When Miami-based rap-concert promoter Frank Murray saw "I'm 'Bout It," the semiautobiographical, direct-to-video film from gangsta-rap entrepreneur Master P, he said he felt a new calling.
"I thought ['I'm 'Bout It'] was a bold and aggressive move," Murray, 30, explained last week from his Miami office. "He took his destiny in his own hands, stepped forward, filmed his own motion picture and put it out in the world on his own."
Taking note of the success the film brought to Master P's No Limit Records and sensing a kindred spirit in the entrepreneurial moxie of the rapper, Murray said he quickly took steps to form Big Ballers Records and Films.
Among the many lessons Murray picked up from Master P's success was that you can never hype a product too far in advance, so long before he signed any artists or picked up a video camera, he had taken out ads in the popular hip-hop magazine The Source to raise people's awareness of the "Big Ballers" film and soundtrack.
"Believe it or not, it took a month to come up with the ad," Murray said of the advertisement, which features a pile of $100 bills, champagne bottles and diamond rings in a large, jewel-encrusted room. "For movie boxes and CDs, the days of taking a picture of an artist are over," he continued. "You have to be more creative; the ads have to talk to you. Whether you're a rap fan or not, I really want you to pay attention. I want you noticing my company."
Though not yet the runaway success that No Limit Records has become, Big Ballers Records and Films is clearly on its way. "Big Ballers," the direct-to-video movie, is currently #10 on the Billboard music-video chart after 10 weeks of release, with VideoScan reporting 8,100 copies sold to date. Meanwhile, the soundtrack has moved 2,300 copies, according to SoundScan, which tracks industry sales. That isn't half bad, considering that, previous to its release, none of the artists on it had been heard outside of Miami.
With the ad in place, Murray set about signing Southern Florida gangsta-rappers Po Boy, M.IN.T. Squad and Family Ties. "Believe it or not, the soundtrack was done before we even started filming," Murray said. "Being in Miami, which is the cocaine capital, all of our songs fit with the movie. All my artists pretty much lead the life and see those kind of things every day, so it was kind-of easy to put the movie to the music."
The soundtrack is heavy with Southern gangsta-rap, such as on Po Boy's "Paper Chase," and though all the artists come out of Miami, none of them sport the heavy-bass sound usually associated with the area. "I have no problems with bass music," Murray said. "The artists on my label, they goin' after the hip-hop sound."
"Big Ballers" follows the adventures of two drug-dealing brothers in a turf war with a group of Cubans who once acted as their suppliers. An explicitly sexual and violent film, it features appearances by everyone on the label and stars Murray as "Cash," the brother who is the brains behind the operation. Though his character's speech is littered with "you know what I'm saying" and "you know what I mean," Murray is articulate when it comes to talking about his plans for the label and film-production company.
"I spent $500,000 making Big Ballers," Murray said. "If I spent that money and made one music video for one artist, people wouldn't talk about it and I wouldn't be doing this interview. People don't really talk about videos, but they do talk about motion pictures."
George Howell, a 19-year-old from Montgomery, Ala., wrote in an e-mail that he picked up the video on the recommendation of a friend. "The movie is OK," he wrote, "a little slow in parts and really low-budget. It may not be the best movie in the world, but the music is banging and you can see that, even though there's no money behind it, they put a lot of work into it."
The work, according to Murray, is continuing.
Already in the can is a documentary he made called "The Industry," which features SoSo Def CEO Jermaine Dupri, Miami-bass legend Luke and a gaggle of others talking about what it takes to make it in the rap game. Big Ballers will also be putting out full-length albums by Po Boy, Family Ties, M.IN.T. Squad, Lady Dice of Family Ties, S.A. of Family Ties and South Coast Ballers.
Big Ballers, according to Murray, is also going to be releasing another four direct-to-video films in 1999.
Murray, for his part, isn't worried about saturating the market, either with his own product or with similar direct-to-video projects coming from a host of rappers, including Kurupt and E-40.
"It could get too saturated, but I think there's unlimited possibility when you're in this business," Murray explained. "The nature of it demands that you have all sorts of marketing tools."