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Pay Dirt

Michelle Denegall shares her priceless wisdom, sometimes for free.

Michelle Denegall has some wisdom to impart. If you want to make it in hip-hop, there’s one thing you need to do: Get some help.

Denegall, a 43-year-old label and recording studio owner from Hopewell, began her music industry career five years ago by doing a favor. Her nephew Dizzy, a local rapper, was trying to find gigs around town and asked her for guidance. Through those efforts she met a surprising number of equally talented and similarly disoriented artists who knew what they wanted to do but didn’t know how to start. As she began to help out, her efforts grew into two companies: the artist production and management group Dirt Cheap Entertainment, which she founded in 2000, and Illsound Recording Studio, which she founded a year later.

There are a lot of people trying to break into the music business, Denegall says on a recent afternoon in her studio, while mixing a track for her artist Kooga’s forthcoming album. Many people she’s met are deceived by what they see on TV, thinking success is something that happens overnight. “It takes a lot of hard work and years,” she says. “For anybody doing this, they have to continually promote themselves and not give up.”

Denegall has several developing acts on her roster, including an Asian-Puerto Rican answer to Eminem known as Eulogy; an R&B group called UTC (Untouchable Clique); a female soul vocalist named Drea; and Kooga, an earthy-voiced MC who raps in the style of Method Man. Three of these have album releases coming up — one for Eulogy in late February, for Kooga in March and for UTC in April.

Besides recording privileges at her studio (which caters to all genres, from soul to pop to country), artists who become clients of Dirt Cheap get the works. The company specializes in promotion and gigs, hooking up local artists with opening slots on the tours of major artists. But it also provides talent development — music lessons, singing lessons, dance lessons and a songwriting team to help with songs.

Denegall often uses the word “product.” It’s a word you can’t ignore in an industry filled with many wide-eyed individuals gushing about their art. The daughter of a professional songwriter, Denegall tends to see things from the business perspective. “This is an expensive industry,” she says with cool detachment. Finding money — “that in itself blocks promotion. ... and in the end, movement of your product.” You need live shows, she says, record-store appearances, and most important, you have to get on the radio. With radio — and, for the lucky few, television — you get repetition, which means name recognition.

Denegall knows from experience that achieving even such small steps can seem impossible. She seems to have a special place in her heart for the overwhelmed and doesn’t mind helping artists other than her clients who seem lost. “Even simple paperwork can seem beyond some artists,” she says. Though Dirt Cheap doesn’t work for free, Denegall’s advice is often offered on the house. “If I can help them or lead them in the right direction,” she says, “I don’t mind doing that at all.” S

Hip-hop in the 804 ...

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