Juan Gonzalez is all about HUSTLE. About GRIND. He warrants all caps, not only because that’s the way that he signs most of his emails, but because of the bold and brash way that Juan builds his brand and makes his capital. Mr. Gonzalez is the founder of Urban City Originals, a hard-as-nails, street-culture-inspired, God-fearing chain of hip-hop clothing stores in Texas. If those descriptions sound contradictory, that’s quite alright. Below, Juan details how he’s comfortable representing both sides of the coin; he’s lived each of them. Juan‘s business model is a formidable balance of street smarts–having fans/customers place up flyers and sell shirts in small quantities until they prove their ability to sell more–and a professional mindset–working tirelessly on new designs, promotional deals, and gaining fan loyalty. Talking to Juan was not only informative, but a staggering, unexpectedly in-depth experience. Our hour long talk ranged on topics from God, biters, loyalty, family, and Urban City‘s future. Here are some of the best segments.
RESPECT.: Hey Juan, how are you doing today?
Juan Gonzalez: Oh, grinding man. Today, we’re moving all our stuff into the new warehouse. Sittin’ on an acre, know what I mean? Let me tell you this first off: we make our own shirts. We do our own designs, we manufacture it, we wholesale it, we retail it. And our distribution was out of the store at first. Eventually it got to the point when our warehouse was 25 miles away from the store and we’re manufacturing 15,000 – 20,000 t-shirts a month. It got to the point when we had to make the move. Now we’re just tryin’ to settle in and make things right.
Are you the idea man for the shirts, or do you have a team?
We’re a whole team. What it is is that we’re inspired by all aspects, from music to people to just joking around with each other to visual…current events. You could be watching the news or watching a movie. We have a graphic artist who has been with us for 6 years…I was the graphic artist at the beginning. As the operation got bigger I needed to hire someone else. Not only someone who could help me but someone who could be an extension of my self. After a little while, it got to the point where he– Henry Cantu–and I become one as an artist… My wife, Isabel, is a very creative person, and she directs our photo shoots, ads and has great ideas.
I guess you could say the type of art we create for our shirts is very “urban-aggressive”. People say, “Yea its urban but its..kinda a little bit too..” [I say,] “Too what?” [They respond,] “Too aggressive.” And I was like, you know what? That’s what we’ll label it.
Your style is very in your face, for sure. Was that intentional, or did it come that way naturally?
I’ma tell you what happened was the first couple of designs we started doin’..it was really the customers that guided us. As they were walki’n in…it was wall to wall….you name it—Sean John, Pelle Pell, Rocawear. We had everything, so then we came up with five designs, and each design had two, three colors. One thing we knew was if we had red, blue, and black we had the three fav colors of everyone that walked in. So then, when people walked in, they looked at the wall like “Maaann that’s my tshirt right there! That’s what I talk about!”
People ask, “Yo Started From The Bottom Now We Here…you gonna do a shirt for that?” And I’m like, “Nahh, that’s too easy!” Instead we did a shirt that says “Hustle Till I Die.” It doesn’t matter where I was, it’s about where I’m at right now.
And Drake is Canadian, but you guys are more focused on putting the South on.
Yeah, and then our whole thing is just to be us. There’s times when we see everyone doing a style of shirt and we think, “What would our version be like?” You know how everyone started doing the Mickey Mouse Hands? First thing I noticed about a lot of designers is that they do is a live trace on a Mickey Mouse hand that already exists and you can see the defects on it. When you do a live trace it’s not tracing it like if a brain was tracing it, if a man was tracing it. When we do the mickey mouse hands we draw the hands the way we want the gesture to look. So we did a couple of them like “OK they look good”, but it got to the point where we just wanted to kill it so we thought of another shirt. I think Lil Wayne had a line where he says “All rats must die” . We were like “you know what that’s a good one,” so we put “All rats must die” in the Disney font, but we got Mickey Mouse in the mouse trap, dead. What we’re basically trying to say is let’s move on to something new. Ever since I was 14 years old I envisioned working in a place where I was having fun, making art, playing music, just enjoying what I do. I never thought that it would come true, nahmean?
It definitely seems like your locations are fun places to be. You’ve got a barbershop, a studio…you want to tell us more about that?
Yea, right before you come into the store, it looks like an old, underground Chicago-type marketplace. Basically a place called the Old Chicago was the amusement park when I was a kid, and I always loved it because it looked like old-school Chicago building and this theme park was inside this building. Growing up in the streets of Chicago, it was aggressive. I was always inspired by the buildings, the textures, the brick, and the colors and the pipes….I was like, that’s what I want my store to look like.
We’ve got designs that we don’t take to roads because they’re more regional. A lot of [out of town] stores are now asking to see our regional stuff and then saying hey can you do some Detroit stuff for us, can you do some Chicago stuff for us? We just landed a big account at Alan’s Shoe store in Detroit, they got like 16 stores.
But yea you go into the store, you see the gravel road..we even painted the concrete ourselves. We tried to emulate the little tole section where you go pay. There’s a little painted road leading to the art department, and there you can get anything customized. Its not just airbrushed t-shirts, it’s vehicles, helmets.
We’ve got rappers who have been to our store airbrushed into the windows. We’ve got Paul Wall in one of them, we’ve got a local guy in another one, Bun B and Lil Wayne in another one.
When it comes to the studio…it can be anyone from a guy who’s writing his first rhyme to the most experienced guy can come to the studio and lay down a track.
We’re open in the regular mall hours from ten to nine, more than probably more than any other studio out here, even open till midnight sometimes. If people want to come to record in a clean environment where nobody’s smoking or drinking, we’re the place.
The other thing is, we’ve always go music blaring. You could be deaf and blind—when you come into Urban City you’re gonna feel the energy.
What kind of records do you spin in the store?
We do a lot of the mainstream stuff, you know what I’m saying..whatever’s top 40—rap wise. We do the unedited version though. We play a lot of Zero and down south cats. We have DJs that come through on weekends from time to time. Especially when we do big releases on the lines, we have a DJ come down. We try to bring Urban hip-hop to a very commercial corporate forefront and at the same time, be raw with it.
You mentioned Bun B coming through—how’d that come about?
When promoters bring artists down to the city, they’re always calling us up, asking us, “I’ve got so and so coming through, can he do autographs and all that in the store?” Sometimes we say yes, sometimes no. It depends on the time—if it’s early march, if its December, if its august, it’s a no. Those are the craziest months for us. But when traffic’s slow, absolutely, come on. Sometimes it’s the local acts that get it going the best. We had a local guy named Kyle Lee come through. We sold over 50-60 CDs in one day, he did a live performance in the store…we had over 300 people in there.
We used to have Paul wall come into the store at least twice a month. Slim Thug, Lil Flip, they would always come to the store. It was funny—in the beginning, we were the #1 outlet for sales in the whole country. Paul Wall had dropped a mixtape before the album had dropped, and we were selling 200 CDs every week, so I said, let’s get a super duper deal and I got 1000 CDs at one time. We moved 1000 CDs in 30 days. They were asking us—how did you do that? We cant even sell this many of our CDs!…We wanted to makes sure that the people that shop with us aren’t just customers, we wanted them to become fans of us. And thank god that we were able to do that. When a customer becomes a fan—it’s over. He’ll promote for you, hell shop for you, will be down for you. Whatever it is you need hell support for you 110 percent. That s how we started to get big—we treated the customers like vip.
I once told Paul Wall, I’ll do you huge favors, I’ll be pushin’ your CD, you just gotta get on a track on a freestyle and shout out Urban City as if it was the destination. I didn’t want him to say “ go to urban city an buy some clothes”. I wanted it to be like “ go to urban city TX ’cause that’s the flyest place you can be.” And now, one of the most popular lines that everyone knows is “I swang through urban city and I scooped up Juan”. Everybody would come through the store and say that line. It’s about interacting not just with the customers but with the community, with the artists.
At the end of the day, I believe that we were blessed with opportunities from God and instead of us shying away from them, we came through on them.
You definitely seem like a man of god—it’s everywhere on your clothing. It’s interesting how that interacts with all the aggressive material you guys have going on. Want to speak on that?
I’ma tell you the—I heard a politician coming out of TX.. he was being interviewed. They asked “are you using the religious platform as a way to get votes?” He says “no no no, you see, God is part of my life every single day, from when I get up in the morning to when I go to sleep, when I go to work, every time I make a decision.” When I heard that, I felt so at peace with his answer, I knew e was telling the truth because that’s how I feel. There’s no way that I would live life without god ever again. For 35 I live a very selfish arrogant conceited, I though I was the ish…I thought I was so big. It wasn’t until god humbled me and made me realize I was a weak individual….And I don’t mean like I’m weak and you can walk all over me.. I mean like, the flesh is weak. Without god, we’re going to make the selfish decisions that only end up hurting us int eh long run.
When I gave my life up to god…I had the truck that I wanted. I had a brand new 2002 [inaudible] black on black, screen falling all over the place with paint on it, spinning—at that time spinners were out. I was collecting 100 dollar bills like it was a hobby. I didn’t even have a bank account, I just had 100 dollar bills racking up.
And so one time, I was standing outside my house one day, smoking a joint… and I just felt so lonely. And I stood up and I yelled out like “God, I need you!” from that day forward, things started changing for me. It was the most amazing thing. Instead of trying to chase happiness down…when you grab happiness it can leave as quick as you grabbed it. You can buy a brand new car every day and you’d still be unhappy at the end of the day. God showed me what joy was. Joy was looking at my wife and my heart being full of this wonderful emotion, it was watching my son practice football, and being thankful to god that my family was still intact. That was way more valuable than any childhood dream, than any materialistic thing I could have.
People always are asking—how can you say you’re having relationship with god and then be making a shirt that says Get It How You Live. The reason I designed that—on the one side it had the legal hustle. It had barber clippers, had a tattoo gun, had a microphone. And on the other side it had drug paraphernalia—had a little joint, had a sack of powder, had a marijuana leaf, and uh it had a razor blade. This is more of a political statement: the government has completely brainwashed us to rely on them. I’m not gonna just blame the government, but people rely on government so much that they’ve become lazy.
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