There exists, within the city limits of Charlottesville, a kind of Loch Ness Monster—an urban legend. Some have seen him, most have heard about him, but few residents truly know LaQuinn, Charlottesville’s enigmatic rapper. Unless you spot him hanging posters for his next concert, you might not recognize the musical mastermind at hand. LaQuinn is toned, but unassuming, usually sporting a snapback or sunglasses and a goatee. You have to talk to him to get his story, and even then, he might not tell you about the multi-million play-count he’s racked up on his SoundCloud profile, saying, “It doesn’t register for me.”
LaQuinn’s route to rapper could be called backward in some ways: while most musicians might be happy to leave the marketing to someone else and focus on their music, LaQuinn started at the other end. A former go-go band lead, LaQuinn “always had a mind for marketing.” So when his best friend and younger brother started rapping six years ago, LaQuinn decided to help promote them. The partnership wasn’t without frustration—“pulling teeth” is a phrase he used—and as disagreements about the steps necessary to launch their careers emerged, LaQuinn got restless. He reflected, “Their drive wasn’t like my drive.”
But his time with the project wasn’t all for naught: “When they would record, I would, too—except I just made songs because I wanted to get stuff off my chest.” It wasn’t long before his circle of friends heard the tracks and demanded a mixtape. LaQuinn obliged in 2013 with Rebel with a Cause, even though, as he put it, “it was just stuff I threw together.” Faced with a growing fanbase, LaQuinn wanted to experiment releasing content to the web, starting with a YouTube video for “Stunning Visuals.” 60,000 views later, he knew he was onto something.
One of LaQuinn’s tracks, “City Lies,” found an audience overseas. “It blew up in Japan and the rest of Asia—it had a great reception,” he said. The attention was encouraging, but he needed to move quickly to capitalize on it. “I didn’t understand the online thing,” he said. “I was trying to learn the switch from the physical—like newspaper ads, flyers, and TV ads—to online marketing.” It was around that time, when he started seriously pursuing his rap career, that LaQuinn went back to school at Piedmont Virginia Community College to learn business administration.
Using that education, LaQuinn developed his own marketing plan based on a “three-wave” timeline. The first: free mixtapes. LaQuinn would burn CDs and distribute them in all the stores on the Charlottesville Downtown Mall, leaving them on counters for curious listeners to discover. The second: in-person handouts. He would hit up street markets and distribute flyers and tapes to the crowds. The third wave, which LaQuinn is entering right now—well, that’s a secret. What he did say was that “it’s all about shows, shows, shows.”
For someone whose fan base largely lives online—with more than 10 million SoundCloud plays, hundreds of thousands of video views, and tens of thousands of social media followers—the focus on flyers and face-to-face marketing might seem unusual, but LaQuinn says it’s all business:
I went to my business professor and asked, “Yo, why does it seem like online is taking over, but it’s not?” And he said, “One thing you always have to remember is that physical marketing will always be number one.” It took me a while to realize what he meant. It’s not necessarily that I need to be putting out CDs. It’s that people need to see you—they need to see your face and name on a billboard or a flyer.
Even though his marketing strategy is effective for getting his name out in world, LaQuinn isn’t after the fame. “People aren’t famous to me,” he said while detailing his family’s long musical heritage. “My uncle Johnny—rest in peace—he played the drums with all the big bands, so I’ve known all these big musicians ever since I was a baby.” LaQuinn said that whenever he is in the presence of a musical celebrity, be it socially or professionally, he reminds himself, “We’re all the same people.” He only really registers the spread of his own music in two ways: first, when he wakes up every morning to an email inbox that’s “jammed up” with SoundCloud notifications; and second, when he’s “in front of a crowd.”
LaQuinn’s lyrics often harken back to some of hip-hop’s more wholesome messages. One of his songs, “Ike Turner,” which has earned hundreds of supportive internet comments and blog coverage, illustrates his goals:
My cousin got killed in the streets, my nephew got in trouble, and my brother got killed, so this was the song I was aggressively promoting to blogs. It was the content of the song that I wanted to get out there. One thing, too—I turned comments off on SoundCloud because, around August 12, I was getting a lot of backlash, a lot of negative stuff. But this is one, I kept up. It tells kids to use their heads. It tells them, “You can party, and you can turn up, but if you feel yourself reaching the point of violence, you can stop.”
Three years into his rap career, LaQuinn shows no signs of slowing, with a new presence on Spotify and his very own Pandora station. Locally, his shows have grown, too, with new appearances scheduled throughout the rest of the year. What he really wants, though, is a “residency, the same way in Vegas you might have Celine Dion every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday night!”
If you’re lucky enough to spot one of LaQuinn’s flyers around Charlottesville, you can catch him at a live show. For everyone else, he recommends three tracks by way of an introduction to his music: “City Lies,” “Take My Heart>,” and “Paradise,” all of which are available for free online. As for that third wave of marketing—we’ll just have to wait and see what LaQuinn has in store.
Photography by Tristan Williams