- This photo is brought to you by Tommy Hilfiger.
But it doesn't matter whether Smallz' new disc, Having My Way, scores big. Really -- the dude has already made it, simply by beating the shitty life dealt him as a child. Now residing in Los Angeles, the self-proclaimed hustler has crafted one of those careers seemingly unique to show business: an intricate latticework of promotion, cross promotion, sponsoring, rapping, dancing, modeling, acting, label-running, and networking -- lots of networking. Lay it all out like a flowchart, and its complexity rivals the F.B.I.'s schematic representations of New York's five families -- but now we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's rewind to the early '80s.
Travis and Marsha Carter, regionally successful R&B singers in search of lucrative session work, relocated from Northeast Ohio to the Bay Area, bringing with them three sons: Antoine, Travis, and Donte' Terrell (Ta).
Although they were working with the Whispers and Larry Graham (formerly of Sly & the Family Stone and Graham Central Station) . . . "They ended up going through some things," Smallz explains in a gentle, fluttery voice that's an ill fit to the chiseled body of tattoos gracing the cover of Having My Way. "They were separated, trying to get back together, but then my mother got murdered."
He says it was a simple robbery gone bad. "I was in the house -- me and my brothers. They locked the doors. Locked us in our rooms and murdered her."
It was 1984, and Donte' was just 10. Soon after, their father descended into drug abuse, igniting a custody battle with his mother-in-law back in Canton, who wanted the boys to grow up in a more stable environment. "We wanted to be with our dad. We were the only thing that he had," says Smallz. But in the end, the courts granted custody to the boys' grandmother.
Back in Canton -- a town Smallz jokingly describes as only "two seconds long" -- the Carter brothers, then in their teens, followed their parents into show business. They teamed up with another set of brothers and formed the Schoolboyz, a pop R&B vocal group that blew minds with its stunning dance choreography -- kinda like New Kids on the Block busting real moves. (Smallz may be just a serviceable rapper, but he's a deeply gifted dancer.)
On one rainy day a few months after the Schoolboyz had come together, they caught wind that Gerald Levert was at a family-reunion barbecue at a park across town. "So we went there and auditioned," recalls Donte' with a laugh. "We were flipping on the cement. Our heads were rolling on the cement and everything. Gerald's father was there, Eddie, and he was like 'Take em.' We ended up going to Trevel studios on 93rd [in Cleveland] and auditioned again. And then he said he wanted us as his backup dancers."
Not only did Levert bring the boys on tour for the 1991 LeVert disc Rope a Dope Style, but Gerald offered them a chance to go big. "Who's gonna help you out of Canton?" Travis remembers thinking. "Because there's nothing around." Levert brought the boys into his extended music family; in addition to hooking them up financially, he became -- for Donte', in particular -- a mentor and father figure, schooling them on how to work the entertainment industry. And while the Schoolboyz' 1993 deal with Island Records fizzled before they could release a debut (in effect tanking the band), Levert's connections led to Donte' choreographing routines for the New Kids and Marky Mark. "He [Levert] was a blessing from God," says Donte'. According to Travis, Donte' was the Carter sibling hardest hit by Levert's untimely death last November.
Eying the hip-hop market, Donte' put into play many of the business lessons Levert taught him throughout the early and mid-'90s. Christening himself Ta Smallz -- a reference to his diminutive stature -- he did what a lot of hip-hop upstarts do: released an "underground" disc (Life, Love & Money) and named himself CEO of his own label, Life Entertainment.
"This was before Lil Wayne and Juvenile and Cash Money [Records] were even big," he explains, referring to his ties to some of the South's hottest hip-hop artists. "No one knew who they were, but I did. We ended up doing a song together and a show and another song. That shot my stock up real high because I had them on my record." It also helped Life Entertainment secure a distribution deal with Sony.
Relocating a couple years back to Los Angeles, where his brothers also now reside, Donte' the hustler now plays all kinds of angles. In addition to the recent release of Having My Way, there is Life Entertainment's Smeezy TV DVD, a star-studded video collage/CD magazine featuring interviews and "little clips" by Chino XL, E-40, and Missy Elliott.
Smallz also mentions a recent Dodge commercial that features him and one of his three sons, as well as appearances in several low-budget family movies. And speaking of family entertainment, Life will be releasing a gospel album by Travis junior, who now calls himself "the rev," heading-up Reach for the Stars, a ministry that "spiritually enlightens, empowers, and encourages entertainment professionals."
But wait, there's even more.
Smallz cashes in on his good looks, modeling for designer Christian Audigier's Ed Hardy line as well as Tommy Hilfiger. "He sponsors my tours, clothes, and videos," Smallz says of Hilfiger. "They make me aware of the fashion, and I make them aware of the music."
Yes, the music: For Donte', it's just another method of selling the Ta Smallz brand, which doesn't make it any less truthful -- quite the opposite, in fact. As Ta Smallz croons on Having My Way, "I'm always into something."