An Interview with Hip-Hop Collective Manager Eric Duong
As it turns out, charisma will get you far. Just ask 24-year-old Chicago/Austin music manager Eric Duong.
Hip-hop enthusiast, musical collective director, and one-time nutrition major, Duong has had quite the journey since graduating from University of Texas at Austin. But surprisingly, none of this was planned. As he tells me, everything just… fell into place.
After learning the ropes from his friend–a talent buyer for the rock/punk scene–Duong realized that he wanted to do the same for hip-hop. To do that, he first had to acquire the talent. That’s where his particularly unique set of social skills came in. But after finessing his way through Austin festivals like the infamous SXSW and Austin City Limits to no avail, Duong found his first signee Mike Melinoe, a Detroit/Austin-based rapper, through an unlikely place: Instagram. From there, Duong and Melinoe built themselves a small team and founded Austin-based musical collective Gold Ain’t Cheap. Within the year that they’ve been active, they’ve signed on other artists like hip-hop artist Flizoshi and collaborated with local singers like Austin’s EimaraL Sol.
Although the group is slowly becoming a mainstay in the local underground hip-hop music scene, they’re a group that is humbled by their grassroots beginnings. As Duong tells me, the members of Gold Ain’t Cheap are all about being “everyday heroes” who love what they do: they’re hustlers who have regular jobs at the end of the day. Like the collective’s name suggests, gold, well, ain’t cheap.
When asked if their collective is gunning for that popular hype-beast image (see: 88Rising or any other hip-hop collective), Duong laughs and says no. Instead, they’re more like Goodwill hype-beasts who try to make music their main focal point. And it’s working–fans are noticing their pedestrian-yet-fashionable sense of style. Unexpectedly, Gold Ain’t Cheap even has a small but dedicated following all the way in Japan.
But for the time being, the collective is focused on putting Melinoe’s music out there. The collective’s latest release, Mike Melinoe’s Oo, steers his music in a different sort of direction. Tackling issues like mental health, heartbreak, and “somber tones” (as Duong himself puts it), Oo is proof that Melinoe is a versatile artist, switching up his sound and experimenting with unexplored territory through the seven songs on the album. Produced by Duong himself, Oo is a testament to the power of the collective, and it’s only going to grow from here.
I got a chance to chat with Eric Duong about his unique experience as a music manager–delving into what led him to take this career path, what it’s like being an Asian-American manager in the undergound hip-hop scene, and what’s next for the collective in general.
What propelled you to take the route of “music manager” instead of musician?
When I first met with Mike, the big overarching goal for us was that we wanted to start–not a label or brand–but a collective where we allow creatives, whether it’s musicians to artists to poets… whatever it is. Not just major artists, but more the people who have day jobs, people that have to grind two to three things in a day, and afterwards follow their passions. We just wanted to start something within the city of Austin or just in Texas in general for people to have that footing.
For me, it wasn’t necessarily like I wanted to be an artist manager… it’s just where my personality fit the best. With my team, everything kind of happened organically. A lot of my skill sets aren’t necessarily from a creative perspective. I’m more like the business person. I’m the person who can make sure everyone gets their job done and make sure things are getting done on time at the right time with the right people. An artist manager to me is like a father figure, and I’m a pretty good father figure.
When I first started I just assumed the only part of music that I could really be part of was being either a musician, a producer, or a beatmaker, but I didn’t realize that there was a lot of different facets. At this moment in time, I feel like being an artist manager for my team is probably the best stepping stone for me, just because everything just aligned perfectly.
How did you become Mike’s music manager?
Last year, Vice and Noisey did a feature on Detroit artists where they shot a music video and documentary on Mike. It just so happened that a video of him popped up and I thought “this dude’s kind of dope”. I just found out that he was in Austin–literally, he lived down the street from me.
So I just reached out. It’s funny too because Mike–because he’s from Detroit–is very, very standoffish. So when I first met him he was like “No, I don’t know who you are”.
The one thing that we work on really well (and this is one thing that we articulate as a team all the time) is whether you’re black, or Asian, or from Texas or Detroit, we know what our strengths are and we have the same drive. I always get stuff done and that’s how he is too. Our whole team complements each other really well.
Right now, we’re also working with a younger artist named Flizoshi. He’s also based in Austin; he’s like 18. Very young, but that’s kind of like this side project for Mike and I. We’re mentoring him and helping him out on his career path. We’re also working with this R&B artist named EimaraL Sol. She has her own management, but I’m just there to assist. I’m kind of like the all-around management. Throughout Gold Ain’t Cheap, which is the collective and brand that we have, we have individual contributors that help out. The main people at the moment is me and Mike. I’m pretty much like the business side of operations as well as the artist manager. Mike is more the creative director and the artist part of it.
And then we have Tim Cole. He’s pretty much our DJ as well as our day to day manager. We also have our friend Farshan [Zargaran], who helps us out wherever she can, and Jimmy Heritage who is our business/financial consultant. Since we are a collective for people who are creatives, it’s just anybody who wants to be involved outside of that.
What kinds of artists are you looking to represent as a music manager? Are you looking for anything specific in an artist before you sign them?
For me, a big driving factor in the artists I enjoy are artists who make music organically, from the heart. I don’t really know how to pinpoint it. For example, a lot of the music that Flizoshi has been releasing is kind of playing to the mainstream sound. This is what all the kids are listening to. You can hear sometimes, when people make their music, that it comes from a more organic place. That’s something I’m really excited about for the project that we just dropped.
Usually Mike has influences from outside telling him to do this type of music or this type of thing, but for this project we were like “We’re going to lock you in a room. You’re going to make your own beats yourself. I just want this to come from you.” That’s just what I look for, since it makes it easier to work with when you’re working with your natural self–rather than these outside influences that aren’t really a true reflection of who you are as an artist.
Are you looking to add people to the collective?
I’m always open to that, and it’s weird because six months ago it was a struggle to get people to know who we are. Now I’m getting emails from all over. The door is always open. It just has to make sense as a group, and if that’s what we need in that specific time. Right now though, three is already kind of a lot.
How would you best describe your collective? What’s your image like?
I would say we’re kind of like the Justice League. Not necessarily on a hype-beast level, because that’s not something that’s a big focus for us. I think of a better term to describe it is more like “Everyday Heroes”–that’s the term that I would use. At the end of the day we are all still human but we’re all following our dreams and passions and making dope shit happen!
Just to add to that, our motto is “By any means necessary”, and we really do take that to heart. If there’s a person that I need to reach out to, I’m going to call them by any means that we can find. We’re going to try it.
What is it like being an Asian-American music manager for a hip-hop artist?
The upbringing that I had was very, very unique in the sense that I grew up so close to Houston, where there’s a huge Vietnamese-American community, but my family just for some reason took the distant path off to the country. I literally grew up wearing boots, driving trucks, and dipping. Pretty much a country kid. It’s just weird because when I got to college, I was just overwhelmed by the huge sense of community for Asian-Americans. Since I never had to dip my toes into that, I just never felt comfortable in my own skin in college, and that was a big thing for me. Because I was so different, instead of trying to fit in with like everyone else, the path that I chose was taking it up another notch–so I just did everything out of the norm. For example, I had a branding where it was essentially just stickers of my face and shirts with my face on it. People would buy all that.
Getting into artist management in the music business as an Asian-American in the underground hip hop scene is definitely difficult… especially at first. Last year I honestly didn’t feel like I could do it, cause I would go to shows and sometimes I wouldn’t even be able to get into the venue. [The people at the venue] were like “oh, what are you doing here?” I’m like “no, no, no–I’m the manager”.
For example, we had a show in Atlanta, and when we went out there, they literally wouldn’t give me a pass because because they’re like… “are you the waterboy? Are you carrying the bags?” I mean, I guess I also carry the bags, but I’m also the manager… the main point of contact for this!
So at first, being an Asian-American didn’t necessarily fit into that mold, I guess. It was definitely a rough thing early on, but now I use that to play to my strengths, just because from a branding perspective I’m kind of unique. If someone hears my name, they’ll know who I am because there aren’t any other Duongs [in the scene]. Definitely, it’s kind of like the progression of who I was in high school–just being insecure and not having a sense of identity, to now kind of owning up it.
Yes, I grew up in an environment that was different than everybody else, but at the same time I’m still an Asian-American at the end of the day so that’s where my pride is. But also know that there are things I want to accomplish in my life whether it’s music or self-branding or whatever it is.
Are there other Asian-American managers out there in your field?
When I meet another Asian manager, I’m like “bro, let’s do a show together!” There’s actually another manager in Austin–he manages an R&B artist named Torre Blake… his name is David Tran. When he reached out to me, I was like we need to start a union or something! I don’t want to have race as a major deciding factor for who I work with, but it definitely does help because he understands my experiences. So when I do meet other Asian Americans within the industry, it’s not like we definitely have to work with each other, it’s more along the lines of… I understand what you’re going through, so if it comes to the point where we do want to work with each other, there’s this underlying advantage that we have.
What is the music scene like in Austin?
The reason why we wanted to start Gold Ain’t Cheap–as well as the other collectives and brands that we’re partnered with in Austin–is because Austin is known as the Live Music Capital of the World. But at the root of it all, it’s more pushing the agenda of these big labels. None of the artists that I know personally from the underground or the local Austin music scene has had an opportunity to get a good footing.
When you think of Houston or Atlanta or LA or New York or Chicago, you can name at least five artists per city. What do you think of when you think of Austin? Because these bigger corporations and bigger companies have taken a monopoly over the music scene, even things like ACL or South By [Southwest] are just going to be pushing the big name artists that everyone already knows. But the good thing about that is that since we started working with Mike in back in January of last year (as well as with all the other the artists we’ve been collaborating with) the music scene in Texas in general has really, really made a huge impact.
There’s been a lot of various growth and I think that in 2019 its going to be the year where people are really going to recognize the Texas music scene. And I’m not just saying that from a working perspective, but from the press coverage of artists that we’ve seen or just the projects that have been coming out within this local area. Definitely a big difference from when I first moved to Austin. When I first moved it was either you go to a big show or you go to a country show. There was no hip-hop or R&B or rap scene at all. So it’s kind of cool to be able to say that our efforts have helped push this along.
How would you describe Mike’s music, and his newest EP?
[His music] will be stepping away from his boom bap, and stepping away from his psychedelic sound. It’s something that really fits that organic branding that we’ve been making for the past year. The album is called Double O [Oo]. Seven songs. Only two features on it and they’re both from Austin artists that we’ve been collabing with a lot.
I think the point the whole point of the EP itself is to reintroduce Mike to the world–that he’s not just a rapper. He can do R&B, he can do soul, he can do blues, and country. He’s a versatile artist, and there’s only more things we can draw from here. I’m really excited for this project just because no one’s heard this type of sound before from Mike. We’re starting fresh, and from here, we’ll just see what happens.
This interview was conducted by Li-Wei Chu via Skype on Dec 7, 2018.