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Archive for October, 2009

I heard the news Saturday morning around 11. The Ab checked in and hit me with it, “Yo, you heard about Magic?”

I replied, “Johnson, or Mr.?”

“Mr.”

I knew what he meant before I asked, but I asked anyway, “Did he die?”

“Yeah.”

Filmmaker Ann Carli hit me with an FB e-mail around 7:00 PM later that day, that contained a link that shared the news that another pivotal 20th century figure (yeah, I said pivotal) had exited the stage prematurely. If you happen to be too young, or too square to know who he was, it’s cool. I’ll take a moment to put you up on game.

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THE AB

Mr. Magic & Grandmaster Flash

HIP HOP PIONEERS SUPER ROCKIN’ MR. MAGIC
& GRANDMASTER FLASH @THE LEGENDARY DISCO FEVER
(courtesy of Sal Abbatielo)

As of yet, there are few history books or documentaries that accurately tell the tale of the colorful ensemble of rebels, playas, hipsters, hustlas and such that turned the fledgling hip hop industry into a cultural force of international importance. Before The Source, Vibe, Yo MTV, Sony, Warner Bros. Interscope, Arsenio Hall, Hammer, Dre, Kanye, Lil Wayne, Drake, 106 & Park, Hot 97, The Grammy’s, Madison Ave., Hollywood, Broadway and Oprah all decided that hip hop had some value, and would play some role in their various agendas, there was a handful of small independent labels, clubs and retailers who serviced a rabid consumer group who would come to be called the “hip hop nation.” The nation’s capitol was located in early eighties “Money Makin'” Manhattan, the borough found to the south of the “Boogie Down” Bronx the district where the people are fresh, and where hip hop was born.

The creativity and energy that spurred on the pioneers who labored without much rest or recognition during this period was mythic, and legends as well as empires were born. The label guys included; Bobby Robinson at Enjoy, The Robinsons at Sugarhill, Cory Robbins and Steve Plotnicki at Profile, Tom Silverman and Monica Lynch at Tommyboy, The Rifkind brothers at Spring, Sal Abbatiello at Fever, Clive Caulder, Ralph Simon, Barry Weiss and Ann Carli at Jive, Fred Munao at Select, Art Kass at Sūtra, Arthur Baker at Streetwise. Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons at Def Jam and others. They were an unforgettable cast, all of them stars in their own right, and each of them owed some debt to an enterprising young man who referred to himself as “Sir Juice.” The guy who had control of the only block of air time where you could get a rap record played with consistency in New York on small, publicly owned WHBI-FM on “The Rap Attack.”

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Out of this group, his was the earliest voice of the hip hop community. I joined his movie when it was already in progress. I returned to my beloved Soul City in the spring of ’82. The weather broke early that year, and I found myself in a four man pick-up game one town over on the basketball courts in Tenafly. At the time, that court was a hotbed of activity. High school stars, D 1 players, school yard legends, pros and skilled enthusiasts all made their way to the Bergen County hoops mecca for a run.

This particular day I was down with a hot half court crew and we strung together a few wins. One of our players had an obligation and bounced. There was one guy I knew on the sidelines that day, Black Music scion Joey Robinson Jr. first-born son of Joe and Sylvia Robinson, the couple that owned the first important rap label, Sugarhill Records. I asked Joey if he wanted to run and he peeled the Adidas sweat suit off and gave us a good run. We won two more and broke it up. I’d spent part of the previous four years in both college and commercial radio as a DJ, and I’d kept up with the progress that his family’s business was making by releasing hits on; the Treacherous 3, Spoonie Gee, Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five and The Sugarhill Gang. They were making millions as an independent and building the first legitimate hip hop empire.

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SUGARHILL WEST COAST PROMOTION EXECUTIVE SPIDER HARRISON & THE MAN WHO PUT THE playa IN THE GAME JOEY ROBINSON JR.

Science that I’d acquired as a DJ came in handy, as Joey and I got into a conversation about radio, demographics and hits. He offered me a gig at Sugarhill and I took it. The Robinsons were about to end hip hop’s innocence by dropping the politically aware screed, “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious 5. I joined the company shortly in advance of this to lead college radio promotion for them. It was essentially a paid internship, but I learned from masters. His father (Mr. Rob) was a savvy vet who could string together airplay, manufacturing and shipping in a way that made sure that the small firm didn’t exceed demand, or under serve it either. His mother (Sylvia) had the platinum ear and made sure that the staff producers and session players came out of the studio with the goods.

All of this activity and knowledge would not have amounted to much if there wasn’t a place to test the records so one (in the parlance of the trade) could “see what you got.” This would be the least expensive way to determine if you had a hit by reaching the early trend setting portion of the audience via “Rap Attack” exposure. Mr. Magic had a loyal following that loved hip hop, thus making him the focal point of the early hip hop industry. If you were in the rap game and you weren’t down with Magic, you’d better know someone who was, or you were on the outside looking in.

Magic, along with a small network of club jocks that spun at places that included; The Fever, The Roxy, The Fantasia, The Roseland Ballroom, Danceteria and Bonds International all played rap when commercial radio held the music at arm’s length, and allowed a young and hungry group of studios, engineers, producers, musicians, retailers and execs to make a living, and in a few cases thrive because they played the music without prejudice. In this way, they created a groundswell that made corporate interests take notice.

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BONDS INTERNATIONAL

A year in advance of my entry into the game, developments in the radio market got interesting. “The Chief Rocker” Frankie Crocker had successfully steered New York’s Black owned WBLS-FM to number 1 overall in the New York market by playing a mixture of Black dance records, classics, important new wave singles and European imports. This left him vulnerable to an attack on his Black teen and young adult listeners. RKO flipped it’s Pop AC flagship WRKO all the way into a Black teen and young adult format and began to cause problems with their newly dubbed 98.7 Kiss FM.

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DISCO’S FIRST SUPERSTAR DONNA SUMMER & THE CHIEF ROCKER

Crocker was never one to be afraid to try something new and responded by hiring Magic and giving “The Rap Attack” a Friday and Saturday night spot on WBLS and transformed the Inner City Broadcasting property into “The Station With The Juice.’ With that hire, rap grew up. The first exclusive rap show was greenlit on a commercial station and it was on.

His weekend broadcasts were appointment listening and his “super listeners” formed groups around radios all over the tri-state area to get up on the newest and funkiest cuts that the game could get him on. He turned the radio listening experience into something closer to what it had been when pioneering DJ Alan Freed broke records by Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley while creating rock & roll.

As a Sugarhill employee, I was exposed to Magic regularly. His then wife, Lisa worked at the label. Every label in town had some relationship with him. His former request line intern Jalil formed a crew called Whodini, got himself signed to Jive and dropped the Thomas Dolby produced, anthemic tribute “Mr. Magic’s Wand” and smashed. Spring/Posse released a Spyder D produced jawn on Magic himself. The Jazzy 5’s “Jazzy Sensation” shouted him out on the vamp. Profile released 3 volumes of compilations named for the “Rap Attack.” Fever Records had the best relationship with him, and you could count on seeing him at the Bronx nightspot almost anytime you’d be there. His DJ, Marly Marl and his producer/manager comprised the two key elements of Warner Bros./Cold Chillin Records and signed a group of artists that included, MC Shan, Biz Markie, Kool G Rap, Master Ace and T J Swan and dubbed themselves “The Juice Crew.”

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THE JUICE CREW

Success was a difficult concept for him and he was on and off the air a couple of times. He briefly tried an unsuccessful comeback on Kiss, but the Magic wasn’t quite there any longer.

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Shouts to Lisa Rivas, EBC, Winston Saunders, Sweet G, Romero, Lenny Fitchelburg, Barry Mayo, Fred Buggs, Manny Bella, Charley Stetler, RIP Steve Salem & John “Mr. Magic” Rivas

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A&R legend, Gerry Griffith has returned to post another guest blog for us. This time he completes the tale of how he discovered and signed Whitney Houston and found the first hits that would propel her to a career that has seen her sell nearly 200 million recordings.

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As I look back, I can recall a time before we signed Whitney Houston to a full contract, and Bruce Lundvall still wanted to bring the young diva to Elektra. I would drop in to see her perform with Cissy at the New York soul food cabaret Sweetwaters, and there he was sitting in the room…we would always gesture with a smile and wave. I’d worked with Bruce during his tenure as the president of Columbia Records. He’d promoted me to West Coast Product Manager, and later into the A&R ranks in Los Angeles.

My first project as Product Manager was Weather Report’s “Heavy Weather,“ and my first A&R assignment was to work with of one his artist signings, Bill Withers on his “Menagerie” album. Bill’s “Lovely Day” came from that album. Bruce had also worked for Clive Davis at Columbia in the 70’s as VP of Marketing. So now I’m the protégé in competition with one of my mentors… interesting times.

Bruce never got the chance to sign Whitney because from what I understood, the Chairman of Elektra “was not in to her.” But Bruce does have the distinction of releasing two tracks with her before we released a single recording on Arista; the song “Memories” with Archie Shepp on Bill Laswell’s 1982 Material LP, and with Teddy Pendergrass on his1984 duet “Hold Me,” on the ”Love Language” LP (with Arista‘s permission).Over the two years since signing with us, she was maturing into a star, as was evident on “Hold Me,” but we were recording big hits too.

Clive appeared on the nationally televised Merv Griffin show and introduced Whitney to the country. According to their producer, her appearance generated more positive letters and phone calls than any other artist in the show’s history! Unfortunately, this didn’t lead to creating interest from any A-list producers we approached. So Clive had the idea to showcase Whitney and her aunt Dionne Warwick in Los Angeles, where we would invite the top west coast songwriters and producers to see them perform. Our effort did not lead to one great song or interested producer, so we returned to NY and continued our search.

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MERV

The Pendergrass hit duet “Hold Me’ was produced by Michael Masser. He’d had previous successes with headliners; George Benson, Peabo Bryson, and Diana Ross. Clive hired him for the project, and I brought in our new artist producer Kashif who was coming off his top 10 solo hit, and Evelyn King’s “Love Come Down” to write and produce. Jermaine Jackson had recently signed to the label and immediately asked to produce Whitney. Three talented producers, three interesting stories.

In the course of looking for song material, I got a call from producer Dennis Lambert. At the time, Dennis was a hit maker with diverse productions like; Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy, The Four Tops “Ain’t No Woman Like The One I Got,” and all of Tavares‘ hits. He wanted me to hear a song for Whitney’s project that he’d co-written with Siedah Garrett and Franne Golde. We met and I absolutely loved the song. I convinced Clive to have Jermaine produce and sing the duet with our budding star.

We completed the track and Clive loved it, but there was a problem. A few weeks after the basic production was completed, an apologetic Dennis called me to explain that he had to pull the tune from the project. He was producing (former Temptations lead singer) Dennis Edwards at Motown, and since our album was not slated for release any time soon, (Motown founder) Berry Gordy needed an immediate first single on Edwards. If you haven’t guessed by now, the song was ”Don’t Look Any Further.” We were devastated. Jermaine replaced the duet with a beautiful ballad “Take Good Care of My Heart.”

The next song came from my friend Brenda Andrews at Almo-Irving Publishing. The company signed two British writers Merrill and Rubicam, who wrote a song “How Will I Know.” Great song, now who could produce it? I was introduced to Narada Michael Walden by Angie Bofill at the time he worked on her Arista/GRP Records album “Something About You” in 1981. I had always loved his aggressive production style and attitude, he was producing Aretha’s Franklin‘s, “Freeway of Love” at the time for us. Taking time from Aretha, we had him produce “How Will I Know” for Whitney. Looking back, it seems the Columbia Records connection was at work again. Narada was the drummer for the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Weather Report’s “Black Market” LP, two of my all time favorite bands, and Clive, Bruce and I were all with Columbia Records when these records were released.

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NARADA

Masser was creating pure love in the studio with his songs, especially “Saving All My Love for You,” and “Greatest Love of All.” He was perfect for Whitney. My good friend Kenneth Reynolds, who was an Arista product manager at the time, recently reminded me that the first mix of the song Masser delivered was so soulful that one would think Aretha was singing, and Clive announced at our staff meeting when he heard it, that it was “too black.” I really wish I had kept that mix!

Kashif bought Jackie Robinson’s home in Stamford Connecticut and built a studio there. One day while we were listening to songs, Kashif asked one of his writers LaLa Cope to sit and play a song she wrote titled “You Give Good Love.” The memory of this moment still resonates within my soul…the song was perfect for the project. A few weeks later at the final vocal session, Whitney aced the lead vocal in one take, we were speechless…this was to be my final contribution to her debut album.

I resigned from Arista in September 1984. Lundvall had formed a new label, Manhattan Records, with EMI America. He asked me to join him as head of A&R. It seems both of us needed greener pastures, and a fresh start.

During a trip to Los Angeles Bruce asked me to join him at Bobby Colomby’s house to hear a new artist named Richard Marks perform. Bobby was our west coast representative. When Richard ended his set, Bruce walked over to the piano, praised the performance and asked him to join the label. Traveling back to the office, I asked Bruce if I could A&R the project, he said yes…

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WHITNEY, THE AUTHOR DISPLAYING THE ART OF GENTLE PERSUASION & DIONNE WARWICKE

EPILOGUE

From the time Whitney Houston released “I Look To You“, many of my colleagues have asked my opinion of the songs and performances on her new album. It’s been difficult not to read the many reviews, so after listening to the record and viewing the much anticipated Oprah and Good Morning America appearances, I now have a refreshed opinion of our world renowned superstar, not her music. The question (for me) is not whether the vocals are as remarkable as her past performances, if the song selection is brilliant, if the production values are fresh, or even if she will sell millions of albums.

The song “I Love” is her courageous triumph over odds that would stop most of us in our tracks. I choose to celebrate Whitney’s strength to walk into a studio, stand in front of the microphone and sing. For her to make music in the face of all the negative criticism that has haunted her over the years, to cast out the demons and sing her song, that’s what I honor. No matter how many albums she sells, my stand for Whitney is that we all realize that this human being is still the most celebrated vocalist in the world, or should I say the boldest and most celebrated vocalist in the world? The lady sings, and that is what matters.

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