“I don’t mean to interrupt you two, but I was listening to your conversation and I want to say good luck, and keep doing what you’re doing.”

The elderly gentleman who uttered those kind words to the Raleigh-based rapper Shame Gang and me could’ve easily passed for either of our granddads.

Almost in unison, we expressed gratitude, before jumping promptly right back into our conversation—though I was a bit sidetracked, wondering who else might be listening in at this semi-busy North Raleigh Starbucks.

And as Shame Gang continued to share stories, my mind imagined what the snatches of conversation might sound like to the group beside us. From management distribution deals to sold-out tours, studio time with household rap names, and conversations with Jay-Z’s nephew—well, if I weren’t the one facilitating the conversation, Shame’s accolades would also catch my ear.

Shame Gang, born Darren Clark, had an abundance of good news to share. Even before I finished the first draft of this article, I received the following text message: “Can’t wait to announce this next week. It’s my first official tour with Pooh and [my] name on the official bill.”

Going on tour and sharing a show bill with Rapper Big Pooh, one-third of the legendary hip-hop group Little Brother, is quite a big deal.

It’s been seven years since Shame Gang, a father of two, relocated from the D.C. area to Raleigh; in those years, he’s made a name for himself within North Carolina’s local hip-hop scene (Shame Gang formerly went as Shame, but switched his name earlier this year.)

He’s performed and headlined local festivals, opened up for a number of hip-hop heavyweights, including Wu-Tang Clan, formed his own rap collective (Kulture Gang), and curated his own series of hip-hop shows and beat battles (Shame Sundays and Sounds of the Kulture Beat Battle).

To many, Shame Gang is one of the hardest-working talents in the area. But even with the amount of success he’s achieved, his identity as a transplant pushes him to work harder.

“I always felt like, in a sense, out here, I always had to work a little harder because I’m not from [North Carolina],” he says. “Typically, you have artists from here that are ushered in through high school or college. They have easier access to the local support.”

To make sure he’s building a rap career that’s profitable 10 or 20 years from now, instead of focusing on just obtaining support within the Triangle, Shame Gang has shifted his energy to winning over listeners across the East Coast, and according to 2021 Spotify Wrapped stats, his number of listeners he has close to 30,000. Earlier this year, his second album, No Safe Haven, was released to rave reviews—and the attention of Jay-Z’s nephew.

“Rel Carter, who’s actually Jay-Z’s nephew, ended up giving us a call,” Shame Gang says. “And he was like, ‘I listened to the album. Love it.’ He was like, ‘Man, it’s really good. Let me put this out for you.’”

The younger Carter is the director of artist relations for Equity Distribution, Roc Nation’s independent distribution company that helps artists distribute their music worldwide while allowing them to retain ownership of their masters.

Through Equity Distribution, No Safe Haven received marketing and promotional support to reach a much larger audience that extends outside of North Carolina.

Prior to beginning a partnership with Equity Distribution, Shame Gang and his team were already in motion shopping around No Safe Haven to Atlantic, Sony, and Universal Records. They received an unimpressive offer from Universal, which led them to feel more comfortable moving forward with Equity Distribution.

“It really wasn’t a fair deal,” Shame Gang says of Universal. “It was more so benefitting them, and they would’ve had to do a lot. I was like, I’d rather do it on my own first for a while. And then if I want to major down the road, I’ll have more to bargain with. Rel told me and my team, ‘Give me a year. If everything works out, and if someone offers you a deal, we can try to match that or try to match you with Roc Nation, because we’re their sister company.’ My response was ‘OK, that sounds pretty good to me.’ The first three days No Safe Haven released it had like 35,000 streams on Spotify.”

Unlike many other creatives, Shame Gang chose not to put any music out during the early part of the pandemic.

“I wanted to go out,” he says, reflecting on the decision. “I wanted to be able to touch people plus talk to people and do shows—basically everything that I am doing now. My thought process was we could get more out of the release right away.”

If there were two themes attached to Shame Gang’s career, they would be building relationships and networking—both unique skills that many emerging artists struggle to navigate.

Building relationships is how he began working with his former DJ-turned-manager, Chaundon, who is a former member of the now-defunct Justus League, arguably one of North Carolina’s most prized hip-hop possessions after Little Brother. Building relationships is also how he collaborated with Skyzoo and Lute West.

His close proximity to the Dreamville signee has allowed him to learn and model effective business and marketing strategies. And it’s how he came into the opportunity to open up for the legendary Wu-Tang Clan and hip-hop’s current front-runner, Griselda.

“We kind of use the path Lute and his team has created as a blueprint to what we’re doing,” Shame Gang says. “You know, even though it’s still hip-hop, it’s different styles.”

After indulging in Starbucks treats and talking both on and off the record for more than three hours, Shame Gang reflected on his relationships and what they hold for the future.

“I have a good relationship with Raekwon’s brother. He assisted me a lot with Wu-Tang. And I have a song on my project with Buffalo rapper Che Noir. She has a relationship with Conway and the whole Griselda team. Once I got the insight that they were going on tour, like anybody else would do, I had my booking agency reach out,” says Shame Gang. “I didn’t have to do anything or say anything. [Conway] was just like, ‘He’s dope. We already heard about him through Che, so make it happen.’”

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