Not gonna lie, we weren’t sure if this interview with Rapper Cards founders Edward Ernesto Venero, Nathan Avis and celebrated rapper Skyzoo was ever going to happen. Every time we locked down a date, something would come up. Either schedules got overbooked or some business dealing took precedence. But one day this past summer, everything appeared to fall in line. Until it didn’t. Skyzoo’s flight got canceled. We had to postpone yet again.
The last scheduling hiccup felt oddly poetic, though. A botched flight ruins an interview for a card company about to soar. Peep the irony? But like they have with any turbulence that has come their way — we’ll get to some of those details in a bit — Venero, Avis and Sky buckled up and kept going. And as this story hints, the Zoom did ultimately happen.
“[Rapper Cards] really came about during the pandemic,” says Avis, a vintage card collector who came up with the idea. “For me, I’ve run two hip-hop blogs, a local Chicago blog called 4th Shore Hip Hop and a local Denver blog called Jiggy Hip-Hop, since about 2014. Over quarantine, [I was] looking at prices of all the cards go crazy. Just the whole hobby exploding. And I wanted to combine those two, my love for hip hop and my love for collecting and designing different things.”
Avis knew Venero from when their paths crossed through a hip-hop-centered podcast. Once Venero heard about the Rapper Cards concept and realized just how serious Avis was about making it a reality, he knew he had to hop on board.
“I was kind of paying attention, but I was not in it yet,” recalls Venero, a Southern hip-hop fan who actually worked in politics. “When [Nate] started to show me the cards, it piqued an interest. But at the same time, I was kind of like, ‘You’re an amazing visual artist. Why don’t you apply what you’re doing with your art to the designs of these cards?’ It was a no-brainer for me.”
The timing for the brand’s launch couldn’t be better. Card companies like Leaf and Fanatics’ zerocool are releasing more and more pop culture-centered products. And, of course, when you talk about hip hop specifically, the genre is still one of the most popular. Of the top 30 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 as of September 19, eight of them were rap tracks. On top of that, “nostalgia” remains one of the buzziest words in retail. The Notorious B.I.G.’s sealed hip hop cassettes and CDs from the ‘90s are still selling like crazy on eBay. Old or new, rap still rules.
“It’s an obvious thing that hip hop is kind of the driving culture in the world today,” says Venero. “You go to a hobby shop and they have Stranger Things cards. They have cards for everything. There should be a well-designed, well-thought-out card series for hip hop. This is an important part of the culture in 2022.”
Adds Avis, “I didn’t see anyone doing it in the way that it should be done. I saw that Panini had the celebrity autographs and stuff like that, but I wanted a legitimate product that focused completely on this community and I didn’t see anyone doing that.”
Here’s something else you should know about Rapper Cards: the company isn’t some opportunistic, revered-today-and-gone-tomorrow brand. The company insists it’s here for the culture, not the quick sales. Need proof of that? Look no further than the guy they asked to be the principal face of the company.
“We started trying to identify the perfect person that we could complete the team [with],” says Venero, who literally emailed Skyzoo out of the blue one day to gauge his interest in the brand. “Sky has been one of our favorite artists for a minute. And he’s a stand-up dude. He is a dude that’s, obviously, super tied to the culture and he’s well respected within the culture. What else could you ask for with someone joining this kind of effort?”
Beyond having an impeccable reputation in the music industry, though, Skyzoo has also proven to be ridiculously versatile. On one side, you have an artist who’s released critically acclaimed projects like In Celebration of Us and Retropolitan that can go bar for bar with anything off your favorite rapper’s discography. On the other, you have a full-time dad and a restaurateur who’s about to open a burger spot in Atlanta.
And on top of all that, Skyzoo loves cards. “I was a big collector as a kid,” remembers Sky, a longtime New York sports fan who even dated Derek Jeter’s sister, Sharlee, for a while. “But once you get to high school and girls get involved and all that, you just leave it alone. Nate and Eddie brought me back. I really was away from it. Not even thinking about it. And then, when we got together and started really building this, it kinda lit a flicker, a little flame.”
But Venero and Avis knew it wouldn’t be that easy to get other emcees to see the company’s vision. Collectors? Cards? Autographs? Umm, nah, I’m good. “It takes some kind of convincing because this is new to most people,” says Venero. “It might not make sense to some artists, when they first hear about it. It takes some, ‘Hey, we just dropped a Statik Selektah card yesterday’ or pointing out that other artists are involved and this is a legitimate, really exciting enterprise to get a part of.”
But with Sky co-piloting the efforts, highly respected rhymers like Che Noir, Apollo Brown and the legendary Talib Kweli have grown to understand the mission. Skyzoo’s debut card came out back in December 2021. Five of the first six releases sold out faster than a Twista verse. Music heads and card collectors clamor over every Instagram post in anticipation of new drops.
And you see why. The design of the cards is smart and artistic. Avis makes it a point to collaborate with the rappers to ensure their creative stamp is present, almost like an album cover. Card quality is also top shelf. The stock is smooth and has a solid weight. They’re all autographed with a short print run of only 150 or 200 cards. And then there are the thoughtful surprises from the company, like the insane Sean Price card, which encased a piece of the late rapper’s rhyme notes. There was a $750 eBay sale this past August for the rare item.
You can’t fabricate that kind of hype. And where more established card companies may have bigger budgets behind them, Skyzoo insists they’re missing the most important element—authenticity. “If you’re one of these multi-million-dollar card companies,” says Sky, “it’s easy to make a call to CAA [talent agency] or Cara Lewis Agency and get whoever the biggest artists are in the world [to sign autographs]. And that’s cool. But at the same time, there’s a whole side of the culture that fills this entire thing that those people don’t know how to get in touch with because they wouldn’t know how.”
Still, Rapper Cards knows that challenges await. “Creating this bridge between the hobby world and the hip-hop world can be a little difficult,” says Avis. “It’s not necessarily a huge Venn diagram overlap. [But I was thinking] as a collector, if I bought an individual card, what would I want [in the packaging]? And so, we ship every card in a magnetic, 35-point case, as high-end of a case as I would want to get if I’m buying one card. [We also insist on having] on-card autographs. It would be way easier for us to send out a sheet of stickers.” But remember, they’re collectors, too. They know what you like and don’t like.
Exciting releases like early-September’s card for Kool G. Rap, one of the greatest lyricists to ever hail from Queens, only hint at where the company is headed. Additionally, Avis and Venero say that “Series Zero” packs and an even greater retail shop presence is on the horizon.
“When we drop our first proper pack series, we’re not just going to be limited to that kind of product,” says Venero. “We’re going to have multiple kinds of products, different kinds of packs, different kinds of focuses on the different aspects of hip hop. We are moving very, very aggressively towards presenting new products.”
The biggest headlines from the crew lately might be the two new names who’ve joined the team. One of the just-announced co-owners and brand ambassadors is Termanology, a Boston-bred MC who’s been a titan on the boom-bap rap scene since the late ‘00s.
“We want this to be a company that is owned and operated by artists,” says Venero of the move. “That’s very, very important to us. That’s part of the vision. And who knows hip hop better than the artists themselves?”
The other exciting name behind the burgeoning brand is Raphael Mosley (aka Prizm Gawd or the mastermind behind the growing ATL-based show Culture Collision). While Term’s cosign certainly opens additional doors with artists, Mosley gives Rapper Cards credibility in the hobby. Both additions are brilliant chess moves for a company ready to shake up the non-sports-card space.
“I remember I was at a show and I brought the [first Rapper Card] with me,” says Skyzoo. “It was good to just see the excitement from people within the culture. They were like, ‘Yo, this is fly because no one’s thinking about us in that kind of light.’”
They are now. And it’s dope to see the brand finally taking off.