Epiphany Riffing

Local rapper and entrepreneur Big Piph on reinventing the album for the digital era

Had you asked a young Chane Morrow what he wanted to do with his adult life, “hip-hop performing artist” wouldn’t have been at the top of his list. Chane, now better known professionally as Epiphany, aka Big Piph, was so averse to being the center of attention as a young man, he once hyperventilated before giving a speech in class. On another occasion, he returned to his seat in tears after being asked to speak in front of the congregation at his new church. But rather than remain crippled by his fear, Piph decided to do something about it his junior year of college.

He entered a talent show as a rapper.

And while Piph admits that first performance was terrible (and the next one was even worse), it was the first step toward pursuing an artistic goal he’s still chasing. Now, a Stanford education and five releases later, the Pine Bluff native is in the throes of his most ambitious musical endeavor yet. His newest release, I Am Not Them: The Legacy Project, is what Piph describes as “a living album.” It still features a collection of music in the sense of a proper record but is supported by an app-based experience of Piph’s own design. In addition to the record’s songs, the app features narrative-driven music videos, supplementary vignettes and behind-the-scenes content, all released in periodic installments in an attempt to tell a larger story and expand the album beyond the standard maximum of 80 minutes of music. With this transmedia approach, Piph’s Legacy Project weaves together a complex narrative about betrayal, computer hacking and corporate conspiracy.

As the app winds down to its conclusion—the last of the content will be released this winter—we decided to sit down with Big Piph to discuss the ambitious project’s conception, success and whether, given the chance, he would do it all over again.

So after graduating from Stanford and living in New York, what brought you back to Arkansas?

At first, it was actually a business decision. Once I got out of college, I was definitely in music, but I didn’t make the decision to do music ’til the end of summer before my senior year. And at that time, I hadn’t made that much. It was just kinda like, I know if I work hard, I can be good at it. So when I went to New York, I went there thinking, Go to the Mecca of hip-hop to learn more about it. I picked up a business partner—who I knew from college, actually—while I was there. We formed a label; then we looked around one day, and there were all these flyers on the ground and these cats with rap vans, and it was like the bare-minimum artists there had certain resources and items we didn’t have. So it was like, Let’s take what we’ve learned and do it back in our hometown.

So when you say you made “the decision to do music,” do you mean doing it professionally? Had you been doing music as a hobby before that?

Nah, not even, really. Once I fell in love with hip-hop, like the music, I had no desire to do entertaining or be an emcee or anything like that.

And when did you first fall in love with hip-hop specifically?

That was in early high school. The first rap album I got was Naughty By Nature with “O.P.P.” on it, but the one that made me fall in love with rap was a song by 8Ball and MJG called “Lay It Down.” Back then, that was the first one that I really vibed with the beats, and I liked the marriage of the beats, the melodies and the raps. I just felt like there was a lot more of a melodic flow. Like, if I didn’t hear the words, I could just hear it and feel it. So that was the first time I heard something, and I was stuck, and I was like, What is that?

For me, as a listener, I’ve heard songs that talk about absolutely nothing but sound great, and songs that sound horrible, but the dude is like the most lyrical, … and I much prefer the ones that sound good. But I believe there’s a higher level if you kinda mesh the two.

And what about performing hip-hop did you eventually fall in love with?

There are very few things I’ve had rival the high of performing. The creation of it is a purely vulnerable moment—when I create something, I almost feel insignificant or like a vessel, right?—but performing, you feel completely powerful. Man, it’s like a high. So, I wouldn’t want one without the other. I enjoy the creative moment, but it’s a different type feeling that I enjoy, too.

Since you star in most of the project’s music videos, this new endeavor seems to combine your love of making music and performing into one app. How would you describe the project and what you set out to do with it?

I really wanted to play around with different forms of entertainment. For instance, if you have a movie, you’re entertaining mostly through visuals and audio. With an album, you’re mostly entertaining through the audio. And then you have new stuff that goes across genres. You’ve got stuff that, like, J.J. Abrams does. So for me, I was at a point where I had made a few projects. It was in 2012, and I had just gotten back from [doing some performances] overseas and released an album. I took about six weeks and kind of just read a whole bunch of stuff—soul-searching, reading, scribbling out stuff.

So when you set out on to do this project, it wasn’t even necessarily going to be an album?

I wasn’t sold on it yet. Not at all. It was like, OK, I really like making albums. So why not? Don’t cut out making albums. But I also like visuals. I like visuals that fit the song, but I also think it would be cool if you could tell a story. Like, what if you could tell a story where each of the visuals could stand alone, but if you tie them together, it makes something bigger?

Also, liner notes—I used to like looking at them back in the day. So what would that mean in a new digital medium? What if you could tell other tidbits of the story in vignettes and other stories? I like going down rabbit holes and feeling like I’m discovering stuff, and I’m really big on stories. I love stories.

For me also, it had to have a community and personal aspect to it that resonated past just entertainment. Such Is Life, for me, the project before this, was a project of whether highs or lows, you gotta keep continuing life. So this one, I was trying to do a project of “individual empowerment.”

Then it came down to three elements: a component of music and visuals, a component of stuff people could play around with—I call them “engagement pieces”—and then how to actually tie them together at the end for a larger story. Ultimately it became—and once again, the music was the heart—how to tell a real, for me, cool story.

I had like 60 percent of the scope, and I brought in my friend Kenneth [Bell] who I’ve worked with on previous videos, and we laid it out. We spent, like, three months mapping out the story. At first, our story was so elaborate. It just got real crazy. We were like, Dude, we can’t. This is like a three-part movie. This is a trilogy. So then we had to scale back and scale back.

It became: music, narrative visual part with these engagement pieces, and then—and this is the one that really hasn’t happened yet, and I’ll take the blame—the community aspect. I started it but then took it down. There was supposed to be this forum where people could communicate. I kind of have a large spectrum of groups I interact with. I saw that, doing internships and doing music, I would have very diverse crowds. But in this setting and this situation, not only would they just enjoy the music, but they would also intermingle and mix. And then that starts happening outside of the music with other groups that I was involved in. So I was like, OK, what if the product could do the same, in the sense of this person and this person all like music, and could actually communicate for larger end goals past that?

That’s kind of how it formed. It’s been a lot of time. In some sense, man, I could just rap another album. I could just make single videos. And there are some parts that still nag at me like, Man, that’s what you should have done. But some people who interacted would be like, Ah, man this is cool. And I’d be like, It is cool. You know? Because I no longer see it as that.

You’re too deep in it.

Yeah! And if I went through the number of issues we had that we still haven’t even ironed out—it was ridiculous. I don’t even want to talk about it. But it was a ridiculous number of issues to the point that it actually helped me grow as a man. I had to change my philosophy. It got to the point that every day there would be an issue. There was a point where I was sleeping between three and five hours average, maybe like four hours. I woke up one morning, there was a big scene we had to shoot, and the person that was going to help me shoot it was on the other side of Memphis. I went to bed that night at 2 a.m.—and keep in mind, I’d been up, like, 25 hours—and she had to be picked up at like 6 or 7 a.m. When I woke up two hours later, it was downpouring. So I sat there, and I was like, Man, do I even care?

What I decided was: If something can not be done and still not sacrifice too much integrity, don’t do it. Because I was getting to the point where I was getting sickly. The other thing was: If it has to be done, suck it up and do it. You’re in a blessed situation. Don’t complain about being able to make your dream.

Then I had to change my mind on how I thought of the process. If it’s guaranteed a problem is going to happen today, you can act surprised and get mad daily. But if you know it’s going to happen, when it happens, take your 30 seconds, and then be like, Alright, what creative way can we figure out to get this done. I started attacking things like that. I don’t know what the problem’s gonna be, but let’s assume a problem’s gonna happen. And when that problem happens, let’s understand and already know we can get around it. As opposed to reacting negatively, let’s take that stress and react positively.

You’ve had to figure this out on the fly in a lot of ways. After all that and all the near-sleepless nights—and because this project was so ambitious—how do you feel about being “done” with it?

Before I even started, I made five goals. The top one was for the project to be the artistic vision that I wanted to achieve. The rest of them were financial goals, performance goals, all stuff that should be directly related or spur off of that. So as it was going on, I realized the other four goals were going to have to either be revised or not hit. I was like, We can keep on this same schedule, but that might also mean we’re not gonna make the artistic goal. So at the end of the day for me—almost to a fault—I’d rather get the artistic part done. Don’t get me wrong—the other goals are important, financial ones and stuff like that—but if you gave me a choice of the artistic project you wanted or these financial goals, within realistic realms, I really want people to be like, Man, that was cool, or That was an experience. So to answer that question, if it, No. 1, reaches the artistic vision end goal, I’m actually kind of cool with it.

Do you feel like it’s on track to do that?

The one major issue and good part about this was there’s no template. If I make an album, there are literally millions of albums I could look at how they were made. If I make a video, there are millions of videos I can look at how they were made. If I make an interactive app-based project, there’s nothing. There’s no template. So we’re predicting how it should work, and of course, some of those predictions were wrong, which we anticipated.

We got [some] feedback, and it was OK, given all that, can we now make sure the rest cleans it up as tight as possible? If anything, when we met, we decided we’d try to do it even bigger than originally planned. Just cause, it’s like, Look, if we’re just going for artistic vision, let’s go down in flames. Then at the end of the day, we’re like, Man, we made something real, real dope. Nobody cares, and we’re impoverished. But dude, it was dope. And I’m actually cool with that.

Man, it’s been fun. It’s been fun and the hardest thing ever. There was the creation aspect, which was all those pieces I was telling you about. And I didn’t even touch on the craziness of actually making the app ….

Yeah, that was my next question actually.

Yeah, I do some stuff in the community every now and then, working with nonprofits. I talked at the Clinton School about Global Kids and the stuff we do with students, and at the end of it, I was like, Hey, if anybody wants to meet and just talk it up, let’s do it. Dude named Luke hit me up, Luke Irving, and we talked about the app. So it came from stuff in the community, how I found this cat. I directly found him because he was like, Hey, I’d love to have coffee, and now he’s my homeboy.

We talked about it for, like, two years. So, he was the iOS designer, but I didn’t know that iOS and Android are completely different. And it just got crazy, just the amount of technical aspects and logistics. Then there was the marketing and communication aspect, because it was delayed; then my tour hit. My tour was actually made to push the app, but then I went on tour before the app. Road life is just a whole different thing, and it’s a pretty draining thing. So, it became a lot to juggle. It was an adventure, man. Once I switched my mindset, I enjoyed it all.

So, you said the project was trending to fulfill the artistic goal you set out for. What about the financial aspect? I imagine this must be an expensive undertaking.

Yeah, we did an IndieGoGo. So that helped—definitely didn’t do all of it—but it helped a lot. It ended up, in the beginning actually, doing around $16k.

Was that the goal you had set?

Nah, what I had budgeted was $25k, and it ended up being more than that so the rest was straight out of pocket personal or the company or whatever. So it hasn’t broken even yet. And also, I was playing a little bit more of a longer-term game. I look at the project as being evergreen in the sense of, when it’s over, someone who hasn’t done it can still go to it, check it out and it’s still a new thing to them. To be honest, for the most part, of all my original goals, the goal I placed the least value on is the breaking-even of the album.

When you say it hasn’t broken even yet, how do you measure that since the app is free? Is that just based on album sales?

Merch helps a lot and opportunities I can directly relate to the album. I was able to get a few other booking things both performance-wise and non-performance-wise. Actually, I have to think in two different mindsets when I jump from artistic to the business side. For instance, the crowdfunding wasn’t just to gain the money, but it was also to gain an event market. You need an event to tag stuff to for people to care for it. Show attendance and sales increased anywhere from 15 to 30 percent. So it wasn’t just a sense of the end product. Besides that, I did way less marketing. A lot of it was a re-establishing—for lack of a better word—a brand. So even people who haven’t downloaded the app will be like, That’s the dude who made the app.

I think it’s interesting that you can separate the mindset of the business side and the artist side so easily because a lot of artists aren’t like that.

Yeah. The only thing I’ve learned to do is not think of them at the same time because they compromise each other.

Did those two mindsets evolve at the same time for you?

My whole thing was, yes, I understand this is a business. If you just wanna make music, you can always just make music. But as soon as you try to sell it, you’re a music business. Or if you invite somebody to a show, you’re a music business. Even if you have a different range of where you fall on that line, don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re not doing what you are. Understand that music is the adjective to describe the noun business. It’s not “business music.” Because of that, I took it seriously from the beginning with, you know, a heavy learning curve and a lot of mistakes.

Do you think this is a model you would use again? Or are you already planning to?

The original problem it solves from a business perspective is albums in the digital age have become increasingly disposable. They have all this hype ahead of time. Then they come out and you almost don’t think about them later because you’re on to the next album. So what if you had this app first, album comes out and these videos come out as scheduled content. You don’t have to look for it. It just comes out, push notification: new video. So it basically elongates the lifespan of an album.