THE DAY REPORT: Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda

AllHipHop Staff

I’m one of those people that lives life with no regrets—everything happens as it’s supposed to and when it should. Not that I give up control to “destiny,” I just make the best decisions I can with the research I have at hand, trust my own judgment, and move forward once I make a decision. No regrets…I just don’t have time or energy to play the coulda, shoulda, woulda game.

At the last Core DJ Retreat in Atlanta, I ran into an old friend. I met him the same day I met Eminem at a music conference in Detroit in 1995 (please notice I don’t ever use the word “discover” as no one ever discovers anyone, they just offer the help and support they are able along the way). He and I were playing catch up, and it allowed me the time and luxury of going back over the deals I’ve done—and the ones I walked away from doing, and on my way home I was reflective about the ones that got away!

As a deal maker, I never did deals that were mediocre (I’d rather NOT do a deal than do a deal where there’s no leverage, which always results in a one-sided bullshit deal for the artist), I never did favor deals (they never work in the artist’s favor, they are just a quick way for the negotiator to get a quick check), and happily walked away from doing the deal if the mind of the person I was negotiating for just wasn’t “right” for some reason. For example, someone looking for just the biggest check possible upfront was NOT someone I wanted to negotiate for (in doing deals, building your company plus having ownership and control far outweigh just money upfront because the money comes when you’re successful, regardless). Walking away from the deal is always the hardest part….especially if you have a lot of time invested in the project or the artist, and especially if you’re broke.

So as I made that drive home, I reflected on the deals that got away from me for one reason or another. I regret nothing, but I couldn’t help wonder what would have happened if Boosie and Webbie were signed to Universal or Def Jam, Snoop controlled all of his masters and did separate deals internationally, and if Nelly had built his own independent label to be the Cash Money or the No Limit of the Midwest, with control, ownership, and proper funding.

Down South Hustlers

In the summer of 2004 or 2005, I met the owners of Trill Entertainment through a friend. They had been selling 30,000 CDs on their own through a small independent distributor who wasn’t trying to get them to the next level as a label (in my opinion). They also had no radio spins on either of their artists, but the artists were the hottest things on the streets (especially Lil Boosie). Upon meeting them, I introduced them to a bigger indie distributor (to get their numbers up outside of their region), and a radio promoter to get them some spins for Webbie so I could shop them a Cash-Money-type-deal at a major label. I was more excited about Trill than I had been about Cash Money when I met them. The artists had a stronger buzz, and the sales were strong and consistent on two indie released CDs. They were poised for greatness.

Let me cut to the end of the story: the owners of the label fell in love with Asylum, and ended up happily doing the deal there. I walked away the month before they did the deal because I didn’t think it was the best deal or situation possible for Webbie or Boosie (again, in my opinion). The week after Trill signed their deal, I got a call from the President of Universal, who offered double the money for just one of the artists than what Asylum paid for both, with a 50-50 split on the backend. The thing about Universal back then, was they spent the necessary money on marketing and promotion to drive their artists platinum. On the flip side, Asylum was an “incubator” for artists that the WEA system didn’t think could ever sell above 250,000 CDs. This limited thinking then forced the artists to never sell high numbers. If you go into a project expecting it to fail or to sell low numbers, it almost always does. With the buzz that Boosie and Webbie had on the streets in 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005, I knew that with the right machine behind them, and if they were a priority at whatever label they chose, they could be platinum superstars. Again, this is just my opinion. The upside to Asylum is that as an “incubator,” they offered a larger backend split for their deals…often 65%. If I owned an indie label, however, I’d rather have 20% of five million, than 65% of one million dollars. Both the money and opportunities would be bigger.

The trick to negotiating a deal is to properly match the artist to the label. It’s also the ability to get what you need to succeed in writing, because in the negotiating phase the major is going to tell you whatever they think you want to hear to get the deal done. I’m certain Asylum promised Trill the world to get them in house, and there’s no doubt it sounded really good to everyone—these guys are smart guys. They were inexperienced in the music business and leery of trusting others. In fairness, it’s real easy for me to be a Monday morning quarterback…they’ve done a great job with the cards they’ve been dealt. A really great job! But with the buzz that Boosie and Webbie had throughout the south, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if they had a major machine behind them. I believe both artists would have been multi-platinum on their first major releases and that those releases would have dropped sooner and with more frequency.

West Coast Bad Boyz

I was referred to Snoop Dogg through a friend of his assistant. His book had just come out and his deal with Priority was almost up. He seemed to be building new heights in his career in 1999. He had a stellar attorney on his team, but the thing about attorneys is they do deals to make money, not to build super think-outside-of-the-box deals, and I had a never-been-done-before plan that I pitched to Snoop and his wife (she was his manager at the time). It must have seemed a little crazy because no one had done it before.

Snoop’s goal was to set up his own label and then later add himself as the anchor act—once his deal with Priority was up (just a few short months away). My idea was to carve out separate deals for separate regions of the world, and hire one person on staff to oversee all of the deals. The additional revenue and ownership Snoop would have made would have far exceeded or outweighed the cost of hiring someone to oversee it. I called up friends who ran distribution companies (WEA, Uni, EMI, BMG, and Sony) to see if it would be possible to even do a deal of this magnitude. Everyone came back with a resounding “yes it could happen” because it was for an artist at the level of sales of a Snoop (he had a book in the marketplace, a film coming, and seemed to be on a tremendous incline in his career).

I envisioned doing a deal in the US, a separate deal in Canada, a separate deal in Europe, a separate deal in Japan, one is South America, and a separate deal in Asia. This way, we could chose whatever were the best distributors in each international area and do deals with the best of the best. We could also feature international superstars from those separate regions on the respective releases. It would be challenging, but financially rewarding for him. And, it would change the way artists did business internationally. Asia would become like Chicago or New York for a superstar, instead of the artist collecting only 25% or 30% of the sales revenue from that area. I put it on paper and pitched it.

Due to a mis-communication on my part, I thought they were with it, and made a call to Elektra and WEA to pitch my plan to them a week later. Sylvia Rhone went ballistic and called Snoop’s attorney and tripped on him (it seemed she believed a new Snoop deal was already being steered towards her for the whole world). Perhaps she saw my involvement as invasive and intrusive, especially since Snoop at Elektra wouldn’t have been my first choice—it wouldn’t have been a perfect fit. Anyway, I got a call from Snoop’s wife who asked me respectfully but loudly to back off, and that was the end of my opportunity with Snoop. But I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Snoop had done his new deal with individual international major distributors instead of just Interscope. It may have failed miserably, who knows!? Or maybe he’d be the wealthiest rapper in hip hop…regardless, he’d have owned part or all of his own masters, so he’d have been in control.

Midwest Mackin’

I met with a guy who was supposedly setting up Derty Entertainment for Nelly in 2003. I was in St Louis working with another label. This guy grew up with Nelly and had no experience in the industry—I believe he was a teller at a bank, if I remember correctly. Anyway, I didn’t really want to take the meeting (the guy had screwed me over in the past by telling some lawyer that I dissed him when I didn’t—and you know me well enough to know that if I dis someone I’m gonna take responsibility for it) but as a favor to Nelly’s publicist, I sat down with him for a 4 hour meeting. He was looking for my help to set up their label.

I explained to him how Cash Money was structured. I explained how No Limit sold records. I outlined how Creator’s Way in Chicago (Do Or Die and Twista came out of that camp) became the biggest label in the region in the mid-90s and where they had gone wrong (I believe we learn more from mistakes than successes). I told him what I had learned from insiders about Ruff Ryders and Bad Boy. A week later, he came back to me with a proposal. They decided to sign a lot of artists (as I recall, the number was 19 acts) and put them all out at once. Whichever ones succeeded, were the ones they’d back up with promotion and marketing. There was nothing about that plan that was attractive to me. As I argued with him, I realized he wanted me to help start it. His fiancé was involved in the clothing company and he felt he needed to be part of Nelly’s team somewhere or somehow. Throwing a slew of artists against the wall to see what would stick was insane at best. Upon thinking about it later, I wondered if Nelly even knew dude’s plan. Nelly is a sharp guy and this plan didn’t make sense on any level—something didn’t feel right.

I spent the next few weeks trying to get Nelly’s manager on the phone. When we finally spoke, he set up a meeting, but then stood me up meeting after meeting until I finally took the hint. Finally, I just gave up because I realized there were internal problems in the camp that signaled impending disaster. It was an outstanding lesson for me in the importance of having a good, strong, professional team and qualified people around--a lesson I quickly applied to my own company. The thing about having staying power in this industry is that it’s an industry of new and exciting. The biggest challenge is to stay relevant for any length of time. It’s especially challenging in Hip Hop, but even more challenging once the artist crosses over into the pop world. Sometimes the key is just to invest the money wisely and diversify into other successful businesses (clothing, energy drinks, sports teams, a wonderful charity, etc).

Derty Entertainment finally went on to regroup, get some key worker bees involved in the company and put out records through Universal, I believe. But I always wonder what would have happened if they had become the powerhouse in the Midwest that they could have been. I imagine every artist would have had to go through them to get on in that region. That would have been a very profitable endeavor.

The problem with sitting back and playing Could, Shoulda, Woulda is that it doesn’t take into consideration that anything could happen and that I surely don’t know everything. All three of the above companies and empires have done fine doing things their way. Tremendously fine. It’s easy to wonder what could have been, but it’s even easier to get back to work and build the next empire! Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda is a dangerous game.