"I hear you have to buy your way onto the radio," says Spike Lee. He flashes a smile.
"Well," says Lonette McKee. "How much do you have?"
Mr. Lee reaches into his pants pocket. He pulls out two fives.
"I don't think we're going to get played today," says Ms. McKee.
They crack up.
To borrow Tina Turner's line, Spike Lee never seems to do anything nice and easy. Even when he starts out easy, things eventually get rough. Lately Mr. Lee has been fielding, and returning, shots about his film "Malcolm X," due in November. This seems to be standard procedure with Mr. Lee's films and, no, it doesn't hurt the box office.
But today he's not talking Malcolm X. He's talking about his new record label, Forty Acres and a Mule Music Works, a division of Sony. He's signed three artists: State of Art has a record out, and Youssou N'Dour and Lonette McKee will have records released soon.
This might seem to be a quiet day then, when Mr. Lee can just talk about African-influenced music and African-Americans having artistic and financial control over their work. He does talk about this. In music, as in his movies, Mr. Lee figures we have to understand the dark side before we can get to the light.
"The whole idea of the music business has been to be white and sound black," he says. "Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones -- anybody who can sound halfway black can get over. And the thing that gets me is some people are so arrogant as to claim it was theirs all along."
So now, he says, African-Americans who created the music or sold the songs for $10 "want more than credit." They want their share.
"More people bought the Blues Brothers than Sam and Dave," says Mr. Lee. "And the Blues Brothers don't pay Sam and Dave's rent."
Other people have made this point. The difference is Mr. Lee can do something about it -- just as he did in the movies, where he kicked open the door for "black" films.
"We have stories to tell," says Ms. McKee. "History comes through in our music. But we need the apparatus to tell it, not just get lip service. It's like in movies. As a black actress, or a 'high yellow,' there aren't enough roles to keep me working. We have to write them."
Ms. McKee, who starred in Mr. Lee's "Jungle Fever" but says she's a full-time musician now, reports that Mr. Lee takes an active role in the music. At one point, she says, he ordered 26 more strings to back one of her tracks.
"I offer suggestions," he says. "It's like when people suggest things to me. I accept the good ones and ignore the others. I try to respect artists' creative freedom."
Not surprisingly, however, he does have some strong opinions. First, he wants live music, not synthesizers. Second, he wants better songs. He thinks the public agrees.
"Everything now is 'I love you, I wanna grab your butt.' The old Smokey Robinson love songs, 'Tears of a Clown,' that was great stuff. What we have today, and not just in black music, is not."