30 Musicians Who Had Creative Projects Before Stardom

Lizzo accepts the entertainer of the year award at the NAACP 51st Image Awards at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on Saturday, February 22, 2020 in Pasadena, CA. (Earl Gibson III via AP)
Lizzo accepts the entertainer of the year award at the NAACP 51st Image Awards at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on Saturday, February 22, 2020 in Pasadena, CA. (Earl Gibson III via AP)

Some musicians seemingly appear out of thin air. For most, though, the rise to stardom is more of a marathon than a sprint. Your favorite artists likely spent years toiling away, lucky to get a local bar gig in the years before they would sell out venues across the world. For instance, Danger Mouse, one half of Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells, began his career by making one of the most successful mashup albums of all time. Lil Wayne was a 14-year-old newcomer when he joined The Hot Boys, a seminal group in Lousiana’s rap history.

It’s hard to imagine acts like Father John Misty, Lizzo, and Kanye West ever not being famous, but they and the other 26 artists on this list took circuitous paths to stardom. Read on for stories of perseverance and plain dumb luck, each of which proves that every successful musician’s path is unique.


Many know Lizzo as the flute-toting pop star, but before she was tearing up festival headlining slots, she was grinding away in Minneapolis as one-half of Lizzo & the Larva Ink. She also helped form a three-person all-female group called The Chalice, earning enough acclaim to convince local stars Lazerbeak and Ryan Olson to produce her first rap album, Lizzobangers.

Dr. Dre

Dr. Dre is the founder of the most influential headphone company of the 21st century, N.W.A., and Aftermath Records. One of rap's pioneering producers, he created The Chronic (1992), which defined g-funk and forever reshaped the sound of West Coast rap. He is also a gifted A&R, discovering rap superstars like Eminem nad 50 Cent. However, before all this, Dre was a DJ in World Class Wreckin' Cru, an electro-rap crew that played roller rinks and provided a foundation for LA rap in the '80s. He's been instrumental to LA's sound since the beginning.

Danger Mouse

All it took for Danger Mouse to become a superstar was a little bootlegging. While struggling as a musician in London, Danger Mouse decided to have a little fun. He took acapella tracks from JAY-Z songs and blended them with instrumentals and vocals from The Beatles. The Grey Album became a global smash, the greatest unofficial album of the 21st century. Shortly after, Damon Albarn recruited Danger Mouse to produce the first Gorillaz album, and the rest is history. 

Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey wants her stage name to sound like her music. She said, "I wanted a name I could shape the music towards. I was going to Miami quite a lot at the time, speaking a lot of Spanish with my friends from Cuba – Lana Del Rey reminded us of the glamour of the seaside." Before the fame and name change though, Lana Del Rey was Lizzy Grant, a struggling singer-songwriter who had many false starts before finding her footing. She released multiple acoustic EPs under the name Jay Mailer, with titles like Rock Me Stable and From the End, before releasing Kill Kill as Lizzy Grant in 2008. She even released an album under the name Lana Del Ray in 2010 before removing it from iTunes. A year later, Ray became Rey, and the world knew her name.

Father John Misty

The Father John Misty origin story is legendary. For the uninformed, he was the Fleet Foxes drummer before abruptly quitting as the band was hitting a creative peak. His beautiful voice was integral to the band's harmonies, but he felt creatively stifled. He took mushrooms in Big Sur, found his creative persona in a vision, became Father John Misty, and never looked back. He signed a deal with Sub Pop and became the sardonic superstar we know and love.

Justin Vernon (Bon Iver)

A devastating breakup and a bout of mononucleosis sent Justin Vernon running to a Wisconsin cabin to record his critically-acclaimed debut Bon Iver album, For Emma, Forever Ago. Before that breakup, he split with his band DeYarmond Edison. Vernon's bandmates, Phil and Brad Cook, went on to form psychedelic folk band Megafaun, while Vernon created Bon Iver. All is well, though, as the Cooks are frequent collaborators of Vernon.

Kanye West

"You can't fathom my love, dude/Lock yourself in a room/Doing five beats a day for three summers," raps Kanye West on "Spaceships," one of many hits from his massive 2004 studio debut, A College Dropout. Before that album, Kanye was an aspiring producer. After he landed work with rappers like Talib Kweli, Beanie Sigel, JAY-Z, and Cam'Ron, Kanye was ready to convince his peers and the world that he could rap as well as he produced.

Lil Wayne

Weezy F Baby was, quite literally, the baby of the Hot Boys. Before his massive mixtape run of the mid-2000s (and second life as an aspiring rockstar), Lil Wayne was the 14-year-old newcomer in the Hot Boys, a seminal Louisiana group featuring Juvenile, B.G., and Turk. After that group proved successful, Wayne released his solo debut, Tha Block is Hot. At 17 years old, he was practically a rap veteran.

Denzel Curry

Denzel Curry is one of Carol City, Florida's most famous exports. At one time, though, he wasn't even the most famous member of his local crew. That distinction belonged to SpaceGhostPurrp, the cult-like figure and the leader of Denzel's first rap group, Raider Klan. Curry honed his chops as one of the collective's youngest members, gaining confidence and skills before heading off on his own after the group dissolved.

Kenny Beats

Kenny Beats is one of rap's go-to producers. His tag ("Woah, Kenny!") is as recognizable as some rappers' flows. While Kenny has always been a musician, he got his start at the Berklee School of Music studying jazz guitar. There, he met Ryan Marks, and the two formed the enormously successful EDM duo Loudpvck. Kenny eventually grew disenchanted with the festival circuit and formulaic songwriting, moving back to his first love: rap. The hip-hop world thanks him.

Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean is one of the most mercurial superstars on the planet. Even his pop hits are translucent, minimal, and sometimes barely even there. His start in the industry was even quieter, though. As an aspiring songwriter, Frank began his career as a ghostwriter, landing writing gigs for Justin Bieber, John Legend, and Brandy. Shortly after, he linked up with Tyler, The Creator, who reinvigorated his desire to write for himself. 

Jack Antonoff

Jack Antonoff is the producer behind many of your favorite hits, as well as a member of fun., who you may remember from their little hit called "We Are Young." You may also recognize him from his most recent pop project, Bleachers, which blends his knack for songwriting with his favorite emo influences. Before all of this, though, Antonoff had a band called Steel Train which gained a small but loyal following on the jam band circuit.

Annie Clark

You'd be forgiven for not recognizing Annie Clark amongst the 30 or so people on stage with the Polyphonic Spree in the early 2000s. Because there seemingly weren't enough members on stage, in 2004, Clark joined Glenn Branca's 100-guitar orchestra to perform for the Queen. Shortly after, she began her solo career as St. Vincent, eventually progressing to her current iteration, where she's the only musician on stage.

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Benny Blanco

Benny Blanco is a producer, songwriter, actor, and media personality. He began his career, though, as a rapper who'd record himself over self-produced beats. He was good enough to earn attention from The Source, but he quickly realized that his calling was behind the boards. It turns out he's great in front of the camera, too. He recently created a YouTube series with Matty Matheson called Matty and Benny Eat Out America, and he plays a version of himself on FXX's Dave.

Ariel Rechtshaid

Ariel Rechtshaid may not be a household name, but he's produced music for HAIM, U2, Adele, Brandon Flowers, Beyoncé, Calvin Harris, and more. He has a singular and highly sought after sound, but before he became a superstar producer, he was an indie rock musician in a semi-popular LA band called Foreign Born. Some LA natives will recall the band, which blended West Coast chill with catchy melodies and memorable choruses.


"Tik Tok" is still one of the biggest songs in pop music, and that's not only because the world's most popular app is named after it. Kesha's rise was immediate and massive, but there's a chance you caught a glimpse of her before you heard her first smash. She appeared in the video for Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl," and if you didn't recognize her in the clip, maybe you remember her voice from her backing vocals on Paris Hilton's "Nothing in this World."

CeeLo Green

Most casual music fans recognize CeeLo from his days as one-half of Gnarls Barkley (with Danger Mouse, who also appears on this list) or as a host on The Voice. Back in the ’90s, though, CeeLo was a member of Goodie Mob, a foundational and highly influential Atlanta rap group. The group was a part of the Dungeon Family, which also included two upcoming MCs who called themselves Big Boi and Andre 3000.


Before there was Radiohead, there was On a Friday. The band chose their name based on the day that Thom Yorke, Colin Greenwood, Ed O'Brien, Philip Selway, and Jonny Greenwood practiced together while students at Abingdon School in Oxfordshire. The band kept their original name until they signed to EMI, changing it at the label's request. They chose Radiohead in honor of the Talking Heads song "Radio Head."

Alex Ebert

Alex Ebert may be best known as the proseltyzing cult leader of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, but long before "Home" was a go-to for music supervisors, Ebert was the frontman of electro post-punk band Ima Robot. That band was known for hits like "Dynomite" and "Creeps Me Out." Listening to that band, you'd never guess where Alex Ebert ended up.

Katy Perry

Katy Perry always knew she wanted to be a singer. She just didn't know what kind. She completed her GED at the age of 15 before pursuing a music career in the co