At the end of the Stockholm metro's red line is an empire built by the Salazar brothers. Their record company, Redline Recordings, has dominated the Swedish hip hop scene in recent years. But, as we know, empires are not built in a day − and for Salla and Masse the road to the top has been marred by financial crises, refused lucrative contracts, and decisive ultimatums.
The time is twelve after eight and the sun is slowly setting over Stockholm's Skansen park. Backstage at the park's Solliden venue we find Cristian Salazar, better known as Salla. He's preparing to take to the stage to spin the turntables in a live broadcast to millions of viewers. He stood in the exact same spot ten years earlier preparing to do the exact same thing.
That was 2004, and a lot of water has passed under Stockholm's bridges since Salla and The Latin Kings last represented hip hop from the red line in Sweden's most popular summertime TV show Allsång på Skansen (Sing-along at Skansen). A show that has featured, among others, popular Swedish artists Christer Sjögren and Björn Skifs, both of whom have performed on the show four times, and Kalle Moraeus, who holds the record with his nine appearances.
However, while Kalle the fiddler from Dalarna in central Sweden played his way into the hearts of Swedish homes, the memories of performing to really large crowds were beginning to fade among the hip hop collective from Stockholm suburb Norsborg.
The original incarnation of Redline Records was formed in 1996 in conjunction with The Latin Kings releasing their second album, I skuggan av betongen (In the Shadow of Concrete).
"We'd just switched labels from Warner Music to Mega Records and we didn't like the label they used on pressings. It was the same one that Ace of Base and a bunch of other pop acts had, so we made our own label instead. We made the logo from the last four stations on the red line metro, as that's where we come from," Salla explains.
Redline Records soldiered on for six years until it was wound down in 2002.
"I wasn't involved in the company at that time, but Salla, Chepe [Hugo Salazar, the oldest of the brothers, Ed.], and Dogge were. I came into the picture later when we started over, after the whole sorry period for Swedish hip hop. At that point, Dogge wasn't involved and Chepe was no longer active in the studio," Marcelo "Masse" Salazar explains.
The sorry period for Swedish hip hop to which Masse refers encompasses the years from 2002 to 2007. When record sales started to dwindle, it was difficult to convince the industry that hip hop was worth investing in. Not least because neither the sales people at the record companies nor the buyers at large Swedish chains such as Åhléns department stores and Statoil gas stations actually listened to hip hop.
"People just didn't get it; they thought that hip hop wasn't big at the time because it didn't sell. The problem was that the buyers didn't know how to sell the product. At the same time, we were traveling and playing all over Sweden and fans were complaining that they couldn't get hold of our records. In the end, it was easier for them to download the records for free. But the audience was there all along," says Salla.
In 2005, The Latin Kings officially disbanded. Dogge parted amicably and left the Redline studio for good. All of the Salazar brothers got jobs at different youth clubs and their music ended up on the back burner. Life continued like this for a couple of years. Finally, Salla had enough and arranged a meeting with his brothers. He gave them an ultimatum: Either cut their ties with music and sell the studio and all their gear or grow the business.
"The only thing we had at the time was the studio. We started to release stuff for free and had regular jobs to pay the rent. But that's when we started to focus," says Salla.
Masse and Salla started to work as a production team and traveled to New York to record music and meet with different music publishers. Unfortunately, they didn't receive any particularly attractive offers. Especially not the proposal from legendary hip hop record label Def Jam.
"A guy there wanted us to act as ghost producers for him. We were to make the beats and he was to take the credit. The money was good, but we'd just started to record under our family name. Why would we work anonymously so that someone else could shine?" says Salla.
"We got a great big fat contract. We read through it ourselves; you didn't need a lawyer to understand we'd be tied up for life and wouldn't get any credit or royalties," says Masse.
"People think we're stupid because we don't try to get our foot in the door in the US, but I don't think they understand that it's more important for us to do what we enjoy doing, to work with the artists we want, and to develop Swedish hip hop," says Salla.
Instead of acting as beat zombies for someone else, the brothers decided to look for projects outside hip hop. They started to collaborate with Swedish rockers Mando Diao and produced, among other releases, the album Give Me Fire from 2009, which was a great success in Germany with the hit single Dance With Somebody. Parallel to this, things started to happen in Swedish hip hop.
"I think things started to get better for hip hop when YouTube became popular. Hip hop could be spread again. You didn't make any money from the songs, but the bands could tour and release mixtapes. Then Spotify came along, and you could start to invest money in hip hop again," says Masse.
While other music genres suffered – or even disappeared – when free listening took over on a large scale, this is what saved Swedish hip hop, à la Salazar.
"That development was good for us. It's what's enabled us to carry on with music even today. If things had continued as before, I think it would've been difficult. The kids who listen today want easy access to music on their phones."
The demand for accessibility led Masse and Salla to release the music from their first acts, Stor and Mohammed Ali, for free on YouTube.
"The record labels didn't get what we were doing. But the explanation is simply that people listen to music via the YouTube app. They don't even need to watch a video; you just have to upload a photo. There's no need to waste 20,000 dollars on a video like in the 1990s."
"Most youngsters listen to hip hop these days and since they don't need to look for records at gas stations, those problems don't exist anymore. You can upload an entire album to YouTube or Spotify so that people can listen there – it doesn't make any difference to us because you can earn money from both today," says Salla.
Thanks to services like Spotify, Swedish hip hop was back − even though it had never been away. The big difference was that the music had suddenly become profitable. In 2012, Salla and Masse decided to start up the Redline Records label again, but they renamed it Redline Recordings as few people buy physical records today.
"There was a period before we started when we worked on many productions that were used for other projects. It felt like we were giving away the entire concept. So we thought it was better to start up Redline again and release the music ourselves, so that we might even make enough money to live on as well," says Masse.
"We signed the artists we thought were best. Everyone we work with today experienced the difficult period and lifted Swedish hip hop to the level it's at today."
Since its new beginnings, this hit-making factory in Norsborg has set the tone for the entire Swedish music scene with acts like Carlito, Labyrint, Stor, and Linda Pira.
Salla has his own theory about why Swedish hip hop has thrived in recent years.
"It became a competition. You just have to look at last year's Swedish Grammis Music Awards nominations. Our acts were nominated in categories such as best lyricist and best production. They hadn't let hip hop through those doors before because they didn't think it was as worthy," says Salla.
Does it still feel like Swedish hip hop is an underdog?
"No, but we still have to fight for the status we've achieved. Old friends come up and think we've just been lucky. They weren't around all those years when we didn't earn any money and almost gave up on music. They don't understand that things have gone well the past two years but that it took eight or nine years to get here. People forget how much it takes and what you have to sacrifice," says Salla.
Returning to the backstage area at Sing-along at Skansen this summer. Behind him, Salla has all the years he sacrificed to be standing here again. Time from family and friends, long nights in the studio, and long road trips to gigs.
Ten years ago, he stood here as a member of The Latin Kings. Today, Salla is preparing to get up on stage together with Linda Pira, winner of the Swedish Grammis for Newcomer of the Year 2013. Linda and a dozen other sharp-witted rappers are all signed to Salla's, Masse's, and Chepe's record label. And together they've built an empire.
The stage is lit and the cameras are rolling. Linda raps Knäpper mina fingrar (Click My Fingers). In the hook, she raps "Allt som du pekar på ska du få, richierich", "Everything you point at you'll get, Richie Rich". If only it was so easy.
The Salazar brothers on…
… the brothers' different roles:
"Chepe is involved but no longer active in the studio. He has a regular job instead of working with music. But he's always involved to some extent, he pops up in the studio, you could say," says Salla.
"Salla is away a lot at the moment, deejaying with Linda and Stor. Otherwise they both usually create beats. Salla is more of an extrovert when it comes to interviews and the media and usually takes care of most meetings. He's more of the business man, whereas I prefer to be in the studio working," says Masse.
… rights in the studio
"We're a collective and we inspire each other. We have two studios and different rooms where people sit and write and edit videos. There are always people there and it's a good atmosphere. When we make music we split the rights, with the music and the text separate from each other. But we don't usually split things into hundredths; if someone helps out with a single word, it doesn't count."
"It evens out. We've noticed that if things are going well for the collective, then everyone's good. That's always been most important, not arguing about hundredths, and the artists get that too. If Stor is in the studio and advises Carlito to change a rhyme, it's no big thing. They do it all the time," says Salla.
… the work process
"We make records all the time. There's always someone behind you when you're working and calling dibs on the beats. The ones who are most productive and in the studio the most are the ones who are doing best," says Salla.
"We have a sort of queuing system; if you've received beats you have to wait your turn. But those who hang around the studio a lot have the chance to get the newest beats," says Masse.
"We try to avoid sampling. If we want to sample something we use it as a reference, record it ourselves, and change the melody so that it becomes something completely new. You can't sample any more if you want to release the material on Spotify," says Masse.
"If we are going to sample, we stick to Swedish stuff. It's easier to track down the record company and authors. And they're not usually greedy," says Salla.
"Most people we know are STIM members. We live in Sweden and it feels good to be part of STIM, it feels like they know what they're doing," says Masse.
"The only time you hear the word STIM is when the artists ask Masse when their STIM money is due. It's like Christmas or winning the lottery," says Salla.
"But sometimes the new authors don't realize the money they get isn't taxed. That can create problems. During the first hip hop era, I got a pretty big lump sum from STIM. I was 16 at the time and didn't realize I had to pay tax on the money. But luckily I didn't buy a car or anything.
"I remember him saying he was going to buy a BMW. I said maybe he should buy a Toyota or get a driving license," says Salla and laughs.
Career: Co-founder of Sweden's legendary The Latin Kings, in which he was DJ. In 1994, the band released its debut album, Välkommen till förorten (Welcome to the Suburbs), which in many ways altered the Swedish music scene. Throughout the rest of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, they released albums such as I skuggan av betongen (In the Shadow of Concrete) (1997), Mitt kvarter (My Hood) (2000), and Omertá (2003). Since The Latin Kings disbanded, Salla's had a successful career as a producer.
Career: Masse has produced some of Sweden's most classic hip hop beats since he was a teenager. He won the Swedish Grammis for Producer of the Year 2012 and earlier this year received a scholarship from SKAP (Swedish Society of Songwriters, Composers, and Authors).
Top five Swedish hip hop tracks just now, according to the Salazar brothers:
Snäll Kille – Parham
Dum i huvet – Allyawan
Länge Leve Vi – Ison&Fille
I Staden – Kumba
50 Länder – Mohammed Ali
Acts signed to Redline Recordings:
Labyrint, Linda Pira, Stor, Dani M, Mohammed Ali, Carlito, Amsie Brown, Allyawanoch Aki.