Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Combat Jack On Kedar Massenburg
I don't remember specifically when our paths crossed, but from what I remember, he knew me before I knew him. I didn't really know how impactful I was in the industry at the time, being that 1st entertainment attorney in the game that claimed hip hop culture. The attorneys before me were at closest, of the '70's soul and '80's r&b school. The rest of them were Jewish. But I stood out, people took notice, and I couldn't keep tabs on the hundreds of people I was meeting when I jumped in the industry. I do remember being at a music conference when dude informed me that he had just been admitted to the bar as an attorney. From the gate though, it was clear that Kedar Massenburg wasn't interested in repping music clients as a living, he had his eyes set on a bigger prize. I learned that he was from the mighty borough of Brooklyn, that his brother was Daddy-O of Stetsasonic fame. I even remember him cutting his entertainment teeth as Stetsasonic's manager. We always kept it moving, but whenever we would bump into each other on 57th and Broadway, or at some industry related function, Kedar was always talking money, big money.
I started to take note one day in the summer of '94. I was chasing some model chick at the famed Coffee Shop restaurant in the Union Square section of Manhattan one lazy Saturday afternoon where I inadvertently bumped into him. As we talked, he started picking my brain about label deals, joint ventures and partnership deals with major labels. Being that I was still learning from the attorney who was training me, I gave him some answers that I had overheard from my mentor as she was negotiating the bigger deals. Kedar was hungry for knowledge, especially in learning how to come up on the big deals. The chick I was chasing had brushed me off so I opted to talk more shop with him. He was with an unknown young songwriter and future recording artist. Introduced him to me as Michael Archer, p/k/a D'Angelo. Kedar was going on about how he and dude were going to change the game. He invited me to check out some unreleased songs D'Angelo had recorded as we rode in Kedar's brand new drop top Benz. It was crazy, riding in the Benz, driving through the city, me, Kedar and the unknown D'Angelo, listening to joints that were banging. You don't need me to tell you how ahead of the game his music was. Kedar kept going on though, about how he wanted his own label, was going to have his own label. He wasn't showing off either, he was more like a very proud kid that had completed an incredible science project, ready to share with the world his accomplishments and ready as well to claim all the rewards that he knew he already earned, way before they were presented before him. Kedar was very proud indeed.
Being that he stood at around 5'5", off the bat you knew Kedar had the Napoleonic thing going on. Especially whenever anyone mentioned Puffy around him. I made the mistake once of saying something about Puff's deal with Arista, and Kedar went the fuck off on a tirade. "Fuck Puffy, he ain't the only nigga making money in this game!!!" Thrown off by his outburst, I backed off. I didn't get the impression he was hating or being envious of Puff in any way, he seemed more like he was tired of always hearing Puff's name associated with success and money when Kedar himself, set in launching his own empire, his own dynasty was barely if ever mentioned in the same conversation. I wish I earned $100 every time I'd hear Kedar say "Fuck Puffy, he ain't the only nigga making money in this game!!!" It was almost comical how he would go all "Eff Puff" whenever someone mentioned Sean Combs' name in his presence, almost like he was subconsciously waiting for it. In retrospect, it all makes sense now. Like I mentioned many times before, during that period, Puff really was the center of the music industry universe and almost every credible producer, a&r and exec was following his movements, so much to the point that they'd recklessly swerve way out of their own lanes in order to emulate Combs. Most of those execs eventually crashed and burned, eff'ing themselves out of the industry. Kedar was different, was loud about being different in that he had his own vision which was completely different from the hip hop influenced r&b and r&b influenced hip hop movement that Puff spearheaded. If it took him "hating" on Puff to stay focused on his vision, his goal, his lane then so be it, let the Puff hate flow.
D'Angelo's album "Brown Sugar" was released in June 1995. That album was a monster. Although r&b, it didn't exactly fit neatly in that category, especially with its jazz, soul and more than subtle hip hop influenced undertones. The industry took note and Kedar capitalized overnight by coining the term "Neo Soul" as the brand of music that D'Angelo dropped. In one fell swoop Kedar had "created" his own genre of music. I don't really eff with what they're calling "Neo Soul" these days, too much coffee shop, incense burning and dread locked for my taste, but when it dropped, when that sound was new, fresh and original sounding, Kedar did what so many couldn't do, he created his lane, peeped his own niche market ripe for the picking and summarily locked it down. It helped that Kedar had picked up the r&b crooner Joe under his management company. Joe also had buzz on the airwaves and Kedar had the industry where he wanted it, eager and ready to eat from his hand, and on his own terms . Fuck Pufff and Bad Boy for real, he set up shop, his own Kedar Entertainment label at Universal. Made them pay for "giving up his freedom". I'd run into him more frequently and whenever I'd congratulate him, or ask him how things were going, he'd let out that "Fuck Puffy" line. He kept it real though, one of the few industry execs that really spoke his mind and remained uncompromising in how he viewed his role in the music industry. He stayed getting in people's ass as well. Dude wasn't one for the bullshit and if he felt it was coming his way, he go off in a minute. To many, he was an asshole, unnecessarily aggressive, verbally combative, you know, that Napoleonic thing. But even though I saw many times and firsthand how he would go off, I always found him to be respectful, at least where I was concerned. He was one of the few Black execs who congratulated me when I got married. More than a few others were discouraging by reacting like I eff'd up. I got the impression that Kedar valued the concept of family. He stayed looking for a mate to claim too. He loved smart women, especially fellow attorneys.
He stayed being on a roll too. Dunno how he kept consistent, where he found the unique artists gifted with their unique artistry, but he stayed finding them. His next artist, the first on his label, was Erykah Badu. Her album "Baduizm", dropped on February 11, 1997. Badu was dubbed the "Queen of Neo Soul" as that genre gained a female spokesperson for the movement. The record made a lot of noise. The T.I.s at Universal loved him, better yet, tolerated him for the time being, the market that his brand and his artists spoke to championed him as a visionary. I made it a point to remain on Kedar's radar. Be it me shopping a new act or just connecting to build, Kedar's doors were always open. I think he dug the way me and my firm stayed keeping hot acts too. Sometimes, he would ask what I thought of this or that act that he was considering signing, or what I felt was hot on the streets. Not that I was an A&R, but he knew I stayed in the streets, in the clubs, he respected my opinion. Kedar stayed candid too, about how even though he was the new Black dude in the limelight, the minute he wasn't hot or had a series of flops, the T.I.'s would have him disrespectfully escorted out the building with the quickness. Especially since he made it a point not to kiss ass. No doubt he loved the fame and the money he was making, the luxuries he was able to buy, but he stayed away from the Kool Aid. He knew that as the highest ranking Black man in the Universal building making as much noise as he was, that at any given moment, he was expendable, that his head would be the first to roll. I think that's what kept him on point, and competitive, and aggresively cussing out fools. From my vantage point, he fought hard on behalf of his artists. Kedar stayed checking anyone he felt was trying to shit on him, his brand, his artists. He was also known as a taskmaster to anyone who was on his team. Not as abusive as other execs like Damon Dash, but Kedar seemed like he was ready for a battle at any moment, with anyone. He loved his artists though, and it seemed like every time he turned one into a household name, they'd flip, drunk in the heights of their stardom and turn to bite the hand that launched their careers. D'Angelo eventually fell out with Kedar. Erykah stayed giving him mad drama.
It was around this time that I got a call from him. Said he had been thinking about it and wanted me to rep two new artists that he was signing. One of them was Chico Debarge. The younger brother of the '80's brother act DeBarge, Chico had a troubled past, having been imprisoned and serving time for drug trafficking. Kedar loved Chico's pedigree, while at the same time seeing how his stand alone bad boy image would fit perfectly as his next Neo-Soul ambassador. Being that the relationship between Kedar and D'Angelo had deteriorated to the point that their issues were being "worked out" legally, Chico was tapped as as that next dude. Plus, after his stint in prison, Kedar saw the potential in marketing DeBarge with a image far different from his prior glammed out one he previously shared in connection with his asscociation with his DeBarge brothers. Referring clients my way was big on Kedar's part. Other than Puff who referred a couple of clients our way, Kedar was one of the few execs of his level that referred work my way. He knew how rough it was out there for young Black attorneys and unlike other execs like Chris Lighty who made it a point to steer clients away from their Black attorneys and into the arms of the white firms, Kedar understood the importance of supporting Black owned businesses. Like I said, a lot of people may have bad things to say about him, I don't have one.
Chico was mad cool when we met. It was apparent that he had been through a lot. He also felt good about the direction that Kedar wanted to take him. The studio sessions were amazing, seeing dude in action, hearing the soul, the musicianship, the pain flowing from within his life and out onto his work. It was a humbling experience for me. Exciting too. Intent on making sure things went as smooth as possible, Kedar made sure Chico had everything he needed in order for him to deliver the quality album Kedar was expecting. Personally, I think Kedar gave artists way too much, especially how at any given point and out of the blue, artists would flip and play that "I'm being taken advantage of" victim role. "Long Time No See" was released on November 18, 1997. Another classic record. Played like a rap album, but in r&b. Was received with critical acclaim. Unfortunately, because of it's sound and Kedar's association, Chico and the album were both unfairly compared to D'Angelo and his work. Although it did well, it wasn't as major a success as D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar". Too early and too soon to get out from under D'Angelo's shadow. Soon after the album dropped, Chico hired a two man management team. Real niggerish goons they were. Reptilian even. Thuggish and all about getting money by any means necessary, Chico's management seemed more intent on damaging Chico's relationship with Kedar for the purpose of squeezing more money from the label instead of building on the headway and goodwill the two had established. As Chico's new management was busy trying to devise way of getting Chico off of Kedar's label for the purpose of signing elsewhere for more money, I remember getting an angry call from Kedar, screaming, cursing, accusing me of trying to get Chico to double cross him, stab him in the back, how eff'd up I was, especially since he referred Chico to me. We fought, and even though he definitely made some enemies along the way, we cleared shit up. Over the years I learned by observing him that the harder you went at Kedar, the harder he would come at you leaving nothing resolved in the end. The more I deflected his attacks without counter attacking but hearing him out as I made certain he heard me out, all the while standing my ground, the calmer he'd become. Chico eventually bounced as my client though, claimed I was deep in Kedar's pocket when I was far from it.
Having delivered successful records, Kedar was next tapped for his most difficult task yet, resurecting the once legendary Motown Records, a label that was now under the Universal umbrella. He also retained a Vice-President position at Universal. Well beyond it's heyday of the '60's, '70's and even '80's, Motown had become a struggling label. Several seasoned execs had been hired as it's head with the goal of reviving Motown, but time after time, they each failed to breath life into the dying label. Still, Kedar seemed like the most likely candidate to succeed. Not only was he a proven success, Kedar seemed like a throwback to the record men of the past, the Berry Gordy's, the Clive Davis', passionate about the music, determined to instill showmanship through intensive artist development, intent on preserving the culture as well as being concerned about the general well being of his artists. We spoke when he was working on a Motown Stevie Wonder project. Not only was he amped in working with a living legend, he was confident that he was able to make him modern, current. Kedar seemed like he finally found the project he was waiting his entire life to work on. Dude was genuinely happy, like working with Stevie was the culmination of all his prior efforts. Plus, he made sure his hands were dug deep in Universal's pockets and as long as he delivered. Kedar made sure Universal paid him like they respected him. The money he made was, of course, very respectable. He no longer had to cuss Puff from afar as it was now well known that Puffy wasn't the only nigga making money in the industry. As head of Motown, he worked with artists Brian McKnight, Bebe Winans and Michael McDonald and also introduced Neo Soul artist India Arie. We did a couple of deals with me landing some of my clients on the Motown roster. Even though Motown never regained the luster it once held in the music industry, in Black and pop culture, Kedar was successful in ensuring that Motown broke even after more than a decade of losses.
After a good run, Kedar quit his position as head of Motown. Word was that the higher ups were planning to prepare an "exit" package for him, not in a good way and definitely not in connection with his performance. Politics was the culprit. When he inadvertently found out they weren't being straight with him, Kedar stepped to those in charge, calling them out and demanding that they be men enough to be straight with him. When they continued in playing dumb, he flipped them the finger and left with all his dignity intact. He left with good coin as well. Like he should have. He played his chips right though. Word is he currently owns a vineyard and through a partnership, actually has his reputable own French wine K'orus on the market. Crazy, I'm wondering if he's the only African American to be that high up in that industry. Eff that Crunk Juice and Sizzurp, Kedar kept it rich and classy. He also keeps his hand in music, but away from the razzle dazzle of lies, deceit and politics of the majors as he runs his independant label Kedar Entertainment Group, where his cornerstone artists remain Joe and Chico DeBarge.
Not saying that Kedar Massenburg is a man without faults, this isn't that kind of Stan piece. Talk to several others that worked closely with him, I guarantee you'll get a different story, a different opinion of the man. I've heard their stories too. All sides can be true and valid. Still, in an age where our music has become disposable, where the concept of artistic development, class, honor, passion and originality is at most laughable, I look back a few years and can say with honor that I had the fortune to work with legendary execs like Kedar. I write this because we don't get to celebrate the accomplishments of men like this too often. Kinda like dudes like Kedar never existed. Not being a pessimist, but I write this because I feel that the game doesn't produce execs of this caliber anymore. And it won't be for a long time coming.