The Hustle

How this 'Staten Island Hustle' star went from selling $10 mixtapes to working with Wu-Tang Clan

Wu-Tang Clan is known globally for their lyrical kung fu references, heavy rhythms and songs like, "C.R.E.A.M." Recently they've been in the news because "pharma bro" Martin Shkreli bought what is purported to be one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang Album for a reported $2 million.

But in the 1990s, Wu-Tang was a Staten Island rap group rising to fame. And Adolfo LaCola, a star of CNBC's "Staten Island Hustle," was their business operations guy, working closely with Method Man and Ghostface Killah.

"Negotiating deals, checking out the contracts ... just dealing the whole business end of the music industry, marketing, promotion you know," LaCola tells CNBC Make It. "That was all me."

In 1999, LaCola became the chairman of the board and a co-owner of Ghostface Killah's record label, Stark Enterprises.

But for LaCola, the son of Italian immigrants, landing a gig with the hip hop legends began with a dream and a side-hustle he picked up at 13.

"We're totally different on Staten Island, we have a different walk, a different talk," LaCola tells CNBC of the often forgotten New York City borough, whose residents have a sometimes rough but scrappy reputation. "We've been hustling since we were in diapers."

Indeed, growing up, LaCola remembers often trying to turn a nickle into a dime. He would move whatever he could get his hands on, from hawking fireworks to selling kids in the school cafeteria the homemade sandwiches his family packed him for lunch.

But he was the most passionate about DJing.

"I was very intrigued [by] how one song bled into the other song on radio," LaCola tells CNBC Make It. "As a kid, my mom bought me one of those plastic record players. She bought me the blue one, [and bought] my sister the red one.

"I figured out how to put them together and kind of let one song bleed into the next," he explains.

Determined, LaCola scraped together the equipment he would need to produce music himself.

"My mom bought me a turntable for Christmas, my sister got me the mixer [and] I won a skate contest in Brooklyn to buy the records, the final turntable, the amp and speakers," he explains.

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NBC Universal

It wasn't long before his DJing began to pay off. The owner of The Country Club Ice Cream Parlor, Jerry Sapio, in Staten Island ('Where all the kids hung out," LaCola says) was the first to offer him cash for mixtapes.

"He actually admired me for being one of the young guys that didn't really go out onto the street and do what everyone else was doing," LaCola says. "He inspired me, and said 'If you make me a mixtape, I'll buy it from you.'" LaCola sold his first mixtapes to Sapio for $10 a piece on cassettes.

As he grew up, LaCola went to college and tried out all sorts of careers — a job on Wall Street, one in healthcare and he even tried his hand at investing in small businesses, like liquor stores and ice cream shops. Through the years he stuck with music, DJing at parties and clubs for extra cash.

"Go to school, do your thing," LaCola says, "but the rest of your free time dedicate to your dream and what you want to do."

LaCola did and when he met Method Man and Ghostface Killah, it paid off.

"Wu-Tang and I found each other," LaCola explains. "Staten Island is a small borough. So a group that makes it as big as Wu-Tang did on Staten Island, everyone tends to know it. I kind of had a reputation of my own [in music], and running into Ghostface or Method Man every now and then, we ended up becoming friends."

In 1995 or 1996, LaCola, then about 30 years old, first began working for the group, helping them look over contracts and deals. He stayed with them through 2002, until the strenuous requirements of working in the music business began to take their toll.

"I was running from approximately 7 a.m. until 3 a.m. every day," he says. "It was a hard life to live, so [I] took a break from that."

Today, he's investing in new side hustle ideas as a star of CNBC's "Staten Island Hustle." Along with four friends on the show, LaCola helps brain storm products and businesses that the group tests out and sometimes launches to the public.

For young people who are hoping to become successful, LaCola says his number one piece of advice is to stick with your passions.

Even if it starts as a side hustle, identify what you want to succeed at and get going, LaCola says: "Remember, Wu Tang started selling their album out of the trunk of a car on Staten Island."

Don't miss: How these 5 guys from Staten Island got their own TV show on CNBC

Watch all new episodes of "Staten Island Hustle," Wednesdays at 10P ET/PT on CNBC.

— Video by Andrea Kramar