One Des Moines musician is finding a niche in his hometown. And, as he sits inside the DSM Brew Coffee Co. at the 300 MLK complex in downtown Des Moines, the comparisons become more and more evident.
There’s the rooftop bar, one floor above Anytime Fitness. Fuzzy’s Taco Shop and Blaze Pizza are side by side on the main level. Twenty feet south is DSM Brew Coffee Co., the coffee shop that displays its “GET WOKE” slogan in neon lights and offers alcoholic beverages alongside espressos.
There’s a lot going on here, and there’s a lot going on with MarKaus Ashworth.
Ashworth—better known by the stage name MarKaus—has sat through more than a few meetings in the past 12 months. He’s a rapper born and bred in Des Moines, and the founder of Media Fresh Records. He’s also one of the busiest men in town, seeming to always have a new enterprise brewing.
“I love these meetings because it gives me the opportunity to drink in the middle of the day,” says Ashworth, laughing beneath the snapback he rarely takes off while holding the midday beer he just ordered from DSM Brew. “When I’m in meetings, I hate being the awkward guy not drinking coffee.”
Terms like “market research” and “capital firms” roll off the tongue as naturally as “dope” and “fly.”
Plans come easily for Ashworth, one big idea after another.
“It’s been daunting,” he says. “But for me, it’s never been scary.”
“We’ve compiled the best MCs in the state,” Ashworth says. “We are willing to bet any type of money on that. There is not an MC in the state, in the region, that is banging on Media Fresh MCs.”
But the music is only part of the story.
Ashworth considers his company a “creative firm,.” rather than a label. The vision for Media Fresh Records includes podcasts, apparel, visual arts and music.
Unlike a lot of other rappers, MarKaus isn’t looking to make his mark with rhymes alone. He wants to create worth in his name, to build a business inspired by his current lifestyle.
“Making dope songs doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re being a professional musician,” he says. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable moving around in music if I didn’t know how the business works if I didn’t know how simple consumerism works.”
And Ashworth is starting his own gluten-free, hemp-infused vodka line—Ziyad—that should be hitting stores’ top shelves in March.
Reaching the People
Ashworth says he has a love-hate relationship with streaming services.
On one hand, it’s really easy to reach listeners. With one click, “the whole world will get (my music). That’s beautiful,” he says. “My music is so attainable.”
But on the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to sustain a substantial income that way. “How many streams do you need to get on Spotify to make it matter?” he questions.
With the minuscule payout for streams on Spotify or YouTube, having a lot of views doesn’t directly translate into “success” for MarKaus. Music simply drives MarKaus’ brand, which he hopes will sustain his other ventures.
“For me, success would be if I could say ‘I’ve got 10 states where I am the dominant MC in those states. I set the tone, I set the culture, I’m the number one sold beverage, I’m the number one clothing line,’” he says. “You can gauge your music success by the success of the product you attach to it.” It’s more than just dollars and cents and streams.
MarKaus started producing music in college at Iowa State University.
“I was dope as hell,” Ashworth says of his early raps.
Now 27, Ashworth considers himself “THE artist of Des Moines.” He graduated from Iowa State University in 2014 with degrees in marketing and sociology, both informing pretty much every business decision he makes now. He’s attracted investors and endorsements to fund his ventures and reduces costs by producing music from his home studio.
Gearing Up For 2018
Ashworth is planning on releasing two albums in 2018, which should be a technical leap from his full first release White Man’s Burden in 2015.
“There are rappers in cities, you’ll see them pop and nothing benefits in the neighborhood. Not even like a street sign gets built, not a playground, nothing,” Ashworth says. “I could become a multi-millionaire if I make my music hot and I just market all of my music properly in Iowa. I don’t have to go anywhere.”
In fall 2016, Ashworth started Fresh Fest, branded as “Iowa’s first hip-hop festival.” It started out with a couple hundred attendees at the Des Moines Social Club. Year two saw it grow to an outdoor event downtown. It was sponsored by Monster Energy Drinks and Heineken, featured a fashion show, rap battles, and hosted more than 25 vendors, including a black business expo.
Ashworth says year three will make the last two festivals look like “practice runs.” He’s not allowed to reveal the headliner but is clearly itching to shout it in the quiet coffee shop on a Friday afternoon.
He’s excited about what (all) he’s doing.
Adam Rogan is a contributor to Clay & Milk