Swollen Members MC talks diversification and lessons learned after early success

With over 20-years experience in the rap game, Swollen Members co-founder Prevail has encountered some of the more dramatic ups and downs that the music industry has to offer. In addition to winning a Juno upon the group’s first release, Swollen Members have toured the world, fallen victim to drug addiction and have been dropped by their record label on more than one occasion. Through it all, Prevail, Madchild, and Rob the Viking have persevered. Over the course of a couple of Vancouver-brewed beverages, the hip-hop MC Prevail regales us with the inspirational tale of his journey to the top and back.

Three things worked in our favour in the early days of Swollen Members, breaking out of Canada, breaking out of Canada as a rap group, and breaking out of Canada as a rap group from the west coast. We came out spitting, kicking, pounding booze, thrashing our hair around, and making music that we hoped people would appreciate regardless of whether they were a classic hip-hop head or into punk and rock. When we dropped our first album and won a Juno, the group started touring across Canada. Swollen Members began getting professional management and before we knew it, we were touring the world.

The crew made some decisions that led to us being let go by Nettwerk Records, which was a huge setback and an eye-opener for us. In 2003, we signed to Virgin Records and we got trucked down to L.A. to work with The Matrix who at that time had six of the top ten songs on the radio.

Madchild, Moka Only and I were having trouble finding where we fit in with what they did at The Matrix, which was primarily making pop music. We focused on emphasizing underground rap music elements and we just could not find common ground sound-wise at the time. Moka Only decided to do his solo thing, and this was when Madchild began spiralling into his drug addiction.

When Swollen Members got back, we were fighting for our pride and our creativity with Black Magic. Upon the move to Kelowna, Swollen Members fell into a sound vortex. The group started doing something that I felt was not us, and we fell into the classic trap, we committed the crime of trying to keep up with the Joneses with Armed To The Teeth. We acknowledge that we are lucky that our fanbase gave us a couple of mulligans. Swollen Members can’t do that again or we would be dead in the water. After Armed To The Teeth, the crew moved forward doing what we love and what we do best — being nasty, cryptic, funky and having fun.

Changes lead to diversification

I am lucky that Swollen Members is still 60 percent of my income, the other 40 percent draws from my other creative outposts such as public speaking, the hosting of charitable events, and Kitsilano Records.

Battle Axe Records is Madchild’s. While all of the Swollen records have come out on Battle Axe Records, I have never had a vested interest financially.

I could have been more investment savvy and bought a couple of places outright in cash when the market was still burgeoning here, but I didn’t. I was having a blast; Swollen was touring over 250 days a year and making good money. The crew had sponsorships for everything from sneakers and clothing to bicycles.

My buddies and I would rip around downtown on our BMX’s — I would rent a boat for the day, grab a steak at Gotham Steakhouse, go to Adidas to buy some shoes and do it all again the next day. It’s not that I didn’t have people saying that I should sock some of this money away – you just never think that it is going to stop. When all that you have been working towards for ten years finally kicks in and you have songs on the radio, you think that it will never be out of your grasp.

I have learned how to live off of royalties. When the game changes from selling records to putting together what you can from downloads and licensing, every group has to shift focus. It has become a game of how many people you can fit through the door and how many t-shirts and hats you can get on them as they are leaving. You have to have a killer stage show and make dope merch.

I have been doing charity work for a decade. Five years ago I began my involvement with a charity called Music Heals. Dave Barnett and Chris Brandt started Music Heals, and they approached me about being an ambassador. This past October George Stroumboulopoulos hosted our annual Strike a Chord event at The Commodore Ballroom. Sam Roberts and The Sheepdogs helped us to raise over $500,000 in one night.

A person that says, “let me know what I can provide and let’s go” is the kind of person that you want to do business and Dave Barnett is that guy. Barnett started Kitsilano Records as he and I became close friends through the Music Heals Association and he asked if I wanted to be the president of the label. We immediately signed my nephew Neph to Kitsilano Records and started working on a project called Alpha Omega together.

I started hosting public speaking events and doing some corporate creative copywriting gigs, which helps the revenue stream. I feel like I am a more well-rounded MC outside of the realm of being a rap artist because of public speaking.

I sit on the board of the John Howard Society in the Lower Mainland. We help guys coming out of Corrections Canada with job training, therapy, coaching and amalgamating them back into becoming productive members of society. I work with First Nations mental health programs as well as Blade Runners, who train kids with autism or schizophrenia to get into the workforce while enabling them to live without a constant caretaker.

I made my own beer called Prevale which was the charity beer of the year three years ago during Vancouver Craft Beer Week. Philips and Central City Brewing came together and did a cross-collaborative beer, and together we raised $20,000 for Children’s Hospital.

Advice to newcomers

When you release something digitally, and your star starts to ascend, be ready for two integral stanchions that lead to long-term vitality: be ready to be interviewed and be ready to get on stage.

Garnering attention through comments, hearts, or thumbs ups is one thing. The moment that you step on stage and you have 350, 3500, or 35,000 people in front of you demanding that you engage with them, be ready. Learn how to accept the butterflies and the nervous energy. Connect with your audience, learn with them, grow with those people and you can perform forever. The connection with your listening audience is life-long.

Be honest in your media engagements, speak from the heart and be organic. Interviews are about product placement. Interviews are a shot at a free commercial, so use that to your advantage. Nobody likes it when someone thinks that they are infallible, you have to be human. I always feel that the best interviews are the ones where there is a mutual understanding. The journalist has five-ten bullet points that they want to address out of genuine curiosity, or it will be a mix of that and the editor (or the controller of the product) saying “I really want you to hit these two or three key topics.” As the interviewee, your goal is to get your information out in as organic of a way as possible while anticipating what is going to come on the heels of the last question. Rather than the journalist having to ask me five questions to get one answer, I try and give four answers to compartmentalize the subject in a place that feels comfortable for both of us and the reader; thus leading to a more introspective question based on the natural arch of the conversation. Get ready for the world to embrace you.

As told to Kris McDermitt exclusively for Vancouver Weekly.