Behind the glass at a downtown Minneapolis recording studio, they were lined up like little soldiers. A sergeant from rap icon Dr. Dre’s army was leading the charge as producer.
Gentrel “Fly Guy” Carter, age 11, stared at a lyrics sheet, studying his attack plan, while Antwon Lymas Jr., the firecracker known as Ben 10 to more than 5 million YouTube viewers, geared up with — gasp! — a bag of Doritos.
“They didn’t have Hot Cheetos in the vending machine,” laughed one of the moms of the pint-sized hip-hop giants behind the viral video smash “Hot Cheetos & Takis.”
Outside the studio, the mothers were weighing a battle of their own: a show-us-the-money legal spat with the YMCA, whose after-school recording program spawned the hit.
The KIDS, as they’re now known, have yet to see a cent from the song. So far, the money is modest — perhaps $10,000 — but as the KIDS prepare to sign a national recording contract, their parents want to protect them.
“We’re not saying the Y shouldn’t get a share to continue funding this program, but our kids deserve some of it for their college educations,” said Tiffany Powell, mother of Jasiona “Lady J” White.
The parents, meanwhile, are getting a crash course in the recording industry. The tipping point came in October, when — after a 12-hour video shoot for a follow-up single — they refused to sign a waiver from YMCA representatives that they thought would cut their children out of any legal rights to their work.
Alicia Johnson, director of the North Community YMCA in Minneapolis, denied that but admitted to confusion over the “Hot Cheetos” affairs.
“We’re running a community center, not a record label,” said Johnson, who likened the situation to a kids’ basketball team winning a tournament. “If the team got $1,000 off that win, the money wouldn’t go to the individual athletes. It would go back into the program.”
Adding it up
A check for $1,700 did come the YMCA’s way via the videographer behind the clip, Rich Peterson, who claims full ownership of the video. He earned the money from YouTube ad revenue — the website starts paying when viewership passes 1 million — and called it a donation when he gave it to the Y in late October, when “Hot Cheetos” had 2 million views. The clip is now at 5.3 million.
Peterson said he has no legal obligation to hand over more money, nor does he plan to. He would not say how much has been generated but said “not a lot; maybe $3 yesterday.”
“The YMCA is a giant organization with massive budgets and I’m just a little guy who provided my talent and worked for next to nothing on this video,” Peterson said.
An even grayer area is the issue of song downloads.
About 11,000 copies of “Hot Cheetos” have been sold via sites such as iTunes and Amazon, according to Nielsen SoundScan. They sell the song for 99 cents, then typically pass along about 65 cents to the artist and/or record company. Unaccounted for are $1 downloads through PayPal on the group’s YMCA-run site, plus revenue from music-streaming sites such as Spotify.
“We’re getting a Dummies 101 education on the music business,” said Melissa Mercedes, mother of Freeman “Frizzy Free” Hickman.
Mercedes used the term “momager” — mom/manager — to describe her and her cohorts’ new role. She said several of the families are single-mother households, and all have endured financial hardships, including home damage in the May 2011 tornado that ravaged north Minneapolis.
You don’t have to be a music-biz wiz “to know there’s money being made somewhere off our children,” Mercedes said, adding, “there are no college scholarships for rapping.”
From the outside, Minneapolis entertainment attorney Ken Abdo said the kids and their parents appear to have a strong case. When there’s no clear contract, “copyrights go to the creative entities,” said Abdo, who has worked with Minnesota-bred stars Owl City and Jonny Lang. “Just because you put up the money and equipment for something doesn’t mean you own it.”
From ‘Hot’ to ‘Icy’
“Hot Cheetos & Takis” was recorded last June in the Beats and Rhymes program, funded with a $10,000 Best Buy grant for studio equipment. The group’s original name, Y.N.RichKids, played off the North Side Y’s national status as a Youth Enrichment Center.
When the single started blowing up in August — with a four-star review by Rolling Stone and tweets from celebrities — the iTunes download and other business matters were arranged by song producer JT Evans, an employee of the YMCA. No contracts were signed, however.
Evans declined to comment and deferred to Johnson, who said she is unaware of any money from download sales even though standard iTunes practice is to pay artists and labels monthly. “As soon as that money comes in, we’ll be happy to sit down with the parents and sort through this,” Johnson said.
The parents plan to start a nonprofit group called the Righteous Kids Foundation and teamed with a local management and production company, All Goode Music, which has enlisted attorneys to help in the YMCA dispute and the pending recording contract.
“At this point, we’re fending off labels that want them,” said AGM’s Paul Bolen. He is also an instructor at the Institute of Recording & Production, where the KIDS holed up in a studio earlier this month (but only from 6 to 8:30 p.m.).
To produce the demo recordings, AGM enlisted Alonzo Jackson, a former executive at Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Records who has worked with Eminem and 50 Cent.
The excitement in the young performers’ eyes was as bright as Hot Cheetos as Jackson steered them through a new Minnesota-flavored track titled “So Icy.”
“It’s a real studio, and it’s awesome,” said Frizzy Free, who didn’t let the environment stifle his rap skills. “It just comes naturally.”
Each of the budding stars — who’ve been stalked by fans at Cub Foods and asked for autographs, their moms say — marveled over their one-song appearance last month at First Avenue, where they earned wild applause at 89.3 the Current’s sold-out birthday parties. Modest-paying gigs such as that and a recent Minnesota Roller Girls bout have provided their only payouts.
“I hope to make money off this” someday, said Glenn “G-6” Carter, 12, “but now it’s just a passion for me. [Money] stuff is grownups’ business.”
One thing that all sides agree on: The negativity over money should not detract from the KIDS’ positive achievements.
“I love that [the Y] brought this talent out of our kids, because we really didn’t know they had it in them,” said Helen Hunter, mom of G-6 and Fly Guy. “But it’s still their talent.”
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • Twitter: @ChrisRstrib