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In hip hop, much of the attention is paid to the artist performing in front a crowd or posing in front of the camera. But, the real action takes place behind the scenes, where figures who are often hidden in the shadows, pull out all of the stops to broker deals and put the artist in the best position to succeed.
The artists may be the cash cows and the voices that keep the culture alive. But, the music executive plays a pivotal role in keeping the fabric of the culture together. In a business where rap was predicted to be a short-term fad, the executives saw the big picture, and took their book and street smarts to ensure hip hop got the respect in corporate America that it deserved.
Most music executives and CEOs prefer to shun the spotlight and would have their presence felt. However, there is a shortlist of power players who have become as iconic as many of the artists whose careers they've guided over the years. These figures have left impacts on the culture that continue to reverberate today.
In celebration of Black History Month, REVOLT looks back at 9 iconic black music executives who moved hip hop culture forward.
Many historians mark 1979 as the year that rap music began to take flight, due to the overwhelming success of the Sugarhill Gang's groundbreaking debut "Rapper's Delight." The men behind the mic may have gotten much of the credit -- as well as the ire -- for its popularity, but Harlem native Sylvia Robinson was perhaps the most pivotal player in the song's creation. A former songwriter and vocalist, Robinson recruited the Sugarhill Gang to be the first act on her indie label, Sugar Hill Records, famously funding the release of the first bonafide hit in hip hop history. In the subsequent years, Robinson and Sugar Hill Records released several iconic rap projects, including Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message." The label folded in 1985 with Robinson going on to found Bon Ami Records, which signed a group called The New Style -- who would go on to reach fame with Naughty By Nature following their departure from the label. On September 29, 2011, Robinson passed away at age 76 due to congestive heart failure.
As the co-founder of the most iconic and successful record label in hip hop history, Russell Simmons is often looked at as the embodiment of what an executive in rap is supposed to be. A relentless hustler with a decadent lifestyle, Simmons was the mastermind behind bringing artists like Run D.M.C., LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys and other iconic acts to the mainstream. Continuing his prolific run during the '90s, Simmons branched out, using his cache as an executive to infiltrate the world of fashion with his Phat Farm clothing line. He also dabbled in television, producing HBO's "Def Comedy Jam" and "Def Poetry Jam."
Simmons would also help Def Jam navigate tough times in order to experience its most successful years during the latter half of the '90s and early aughts. Selling his remaining stake in Def Jam to Universal in 1999, Simmons stepped away from the music industry to focus on other endeavors. However, he has since taken a sabbatical from his plethora of businesses in the light of sexual abuse allegations levied against him in 2017, which put a damper on his reputation as one of the most powerful and influential names in all of entertainment.
When music fans think of that slick and flashy brand of hip hop that the upper reaches of Manhattan is known for, Andre Harrell is one of the architects of that sound and aesthetic. Born in the Bronx, prior to working behind the scenes, Harrell was front and center as one-half of the short-lived rap duo Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But, he ultimately opted to make the transition to being an executive. Cutting his teeth at Def Jam, where he worked his way up to vice president and general manager, Harrell jumped ship to found his own label, Uptown Records. The label was an instant powerhouse, producing legendary acts Heavy D & The Boyz, Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, Al B. Sure!, Guy, Soul for Real, Lost Boyz and Monifah over the years. Making a dive into the world of multimedia, Harrell even spearheaded the development of "New York Undercover," which played a huge role in taking hip hop primetime. The overwhelming success of Uptown led to Harrell being appointed CEO of Motown Records in 1995, a position he held for two years. Currently the Vice Chairman of REVOLT TV, Andre Harrell is remembered as the man who helped ignite the new jack swing era and who popularized hip hop soul.
One of the most renowned power brokers in the music industry, Sylvia Rhone's trajectory as an executive has been filled with multiple peaks. Born and raised in Harlem, the Wharton School alum bypassed a career in finance to dive headfirst into the world of music. Bouncing from Buddah Records to ABC Records and Ariola Records during the '70s, Rhone found her footing at Atlantic Records, where she spent the '80s rising through the ranks. However, her relationship with hip hop grew strong with the launch of East West, which she spearheaded as the label's chairman. Housing artists like MC Lyte, Missy Elliott, Yo-Yo, and Das EFX; East West proved to be a breeding ground for credible rap talent with star potential. In 1994, Rhone made history by becoming the first African American woman to lead a major record company, flourishing in her position as chairman/CEO of Elektra Entertainment Group. During her stint at Elektra; Busta Rhymes, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Brand Nubian, Digable Planets, Goodie Mob all enjoyed commercial success. Since her departure from Elektra, Rhone has held stints at Universal Motown Records, Universal Records, and is currently President of Epic Records. There, she oversees a loaded roster that houses Future, 21 Savage, and other stalwarts.
A product of the mean streets of Harlem with the blood of a hustler running through his veins, Sean "Diddy" Combs set about placing his stamp on the music business by any means. Moving to Mt. Vernon during his youth, an encounter with rap star Heavy D led to an internship with Uptown Records, where he rose up the ranks to become the chief A&R and vice president of the label. In this position, Combs helped guide the early careers of Mary J. Blige and Jodeci. However, a falling out between Combs and label head Andre Harrell led the brash youngster to launch his own operation, Bad Boy Records, in 1993. Headlined by Brooklyn native and rap icon The Notorious B.I.G., Diddy's Bad Boy roster was one of the most popular and successful in the game.
With rap acts like Craig Mack, Ma$e, The LOX, Black Rob, as well as R&B talents Total, 112, Faith Evans and Carl Thomas dominating the charts; Diddy appeared to have the Midas touch. While the death of The Notorious B.I.G. cast a dark cloud over Bad Boy, Diddy's own leap from the corner office to the vocal booth kept the label afloat during turbulent times and stamped it as one of rap's legacy brands. Over the years, Diddy has placed his imprint on multiple star talents, including Shyne, G Dep, Yung Joc, Cassie, French Montana, Machine Gun Kelly, Dirty Money, and Danity Kane. In 2019, with more than a quarter-century worth of executive decisions and a net worth exceeding $800 million, Diddy continues to epitomize black excellence while proving that he can't and won't stop anytime soon.
One music executive whose name rang bells on wax in the industry and in the streets was Chris Lighty, who became a fixture in the culture and a confidant to rap's elite. Born uptown, the Bronx River Housing Projects alum got his foot in the door by carrying crates for DJ Red Alert. He later earned a position with Russell Simmons' Rush Artist Management. Using the experience gained at Rush, Lighty founded his own management and record company called Violator, which would become a household name in rap circles by the end of the decade. After stints at Relativity Records, Def Jam, and Loud Records; Lighty was named senior vice president of Jive Records in 2003. With a roster of clients that included LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, 50 Cent, Nas, Ja Rule, Mobb Deep, A Tribe Called Quest, and others; Violator became the industry standard for artist management and branding. Unfortunately, Chris Lighty was found dead on August 30, 2012 in his Bronx apartment with an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. This news rocked the hip hop community, which continues to mourn him and honor his legacy.
Any hip hop aficionado who's well-versed in the culture is likely to be familiar with the name Steve Stoute. Born in Queens Village, Stoute got his feet wet in the biz through a gig as road manager for rap duo Kid 'N Play. He would later secure an A&R gig at RCA Records. After working successful projects by SWV and Wu-Tang Clan, the rising exec left RCA to take over the reigns of Nas' career where he oversaw the QB poet's multi-platinum sophomore album, It Was Written. His work with megastars like Will Smith, Mary J. Blige, and Foxy Brown led the bigwigs at Sony Music to offered him a job as senior vice president of the urban music department. A year later, Stoute made the leap to Interscope Geffen A&M Records where he took on the role of executive vice president. At the tail-end of the '90s, Stoute would transition into the world of marketing and advertising, which remains his bread and butter today. However, his run of helping to mold the careers of 50 Cent, Trackmasters, JAY-Z and others puts him in elite territory as a music executive and talent scout.
At his peak, self-made entrepreneur Master P was viewed as the embodiment of turning nothing into something. A native of New Orleans, Master P flipped a $10,000 inheritance from his grandfather to open a record store called No Limit Records, which would ultimately spawn a record label of the same name. An artist himself, the success of album releases Master P and signees like TRU, Mystikal and others would help secure the label an unprecedented distribution deal with Priority Records in 1996. The agreement included stipulations that guaranteed Master P 100% ownership of their master recordings and 85% of the label's record's sales, while giving Priority 15% in return for pressing and distribution.
The deal would catapult Master P into fame and make him one of the richest CEOs in hip hop within a two-year span. In addition to his own multi-platinum success, Master P also helped steer the careers of Snoop Dogg, C-Murder, Silkk the Shocker, Romeo, Fiend, Young Bleed, and a host of other critically and commercially successful acts. At the height of his success, Master P's business empire included No Limit Enterprises, No Limit Records, Bout It Inc., No Limit Clothing, No Limit Communications, No Limit Films, No Limit Sports Management, P. M. Properties, and Advantage Travel. While No Limit's time at the top of the rap food chain was short-lived, it is remembered as a turning point for young hustlers looking to take their ownership and destiny into their own hands. And we can thank none other than Master P for putting that battery in hip hop's back.
When looking back at the explosion of rap imprints during the late '90s, one operation that's near and dear to the heart of fans is Roc-A-Fella Records, which was spearheaded by JAY-Z, Kareem "Biggs" Burke and Damon Dash. JAY-Z's primary role was to keep the label relevant by producing hit records and exuding an untouchable aura, while Burke did his bidding in the shadows. But Dame Dash? His objective was to be the enforcer on the executive side of things and ensure that Roc-A-Fella got every penny, accolade and ounce of respect it deserved. Hailing from the streets of Harlem, Dash spent the early '90s managing local acts before stumbling upon JAY-Z and convincing him to join forces in hopes of securing a recording deal. When all doors were closed shut, Dash and company took it upon themselves to form Roc-A-Fella Records, releasing JAY-Z's Reasonable Doubt via Payday Records before securing a distribution deal with Def Jam.
From there, Dash evolved into a force of nature. He brokered blockbuster tours, delved into the worlds of film, fashion; and even produced alcoholic beverages. By the turn of the century, Roc-A-Fella was an unstoppable force with a strong roster that included Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel, DJ Clue and more. Always one to make a big splash; high-profile acquisitions like Cam'ron and The Diplomats, M.O.P., Ol' Dirty Bastard and others was indicative of Dash's ability to recruit artists and to convince even the most respected veterans to buy into his vision. But, one of Dash's smartest moves was to give Kanye West a shot as a rap artist, which has resulted in one of the greatest music careers of the 21st century. Damon Dash may be vilified at times in light of his brash attitude, cocksure nature and abrasiveness. But, his contribution as one of the most influential rap executives cannot go unsung.
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