As a member of one of Michigan's most storied hip-hop crews, Roland "Ro Spit" Coit, 30, has been working on music for nearly a decade. But within the past two years, Coit and business partner Rick Williams have also established Burn Rubber, the most reputable sneaker boutique in the state, with rap stars such as Mos Def and Jay-Z visiting the Royal Oak store, rocking its product, and even shouting them out onstage, as the latter recently did during a Ypsilanti appearance.
Not bad for a "Plan B" when facing an industry that's continuously becoming less potentially lucrative.
"When you're a kid that's rapping, you think that all you need is a big break," Coit says. "But I have a wife at home, so I need to have a job. I couldn't go as hard with music. ... [But] the store has resurrected my rap career, because there's a group of people I would've never known that are listening to my music."
Coit got his start in rap in the late '90s alongside cousin OneBeLo (formerly known as OneManArmy), who was half of the critically acclaimed duo Binary Star and leader of the Subterraneous Records crew. Coit considered himself "terrible" at rapping, but, after finding the turntables to be a natural fit, he began spinning at Subterraneous gigs and booking other parties and events in the area. Coit eventually fed his emceeing bug and, as Octane, crafted his own identity while closely observing his group mates to learn the qualities that made them great.
"I'm in a room with Decompoze, Kodac, Magestik Legend, and all these other people, and each one of them is completely different," Coit says. "So I figured I'd sit back and learn from them. I tried to take what I thought were the dopest [elements] from all of those cats, and apply them to myself."
Rapping under the moniker of Octane, Coit's youthful spirit and cocky, fashion-driven rhymes stood out from the rest of Subterraneous' more serious lyrics. In between opening shows for major acts that performed in the area, he recorded dozens of songs, including an entire solo album that would remain in the vaults for years. But in 2006, he finally released The Forgotten...Chosen, an album he recorded with fellow Detroit emcee iLLite, and strengthened his rep as a formidable solo artist.
But Coit decided that rhyming wouldn't be his only hustle. In 2007, Coit and former professional tap dancer Rick Williams took over Burn Rubber, a sneaker boutique that was founded in 2004 and had already built a reputation for exclusive footwear and clothing. When the store's previous owner got a promotion with Nike that required a move to the West Coast, he turned to Williams, who'd established a rapport with the owner when he built the store's website. Coit was already in the process of working on proposals to open his own store at the time, so it seemed natural that he should buy the store.
Once Coit and Williams took over Burn Rubber, they transformed its previous "grown-up, Manhattan" style and geared it to a youthful, urban crowd. After nabbing exclusive accounts with the likes of Nike, Adidas, 10Deep and other world-known brands, the duo transformed the store into a one-stop shop for limited-edition, hard-to-find sneakers and the latest street wear. It's not an uncommon occurrence to see enthusiasts camping outside, waiting for midnight releases of prestigious kicks, such as Roots drummer ?uestlove's special-edition Nike Air ?uestos or Kanye West's Nike Air Yeezys.
Coit's musical roots were never left behind, however, and the store has also served as an area hip-hop hub. Such mainstays as Slum Village and Big Sean regularly shop there, and national stars Mos Def and the Alchemist have stopped by as well, leaving signed sneakers in the display cases. Record labels also regularly enlist Burn Rubber for in-store meet-and-greets to promote releases from national acts, including Clipse and Wale.
But while established brands and artists are both staples of Burn Rubber, Coit insists that the store's most important material is its own Burn Rubber-branded gear. New Era fitted caps, T-shirts, outerwear and accessories with the Burn Rubber logo are opportunities for BR disciples to show their allegiance. And at last month's concert at Eastern Michigan University, Jay-Z inquired about the store onstage after seeing so many of its items on fans in the audience.
"We literally can't keep the Burn Rubber gear in the store," Coit beams. "Nike can take Nike away, but one thing they can never take away from us is Burn Rubber. So if we build our brand up to the level of these other brands, we're good to go."
The store and Coit's music career have helped each other immensely in reverse ways. Coit lures new buyers by wearing Burn Rubber gear at his shows, and he records and performs with artists who shop at the store.
"No one's going to push Burn Rubber like I will. So the bigger I get and the further I go, the bigger and better Burn Rubber is," Coit points out. "And as far as the music goes, you get the relationships ... and after that, the potential of it is raised by the talent."
Coit's business savvy continued this year, when he changed his name to Ro Spit (a move he says was prompted by dislike for "Octane," as well as a crew nickname of "Spit," and a tendency to rhyme "Oh shit, Ro spit" in his newer lyrics). He released his entire discography online as a free download, a decision that was prompted by a blogger requesting some of Coit's music, after seeing one of Coit's friends make a Twitter update about listening to the entrepreneur-artist's new songs.
"I was looking through my computer, trying to find stuff to send her. And I was like, 'I'm just going to send her everything,'" he remembers. "I had material that was kind of dated, but it was dope, and nobody had ever heard it."
Coit made his own Twitter update, telling followers to e-mail him to obtain the download link. After seeing the demand there was via hundreds of e-mails, he enlisted MichiganHipHop.com owner Nick "M.O.S.ologist" Zaher to post the music online for the entire e-world to consume.
The massive collection of albums and stray songs served as an audible timeline for previous fans, and as an introduction to new listeners who primarily knew him only from his ownership of Burn Rubber. One of his older songs, "Leave Me Alone," even became a staple on Detroit urban radio stations after the leak.
"It's weird to see someone say they're listening to some Ro Spit songs that I did years ago," Coit says. "Back then, I didn't even put it out because I wasn't ready. ... [But] on a song like 'Leave Me Alone,' everything I'm saying is still relevant to this time. And people can rock with it now."
With his previous catalog behind him and his store at the forefront of the state's fashion scene, Coit released his official solo debut, The Oh S#!T Project, this week on Tuesday, Nov. 10, as a free download. The disc is chock-full of the confident, fashion-friendly rhymes that Ro Spit is known for, and boasts guest spots by the likes of iLLite, Monica Blaire, Bun B and more.
"In anything you do, I consider forced love as rape," Coit says. He's speaking about his music, but the statement easily translates to his Burn Rubber operations as well. "I just do what comes naturally."William E. Ketchum III is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]