Don "DJ Wrekk-1" Williams of 96.3 FM likes to be familiar with all the tunes featured on his nightly radio show. So last fall, when his long-time mixer, DJ King, snuck one in without his say-so, he should have been a little miffed, maybe even angry. But he wasn't; he was too interested.
"It instantly caught my attention," he says. "I had the DJ bring it back three times."
The track, he learned, was called "On My Momma." During one of the playbacks, he heard the rapper mention Haughville, the westside Indianapolis neighborhood associated with the lowest property values and highest crime rates in the city.
The artist, he learned, was a local guy who called himself G-Fresh. Williams recognized the moniker, which belonged to his friend, James Sims. But at that time, he knew James--called Jimmy by his friends--more as a businessman than a rapper, a guy who owned a quirky but successful combination of businesses around Indianapolis, including the label Munkiboi Entertainment.
Since last fall's local radio premiere, Jimmy "G-Fresh" Sims has cultivated a career as a legitimate emcee. The 'On My Momma' single has gotten months of radio-play, and the video has seen 40,000 YouTube hits, 3 video-music TV channel pickups, and several days atop the video charts on mtv.com. With stats like these, he looks poised to become Indy's own Jay-Z, a hip-hop mogul with a brighter future than his past could have predicted.
Building a house
Lounging on a billiards table in the upstairs parlor of a Haughville barbershop, Sims chalks his cue and recounts unassumingly his improbable journey from streetwise kid to business-savvy man. He's a smiley guy, articulate and self-deprecating, not afraid to joke around but dead serious about doing things right.
"I'm real big on being better than average, and I'll work my ass off to do it," he grins.
Raised in a single parent home in the projects, Sims said he was, "just some kid who had big dreams... that wanted to do more for my family and myself, and I wasn't gonna let nothing stand in my way."
His pursuit led him to seek a degree in marketing, which he split between three colleges: Albany State in Georgia, and IUPUI and Ivy Tech here in Indy. To make money, he cut hair as a licensed barber.
When he was finished with school, he started his first business: rehabbing homes with a partner. Not long after they started, they realized they could make more money by building the homes from scratch.
With a boldness that would typify his decisions from that point forward, Sims started attending tax sales, buying empty lots, studying the methods of contractors and seeking the necessary permits so that he could manage the construction of homes from the ground up.
From then on, Sims was a bona fide capitalist, a business-savvy self-starter. As he puts it, "after you build [a house], you can build anything."
In homage to his college barbering days, he opened No Limit Exclusive Salon in his old neighborhood. And just because he liked the food, he purchased a Mr. Dan's franchise not long thereafter.
His biggest move as an entrepreneur might have come 10 years ago, when he did a favor for his brother Deon Moore, who had written a novel, Friend or Foe
, that Sims thought was marketable.
But not necessarily marketable in Indianapolis. Sims headed for Houston, a city he believed had a good demographic for Moore's work.
He was right; the book did well. And as an added bonus, Sims made new friends, people like Mannie Fresh, Pimp C and a host of other national hip-hop artists who lived in the city.
"People on the hip-hop scene there, you could reach out and touch them," he says.
Sims had never been involved in music, but he knew several young men in Indy who dreamed of hip-hop glory. He now found himself in a position to help them.
"What I was trying to do was come home and get the local artists that were doing good here and plug them in with people who had already had some success," he says.
At first, he only managed, but he wanted to do more.
"We're in the middle of everything, but everybody always thought you had to go to Atlanta, or the East Coast, or the West Coast to get signed, to get heard," he explains.
Six years ago, with approval from his new assemblage of artists, including locally popular group, Nappyville, Sims started Munkiboi Entertainment (referred to in-house as MBE), a local label expressly devoted to hip-hop. He started with a closet-sized studio in the basement of his barbershop and a logo designed by one of his rappers.
Over the years, Sims has involved the whole MBE family in the very non-glamorous work of self-promotion.
"Munkiboi Entertainment, they get out here and they really grind. They represent themselves properly," Williams confirms. "Every time I go out of town to different music events, they're there."
It was the label's work ethic, modeled by Sims, that first convinced Hot 96 DJ Williams to get involved, using his connections with various music personalities to bring Sims and his crew closer to success.
"There's been times when I get off work at 10 o'clock and I'm on the road with them, because I believe in them," he says.
Stepping behind the mic
When you ask Sims about his recent artistic success, he is reduced to what would be a giggle were it not for the deep, husky quality of his voice.
"I never was a rapper. I was just a CEO," he says. What's more, he didn't really think the "On My Momma" single was anything to write home about.
MBE had just cut a record featuring national hip-hop star OJ da Juice Man, and Sims was pouring time and money into promoting that song.
"They were pushing the 'I Hustle' single, which was cool, but the record was just okay, even with a national artist on it," says Williams. To his trained ear, "On My Momma" had something different, something better. "It was simple, the beat was very catchy," he says. When DJ King snuck that single into Williams' mix, Williams called up Sims to tell him, 'This is it. This is the one."
At first, Sims wasn't convinced. But...
"The 'On My Momma' record took off on its own," he says. "The people chose it."
What does "On My Momma" mean?
"It's a Midwest saying," Sims explains. "It's like, 'I mean that, I mean what I'm saying.' It's equal to a promise."
More than 100 percent
With his single gaining national attention, Sims is a local celebrity, who gets stopped to take pictures or jump in on phone calls while picking up pizza. And of course, young men with backgrounds and ambitions similar to his own seek his wisdom.
"I've become the neighborhood Warren Buffett," he says. "These kids come up to me and ask me for advice." He says he tells them, "Give it more than 100 percent. There are kids everyday trying to do the same thing you're doing, and they're gonna give it their all."
Back at MBE, Sims has handed off his CEO duties to Moore, opting to focus more exclusively on his music.
"Rapping, for me, it's like I'm taking a deep breath... and exhaling," he says. It's a necessary cathartic experience, especially since he hasn't sold or handed off any of his other businesses.
"I gotta be Mr. Dan's. I gotta be G-Fresh. I gotta be No Limit Exclusive. I gotta be father, brother, cousin. All these different people I gotta be everyday," he says.
And he has a few more goals: to win a Grammy, mature as a businessman, get more education, and become a dentist (did we mention he's a part-time dental student?) in the next five years.
"I'll do whatever it takes to get there," he says. "If it means countless, sleepless nights, that's fine. I'll sleep after the success."
And he means that literally.
A real person
It's 1 a.m. at the westside club Cloud 9. The place is packed, the bar is busy, but the performances haven't started yet. MBE is hosting its second annual "Celebrity Bash," and they don't want to start without their slated emcees for the evening, the hosts of BET video show 106 & Park
, Terrence and Rocsi. (Sims is slated to make his national television debut Feb. 19 on 106 & Park
as a guest judge for a hip-hop talent competition.)
Backstage, amidst the dozen or so local rappers on the line-up, and their posses, and their posses' posses, Sims leans on a stool, posing for pictures with a giant cake shaped like the MBE logo, shaking hands and talking with everyone who approaches him.
G-Fresh dresses like a rap superstar (flat-brimmed hat, fur around the hood of his puffy coat, jeans secured tightly at bum-level), and later, he'll rap like a rap superstar (the kind of husky voice hip-hoppers start smoking to acquire); heck, he even drinks like a rap superstar (about 2 inches of Petron sit neatly in his plastic tumbler).
The one rap superstar characteristic he doesn't seem to have is ... narcissism. Everybody in the room noticeably gravitates toward him - like moths to a blinging flame - and his name is now heavy enough to pull a couple of national television stars to a club in Indianapolis in the middle of a snowstorm. Boasting tirelessly would be the customary response for a rapper, right?
But Sims isn't that kind of rapper. He hasn't declared himself master of the musical universe, or started an insult record back-and-forth with some other emcee. Instead, he carries his own bags. He doesn't need any big fanfare when he's beginning or ending a set. He lets his younger protégés hop on the mic when he performs and smiles like a proud papa as they show their stuff. And he'll still have a conversation with just about anybody who's interested.
"You can reach out and touch G-Fresh," he says. "You can talk to me. I'm a real person."
Later, when he's finally on stage, the crowd makes so much noise for 'On My Momma' that he relents and performs it twice. If the scene that night is any indication of the future, Jimmy "G-Fresh" Sims could be the first legitimate mainstream rapper than Indianapolis ever produces. He says there's no question.
"I'm gonna put Indiana on my back and take it there," he says. "Let's go."