I left a voicemail saying, “Hey so you haven’t returned any of my calls and that doesn’t make me feel very good about giving you all my money, so if you could please give me a call back today that would be great. Thanks.”
I hung up and refreshed my bank account on my laptop. 47 dollars and 47 cents, exactly.
The night before, I had gotten a call from this guy I’d met at school.
He was older, a graduate student he said, but definitely in his 40s. We met when I was hanging flyers all around Columbia College Chicago, offering my services as a dorm room sound engineer for $5 per hour. I figured if I was only going to make $8 per hour as a barista, I might as well undercut the music market and make money doing something I loved.
I still have the flyer (as a memento):
“$5 per hour?” a large black man said, walking up beside me to read the flyer.
He was 6 foot 4, 280 pounds, and had heavy eyelids that made him look sleepy.
“Cheaper than anyone else,” I said, young entrepreneurial Cole ready to snag his first customer.
The man shook his head side to side, which made his heavy cheeks jiggle and sway with him. “Nah my brother, you don’t go charging no $5 per hour, better believe. Let me tell you a little something about the music industry.”
We stood in the hallway of the music department for what felt like an hour as he told me about studio sessions and recording contracts, artist deals and what it’s like being in the studio with a legend. He was studying music business, and since I had just moved downtown Chicago to pursue music, I hung onto every word.
I was 19 years old.
“You know, I could put you on,” he said.
My heart started beating so fast. In that moment, I thought about all the stories I’d heard — that “big break” everybody talks about.
“I’m ready, I swear I am,” I said. I’d been making beats for a little over a year, but I’d been playing classical piano since the womb.
He looked away, sort of nodding to himself, thinking about it.
“Give me your number, and let me see what I can do,” he said.
A week later, he was in my dorm room sitting at my keyboard, playing jazz chords.
“The music business is ruthless,” he said, letting his fingers fly up and down the white and black keys. Whenever he would stop to play a chord, that’s when he’d speak. “But I think I can get you looped in to a few projects. I’ve got some big ones in the works right now, better believe.”
His phone rang, he said a few words, and then he looked back at me and said, “Looks like our star is here.”
Minutes later, me, this latino kid and his dad were all sitting on the couch in my dormitory living room. My roommate was standing in the kitchen warming something up in the microwave.
In front of us, as if standing on a stage, the man painted the picture of our futures.
“Now I don’t just work with anybody,” he said, pacing back and forth. “But you both got some promise, better believe. I ain’t never heard a voice like you got Tony,” he said, nodding at the tiny latino kid with the messy hair and the overly optimistic father. “It’s time we get you a producer, and Cole here on the keys is something mean, better believe.”
Tony and I looked at each other. I seriously thought me and this kid were going to turn into worldwide sensations.
“But first things first,” the man said. “The music business is gonna cost ‘ya. People ain’t gonna put you on for nothin’ and since I’ll be actin’ as your manager, there’ll be a fee for my services.”
I wasn’t naive. And I was pretty sure if either of my parents knew what was happening in that moment, they (my mother) would have stepped right up in that man’s face and said, “What are you doing taking advantage of my son? Who are you? Where are you from? What’s your track record? Where’s yourmother?”
But I was so hungry for success. I was ready to risk anything and everything if it meant realizing my dream faster.
Tony’s dad spoke up first. “But I thought that’s why we paid you last week? What’s the next payment for?”
The man looked away again, the same look the first time we talked in the music department. He was contemplating.
“The first payment was for me to be part of the team. You want me on your team, don’t you?”
Tony’s dad just sort of shuffled in his seat and cowered. “Of course we want you on the team, it’s just…”.
“The second payment is for my involvement,” he said. “Good luck meeting the right people without somebody like me involved.”
I was impatient, so I decided to take matters into my own hands.
“I’ll pay, it’s fine. Just tell me how much and let’s start working on some music.”
The man smiled and said, “It’ll cost you $250 for me to put together a portfolio for you. Do you have $250?”
“I’ll go to the ATM and get it right now,” I said — and left them all in my apartment while I paid a visit to the ATM in the lobby.
For a few weeks, I didn’t hear anything from the guy. Every so often, he’d shoot me a text saying something vague like, “Still working on these contracts. Music biz is crazy!” And I believed him. I didn’t even know what the contracts would be for, but contracts sounded official and I trusted him.
Until one night, about 15 minutes after I crawled into bed, and my phone started ringing.
It was midnight.
“I got a big break for you buddy, better believe,” he said. It was pitch black outside, and I was sitting in front of the big window in my dorm room. The glass stretched from floor to ceiling, and the city lights outside glimmered as far as the eye could see.
“Really? What is it?” I asked.
“R. Kelly. I sent him one of your beats earlier, and he just called me saying he was taking it to the studio.”
I jumped out of my chair and walked right up to the window, nose pressed against the cold glass. I could barely breathe I was so excited — I’d been listening to R. Kelly since I was in middle school.
“You’re kidding me. What beat? What beat did he like? Was it Burning Blue? Was it that one?”
His cell phone started cutting in and out, and he said, “Yup, it was that one. That one, that was it. So, here’s the thing buddy, because we need to act fast here.”
I was prepared to do whatever it took to make sure R. Kelly got on one of my beats. I wasn’t about to let my big break slip right through my fingers.
“Better believe I’m out here doing whatever I can to see you succeed. I’ma be in the studio with Kelly until five, maybe six a.m. So I need you to meet me right now and give me the other $500 for my services.”
“Five hundred dollars?” I said — that was everything I had left. “I already paid you $250 though and I haven’t seen anything come from it.”
“This is coming from it! You want R. Kelly on your song, don’t you?” he asked.
I looked out at the city. $500 seemed like so much money in that moment, but I knew I’d regret it forever if I didn’t take the chance.
“Fine. I’ll pay the $500 tomorrow, after you meet with R. Kelly,” I said.
“Nope, has to be now,” he said.
“It’s midnight. Why can’t I just pay you tomorrow?”
“Look, do you want me to spend all night pushing your beat in the studio or not,” he said. And just like that, I was dressed and walking down the street in the cold Chicago winter to meet him at a train station.
There were so many things I should have known to look out for: the fact that he was taking the train instead of a cab. That fact he insisted I pay him in the middle of the night. The cheap and torn backpack he carried. The way he took the money and ran back into the train station.
I never saw that $500 again. R. Kelly never sang on one of my songs. And I was so embarrassed by the whole thing that I never told a soul about it — not even my parents, who frequently asked how my first semester was going.
At the time, losing $750 to a scammer seemed like the world’s most expensive mistake. A decade later, and I frequently look back on that experience and see it as the world’s cheapest lesson. It taught me so much about trust, and how to spot people trying to rope you into their own agendas.
That one experience saved me decades of bad decisions.
Since then, I’ve assembled a list of character traits I absolutely do not tolerate, for any reason. The moment I spot one of these character traits, I immediately start to play my cards defensively — and make it a point to keep that person far, far away from anything and everything I do.
1. People who ask for something before first offering to help in some way.
Every great connection I have in the business world has manifested from this way of being. And there isn’t a single person in my direct network who doesn’t operate from the same philosophy.
2. People who don’t always give you the full story.
If you listen closely, you can tell when someone is purposefully omitting details from certain situations. And if you watch from afar long enough, you’ll start to realize why: they have things they want to hide.
These aren’t the people you want to trust.
3. People who steal.
I had a great connection with someone in Chicago — a fellow entrepreneur and good friend of a good friend. Since she was a connection from someone in my inner circle, I walked into the relationship more open than I normally would be.
We saw plenty of opportunities to work together, and I made it very clear I was more than happy to help however I could (not even for her benefit, but to do right by my close friend). She was super thankful, and proceeded to share her appreciation with me often.
I did a lot to help her out, without really receiving anything in return. I believe giving and not expecting anything back is a better way to live, so I didn’t so much mind the one-sided relationship. However, one day I found out she had taken pages and pages of material from my website, my blogs and content, even my email courses, deleted my name and replaced it with her own.
The moment I saw that, I immediately cut off the relationship, 0 questions asked. As a writer, there are few things in life more infuriating than seeing someone put their name on your work.
4. People who get jealous of your success.
As you continue to grow, and especially if you begin to achieve things in your life, you will start to see the true colors of those around you.
In each chapter of my life, I’ve made and lost friends. The ones I’ve lost suddenly felt threatened by things I was achieving — no matter how much I encouraged them. The ones I’ve kept (and there aren’t many) are the ones who are OK with the path changing, and are happy to see me happy.
A few months ago, I got a call from my gym friend and mentor, C3. We haven’t been able to lift together for years, let alone catch up since I made the move from Chicago to LA.
When he called me, he said, “Hey man, I just want to let you know I see you over there. You’re making big moves, and I couldn’t be more proud of you. Keep doing you, my fella.”
That’s a real friend.
5. People who blame others for their lack of success/happiness.
If there’s one thing I pay attention to in other people, more than anything else, it’s how they talk about their life.
If their current situation is the result of someone else, that’s a red flag.
If they blame other people for their shortcomings, that’s a red flag.
If they constantly point out what everyone else is doing wrong, that’s a red flag.
If they struggle to admit their own faults, that’s a red flag.
These kinds of people are leeches. The happier you become, the more they will want from you. The more successful you become, the more jealous they will feel. They live in a constant state of playing victim. “Life” is happening tothem — and there’s nothing they can do about it (which makes it everyone else’s fault).
I have learned the hard way not to let these kinds of people into my life.
But once you know what to look for, it becomes apparent who is worth your time and who isn’t.