Daniel Bennett plays by his own terms.
Commonly known as "Transit," the 22-year-old hip-hop artist commits to producing authentic, gritty rhymes ¬— whether playing for a handful of friends or hundreds of thousands on the Internet.
On this night, he looks comfortable lounging on a grubby couch while soaking up the scene at the New Black Centre for Music & Art in Calgary. Fewer than a dozen people linger in the dusty wood-floored building.
The group seems unsure of who's showing up for the first of back-to-back CD release parties. Nervous energy peaks only moments before doors are set to open for the all-ages gig.
Friends say Bennett gets anxious before shows, but the man taking centre stage makes it clear it's not his first rodeo.
"I've played for a lot less," Bennett shrugs, walking across the room.
Before long, lively, young music fans pack the centre and an electric hip-hop show transpires. The B.C. native puts on an energetic set, even staying afterward to sign copies of his aptly named new album "22."
"If these people are going to spend their hard-earned money on my ticket, the least I can do is meet them," Bennett said. "And build those relationships.
"A lot of my good friends have stemmed from being fans first."
Days later, the album skyrocketed to No. 18 on iTunes' Canadian hip-hop chart. It eventually peaked at No. 8 on the chart, above industry heavyweights such as Dr. Dre, Eminem and Lil Wayne.
Bennett called it the best day of his life — though it's not the first time he's rubbed shoulders with iconic musicians.
Back in December of last year, he teamed up with friend and musician Dave Wallace to produce a video dubbed "Creating A Hit: 8 Hour Challenge." The duo aimed to create a pop parody highlighting how shallow the music business has become.
The song, "Lights, Camera, Action!" quickly drew half a million views on YouTube.
"It was bittersweet at the same time because it wasn't my real song," Bennett said. "It's cool when you get buzz for your actual music."
One of the parody project viewers was former KISS frontman Gene Simmons, who emailed Wallace to launch negotiations on a record deal.
Although the original video was a spoof, Simmons' offer left Bennett with an ethical dilemma. The email detailed plans on making him a combination of popular artists Linkin Park and deadmau5.
Bennett admitted he had a hard time "keeping it real."
"It's tempting, obviously," he said. "You think about it.
"You spend your whole career trying to get that email or that call and then you get it. What are you going to do about it?"
"I'm not going to lie here and say as soon as I got that message I was like 'keep it real, screw Gene.'"
Bennett said he took time to reflect and consult with important people including his Dad and girlfriend. However, something from his religious upbringing helped him make the final call.
"A verse that came to my head is Luke: 9:25, which is, 'what is a man if he gains the whole world, yet loses his soul,'" he said. "That's kind of the verse that stuck out and helped me ultimately helped me come to the decision not to do it."
Alternatively, the pair sent Simmons back a copy of their real, grittier-style music. They never received a response.
The ordeal did provided fodder for the opening track off 22 called "My Own Term." Bennett addresses record executives and talent scouts: "I am not a zombie, walk around blindly. These are my own terms if you want to sign me."
For now, the 22-year-old appears content on continuing to produce his authentic brand of music.
"I'm so passionate about hip-hop music," he said. "It's my favourite thing in the world, so when I feel questioned or feel like I'm expected to sellout that thing I love then I got to come back even harder and stand up and be an ambassador for that kind of music."
- By Bryan Weismiller