I have grown up with disdain for bureaucracies and the operatives who have been invested with the power to maintain them. The short sighted narrow mindedness that is required to hold on to positions in these small spheres of influence is antithetical to the vision that is necessary to build, dream and grow in a creative environment. Ultimately, they not only make it difficult to create quality content, but to make history. Unfortunately, the historic documentation of some of the small moments that have led to great events has been left to small figures who are products of this mindset, and thus we are often left with a revisionist view of history.
I am currently working as a music supervisor on the documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. The film has been entered into the documentary competition of the Sundance Film Festival, and has been passionately and insightfully directed by the journeyman character actor Michael Rapaport. Internet buzz has reported a somewhat contentious atmosphere surrounding the project but all concerned parties are currently pleased with the most recent cut. The race is on to clear the music in time for the competition and I’m working with a team to get this done. I have worked in the area of music for film before and it feels good to be back.
I have been a friend, and advisor to Tribe for far longer than my memory can recall, and they have been my favorite Hip Hop band for years with my old friends Run/DMC running a very close second. I will always have a warm spot in my heart for Run and ’em because it was through the first hand exposure that I received observing their ascent and working in the studio with them on much of their historic Raising Hell sessions that I gained valuable insight into the record making process. Through their tutelage, and the experience that I gained as a promotion executive, I acquired an overall view and understanding of the entertainment industry and the profile necessary to become an impact playa.
As a result of earning this profile, I became an A & R man where I ran afoul of less talented and mediocre managers with little if any ability outside of their penchants for self promotion and fanciful lying. My first real shot at making records went well for my employers, and horribly for me in terms of improving my material circumstances. But it did establish me as a more than credible creative executive. Most of the credit for the benefit that I experienced can be attributed to one guy.
George Jackson was a rare animal in the late ’80s- he was both a black Ivy League grad with a degree from Harvard University, and a Hollywood producer with political clout who had been raised in Harlem. He’d run Richard Pryor’s production shingle, and been involved with Quincy Jones’ film production endeavors too. I met him in ’84 while he was putting together the deal for the cinematic confusion known as “Krush Groove”- the misguided attempt to capitalize on the heat surrounding the rap game that was a fictionalized account of the beginnings of the NYU based start up, Def Jam Recordings. I am an old friend of one of the founders of the label, and by the spring of the following year, I would be named, and briefly serve as the first head of promotion for the company. My all too brief tenure coincided with the end of preproduction, casting and principal photography of the film.
Later, George would also be involved with a film set in the world of Go Go, the DC based funk idiom that he’d gotten the legendary Chris Blackwell to release through his Island film distribution arm. Somehow, he’d also weaseled his way into the mix of another flick on the Island release slate called She’s Gotta Have It- a comedic look at sex that was the first film directed by Spike Lee. George was an operator.
George called me in ’88 or ’89 to pick my brain about a project he was working on about a Harlem based crack overlord for Warner Brothers Pictures. He asked what I though about the subject matter, and whether or not, I was hip to a journalist named Barry Michael Cooper who at the time, was covering two beats with distinction: the New York hip hop music industry and the nationally emerging crack trade. Cooper pioneered the coverage of both worlds with a keen eye for detail and an ear for dialogue. He also saw the parallels between both the thirst for fame in the crack entrepreneurs, and the ruthlessness of the young record execs building hip hop empires. As a result, he wrote a defining piece for the Village Voice about the genius production prodigy, Teddy Riley who because of his representation, had a foot in both worlds. In that article, Cooper coined the phrase that described the sound of the era: “new jack swing”.
At the time of Jackson’s call, I was an independent promotion executive working NY retail, clubs and radio for several clients/labels producing hot 12″ single releases aimed at the Black teen, and young adult market. These labels had enough taste to sign cool records, but insufficient juice to get them on the radio. By creating a groundswell for these records, I was making a comfortable living providing the needed access to turntables to DJ booths in hot clubs, in store play and the all important radio exposure that could determine the economic outcome of not only the single, but the album, and the careers of the label executives, producers, managers and artists involved.
One of the records that benefited from my juice was Woppit by B-Phats- the first credited production by Teddy Riley. The record along with his uncredited production on The Show by Doug E. Fresh and The Get Fresh Crew, that started the New Jack Swing movement.
People who make a living in the young adult and teen area’s of pop culture are very research driven. A guy who rents jets to high net worth individuals rents one to a young pop vocal group and is curious about how such a young bunch of guys that he’s never heard of can afford one of his planes. He asks a cousin in the industry, and decides to catch a show. The guy witnesses a New Kids On The Block show, and smells money falling out of people’s pockets. He then decides to put a couple of similar acts together, and thus, the Backstreet Boys, and N’Sync are born. A guy who has success with a standup vocal harmony group decides that he could increase his revenue streams if the group was white. He can’t do anything about that, so the creator of New Edition starts New Kids On The Block. And on, and on…
It’s no different for filmmakers. They are constantly looking to shoot material that has a preexisting following. When George Jackson saw the way the crack trade was ravaging inner city Black America in the ’80s, and people were getting rich from it, and that the Iran Contra hearings that featured Oliver North began to link CIA operations with the distribution of guns and drugs in the hood, in no time at all, he began to look for a story and a story teller. The aforementioned Mr. Copper is a story teller with prodigious talents. Barry Michael Cooper wrote the landmark screenplay for New Jack City, and George Jackson along with his partner Doug McHenry produced the film. The scion of the father of blaxploitaion, Mario Van Peebles directed it, and I was the key creative music executive on the project.
Irving Azoff is unquestionably the most powerful man in the music business. He chairs the board of directors for the entertainment behemoth, Live Nation. He controls acts, tours, venues and merchandising. He has been a titan in music and entertainment since the seventies. He was the chairman of the now defunct MCA Records during a hot streak they had in the ’80s, and at the end of the decade, he departed to form his own label. He struck a deal with Warner Brothers Records, and created a total service imprint called Giant Records. I was one of the first 8 executives hired to the label.
After a smooth as butter interview with Irving, where I was hired in about 20 minutes, I asked to have our relationship clarified with Warners. Irving described them as our partners. I was encouraged by his answer, and so, I went on to detail my understanding that Warners had an extremely exciting script in development, and that if we were to gain control of the potential soundtrack to this project, we would have a vehicle to launch us in the Black Music business. He picked up the phone and called the then Warner’s potentate, Mo Ostin. The former back room accountant who with the backing of Frank Sinatra had built Warners into the most important music company in the world. Under his watch, his company recorded both Prince, and Madonna. It was late ’89.
to be continued…