We Usually Celebrate Our Groundbreaking and Game-changing Black Artists in June. On the 40th Anniversary, I Turned Towards the People Who Created the Culture and Shaped the Business
I love #BlackMusicMonth for obvious reasons, as a music and culture lover, as a former Black Music executive and as music journalist. However, I’ve learned over the years that the foundations of the celebration are much deeper than what BMM has evolved to be today.
To commemorate the 40th Anniversary of Black Music Month in 2019, I wanted to highlight the initial mission and purpose.
The idea of a month-long celebration of Black music’s contributions to American culture wasn’t just about historic observation and celebration; it was about the business of Black music, which was growing at a rapid pace in the ’70s.
I wrote for Vibe about Philadelphia Soul architect Kenny Gamble and the consortium of Black music stakeholders operating as the Black Music Association, and their mission to bolster industry support and positioning of Black music, with the understanding that “Black Music is Green.”
Next, I implore you to make your way to Netflix — if you haven’t already — and watch the incredible Reggie Hudlin doc on behind the scenes move-maker and connector Clarence Avant. The Black Godfather isn’t just a documentary about an entertainment executive, it’s about the power of relationships.
#MusicSermon celebrates Black music all day, e’ry day (don’t forget to check out the #BlackMusicMonthMusicChallenge on Twitter and IG), but the stories behind the stories are key.
It’s that time: After what feels like years of back and forth, we’re cautiously, but optimistically and longingly looking towards Summer! 🍗🍔🥃
We have officially reached the season of fellowship and breaking bread, again. Turning water into wine and feeding your entire neighborhood with loaves and (fried) fishes.
Wayyyy back in the “before”, #MusicSermon examined the sonic components of a proper soundtrack for said fellowships: The Cookout Essentials. We added a second volume the following year, and finally have a third installment in the series. But first … let’s review:
To keep order (because this could easily be a fight-inciting conversation), we’ll lay out some rules:
1. For the purposes of this discussion, the cookout is intergenerational (and in this house, we’re of the mind that “cookout is an event, BBQ is a sauce.”)
2. By #MusicSermon standards, the requirements of Cookout Music include:
Suitable for dancing (including 2-stepping, as to prevent drink spillage), shit talking & game playing.
Includes at least one selection from each Staple Cookout Artist/Genre (we’ll get into that)
Follows the parameters of the Cookout Time Lapse (we’ll get into that)
3. Even with all these rules, it’s somewhat subjective (obviously) and influenced by region. It’s inevitable that I’ll leave out something that someone thinks should have been included.
Before we get into the details, please stand (or just wave your hands in the air) for #MusicSermon’s official Summer Hymn, and one of the videos that best depicts the kind of Black cookout for which these playlists set the stage. This song is undefeated, henceforth and forever more. Amen.
Revisiting #MusicSermon’s tribute to one of our greatest living artists: few illustrations of Stevie’s wonder.
Today is the birthday of one of our greatest national treasures, Mr. Stevland Morris. This isn’t a full Stevie sermon — I’ve been promising a revival-style look at hist music as some point — but a quick highlight of some of my favorite things about Stevie’s art and talent.
1. HE’S ONE OF THE BEST-COVERED ARTISTS EVER
The phrasing here is important. Much in the tradition of Motown (even though Stevie wasn’t a typical Motown artist – Thanks, Marvin), Stevie’s catalog is heavily mined for covers, remakes, and samples…
The thing is, even though there’s so much STEVIE in his songs, they completely lend themselves to the cover artists to make their own. I’m not sure if that’s Stevie’s talent as a composer, or of the other artists.
We all know there’s been a “Which Ribbon is better?” battle since ‘93.
Stevie can create a definitive piece of work…
…and another artist redefine it, without taking anything away from Stevie’s version. Them Hailey boys’ styles ain’t nothin’ like Stevie’s, and yet, killed it.
I think Donnell had a slam dunk on the vocals here, but the production didn’t age well. You gotta keep the Stevie ballads and mids simple, IMO.
Tevin rendered a version of “Knocks Me Off My Feet” as well.
The night Andre Harrell died, I DM’d my editor at Billboard and told him that whatever they were going to do for Dre, I was raising my hand. I knew a slew of outlets’ headers would read “… who discovered Sean Combs,” and Dre’s impact was so much bigger than that; larger and farther reaching than many outside of the entertainment industry knew.
I also had the opportunity to describe Dre through the music he helped bring to the world.
In both instances, I did my part to pay tribute to originator of Ghetto Fabulous.
“My goal is to bring real black America — just as it is, not watered down — to people everywhere through music, through films, through everything we do.”
This was the manifesto of 32 year-old, newly-minted entertainment mogul Andre O’Neal Harrell, in conversation with the L.A. Times in 1992 about his $50M multi-media deal with MCA Records.
Harrell, who founded Uptown Records, died on Friday, May 8th of an apparent cardiac episode at the age of 59. As the music industry mourns this unexpected loss, a refrain keeps echoing through posts and tributes: Andre’s impact on music and culture was never properly celebrated.
Harrell is best known as the founder of Uptown Records—the home of Heavy D, Al B. Sure, Guy, Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, and the training ground for a young Sean “Puffy” Combs. But Harrell’s impact was bigger than introducing those pivotal artists and creatives to the world.
A former rapper himself, the Bronx-native was a regular in the bustling New York City club scene. He was one of the earliest Def Jam employees, working with talent on the Rush Management side while sharing an apartment with best friend Russell Simmons.
If Simmons is the godfather of hip-hop, Harrell is the godfather of modern-R&B. With Uptown, Harrell sought to capture, package and present through music the flair and flavor of Harlem —the energy, the style, and the parties. Uptown was the home of dancefloor jams. “I wanted hit records that make you feel a certain sexy kinda way,” Harrell told New York Magazine in 1995. “Records that would get a pretty girl to dance with you at 2 a.m. even if you weren’t great looking.”
In tribute to Harrell, who was the quintessential energy regulator and master of ceremony, we’ve put together eight songs that captured and defined both his and Uptown’s brand, sound and spirit.
1. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde “Genius Rap” (1981)
Hip hop duo Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde foreshadowed the musical energy Harrell would capture through Uptown. Rap was still in the braggadocio era: boastful lyrics, MC challenges, etc. But Harrell and partner Lorenzo Brown wore Italian suits and rapped about girls, jewelry, money and champagne—almost 20 years before the bling era. The act dubbed their style “champagne rap.” It was hip-hop you could party to.
2. The Uptown Crew “Uptown’s Kickin’ It” (1986)
When Harrell approached MCA Records about a label deal, they gave him a budget to make a compilation as a test run. Uptown’s Is Kickin’ It featured original label acts Heavy D & the Boyz, Groove B. Chill, Marly Marl and Finesse & Synquis.
3. Heavy D & The Boyz “The Overweight Lover’s in the House” (1987)
Harrell wanted to sign Heavy D. & the Boyz from their first listen at Rush Management, but Simmons wasn’t on board. He passed because of his plus size but Harrell saw the charm, the energy—he knew this was a hit act. So, Harrell took Heavy’s demos to shop for his deal, thus becoming Uptown’s bedrock artist. Before there was Biggie and Big Pun rapping about pulling the ladies, there was the overweight lover Heavy D (née Dwight Myers). His infectious party-rap songs, disarming lyricism and incredible footwork made Heavy D. & the Boyz a platinum act.
4. Al B. Sure “Night and Day” (1988)
Heavy D. introduced fellow Mt. Vernon native Al B. Sure (née Al Brown) and cousin Kyle West to Harrell as producers for the label. However, when Heavy missed a recording session, Sure asked Harrell if he could use the studio time to work on a song. The result: “Night and Day,” Uptown’s first No. 1 single.
5. Guy “Groove Me” (1988)
The run-away success of Keith Sweat’s Teddy Riley-produced debut album, Make it Last Forever, caught Harrell’s attention. Riley was a young producer from Harlem translating the energy of St. Nicholas Avenue to a signature sound. When he was looking for a home for his own group, Guy, Harrell signed them. He considered them Uptown’s answer to Charlie Wilson and the Gap Band. With Riley in-house, Uptown was now the official New Jack Swing label, and “Groove Me” could genuinely have been the company’s theme song.
6. Jodeci “Forever My Lady” (1991)
Al B. Sure’s success prompted two sets of singing brothers to pile in a car, drive to New York City and sit in Uptown’s lobby waiting for a chance to sing for the label. Jodeci’s debut album, produced by Sure, not only cemented the label’s place in music history but marked the beginning of a new era in R&B. Sure penned “Forever My Lady” for Uptown staffer Kim Porter, who was expecting their first child, Quincy.
7. Mary J. Blige “My Life” (1994)
Article continues after video.
What’s the 411 officially created a new R&B subgenre: hip-hop soul. Thanks to numerous features, soundtrack placements plus a remix album, Blige felt like a firmly established artist going into her sophomore outing. But while 411 showed us Blige’s B-Girl excellence, My Life revealed the range of emotion Harrell heard in Yonkers’ Schlobohm projects as young Mary sang Anita Bakers “Caught Up in the Rapture.” He signed her immediately.
8. Robin Thicke “Wanna Love You Girl” (2007)
In 2011, outlet Life + Times asked Harrell what projects he’d want to be remembered by. He named “Groove Me,” “My Life,” “Forever My Lady,” and The Evolution of Robin Thicke. Harrell always kept his ear to the street, watching for new trends and talent. He’d signed and worked with the new-millennial, blue-eyed soul singer through Nu America, his label with Babyface. But the Pharrell Williams produced “Wanna Love You Girl” was Thicke’s breakthrough.
Wondering what Black content is available to watch while you’re on COVID lock down? We got you.
A friend asked me if I’d put together a list of Black movies available to stream, and I said of course! This is a non-exhaustive list. There are quite a bit more films — especially platform originals, and a host of shows and docu-series that I didn’t include here, but it’s a good starting place! And for Netflix, there’s the new Netflix Party add-on so you can do watch parties even while social distancing!
#MusicSermon’s annual Springtime Music Showdown is still on and popping’! This year, it’s the BATTLE OF THE REMIXES!
We resumed regular #MusicSermon services last weekend with a celebration of the real and true REMIX. Not these somebody-emailed-you-the-track-you-laid-you-verse-and-emailed-it-back joints, but the real and true, change the whole song, change the lyrics, up the energy, put fiftylemn people on it, shoot a new video, make it an event remixes. (Experience the sermon here, or you can find it at the bottom of this post).
It only seemed fitting that we continue the celebration (since we have reference material) for this year’s #MusicSermon March Madness: The Battle of the Remixes. Now you have something to do while practicing social distancing!!
Netflix’s Clarance Avant documentary is a captivating look at the life of the music industry architect, but it’s also an illustration of the power of connection.
If you haven’t already, I highly encourage and strongly urge you to watch The Black Godfather, Netflix’s doc on one of the most powerful black men in entertainment, Clarence Avant. It’s not just a music and entertainment doc, though. It’s a primer for a fruitful and impactful life. I won’t go into his whole history here, but the core of Mr. Avant’s power and influence is his relationships. They’ve granted him a level of access and respect from entertainment to politics that few can say they enjoy.
Last week I had the pleasure of participating in a panel of entertainment professionals about diversity in entertainment, and I said the word “relationships” so many times — without even realizing it — that several people quoted it back to me as we were talking afterward. In the digital era, we’ve lost the art of cultivating and nurturing relationships; not just with friends, but professional ones as well. Or when we do make connections, they are often tenuous and more about a hook up than genuine building. People say they want to network or link up when they really mean they want something you can provide. It’s transactional.
When people ask me about my career path, my two part answer has been largely the same for at least the last decade:
I fell into this career by accident, and
It’s been all about relationships. All of it.
“The state of being connected”
When I was working for Reggie Ossè (AKA Combat Jack) and his partner Ed Woods a hundred years ago in 1998 at their law firm, I would hear them ask each other and the other lawyers in the office, “Do you have a relationship with (insert name of person they were hoping to reach/do business with/get access to).”
Not “Do you have their number?” Not even “Do you know them?”
Do you have a relationship with them.
It struck me that the usage of “relationship” was key.
Relationships got me from that law office to Bad Boy, because I was able to call Harve Pierre and ask if I could come intern for him.
At Bad Boy, I met one of my now long-time friends and mentors, who’s been responsible for three jobs during my career. One she hired me for directly, and two she recommended me for — my two most formative jobs, in fact. Relationships got me to Columbia when an exec thought of me as he was looking for someone to fill a marketing role. Relationships made it easy for me to come back to Sony and join Epic after I left Columbia to go to a TV network and realized it wasn’t a good fit. Relationship is why John Legend asked for me to join his team, and relationships are why my old team at Columbia when I was John’s product manager was happy to learn I’d be working with them again from the other side. The value in good relationships really hit home for me when I branched out on my own last year. The number of genuine “What do you need?” “Let me introduce you to…” “I mentioned your name to…” phone calls and emails I received affirmed that I’d been a good steward of my connections. Relationships got me my first several monthly retainers, one with someone I hadn’t worked with in years, but had always stayed in contact with and occasionally sought input from. I pride myself on there being very few people I’ve worked with in any capacity that I can’t call on if needed. A good relationship can take you leaps and bounds beyond just skill and talent — especially when you actually have skill and talent, but this is a practice. Something you do intentionally.
I’m admittedly not the best at cold networking, but I’m very good at establishing and maintaining connections — even if I don’t do it in person as much as I’d like. I’ve gone on a couple of mini-rants on Twitter about this before, but watching the documentary today inspired me to revisit and share my personal rules for relationships and connection.
1. Relationships are currency.
This is my Golden Rule. I have pissed people off, often, because I won’t pass music on, help get a meeting, send a pitch, get tickets… Listen, if you squander or abuse access, you will lose that access. And me helping with a call or a contact or a connection is essentially a co-sign, and I gotta keep my credit in good standing! Now, if I believe that something is either mutually beneficial or I have confidence enough in what you’re doing to make the connect, I’m all in. I have been more than happy to make a call, send a note or make a connection when it’s right. And especially when it’s someone who I know would do the same for me, which leads to #2…
2. Relationships can’t be one-directional.
Granted, when talking about a mentorship or big homie/little homie relationship, someone has more to offer. But even if it can’t be exact quid pro quo, the goal shouldn’t be just to have a plug. Know when you’ve gone back to the well too often or too frequently. Be mindful of what your asks mean for them in terms of time, effort, labor and general put-themselves-out-there-ness. There are three people in my life whose calls I screen, and I’ve known all of them for years. So why do I screen? Because they take too much, and haven’t made good use of the times I did throw an alley-oop. At the same time, I’m very careful of how often I’m hitting someone in my life for something, and times when it’ll be inconvenient, they probably have a bunch of people hitting them up for something similar, etc. Be self-aware.
3. But they should be altruistic.
Mr. Avant helped people negotiate deals, broker the creation of companies, and get massive checks. And he didn’t ask for a stake or a kick back or a finder’s fee or none of that. While you may not be in the position to help someone start a label, the lesson is to move on behalf of someone else solely based on how it benefits you.
3. Don’t ever, ever burn bridges unless you were at war.
Even if people don’t t care for me personally, most can never say I wasn’t professional or good at what I do. But there’s a few folks I straight showed my ass to, and in those cases I was good with my decision, then and now. When I started working with John, which meant working with the exact same team that I left at Columbia, it could have been incredible awkward if I’d rolled out like “f*ck ya’ll losers” when I quit the company two years prior. Creative industries are small, especially for black folks. And the longer you’re in any space, the higher you ascend, the more likely you are to come across the same people multiple times. Even if you don’t come in direct contact again with someone you worked with in some capacity prior, amongst my peers and older, eight times out of ten, anyone about to work with you — project, consulting, full on hire — is gonna call someone they think you might have in common and ask, “What do you know about ___?” Now, I think people might give more weight to socials than the direct investigation, but don’t ever be so confident to think slipshod or shady moves will never come back to you.
On the flip side of this — y’all do a thorough investigation of people before you give them business or let them into yours. Sometimes the jig was just three google searches and an email or text message away, but you got got by a curated timeline and a promise.
4. Relationships are cultivated.
This is not “add water and stir.” Yes, sometimes you make an instant connection with someone and the energy is just right off the top, and you know you like this person and you want to do something with them, help them, stay in contact with them, etc. I’ve had that happen, too. But what usually comes next is, “Let’s get together!” so y’all can vibe, right? That’s cultivating your relationship. Someone else on last week’s panel shared a great gem about this; he keeps post it notes of people he wants to stay in contact with over his desk. He calls or reaches out every so often, not because he wants something, but because you never know where a connection might lead. He got the referral for his current job through that practice. Is there someone right now who can say they’ve known you in both your business and personal life for the majority of your career, who would sing your genuine praises on camera?
5. Relationships are an active practice.
A relationship doesn’t mean you just reach out when you need something. We’re extremely aware of what it looks like/feels like when a potential romantic partner only hits us late night, last minute. Or when a friend only calls to ask you to help them do something. But we miss the same behavioral cues when the relationship is professional. Whether mentor, peer or colleague, reach out even when you don’t need something. Congratulate them on a win, wish them happy birthday, invite them to something you’re hosting/doing/having, share something you’re working on just for them to see it — not repost.
6. You don’t have to front.
Mr. Avant was cussing people out left and right, with love and authority. Although this word is used too often now, he was an is unapologetic. His level of directness is a privilege that comes with time and track record, but I think there’s a huge lesson in that he is universally trusted to shoot straight. Do you know how rare that is in life, let alone in business, let alone in entertainment?
The old adage that it’s not what, but who you know is true, but you also want those “who’s” to be excited to take your calls, willing to share your name in rooms, and feel reciprocity in your partnership. Nurture and value your relationships, it’ll take you far. I promise.
Now, in Clarence’s honor, think about who you owe an email or a phone call. Think about an opportunity you could suggest someone you know for. And think about someone who’s looked out whom you owe a simple shout to see how they’re doing. I’m going to do the same.
How many of y’all have memories of cakin’ on the phone with your little boyfriend/girlfriend while you listened to the Quiet Storm? How many of us fell asleep to slow jams for the majority of our formative years?
Through every change in urban music and urban radio — new formats, satellite, streaming, conglomeration — The Quiet Storm endures. This week I paid tribute to a key institution of urban music & culture for Vibe…and of course the tribute deserved a playlist.
Black folks know, sonically and culturally, what the Quiet Storm means, even if they can’t easily describe it. It’s the deep, cognac smooth vocals of the format DJs everywhere (I feel like they go to school for that); Drake recently paid homage to Toronto Quiet Storm host Al Woods and the format itself through snippets on his Scorpion album. It’s the distinctive, airy and jazzy music beds behind those voices. The sensuous, romantic mid-tempos and ballads. But the story of how the format started and why it became so popular gets lost…Keep Reading @ Vibe
Now, Get Your Groove On
…with this collection of classics and mainstays from the overnight hours.