Matthew Markoff is an enterprising sort.
The hip-hop impresario, who performs under the stage name M-Eighty, has built a one-man empire in the Circle City. He's released four solo albums. He heads up Artist and Repertoire for rapper Kurupt's Penagon Records. And he has his own company, Holy Toledo Productions, that's helped bring some of the genre's biggest names to town.
Over drinks at a Broad Ripple Mexican restaurant, Markoff pinpoints when he knew he could hustle. Third grade, age 9. His mom took him to Target to buy school supplies. He got a package of National Football League pencils for $3, then proceeded to sell each pencil at school for $1. It got to where his mom received phone calls from irate parents.
"From that moment I was like 'I'm gettin' it in'," Markoff says.
The burly 29-year-old rapper also gives some credit to the Indianapolis Colts for the start of Holy Toledo Productions. Back when the team played the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl, Markoff won an eBay auction for two tickets. Spending $3,000, he flipped them for $10,000 and used the profit to start the business, named after his former hometown.
Markoff has used that kind of gumption and savvy all along to get where he is now — an A&R representative for the star-studded The Academy compilation.
Set for release Sept. 13 on Penagon – with distribution handled by Fontana/Universal – the album features guest spots by more than 55 emcees. It's a who's who of the industry: Raekwon, Kurupt, Method Man, Redman, Jadakiss, Styles P, Royce da 5'9", Crooked I, Dilated Peoples, Pete Rock, Canibus, Chino XL, Sean Price and more. It's got a solid Indiana connection too, with appearances by Indianapolis artists Rusty Redenbacher, Alpha.Live, Jaecyn Bayne, Son One and M-Eighty himself.
The Academy, for Markoff, is "the most exciting record that I've had to date. I would say every album is amazing and better than the last, but this whole process was really exciting to me.
He served as A&R for the 2005 compilation Wu-Tang Meets the Indie Culture. A group of producers contacted Markoff wanting a sequel, but with more mainstream artists. Markoff gave them a list of people he regularly works with and they gave him a prospectus on who they'd like to work with. Markoff pitched the idea to Kurupt, who wanted to issue it on Penagon.
"There's definitely something for everyone, based on this hotbed of talent we put together on one disc," says Markoff, who explains that several hip-hop crews came together for this project, including Wu-Tang, D-Block, Slaughterhouse and the Gold Chain Military. "With the exception of one or two tracks, these are all pairings of people that have never had the opportunity to work together, doing tracks where they didn't just send each vocals over beats. They got together to build on themes. We worked on it for over a year, so it's very calculated."
Jaecyn Bayne, a Charleston, S.C., transplant, believes The Academy will be big for local rappers such as himself.
"Just on the strength of who's behind it and on it," he says while wearing a camouflage Yankees cap and drinking a soda. "It's something the hip-hop industry as a whole isn't really expecting but is anticipating. For it to come out of Indianapolis, that might be the thing to make the industry look and wonder what's going on in Indianapolis. I think it could be that big."
Markoff would like to see that happen too. Indianapolis isn't his birthplace, but he's adopted it as his hometown since moving here at age 13. Given the industry connections he's made, Markoff could've left and never looked back. Instead he'd rather stay and help build something special.
"Indianapolis hasn't necessarily reciprocated that love, but I've never let it deter me from continuing to build opportunities for myself and the artists I work with and my company," says Markoff, who credits locals like Derek Ziko, engineer at H2O Studios, and his intern David Keisman for helping him achieve what he's wanted.
As just another wannabe rapper in the early '00s, Markoff had the stones to introduce himself to some Wu-Tang Clan members, including Killah Priest, who were in town performing. He convinced them to let him on stage. That led to M-Eighty finishing the rest of their tour with them and some lasting friendships. But he wasn't just trying to meet elite players so he could brag about it later.
"For me it was about, I met him, now where do we go from here," Markoff says. "I made sure contact information was exchanged and offered whatever services I felt I could offer."
Markoff also earned his law degree amidst all this. He never took the bar, but his education has opened many doors in the music industry. Many artists have hired him to broker agreements, trusting his law background but also holding him in higher esteem because he has firsthand knowledge of the business.
After law school Markoff was set to take an A&R job with Def Jam in New York. While moving from San Francisco, he stopped in Indy to visit family. That's when he got a call from the label, learning there were massive layoffs and he no longer had a position there.
"I was thankful I was in a place where at least I had family," Markoff says. "I decided to set up shop here."
Aside from teaming with Live Nation to bring more hip-hop concerts to the city (Wiz Khalifa at The Lawn was one of his), Markoff is also ingratiating himself with artists from the local scene. He introduced Bayne to The Headhunters, the pioneering jazz-funk band now signed to Indianapolis jazz imprint Owl Studios. Bayne is now recording a rap album for the label, which he hopes to have done in the fall.
Much work remains on the home front. Markoff sees Indianapolis as a city hungry for hip-hop. The concerts he's helped bring to town have been well-attended. But the community needs to resolve some of its internal conflicts in order to grow, according to Markoff. Currently Bayne compares it to a high school cafeteria.
"We're all at different tables, and if you're not already at that table you can't sit there," he says. "I'm trying to sit at every table and be cool with everybody. We need more people to do that."
Markoff thinks Indianapolis can be as good a hip-hop market as any in the Midwest. There are some who are working to make it a contender. Others are only in it for themselves.
"When more people come around to the compassion side of what it takes to make a better image for the city, then everyone wins," Markoff says.
Hear: "Let's Go" (feat. Royce 5'9, Sean Price, K Solo & Bronze Nazareth) from The Academy
Hear: "Samaryda" (feat. Kurupt, Raekwon and Kojoe Samaryda) from The Academy