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They Thought Top Artists Were Giving Them Their Big Break. But Was It All a ‘Menu of Bullshit’?

“Okay I see you, let’s make moves,” the message read. 

In May 2022, independent artist Dwayne “WayneWayne” McDaniel Jr. was floored to discover a direct message from Ne-Yo’s verified Instagram account. The R&B singer-songwriter had admired the crooner for years and tagged him in posts in the longshot hopes of getting his attention.

McDaniel was a relative newcomer, channeling his frustration from a failed relationship into writing and recording music in 2018. A 26-year-old single father from Philadelphia, McDaniel had a day job in the medical field while looking to get a foothold in the music industry when Ne-Yo’s long-awaited response seemed like a breakthrough. 

But the glittering offer had purse strings attached. “What’s ya budget for promo/collab lookn like,” was Ne-Yo’s first question. 

The comment took McDaniel aback. “Somebody of this magnitude shouldn’t be asking for money, knowing that we’re the little guy and we’re struggling right now,” McDaniel tells Rolling Stone. “I did find it weird, but my father told me: ‘Sometimes you got to do what you don’t want to do to get where you want to go.’ And I just rolled with the punches.” 

The two came to an agreement in the DMs. Ne-Yo’s account was persistent, sending several messages about a deposit, warning “slots [were] filling up” and encouraging McDaniel to “lock in” with him. McDaniel eventually sent $200 to a CashApp account provided by Ne-Yo, which earned him an Instagram Story promoting his new song. After McDaniel’s family member pitched in another $1,200, Ne-Yo agreed to record an “intro” for another one of McDaniel’s tracks in August 2022.

Weeks — then months — ticked by and despite McDaniel’s repeated reach outs about the song, Ne-Yo was silent until May 2023. “What’s up how’s everything let’s get back to work,” Ne-Yo greeted him. Disappointed by the delay and Ne-Yo failing to acknowledge the missing work, McDaniel asked for a refund. Ne-Yo refused, saying he’d been busy but would deliver the intro by the next month. 

As of today — two years after McDaniel first made contact — he’s still out $1,200 and has not heard a peep from Ne-Yo.

Singer and producer Hyena XXL (real name Kristopher Trela) also sent Ne-Yo $1,200 in July 2022 for what he believed would be a feature on his song. After sending the money through CashApp, the New Jersey musician says he was ghosted — his money and hope of ever getting the track from Ne-Yo long gone. “It doesn’t make sense to me,” he says. “Because what is the point? You are quite literally giving people hope and then you’re taking that away. I actually really liked Ne-Yo. I listened to that man when I was a kid, and he just did that to me. I felt like shit.” (A rep for Ne-Yo did not return Rolling Stone’s multiple requests for comment.)  

Dwayne “WayneWayne” McDaniel

Ken Blackshear*

Still, Ne-Yo is far from the only big musician allegedly enticing small artists with outsized, underwhelming promises. Rolling Stone spoke with more than 12 independent musicians who allege they were in talks with verified accounts for Fat Joe, the Game, Jadakiss, Nick Cannon and Dave East, among others, to promote their music for various amounts. Some, like Trela and McDaniel, claim they were left empty-handed after committing to a deal. Others say they shelled out thousands of dollars, only to be severely disappointed. (None of the above artists responded to a request for comment.) 

Many artists who spoke with Rolling Stone say they felt like they were being punked when they were contacted — sometimes out of the blue — by high-profile musicians hyping up their work, often triple checking the sender wasn’t a fake account. Rapper Jeremiah “Bonez” Badillo says he was baffled when the accounts of Gillie Da Kid and DMX — before his death — contacted him for mixtape and promotion spots. “I’m nobody,” he says. “[Why would they be] hitting me up for my little bit of money when you are supposed to be rich and famous?” (A rep for Gillie Da Kid did not reply to a request for comment.)

Screen recordings and screenshots reviewed by Rolling Stone show the messages were sent from official, verified artist Instagram accounts. Once they realized the messages were legit, independent artists questioned why any mainstream, successful musician — ostensibly with enough money to spare — would intentionally seek out struggling, eager artists for relatively small sums and either provide essentially worthless promotions or disappear after the money hit their accounts. 

The dodgy so-called marketing opportunity has been kicking around since at least 2020, according to social media and freelance investigations, and has been linked to a promotions account called DaBlock365 allegedly run by Brooklyn rapper Uncle Murda that went dark after a small burst of criticism. But the same scheme has been covertly popping up again with little to no detection. (Murda did not respond to a request for comment on his involvement with DaBlock365.)

“It’s tiring because you’re trying to break into an industry that feels very saturated,” Canada-based singer Avalon Aviie, whose real name is Olisaemeka Odili, explains. “It’s so hard to penetrate. So when you see opportunities like this, it feels like a light in a dark place and definitely your time to shine. But for the most part, it might just be someone taking advantage of you.”

ON ITS SURFACE, THE opportunities seem like a legitimate way for rookie artists to land on new listeners’ radars. Big name artists use their verified accounts to instruct their followers to tag new singers, rappers and producers they should work with. Their comment sections quickly become overrun with artists of all genres. Those lucky enough receive a DM that praises their hustle and offers a seemingly worthwhile deal. If the artist is able to pony up some cash, they can secure a spot on a mixtape the star was curating. 

But those who paid for a slot on the “mixtape” often didn’t land on the artist’s verified playlist pages. Instead, they might wind up on the artist’s unverified SoundCloud account or DaBlock365’s Soundcloud account, both of which had minimal followers. Far from the millions or even tens of thousands of views the smaller artist was expecting to gain, they were fortunate to get 1,000 streams. (Odili, for example, claims he paid the Game nearly $1,000 for a slot on his mixtape in April 2021 only to receive 635 streams at press time. A rep for the Game did not respond to Rolling Stone’s comment request.)

In addition to the mixtapes, celebrity artists also offer shoutouts on their Instagram Story, voice “intros,” and, for top dollar, a video recording of themselves listening to the newcomer’s song. But social media shoutouts rarely translate into more streams or follows. And an “intro” is akin to a radio DJ introducing a new track on a station — the quality often so poor it could have been recorded through a voice note.

Boston rapper Jennifer Sanchez, aka JenBunny, says she paid the Game $5,000 for an intro on her song and a video promotion. After months of back and forth, she finally received audio of the rapper introducing her track and a since-deleted clip of him playing video games while absentmindedly nodding along to her song in the background. Sanchez posted the video on her Instagram with smiley emojis as the caption but she says she was majorly disappointed. “I feel like they were trying to milk people for as much as they can at the same time,” Sanchez says. “I was so upset with the situation, the way it was going. I was like, ‘fuck you guys. I’m scrapping this, I don’t even need you.’’” 

It’s unlikely the celebrity artists are independently responding to inquiries, managing transactions and handling the flood of people reaching out. Some of the responses to aspiring artists are repetitive and the language across the big names to their fans is often identical, frequently using phrases like “salute,” “let’s work,” and “lock[ing] in” and calling artists “g.” It also seems like an incredulous coincidence that some independent artists would make a deal with one celebrity and months later, another top musician reaches out to “work together.” 

Artist Bryan Berry, aka Movin Mazerati, is a father of 24 — 16 of his own and stepdad to eight more — and says that beyond music, he shares common ground with father-of-12 Nick Cannon. Berry says after Cannon requested artists reach out to him on Instagram in May 2021, he messaged him and explained his family situation and how he needed help amplifying his music.  They agreed on a payment of $900 for an intro and a video shoutout, according to documents reviewed by Rolling Stone. Once the money was sent, Cannon allegedly never followed through on the agreement, despite Berry’s efforts to follow up with him. (A rep for Cannon did not reply to a request for comment.)

Five months later, Ne-Yo unexpectedly popped up in Berry’s DMs to discuss promotion offers. Mazerati opted for a $500 mixtape placement, asking what genre among his rap, reggaeton, R&B and pop-leaning songs would work best. Ne-Yo ignored the question, curtly responding, “send me your best track.” Berry’s investment only pulled in around 500 streams at time of publication. Ne-Yo reached out again in May 2022 and May 2023 to do more business, but Berry didn’t take him up on the offer, realizing there was little reward for the price tag. “I got discouraged real bad,” he tells Rolling Stone. “You put your trust in these people because they got this name and fame.” 

Ne-Yo in Birmingham, England in 2024.

Steve Thorne/Redferns/Getty Images

Cedric “Ced” Baldwin says his friend fronted around $300 to be featured on a Jadakiss mixtape in February 2021. “I got more views on my personal SoundCloud than [the mixtape],” he claims of his roughly 1,000 streams. (He has since deleted his SoundCloud.) By November 2022, Baldwin says he was at a low point and doubted if he should continue making music. When Fat Joe sent an unsolicited DM to Baldwin, saying “salute [and] keep grinding,” Baldwin told Fat Joe his message was a burst of much needed encouragement. 

“That’s what I’m talkin about!,” Fat Joe replied. “Just let me know what you can do now budget wise let’s go make moves man.” It was instant deflation and Baldwin never went through with the offer. “It’s a real dirty game,” Baldwin says. “They lost a few fans in this whole process.” (A rep for Fat Joe did not respond to a request for comment.) 

At the risk of damaging their reputations and disenfranchising longtime fans, it seems bold for mainstream artists to reach into the pockets of their fanbase in such a blatant way. But music scams and rip-offs have been going on for decades, says professor Jeffrey Izzo, the Mike Curb Endowed Chair of Music Industry Studies at California State University, Northridge. 

“There’s a lot of minefields out there,” Izzo says. “If someone’s asking you for money and they haven’t asked you for music, that’s a huge red flag.”

Ethics and morals aside, the celebrities are exposing themselves to potential legal risks, says music attorney Audrey Benoualid, a partner at Myman Greenspan Fox Rosenberg Mobasser Younger and Light.

All the aspiring artists Rolling Stone spoke with made their deals through Instagram DMs with no formal paperwork in place. McDaniel says he asked for a signed contract but Ne-Yo dismissed him. “Contracts means lawyers & I don’t get mine involved for anything under 25k,” the message reviewed by Rolling Stone read. 

“It sounds like inexperienced artists not having representatives clearly define what the deal actually is and what they are entitled to,” Benoualid says. “If there are agreements occurring within DMs, it’s still a contract.”

“You are quite literally giving people hope and then you’re taking that away.”

Hyena XXL

THE FIRST WIDESPREAD ITERATION of this scheme appears to date back to summer 2020, when live music and touring came to a halt due to COVID-19 lockdown measures. The decline of physical music sales contributed to many performers earning the bulk of their cash on the road. Now, their incomes were effectively slashed. 

“The pandemic really showed how difficult it is even for veterans in this business to generate revenue that supports their livelihood,” Brian Zisook, co-founder of Audiomack and Editor-in-Chief of DJBooth, says. “So many scams derived from the pandemic out of a mixture of desperation and the desire to take advantage of the vulnerable. This checks that exact same box … this was very low-hanging fruit in terms of an opportunity to bring some cash [in].” 

Together, these celebrities seemingly affiliated with DaBlock365 have released hundreds of mixtapes — some of which have been deleted — featuring between 15 and 100 artists on a single playlist. The Game’s unverified Soundcloud page alone posted 56 playlists between October 2020 and August 2021. The page has since deleted a majority of tracks on the playlists, but the ones that remain show anywhere from four to 27 artists per mixtape. If 15 artists on average were in each mixtape and paid $300 per slot, the Game and his affiliates would have earned $252,000. By the same measure of artists paying Jadakiss $250 per slot, his 25 playlists earned him $93,750. Buckets of cash for the celebrity artist, minimal reward for those paying. 

People started noticing and began grumbling online. Zisook tells Rolling Stone that he first heard of the scheme from smaller artists coming to him for advice. Zisook acknowledged the “menu of bullshit” promotion offers weren’t technically a flat-out scam, but “would argue that there’s no benefit to the artist.” Zisook posted a breakdown of the scheme on X in June 2020 in hopes of raising awareness. After the thread began gaining attention,  Zisook claims he was threatened and pressured multiple times to delete the post. One rapper, Zisook claims, “basically threatened to kill me if I ever stepped foot in Detroit.”

Around the same time, Arshan Jawaid, the founder of media brand Kids Take Over, directed young artists to a since-deleted YouTube video about the scheme and its “never ending cycle of them trying to lure more money out of you.” Freelance journalist Amanda Mester collected a dossier of screenshots from celebrity artists’ conversations with independent artists and posted them in Medium articles in October 2020. Music blog HipHopOverload ran a post repeating similar allegations only to “retract” the article, according to blog 1st Day Fresh, because they “verified that not only is this not a scam, it is an amazing unique opportunity” and wrote that any naysayers “don’t understand advertising and marketing and free enterprise.” (Rolling Stone reached out to the site’s owner for comment, but did not hear back.)

In their posts, Zisook and the others named Instagram promotions account DaBlock365, which claims it’s owned by rapper Uncle Murda, as the main operator of the scheme, partnering with the bigger artists to pull together the various mixtapes. Once named and shamed by Zisook and others, according to Mester’s Medium post, DaBlock365 wiped its SoundCloud account where the mixtapes were hosted and some artists — like Redman — had deleted all their posts associated with the marketing opportunity by the end of 2020. 

ROLLING STONE ATTEMPTED TO UNCOVER all the players involved. But unlike when DaBlock365 was working with artists in 2020, the musicians weren’t openly saying if they were working with a third-party, creating a complicated weave of different untraceable accounts and multiple dead ends. However, there were some significant overlaps. 

Ne-Yo instructed some artists to send payment to a member of his team electronically, including to “HardWorkingMusic” on CashApp. The name popped up again when a second artist claims he sent Jadakiss $250 to the same account in December 2022. This time, HardWorkingMusic’s CashApp profile name was listed as “QP Music.” Boston rapper Sanchez also sent money to the same CashApp account, according to screenshots reviewed by Rolling Stone. (The account appears to have been deactivated.) 

Jadakiss in New York City in 2023.

Shareif Ziyadat/WireImage

The QP name was familiar. Ne-Yo had another artist send his money to a “QP Soles Miami.” The business belongs to Edwin Quesada Perez, a retired soccer player and designer shoe reseller from Colombia currently in Miami, according to his business website. Perez’s business page bears the same logo as the CashApp account and his personal page is filled with photos of himself with celebrities, including Fat Joe, Jadakiss, Jason Derulo and a flashy music figure named Big Trill. (Perez did not reply to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.) 

Big Trill has more than 1 million followers on Instagram and an impressive collection of blinged out designer watches and diamond chains. He’s tight with Sauce Walka and hung out with Jadakiss the same day the rapper was with Perez picking up new sneakers. In December 2022, Big Trill announced he had teamed up with Zaytoven to open their own record label, ZTP.  

So, who is the man behind Big Trill? Public records link back to 34-year-old Johnathan M. Soroush, whose name pops up when diving into DaBlock365’s run from 2020. Soroush was described by HipHopOverload as an “Uncle Murda disciple who helps Uncle Murda recruit artists to turn their brand into a social media promotion platform.” (In 2014, a then 24-year-old Johnathan M. Soroush was accused of defrauding an elderly Connecticut man out of $450 in a chimney sweeping scam, along with two other men. Connecticut police provided Rolling Stone with Soroush’s arrest case number, but the local courthouse was unable to locate any file for him. ) 

Sanchez, the Boston rapper, claims that her dealings with the Game were handled by his “manager,” who she named as Soroush. While working out their agreement, she claimed Soroush repeatedly made suggestive comments, saying he found her attractive, questioned if he could fly her out to Miami so they could get to know each other better and asking her if she found him attractive.

When contacted by Rolling Stone, Soroush was eager to explain his involvement, and throughout an hour-long interview exudes the same brash confidence that he presents on social media. He disputes his comments to Sanchez were suggestive and is cagey around confirming which artists he is currently partnered with, only divulging he’s been working with celebrities for a “very, very long time” and has helped “thousands” of artists, businesses and entrepreneurs secure paid marketing opportunities. (Soroush did not deny working with Ne-Yo, Fat Joe, the Game or Jadakiss.) He declines to answer how much money he’s helped his clients net. “You see how people pocket watch?” he asks, adding that “many people were not charged” for mixtape placements. 

Newcomer artists are being offered a bargain deal, he claims, arguing that a few hundred bucks for a “co-sign” from a legitimate artist is a budget-friendly option compared to the $100,000 price tag he claims traditional features can cost. Those who are unhappy with the way their deals panned out, Soroush says, only have themselves to blame. “It’s their job to go ahead and market it and utilize it,” he says. He takes serious offense to the notion the marketing opportunities are a scam or a rip-off. “There’s never promised results,” Soroush says. “No one says your Spotify numbers are going to go through the roof … If you pay for a service and the services are delivered, that’s not a scam.”

Soroush admits he and his team are often the ones messaging independent artists from the celebrities’ accounts. And while the celebrity musicians “know what’s going on” with their pages, Soroush believes it’s not duplicitous for newcomer artists to be in the dark about who they are making deals with. “If they got a DM from [a] verified page, that’s your answer,” Soroush says. “That should be no issue.” 

For all that Soroush takes credit for, he’s quick to distance himself from DaBlock365, saying multiple people and blogs made a false “assumption” and linked him to the account. But later in conversation, Soroush appears to contradict himself, offering details about what the page had access to and saying an Instagram account that first posted about the alleged DaBlock365 scam threatened him. Soroush also skirted questions if he ever helped celebrities organize mixtape opportunities, despite earlier admitting to giving some mixtape placements away for free. 

And while Soroush proudly plugged his co-owned Zaytoven record label and its latest signees, Zaytoven’s manager Roland Williams claims the producer is not an actual partner in the ZTP label. “That’s pretty much [Trill] talking,” Williams tells Rolling Stone.

Soroush repeatedly spoke of providing Rolling Stone rave testimonials from independent artists who paid for a marketing opportunity with a big-name artist, but was unable to provide any by time of publication after saying he had a family emergency. 

“It feels like a light in a dark place … but it might just be someone taking advantage of you.”

Avalon Aviie

IT’S ALREADY A MINEFIELD for independent artists to navigate breaking into the music industry, particularly in a social media-dominant world that largely hinges on a breakthrough digital moment. Music data analysis firm Chartmetric deemed it was “harder than ever” for undiscovered artists to go viral, according to a 2023 report, with 81 percent of artists on Spotify pulling in less than 1,000 monthly streams. 

The saturation of the market leads artists to turn to other resources to help their music get a foothold with audiences, which is where schemers lie in wait. At least once a week — sometimes as often as once a day — artists say they are inundated with sketchy messages from random accounts with lofty promises to help their careers. 

Everything seems to come with a price tag. Popular music blog WorldStar charges $3,000 for an Instagram post and $2,000 for a Story, according to a pricing deck obtained by Rolling Stone. Several artists tell Rolling Stone they worried that their interviews for this article might be another type of rip-off, one asking how much it would cost them to participate. (Rolling Stone never pays nor accepts money for interviews and articles.) 

“We don’t only have managers and independent labels coming after us, trying to get us,” singer-songwriter and actress Mignon Farmani says. “We also have the people we aspire to be coming at us in that same manner.” 

For this investigation, Rolling Stone created an artist Instagram account under the name of “Scout Trax,” purchasing 1,000 followers and using a meme as a profile photo. Within hours of a generic post about dropping new music, Scout received message requests from four random spam promotion accounts with “shout out package” offers ranging from $25 to $90 to be featured on their page. One promotion account wanted the funds to be sent immediately through Zelle, CashApp, Apple Pay or even cryptocurrency. After Scout failed to return their message, they reached out through a separate profile, badgering Scout to respond.  

Rapper Dave East frequently encourages people to slide in his inbox for opportunities to work together. “For 500 I can do 2 stories get your name to people and comment on 2 of ur posts,” Dave East wrote to Scout’s message, later saying the payment could be sent to his “management” through ApplePay or Zelle. (Rolling Stone did not send money to anyone as part of this investigation. A rep for East did not reply to a request for comment.)

Zaytoven in Atlanta, Georgia in 2024.

Prince Williams/WireImage

When Scout reached out to Atlanta producer Zaytoven, the “Versace” hitmaker’s verified page took less than 12 hours to respond, quickly directing Scout to fill out an application to his Muzic Money mentorship program. 

An application form asked three separate times what the artist’s budget was, with anything under $500 considered “ineligible” and the $3,000 to $5,000 range as the “most common” option. They also asked if the artist’s credit score was above or below 620. In small print, a note read, “A lot of our clients use ‘Other People’s Money’ (OPM) to fund their business, we work with some excellent lending partners to help you get funded.” At no point was Scout asked to submit music before being offering a slot in the $6,000 program. “We’re not going to turn anybody away and say, ‘Oh, we’re not going to give you the knowledge,” says Williams, Zaytoven’s manager.

After wading through the sludge of expensive programs, potential rip-offs and opportunists, smaller artists are in a state of disbelief when their work is finally recognized by a legitimate artist who doles out encouragement and hypes up their work. But it feels like a cruel joke when they then receive a price list in the following message. 

“I wasn’t even contemplating that I would ever send anyone — much less Fat Joe — money for what he was describing as pretty much payola,” Berlin-based rapper and producer Thordur Ingi Jonsson aka Lord Pusswhip says. 

Rapper Dontay “Dvnte Musick” Revels says he felt “disrespected and kinda played for a fool” after an exchange with Ne-Yo in May 2023 where the artist said “help[ing] with exposure” hinged on how much Revels was “willing to invest.” Revels took the opportunity to speak his mind, telling Ne-Yo he appreciated the offer but didn’t think he could ever afford what Ne-Yo was asking.  

“I understand but riddle me this,” Ne-Yo’s account responded. “When you go to buy food, do you pay? Or do you tell them that you’re working a 9-5 and making ends meet? And hope that they give you free food.” Revels says despite being a longtime Ne-Yo fan, “it felt like preying on the people that don’t have the resources to get to that level.”

Revels was so disheartened and in disbelief, he shared their conversation on X and tagged Ne-Yo, who responded. (Ne-Yo said the conversation didn’t display his verified blue check mark, so therefore it wasn’t his account. But video and screenshots reviewed by Rolling Stone do show Ne-Yo’s verified account sent the messages.)

One of the few exceptions of artists who Rolling Stone spoke with who walked away satisfied from their promotion experience were those who worked with Da Brat in early 2022. T.R. Moshia, Taylor McCants and Official Fheniox all say they feel the offer was worth the price tag, which they say began at $750. Two years on, the rapper still has the playlists highlighted on her Instagram page and still follows some of the artists. 

It’s surprising that nearly four years after these promotions began circulating, there has been little widespread awareness around this marketing scheme, but Zisook says it’s gone largely unchecked because celebrity artists are “preying on the ignorance and naïveté of artists who are young, don’t know any better and they cannot believe that someone with a blue checkmark showed up in their DMs.” “That action alone blinds them to everything else that’s going on,” he adds.  

Because speaking up could lead to intimidation and even the threat of legal action — as in the case with Zisook and others — many artists stay silent about their experiences. “You got a lot of people that don’t speak on what these people are doing because they didn’t want to get blackballed in the industry,” Berry, aka Movin Mazerati, explains.

Moving forward, several artists say if they were to pay for promotion with a bigger artist in the future, there would be more questions asked before blindly jumping into a deal. “I’ll be very specific this time, like ‘What type of playlist is it?’” says Odili, who previously worked with the Game. “‘How many people are going to be there? Are you going to give out Story shout outs or are you going to post it on your page?’ I’m gonna be very specific and if they don’t really answer the question, then I’m just gonna back out.” 

Negative experiences aside, none of the artists say their setbacks have beaten their dreams out of them. “Getting into this game, you expect to take losses, but you don’t expect to take this small of a loss,” McDaniel says. “The opportunity was big, but the amount to be taken from someone of [Ne-Yo’s] magnitude, of [his] level, was mind-boggling. I was very confused. But it’s part of this game. You have to be ready to take the losses with the win.”


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