Why We Need More Black Executives in Hip-Hop
By Eric B.
Mic Drop is a recurring series featuring the thoughts and opinions of some of the biggest voices in classic Hip-Hop. Raw, uncut — and in their own words — these are the gems you've always wanted.
I was there in the beginning — when this whole business was run by music people. And then, I was there when Wall Street guys realized how cash-heavy these record companies were; they could take their dollar and would gross multiples of probably 16, 17 dollars — sometimes 20 dollars — when they were doing stocks and trading. So they bought these record companies, and used them for their gross multiples because they had cash on hand. The Wall Street guys came in; now all of a sudden, they’re music guys. They want to tell us what we should do and how we should do it. Then I watched the era of the tech guys coming in and, “The algorithm says this, the algorithm says that.” I’ve seen all of it over the past 36 years in this business.
But there’s one thing that I’ve always felt was a big problem: I never liked the industry’s changing of Black music to the term “urban.”
Understand — when you take away the title “Black music" — you take away all the jobs. Guys like myself should be executives running Def Jam. I could run Def Jam in my sleep. I can read P&L statements in my sleep. I can tell you who wrote a contract by verbiage. But Black people who understand this business were pushed out by the name “urban.” There were so many Black promotion people, marketing, video, vice presidents of companies. When you look now, there are so few Black faces. They took the name away and called it “urban.” Now you can just put a white guy in there running it, but it’s still the Black music division. I’m not hating against the white execs. But the Black execs are few and far between. Mark Pitts, Sylvia Rhone — these are some of the few who have stood the test of time. You’ve got all these other guys running urban.
I think the Web has helped the business overall because you’re able to reach more people. When we started, you had to do mailings, you had to go out to the companies, you had to physically send records out and show up at the stations. I’m a technology guy. I think it’s great that all of these people can come up and flourish. But, while we’re getting money to do what we do, we’re still looked at as buffoons and clowns. But I think it’s great that we’re able to be visible. I don’t think it hurts the business, I think it helps the business.
The downside is this: the industry has lost its soul. There is no artist development. They’re taking people that have over a million followers or a million hits or views, and they’re giving them a deal, but it really doesn’t translate into nothin.’ There’s a white exec that runs one of the biggest streaming platforms in the world and he told me, “It bothers me when I go into the office every day and the only thing these guys are worried about is algorithms and followers.” The “artist development” is, "Let’s go online and see how many followers they have.” Not, “It’s a hit record and we can grind this record and make it into something.” If this is going to be your approach, what’s the sense of you having an A&R department? It makes no sense.
It’s the machine. And I’ve seen it change four or five hands already.
They want instant gratification: “We’re going to do cookie-cutter stuff. We’re going to make fast food. And the artists? We’re going to cut them up and throw them away and get someone else that sounds like them.”
But there’s a way to have the best of both worlds. You’ve got great technology to get the tracks out right away, but you’ve got to have artists that you want to be around for a while. These guys aren’t going to have that long run, messing with the executives they have now. One slip-up and it’s all over? We’ve got to build legendary names that people know. There’s a way to still build great artists and great people. To cultivate distinctive artists. If this guy sounds different, then let’s do something different.
Erykah Badu didn’t sound like anybody else. She came out, and you had Black executives like Kedar Massenburg who saw an Erykah Badu and let her do what she does best. In Philadelphia, you get another sister in Jill Scott. Not sounding like Erykah Badu; she’s got her own vibe and her own style. You’ve got Snoop, who had his own vocal tone and flow, but was still a lyrical guy. We have to have those standout people who are doing their own thing. I don’t bash the younger artists. If I bashed the new guys, I’d be just like the people talking about us when we came up. When we came up, they said, “Rakim is rhyming too slow” and, “He sounds like he’s mumbling.” For me to hate on the younger generation, I’d be doing what the old guard did to me. We just need our Black executives back.
The brothers at Top Dawg Entertainment in California, I have the utmost respect for them. We have a few companies doing it right, where we used to have so many: No Limit, Bad Boy, Death Row. There were so many that you could go through. TDE grinded it out with Kendrick Lamar, bubbling from the underground to now.
We used to have Jack the Rapper and the BRE (Black Radio Exclusive) Conference that we could all go to and meet executives and get issues across. We’re lacking those kinds of conferences. I want to start my own coming out of Vegas. Jazzy Jeff does a great thing out at the compound out at his house. All of the executives come out. I want to have one where I can invite the public —like a Jack the Rapper — and you’ll see the established artists and the new artists that want to get on. And we can change the dynamic.
That word “urban” was a stop sign for music. It was a way to destroy the Black executive. Now you see urban departments headed up by white guys. And I saw it coming.
Now when we do have Black execs come on board, they’re giving them pennies on the dollar. They’re not paying them the three or four million dollars that they were paying the other executives. They probably make $150,000 or are just happy that they have a job. But the other execs are still getting top pay.
I don’t want to see my brothers just fall off. I want to build some execs and artists that will be around for a while until they say, “enough is enough” and they want to do something else with their life. I want them to be able to provide for their people. Being in this business —even if you’re doing movies and television — you have to know things. SAG-AFTRA has some of the best insurance you can get for your family. If you do TV or movies, get a SAG-AFTRA card and get on the insurance plan. You get dental, medical, and vision. A lot of people don’t know that. It’s just about educating my brothers and sisters. That’s how I know I could run Def Jam in my sleep.
You’ve got to have your finger on the pulse of everything and you can’t be close-minded. I’ll listen to everything from Cardi to EDM if it’s a great record; still a student. But they have a bunch of people in these positions who don’t know the music and they’re scared of their shadow. They’ve got a budget and they’re just tearing through the money with no results. Because they’re paying these guys so much yet these guys don’t understand. Now you’ve torn through your budget for no reason. I believe everyone should get paid.
I was the first person to demand a million dollars to do an album. So I’m the biggest proponent of getting paid for what you do.
But you’ve got to know this business. You’ve got to get out in the streets; Harlem. Detroit. Chicago. Mississippi. North Carolina. Connecticut. You can feel the vibe in the streets. How can you put someone over Black music that doesn’t understand the music? It hasn’t been working. And the first thing they scream is “Black music is not selling anymore."
Well... look at who you’ve got steering the ship.
* Banner Image: Eric B in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Anthony Pidgeon / Redferns for Getty)