Daryll “DA” Atkinson (Grandvillain Productions)

Daryll “DA” Atkinson is an independent songwriter/artist out of Minneapolis, and he is also the founder of Grandvillain Productions.

Born and raised two hours west of Detroit, Michigan, in the city of Grand Rapids, Atkinson remembers his childhood as being a relatively normal one.

“I always thought it was pretty standard, but looking at the way kids grow up now, it was completely different,” Atkinson recalls.

“I would walk out my front door and there my friends were. We were a tightknit community.”

Kids today may not ride their bikes around the neighborhood, their handlebars swapped for the digital allure of iPads, but no matter which era a child belonged to, most can remember what kind of music funneled into their ears.

For Atkinson, there were many nights he tuned into MTV to watch Boy George and several other British-based performers, but he also found himself bumping Marvin Gaye and Teddy Pendergrass on his 8-track.

“My generation was heavily influenced by the music of my parents’ generation, which is also where hip-hop was born,” Atkinson says.

As a teenager, Atkinson’s first concert was a Run DMC and LL Cool J dual performance, but his favorite musician was Rakim, who is widely regarded as one of the most skilled and influential MCs of all time.  

“Rakim had a style that I really liked,” says Atkinson, who post-high school began writing music that he claims wasn’t very good, but that didn’t deter him from entering a rap contest in Indianapolis.

Much to the surprise of the soft-spoken Atkinson (but not his encouraging and supportive friends), he won the rap contest in Indianapolis.  

“At that moment is when I thought that maybe I had something on my hands, as far as a career,” Atkinson notes.

Following his triumph in Indianapolis, Atkinson began seeking out other aspiring musicians, but in the 200,000-person city of Grand Rapids, like-minded individuals were difficult to find.

“Where I’m from, we don’t know anybody. There are no famous people,” Atkinson says.

Therefore, Atkinson and his friend Lamont continued to produce music on their own, using what skills and resources they had to forge a path that would one day lead to bigger opportunities.

“And this was back in the struggle days, where you had to find money for studio time, and pay to have someone record and mix your stuff,” Atkinson explains.

To earn cash to rent out studio space, Atkinson worked at a couple different factories in the area.

He even took a third-shift job where the working hours were from 11 P.M. to 7 A.M.

“I would go in there and fall asleep on the toilet, so that job didn’t last too long,” Atkinson says with a chuckle, but before long he secured a position as a telemarketer, a job that not only paid better, but it also indirectly taught him the art of sales and promotion.

That being said, Atkinson still had to overcome some of the less-than-ideal conditions that many young men in Grand Rapids were exposed to, a reality that he was soon hoping to escape.

Fortunately, his sister had already left Grand Rapids and moved to Minneapolis, and for months she had been clamoring for him to join her in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

But that isn’t to say that Atkinson was thrilled about the prospect of trading one frigid locale for another.

“My first reaction was I did not want to go to Minnesota, because like a lot of people who aren’t from there, I had no idea what living there would entail,” he says.

Still, Atkinson learned that the telemarketing job he currently had, while challenging, ultimately wouldn’t afford him the financial success he yearned for, and with a child on the way, he packed his clothes and his dreams into a suitcase and headed to Minnesota in 1999.

“From there, I stayed and put some roots down, and that was that,” says Atkinson, who was drawn to living in a bigger market that would inherently generate more opportunities, both as a young professional, and as an artist.

“The moment I got to Minnesota, I started to seek out similar individuals.”

Soon, his sister‘s boyfriend linked Atkinson up with a few local musicians, providing the introduction that other undiscovered artists craved.

And then, the strangest thing happened.   

“I went into the studio and saw this guy who looked familiar, but in my head I said that he couldn’t be familiar because I’m in a different city,” Atkinson recounts, but after a brief conversation, Atkinson and the not-so-strange stranger learned that they were both from Grand Rapids.

“What’s crazy is that guy turned into my main producer,” Atkinson adds.

“That guy” that Atkinson is referring to was Flinch, who until his passing a few years ago was a well-known figure in the Twin Cities music scene.

In the ensuing years, Atkinson began working in the insurance industry, his days spent networking behind a desk while his nights were busied with recording sessions and endless rewrites of his upcoming songs.

That perpetual grind lasted for several years, and then in 2007, things changed.

“At that point, in some senses, the music started taking off,” says Atkinson, who had entered another music contest, this one a nationwide affair put on by B96, a once popular but now-defunct Twin Cities radio station.

“Long story short, I ended up beating 30,000 people.”  

With this grand achievement came $10,000 in prize money, but more importantly, the accomplishment also netted Atkinson a record deal with the SRC/Universal record label in New York.

For context, SRC/Universal is the same label that elevated the careers of Akon and the Wu-Tang Clan.

To an outsider, superstardom appeared imminent for Atkinson, but what many don’t know is that success in the music industry isn’t always that simple.

“The contract that I signed was nothing major. It was a standard 360 deal, and ultimately it didn’t end up panning out,” says Atkinson.  

This is because, perhaps surprisingly, SRC/Universal didn’t like enough of Atkinson’s music, and further complicating matters, the talent agent who had signed Atkinson had been terminated by the record label.

“I fell through the cracks, and then eventually I got out of the contract,” says Atkinson, who after the dissolution of the contract was given back the rights to his music.  

Many artists would have become withdrawn after such an unfortunate series of events, but Atkinson leveraged the momentum he had generated to start a band and land gigs around the Twin Cities.

Despite capitalizing on his success, eventually Atkinson began to tire of the grind, his music in many ways having evolved past the “hustle” stage of his career.

Moreover, his band routinely struggled to establish the long-term consistency that is necessary in order to thrive.   

“I could never keep a drummer or a bass player,” Atkinson mentions.  

“Our band was pretty good, but when you are missing some key pieces, it doesn’t matter how good everyone else is.”

His patience thinner than the cord connected to his microphone, Atkinson opted to dissolve the band.

“I quit music altogether and got back into work as a financial professional. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last ten years,” Atkinson shares.

Atkinson’s hiatus from music began in the early 2010s, and since then he has accumulated enough assets to finally feel stable.

Consequently, achieving financial Zen has allowed him to refocus on music, and he is now at the point in his career where outside affirmation isn’t driving him to pursue greatness.   

“At the beginning of my music career it was about becoming a superstar. It was about being famous and being a larger-than-life hip-hop figure, because I knew I could be,” he says.

“But now that I’m older, it’s not about being famous. I could care less about that. What I want now is a core fanbase that appreciates the kind of music that I play, and if I can earn a decent living doing what I love, as opposed to working for a company, I would much rather do that.”

Wise words from a seasoned musician who has experienced the euphoric triumphs and deflating setbacks that many others would not have stuck around long enough to endure, which is why today Atkinson encourages struggling artists of all demographics to be unwavering in the pursuit of their craft.

“Definitely don’t give up,” says Atkinson.  

“It’s easy to say that because life is hard, but the cliché is a cliché for a reason. If you need to take time off, that’s okay, but don’t lose your passion and desire for creating.” QS

**

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