On Thursday, March 31st, Bell’s Eccentric Café is hosting a night of hip-hop with some major Michigan rappers, like Passalacqua and Rick Chyme. But for Kalamazoo rapper DeLaZoo, the show represents more. For him, it's a rebirth and reintroduction into a Kalamazoo rap scene after years away.
Devin Harrison -- a.k.a. DeLaZoo -- is only 23. But in the past few years, he’s already been thrown into the musical ringer and spit back out again. Harrison’s whole journey started online. He was young – a high schooler who made his own beats and verses in his room, then posted the videos up on Youtube.
Harrison says he was a quiet kid in high school. But online, DeLaZoo was getting thousands and thousands of hits with these songs.
"Yeah, it was super super weird for me," he says. "I was a weird kid in high school. Online, I was the man. But then I’d go to high school, no one really knew. I was a normal quiet kid sitting in the back. Online, I was cursing, acting out, making music."
DeLaZoo's "Raise the Bar Cipher" (Warning: graphic language)
It also helped that Harrison had a unique look. His baby face and his long hair made him look like a rapping Justin Bieber. But the look worked. People clicked on the videos. They’d see this small kid, then hear him spit out a verse, really fast.
Harrison even got the attention of some within the industry. Messages began popping up in Harrison’s YouTube inbox from managers, saying Hey, you’ve got the right look. Let’s get you out to Hollywood to talk with some producers.
And Harrison – still this shy kid from Kalamazoo – wasn’t about to say no.
"I did fairly poorly in high school," Harrison says. "So I had this little audio engineering school that would accept pretty much anyone, that was the fallback plan. But I didn’t feel like I had the world of options. So I felt like, wow, it seems like they're putting faith in me. So I was happy to go with it, see where it took me. I don’t think any 18-year-old in Michigan would reject living in Los Angeles for a year."
Within a few months of graduating, Harrison signed to a development deal in Los Angeles. He says the deal didn’t guarantee much – basically enough money for some housing and some food. But the experiences, his managers told him -- the meetings with studio bigwigs – were the selling point.
"It wasn't any guarantee of anything. It was more or less shopping me around," he explains. "I got to go to Universal Music. I got to meet the vice president of A & R at Atlantic. So I got to meet a couple big people and sit in some big rooms, which was cool."
And yet, he says: "But it wasn't until I got out there that I realized that isn't nearly enough."
Harrison says things started out okay. Every week, his manager gave him a new assignment. Go to a new studio, write a new verse, make a new video. But after six months or so, nothing really caught on.
The problem, Harrison says? All the studio executives liked one song from him – a pop-leaning track called “Calm, Cool, Clean.”
But Harrison says he didn’t want to sound like that song -- it was too poppy. And yet this was the song that every studio executive told him they wanted. Write more like that, they said. He wouldn’t.
So after about ten months in California, Harrison says, his manager finally sat him down.
"We had this meeting," he explains. "This was the third time they had sent me subject matter to rhyme about that was very swiftly ignored. We had this meeting about how we're not going anywhere. And I sat back in my apartment and went, not only am I broke, I don’t know anyone here! I’m bored! So within the week, I made the song that ultimately got me fired."
That song was “Art School.” The song is kind of a therapy session on tape, with Harrison laying out the events of his year in Hollywood, and trying to figure out what went wrong.
“I come from Kalamazoo, I was playing in bars," he raps in the song. "And any profits from the shows got simply poured in my car, for the back and forth of gas, I never asked for more than that. I thought I’d get that here once my momentum kicked and started. But it’s been damn near half a year, people don’t know that I’m here! I’m supposed to have no fear but this is supposedly my career…”
The song keeps going, with Harrison questioning himself and his management. He released the song online.
"And like that night at midnight, [Harrison's management] said, we are formally announcing.." he says. "And they dropped me from there."
That was that. Harrison left California and returned to Kalamazoo, feeling beaten down and a little jaded. He turned to other things. He got a job and moved out of his parents’ house. But he also got a call from DJ Rob, the business partner of the influential rapper Masta Ace.
Rob saw the old DeLaZoo videos. He says Harrison’s talent, his production, and his schoolboy look all added up to someone he wanted to work with.
"Pretty much all his old stuff, he looked like Justin Bieber," DJ Rob says. "And the fact that he looked like Justin Bieber, but as a rapper, that’s a unique combination. And there were songs that were unique at the time that were far beyond his years, that wasn't bubble gum stuff."
Over the next few years, Rob took Harrison under his wing. Harrison sent along snippets of beats and verses, saying hey, is this any good? Harrison says a lot of it wasn’t. But Rob showed him how to make it better:
"They taught me a lot about song structure, that was a big one for them. That’s something that rappers can sometimes get distracted with. And also, for me, at this point I’m mixing and producing and tracking and writing and singing. Everything on the song. I was kind of doing too much. So there were times when the beat gets stale. I've got to add instruments, add a drop, teaching me that. Or to learn my pacing as a rapper. I’d used to be trying to go fast, all the time, fast fast fast. They got me to calm down a little bit.
"But more or less, they were just an open ear to send music to as I got better," Harrison says. "Even if I was just by myself, even if they weren't directly adding input to every song. I was someone to at least send it to and a reason to keep making more."
In late 2014, Rob signed DeLaZoo to Masta Ace’s independent label, M3 Records. And finally, after years of starts and stops, DeLaZoo’s EP The Waiting Place will finally come out on April 15th.
The eight songs on the records are a kind of reflection of Harrison’s life over the past five years. And Harrison says this is the first release that truly feels like him.
"And this is probably the first time, creatively, at least, that I feel very comfortable with being able to make what I want," he says. " Not only am I able to, but I am allowed to and can still prosper. People still like it. People give me positive feedback for it. And I feel comfortable being able to make it."
Next week’s show at Bell’s is a kind of coming out party for Harrison, to tell Kalamazoo he’s back and making music. But DeLaZoo won’t really be tested until next month, when he heads out to tour with Masta Ace in cities like Las Vegas and Denver.
His label, M3 Records, says they don’t know what to expect from DeLaZoo. But they say this tour is their way to drop him straight into the deep end and hope he succeeds.
"The Mission" by DeLaZoo (Warning: graphic language)