Passion for hip-hop inspires small businesses in Pittsburgh

In 2012, Cameron Jibril Thomaz earned $9 million, helping him decorate a five-bedroom house in Canonsburg. Malcolm McCormick's paycheck was about $6.5 million, allowing the 21-year-old to purchase a mansion in Los Angeles.

The numbers come from Forbes magazine's list of Hip-Hops' Top 20 Earners, a list in which the Pittsburgh Allderdice High School graduates who perform as Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller represented Pittsburgh in impressive fashion. The top 20 artists on the list made a combined $415 million.

From the large, gold chains to the diamond-covered hands, the genre seen as rap's older, more intelligent brother and the money that it so often discusses have had a lucrative working relationship. And not just for those who create the lyrics or craft the beats.

Alongside the high-profile rappers, a small group of entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh have capitalized on the city's hip-hop fan base, which can be seen around town wearing Khalifa's Taylor Gang clothing and Miller's Most Dope apparel.

From a Lawrenceville record store that drew a line of customers out the door in April on National Record Store Day, to a recording studio in East Liberty that has garnered national acclaim, to a clothing boutique on Highland Avenue that offers street-wear and free consulting for those dreaming of making it in the industry, the business side of hip-hop has established itself in the city.

The key to success for these small businesses: working together.

James "DJ Selecta" Scoglietti fell for hip-hop long before he visited New York in the mid-1990s, but it wasn't until he checked out record stores like Phat Beats and Beat Street in Brooklyn that he decided to open one of his own.

Starting with a tiny 400-square-foot space above the GNC store in Oakland in 1999, he began a nomadic existence, moving his business across the city. At one point, he even opened up shop inside Jerry's Records in Squirrel Hill.

But in 2011, he and his friend Nate Mitchell (better known as Nate da Phat Barber) noticed a piece of empty real estate near Mr. Scoglietti's home in Lawrenceville. They, Mr. Mitchell's wife, Jovon, and their friend Andrew Burger teamed up to open 720 Records at 4405 Butler St.

720 Records is also part cafe, vintage clothing store, newsstand and concert venue.

"I wasn't with it at first because I didn't really know the direction that vinyl was going in. But once I started thinking about the coffee, I was like 'this is something I've always wanted to do,' " said Mr. Mitchell, who is best known for his abilities on the turntables as a DJ, but who also raps.

The space they've created is eye-catching: The rows of records, the colorful clothing displayed around the store and the baked goods tucked behind a small sheet of curved glass near the store's entrance blend multiple businesses into something resembling the hip-hop version of Starbucks.

"We were doing yoga here at one point," Mr. Scoglietti said. "We've had wedding receptions here."

The store's faith in vinyl has paid off. On Record Store Day in April, patrons waited in a line that snaked through the front door and spilled onto Butler Street. The large crowd can partially be attributed to the variety of music sold at the record store. "We couldn't stay afloat with just hip-hop anymore; the vinyl market's shifted away from hip-hop," Mr. Scoglietti said.

But they still love that music and plan to be a go-to place for its fans.

"People know we are the owners here; Nate and I have been in the hip-hop scene since the late '80s. It's not just hip-hop anymore, but our foundation is still hip-hop," Mr. Scoglietti said.

Although branching out has helped 720 Records thrive, its relationship to the city's close-knit hip-hop community has helped the store survive. Much like Wiz Khalifa helped Mac Miller reach stardom, more successful hip-hop businesses such as Ya Momz House have played their part in helping their peers.

In 2001, Emmai Alaquiva, a University of Pittsburgh grad, had a dream. After being inspired by hip-hop as a child and later rapping as half of the group Pensoulz in a Kup, he wanted to open up his own recording studio. The problem: Limited funds forced him to choose between a roof over his head or a place to make music.

For the next six months, Mr. Alaquiva lived in his 300-square-foot recording studio.

By 2008, that studio, Ya Momz House, located at 124 S. Highland Ave. in East Liberty, had not only quadrupled in size, but vaulted him into the national spotlight. He won an Emmy Award for his musical composition and arrangement of the WQED documentary "Fly Boys: Western Pennsylvania's Tuskegee Airmen" that same year.

Ya Momz House has since branched out from its strictly hip-hop past, but Mr. Alaquiva asserts that hip-hop is the foundation of his business.

"If I hadn't learned from certain hip-hop situations, I wouldn't be able to do the business that I do with Macy's, UPMC, Okayplayer and even Dr. Maya Angelou," said Mr. Alaquiva, whose video work has earned his company the chance to work with large corporations. He has won accolades locally, too, including a proclamation from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

While many see hip-hop as a genre of music that embraces violence -- two of the genre's biggest stars, Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., died after being shot during the mid-'90s -- Mr. Alaquiva's understanding is far more positive.

"There are keys that you have to have with you in order to create a business out of hip-hop: The No. 1 thing is relationships," he said.

While some of his relationships extend well-beyond Pittsburgh, some of his most important contacts are close to home.

As a master of the digital age -- he taught himself how to become a professional photographer, videographer and graphic designer -- Mr. Alaquiva has used these now-crucial skills to help out businesses like 720 Records. He has filmed a profile of Nate da Phat Barber and sponsored various events held by the record store.

"One thing about Pittsburgh: Yes, it's definitely small, but I work very well with a lot of businesses that still rock off of hip-hop, like 720, record stores and things of that nature. We've got to come together collectively as a unit to make things happen," he said.

Among other things done to help other hip-hop entrepreneurs, Mr. Alaquiva's business has helped provide coverage of live events held at Timebomb clothing boutique, one of the city's leading hip-hop-themed clothing stores.

Timebomb, further down Highland Avenue, specializes in street-wear -- street fashion tied into the counterculture of hip-hop and skateboarding. Inside, customers can find almost every brand referenced by today's rappers, from Diamond Supply Co. and Rocksmith to 10 Deep and The Hundreds.

And much like the merchandise sold near the back wall at a hip-hop show, these T-shirts, hoodies and hats are peddled by those who know them best.

Brian Brick, better known as Brick Diggler, grew up in Pittsburgh and unleashed his creative talents through graffiti and as a member of the hard-core punk rock band Timebomb.

As the dream of being a professional musician began to fade, Mr. Brick started to call upon many of the connections he had made through the hard-core punk rock scene, people who were now working corporate jobs for the pioneering street-wear companies in New York City and California.

The first Timebomb shop opened in Bloomfield in 1995 but closed shortly afterward. By 1997, Mr. Brick had reopened at a new location on Shady Avenue, although this, too, would pass. It wasn't until 2001 that the clothing boutique opened in its current home on 200 S. Highland Ave. in Shadyside.

"I opened up a clubhouse for all these kids to have an outlet," said Mr. Brick, whose store offers fashion, art and a slice of the hip-hop culture to its patrons.

He also offers consulting to his patrons, free of charge.

"Kids were looking for consulting on the music industry because I was in a band. ... We networked with people outside of our city," he said, noting the lessons that music can deliver on networking and reaching new fan-bases.

"I think that's what gives us our longevity and our old school ways; the way we still do business. Word of mouth is still really strong," he said.

Today, Timebomb depends on clothing sales, an integral part of the hip-hop scene across the globe, and one that has given those who thrive off of creativity a viable outlet.

"There's always gonna be that side of negativity that comes with it, but this side that we opened up is the positive side," he said. "Getting someone a graphic job, getting someone to print shirts, getting someone to take it from the wall to a legit business."

Although relationships with Wiz Khalifa, who used to give Mr. Brick his mix tapes to sell in the store before inking a record deal, and Mac Miller, who knows Mr. Brick well and has frequented the store numerous times, have helped Timebomb's reputation -- and its sales -- it also works with and promotes businesses like 720 Records and Ya Momz House that focus on hip-hop's roots.

"Those guys are a part of Pittsburgh history. We're all here, we all work together, we've all promoted together, we've all done parties together," said Mr. Brick, who has known Mr. Scoglietti since high school.

"We were the first around here to re-step-up the neighborhood. All these other people now come around -- we've been here for years. We grew up here, we went to high school here," he said." We're living our dreams. We're opening up businesses where we grew up."

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Andrew Gretchko: or on Twitter: @Andrew_Gretchko.


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