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By Hans Morgenstern
If you've paid a recent late-night visit to the Krispy Kreme Doughnuts in North Miami Beach, chances are you've seen Bobby Washington in the parking lot. "This is when it gets really packed," notes the 33-year-old R&B singer.
Washington cuts an odd figure amid the SUVs and sedans circling this 24/7 haven. He's dressed in a fitted shirt that clings to his muscled physique, and, curiously, Gucci sunglasses. A tiny blue cell phone clamped to his left ear gleams in the darkness. The sweet scent of sugary glazed donuts would make just about anyone give in to an impulse buy. Not Washington. "I'm here to make money, not spend it," he explains.
By the end of the night, Washington will make about $250, selling his latest self-produced album, Nude, at ten bucks a pop. That's average, seeing as it's a weekday. On weekends, he aims for double that. "You gotta get them where it's quiet," Washington says. "Too much noise, their mind is elsewhere."
While other local players hope to get their music to the masses through radio airplay or a major-label contract, Washington has long taken a more direct approach, what he calls "street hustling." After years of research he's honed the practice to an art, and a very lucrative one at that. Washington claims to have sold more than 75,000 discs out of his car trunk over the past decade.
Born and raised in Opa-locka, Washington grew up with soul literally. His father once auditioned for the Temptations, and was even called back for a second tryout, though he never joined the group. "He just wasn't focused enough," the younger Washington says. "And that's all you need, is to be focused."
In fact, his approach is nothing short of single-minded. "I knew I wanted to do music," he explains. "There were no alternatives."
As a student at Norland High School, Bobby formed the Force of Dreams, with himself as frontman, naturally. The quintet sang, danced, and made the girls scream enough girls that they eventually earned a slot opening for one of the biggest boy bands of all time, New Kids On the Block. "That was insane," Washington recalls of the 1989 show at Loehmann's Plaza. "I've never seen so many females in one place in my life."
By the end of high school, Washington had set his sights on a solo career. He managed to land odd gigs throughout South Florida, opening for luminaries such as Angie and Debbie Winans, Tony Terry, and the pied piper of R&B himself, R. Kelly. Washington also toured as a background singer and dancer with the Miami bass legend Pretty Tony and his group, Freestyle, in 1991.
Three years later Washington scored a record deal with the Miami indie label Up Front Records. He released only one album on the imprint, Sweet Summer Miami Night in 1994, but the relationship provided him with a crash course in the music industry. He saw how business was done and decided he was better off on his own.
These days Washington is the ultimate one-man operation. His small, one-bedroom North Miami Beach apartment is crammed with copies of his CDs, shelf after shelf of them, which he manufactures himself, using a high-powered multiple CD burner appropriately located next to the oven in his kitchen.
His bedroom serves as headquarters for BDubb Entertainment, the label Washington started in 1999. Inside there are three computers. He uses one for graphic design purposes (he designs his own CD artwork and his Website, www.bobbywashington.com). The second machine is for editing music videos, which he posts on YouTube and on his MySpace page (www.myspace.com/bobby washingtonmusic). Washington records and mixes his music on the third machine. In addition to Nude, Washington has released eleven other albums, writing nearly all of the music and playing most of the instruments himself.
His walk-in closet doubles as a recording booth, while his bed is littered with copies of his latest album poster (a picture of Washington, shirtless, with his bulging biceps wrapped around a woman's naked torso). The posters have been autographed and will serve as promotional giveaways the next time he hits the streets.
The most telling detail of all, though, is directly over his bed. Washington has a dollar bill taped to the ceiling, with six tiny zeroes markered next to the one digit. "I look up at that bill every night before I go to bed and every morning when I wake up," Washington explains. "It keeps me focused and reminds me that every day I'm closer to that million."
Washington's sound is mostly a combination of soul and R&B what he prefers to call "sexy music" with frequent ventures into other genres. His latest single, "Brotha from Dade," is a quirky hip-hop track that features guest rapper J.T. Money. "I don't always make sexy music," Washington says. "I love hip-hop, some pop, anything Top 40, I dig." His influences range from old-school legends like Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder to current producers Timbaland and Scott Storch.
One thing Washington has in common with these better-known artists: He's prolific. He claims to have some 300 unreleased songs, beats, and lyrics, which he's hoping to record just as soon as he can find time.
"He's that type of talent that can write a four-minute song in, well, four minutes," explains Drunk Drew, a local producer and owner of Area 61 Studios. "Bobby is a genius; he's like a songwriting machine."
You'll get no argument from Washington. "Writing songs comes easy to me," he says. "Like right now we're talking and I might just have to take a break, because I have an idea for a melody and need to record it." He attributes his songwriting prowess to a "musical spirit" that haunts him. "I know it sounds crazy," he says, "but all musicians are crazy!"
Washington's decision to steer clear of record labels has been, for the most part, a control issue. "Those majors tend to treat you like a puppet," he says, "and I haven't seen anything that gives me full control over my babies." Serving as his own sales rep suits him better. "I'm a hustler," he says simply. "That's what I do hustle and I'm good at it. I've been selling my music on the streets since 1994. Back then, people thought I was crazy for doing something like that. But now they look at me as the pioneer."
Washington calls his sales strategy "executive marketing," meaning he targets specific demographics with specific outcomes. "I don't go out on some random street corner and say 'Hey, cop my album!' That's hoodlum marketing. That's straight-up ghetto and it never works. The secret is to hit all the Publixes, Winn-Dixies, Kmarts, Wal-Marts, because my potential customers are already in a buying mode. You gotta get them when they feel comfortable, when they know that you're not gonna rob them."
Watching Washington hawk his albums is like watching a charismatic evangelist preach the good news. When approaching passersby he makes sure to ask, graciously, for a minute of their time. If he gets the brush-off (as he does most of the time), Washington's only reaction is to exclaim, "Have a great day and God bless!" But if he can get someone to listen, even for a few seconds, his earnest enthusiasm is hard to resist.
"You gotta approach them like you're a serious entrepreneur, not some street kid. You gotta look nice, smell nice, be nice, and say politely, 'Hello ma'am, my name is Bobby Washington and I am a singer/songwriter. I would love for you to have a listen to my new album and tell me what you think.' And you let them hear your headphones and within ten seconds the music will speak for itself! You just sold an album in less than a minute!"
Washington has had his brushes with the law, he says, but not many. "I believe that respect is all you need. I respect the police and what they're doing and they should respect me and what I'm doing. I'm just an entrepreneur selling his product to the public. Isn't that what America is all about?"
Washington says he tends to sell most of his albums to women ("Women do know how to spend money!"), but his clientele is all over the map, as is the singer. He's been known to hustle up to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week.
But doesn't all that hustling not to mention writing and recording and marketing and self-promotion get tiring?
"Yeah, it's hard. At times, it feels almost impossible to do all these things all at once," he says. "But I can't get discouraged. I pray every night and let God do his thing, 'cause ain't no way I'm able to do all this by myself. I have spirits that help me."
At the end of the day, Washington feels nothing but gratitude. "I'm just so blessed to be doing what I'm doing. I got a roof over my head, I drive a nice car, I eat on a daily basis I can do this and not have to worry about getting some nine-to-five," he says. "Music is my life and if I'm selling my CDs out on the streets 25 years later, that's fine by me."