Watzreal on Underground Hip-hop Touring and Hitting The Road As An Indie Rapper

The San Francisco Bay has long been a California underground hip-hop mecca, from the DIY days of Hieroglyphics to the Hyphy pinnacle dominated by E-40 and Mac Dre. But even in one of the hottest spots for indie rap on the West Coast, underground artists looking to elevate their careers need to hit the road and tour the country to stand out.

For indie rappers who have refined their skills musically and are ready to get started building their brand as a business, turning that corner and embarking on the first DIY tour can be a huge undertaking. But no matter what an artist's ambitions are in the underground hip-hop scene, at some point, they’ll have to hit the road to make a career out of music.

Ten tour’s later, that’s the conclusion that California underground hip-hop grinder and Bay Area community staple Watzreal has come to. Just back from the 23 day, 16 show Third Eye Wide tour with J. Scribe and Def-I, Watzreal sat down with me to talk about touring, the struggles and realities of life on the road, and what underground rap artists need to keep in mind when setting their eyes on that daunting first tour.

Our conversation below has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity. Catch Watzreal in San Francisco with Masta Ace on September 30th, and follow him on social media for updates on the next time this old-school inspired underground hip-hop road-dog will be touring in your area.

Welcome home, man. What was your favorite stop on the Third Eye Wide tour with J. Scribe and Def-I?

San Francisco was pretty lit, kicking off the tour with the Artifacts show, so that’s not fair (*laughs*). The South West was really dope, a lot of New Mexico shows were really dope. El Paso was really dope, we rocked this intimate venue that looked like your grandma’s house, and packed it out with 50 or 60 people. Hot had pink walls, vintage teacups and what not, that was really cool.

I know those moments don’t come down to luck, you have to manifest a dope tour. Tell me about the first tour your put together.

The first two tours that I completely put together on my own happened kinda by accident. Someone was supposed to put together my third tour, it was going to be in April a couple years back. I payed him the money and it was getting really close and we still didn’t have any dates, and this guy just kept telling me not to worry about it. And I had to be like “Na dude, it’s a few weeks out, I’m gonna have to worry about it,” and I just started booking the dates myself, seeing what I could pull off.

Since then, you’ve handled all your booking yourself?

Yeah it’s funny, I gave this dude the benefit of the doubt, he told me he’d be able to book the next one based on what I already paid him. I was like “fair enough” and gave him the benefit of the doubt, probably cause I payed him through PayPal and I know that I can get my money back on PayPal, it’s like a guarantee. Second time this guy dropped the ball again, and it was the same kind of thing, I ended up just having to string some dates together.

What are some obstacles you’ve had to overcome on the booking side?

I think a very common pitfall is just working with new promoters, not knowing what to expect. It’s surprising how many people promote, and there’s just no outcome from that. Whether it’s lack of communication, opener’s not coming out, whatever. And it’s really surprising how many promoters just don’t promote. The first show I did in Portland, the promoter posted about the show only once. I think that’s a big pitfall, it’s hard to know who to trust and it’s hard to have trusting relationships, but I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Diving into the specifics of booking, what’s the difference between working with a promoter and working directly with a venue?

I’ve done it a few times, maybe a handful, but booking through venues is not generally how I’ve tried to go. There are upsides and downsides to that. Major downside, depending on the promoter, I may not get paid, if I don’t have control of the show I don’t have control of how much money is going in and I may not have the draw to warrant a guarantee. The upside is that there are generally more people there, there’s less of a focus on me having to promote the show myself, less of an obstacle going into an area where you don’t know anyone.

How do you get to the point where you start asking for money from promoters?

It’s hard to know when that turning point is. I think sometimes it’s good to just test the waters, to just ask and see what’s available. I think in the beginning people will take any show, but once you’ve built up a reputation and a certain credibility, people don’t know where to go from there. People see the people around them locally who aren’t making money yet and they see the people on the road who are starting to turn profits, but the ladder between those two places isn’t very well explained in the independent scene. So you have to go through trial and error. For a lot of people, it’s just asking and testing the waters.

What does that “ask” look like for underground hip-hop artists just getting started?

Maybe it’s a door deal, maybe it’s a $100 dollar guarantee. You ask for maybe a little more than you expect to get, knowing that you’ll work something out in the middle, and that may scare some people away but those people probably weren’t gonna pay you in the first place. It’s an incorrect assumption to make to assume that people will just eventually pay you your worth, but that’s not how it works. If you are willing to do things for free, that’s what you’ll get paid, you have to ask for what you think you’re worth.

Do you have any tips for building your worth as an artists in different markets?

Building relationships with people that have a strong foundation in those markets helps a lot. If a promoter sees, “Oh, Watzreal knows the top three people in Phoenix, AZ. And if his name is getting brought up by those people, he must be somebody” than you have value. Frequency is important too, I’ve done so many shows in So-Cal that one of my fans down there thought I was from So-Cal.

What’s your approach for deciding if a market is worth trying to crack into?

It’s really knowing the market. L.A. is incredibly hard to crack because of how much established talent there is that already has sustained value. Smaller markets I think are generally easier to crack into because there’s not as much going on there, it’s easier to build excitement. Don’t so much focus on doing a show in L.A. or Portland or Seattle, overall focus on smaller areas where there’s gonna be more excitement for you coming, where you’ll be able to build that sustained fanbase. In smaller markets, even if there’s not a lot of people there’s a lot of love.

Part of profiting on the road, beyond building your worth, is merch. Got any game to pass on merch wise?

Don’t make everything about you. There are definitely fans that want things with your name on it, but that might not be the most profitable, find what’s true to you and everyone else. My best example of that is my shirt line “Hip-hop is My Therapy,” that’s something that really speaks to me as a person and it’s part of my brand, but it also speaks to a lot of other people.

All of that being said, touring can be expensive. Do you have any tips for keeping the boat above water financially when you’re on the road?

Determine how many losses. If you’re doing a show for free, make sure you can sell merch. Know how many stops like that you are gonna have, if they’re all stops like that be realistic about how long you’re gonna be out there. Find other ways to back yourself up, and really budget yourself, know how much you are going out there with to spend and make sure you stick to a daily budget.

Last thoughts on touring?

It’s not a vacation. There are parts that are fun, or we wouldn’t do it, but it’s mostly hard work. Touring has helped put me more on the forefront here in the Bay Area scene I think. And there’s a ton of talent here, but it’s talent plus work ethic and hard word that sets you apart.

Questions on youring? Ask us in the comments, and we’ll answer to the best of our ability.