successful: becoming a basketball/football player, a rap artist, or a drug dealer. This is not a cliché, this is real life. When I grew up, those were the things that mattered. I was either gonna be the greatest drug dealer of all-time, or I’m gonna be a basketball player, though I’m 5’9 so I don’t think that was gonna work for me. Or I could be an artist. It wasn’t until I started getting outside of my comfort zone in my circle that there were so many industries I knew nothing about because I wasn’t exposed to them.
Seven years ago, Erik [Mendelson, co-creator of the RecordGram app and Mims’ acting publicist] and I took a trip to Silicon Valley to pitch an idea for an app. None of the doors really opened for us, but we were very determined to figure out the industry, and we spent the last seven years figuring it out. I love technology; it’s a new industry for me and a new industry for the people I grew up with.
STEREOGUM: Do you think that RecordGram could end up being a viable replacement for SoundCloud?
MIMS: SoundCloud is obviously a phenomenal platform for discovery, though ours is more mobile-based and it serves as a utility base for artists. Plenty of artists are being discovered on SoundCloud, but these artists still have to go into a studio to record. We’re giving artists the ability to download records right to the phone, and we’re giving producers the ability to make money off a back catalogue of music they’re not even using.
STEREOGUM: That resonates with me, because I made about a thousand beats in college that are just gathering dust on a hard drive somewhere.
STEREOGUM: So let’s say I’m going to use RecordGram for that; how would someone go about finding mine specifically out of the entire library of similar people in there?
MIMS: There are plenty of people in there, in the producer store, but not as many as there will be in six months. And we have a genre filter so you can search within a genre. But we also have the ability to showcase producers, so we have rotating banner ads for featured producers, we have feature contests that can help cultivate artists and pushing them in certain directions.
STEREOGUM: So do you have any plans to make new music of your own in the future, even just for fun?
MIMS: I spend a lot of my time in the studio helping to develop younger talent, sitting in the corner of a room as a big brother figure helping someone do something. So most of the time it’s just working in-house with the people I’m developing. And I still tour.
STEREOGUM: What are some of your favorite memories from your reign as a chart-topper? Did you get to meet any personal heroes?
MIMS: There’s many, I think it’s not more a person I’ve met than the places I’ve traveled. I’ve gotten to see some beautiful places in this world, that also helped me grow as a man. Erik and I just came back from Beirut, where you’re told it’s the belly of the beast, and you’re sitting 40 miles from the border of Syria in this peaceful, serene environment. And you realize a lot of what you see in the media is smoke and mirrors. Another is Sudan. I took part as being one of the first artists to publicly perform at a concert in Sudan. Obviously as an African-American man…I mean white people don’t even think Africa is a continent, they refer to it as a country. We think Africa is all about people living in poverty, but you visit Sudan or Tanzania or Nigeria, and you see how Westernized or rich it may appear, and I realized how much of my life I’d been lied to. I think that’s the beauty about being able to travel, and the one thing I absolutely love about being a musician and in the position I’m in now.
STEREOGUM: The last thing I wanted to ask is, “This Is Why I’m Hot” was one of those songs where nearly every major artist hopped on a remix or a freestyle of it, and it was the beat that led off Lil Wayne’s classic mixtape Da Drought 3. Did you have a personal favorite version that someone else did, getting to hear one of your own heroes on your song?
MIMS: I did a reggae remix to that record with Baby Cham and Junior Reid. At the time, I could’ve gotten anybody on that record. I didn’t do that; instead I went deep into my culture as a Jamaican-American and decided to collaborate with two individuals who, yes, in their own respects, are very successful. But they weren’t necessarily at the top of the charts. So to me, it was even bigger than the original record to make it a “world” song, to go to Korea and put on the reggae remix and have people singing Junior Reid’s words… Blackout, the producer of “This Is Why I’m Hot” did a phenomenal job of pivoting and doing something different instead of going with the superstars at the time.