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Posts Tagged ‘Chris Rock’


Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix wanted to make a record together, but Hendrix died before they could get it done. And before his death, Davis was searching for a hip hop producer to cut tracks with. Davis was an adventurous spirit who pushed the envelope until the end, and he was definitely not going to continue to play Bill Evans charts or Cole Porter and Gershwin standards forever – he moved on. At some point, we all have to. I loved the record business of the ’80s, 90s, and ’00s but I’m excited about the way it is now, and I am optimistically looking forward to the future.

As a major label promotion man who eventually experienced platinum level success as an A&R man, I was a reasonably well compensated and high profile participant in what was essentially a manufacturing business that placed ultimate importance on the shifting of the plastic and vinyl that the music was embedded on as its end game. But that’s all changed, even though there’s an upswing in vinyl sales, now the little pieces of plastic and vinyl are being phased out – by the record companies that once all but murdered in order to sell them – so the music itself can be consumed digitally over the web. 

Technology has realigned virtually every critical relationship in the process that begins in the mind and soul of a creative individual – with musical intentions – and eventually makes its way to the end user. Internet and satellite radio are plentiful, and this has all lessened the grip that brick and mortar retail, terrestrial radio and record companies had on the game. With no one to guide, lead, force or promote them, consumers can now find new music on You Tube, on Soundcloud and Mix Cloud. Once they’ve heard it they can download the music legally or illegally from any number of independent digital outlets, underground file sharing services or from iTunes. Or they can stream the music on one of several services. 

I adapted to this new reality; I began to network aggressively on social media, I took several digital subscriptions to consumer publications and read them for news of e-business. I read The Digital Music Report and Pitchfork. I used my extensive knowledge of music, and my collection of over 30,000 MP3 files to program iPods for celebrity friends and others. I read books. I read scripts. I looked for Music Supervision gigs in film and television by using the apps for Hollywood trade publications. I became an advisor to the Universal Hip Hop Museum and suggested that in advance of breaking ground on a physical space, a “virtual museum” collection could be curated and displayed on a website. I became a freelance writer, and an announcer on Beats 1 Radio. I realized I wasn’t going to beat ’em so I joined ’em. Call it gospel, blues, jazz, soul, funk, hip hop, trap or Urban it’s all Black Music, and much of it is still the music of struggle, of strength, of joy and pain and I am proud to continue to play some small part in its preservation and it’s exposure. 

Black Music is no longer the sole province of the well dressed occupants of corner office suites located on high floors of Sixth Avenue skyscrapers. The democratizing affect of the Internet has eroded the need for the middle man mentality that impeded the progress of hip hop in its early years, and denied the impact of downloading and file sharing until it was almost too late. Now the music has outgrown the relationship that record companies enjoyed with retail and radio for decades. It’s viral, it’s infected everything and everyone in its wake, it’s global. It’s bigger than the radio, bigger than spins, bigger than anyone who induced spins for a living. 

For the entire summer of 2010, leading up to the release of his Dark and Twisted Fantasy project, on a weekly basis, Kanye West previewed early mixes of each album track on Twitter, for free, before he dropped the completed album in the fall. During the promotional set up phase of the project he went to the home offices of Google and Facebook to perform selections from the album. When the record was released he went to number 1 on Billboard’s Pop Albums Chart. Beyoncé no longer turns her record into her record company or services radio with a single, she now shoots a long form video, plays it one time on HBO, and for a limited amount of time, she now makes the album exclusively available through Tidal – her husband’s streaming service – waits a bit, puts the record up on iTunes for downloading and goes to number one. She then embarks on an extensive Black Lives Matter influenced tour and sells out football arenas across the nation. And Frank Ocean, after feeling unappreciated by his record company, fulfilled his contractual obligation to the label by releasing an album exclusively through Apple Music, and then bought his way out of his deal, digitally released another record the following week with no radio, no set up, and no warning and entered the Billboard chart at number one. Clearly things have changed. The artists are no longer playing the game the way it had been played before. They’ve started a league of their own. 

Now the music is in the The Roots Picnic, The Made In America Labor Day jump off and Afro Punk. It’s in the fourth season of the Yeezy fashion collection, it’s in the bespoke sartorial splendor of Nile Rodgers’ gear, it’s in the startling world wide success of Straight out of Compton, it’s in the deal that Apple struck with Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, it’s in Barack Obama’s voice as he sings an Al Green classic from the stage of the Apollo Theater. It’s Q-Tip going to the White House. It’s in the Hotline Bling, it’s in the Bad Boy Reunion Tour, the Netflix series, The Get Down, the 50 Cent produced, STARZ series, Power, the deeply sarcastic and brilliant humor of Donald Glover’s FX series, Atlanta. It’s Rhianna covering Vogue, it’s in her Work. It’s in Revolt TV. It’s in the bohemian hood funk of Anderson .Paak, the songs of freedom of Gregory Porter and the sweet and low sexiness of Kandace Springs. It’s Amy Schumer telling Charlie Rose that Obama’s summer playlist is cool because it includes a track from D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar album, it’s in Chris Rock’s Top 5 MCs, it’s Black Thought and ?uestlove rocking with Adele on The Tonight Show. It’s in All Def Digital. It’s in the prose of Colson Whitehead, Bryan Stevenson, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Heather Ann Thompson. It’s Kendrick Lamar illustrating the genocide of over incarceration on stage at The Grammys. It’s in the bold swagger of Ryan Coogler’s Creed, it’s in Common’s acceptance speech at the Oscars, it’s in Meshell Ndegeocello’s moving score for Queen Sugar. It was on the CDs that Alton Sterling was selling, it’s in Formation, it’s in your Lemonade, it’s in this essay, it’s everywhere. Can’t you feel it? 

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dangelo-1.22.2013.

THE BLACK MESSIAH

Interesting moment we’re living through; just last weekend, Chris Rock returned to the big screen with his self-written and directed starring vehicle “Top Five”, a sweet, funny and romantic tale that co-stars Rosario Dawson, and has been deeply influenced by Chris’ love of Woody Allen films. My love of Woody Allen films has given me the lens to see Chris’s work in its proper light, and I have to recommend ‘Top Five” wholeheartedly. Not surprisingly, audiences are responding enthusiastically and have given the top banana two thumbs up to the tune of a $7million opening weekend-good enough to place it in the top five of all films that played last week in the US.

Sunday night, I finished reading an excellent book by former Huffington Post editor, Marcus Baram. His debut effort is a biography on the activist, poet, blues, jazz, and soul man, Gil Scott-Heron entitled, “Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man” and it’s stellar. It is the perfect companion to Scott-Heron’s own 2012 memoir “The Last Holiday”. Baram’s book gives great insight into Gil’s eccentric ride in the music business, and his battles with commercial and corporate expectations, family responsibilities, the press, band mates and addiction. It also gives political, cultural and historic context to Scott-Heron’s poetry and political activism. It is a must read for these revolutionary times that we’re living through.

Chris-Rock-and-Rosario-Dawson-in-NYC-in-Top-Five-Movie-Film-2014

CHRIS ROCK and ROSARIO DAWSON

The day before I finished Baram’s book, word of another troubled Black genius came across my Facebook newsfeed, Bad Boy/Soul Man, D’Angelo has returned to the fray with a flurry of excitement. News of his first full – length studio project in 15 years broke the Internet when “Sugah Daddy”, a set up track from “Black Messiah”, the highly anticipated album, was made available for streaming, and as a free download for a limited time. The buzz was deafening, I followed, and I went to hear it.

I’d heard “Sugah Daddy”, when I last saw D’Angelo perform, he was here in Charlotte, and he came through in September of 2012 as an opener on a Mary J. Blige tour in support of her “My Life II” project. D played “Sugah Daddy’ that night, and later at an impromptu backstage meeting with D and veteran Soul Music player, Alan Leeds, I expressed my support for “Sugah Daddy” as a lead single. My thinking was that even though it may not be a home run radio charter, it would serve well as a set up single. I remember saying, “Stop bullshitting, put the motherfucker out.” We all laughed at how easily my old promotion man’s humor and swagger could be called upon in the right circumstances.

Swagger and humor that I earned during my battles in the radio wars. You see, I spent nearly a decade as a promotion man during the period when Hip Hop bubbled up from the underground and became Black oil for the corporate multi-nationals. After that, I became an A&R man, the A&R man who signed D’Angelo to his first record deal. The one who rocked with him during the writing of his masterwork, “Brown Sugar”. So you see, I’m somewhat familiar with the “D’Angelo sound” and its roots.

It starts in the South and in the Black church. His granddaddy was a preacher, and his daddy was too, D was the director of the Senior Choir at his granddaddy’s church at the age of seven. All churches have hierarchies and Black churches are no different. The senior choir in a Black church is populated with the voices that are most steeped in the Black gospel tradition and feeling. They are entrusted to deliver all the show-stopping, house quaking, spirit invoking hymns on the Sundays they sing. Usually, after they have made a joyful noise, the collection plate gets passed around, and if they have done their job well, the congregation will shell out the cash in support of the lord. When you witness this as a young child, the connection between purity of expression, art and commerce is forever embedded in your psyche.

Like Gil Scott-Heron, D’Angelo is a gifted southerner who is deeply steeped in the Black arts of Blues, Gospel, and Soul, and his “Black Messiah” reflects it. Also like Scott-Heron’s work, it reflects his disdain for corporate interference and commercial considerations. The album is deep, Black, funky, exquisitely performed and confused. It has no clear direction and the songs are sung with muted and inaudible vocals. Lyrics have surfaced on various sites on the Internet – somebody over at RCA is really thinking. The project has inspired online debate as to whether or not it is an instant classic, unfinished or even good. As my friend Chris Rock shared with me, “It’s a beautiful mess”. I would agree. Projected first-week sales have been quoted at the 100,000 mark. D’Angelo, and all of the attendant controversy that comes with him is back.

In May of this year, here on this blog, I wrote an open letter to D that (amongst other things) chided him for fostering a hoax on the public as the self-anointed “future of the funk”. I stand corrected; he is funk’s last best hope of survival. “Black Messiah” is a miracle born out of resistance to corporate interference and an unwillingness to assimilate into a Black Music marketplace filled with compromised synth based juvenile love songs, and pre-fab white rappers. It is the music of struggle, of pain and woe. It is uncompromisingly and authentically Black, and quite funky.

Many have inquired about my thoughts. Frankly, it is not a record that I would have helped him make. As a creative businessman with an ear to the street and an eye on the bottom line, it would have been irresponsible to encourage an artist to release a record in this form. However, I may have been wrong. Part of what an A&R man must do is to support courageous experimentation. In this regard, apparently, D’Angelo’s courage knows no bounds, and his uncompromising resistance to creative guidance may pay off well. And this may be the ideal soundtrack for the chaotic and unpredictable moment that we are living through. I hope it ends differently for him than it did for Gil.

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George Jackson & Doug McHenry

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

HERBIE HANCOCK & NILE RODGERS

BILL WITHERS

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.

DR. FREEZE

FREEZE

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.

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for Nille, Brian and George RIP

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