Interview conducted by DJ Heat
The gleam in his eyes says it all…this man is passionate about what he does. It’s a pleasant Spring day in May and we’re at Studio Place in Marlow Heights, MD. Tucked away on a side street amongst industrial businesses and auto body shops, the cozy studio serves as one of the hubs for DJ Anonymous’ brainchild, DCTop20. Anonymous is beaming with excitement as he brings up the company’s website on multiple screens and tells me about all of the wonderful things that they have going on. The man born Hakeem Harmon has come along way since he was a young kid growing up in South Carolina and New Jersey. What hasn’t changed though is his business sense. That’s been in him since the days when pushing physical mixtapes in the streets was a heavy hustle.
Anonymous’ journey started with that mixtape hustle during his high school days. “I was making 50 Cent mixtapes, Lil Kim mixtapes, and [one time] I sold 473 mixtapes in one day for $5.00 a piece, ” he says. That mixtape hustle became so big that his stepdad starting asking him for a cut of the profits to help pay for the electric bill that was skyrocketing due to so many mixtapes being pressed up in the home. “Soon as you got a family member that hate on you, then you know that you’re about to take off!”
And take off he indeed did. Anonymous graduated from high school in New Jersey, and headed to Washington, D.C. in 2003 to attend Howard University. While there he linked up with another DJ from New Jersey named Rocko, who is known by many in the industry today as Niles Goodwin, the Director of National Rhythm Promotions at Capitol Records. Anonymous also became intrigued by the DJs he heard on D.C. radio. “DJ Alizay, Funkregulata Celo. These are DJs I used to hear and go, ‘They are incredible’! And I remember the first time I heard Quicksilva scratch super fast, I didn’t even know it was real.”
Anonymous continued pushing his mixtapes while at Howard, and graduated with honors from the HBCU in 2007 with a degree in Radio/TV/Film. Not long after that, he started making his name known on the local club scene. Surprisingly, spinning at clubs wasn’t something that he was initially set on doing. “I didn’t really want to become a club DJ, ” he says. “I became one kind of by accident. My goal was just getting the music out and creating projects.” But a chance happening on New Year’s Eve in 2009 lead to Anonymous making a splash into D.C. nightlife.
” So one New Year’s Eve a DJ named KI, a good friend of mine, he had called out [from a gig] on New Year’s Eve,” says Anonymous. “I don’t know why. So I saw a tweet on Twitter from a couple of promoters saying they need a DJ that night and I jumped on it….It was K Street Fridays. I remember the date, it was December 31, 2009. I rocked that party and the next day the promoter was like ‘We need you seven days a week’. So I went from [DJing at] Mile High Strip Club [to that].”
That opportunity lead to Anonymous rocking even more parties at many of D.C.’s hottest clubs. He even secured a mixshow slot on Top 40 station Hot 99.5, and served as a tour DJ for many of Atlantic Records’ events. But nothing has been as big as to what we’re in this studio to talk about today.
What was your motivation for launching DCTop20?
A lot of this was launched as the result of the birth of my daughter. She was born January 2015. I already had a passion for marketing and branding, and I was trying to find someone to do some of the things that we do as a company today. But I couldn’t find it.
That can be especially tough to find in this area.
Yeah, I kept finding people and hiring them. But the only thing they could do is that they just knew somebody. They didn’t necessarily have a skill set or knew how to brand, market, position, monetize. They didn’t know how to do any of those things. So I really got into digital marketing. I went to a conference in Phoenix in 2015 and it changed my life. And that is how I came up with the concept The City’s Top 20. At first it was going to be a record pool. The logo was created in 2013 and I didn’t know what it was going to be.
I remember you hitting me up back then and telling me the early concept about the record pool, and I was down to support.
Yeah, and in the D.C. market I noticed that there was a lot of creative people here, but there was a lack of organization to me. There was not a system that a person could plug into and have multiple people work on their behalf. So our company really focuses on building the audience, helping you monetize your audience, helping you engage with your audience, and just making you look good overall. So that’s how the concept [of DCTop20] came about. The website took 18 months to build. I went through paying designers that didn’t deliver a website that I’m getting into it with now that everything is launched. Anyway, me and my girl Tina Bonner aka DJ Eskada, that’s like my partner in crime. So we sat down and we built this from scratch. I was inspired from Tidal and I was inspired from the transition into streaming. Music and tech. Personalization. Email marketing. Automation. Content curation, meaning creating videos. I just love the whole thing of building something from the beginning. And I approached this from an artist’s point of view since I am a DJ. So it’s not like I am approaching this from a business executive’s point of view. So our overall goal is to add value to artists. The website launched September 1, 2016 and since then we’ve been doing some incredible things. Three of our clients have hit some type of national success and we have a few more on the way.
Has it been hard to get DMV artists to come aboard and take advantage of DCTop20’s services? In this area we don’t have a deep hip-hop history, and to go along with that we don’t have a deep history of music business minded people. I know that one challenge I face is that when I try to tell artists about legit people that can work with, it seems like they are skeptical and they don’t want to go with it and they don’t want to pay for legit service. It’s like they would pay $1,000 to do something crazy, but won’t invest in someone that can really help them. So what challenges have you faced with DCTop20 and getting it out to the artists?
Well we have services on our site, but we don’t even promote services. Our Instagram is not about promoting. Our social media is not about selling. So our company is pretty much a campaign based company. So if an artist wants to lock in with us one-on-one and be a featured artist, they usually commit to 90 days of work instead of month to month or service to service. And within that 90 days the first thing you do is you schedule a consultation with the team and we pretty much send you a proposal based off the things you’ve discussed. Twenty percent of that proposal goes back into DCTop20 for operational costs, and the other 80 percent goes to fulfilling the proposal. Our goal at the end of our 90 days is to have you make more money than you’ve put into the proposal. So let’s say your proposal was like $2,000. At the end of 90 days we expect you to earn $2,000 from features, walk throughs, selling merchandise, something. And not only did you make more money, but you now have more value and you’re able to secure funding from outside resources. We have a lot of artists in this area that know people with money, but they are not going to necessarily invest in something without a plan. So we haven’t had to convince people to work with us. And we also are results drive. We’ve got the data. We’re able to show you growth. We have a nice behind the scenes action network of people. The website has twenty integrations by itself behind the scenes.
And that’s a good thing to have the data and show the artist the results, because in this area a lot of artist have been taken advantage of and haven’t been given as something as simple like you’re doing like showing them stats.
The thing with us is that we’re so transparent with everything. We have this ambassador program of 300 plus people in a group. These are real people that are promoting this talent. These are not fake people.
This is not like how some brands have Twitter bots tweeting out links.
*laughs* It’s not bots or nothing. It’s real people. With artists sometimes, I think they’re the only ones that are talking about themselves and that’s why they can’t get to the next level. No matter how dope you are, you got to have people talking about you. That’s the point of having PR. So we have that built-in network of college students, influencers, DJs, bloggers, record label execs in this ambassador program and they are really making money and sharing content. And that is really adding value to the artist. Things are going viral, and when you got things going viral that means you’re going to have real people in the crowd for your show and not just performing in front of a room full of artists. No disrespect to anyone that has ever done that, but you got to learn. And you can’t succeed in the music industry if you don’t have a real person that is going to buy your stuff. That is what we’re about, getting people paid for real.
It’s a rarity to see this happen in the area. You’re a unicorn.
I appreciate you saying that I am, but it’s so not me all the way. I’m the mastermind and I run the daily operations and I’m the CEO, but there are so many people involved that listen to the demos that come to our site. You can submit your music or your video to our website 24/7. We have a 24/7 live chat agent. We’ve got two A&Rs, one named Jay Harley that works with DTLR and he’s just a music fan and a great guy. And this other guy named Mizzo that used to work at Def Jam. So they listen and give good feedback. And from that submission we are able to follow up with the artist and see how we can possibly help them. So it’s more so like we’re leading in with, “What kind of value can we give you to help you”. Because every artist is in a different space. So you can’t treat every artist the same. There’s a lot of PR companies out here that’s charging to send an email out. But they are sending it to the same contacts. It doesn’t make any sense. That’s what makes us different. It’s about quality and taking your time and doing it right one time instead of having to keep doing it over and over.
It’s funny that you ask that because on New Year’s Eve I told myself I’m going to take off for the next 3-4 months from DJing every week to spend time with my daughter and my family. And not only that, you can add to value when you’re absent but you’re still valuable. So why show up to something every single week if I can be adding value to something else that is going to increase revenue all the way around the board. So what I’m doing is I’m stacking. At anytime I’m ready to drop back down, at anytime I can. But it’s not really about that. I had fun [DJing], it’s still a passion of mine. But I let everyone else get their shine too because I know what it felt like to be able to rock nightly and all of that. But I am just in a different space pretty much. I still love it though.
Let’s have a little DJ talk for a minute. It’s a lot of young DJs in the area right now. What do you think of the quality of all the DJs on the scene?
I think that they are creative to a certain point because they have the tools to be, like certain effects and flips they can do, loops and all kinds of stuff. But the music knowledge is lacking. The musical knowledge is lacking. We were DJs that could do what’s good now. Where we can drop into our bag and rock a crowd on a quick 15 minute Bad Boy set or whatever the case may be. They’re lacking that variety. Playing just everything that the radio play, you’re not able to establish a mood. So a lot of these parties and functions are missing vibes, a mood. It’s just people there pretty much trying to impress each other. But I’m not hating or anything like that, I just think that they should make it a little more variety.
Out of all the artist that have come to DCTop20 for services, who are the two that have stood out to you the most?
Wow. Jus Paul.
That guy is something else. *laughs*
Jus Paul is very interesting. He is very interesting. I really think he’s a star. It’s just bringing that all out and presenting it in a way that is polished and focused is going to be cool. But, Jay IDK as well. Jay IDK is I think the most intelligent artist that I have ever worked with as far as knowledge of brand awareness, marketing, engagement with his fans and his Tribe and his movement. But also WillThaRapper too because WillThaRapper was the catalyst for our company really shooting off from having results with a campaign.
I remember seeing you there with a vendor table and WillThaRapper posters.
You remember?! So, I love this because you know I’m not lying. *laughs* So, we printed up posters and we posted posters all around the [venue] and up and down MLK. And when he walked pass our table and he seen those posters he was just like blown away and was like “I can’t believe a company or a person thought enough of me to promote” without even meeting him.
Wait, y’all didn’t even meet yet before you did all of that?! Wow.
No. We just took the initiative to pump the record because we liked it. The record didn’t even have cover art. It wasn’t on digital outlets. Shout out to DJ Social by the way. Social had gave me that record in Bar 7 one night. So anyway, long story short, the next month after that was like A3C Festival. We had “Pull Up, Hop Out”. I met with O and D1 Entertainment and we started doing some work with the record and we basically was responsible for taking any wind that they had in maximizing it. So any press that they had, we maximized it. We set up some other things too behind the scenes. It resulted in [WillThatRapper] getting a record situation and now he’s about to go on tour. [All of this] happened in October. Around A3C and Revolt Music Conference, our company went from like 11 likes on Instagram a picture, to like a couple hundred. And we’ve really built it since then. If you go back to September [on our Instagram] you will see the spike in everything.
How many people does DCTop20 have on staff?
We have four teams. We have an acquisition team that is responsible for finding good talent and seeing who needs help. We have a monetization team that is pretty much ways to get artists paid and ways to get partners paid. Because you have to understand that we’re adding to the D.C. economy, because we’re getting photographers paid. Like shout out to Tony Lear. He’s definitely doing well from DCTop20. We appreciate him because he helped us with some great images. But pumping into that, videographers, writers, all of these people are needed to keep this engine going. So they’re all compensated.
How is it balancing DCTop20 and also being a father?
Crazy. Crazy. Crazy.
Does your family understand?
Yeah. It’s funny because my daughter…I wish there was like a camera on us 24/7 because I built this with her at my leg. I built this with her there. It was extra motivation actually. She inspired me. Because if I could just free up a little more of my time by adding value to people and helping them get paid, I’ll have more time to spend with [her]. So that pretty much just gave me the fuel. I’m even more cooler than I was before her, which is dope. She’s my motivation. She keeps me going.
What are the next level goals for DCTop20?
We want to launch a management division. That’s the next goal because at this point we have no vested interest in the artist’s that we work with. We have invested as far as adding value to them. But anything that they do based off what we did for them, we’re not able to get compensated off or help them any further. We’re working on a distribution deal first. So we’re already in talks with a few companies. But after we get a distribution deal, which should be a seven-figure or eight-figure deal, we will be able to then invest into others as well. And that’s pretty much where we’re going. We’re just pretty much trying to have more millionaires from music and tech in the entertainment industry in this market so that we can create more artist entrepreneurs. They can have their own little companies within a company. We’re just trying to build that engine. And then live streaming. I’m really innovative type of mind, so I’m open to ideas by the way. This is such a group think type of project that if you have an idea, if you go on our site and you see an artist that you think you can possibly help, please contact us. If there is an event that you want us to partner with, contact us. This is what [DCTop20] is for.
It’s almost like you have the DC version of Roc Nation going on.
That’s what it is. The thing is that if we can just break some records. So we do need help as a company. Anybody that is a distributor, meaning a DJ that is a distributor. You distribute music nightly. Anybody that throws events or is a PR person, let’s write a story about this and what we got going on. Let’s document this journey. Let’s break some artists so we can be known for breaking a record from the beginning with our own DJs. One thing I’ve noticed about the DJs these days is that they wait for somebody else to tell them to play a song instead of hearing it and making a decision for themselves. So I’m trying to tell these DJs that we will promote you. If you help us break a record, we will get you more gigs.
And what DJ doesn’t like saying that they were one of the first to do something?
They’re scared to lose their jobs, some of them. Meaning the [club] promoters be like, “If you play something that is not on the radio, sit your ass down”.
Since our sit down in May, DJ Anonymous and DCTop20 have continued to make even more major moves. One of the biggest is the introduction of 24/7 live streaming, being nominated as Tech.Co’s Startup Company of the Year, Spotify verification, and much more. So what are you waiting for? If you’re an artist looking to get beyond your block, then head on over to DCTop20.com right now!