To rapper Unkle Adams, failure isn’t an option—even if that means going into extreme debt.
Adams (real name Curtis Adams) dreams of being a world-famous musician. At this point, he hasn’t found much financial success, and things are getting worse.
“I’ve never heard of a person who just went out and became an entrepreneur or a rapper or singer or whatever and just made it right away and started making millions of dollars,” Adams tells Urbo. “It doesn’t work like that.”
Five years ago, everything seemed to be going Adams’ way. His anti-bullying song, “I Am Stronger,” attracted over 500,000 views on YouTube, and Adams found some success as a motivational speaker.
Shortly thereafter, Adams decided to quit his job to spend all of his time on music. He released three albums and a number of music videos, including “Original” in 2016. That single attracted another 200,000 views but also garnered negative reactions from rap fans on sites like Reddit’s /r/hiphopheads community.
After a blistering 23-minute takedown from music critic Anthony Fantano (of the blog/YouTube channel The Needle Drop), Adams’ YouTube channel was overwhelmed with harsh comments. He says his longtime fans were ridiculed and harassed. Someone set up an “Unkleverse” Wiki, which bizarrely mocks Adams’ lyrics by establishing a complex backstory for every line in the rapper’s songs.
The reaction to his videos hasn’t stopped Adams from pursuing his dream. Neither have his sizable financial limitations; in a series of recent vlogs, he shows how he’s spiraling into deeper and deeper debt. One video shows him planning to buy electronics on credit in order to sell them and pay for studio time. Another shows him deciding to sell his car.
Currently, he owes $200,000, and his goals of making $1 million and building a massive base of at least 1 million Spotify listeners seem virtually unattainable. That hasn’t affected Adams’ optimism or his belief in his talents as a rapper.
We spoke with Adams about the debt, his upcoming music projects, and how social media has changed the way that people interact with musicians—both for better and for worse.
[Editorial note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
URBO: Could you tell me a little bit about the “At Least A Million” mission?
UNKLE ADAMS: Yeah, so the “At Least a Million” is basically a video series. It’s like a reality TV show with no script where I’m documenting my journey of trying to make it in the music industry as it happens.
I say in the videos that I’m approximately $200,000 in debt, but that I’m going to earn $1 million and I’m going to to attain 1 million monthly Spotify listeners.
I said to myself, “You know, if you’re really gonna do this, you’ll put it out there.” It’s kind of like burning your boats, you know? There’s no retreat now. I put it out there publicly. And I want to put myself in a position that I have to do it, and that’s how serious I am about doing this.
It sounds like the debt is sort of a motivational tool to you.
Yes, exactly. It’s like that story: There was a commander, and he wanted to invade, so his troops got off the ships, they got onto the shore, and then he had the boats burned so they couldn’t escape. He said, “You either do it, or you die.” And they won, despite being outnumbered.
[Editorial note: Adams may be referring to 8th century North African general Tariq ibn Ziyad, who reportedly burned his ships to prevent cowardice among his troops after conquering what is now Gibraltar. Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés also scuttled his ships in 1519 during his subjugation of the Aztecs.]
So I’m putting myself in a position where I have to make it. I can’t turn around, because I’ve publicly announced that I’m gonna to do this. And I can’t turn around, because I’m also so financially deep—a regular job won’t fix this problem, you know?
I mean, $200,000, I think a regular job, in some situations, could address that. I don’t know—what’s your relationship with that kind of debt? Is that something that’s always in the back of your mind at this point?
It’s a lot of money, but it’s nothing compared to what I feel that I can earn, you know?
And I don’t want anything for free, I want to earn it by rendering service to people. I guess—I suppose you could pay that kind of a debt off, if you earned, maybe, $50,000 a year for four years. But you gotta live too, right?
So it might end up taking you eight to 10 years, depending on how much you make. But regardless of that—it’s something I think about, and it’s a motivation for me, but it’s not something that cripples me or that’s gonna make me stop.
I flip my perspective on it and use it as a motivation.
Where is most of that money going? Are you spending most of it on video or audio production?
Yeah. So basically, about approximately four or five years ago, I made the decision to quit my job. I was a heavy equipment operator at the city.
And I decided, “I’m gonna to go all out on the music.” Full time. So that I could put 8-, 10-, 12-hour days into this. And I have built up a big catalog of music. Three albums, 45 songs, 15 music videos. That takes money.
Then of course there’s all other kinds of things. Legal fees, and in the music industry, man, there’s so many people—I hate to say it—but there’s so many people that want to try and take you for a ride. I’ve lost some money on some bad deals and stuff, you know?
I had a manager who—he’s not my manager anymore—but he took some money from me, and he flew to Cambodia. And I’ve lost money on other deals. So, I’ve been—I haven’t just squandered this money. I’ve invested it into building the foundation: a catalog of music, music videos, and, of course, living expenses too, right? Sometimes, you’ve gotta live off of credit and whatnot.
Just real quick, you said he went to Cambodia?[laughs] Well, I wonder if he’s gonna read this article.
We could do off the record for that if that’s better for you.
It’s up to you. Basically, I had a manager. I paid him $4,000, and what he was doing—he was taking money like that from like 20 artists at a time. How do you manage 20 artists at time? They’re all paying him $4,000.
I wasn’t happy, he wasn’t really doing anything for me. He flew to Cambodia to visit his girlfriend when he should’ve been managing me as an artist. So that’s just one example of things that happen.
You seem so optimistic about everything given what you’ve been through.
Yeah, I am. Because you can’t beat someone unless they agree to be beaten, you know? It’s never over until you throw in the towel. This is temporary adversity. Temporary setbacks. It’s not the real picture.
I’m acting according to the vision I see in my mind and not the current circumstances.
Well, let’s talk about something positive. I saw that you’ve been doing anti-bullying presentations. Can you tell me how you got into doing that and why you see that as an important project?
Sure. In 2013, I decided to write a song about bullying, and it’s called “I Am Stronger.” And I wrote it so that it was simple enough for kids to sing along to. And I wrote it to help people being bullied, to rebuild them from the inside. And then I filmed the music video in my old high school, and I released it, and it just took off.
I was being interviewed on CTV News and Global News, and they’re playing it in Australia, and they’re playing it all over the world, and people started messaging me. Teachers, students, and parents asking me to come speak at their schools.
And at first, I was like, “No, no, I’m just a rapper, thanks anyway.” But they kept coming. I’m telling you, hundreds, if not thousands, of messages. But after a while, I figured: These people want to hear what I have to say, so I will do that. I am gonna go talk. And I put together an anti-bullying presentation where I spoke for 45 minutes to the kids, and then I rapped that song live at the end.
I remember the first time I did it, I couldn’t believe it after I was done with my song performance. The kids all lined up to meet me, and they wanted me to sign their hats and shoes and shirts and Tommy Hilfiger coats with permanent markers and stuff.
I was like, “Are you sure you want me to write on that?” It was just an amazing response.
So yeah, that was my anti-bullying mission. I’m sort of branching away from that now, because I have my sight set on getting bigger, and one day, I want to do arenas and stuff like that. But it was an important chapter, and I’m proud of it, you know? I’m proud I helped a lot of kids, and that song still continues to help a lot of people.
I was seeing with that song, especially, and also with “Original,” there’s some comments on YouTube that are extremely positive. That’s gotta feel amazing with all of the work you put into it.
Obviously, there are some negative ones too, if we can address those. Do you even pay attention to them?
Um, I don’t anymore. Because if I did, I’d be sitting there all day reading people’s opinions.
But I can tell you that, a while ago, when I was doing my anti-bullying mission, I was getting messages that definitely knocked my socks off. People telling me they were about to commit suicide, but they heard the song and it totally changed their mind, and they’re doing good now. Like, hundreds of messages like that, where people were saying that it prevented their suicide and it helped them.
But then it got to the point where I couldn’t—there were so many messages in my inbox that I couldn’t answer them all, you know?
Then there’s, of course, people that try to use it for sinister things. At this point, I make my material and I put it out there.
And I can’t go through all the comments. I’m thankful for all the of the positive ones, but I just focus on my mission. I don’t let any of that stuff reach my mind, because there are thousands of comments. You would kind of lose yourself in reading those.
Yeah, you’ve got some lines in “Original” about that.
For sure. Like I’ve always faced some amount of hate, you know? Anybody aiming for anything above mediocrity will face adversity, and there’ll be a group of people who wants to stop them. And with me—I’m different, right? I’m not your typical rapper. You look me up, and I try to have a positive message, and in “Original,” I’m dancing around with a top hat on, just kinda being goofy.
Some people really don’t like that, I guess, and they want to try and attack that. Some people aren’t so accepting of change. But then there are other people that are like, “Oh, I don’t even like rap, but I love your stuff.”
So I guess I’m kind of—I’m kind of a weird rapper in that sense. That some of the really hardcore rap fans maybe don’t like me. But at the same time, people that don’t even like rap, they like me.
Yeah, I think that’s got to be the approach that you take. I do have to bring up—there’s one well-known music critic, Anthony Fantano, who put together a 20 minute video breaking your song down.
I haven’t watched it, but I am aware of it. Because, about a year ago, a massive flood of people came over to my channel and started disliking all my videos and hating everything. He has like a million subscribers.
[Editorial note: At the time of writing, Fantano’s The Needle Drop channel had 1.3 million subscribers.]
My little channel, at the time, had like 15,000 subscribers. You could imagine, when you drive that kind of traffic over to a little channel from a bad review—a lot of people were disliking my videos.
You know, I took a big hit there. But he’s a blogger, he does his thing, I mean—at the same time, he’s also criticizing Hopsin’s album, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, some of the biggest rappers in the world.
So I guess, in some ways, I should be flattered that he took the time to review my video. I mean, regardless of what anyone says about any of my stuff, I just do my own thing, right? I’m not gonna to change based on what other people’s opinions are. I do what I feel is right.
Was there a single moment where you decided, “I’m going to quit my day job and just go for it”?
I asked my dad. I was starting to do more of those presentations that I told you about. I actually was having to cancel presentations because I was working a day job.
I got to a point where I was like, “I gotta take a leap of faith here.”
So I talked to my dad about it, and we sat down at my living room table, and we wrote out a list of the pros of staying at my job and cons of staying at my job. There was only one pro, and that was a steady paycheck. And the cons were: Can’t work on my music all the time, don’t have time to go to presentations, so on…there was about 10 or 12 of them.
So you know, I looked at my dad, and he supported me, he said I think you should do it, son, I think you should go for it. And looking back, even though I’ve accumulated more debt, that still was a big turning point, because I was able to start working on music 8, 10, 12, 14 hours a day.
I do this every day, all day. I’m like a mad scientist working on this. You know, people might see one of my videos and think I’m just goofing around or something, [but] like, this is my obsession. I’m always working on this.
Where do your beats come from? Do you create them, or do you buy them?
I lease them and buy them from producers all over the world. Some in the U.S., some in Canada, Germany. It just depends.
That’s why there’s quite a bit of variety on my beats, because I like to switch things up, you know…If you’ve heard some of my stuff, I have a certain style about me, where I rap kind of fast—not super fast—but I definitely rap slow. I like to keep the tempo and the rhythm.
Why not just use existing beats? I don’t know if you follow the SoundCloud rap movement, but—well, a lot of aspiring rappers just use beats that are kind of just out there. They create free mixtapes to get their names out. Why not take that approach?
Because there’s nothing original about rapping over somebody else’s beats. Like, it might be cool every now and then. I’m not gonna to say I’ve never done it. But I’m trying to make my own sounds, you know?
I don’t wanna rap on some beat, and then they compare it to the person whose song it actually was. You know, I think you can generate a little bit of a buzz doing a remix like that. I did that once. I did that with Wiz Khalifa, “See You Again,” and that’s on YouTube. But I totally rewrote the verses, and then my girlfriend sang the hook.
Then another thing, those beats, aren’t they copyrighted by the people who wrote them? I don’t know, you can’t get a song like that in a commercial or get it on the radio or stuff like that. So I think it closes some doors for you, for sure. I’d rather do my own things on beats and give people something fresh to hear.
Some people seem to actually enjoy the fact that you’re going into debt to follow your dream. How do you address those people—would you want to say anything to them?
No, not really. It doesn’t matter what anybody says. I create my own reality. I’m in charge of my own reality.
And you gotta remember there’s always two sides to everything. Like, the presidential election you guys had. There was Trump, and there was Hillary Clinton.
Some people want me to make it, some people want me to fail…I think that it’s important to have both sides.
There’s probably a lot of wasted potential out there, but on the other hand, there’s probably a lot of people who made the right decision by not following their dreams.
For sure man. It’s not for everybody, you know? But if you study back through the ages, like I do—I study successful people, and every one of them went through a period of great adversity before they made it.
You have to pay your dues, and if you can stick it out and adapt your plan and never give up on your definite major purpose, you can achieve it. I honestly believe that, and I believe that for myself.
There’s this whole community called “Unkleverse” where they’re making up these elaborate backstories for your lyrics. Have you checked that out?
Never heard of it, man. I don’t go through the internet looking at what stuff people post. You know, I don’t control that. I just focus on what I’m doing. What I will say is this: No matter what anybody is saying about me, whether they’re making a meme about me, or whether they’re writing something stupid—they’re promoting me.
They’re introducing people to me, and people will ultimately come to my channel and make a decision for themselves as to what they think about me.
What are you working on right now? What should fans get excited about?
I’m working on a new album called The Underdog, which is really fitting in my opinion, because I feel like the underdog, you know? I’m in debt, all these people want to see me fail.
But I’m gonna to pull it off. And that’s the album that I’m working on right now.
You’ve got to feel good, though, that there’s still a sizable number of actual fans out there.
Oh, for sure, man. And like I say, the tables are kind of unfairly tipped in one way because of that bad review that I got. And, you know, it sent a flood of hate over from a million subscribers to a little channel.
So I’m kind of proud of my little channel and my little supporters that are still hanging around, even when people are trying to bully them, and make fake accounts and all this garbage stuff.
We’re still standing, man, we’re still in there. And the tables are turning, man. I’m not stopping, I’m coming.
[Editorial note: Shortly after our interview, Adams turned off commenting on his YouTube channel and made most of his social media pages private. He explains the reasoning behind that decision in the video above.]