"If you knew the dollars we put behind [hip-hop group C.A.C.] ..." Delgado says in a recent interview at the label's office on South Claiborne Avenue. "We were almost zeroed out. We shouldn't have done it."
Delgado's referring to the advertising costs for C.A.C.'s 2002 Resident Alien album, which featured billboards of a lookalike of then-mayoral candidate Ray Nagin under the slogan, "It Doesn't Matter," the title of C.A.C.'s first single. The campaign helped bring Renaissance Records' name and talented roster into public consciousness, but with Cash Money Records' financial success being the benchmark for New Orleans hip-hop labels, Renaissance's modest success feels slight for Delgado.
Regardless, Delgado and company have distinguished themselves by signing acts such as C.A.C. and Bionik Brown. Bionik especially is a talented, wordy MC, a self-proclaimed "battle rapper" -- meaning master lyricist, in direct opposition to more popular New Orleans rappers who generally shout a few catch phrases over and over. Bionik grabs your attention with verbal acrobatics detailing, in his words, "social issues and, like, spiritual stuff ... the cause of my lack of [local] success, I feel."
Bionik's un-success story begins back with Delgado; only four years ago, Delgado graduated from Loyola University and abandoned New Orleans for a mortgage broker's job in Washington, D.C. After exactly one day at that tedious job, Delgado quit, re-packed his car and returned home, thinking he'd rather take his chances managing Bionik's career.
Delgado and school chum LeBlanc then regrouped with some talented Loyola friends who'd always toyed with starting a record label. Soon the very first Renaissance Records Compilation was born, chock full of live instruments and talented lyricists. Production team Abyss Theory's early, electronica-tinged production perfectly supported lyrics that contain few tough-guyisms, as well as a forthright, art-before-dollars agenda -- or as rapper Wright Road puts it on the compilation, "The bling-bling is lagniappe."
"Yeah, nobody bought that one," Bionik says with a wry smile. Actually, 300 fans bought the comp, a number most DIY musicians would envy, and Bionik's debut album, The Darkness and the Light -- a solid debut despite its creator's criticisms -- sold more than 600 copies. Include all the burned copies probably floating around, and the rapper and label have the makings of an enviable fan base.
But Bionik, Delgado and crew remain unimpressed.
Bionik's supposed hard luck also includes tons of shows opening for artists whose influences reverberate throughout The Darkness and the Light: OutKast, Common, De La Soul, Run-DMC, KRS-One, Nas, Snoop Dogg and The Roots. These high-profile shows also gave the aspiring MC rare opportunities to mine his idols for advice. "First thing they told me was, 'Your city is gonna be the last ones to support you,'" Bionik says. These stars also predicted, "If you really wanna blow up, you have to meet people halfway," he says. "Meaning, not change who you are and what you believe, but they told me, 'If people are babies you can't try and feed them a steak.'"
That advice is one reason Bionik wants to augment his style for his next record: "It'll be more palatable ... more clubby."
Renaissance next tackled C.A.C., or Central America Connection, a name honoring MCs Pak and Mast's parents' native countries, Honduras and El Salvador. Referencing the two countries' historically uneasy relationship, Mast jokes, "We thought maybe if we hooked up together we could stop the violence, the El Salvadorian and Honduras beef." C.A.C. seem better suited for the New Orleans market, with a style that's more street-level: less pointed, more crotch-oriented. "I'm mostly a clown," admits Mast of his own lyrical preferences. "But sometimes I'll get serious and ... try to touch your heart." The duo's superb debut full-length album, Resident Alien, also contains more "nigga," "faggot" and "Glock" references than other Renaissance artists (though no "bitch," at least), but overall, C.A.C's music remains more creative and richer than the work of their more famous New Orleans counterparts. The result? The album sold a little less than 1,000 copies, despite the Nagin-themed ad campaign.
Still, C.A.C's buzz also attracted the attention of Wendy Day, the Rap Coalition founder who helped secure label and distribution deals for Eminem, No Limit Records and Cash Money Records. "She's very respected in the industry," says Delgado. She called Renaissance hours before C.A.C.'s April 2002 show with long-running hip-hop pioneers Anti-Pop Consortium. "She said, 'I heard your stuff. I really want to meet with you guys. I love what I heard,'" remembers Delgado. "I thought someone was playing a joke."
Despite Pak's losing his voice that night, C.A.C rocked the Shim Sham Club with blazing confidence and skill. Weeks after the show, Anti-Pop Consortium broke up amid rumors they'd grown tired of making music that critics loved but no one bought. And Day ultimately couldn't help the label. "She came down and tried to take the project on," recalls Delgado. "But in the end we didn't have enough money to get on the radio."
Many people would have grown disheartened by this experience, but Delgado and LeBlanc utilized their business heads to come up with an alternate means of financing their idealistic desire to release intelligent and linguistic rap music. "We had to diversify our company," says Delgado. The crew moved into event production, and has produced events such as February's OffBeat awards at Twi-Ro-Pa Mills, a lingerie party at Club 360&176;, and the Lifehouse and Will Hoge Mardi Gras concert at the Contemporary Arts Center. "If we just did music, we wouldn't be here today," Delgado says.
Believing the music world outside of hip-hop to be less warped by money, more down-to-earth and less of a "game," Delgado and LeBlanc have now re-invested money made from event production into the signing of Renaissance's first rock band, World Leader Pretend. The label plans to market the band at a grass-roots level -- meaning good old-fashioned touring. Bionik and the members of C.A.C. are all a bit older, having settled into jobs and family lives, but the members of World Leader Pretend are all in their early 20s and much more suited for intense roadwork and gigging.
"We love the music and we know that all these guys can be on top one day," says Delgado. "But we're now pulling back our financial resources and taking it one step at a time." Delgado's considering a second Renaissance Records compilation, but from now on, he notes, "It's gonna all be low-budget, word-of-mouth."