Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Nima Etminan.
Nima is the COO of Empire Distribution Records and Publishing, an American distribution company and record label founded in 2008 by Gazi Shami and headquartered in San Francisco, California. He started as a writer contributor in DubCNN, a website for west coast music, in his teenage years. Nima has since interviewed popular and rising hip hop artists. Nima has also produced numerous albums for acclaimed musicians, including 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and many more.
Today, we’re covering interesting topics, mostly about the hip-hop music industry, changes in music streaming over the years, the decline of piracy, the pain of losing artists to crime and violence, and showing up every day to pursue the thing you’re most passionate about.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Nima is the COO of Empire Distribution Records and Publishing, an American distribution company and record label founded in 2008 by Gazi Shami and headquartered in San Francisco, California. In his teenage years, he started as a writer contributor in DubCNN, a website for west coast music. In his teenage year Nima was interviewing popular and rising hip-hop artists. He has also produced groundbreaking album records for acclaimed musicians, including 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and many more.
After finishing his Master’s degree in Media Management Program in Hamburg Media School, Germany, he moved to the US and learned the ins and outs of the US music industry.
I highly recommend listening to the entire episode because we cover interesting topics, not only about the hip-hop music industry, changes in music streaming over the years, the decline of piracy, but also about showing up every day to pursue the thing you’re most passionate about.
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Pierre Lambert: Good morning podcast, and welcome to the Pierre T. Lambert Show. I hope you're having a beautiful day and that you're ready for another episode. Today, we've got a special guest, actually very special because we actually met when we were maybe three years old in kindergarten in Germany. The story is fascinating. My guest today is Nima Etminan. And Nima is an incredible character because, knowing him from when we were four until now, and there's been such a crazy story. Currently, Nima Etminan is the COO of Empire Distribution Records and Publishing, an American distribution company and record label founded in 2008 by Gazi Shami and headquartered in San Francisco, California. Empire is predominantly focused on hip-hop music and has helped release the music of notorious artists like Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, XXXTentacion, Young Dolph, Olamide, and many more. I'm sure you've heard of some of those tracks. Nima arrived in San Francisco 10 years ago from Germany after interviewing and writing about West Coast rap music since his teenage years. We'll talk about it in a few seconds and how he got there because when you're a kid, you never imagine seeing one of your buddies on a photo with Snoop Dogg. And the day that happens, you're like, wait, what did I miss here? What happened? And so Nima, welcome to the podcast.
Nima Etminan: Thank you. You also don't expect to see your childhood friend with 200,000 Instagram followers because of the pictures that he takes. Yeah. It's definitely impressive on both sides.
Pierre Lambert: That's the best thing I love about life is when you're that young, you have no clue what's going to happen. I want it to be a garbage man truck when I was a kid.
Nima Etminan: What happened?
Pierre Lambert: I don't know. I think I got lost on the track.
Nima Etminan: That's funny. Yeah, but there was a big gap up of how long we didn't see each other either. Like we saw each other when we were kids in kindergarten and early in school. And then we didn't see each other until we both had left Europe, right? And then we reconnected.
Pierre Lambert: The last time we met in Germany was probably 10 or 11. Yeah. Something between eight and 11. And then the next time was maybe 27, 28. I came to San Francisco, and that's when we met.
Nima Etminan: Yeah. And when I had moved there maybe a year before or something; we were still in our first office. I remember.
Pierre Lambert: And I remember I was like, wait, what are you doing? Exactly. So you're going to tell us a story because I think it needs a lot of contexts. One day I'm meeting one of our other childhood friends, and he's like, oh, have you heard what Nima is doing? I'm like, no, what's happening with Nima. And he's like because we're talking about everyone we know, and he's telling me about that person, and everyone was fairly traditional in a way. And two people came up; you and another friend, Sebastian. Sebastian is that famous entrepreneur in tech who had an exit is like a millionaire. Like in that tech space, he is in the Bay. I'm like, wow, that's crazy. But it wasn't too crazy because it felt natural for him to go in that direction in a way in the computer space. But then we're like Nima. And I remember you as a kid who loved literature, who loved so many different topics in life. I was playing with Legos, and you were reading some really interesting newspapers at the time.
Nima Etminan: I was a nerd. I was a nerd for sure—still a nerd.
Pierre Lambert: And then my friend's like, yeah, I've seen Nima in photos with Snoop Dogg. And I think he's doing something with rap, and I don't know exactly. I'm like, wait, what? Okay. And that triggered. I was like, oh my God, I'm on my weird journey. I absolutely need to connect with Nima whenever possible. And that happened a few years after Nima; what happened between us being kids in Germany, in the French school? And you are working with the top rap artists in this world?
Nima Etminan: I guess life happened. I always tended to dive deep into topics that I was interested in when I was a kid. The earliest things that I remember being really into were dinosaurs were the world cup and the Olympics, and things like that. And I always found myself diving deep into those topics and being interested in history, numbers, and statistics. I like playing with dinosaurs, but I also knew everything about them from which dinosaur, where, when they lived, how long ago they became instinct, which one ate, who was a predator, and a carnivore. I dove deep into those things. And I think I grew up having a wide range of interests. And my parents had me doing a lot of different activities. I played piano and drums. I played some sports. You know, I was really into video games. I always liked to read about it. I always like to know everything about it. And the first thing I wanted was to be an archeologist and go find dinosaur bones that's the first thing I remember I wanted to do. After that, it was always something with computers, but I didn't know what. Once the internet became more accessible, and I somehow fell into this passion of finding music, reading about music, and specifically rap music, I think I somehow had tunnel vision. And a lot of other things in my life became less important, and I just really dove into it. And I haven't really stopped or slowed down since I was 13 or 14 when I started to develop an interest in it. And I came in when the whole music industry was in a huge shift period. The internet was becoming a thing, music downloading and became the thing, file-sharing services, music blogs with social media then came and then obviously streaming and everything. So the entire industry was flipped upside down. And I felt like I was exactly that generation that caught the tail end of the traditional world and then entered this new world as we know it now. And in between, there were ten years where the music industry was in shambles. Piracy was at an all-time high, and streaming wasn't a thing yet. And it is hard to make money with music. You had a whole generation that grew up accustomed to music, just being this free thing that you download on the internet and don't have to be paid for. And I think when things change, it often allows for new things to happen and develop. And I think a combination of hard work, maybe some right place, right time, maybe some luck, and perseverance. My path somehow led me to be in here. Now I've been in San Francisco for 11 years. Yeah. I mean, I think that's a very, very short version of what happened between now and then.
Pierre Lambert: That's awesome. There are a few things that stood out to me in the story. The first one is during that shift; I remember specifically what you're talking about the piracy, everything we all had, Napster and then Limewire or whatever. I still have libraries of music from back in the days, and it's true that it wasn't organized. It was free for all. Or we're trying to find ways to get the music; why that jar of music at that age. Do you remember specifically what got you to move towards more rap? Especially because I remember we're in Germany at least, and even in France, the rap was very different from what I would hear here in the US, you know, the US rap. And I feel like German rap or like French rap was, I don't know. It felt different to me when I would listen to it. One felt cooler than the other; I don't know if it's the language. So I was always curious, like you being passionate about archeology and all those things, how did rap enter even the picture?
Nima Etminan: You know, I still don't know if I have a real answer to that. I've thought about it a lot. Something that's come up in conversations, and I don't know. It doesn't make sense. I'm a child of Persian parents born in Iran, grew up in Germany. You went to an all-French school, no relation to African American culture, no relationship, rap music, none of that. And for me, that has made that center of my life and doing this. I don't know if I have an exact answer for that. I have to have my first experiences with rap, probably from older cousins and friends in school who had like maybe CDs. But I think a lot of it was the fascination with what seemed a little forbidden, the cursing, the controversy, and the provocativeness of it. I didn't understand too much English at the time, but I understood “Fuck bitch shit.” And I was always a good kid, and I don't know what it was, but I was always fascinated with it very early on. Like I watched music videos on TV for hours, and back in the day, it wasn't YouTube. So you couldn't take what you wanted to watch and turn it on MTV. And over the next hour or two, you're going to see anything from pop to rock to rap to everything was mixed, right? It was just popular videos playing. And so obviously, I was also part of the generation that grew up with Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, and then also at the rock phase, the Linkin Park, the Limp Bizkit, all of that. So I feel like, in school, you had different cliques. You had the angry German kids who like Marilyn Manson and Korn and stuff. And our school was a French school in Germany, which made a big difference because we were such a melting pot of cultures, so many different nationalities, like the Germans, one of the minority, sometimes the French, you had all these different influences and cultures together. And when Tupac died in 1996, I was nine years old. And I remember we were coming back from a family trip, and I saw the news about it in the newspaper, and my uncle, who was probably in his late teen at that time, had the greatest hits CD that came out after with a burnt disc. We're able to buy empty discs and burn CDs, which is how I made most of my side money in high school later with burning movies and CDs for people and stuff like that. I remember that CD and just listening to it, and I didn't necessarily know what he was saying, but I was just really fascinated by him. I would go to the CD stores and find more things like it. I don't think I had too much access to anything. Cause at that time in Germany, what did you have? You had a CD store. I was too young to go to a concert; I didn't have that much. I think it wasn't until I started using the internet myself and found all these message boards on the internet, where I had other kids from around the world who were talking about the same stuff. And that's where I got hung up on it. I found these communities on the internet with kids who talk about rap music, but in such an in-depth way where everything from the culture and the background is just way deeper than the surface level of listening to music. I started collecting music and downloading, and trying to complete my library. Internet used to be dial-up, and you pay per minute, but then this new feature came from an internet service provider where for a few dollars or a few euros, or maybe marks even at the time extra, you could get the Sunday flat rate. From Saturday midnight to Sunday midnight, you had flat rate internet. I would be ready at midnight. I would go on Limewire, Bearshare, whatever it was, and start downloading for 24 hours. And then I would listen to the stuff all week. And it was just fun. I had to teach myself how to code basic HTML, but I had a website with a list of rare songs because you would like to find stuff that was hard to find and create on the internet. There are all these communities, which still happens now; it's just on discord and other platforms where people trade songs. And then I became up obsessed with collecting CDs. I wanted to own the physical CDs, and it was hard to find in Germany cause you had expensive import stores, but a lot of times, it was just the big stuff you would find. Then I just became obsessed with all this underground stuff that was so obscure that no one ever even heard of it out there, but I don't know if it just became something that I did. And there was this message board that I became a part of. It was about West Coast rap music, but most of the kids on it were from all over the world. And that became a moderator. This is how nerd I was that I became a moderator on the message board. And then after Eminem blew around 1999 or 2000, I was like 13. We all thought that we were too cool for that because all these new kids who listened to Eminem were, like, flooding the message boards now. And a couple of us separated. One of the guys in the UK, him, and another guy who knew how to code had the idea of creating a news website attached to the message board where they would write about music and things like that. And it was like a new message board that came not for the kids; we're like 13. And at the time, as I said, I was way younger, but I wrote a lot, and I started right and all of this in English, which was also weird because English was my fourth language, but I always had this weird obsession with English. I remember being a little kid and playing with my action figures and dinosaurs. And I would make up a language in my head that was founded like American, English, and it was always with America, the UK accent. In school, in English class, our teachers in Germany all had British accents. I refused to respond in a British accent because I wanted to speak with an American accent. And I was writing my diary in English when I was 14. It doesn't make any sense because I'm a kid of Persian parents. I spoke Persian to my dad, French to my mom. We lived in Germany, but I wanted everything to be in English. Like I was the first kid that wanted to watch movies and original language with subtitles. And my friends would be like, what is a subtitle? Just watch it in German. I was like, no, this is not how it's supposed to sound. And I was writing reviews of albums and articles about albums that were coming out and stuff. So when they were going to launch this news website, they asked me if I wanted to be a part of it and be one of the editors of writers and stuff like that. And that's what ended up becoming DubCNN at the time. That became what I did for years all through high school. I spent most of my nights writing about music, and this was before social media existed. So this is before Web 2.0. We started in September of 2002; there was no MySpace, Facebook, or YouTube yet. There were no platforms for artists to themselves to communicate to the world. And there was no such thing as just putting music out on the internet; you have to have fiber, you could upload a link, and people could download from that link. But if more than ten people hit the link, it would get overloaded. It was a very different time. But music websites were a much more important part of the news cycle because there was no other way to get the news out there. There were magazines and TV, but all that stuff was slow, right? It took a long time to get something out there. And that's how we grew up, you know, bought a magazine once a month, and you waited until the first of the next month to see what this article was. It is so absurd now with this instant gratification culture that we live in. But I don't think we realized any of this when we were just kids doing what we were doing. The guys in the UK that originally had the idea for the website started contacting all these other label websites and music web blogs that didn't exist yet, all these other pages to let them know that there's a new music website for west coast music called DubCNN. We started getting on these mailing lists. A few months after the website started, not even a few months, a month and a half after the website started, I got an email from Interscope Records, a sub-label of Universal, one of the biggest labels. And they said that they were developing a new artist named 50 Cent. And whether I wanted to do an interview and I already knew all about them because, as I said, I already knew that Dr. Dre and Eminem signed him, I was really excited because I already knew all this stuff, and I would love to interview him. Mind you, literally; I'm turning 15, my voice is still a little crackling. I don't even sound like a man yet. I have an accent when I speak. And they probably thought I was a journalist who wanted to do this interview; they were the founders. And I remember the first interview with 50 Cent, but we would do it when we do interviews. I would go on our message boards. And I would say, “Hey, I'm going to be talking to such and such. What are some things you guys want to know?” And the message board had maybe a couple of thousand members or something. And they all would send stuff that I should ask. And that's how I would construct my interview. And this was when calling international, like the US you can't call in Europe casually. And for me to call the US, I had to buy these data packages to call and have a computer mic. I would take the house phone to my mom. I would put it on speaker. I would put the computer mic in a coffee mug, have a mic, like hang above the phone. And then I would lean over, and I would connect the mic would be connected to the little audio recording thing on the computer. And I would hit the record, and I would do the interview. And then I would spend an hour transcribing it. I would transcribe everything, which nowadays is also not a thing anymore because people listen to audio and video, and I'd transcribe everything. I would've two-hour conversations where I would type out every single word. And then, we would put up these interviews, and one of the first was 50 Cent. And that was right before he blew up. And then when he blew up on his website, 50cent.com, the first thing on the website was the interview that I did. And from there, it just slowly continued getting more and more contact with artists I interviewed. But because I was such a fan, I think that's how I built a lot of these relationships because I had adrenaline when I would get on the phone with somebody I know so much. The way that I would talk to them usually led to the relationship staying after they gave me their number, or I think I was just so excited to be able to peek into this world or get access to, mind you, I had never been to the US before and stuff. When all of this started, and from there, I figured this was all I wanted to do. I went out if I was going to be a writer, I didn't know what it was going to be, but I knew I wanted to do something in music. I was still in school. Obviously, school started to fail, and I almost didn't finish high school. I failed my high school finals. And I had to go through the catch-up exam. I barely finished because I was spending most of my night doing interviews and writing; I was just in a different headspace from a different world. And the website started to get bigger, and we started to access more stuff. But I was still a kid, and I think I always knew Snoop Dogg was somebody to me. Like he was the pinnacle, right? So our generation knew he was the coolest guy in the world. And I never even thought that it would be possible for me to build a relationship with him. But I was just excited about it; I wanted to interview his DJ. I wanted to interview his backup dancer. I wanted to just talk to different people involved. And I remember I was in Montreal. I visited my aunt when I was 14, and he had a concert there; he and 50 Cent were on tour together. And I didn't know anyone like that yet, but I knew what hotel they were going to be. I don't know how I find that out. Somebody, somebody knew it all hotel that was going to be at. And I just went and just sat at the hotel until the tour bus came back and ended up talking to Snoop's DJ, who happened to know the website had already taken some pictures with him. I met Snoop's brother. I met Terrace Martin there, who was one of his saxophone players at the time who now is one of the biggest producers and has done stuff for everyone from Kendrick to a lot of other people but ended up doing that. And then I think we took a picture with Snoop Dogg, but I didn't talk to him or anything like that. It was just like, “Okay, he's there.” And then I think for them, it was also weird to see this kid from Germany who all of this stuff and we fell into it or whatever, but when Snoop had a concert in Cologne, Germany in 2005. And I think he had two concerts, one in Amsterdam and one in Cologne; I went to both, which is 2005, I was 17. And two of the other guys from DubCNN, one is from Switzerland, and one was from Sweden. As I said, we were all from random places. We met up in Amsterdam, went to the Amsterdam show that took the train, went to Cologne. And at the time, the website was starting to get a little bit bigger, and we were getting bigger interviews and things like that. But I knew Daz, who, with Snoop's cousin who was one of the guys from the group, The Dogg Pound, was always on tour with Snoop. He had been with Snoop since Snoop started. He had gotten me tickets to the show in Cologne, but he wasn't on that tour. But he had connected me with Snoop's manager. Snoop's manager didn't know who I was or anything like that. But at the concert, I had my camcorder with me because I used to film everything, and I would film anywhere I went. I have my camcorder with me.
Pierre Lambert: That's the first vlog.
Nima Etminan: I mean, vlog wasn't even a thing yet.
Pierre Lambert: I know that's like before.
Nima Etminan: Yeah. I just wanted it for myself, and we're at this show, and I'm filming from the balcony, and all of a sudden, there was this big hand of a security guy. And he's like, you're not allowed to film in here. He took my camera, walked away, and I was like, I'm losing my camera. Oh my God. What's going to happen? I followed him because I needed my camera back. And we're in this hallway and Snoop's managers there. I didn't know this was Snoop's manager at the time with a Korean guy named Ted Chung, who I'm good friends with now. But he was like, what are you doing? He was like, you're not allowed to film the concert. This was before everybody had a cell phone camera. Everybody was sending anything anyway like it was you weren't allowed to just film like that at a concert. And I was like, I'm really sorry, blah, blah, blah. He was cool about it or whatever. And then after, Hey, I wanted to interview Soopafly. Soopafly was Snoop's hypeman. He was the guy that was, you know, how rappers are on stage. And then another guy on stage says some of the words and stuff like that. He was a hypeman, but he also made music, and I knew everything about him, but no one in Europe knew who was Soopafly. No one ever asked to interview, Soopafly like that. And he was like, you want to interview Soopafly? Okay, meet me here after the show. I was like, wow, I'm going to interview Soopafly. And we prepared like these questions in our heads and stuff. And we go interview with Soopafly. And then, as we're like walking in the hallway, this is after the concert, Snoop walks by us. I just said Snoop is in DubCNN. The manager already looked at me like shutting them up like a little kid, and Snoop replied to me and said, “You come back.” And he said, “DubCNN my cousin, Daz always talked about you guys meet me in my green room in 10 minutes.” And the manager was like, huh? He was confused too. But this is one of those moments where it's just so many things coming together. I don't have my camera there. If I didn't go to both shows and have my camera and then get caught and ask to interview the other guy. And then, to me, that's a very good example of how life works; you can't pre-plan these things; you do have to do stuff. And sometimes it happens, right? So they put us in this like other room for 10 minutes. So we prepare for this interview, we put the interview on YouTube; I'll send you the link. But we prepare for this interview for 10 minutes on what to ask him. And mind you, I'm so nervous. Like I'm about to talk to Snoop Dogg for the first time. And then we go into the room, and we did this 10-minute interview, and we put it out, and I remember walking out of the venue, and three of us just started hugging each other and jumping up and down like what just happened? And then put that interview out. And then, from there, I didn't have his contact. So there was just one interview. But I knew at this point that he knew what DubCNN was and this and that. When the Snoop Dogg interview came out, and stuff like I would do ten interviews a month, every other day. And it was consistent. The website at one point had like 30 – 40,000 unique visitors a day, and it was getting big. And at the time, I didn't realize why it was working now. I understand it because if we had just been a regular hip-hop website, it never would've worked because of many of those. But we focused on a niche that we were interested in, which happened to be west coast rap music, for whatever reason. I still don't know why we did that, but west coast rap music was not mainstream and not the popular stuff at the time. But to me, those were my superstars and my heroes. And there were a lot of fans and a big lot of people that were still really into that. We provided without realizing it as an outlet for many artists that were getting ignored by mainstream media. And we treated them as a superstar. And when I was 16, I finished high school, like I said, barely. But when I was younger, I was a smart little kid.
Pierre Lambert: So this is interesting. We left the path because we were in the same class, and you skipped a class. I just stayed on the normal path. So you skipped one or two.
Nima Etminan: I went from second grade to fourth grade. So I never did third grade. And in France, the school was 12 years, and Germany was 13, but our system was French. So it was 12 school years. And we started school like six, which Germany started at seven. So we started school earlier and school was shorter, and I skipped third grade. So I finished high school back when I was still 16 years old. And to this day, when my mom and I talk about it, she doesn't understand how she ever allowed me to go. But after high school, I finished my back and my diploma and me, and then my friend Yash from Sweden, he was 24, and I was 17. We flew to LA, and he stayed for three weeks, and I stayed two months. First, we went there, and we had booked our hotel online, even before you had Yelp and Trip Advisor and stuff like that. And I saw that there was a hotel on Hollywood Boulevard. Mind you; if you don't know, you think that Hollywood Boulevard is like, it's a beautiful place because it's called Hollywood. You don't know that Hollywood is like a dirty part of town. And I was like, Motel 6 is cheap at 40 bucks. I didn't know that motel is the lowest that you can go as far as motels and stuff.
Pierre Lambert: I've had the same experience as you would in motels.
Nima Etminan: Yeah. We stayed in the Motel 6 on Hollywood Boulevard, took the first three weeks, and had our first experiences in LA going to different studios, starting to meet up with a lot of the underground artists that we knew from doing interviews and stuff. But no one is too famous yet. To me, it was all of a sudden being in the middle of your favorite action movie or something like that. Like all these places that I had listened to music for so long, all these streets, restaurant names, like I knew a lot of the places and stuff, even though I'd never been there. Everything was somehow related to the music. Like I knew the first Snoop Dogg music video where he was dancing on top of the VIP record store and Long Beach. I was like, I want to go to the VIP record store and see that place and the street names. And when I think back at it, it was very dangerous for us to just go out there and do that. But when you're that young, it comes with a certain naivety that allows you even to do that. And then I ended up sleeping on couches of rappers that I knew there, and I stayed with this guy, Frank Nitty, and then the artist Badass. And they just let me stay with them and took me everywhere with them and took care of me. And I didn't have any money left like that somehow just took me in. They were like, yeah, this is Nima Etminan from DubCNN; they saw value in me because I didn't realize how much of the value I was either. I was a kid. I was like, oh my God, these guys are like my heroes or something like that. And now I like hanging out with them and stuff. But together with also like, yo, the guy that has all this was because of his website. He's like our friend, I was out there, and I went back home, and all I wanted to do was just go back. And my mom was like, no way. Well, you have to go to university, you have to get a degree. You can go to America whenever you have free time, but you have to get a degree. So that's how I ended up not leaving right away. I stayed, and because my high school diploma was so bad in Germany to get into university, depending on your grades and stuff like that to get into the courses you want. The only thing I got accepted in was French literature studies. So I did my bachelor's for three years in French and American literature study. Now you said, I used to like to read, but by the time I was that age, I was very far from what I wanted to do, but I knew I could do it because I was a native French speaker, and it was doable. I was in school, getting my back by day and then running DubCNN and the rest of the time and doing that and waiting. And then I knew that there was a master's program at a private university called Hamburg Media School that I would start saving up for. And that was a media management program with music in it, and it was a Master's. So I was like, okay, cool. I did three years of literature with the goal of doing that in mind. And ironically, the year that I started at that media school, they removed music from their program because they said you couldn't teach how to make money from music anymore because the music industry is in shambles. So I did two years of Master's program in media management about everything except music. I still wrote my music thesis, everything that I did on my own about music. But honestly, I did five years had nothing to do with anything that I wanted, but I appreciate the discipline it gave me and the accountability and learning how to work in groups. And I think you still gain a lot from it, but not the actual subjects and stuff like that. But at that point, I still hadn't built an independent relationship with Snoop yet. But one day, I had gotten an email forwarded from someone that I knew, and it was a forwarded email where you could see everyone's emails were listed; they're like BCC. They CC'd everyone. I saw an email address, and it was [email protected] And I was like; Broadus is Snoop's last name, Calvin is his first name. [email protected], Maybe that Snoop Dogg's email because T at the time was a sidekick email that went to your phone. It was before texting became a thing like that. And I was like; this might be Snoop Dogg's email because it was so random. So I just sent an email to that email and said, “Hey, it's Nima.” I just introduced myself again. And he responded within two minutes and said, “Call me” with a phone number. I'm still not fully sure if it's him or not, but it just felt real. So I got all my recording stuff ready, my little mic and the coffee and other stuff. And then I called the number, and then Snoop answered, and we talked for over two hours, and that conversation, in a way, was also podcasting before podcasting because it was just a conversation that I cut up into pieces and put out. I think the reason why my interviews became popular is because I wasn't a journalist. I just had conversations that made sense to fans and things fans wanted to know. So I talked to him for two hours, and from there on, I had his number, and we kept in contact, and he continued to do interviews with me. When I finally moved to the US, she wanted to move to the US. She agreed to sign off on a recommendation letter to the US embassy to get my green card. And later even ended up signing to Empire. And we put out two, three of his albums. So that's how everything came full circle. And he's been a constant figure of encouragement in my life, like for as famous as he is. And for as long as he's been famous, he's extremely down to earth and just has like appreciation for me that I don't understand why or where it came from. But it's just like when my dad came to visit a few years ago, I took my dad into his studio, and he hung out with my dad and was telling my dad how my dad should be proud of me and how he saw me like come up from being a little kid to doing this stuff. And a few weeks back, when we lost one of our artists, Young Dolph, Snoop FaceTimed me that night. And it was the night that his new album was coming out. And I thought he wanted to talk about an album with somebody. He FaceTime me, just talk about what happened and give his condolences, and I'm quoting him. And he said, “I brag about you all the time, Nima. I tell people, “I'm proud of you.” It's a complete mind fuck to have this guy's posters on your wall and find his CDs and dream about what it could be like one day to maybe talk to him or what you would say to him to now hearing him say that he brags about me. That's my favorite story of my life. Probably like just everything about it. You know what I mean, I'm very proud of that. I'm very humbled by it. I have no idea what the original question was, but now we're here.
Pierre Lambert: It's beautiful. You mentioned something so, so crucial. And for anyone listening, I hope anyone gets that. It's really that aspect of your into something. And you're just showing up. You don't necessarily know you don't have a different plan. You don't know if it's going to work, but you're like the chances are, I feel like it sounds like the risk of not trying doesn't make sense. It's like, why wouldn't I stay in front of that hotel? There is a chance that something happened. I have to take it.
Nima Etminan: I never did any of it with the intention that it was gonna make money or anything like that. It was just honestly very pure. And I think a lot of it was because of how young I was. Because as an adult, you might not do a lot of those things, but because I was so young, I don't know. I think there's something a little more endearing about somebody young doing that than like 40-year-old stalking you. But I honestly say, and I say this anytime I talk to kids, anytime I talk to students, anytime somebody asks me for any advice or asks me about my path. I always say I didn't give any advice. Its consistency and showing up wins half the battle. It Is a very real thing because if you continuously do something, you not only get better at it, but other people fall off from it. So you automatically get ahead just by showing up. And if you really find something that you like, just continuously do something in it. I mean, photography, I don't know if you would say the same thing about photography, but if you do something over and over and over again, chances are you're going to get further in it, and you're going to become better at it.
Pierre Lambert: For sure. A hundred percent the same. And I also have a few stories like that where you go somewhere, and you're like, I have no clue if it's going to work or you go in one evening that make zero sense. But that one thing brings out either a connection or something, and you were not planning for it. You're just trying to be like; this sounds like a fun thing to do because I'm so into that thing. It just sounds great. And yeah, you're right. It's showing up is half of the battle. I'm so curious before we dive into this age and what's happening with Empire and how you guys changed things. Or at least I wanna understand how in detail was, the website making money when you were like 16 or 17, and how did your parents react to that?
Nima Etminan: It all happened when they were very turbulent at home, and it was in the middle of my parents' two-year separation, divorce, drama, and battle. I don't remember a lot of those times because I feel like my brain blurted out. But yeah, I feel like they watched it all happen. And I don't know to what extent they took it seriously or not. I don't think they loved that their son had an obsession with music that had so many topics of cursing, half-naked women, and violence. I remember my grandma one time; my room was plastered with posters of rappers, my entire room, every piece, every centimeter of the wall full of rappers, and my grandma one time looked around how come everyone on your wall is Black and why do they all look like they're upset? She didn't even mean it racially. But you come as a Persian grandma; you come to Germany to visit your grandchild. And that's a legitimate question to ask. I think certain moments happened where they were like, “Oh wow, this is real.” I mean, one of them can be some money. Like I started selling advertising on the website and the first time that a couple of thousand dollars for a banner. Because at the time, to do the wire transfer, I had to ask them for all that. I didn't know how to do that stuff. And I made up how much I was charging. Some label would contact us and say that we want to run advertising on your website. Can you send us your rate card? I didn't have a rate card. We just made it up. I tried out numbers and saw, would did they go with? I would say if I said $500 and they were like, no problem. That is my head; I was like, next time, I can probably say a thousand until you find the sweet spot; maybe I wasn't charging enough. Maybe I was charging too much. In 2007, I got an email from Snoop's label at the time, and they said it was coming out, and he wants to make sure that we advertise on your website, and we want to do a take over for three months. And they said, how much will that be? And I'm like, holy shit. This is the biggest label at the time that had contacted me. And it was for Snoop. I had no idea what to ask. So I said $20,000, and they were like, we only have 11. I said, okay, I'll take 11. I got $11,000 at once. I was not even 18. I had never had a job, but all that money went towards my Master's program. I have to say, looking back, I was still always the same, good kid that I grew up—even though I like dabbled in the world that dealt with a lot of other stuff for me. Yeah. It wasn't like, oh, now would do this, do that go party or whatever. Like, no, it's like, oh yeah, that's good. Now I could probably pay for school. And the website allowed me not to have to get a job. Like when everybody else started bartending or working at a retail store or something, I've never had a job. I've only had my website, and now Empire, I've now all I've ever done. I've never been in a job in my whole life.
Pierre Lambert: You should try. It's very fun.
Nima Etminan: So my parents, I think they were always supportive of the music aspects. They always were supportive of arts and music and stuff. I think the first time Snoop Dogg called the house and like my mom answered or something. And then I told her who it was and I showed her the picture, and she was like, what is my son doing there all day? These people are called here. Overall, I have to say that they could have been a lot less support for the situation. I'm very grateful for the support they were able to give me.
Pierre Lambert: That's beautiful because the parents, I imagine in the way, the fact that they were deep into their interrelationship, during those years also allows to, I mean, I see it, we have a daughter, if we are like fighting or just arguing or discussing or thinking about our shit together as a couple, then there's more space for the kid to be in a way on their own, with fewer eyes on it. And it's not in a bad way. It's just how life works. So I imagine that kind of plays an interesting role in the whole story and that you also have that support. And I imagine like showing up for something, and it's not like you are smoking weed and doing nothing at all. Like your parent see, money comes in. So I imagine as a parent, that must be a little easier, even though you probably understand nothing. I remember listening to 50 Cents in the car with my dad, like so many times. And I think until when I was really with Trina and I re-listened to those tracks, I never really heard the lyrics. I heard them; I never listened. I'm like, oh my God if this had been in French in the car, my parents would've gone crazy. Like, why are you listening to this? This is terrible or whatever. And so that's fascinating. And how was your experience of actually, because the rap word is very different, something you mentioned way earlier with MTV and the music videos, something fascinating about the rap? I don't know for you. But I always felt that there was more storytelling in those kinds of music videos than in, let's say, a pop song or something that seemed more like surface level.
Nima Etminan: Rap music has always been social commentary, whether it's social commentary, that's positive, negative, whatever it is. It's social commentary; rap music is spoken word that's put over beats that talk about life experiences and things that people go through or experience or talk about or whatever it is. It's not manufactured like pop music and a lot of other genres that are more manufactured in that sense. Rap music is more similar to certain rock and metal bands back in the day where it had certain emotions and anger, but rap has always been very political since the beginning. It had a lot of different aspects to it. I think that was always popular in the mainstream. Sometimes the stuff is more centered around bitches, guns, whatever because people just are drawn to that. Humans have always been drawn to controversial stuff. People are always like mafia, movies, action movies. We love the bad guy. We love to see stuff that's always been exciting for human beings. Do you know what I mean? And I think rap music is about guns and gangs and drugs and stuff that can get you killed or put in jail. If you can talk about it and make it sound good over music, it can make you rich. And I think when you had artists coming out like N.W.A first coming out with Fuck Da Police, no one had ever said something like that on the song before. Now we're desensitized. Now everything's been said. We've seen everything. There's nothing that can shock you anymore. Do you know what I mean?
Pierre Lambert: Do you remember the French one, Nique La Police? I remember it was like a huge drama. Oh my God, my whole family, like everyone in the circles, were like, oh my God, this is so shocking.
Nima Etminan: Yeah. Now, with the internet, we feel that we were so desensitized because everything is out there, but like me as a kid, wow. They'll fuck the police. I was always drawn to the counterculture. I was always drawn to people that went against the grain. I was always drawn to people that questioned the status quo. I was always drawn to the underdog. I was always drawn to the underprivileged people and learning about the imbalance and the world. And I was like 13, 14, fascinated by pimp culture and trying to understand pimping and being a prostitute, like the concept behind it. Why and how it was always interesting because one of the swear words and farce is translated directly, it means pimp. And it is considered a very low form of life, like very bad. Then at the same time, you had the word “pimp” that when you were young became this cool thing, “pimp, my ride.” Pimp became like this cool dude. Because let all these girls around him while you were like, you got a lot of girls, were pimp. So I always was fascinated by this stuff. I read books about all this kind of stuff when I was in school, literature studies that my presentation was about Monster Kody's book, a very famous gangster from the Crips gang who was in jail for years and wrote a book about it and stuff. And I remember reading a book by Iceberg Slim called Pimp, probably it's a very famous book. It's an excellent book about this very famous Black pimp from the '60s, '70s, and stuff like that. So why exactly? I found my passion and fascination in that I don't know, but I know that it goes hand in hand with the idea of counterculture here and trying to call out a lot of wrong things in society. But at the same time, that music is also fun. Seeing half-naked girls dancing, it's not my world, but it attracted me for sure. And just the smoking weed, anybody who says that snooping that whole generation didn't influence a lot of us who smoke weed is lying because they made that look so cool.
Pierre Lambert: Oh my God. I never got to weed personally until I was like, maybe 18, 19. That was just a joint, and that was it. I was never attracted to it, not just because of where I was, but I remember Dr. Green Thumb and the videos and everything. And I had a friend who was one of my best friends was growing, and it started blowing up in his garage. And his mom's like, what are you doing? Like it smells so strong. And it was fascinating. And he was also really into that US rap culture, US music. So being against that counterculture, do you think that's also drove you to Empire, and what happened? Maybe you can just speak about what Empire is and how it's different from maybe what exists until now.
Nima Etminan: Empire is Gazi's brainchild. Gazi is the founder and CEO of the company. And my mentor, probably one of the closest people in my life. He grew up in San Francisco; both always had a heavy tech influence from the Silicon Valley and a lot of independent influences in music. Being from San Francisco, it's already a little bit different from most music industries centered around LA, New York. The Bay Area used to have a huge music heritage in the '80s and '90s, and it wasn't until the 2000s that a lot of it crumbled after the music industry had its dark moment. But then he also worked at Sun Microsystem. He worked at different streaming companies early, before the dot com crash in the late '90s, early-2000s. And then he got a degree in the radio and television or something like that. He has a very wide range of knowledge and experiences in music. And I was introduced to him when I was getting my Master's, same cousin of Snoop's that Snoop said he had heard about us through; I was on Skype with him one day when I was supposed to do my school internship. And I was going to Warner Music in LA Warner music. I already had this internship secured and everything, I was talking to dad, and he was like, you should talk to my man Gazi; he's in the Bay Area. He does a lot of independent music stuff. I think you guys will get along, but I got in contact with Gazi. At the time, part of it was, I would rather go to a smaller company cause Gazi worked at Ingrooves, the music distribution company based here in San Francisco. And part of me was worried about going to Warner and just being a typical intern, making coffee and doing photocopy stuff like that. But here, I had more opportunities of learning. I didn't know much about him. There was nothing about him on the internet. He was a very obscure person. And I spent the summer with him and we realized that we had a lot of interest in common, a lot of friends in common. And when I was going back for my last year of school, he said that he would be separating soon and starting something new and that he needed help. And he didn't have a salary for me yet. He didn't have anything to pay me yet, but he had an apartment I could stay in, and I went back after I finished my Master's. For me, it was a no-brainer because the worst case, I could have still gone and got a job somewhere. I had my degree; the worst case is I'll go back to Germany and go somewhere else. But this was an opportunity for me to try something. And at the time, I mean, not even my wildest dreams that I think it could get to the place it is now. And not even in my wildest never, never even occurred to me. But I finished my master's and then when I went back, he had gotten the first office, and he had somebody that was cutting ringtones, and yet there are girls, Christina was doing like administrative stuff and when I moved 11 like I just got a job and then I moved there. I was a kid, I was 12, just turned 23, just finished my master's, but I didn't know anything about living in America. I grew up in Germany, was different here. So like when I landed, I didn't know what a social security number was. I didn't know any of this stuff. And the only person I had here in Gazi. So Gazi, while also technically my boss, became a second dad in some ways. He picked me up from the airport, took me to the social security office, went to the bank, opened up my first bank account, went to the bed store, bought a bed frame, and came back to the apartment that he had that he let me stay in. Building the bed, bringing a TV, I was alone. I didn't have anybody, but for me it was just a dream to be there for me. And he found somebody in me that was young, hungry, dedicated, and that made his dream, my dream, which became our dream. And I found somebody in him who had the talent and capability of doing what he does and the integrity as a person, and the patience to grow, to see me grow because he saw what I could be. And also think he's a Palestinian on Persian, similar cultural values. There was something familiar. We just trusted each other. Today, it's been over 12 years, and I've never lied to this man. He's probably the only person in the world I've never lied to before. And it was just something very pure about the relationship.
Pierre Lambert: When he’s like, I’m starting my own thing. What was the pitch like?
Nima Etminan: At the other distribution company, he ran the urban department, but he also had a label there that he distributed a lot of artists through a lot of underground artists. There's a lot of things like that. He had a lot of relationships already. He was already pretty accomplished, and he was going to start Empire, continue to use Ingrooves to distribute, but just start to build our own thing. And the vision the way Gazi always looked at it. He said, look, the music revenue was at an all-time low, but the music consumption in entertainment is at an all-time high; eventually, technology will fix piracy. He had this vision; he knew subscription services that he always said in the future, music is going to be like TV. When you turn on your TV, you don't think about the fact that you're paying for cable. It feels free. You turn on the TV and watch TV, but you're paying for it every month, right? Music is going to be the same thing. You're going to pay ten bucks, twenty bucks, whatever it is. But whenever you need music, it's at your disposal. One's access to legal music becomes easier than pirating; it will start to fix and itself. And that's effectively what happened little by little. There was a time where we used to go on YouTube and then have those YouTube downloadable programs to turn to YouTube, and you have MP3s that you can put on your iPod, right? But when you have for the price of two oatmeal latte month access, anyone you want from your phone at any moment, then it starts to make a little bit more sense. And Gazi is somebody who sees a few steps further than the average person. When the pandemic started and everybody started to leave the big cities, it became apocalyptic. All these articles about, “Is this the end of the big cities as we know it, blah, blah, blah…” And I remember talking to him about it, and he was like, Nima, all these people are going to Idaho and Montana, and here and there in a year, they're going to be sick of that shit. They're going to come back, and he was right; everybody now is pretty much back to where we were. A lot of the people that were like, “Oh, I'm leaving the city. No, you're not. You'll be back.”
Pierre Lambert: You don’t know how to live in wilderness.
Nima Etminan: So you know a lot of times, he has that ability to see a little bit further. But I think for us, it was like I had a lot of relationships with artists and up until music streaming. There's no place in the industry for anything other than artists that were potentially going to blow up or be a failure. Either you blew up, or you failed. But music streaming and this new economy created everything in between where you get paid for whatever people listen to. So the barrier of entry wasn't there anymore. Like back in the day, unless you were in the CD store, you weren't the real artists like I was playing. We would see all of these artists that I had relationships with from DubCNN, artists that he relationships with from all the work that he had done in the Bay Area and studios who didn't have a big record deal, but who had a lot of music and there was an outlet to help put that music out. And the vision was to be an alternative to what's out there. But we didn't; when I first moved here, I was like, okay, so I can start contacting many rappers that I knew from DubCNN that didn't have deals and see if they want to put music out through us. The first label was TDE, which was Kendrick Lamar's label. He wasn't called Kendrick Lamar yet when he was K.Dot; he changed his name from K.Dot to Kendrick Lamar. And we put out his first two albums. We didn't know he would be arguably one of the biggest rappers of the generation. Those were the little things that showed us like, “Oh, we're close enough to where this can work.” And then having Snoop Dogg co-sign that's early on and start to work with us. The guy was huge.
Pierre Lambert: What do you think made them say yes? Besides the relationship. Because I imagine sometimes you might be competing with other people.
Nima Etminan: I have an easy answer for that. The reason was that in the first couple of years, all of our deals were non-exclusive, meaning you're not tied to us. You can put something out; you could sign the deal with us. And then tomorrow decide, eh, I don't want to do anything. It was literally no obligation. You could put a song out and say I want to take it down tomorrow. So there was nothing to lose for them to try something out, and then for a long time, for the first couple of years, what would happen is you would put something out, and if it got a little bit bigger, somebody else would come and find it and give him more money, and they would leave. And that's what happened with Kendrick. That's what happened with Andrews and a lot of these guys who were like, it would do two albums, and then Dr. Dre would come, or somebody else would come and be like, here's a big bag of money. But that was our way of entering the market where it was like, Hey, we're not asking for anything.
Pierre Lambert: Free 30 days subscription.
Nima Etminan: Yeah, exactly. If you like what we do, then keep putting music out. And then, we started getting to a place where we could give advances to artists, have budgets, and slowly evolve into the real label and music company that we are now because the company never had outside investment. There has never been a dollar invested into the company from anybody. All money that's been spent is money that's been made. We don't have a board of directors. We don't have the parent company or anything like that. That's been very gradual, fully bootstrapped.
Pierre Lambert: I'm just curious, and for anyone not understanding, let's say, okay, you signed me. I put out my album with you, but now someone else comes and says, Hey, I want to buy out this artist. Or I want to sign him. Would they get the catalog that they put out with you also?
Nima Etminan: So in the beginning, when we had all these non-exclusive deals, yeah, we could lose everything. And that happened a lot. We could lose all of it, but now obviously, our deals were more robust within the last years than we're putting up more money. It's different now. The way it works is usually your deals are for a certain number of years; you negotiate a license for 5, 10, 20, whatever years you negotiate with the artist. And then, until that time, you have exclusive rights over the content.
Pierre Lambert: As the label, you have exclusive right over all the content. And how does the artists get paid? What is it defined? Is it like a percentage of that revenue? Or is it a hundred percent of that revenue, and you guys get a small cut? How does it work in the industry?
Nima Etminan: Traditionally, major labels would take the large majority of it. In traditional deals, the artists would get between 12 to 15%, if you're on that Universal, Sony, Warner, or something like that. Because back in the day, it was a little bit more understandable because there was a lot more risk on the label, production, manufacturing, and shipping potential return. There was a little bit different. Or the problem with the major label was that they didn't adjust their deals. Once technology changed the way things work and all of those deals, all the major label deals usually are perpetuity. So I think we were one of the first companies, and the groundbreaking things that we did were all of our deals were in the artist's favor, percentage-wise. We don't have any deals to take a larger cut than the artist. The bigger partnerships are 50-50 partnerships. A lot of times, it's higher in the artist's favor depending on what the situation is, and our deals are more short-term. In a major label deal, you sign for like five, six albums. Well, that's usually two or three years, but it's just a lot more flexible. And we provide a lot of transparency. The music industry is traditionally not transparent. We sign a deal, and you don't know what happened. We built a system that treats artists like partners and has full transparency. They have access to their accounting. They have access to their expenses. They have access to everything. So I think we added a lot of groundbreaking influence when it comes to that in the industry in a good way.
Pierre Lambert: That's something that struck me. Obviously, I'm biased because I have known you for a very long time. So it always felt different. But even when I looked at artists talking about Empire, it always felt good in the way it was being spoken about. Even if you dig a little bit around it, it doesn't seem like that extraction model that you could see with the old labels, for sure. I want to just switch gears, like super on a different topic, but in the rap world, from what happened, you've lost some of your great artists over the past few years, which is super sad; we had XXX Tentacion. I'm kind of curious because we didn't grow up in that world where a lot of those artists come from. Is there something where the past comes up and interacts with artists who wants to make it? Or how do you see it from your external point of view from having been a completely different environment you are growing up in?
Nima Etminan: I think that the times generally reflect that you see more artists dying because of violence in general. And I think a lot of it has to do with their past. A lot of times it happens when artists go back to their hometown, you got to realize that a lot of these artists came from nothing or came from very modest backgrounds. And unfortunately, a part of hip-hop culture has always been tied to materialistic boastings and showing what you have. But also not just in hip-hop; when you come from nothing, you often define your value by being able to show what you have, right? If you never had anything, you have a chain that gives you a certain value. And I think it's something that might be hard to understand for somebody who didn't come from it. But I've spent so much time with this culture that I get. You get a certain sense of self-value from affording shiny and pretty things, money, jewelry, cars, lifestyle, and clothes. And then, once you get to a certain level, you realize that doesn't mean anything. But it is not as easy to get to that. When you don't have anything, all that matters is having something. And American society, in general, is centered around the accumulation of wealth. Everything in the world is about the hustle, hustle, more, what's next, you got this, what do you do next? What do you do next? And people who follow a traditional path, you go to school, you get a job, you make some money, you get a raise, you get a little bit more of a raise there's rarely this high up and then lows, right? In music and these things, sometimes you might have somebody who was down there on the street last year, who now has millions and knows how to deal with yourself, and also how to deal with the jealousy that can come from those people that were around you, that's not easy. I mean, it's gotten so much more extreme. I mean, when we were growing up, rappers had maybe one chain and a watch. Now, like some of these guys are wearing millions of dollars on them at all times. Like, you might have a house on your wrist, but to someone like my mom, she might look at it and be like, “This is absurd. Why is he wearing two watches?” But to him, that's a symbol of how far he's made it. That's how you define yourself, whether right or wrong; that's just the reality of it. And I think it's the unfortunate combination of the abundance of a gun, which when COVID started, there would be a huge rush to get more guns. I think there are a lot more people that are armed now than there were armed before. I'm at a point now where I want to get a license and have a gun at home. And I've never thought about that. For me, it was the furthest, I never wanted to have a gun, but with everything that you hear and me becoming more high profile, it's like, if everybody else has a gun, why should I not be able to protect myself potentially? And I'm not saying I'm going to do it, but even those thoughts, you know what I mean?
Pierre Lambert: Yeah. Just the discussion, the thought comes up, of course.
Nima Etminan: So I think you have a lot more guns. You have a lot of young people with a gun, and you have a society that's more split up than ever before. When COVID started, one of the first things I said was we're about to breed a lot of criminals because a lot of the people that were working in nightlife or doing certain things or whatever, all of a sudden, their streams of revenue were cut off, what are they going to do? And then now, with the vaccination rules, you're effectively disenfranchising the same part of the population because who's not getting vaccinated proportionately; a lot of the minorities are more hesitant to get vaccinated, right? Whether right or wrong, a lot of it is you understand it when you look at some of the histories that Black people have had with vaccines in this country and things that have happened, but in general, a lot of Black, Latin, different minorities, they're disproportionately unvaccinated. And now you're saying you guys can go back to work because you're not vaccinated. So you're only further dividing this society, and not to say this is directly correlated to rappers, but I think it's just in a general climate that's very dangerous. There's never been this little middle class. I think you have many people who are doing bad, that are struggling. And then you have a portion that is doing so amazing because, especially in rap music, there are so many ways to make quick money right now. Or even if you look at things like crypto and stuff, like I know so many people that are become so rich in the last year, just out of nowhere, it's just a crazy, crazy climate. And I think XXX died when they tried to rob him, he had a Louis bag with money, and he was sitting in his IA BMW at a motorcycle store in Broward County. Broward County is not a pretty place, but he is in a very flashy car with a Louis Vuitton bag, with $30,000 cash in it. That creates a certain element where you have somebody who's like, I want to go get that. Do you know what I mean? And unfortunately, a lot of these kids don't understand the value of life because they grow up with death around them, like a lot of these kids, when you talk to him like my uncle's been dying or going to jail my whole life. I was talking to Young Dolph's business partner, Daddy O, after everything happened. And he was like, Nima, you have to understand. We didn't expect it to make it to 21. Where we come from, if you make it to 21, you did good in life because a lot of times you don't. Unfortunately, human beings have the tendency of jealousy, but also, human beings tend to boast and show off. And those two things together can be explosive. And it's very tragic to see where things are at. And as you said, it's not something that I grew up in, but it's something that I have a lot of compassion for. The only way to look at it for me is that hopefully, we're saving more lives. I have so many artists who say, “Hey, if it weren't for you guys, I'd be dead or in jail.” Those things are gratifying enough, but it's heartbreaking when things like that happen. Like when our artist King Von from Chicago got murdered last year, and he got murdered the week his album came out. He was number one on the charts. And with his big moment, he came from Chicago from a terrible background. And he always talked about it. A lot of his music was about violence and things he'd been around. He was walking out of a nightclub after his release party saw another rapper with whom he had an issue punched him in the face and started beating him. One of the guys with the other guy pulled out a gun and shot him. Now, if the situation was reversed, maybe one of Von's guys would shoot the other guy. In the street world, he did what he was supposed to do: he protected his assets. The other guy was the guy making the money that he's supposed to protect. So he technically did what he was supposed to do, playing by the rules that they play by.
Pierre Lambert: I'm in Chicago, and we have someone here, and she witnessed a double murder in front of her car while driving in the south of Chicago. She was like going back up. She was south by the rough areas.
Nima Etminan: Outside Chicago was the crazy, crazy place.
Pierre Lambert: I mean, I never watched the news ever because
Nima Etminan: No, there are murders every day, bro.
Pierre Lambert: It's crazy. So in the summer, guys, if you don't know, in Chicago, we get about, I think it's per weekend, 30 to 50 dead by gun, people who are reported being shot. And those numbers don't even make sense because if there were one in France in Paris, everyone would hear about it. So from my point of view, it's always like, whoa, what the heck? It's interesting because you have those different aspects. And I imagine that through the relationship you have with artists, those discussions must come up.
Nima Etminan: It hurts my heart that it's an inevitable part of our legacy. At this point, that's going to come up in these conversations. I hate it, but I understand it. So then you have all these stupid little kids on the internet coming up with conspiracy theories, talking about Empire, killing their artists and kids, trying to find an explanation for things that they don't understand. I get it, but it's just very hurtful because we spend a lot of time trying to help educate artists, trying to help people move into a better situation. And unfortunately, sometimes your past can catch up to you. Sometimes it's just bad timing. Like when Pop Smoked, the New York rapper, got murdered, he wasn't with Empire, but he got murdered beginning of last year or the year before. I can't remember. But he had posted something on his Instagram from stuff that he just bought or delivery he got. His address was visible at the post. And the guy who killed him was 15, 16; he's a kid. Do you know what I mean? Over what? — a couple of watches and some chains.
Pierre Lambert: That's crazy. I notice a parallel. You got exposed to that through. And even those like high and lows are extreme, poor, and extremely rich, you got exposed to it through the rap and the music, and I can't help but notice that I got exposed to it through being an engineer in Nigeria; which is completely different, right? But I got sent, I was to 22, 23.
Nima Etminan: I tell that story all the time about the guy that robbed you on your last day in Nigeria, your friend.
Pierre Lambert: Yeah. The cook. Oh my God was hilarious in a way. It just makes me smile. The situation is just comical at one point because you build that relationship; the guy's been working with you for a year and a half.
Nima Etminan: From what I understand, it was somebody you became friends with; you worked with him for a long time. You were with him all the time. And then, on the day before you were leaving or something, he robbed you or something like that.
Pierre Lambert: Yeah. We were living in one apartment with three, four colleagues. And there was a cook from Benin, and he had been there a very long time. He's been there super friendly, always with all of us. And one day we come back, and we try to open the door. I tried to open the door of my room, but my door was locked. That's weird because I didn't lock my door. And then my friend's door is locked and everything. And I entered, and suddenly there was no suitcase. My laptop's gone, and my safe is open. We went to the other, everyone's safe had been open, and he took my suitcase, put everything in it and then left. And then it was the weirdest thing; no one saw everything. They're like, no, we haven't seen anything. He managed to go back to Benin in the background. That's the story we heard later. He supposedly managed to go back to Benin, and I don't care that he stole stuff; I just wanted my hard drive back; that's all I care. I'm like, yeah, take it. But apparently, he went back to his village, and people got envious, or he didn't share with the right people whatever he took. And supposedly, he got poisoned like three weeks after that happened. So I'm like, oh wow. Okay, and I was in a different area in Nigeria.
Nima Etminan: If I believed in karma, I would say that's karma, but I don't believe in karma.
Pierre Lambert: Yeah. And when I was in Port Harcourt, and what you're saying with the guy with the BMW and cash and being in the US and rough areas, we would be in cars with a mobile. You've seen them. You've been to Nigeria. The mobile is the guy with the AK-47. It's like supposedly trained to be security. They're not official police. But my understanding from the embassy, they have very limited training. They don't know how to use some of the guns properly; again, don't quote me on that. That's just what the embassy told me from a guy working in different conflicts around the world. He's not necessarily the best shooter that is with you in the car. I'm like, okay, that's very reassuring. Basically, we would be put in the environment in the slums, and the drivers would try to push everyone that's working every day. That's literally trying to make it through another day. They were trying to push all those people out of the road with two white, young guys in it, and the sirens were literally slamming on other cars for them to move. And I was like, how are we not going to get killed? How are we not going to get robbed, or how is the population not seeing us or wanting to do something. Obviously, that happens sometimes, those kidnappings. And it was like, the best way is just to be in a random car and that's easier. And I was 22; I had no clue that the world was like that. I got exposed to corruption from the guy who sweeps in front of your place up to the president. And corruption was everywhere. Then you discovered this whole world of prostitution that also touches people you work with and that families of. It was a life learning. I can't help but see the parallel between that universe; it's fascinating how it's parallel.
Nima Etminan: The world is a crazy place, man.
Pierre Lambert: And it's beautiful at the same time because it's so diverse and crazy. There is the same amount of beauty to all that misery and difficulty, so it's a weird balance. Nima, I want to be super mindful of your time. I think we could go on for hours. I felt like we didn't even scratch the surface. Okay. Can I just ask you, what is one thing that you learn in this music industry that you would actually take with you and apply to any other project that you would start that's non-music related?
Nima Etminan: For me, this is the only thing I've ever really done. And it's interesting because, as I said, I've never had a job interview myself, but I've interviewed to hire hundreds of people, and I've learned how to manage and run a company just by doing it. And by using my gut and just trying to be a good person. But if I would take anything and apply it to another attitude, it would be to hire people based on ethics and character, more so than on skillset and on what they know. I think it's easier to teach somebody how to do something than to teach them how to be. If you surround yourself with like-minded people, the way that they look at the world, their priorities, and their principle. In that case, that's how you can have a healthy operation, as opposed to trying to just get the quote-unquote, best or most capable or most connected people. When Empire started the first four or five years of the company, no one that worked there had ever worked at a music company before. No one. One, because we couldn't afford anyone, we couldn't pay high salaries. And two, it was also by design because we knew we were doing things differently and didn't want people who had a preconceived notion of how things were supposed to be. Many of the people who came in are now pillars in the company and very capable music industry people who started as a blank slate. But what we all shared was a common goal, a common passion, and common care for the art, the artist, and the music. So I think that if I was to go into another industry and maybe I'd be wrong, maybe if I wanted to finance personality, it doesn't matter to get somebody who knows how to make you some money. Maybe that's why I'm not in finance. But I think just to live a healthy life, and I focus more on having people around me who share the same vision of the world instead of being the best or better. That's my answer.
Pierre Lambert: That makes sense. I can see if having worked with a wide range of people. Like it doesn't matter how skilled they are; if it just doesn't work, it doesn't work. That's awesome. Nima, I think those are great parting thoughts. Where should people find you? Where do you want to send them? Do you want to send them to a project or to your social media?
Nima Etminan: My Instagram is nima_empire. N-I-M-A underscore E-M-P-I-R-E. The label socials are all Empire, Instagram, Twitter, wherever it's all @empire. I do have one question for you before we go. I remember looking at your Instagram when you first started your little project, and you were doing your little blog that post, and you were getting like a hundred likes and 73 likes and stuff. And then I don't think I looked at it for a long time. And then I went back on your page, and I was like, it's getting 30,000 likes pictures with 200,000 follows. What was there like a moment? Is there something one post or something that you did that made it explode, or was it a very gradual thing, or is it all fake, and you bought all your followers?
Pierre Lambert: Okay. True trivia. I bought every single they're all Russian bots, and half of them are in Indian farms. No, honestly, it's showing up. I showed up every single day for the past five years on YouTube with the videos I put out, probably 600 videos that got barely any interesting views. I just did it for fun. It's like, you show up. Okay. I got 30 views. And after six months of doing daily videos, I was like, either I quit because this is a fucking time, or I start strategizing that I know how to edit. I better start something. Otherwise, this is just a waste of time. And over time, it grew; I think when you saw the jump, I probably got to really get into the photography channel, and I found my niche there. I found my niche where I was the happiest to share stuff. I just sent him to Instagram to look at the photos or share stuff; it's just over time; honestly, if you want a perfect example, and that's what I realized you don't want to go viral. You just want to build over over time, like slowly and steadily. It's so much better.
Nima Etminan: I agree. I'd rather be Bruce Lee than King Con. I like to move with precision and gradually rather than just.
Pierre Lambert: Exactly. Because once you're on the other side of the wall, you're not necessarily prepared for what's there. Right? Exactly. Thank you so much, Nima. Appreciate it.
Nima Etminan: And I appreciate you having me. Let me know when this goes last so I can listen to it.
Pierre Lambert: Yes.