In the Fall of 1996, a small group of young black men made history on 8th St. and 6th Ave. in New York City. It’s a history unknown to most, even though its effects are seen every day around the city. That season was when a loose-knit collective of artists pioneered the trade of hustling self-published rap albums on the streets of New York.

Nowadays the hip-hop CD hawker is a ubiquitous sight, generally seen as a nuisance, if not a menace. But in ‘96, when underground veteran Percee P and a young Brooklyn pair named Duo Live began posting up everyday outside the Fat Beats record store, they saw themselves as carrying on the oldest hip-hop traditions–of using art to make your own path in a world where so many doors are closed to you.

In the video above, filmmaker André Robert Lee and I spend a day with one of the artists that are following the path Percee P and Duo Live blazed. Ryan Riggs, aka Rise Young, moved to New York from Florida hoping to jump-start his career as a rapper and producer, and now leads a collective of artists that gather everyday in his Canarsie, Brookyn, basement studio.

But as fame and fortune prove elusive, and they find both society and the music industry’s doors closed to them as young black men, Ryan and his crew have joined the ranks selling their own CDs on the streets. It’s a rare look at the human story behind the “CD hustlers” New Yorkers brush past every day.

I also spoke to Sid V and Fre of Duo Live, with additional insight from Percee P, about how they built this novelty into lifelong careers and helped spawn a generation of copycats, and about their pride and misgivings about the cottage industry they helped inspire.

Jay Smooth: How did you each get started in the street hustle?

Percee P: I began recording in 1988, and by the mid-90s I had enough notoriety to be a regular on the hottest radio show at the time, the Stretch and Bobbito Show. So in ‘96 when Fat Beats opened and it became the biggest indie record store, they were promoting it every week on the show saying “everyone go to Fat Beats to pick up these records.” So I started going down to the store to connect with fans firsthand. Up until then I would sell tapes at shows and stuff like that, but nobody had ever really just posted full-time in one spot to sell, it was a pretty new thing. But when I started going down there to connect with the fans, it clicked so well that I started doing it every day, and I kind of became a landmark there.

Fre: We also started in 1996, and except for us and a couple of others like Percee P and Third Message, to our knowledge nobody was really doing it in New York yet, on that full-time level. We were taking inspiration from people like E-40 and Too Short out West.

Sid V: Nobody here was literally taking it right to the streets. So we actually first started in Brooklyn on the corner of Linden and Pennsylvania. We used to take our cassettes with one song and an instrumental on the other side, and we were selling them at the stoplight. Like how you see dudes selling waters and oranges at the stoplight, we were selling music.

Fre: And let me tell you we were taking it to the ‘hood, like really in the streets, and even we thought there was no way cats would stop for us. But people proved us wrong, we found they would take time to pull over and listen to the music, and it was incredible. In that first summer we sold maybe 300 copies of that first single. And once we came to Manhattan and started doing it there, it just kept growing every year, starting with Fat Beats because that was where hip-hop fans came from all over the world.

Sid and Fre, you’re considered the most successful of all the early street sellers. How did that evolve?

Fre: From 1996 to 2003, we sold maybe 20,000 or 30,000 units on the street, first in vinyl, then cassettes and CDs. Then in 2003, we left New York and started a full-time operation in Miami, because we saw that in South Beach even more than places like Fat Beats, it was just a tourist hub where you could reach people from around the world every day. And literally, from 2003 to 2008 we sold about 350,000 CDs. So we were definitely leaders of the pack, built a really efficient team that eventually spread out to multiple locations, and we grinded seven days a week, and really set a standard for the game, for what was possible.

And you taught yourself how to move from street corner hustle to a full-fledged business?

Fre: Yeah! We were getting permits from the city to sell legally, we had 12 people on staff, we had an office on Lincoln Road, and were getting as much as 50,000 CDs on consignment from California. Cats fronting you because they knew you would bring that work back. So we reached a point where we were similar to any distribution company. Everything is documented and accounted for, there were sales quotes and bonuses for sales. So we were blessed, and it taught me everything about business acumen, and work ethic. Because this all came from the streets, and we learned that if we can stand out here all day like you said, and take all these no’s and all this criticism, then what can we not accomplish? And over time younger heads seeing us, and others like Percee, really sustain with it, made it become what we see now all over town.

How were you able to make it grow and sustain, where most people seem to struggle?

Fre: The first thing was, and this is the difference from what we did and some of the guys now, we were always committed to the music and our appreciation for the art grew along with the sales.

Sid: And you had to really care about the music back then because it was a bigger investment. This home digital recording era hadn’t fully kicked in yet, so you had to really care enough to invest in studio time, purchase two-inch reels to record on.

Fre: Then you had to cut a dub plate. Then you had to find a manufacturing plant to press the records or cassette tapes. It was just so much more of a process and more of a financial load, and it made you appreciate the value of the music more. You couldn’t invest that much into the music and then put out some BS.

Sid: Those early years were the formative years, because it taught us that if you don’t have good music above all, none of this matters. The hustle doesn’t matter without the music, and as the quality of the music gets better, the sales will get better.

Do you think this new generation you helped inspire applies the same ethos, or are they different from what you did?

Fre:  We walk all around New York City, and now everywhere cats are selling their CDs. And it’s so incredible for us to see it, it’s literally like a father watching their children grow up. We support every chance we get. But I’ll tell you the honest truth, I usually don’t listen anymore. I don’t listen when I get home because odds are I can tell from the approach, the packaging, I can tell the level they’re on. There’s a lot of amateurs out there right now. We started making music in 1989 and didn’t release our first single until 1996. We invested time and energy into perfecting our art before we ever thought of letting the world hear what we had to offer. And right now I see these cats and I can tell, this is the first time he ever went in the studio. He went in the studio for one day at his man’s house and now he’s trying to sell me his record. And unfortunately that changes the dynamic, of what people think the hustle is about, what it’s rooted in.

And that’s why you transitioned into your current focus, on music education?

Fre: We took a break in 2008, we stepped back once the digital revolution kicked in and the CD basically became extinct, and eventually started a music education program called Label X Music. Something based in and rooted in what we learned in that independent hustle. And right now currently we’ve been working in high schools and junior high schools throughout the New York City area, and it’s really doing well. What we do is we go into a classroom, and literally turn a class of 25 or 30 students into an independent record label. We teach them the entire business from soup to nuts, break them into different groups and have songwriters, producers and engineers, an art department, a legal department and it all comes together for them to make a final product and put it out for the world. So we’re teaching what we learned and putting it out their for the kids, so the next generation has some foundation, and when they look for a path in the music industry they can know what they’re getting into.

Sid: And we still sit back and say,”This all came from the streets.”

Fre: Doing all that work in the street, and learning these principles, has let us be in a comfortable position now where we can do this school program with the children. We can help bring up the next generation of educated artists, educated producers, educated executives, because if we’re ever gonna save our music and save our communities, we’re gonna need these children. Over the years we’ve seen hip-hop culture really help our people economically, but that’s also brought a generation who mostly only care about making money, who don’t care about the culture, and only care about the economics. We’re trying to take what we learned out there, and help our next generation restore that balance.