Like every other chucklehead who ever stepped in front of a condenser microphone to record a rap album, I had dreams of making a comfortable living doing what I loved. Actually, let’s be real; we all dream of endless piles of cash, millions in the bank, groupies, fancy cars, and luxury hotels in exotic places. I never wanted to be famous; I think anyone who does is sick in the head. The seed of True Desire in these dreams is pretty simple: freedom. Everybody wants off the plantation. The lower you are on the economic pyramid, the more important the pursuit of money becomes; it defines success.
I believe it’s important for people to have meaningful work in their lives, however one defines work. However, having one’s time—one resource none of us can ever recover once it’s gone—controlled by other people and entities is an insult to life and humanity. Who hasn’t had an asshole boss? Who’s never woken up and gone to a job wishing they could stay home and go back to sleep? Poverty raises the stakes; if you don’t go out and do all the shit you don’t want to do, selling your time and labor for a pittance, you may find yourself without shelter or food. As anyone who’s ever been homeless or studied the stories of people who are, once you fall that low it’s almost impossible to get back up.
I’ve known plenty of people who have experience in what I’ll call “underground pharmaceuticals.” I have yet to meet one who was in it for the thrill and glory. Being a “drug dealer” has plenty of dangers as an occupation—your safety, your life, your freedom, and your conscience are on the line. But that risk also comes with many of the benefits of being self-employed: setting your own hours, choosing who you do business with and under what circumstances, and being boss-free. Tax-free income is nice, too.
I’ve also known quite a few people in high-paying professions. They’ve got plenty of money, but their time belongs to someone else. I’ve often said that if I could find someone willing to pay me $200,000 a year to do a job, I’d work the job for three years, save as much as possible, and then fuck off for the next fifteen or twenty years. As a single man with no big debts hanging over me, I could live quite well—even adventurously—on thirty grand a year. Funny thing; I have yet to meet a professional who has done anything like this. I’m sure they’re out there, but it’s not common. Usually people just keep working the job.
Americans, being hopelessly addicted to consumerism, never get their freedom even when they make big bucks, because they spend whatever they make. If they start making more money, now they’re spending more money. I used to work at a restaurant where a couple of my friends on staff got promoted to management. If you’ve ever managed a restaurant, you know that once you take the job, the company pretty much owns your life. In my friends’ case, the promotion came with a substantial increase in pay. Both of them went out and bought brand new cars within a month. Both of them bought houses. Almost ten years later, they’re still working there; they’re stuck.
I, on the other hand, got fired, and after a three-year journey through the non-profit industrial complex, I now live a life of functional poverty as a freelance educator. But I have something my restaurant buddies will never have—my time belongs to me.
Most artists in any medium, if they’re true to the creative spirit, want more than anything for others to experience and enjoy their work. This is the Yin/Yang of being an artist—behind closed doors you get the pure joy and satisfaction of creating, and out in the world you get to see that art bring joy and satisfaction to others. It takes a lot of work and dedication, but it’s always worth it. No less a talent than Charles Schultz, creator of Peanuts, once said that cartooning will destroy you. This from one of the most financially and culturally successful cartoonists ever. I would add that there’s only one thing more destructive for a cartoonist: not cartooning.
I’ve been recording rap music and performing for over 10 years now; haven’t made a nickel from it yet. In fact, I’d rather not think about how far into the red it’s taken me. If I were to add up all the money I’ve spent over the years on supplies and equipment, it would probably hurt my feelings. However, my failure as a commercial artist led to my current success as a freelance educator; what I really wanted was my freedom, and now I have it. Took me a long time to get it, and I could lose it much faster, but for now, I have it. Victory! Success!
However, there’s still the matter of that burning desire for the Yang of creativity; getting it to other people. Finding an audience. I don’t currently have many fans, but I’ve got ’em. Last summer I was humbled and blown away when I man I only see once a year at ceremony quoted me an entire verse from a song I released back in 2012. When I start to get in my feelings about my lack of “success” as a musician, I think of that. I also think of something a young woman said to me once, back in my Concrete Shinobi days in Los Angeles—she told me that she listened to my CD every night before she went to sleep.
If I’d never taken the leap into becoming a recording artist, none of us would have had those experiences. If I’d never put on that mask or gotten on that mic, I might be spending my Monday afternoons shilling for some company instead of writing blogs in my pajamas.
Now that I’m making comics too, it’s kinda like starting over again on a creative journey. Making comics is far more difficult and arduous than making rap albums; you wrack your imagination to come up with great stories, you spend countless hours hunched over a drawing table, all to produce something that takes a person about five to ten minutes to read. And when they’ve finished, sometimes they say the thing I both love and dread to hear: when is the next one coming out? They have no clue how much went into the book they just breezed through, but ultimately it doesn’t matter; they’re hooked.