His dream is grand

North Philly rapper Meek Mill (real name Robert Rameek Williams) has buzz: Six mix tapes, 200,000 Twitter followers, a line of T-shirts.
North Philly rapper Meek Mill (real name Robert Rameek Williams) has buzz: Six mix tapes, 200,000 Twitter followers, a line of T-shirts. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)

Rapper Meek Mill, social media savvy, builds his brand with music, fashion.

Posted: July 12, 2011

The ink on Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill's deal with Rick Ross' record label is only five months old. But the 24-year-old master of the mix tape already has a massive audience with nearly 200,000 Twitter followers and a slew of popular YouTube videos, some of which have more than half a million hits.

And even though Meek isn't nearly as famous as Jay-Z, or even 50 Cent, he was able to debut a line of men's activewear at Villa last week.

Meek's lyrics may be pretty hard-core, even violent, but his fashion sense is skateboarder friendly. Right now Dream Chasers, a collaboration between Meek, Villa, and edgy menswear line Ecko Unltd., is a collection of simple slim-fitting T's in all-American red, white, and blue.

The designs, Meek says, are reminiscent of the 1992 Olympic Dream Team gear.

"It's about chasing dreams," Meek said from the Northern Liberties Bat Cave recording studio. "I mean, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a skateboarder, an artist, a lawyer, a basketball player, a firefighter, but I didn't really believe I could do anything. ... I felt like I never had a chance."

He hopes Dream Chasers will eventually include crewneck shirts as well as varsity jackets. Who knows, maybe there will be a line of Meek Mill cargo shorts.

Pretty basic, as far as fashion goes. But what's more interesting is that Meek, born Robert Rameek Williams, is doing everything out of order.

After all, it wasn't long ago that an entertainer had to have an established brand and a sense of unique style - think Jay-Z's Rocawear - before even thinking about launching a line of apparel. These days, it seems to be an integral part of the climb up. Still, the most important ingredient in marketing fashion is buzz, and you can't deny the loudness of Meek's.

He has six underground music compilations. Local DJs rock his music with the same excitement they did Philly rapper Beanie Segal. And then there's his social media prowess. Meek has tweeted nearly 20,000 times since he joined Twitter in 2009.

Oh, how the grind has changed. Instead of creating an identity and building a brand around it, the brand development comes first. And to his credit, Meek is building his one mix tape and tweet at a time.

"Meek Mill is a star," said James Peterson, hip-hop scholar and director of Africana studies at Lehigh University. "Artists don't need the 'industry' to sell their records; they are released in social media."

Meek Mill is not stopping with fashion.

In addition to Dream Chasers, Meek is working on his own sneaker deal, as well as developing honey-hot flavored potato chips with North Carolina-based Rap Snacks. He's also auditioning for movie roles.

"This is just the beginning for me from a merchandising standpoint," said Meek, who with his close haircut is ruggedly handsome. "I just want to do all I can to get my family out of the streets."

Years before Meek started rapping about his preference for blush wine and sparkling blue diamonds, he split his time between the North Philadelphia projects with his mother, Cathy, and his father's family in South Philadelphia.

As the nephew of Philadelphia hip-hop legend Grandmaster Nell of Punk Funk Nation, he grew up around music. Even Meek's father, Robert Parker, was a part of the group. But he was killed in a 1989 robbery.

Meek started rapping around age 12, mostly freestyle and battle rap, in which MCs challenge each other in verse. One of his key competitors was Philly rapper Reed Dollaz.

A few years later, YouTube was gaining popularity, so Meek decided he would post his performances on the video site.

"He was one of the first viral battle MCs," said Raymond Brockington, a record promoter for Def Jam who scouts talent in the Philadelphia area. At the same time, Meek was trying to figure out how he could make and distribute his own records."

Once Meek built his Internet following, he started making CD compilations, which people still refer to as mix tapes. After initially getting turned down by local radio stations, the first single to hit the airwaves was "In My Bag."

"That was the first single that really got him moving to the next level," Brockington said.

Shortly after that, promoter Charlie Mack, once the bodyguard of Will Smith, was looking for a rapper to perform with his R&B group. Brockington suggested Meek, and the two hit it off.

Mack eventually introduced him to rapper T.I., but Meek was arrested on gun charges while the two were working toward a record deal. He spent eight months in jail; at the same time, his mix tapes were getting play. His fans never forgot about him.

"Jail taught me a lesson because before I went, I didn't care about anything really," he said. "But I realized if I wanted to do anything, I had to be brave and take a chance."

Meek was released from prison in 2009 and immediately picked up where he left off. He cut off his long braids. One night he tweeted a request for Miami-based Ross to join him on a remix of his track "Rozay Red."

The tweet was retweeted a thousand times over, and within the week, Ross agreed. He even showed up at a Fourth of July party for Meek's mother.

These days Meek is making appearances everywhere from Atlantic City venues to the BET Awards. He's always dressed simply, representing Philly with a baseball cap or his Dream Chasers shirts. He says he's grateful, humble, and looking ahead.

"I want to lead by example for the next generation," Meek said. "I want them to know that they can be more than a shooter or a killer."

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704, ewellington@phillynews.com or on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.

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