GEORGE JACKSON & DOUG McHENRY
In October of ’90, Teddy Riley celebrated his 25th birthday aboard a yacht in the Pacific Ocean. The playa was in attendance, but the boat almost left without me because earlier that day, I’d been a guest of George Jackson’s at a private screening of New Jack City on the Warner Brothers lot, and getting from Burbank back to my Sunset Blvd hotel and to the marina was no joke. After first hearing about the project over two years earlier, reading the script, selecting the music for 6 months, and listening to George go on about how he was going to change the game once his picture came out, I was ready to see the movie, and I prayed that he hadn’t turned Barry Michael Cooper’s brilliant script into Krush Groove Goes Uptown. He hadn’t.
The rough cut of the film that I viewed that day made my skin tingle in the same way it does on a gambler when they have placed a big bet knowing that their card is about to be turned over and they are about to walk away with the house’s money in their pocket. While using Cooper’s words as the paints, and the performances as the brushes, director Mario Van Peebles created a colorful picture of the world of the uptown crack king, Nino Brown. In a career making role, Wesley Snipes gave a performance filled with slickness, anger and venom. Ice-T played against type as an undercover cop. And the comic voice of our generation, Chris Rock had a memorable turn as Pookie the pathetically hooked crackhead.
Two record producers joined me at the screening, and later on the yacht; Dr. Freeze who had shook up the game the previous year with Poison, a smash he’d written and produced for BBD, and Stanley Brown a friend of Run/DMC’s Jam Master jay who was coming off a blazer with Keith Sweat. Like me, they were blown away by the movie.
The party was over, and we docked but the night was just getting started. Soul City nightlife overlord, Brad Johnson was holding sway over the LA club scene with Roxbury, a joint that he ran on Sunset. The VIP room was packed that night, and I had two young ladies meet me. The three of us found ourselves in the company of my old friend Nile Rodgers, and a friend of his, Herbie Hancock. The champagne was cold, and the music was hot. I was in a celebratory mood.
We closed the spot, and got ourselves invited to Herbie’s for a nightcap. The head honcho of Warner Brothers Black Music operation, Benny Medina joined us too. While standing around Herbie’s pool we discussed the issues confronting funk, soul and jazz at the time. Nile asked the playa’s advice on whether he should produce a record on Lionel Ritchie or not. I cautioned him by telling him that Bill Withers would be a better fit. We missed Bill, and his sorrowful songs of joy, pain and woe were statements for and to his people. By comparison I stumbled, “Lionel Ritchie was just making, just making….”.
“…he was just making records,” said Herbie as he finished my sentence.
HERBIE HANCOCK & NILE RODGERS
BILL WITHERS (the people’s choice)
The sun was rising, and I had get out of town. Earlier in the day, I’d turned down an offer of a ride back to New York from Azoff on the Warner jet. The playa had to go to Oklahoma to see Giant’s blue eyed new jack swingers, Color Me Badd. The plan was to introduce them to Stanley Brown and Freeze for the purpose of getting tracks for their forthcoming album and maybe a track for the New Jack City soundtrack.
I was still buzzing on the previous evening’s festivities, and glamour as well as the knowledge that I was about to drop a smash on the game. Brown, Freeze and I caught a flight before 7:00 AM that got us into Oklahoma in the late morning. We were met at the airport, and driven to the group’s studio. There was a couch in the lobby so I decided to shut it down for a minute. I sent out for a bag of Wendy’s and waited. Stanley Brown was playing a keyboard in the studio, and working with the group on trying to find an appropriate key. He was sketching out ideas. Freeze pulled out a cassette, and proceeded to change history.
I’d first heard of Dr. Freeze in ’88. There were whispers surrounding him that he might have some of the same heat that was coming off of Teddy Riley at the time. I soon found out that there was some truth to the buzz. I was in Philly in the fall of ’89, and I was working as a promotion man for Wing Records while covering the 8th anniversary show for WUSL-FM. Philadelphia’s Urban powerhouse outlet. An artist on Wing, Sharon Bryant was asked to appear on the gig so I was escorting her to it. Later, after the show, I was catching a late night cheese steak with Philly flavor man Hiram Hicks, and Motown’s East Coast Regional rep, Deidre Tate. Hicks had been the road manager for New Edition, and had earned the opportunity to manage the NE spinoff group, BBD.
While we were eating in Hicks’ four door Benz, I asked if he had any music to play on his new group. Deidre Tate said, “Play Poison.” My blood started to rush, and my heart raced. Hicks had a smash. Freeze was the goods. I never forgot it.
When Freeze put his cassette in he played a track that featured a sample from CHIC’S Real People album. I said, “That was my favorite track off of the album.”
He said, “You know your records, huh?”
“A little,” I replied.
Some how he was reassured, and played another demo altogether. The intro featured a Slick Rick sample from the underground classic La-Di-Da-Di. I immediately sat up. He had my full attention. “Wait,” I shouted, “play that shit again!” He complied, and rocked a completed demo on what would arguably be the most important record release of the following year, I Wanna Sex You Up!! I got goosebumps.
Two days later, I was in my office at 729 Seventh Ave. I made copies of the cassette, and sent one each to George Jackson, Irving Azoff and my department head. I also played it for my label mate, and friend Brian Koppelman. His office was next door to mine, and I sensed that I had a pop smash on my hands so I wanted him to weigh in with his impressions. Brian had grown up in the music business, and while he was in college he’d discovered Tracy Chapman.
I called Jackson, and said, “George, I have the record that will send us through the roof with the soundtrack, and I know just where it should it play in the movie!” Jackson knew I was telling the truth.
I Wanna Sex You Up went top 5 in 12 countries. Places where I still haven’t been, and I don’t speak the languages. It powered the New Jack City soundtrack to 5 million units sold in the US, and Color Me Badd’s debut to 6 million sold. The soundtrack played on radio across the nation from the winter of ’91 well into the following fall, and contributed to making Ice-T and Wesley Snipes stars. For my first time out of the gate, I’d picked a winner, and as I’d told Azoff in ’89, I’d launched Giant into the Black Music business. Color Me Badd was nominated as one of the 5 Best New Artists by the Grammys the following year- they lost to Boyz II Men.
In the wake of massive success credit must be assigned. I was much better at, and more interested in, understanding the mechanics of making and breaking records, than I was at acquiring status. I didn’t understand then that it was more than status, it was power. The power to make further creative decisions and to create economic opportunity for myself, and others.
People with creativity don’t often get into the same room with people with money and the skills that are required to fight your way into the the game from being an airline stewardess are not necessarily the same ones that will allow you to launch labels. I was shown the door.
My friend Brian Koppelman witnessed most of this from his position at the company. His father had launched a successful startup label around the same time we started, and was named Chairman of Capitol//EMI North America. Brian facilitated an introduction, and was responsible for me joining the A&R staff of a newly organized EMI. I went on to discover and sign D’Angelo but that’s a story for another time.
for Nille, Brian and George RIP