"My whole life, I've always been into something, and I end up getting into it so much that it becomes an inconvenience financially," says the 26-year-old entrepreneur, co-owner of the new Fort Lauderdale-based music studio/clothing store Hi-Top Studios. "So I turn it into a business."
Among other things, Cruz, a local MC who operates under the nom de plume Lex-One, hosts a weekly gig at Roxanne's on Main in Oakland Park. He also promotes events that bring in underground hip-hop acts and DJs from around the country. In fact, he grinds more than your average Starbucks employee, but, at the same time, he seems to have enough smarts to see the bigger picture. "I started off being a promoter, then putting out cheap fliers, and then I opened up a company [Lexicon Productions] doing that," he says. "I like sneakers and fashion and always spent money on them, and I spend tons of money recording music. So I figured: Why not put it all together into one huge business?"
Enter Hi-Top. The self-titled "one-stop shop" for an artists' needs, houses a full recording studio and production team, video/graphic design and printing services, as well as a clothing/sneaker storefront. The business caters to musicians, tastemakers, and streetwear fiends. All at once. "You can record your album, press it up, and duplicate it here," Cruz says. "Get the covers printed, business cards made, and everything from web to MySpace design. While you're in the store, we try to create a warm environment for anyone who wants to come chill and shoot the shit, talk about sneakers and whatever else."
And, hey, if you want to buy some sneakers, Cruz and company will help you out there too.
The studio, owned by EP Records, which leases out the space, is a joint venture among Cruz; his girlfriend and head of video production, Charissa Schmitt; EP Records partners D-Solo and Big Sal; and producer Mike Beatz. The main draw, however, is the fully renovated recording studio run by local artists.
"If they want beats, voice-overs, commercials, we can provide that," Cruz says. "We're open to sell beats for producers, and we have a full production squad from reggaeton to underground/mainstream hip-hop and R&B. We're trying to keep all the bases covered." With engineers such as Hazardis Sounds, Mike Beatz, and DJ Phono using equipment like a 56-channel Soundcraft Ghost mixing board, there's not much Hi-Top can't do except maybe record a live drum set. The recording booth isn't big enough for that. Sorry, Travis Barker; you'll have to keep the sticks in South Beach.
Until recently, Hi-Top functioned strictly as a boutique-style sneaker and clothing shop, opening its doors in early March. Stocking Internet-marketed street-wear brands like Foreign Family and Leroy Jenkins as well as limited-edition kicks, local hip-hop CDs, and other collectible items, the owners turned the storefront into a cozy, studio apartment complete with a fridge, oven, armchair, and closet to display the items for sale. The store has attracted customers from around the state.
Cruz contends that the clothes are just an extension of the music. "We figured most of the cats that are into hip-hop are into clothes they kind of go hand in hand," he says. "A lot of people who are doing the clothing thing are a bit elitist." Isn't he just hopping on a bandwagon there? "Like anything else, it's a business," he says. "If I was opening a restaurant, I wouldn't be hopping on the restaurant bandwagon."
Whether it's clothing shop, music studio, or graphic design center, the store's proprietor is always trying to stay ahead of the competition. Growing up in Queens, New York, as the son of Puerto Rican and Israeli parents, Cruz started out as a DJ and decided at a young age that music was his future. One of his neighbors at the time had worked in promotions for Gee Street Records in the mid-'90s. The neighbor always freestyled.
"I used to freestyle too but only on my own, because I didn't want anyone to think I was wack," Cruz confesses. "My neighbor was really the first person that got me into all of that." The improvisatory mode of expression inspired him in other creative directions.
Upon moving to Hollywood in the late '90s, Cruz started putting his multipronged entrepreneurial attack into action. He opened Lexicon Productions, both to promote hip-hop shows throughout South Florida and to offer printing services. Then he ventured forth as an MC. He recently put out his first solo album, No Respect for Pedestrians, and he has opened for rappers such as KRS-One and Jeru Tha Damaja.
Through Lexicon, Cruz has organized numerous shows in Dade and Broward, including such national acts as Digable Planets, Kool Keith, DJ Rob Swift, and DJ Andy Smith of Portishead fame. Cruz plans to start a monthly function this summer with local businesses, including CD Collector and sneaker store Soul Purpose, as an invitation-only event tailored to the customers of those stores.
He still puts in time with his monthly party/MC challenge, ReUp: ReLoad, on the last Wednesday of every month at Roxanne's on Main, which Hi-Top also sponsors. And he tries to keep it real, he says. The first 30 paid entrants to the club are given free grill pieces that's right, imitation gold fronts that are fitted inside the club. "It's a fun thing that's completely different," Cruz says. "MCs can also win free studio time and clothing at Hi-Top, and we'll duplicate 100 of their CDs for free." You can register via MySpace for the four-round challenge or at the venue for $10.
"I do what I do because I don't believe in working for people and somebody telling you what to do in order to make a living," Cruz says. "There's no reason for you to be stuck at a dead-end 9-to-5 and be unhappy with your life. I got sick of doing something that wasn't completely in my musical direction and would always hear: 'Why don't you open up your own business?' With the shop, the business correlates all around with the music."