Yusuf “Yuie” Muhammad has developed a healthy handful of phrases that he likes to use—“isms,” if you will, or truisms that inform his grind. One of the first he came across was as a preteen secretly rooting through his mom’s massive CD collection: “If you can’t find your purpose, find your passion—because your passion will lead you to your purpose.” And then there’s “Learn local and win global,” a version of a Mos Def quote Muhammad credits with his determination to expand outside of Philadelphia and bring a distinctly Philly identity to masses outside the city’s limits. Earlier this spring, shortly before his 28th birthday, he told a rapt audience at United Nations, as part of a youth-led briefing panel on culture and music, “I speak in culture and not color. Culture kind of eliminates color.”
His latest ism? “Your relationships are your bank account”—meaning who you know is how you grow.
And he ought to know. The Philly native and connection-making wunderkind skipped high school and jumped into college at age 14. As a young photographer and filmmaker, he got his start by getting access to early-arrivers in Philly hip-hop, and he credits a handful of folks for getting him his start—like Philly.com’s Leah Kauffman, Chris Perella from the Blockley, Live Nation’s Elizabeth Schiller, Little Giant’s Tayyib Smith, and The Roots’ Black Thought and Questlove—by putting him on stages with a photo pass. Then, what began with booking at the Blockley in 2011—simply because he wanted to—has transformed him into a one-man promotion menace who books concerts for Live Nation, AEG Live, R5 Productions and curates shows for himself, under the branded moniker Veteran Freshman.
One of Veteran Freshman’s most long-standing gigs is “Who Got The Jazz?,” which he’s particularly fond of staging. The monthly collaboration between local talent and the Philadelphia Jazz Project was inspired by Muhammad’s favorite movie, Spike Lee’s 1990 Mo’ Better Blues, which deftly uses “Jazz Thing” by Gang Starr in its soundtrack. In fact, he stepped out of a WGTZ rehearsal to speak to PW from Northern Liberties, where passing Market-Frankford line trains necessitated pauses in our dialogue.
Muhammad started Veteran Freshman in college, choosing a name that speaks to a notion he’s seen many times: artists who are huge in their hometown but who have no fans to speak of elsewhere. Both for them, and the audiences coming out to see them, Muhammad delivers on every front of the concert experience.
“I build it, I budget it, I book the talent, build the support, do the schedule, and go to the venue and work with the staff,” he says, listing the responsibilities he takes seriously. “And they talk highly of you,” he says with modesty, “and request to be there the next time Yuie’s got a show.”
Muhammad recalls being on stage at one of Kendrick Lamar’s first appearances in the area at the Franklin Mills in NE Philly. “Nobody knew who he was,” he says. “We promoted it, and 150 people showed up.” But at the Blockley, he really cut his teeth. “We booked Juicy J, Action Bronson, Dom Kennedy, Ghostface. That was 100-percent school if you wanted to learn how to curate and do concerts. It was truly a shame that it closed.” I can practically hear him beam on the other line as he remembers the night his Musiq Soulchild show sold 800 tickets.
Stacie George, another Live Nation hero of Muhammad’s, confronted him about what she’d heard was going on at the Blockley, but she didn’t realize it’d been his handiwork at play pulling in part of their market. At the end of 2011, he was sitting with George in the back of the TLA before a performance, when George asked him, “Is that you that’s doing all those shows at the Blockley? Well, why don’t you just come over here?” He didn’t want to quit his own projects entirely and, two years later, signed a contract with Live Nation so that he could be a regular—albeit freelance—booker. They knew they wanted to keep him on the backs of another 800-ticket-selling, Dosage-headlined Veteran Freshman showcase at the TLA, Muhammad’s first for Live Nation at the South Street mainstay.
Now, Muhammad’s got fingers in a bunch of pots: he’s the Philly ambassador to Atlanta’s annual A3C Festival, and the week he made his appearance at the UN, he’d been to Austin for SXSW, plus London and L.A. to oversee pending festival plans. Not bad for a kid who worked at the Philadelphia Airport while in college, yet never flew in a plane until he started concert curation.
Speaking of school, remember how he skipped all those grades? ‘Twas both a blessing and a burden. The experience taught a young Muhammad about healthy detachment, so the artists that he works with and books—like, say, Chill Moody, GoGo Morrow, E-Hos, Jacqueline Constance or Beano—he tends to keep at an arm’s length. The man’s not trying to make good friends, just do good business.
“A lot of artists, especially in Philly, it rubs many of them the wrong way,” Muhammad admits. “I’m not their friend. We might be the same age, but this is business. We’re grown adults. We’re here to do a job. Let’s get this job done.” He sometimes has to urge artists to get their own hustle together. “I can only put you on the TLA stage so many times,” he’s been known to say.
Maybe those impressionable years hardened Muhammad a bit—when his college-aged peers asked him how old he was, he’d say, “I’m aging” with a sneer—but he seems to see his current mission pretty clearly: “To have a product that’s crisp, that’s on-time, that works, that communicates to an audience,” he says. “I’m huge on audience participation. Make them feel a part of the show. Make this a memory.”
Bill Chenevert, PW’s senior music writer, blogs regularly on PhillyNow.com. Follow him on Twitter @billchenevert.
PW's Music Issue 2014