A hip-hop artist who works out of his Portland home is getting worldwide exposure thanks to a new documentary streaming on Netflix.

Ian McGinley, who records and produces music under the name Phoniks, is one of four independent hip-hop artists featured in the documentary “Underdogs.” The film, by first-time French filmmaker Téo Frank, began streaming on Netflix Dec. 15. Although it’s unclear how many people have seen it, the streaming service has more than 158 million subscribers worldwide.

McGinley, 29, said he’s gotten emails from people around the world who were inspired to see him and the other artists making music on their own terms, independent of record labels and music companies. Before he was featured in the film, McGinley created music in relative anonymity, working in his home, selling his music on Spotify and other online platforms, but never performing live.

“Some of my friends who saw the film said, ‘Now I know what you do,’ ” said McGinley, who lives in the North Deering neighborhood. “The reaction (to the film) has been incredibly positive.”

As part of the filming of “Underdogs,” McGinley and the other artists made four tours of Europe, performing in France, Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. He says he might get recognized walking the streets of Paris but has been completely anonymous in Maine because he’s never played a show here. He said Friday he and his documentary co-stars will likely perform in the United States soon.

McGinley makes his living producing and recording music full time, and has never had another full-time job since graduating from the University of Maine in 2013. McGinley and the other artists in the film – Awon, Tiff the Gift and Dephlow – have collaborated with one another for years. They all record on Don’t Sleep Records, which McGinley runs out of his home studio. McGinley’s own recordings get 1 million to 2 million plays a month on Spotify and other platforms, he said. He uses samples of other music in his recordings, but also plays drums, guitar and keyboards.

From left are Awon, Phoniks (Ian McGinley of Portland) and Tiff the Gift, during the filming of “Underdogs.” Photo by Mason Strehl

McGinley grew up in Falmouth and graduated from Falmouth High School. As a teenager, he took his laptop to friends’ homes and would record them playing music. By the time he was 15, he was “making beats” – taking samples of recorded music and blending them with his own original music to form a hip-hop instrumental. He made beats every day for years, he said, but only shared them occasionally with friends online.

After graduating from the University of Maine’s new media program in 2013, he began working on spreading his music – an eclectic, atmospherically funky collection of instrumental tracks – via the internet. He decided to send a few of his beats to Brooklyn underground rapper Awon. Laughing about the decision to approach the more established rapper, he said, “I’d been listening to him on YouTube mostly and figured, ‘Well, he’s sort of big, but not too big that he won’t read my emails.’ “ 

Awon did, and a partnership was born. Not just musically, but in business as well. The two co-founded Don’t Sleep Records. Apart from putting out his own solo records, McGinley has collaborated with artists like Houston rapper Anti-Lilly and others. The label releases music digitally, on vinyl and on CD. Awon and McGinley did not actually meet in person until a few years into their partnership.

The idea for the film “Underdogs” began in Alaska, where Frank, then just 18, was traveling. He met an Alaskan music blogger, Mason Strehl, who connected him to Awon, McGinley and the other artists about four years ago. Frank, an aspiring filmmaker, decided he had found a perfect subject for his first documentary. The 65-minute film has been playing at film festivals for the last year or more. It was named best music documentary at the Downtown Los Angeles Film Festival in 2018 and best documentary at the Hip Hop Film Festival in New York in August.

“It’s the story of us being indie musicians who haven’t been signed to music deals, working on music ourselves in our home studios made from equipment we’ve been able to scrape together,” said McGinley. “It’s about independent artists following their dream, and trying to make the dream work.”

McGinley said the online success of “Underdogs” has almost immediately translated into greater traffic and increased sales and streaming of his music. 

“People think that, to make something happen, they have to pick up and move to L.A.,” McGinley said. “But then you’re in L.A. and you still have to figure out how to build your online presence. So much of the business now is online.”

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer from Auburn.


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