By JEFF LEEDS
New York Times
November 27, 2005
For an increasingly desperate industry, these days label executives routinely shop their new prospects around from one star to another, trying to convince them to act as a mentor. Then the newcomer is marketed as a devotee, or a card-carrying member of the star's "camp." That was the Atlantic Records plan for an R&B singer called Governor, who they first tried to pair with producer Dr. Dre, then with 50 Cent. Both plans fell through. In search of quick jolt of street credibility, the label brokered a deal for the singer to join the Atlanta camp of rapper and platinum-seller T.I.
IMAGINE, for a moment, that you're a promising new rhythm and blues singer who can deliver like a grittier Donny Hathaway. You have a work ethic that drives you to compose and record three songs in a single day. But you have no following. In fact, outside of a handful of industry insiders and fanatics who dig deep into liner notes, no one has ever even heard of you. Meanwhile the music industry is cranking out thousands of new CD's each year and only the luckiest new artists will manage to score a spot on a radio playlist.
What you might need is someone to open doors. A trusted ally who could put his arm around you and introduce you to his friends. Say, a million or so of them.
Acting on that theory, record labels in recent years have made a point of introducing new, little-known acts as protégés of established stars. In some cases the two musicians might have grown up on the same block. Or perhaps they had shared the struggle of performing in the same unknown group. Either way, it's a rich backstory that can be woven into any future marketing effort.
But what if the new singer doesn't have any long-lost pals who've gone platinum?
For an increasingly desperate industry, that is but a minor obstacle. These days, label executives routinely shop their new prospects around from one star to another, trying to convince them to act as a mentor. Then the newcomer is marketed as a devotee, or a card-carrying member of the star's "camp."
That was the Atlantic Records plan for Governor (the professional name of Governor Washington Jr.), an R&B singer who joined the label's roster almost four years ago. Atlantic first tried to pair him with the producer Dr. Dre, and then with the rapper (and now actor) 50 Cent. Both plans fell through. In search of quick jolt of street credibility, the label brokered a deal for the singer to join the camp of T.I., a rapper and platinum-seller from the Bankhead neighborhood of Atlanta, who is sometimes nicknamed Rubberband Man.
So, in a darkened Atlanta studio recently, over a recycled OutKast beat, Governor pledged fidelity to his latest ally: "I took my show down south to ATL/ Rubberband Man, Bankhead, gave me a place to dwell."
The songs from that session are destined for a mixtape by DJ Drama. In addition to creating the "Gangsta Grillz" mixtapes, a series popular in clubs and among bootleggers, Drama is a member of T.I.'s camp, too.
If all goes according to plan, Governor and T.I. will end up seeming like close collaborators with a shared network of friends. So what if they've only just met?
Governor Washington Jr. started out singing at the Virginia church where his father was a minister. Later he joined the Navy fresh out of high school and served in the Persian Gulf war. Roughly four years ago, he fell in with a production team called the Trackmasters who helped him record an album's worth of material. He also lent his vocal talents to the demo tape of a then-unknown rapper by the name of 50 Cent.
He, in turn, introduced Governor to his friend Jacques Agnant, a manager with a tough reputation and a desire for new business. Mr. Agnant, also known as Haitian Jack, met with Craig Kallman, now the chairman of Atlantic Records, and there in the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills he played Governor's demo CD.
It worked: Soon after, Governor had a recording contract. Mr. Agnant had a percentage of the prospective sales. And Atlantic had a talented new solo artist - who would have to stand out in a hip-hop world where "camp" affiliation is the coin of the realm.
That such relationships can be sorted out in corporate suites and conference calls is a far cry from hip-hop's earliest days some 30 years ago, when dancers and rap artists from the same neighborhood formed informal "crews" to show off in underground clubs and parties.
Many music executives say a turning point came with the 1993 arrival of the rap group Wu-Tang Clan, a Staten Island-based collective made up of nine rappers, some of whom are cousins and all of whom had grown up together. They took an unusually entrepreneurial approach to their name, creating Wu-Wear clothing and releasing a single to promote it. The line between a gaggle of buddies from the block and a business entity has been blurring ever since.
These days, said Jeff Chang, author of the hip-hop history "Can't Stop Won't Stop," crews are viewed "almost as if they were professional basketball teams. 'We're picking up this person for our team,' 'This person has left this camp and they're going to this camp.' "
And as in the N.B.A., relations among teammates are sometimes quite tense. Through a deal brokered in part by Interscope Records, a new rap artist who calls himself the Game was officially placed last year in 50 Cent's camp, G-Unit. The Game had been working on his album with Dr. Dre (who also has an Interscope-distributed label, Aftermath), for roughly two years. "They came up with the idea that I should roll with G-Unit because they already have a crazy buzz and they selling albums," Game told MTV.
The match meant that 50 Cent helped to write four songs on the Game's album, "The Documentary," and was listed as a co-executive producer in return for a cut of sales. But tensions ran high behind the scenes, and in February, as 50 Cent made an appearance on the WQHT (Hot 97) radio station in New York, members of the two men's entourages broke into gunfire outside. By then, though, the contrived pairing had already had its intended effect: the CD had sold about 1.4 million copies.
Clearly such pairings can be a powerful device. Still, some executives caution about overreliance on these "arranged marriages." "The marketplace is definitely smart," Mr. Kallman said. "I think they can see through the ones that are manufactured. I don't think you can fake it. But when it's natural and it's a fit and it feels genuine and sincere, it's still an incredibly powerful way of introducing and breaking an artist."
SOON after Governor signed his contract with Atlantic Records, Dr. Dre, the Grammy-winning producer, heard some early tracks and expressed an interest in overseeing his new album. Atlantic, thrilled by the potential involvement of the industry's most respected hit maker, dispatched Governor to Los Angeles for the first in a series of studio sessions.
They were long and intense. "I remember waking him up off the couch telling him to come listen to the next song," Governor said.
The two handled the songwriting process with cold diligence; sometimes Dr. Dre didn't even show up, just left material for Governor to work on. "He's a distant dude," Governor said, describing himself the same way.
But Dr. Dre seemed to believe the singer had promise: he separately agreed to pay about $750,000 for Governor's music-publishing rights, according to people with knowledge of the deal.
When talk turned to the release of Governor's recordings, however, negotiations between Interscope, which distributes Dr. Dre's work, Aftermath and Atlantic foundered over financial terms. The 16 songs the two had recorded together were shelved.
Governor was crushed, as were Atlantic executives, who turned to 50 Cent. As a former collaborator of Governor and now a major star in his own right, he seemed the obvious choice. But those talks, too, collapsed on financial terms. "It's like staring at your dreams through a looking glass," Governor later said of the repeated setbacks. "It's right there but you can't touch it. It has hurt. There's been a lot of pain involved from all the moving."
The idea arose that maybe Governor should go it alone. But Mr. Kallman said, "We always thought that if we could find any additional entry point with him, to really grab the streets, and help get a fan base built, and really connect him to the hip-hop community, it would be smart."
Atlantic found its chance when Jason Geter, the manager and business partner of T.I., visited the label's offices in Manhattan.
On the face of it, T.I., whose real name is Clifford Harris, seems an unlikely candidate for such a match. He didn't start out singing religious songs for church congregants, but rather rapping to entertain his older relatives in his depressed section of Atlanta. And he didn't sign up for the Gulf war; he sold crack, winding up with a felony drug conviction. After a long and at times uncertain ascent, he had finally developed a national fan base - only to be arrested in 2004 for violating probation. (He avoided prison through a work-release program.)
A further complication: Governor is a soft-spoken R&B singer; T.I. is a flamboyant rapper.
But Mr. Geter was impressed by Governor's style, and saw the appeal of expanding T.I.'s reach. Several weeks later, while the rapper was still on tour, Mr. Geter called Governor and invited him to Atlanta to discuss the prospect of working with T.I.'s Grand Hustle outfit. The business details got hammered out a little while later, and in the spring, T.I. met the newest member of his camp at a recording studio.
Governor was quiet, Mr. Geter recalled, and seemed wary of embarking on another round of recording with yet another partner. It was also clear that the preacher's son was not cut from the same cloth as the flashy rapper, who once shot a music video at Atlanta's Fulton County jail while on work release. Still, Governor said, "When we first met, I didn't feel like I'm talking to a mogul." He added that T.I. wore his typical jewelry: "He came in blinging, but he still had a very natural vibe about himself."
T.I. seemed to want to put his new protégé at ease. So he and his crew treated the singer to a rapper's night out, at a strip club. "I understood what he was trying to do," Governor said, though he added, "I wasn't looking to find acceptance in anything social. I don't care about that."
In the months since Governor and T.I. first met, Governor has spent a lot of time in the studio; under Mr. Geter's oversight, he has recorded half a dozen new songs. Governor said that the new music he recorded reflects more of a "Southern feel," a trait he said he has in common with T.I. Without the relationship, he said, "I wouldn't be the same mindset, the music wouldn't have been the same."
T.I. has been around only sporadically; for much of the time he was on tour. But when the two have been in Atlanta together, T.I. has taken Governor to his old neighborhood to meet friends. During Governor's recent two-day session to record material for his "Gangsta Grillz" mixtape, T.I. stopped by with two friends after attending an Atlanta Falcons football game. As he walked through the door, the assorted members of the Grand Hustle team drifted over from different corners of the studio to greet their boss.
But he only stayed for a few minutes to record a promotional "drop," and then headed out again. Governor returned to the studio console, listening to the latest song he had recorded for the forthcoming mixtape, over and over.
It wasn't much of an advertisement for the closeness that arranged pairings can bring. But the most productive partnerships aren't always the coziest. And the people who brokered it still have high hopes for the synergy it may bring.
Even the participants, it seems, favored the pairing. "If there wasn't a genuine connection between us," T.I. said, "this situation wouldn't work. We've got a feel for him, loved his music, loved his work ethic. It's a good marriage."