MCA has transformed sounds of black youth culture into America's pop music


With the release of Bell Biv DeVoe's "Hootie Mack" late last month, there's a good chance MCA Records, specifically its black-music division, will have another hit. The company has shipped 500,000 copies of the album, betting that young record buyers around the country will have fond memories of the group's 1990 debut, "Poison."

In that album, which helped establish new jack swing as mainstream pop, the group mixed soul music's vocal prowess and rap's harder beats. "Poison" sold more than 3 million copies, a number that would be unreachable without the help of white fans. It was, in the words that make every record company executive's knees weak with excitement, a crossover hit.

Like the legendary Motown several decades before, MCA has managed to transform its music -- born of black youth culture -- into America's popular music. Its roster defines the breadth of its territory, from new jack swing stars like Bobby Brown and Mary J. Blige and singing groups like Bell Biv DeVoe and Jodeci, to crooners like Chante Moore.

As did Motown, MCA produces music that appeals to young people, period. Where Motown stayed away from hard Southern soul, MCA has largely kept away from rap, instead concentrating on music that incorporates rap's street feel and sound yet uses ** singers to wax romantic. But MCA is not so much defined by a sound as by its ability to market youth culture.

The strategy has worked spectacularly well: The Los Angeles-based label has ranked No. 1 on Billboard's annual listings of black-music sales seven of the last eight years. And this ranking clearly means money. Black music has increased its market share from 11.7 percent in 1988 to 16.7 percent in 1992, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, the industry trade group.

Translating those figures into dollars shows that the value of the black-music market has roughly doubled in five years, from $731 million to $1.5 billion. And though a few other labels -- Atlantic, Motown, Arista -- can claim many black hits, MCA predominates. If black music has exploded, then MCA, which refuses to discuss its earnings, has undoubtedly reaped a good portion of the profits.

'The new Motown'

"MCA is the new Motown, there's no question about that," says Ed Eckstine, president of Mercury Records and one of the few upper-level black executives in the record industry. "They've really managed to work with the demands of the marketplace, and those demands are for black music."

While MCA's role in propagating -- and exploiting -- a blacker shade of youth culture has been important, it has also done something else, perhaps equally significant. In an industry whose business side is notoriously closed to blacks, MCA, which will not discuss its hiring policy for minorities and women, is considered by many within the industry to have given black executives real power. The label's rise to prominence has been engineered by black employees as well as outside production and record companies run by blacks that are tied to MCA by contract.

Black executives and producers have been given authority to a degree never seen before in the record business. At least six black-run labels or production companies exist within MCA's black-music department, roughly twice as many as in the label's other divisions. In many ways, MCA has defined the way black executives are gaining positions of clout in the industry.

This is not to say that MCA is a land of unlimited opportunity. For one thing, the largesse extends only so far, with some company insiders suggesting that power sharing has only been cosmetic; blacks still work primarily on black music. As usual, it's difficult to quantify exactly what artists are getting from deals, and black managers have traditionally been as willing to take advantage of black artists as have white managers. And to the extent that MCA has stage-managed the sound of popular black music, it has been done at the expense of the artists -- whose music, sculpted by producers, often sounds generic.

For Jheryl Busby, one of the first black vice presidents at MCA and the architect of its rise to prominence in black music, the emergence of black executives in the music industry ultimately means access to power outside music. Mr. Busby, 44, is a highly articulate insider, at ease with the power.

"Now that Wall Street has recognized the entertainment industry, there's a real opportunity for black executives to take our places as visionaries," says Mr. Busby, who is now president of one of MCA's main competitors, Motown.

"Look, Black Entertainment Television is traded on Wall Street. I believe that MCA and other labels will become multicultural, multimedia entertainment companies. Ethnic programming is part of the mainstream, and as it blossoms, we'll see the growth of our people throughout the entertainment food chain."

Ten years ago, Mr. Busby might not have been so optimistic. In the early 1980s, MCA was known within the industry as the Music Cemetery of America, a label with few acts outside of the then-moribund genre of country. Its black-music department was almost nonexistent, and its pop acts consisted of Tom Petty and Olivia Newton-John.

Things changed in 1983, when Irving Azoff, who ran his own artists management company, was hired as the label's president. He needed somebody to head the black-music department and hired Mr. Busby, who had previously worked at A&M; Records. Mr. Azoff gave real autonomy to Mr. Busby, who became one of the music industry's best marketers.

Mr. Busby, in turn, delegated authority to other young black entrepreneurs, and soon the company began developing a roster of black talent, including Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Stephanie Mills and Bobby Womack. These older stars, whose careers the company hoped to resuscitate, quickly went on to produce hits. Mr. Busby also brought in young artists and -- even more important -- young producers like Teddy Riley, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

Major player

By the mid-1980s, MCA had become a major player in the record business. Today, the label has, in Mr. Riley, probably the strongest producer working in black pop. Mr. Riley defined the sound of new jack swing in 1988 with his stylistically groundbreaking group Guy, and he continues to have hits with major stars like Michael Jackson and minor ones like the rap group Wreckx-N-Effects. The company also boasts Andre Harrell, generally considered the industry's finest talent scout and marketer. Mr. Harrell's Uptown Records, a joint venture with MCA, is seen as the parent company's future in black music.

"I was lucky to come into a company that had nothing at all," Mr. Busby says. "Since the company didn't have anything going in the pop department, it was easy for the publicity and promotion sections to work on black music because it was all that was there. And that gave black people power."

For Al Teller, who became president of MCA in 1988, it was just smart business to concentrate on black music. "When I came to the company, I came with the idea that I wanted to expand the A&R; [artists and repertoire] division in black music, because the department was already doing so well," he says. "You start with your strengths and go from there."

Mr. Harrell agrees. "The only reason any of us have any power is that the black-music department was making the dollars," he says. "Do you think anybody would have been given any power if the white side of the company were producing hits? MCA was built on black music, and the company had to give black managers and executives the level of importance matching the dollars the music was making."

By the middle 1980s, MCA had three things going for it in terms of black music. It had the music. The audience was growing. And the company was aggressive -- perhaps too aggressive -- in promoting its music. In 1984, MCA scored with the Boston-based New Edition, the company's first hit black group since 1979. Then came hits from a diverse selection of performers, including Jody Watley, the Jets, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Bobby Brown and Ready for the World.

According to "Stiffed: A True Story of MCA, the Music Business and the Mafia," a new book by William Knoedelseder, MCA heavily relied in the early '80s on independent promoters, who were hired to get its records played on radio. The book, which recounts a federal investigation into payola and Mafia influence within the industry, goes on to describe how, in 1985, the company spent nearly $9 million on such promoters, who were directed by MCA to pay more than the going rate to have its records played. (No one at MCA was charged in the investigation, and MCA declines to comment on the book.)

"The fact that somebody was paying is actually a positive sign," said Nelson George, author of several books on black culture and music. "Black records didn't normally get that extra effort. When you look at the list of records that were at issue, a lot of them were crossover hits, black records."

The release of Bobby Brown's "Don't Be Cruel" in 1988 signaled a real change in the marketplace; the record, which eventually sold more than 5 million copies, was the first major crossover hit for a new jack swing singer. Mr. Brown, who had been a singer for New Edition (and who now has his own label within MCA, B. Brown Production), symbolized the label's next generation.

Over the next few years, several members of New Edition -- including Michael Bivins, Ronnie DeVoe and Ricky Bell (who formed Bell Biv DeVoe) and Johnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant -- embarked on their own careers.

The third stage

The success of performers like Mr. Brown and the New Edition spinoffs marked the second phase of MCA's strategy for black music. Before Mr. Azoff left MCA in 1988, he and Mr. Busby had recruited Mr. Harrell, the architect of the third stage of the company's plan. Mr. Harrell has brought Mary J. Blige and the rappers Heavy D. and the Boyz to MCA.

In 1992, his New York-based Uptown Records was made a full-fledged label, with its own publicity and promotion departments. Started as an independent company, Uptown entered into an agreement with MCA in 1986 to supply it with acts. The latest deal includes music-related projects for film and television.

"I had started out with a four-group deal," says Mr. Harrell, 31, "Every time I had big success, I'd want to sign more acts and hire a bigger staff and make the label become a full-service company. I kept pushing, renegotiating, till we got to the point that we were at a joint venture."

In many ways Mr. Harrell embodies the best of what MCA has done; Uptown is what makes MCA contemporary, and he is the company's resident A&R; star. Mr. Harrell, who was half of the early-1980s rap duo Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, realized soon enough that managers made more money than performers. Talking to him is like talking to a small hurricane; he's everywhere at once, answering phones, giving blunt assessments, never afraid to bring up racial politics.

Despite the appearance of corporate egalitarianism, there are skeptics within the company. For Louil Silas, whose Silas Records was started under the MCA umbrella last year and now has its first hit album in Chante Moore's "Precious," custom labels for black music should represent only the beginning.

"We've just scratched the surface of any kind of power," Mr. Silas says. "Remember, these labels are joint ventures with a parent company, which means the decisions and money are split 50-50. When we clearly own things, then there will be real change. As it stands, everything is 10 years later than it should be. Jheryl changed a lot, but industry-wide there are nowhere enough black executives, or a good distribution system owned by blacks."

For Mr. Eckstine of Mercury, the new interest in black power can be read cynically. He sees a copycat mentality that has everything to do with money and nothing to do with corporate enlightenment. "MCA is the blueprint that most major corporations have used for black music," he says. "It's the super Negro syndrome -- everybody's saying, 'I've got to get myself a Busby.' What Jheryl and MCA's success really did was bring some logic to the system. If you give a white, middle-aged man living in Westport power over rap acts, there's a pretty good chance you're going to screw up. If you let somebody who's plugged into the scene have the power instead, they're going to do a good job. Jheryl's success and Irving's decision was the volley that started the war, but the war is far from over."

Whether MCA will maintain its dominance over the black-music market is not so clear; the showing of Bell Biv DeVoe's new album will signal how well the company's promotion and marketing mechanism is working; if it flops, it could imply that MCA has lost its ability to judge the marketplace.

And, like other corporations, MCA may have overextended itself. "I think their status isn't as strong as in the 1980s," says Janine McAdams, who used to write about black music for Billboard and now works in promotion for Arista Records. "They had so many artists on the roster, it was hard to make everyone a priority. And some artists lost."

Mr. Teller agrees. "At a certain point, to be effective, a label can't sign more artists," he says. "It's cooled off some, but in the early part of 1993 we had 17 to 20 singles in the Top 100, which is a huge amount of records. And we probably can't go much further without seriously looking at the possibility of putting a larger promotion staff in the field."

As a byproduct of its success, MCA also faces stiffer competition within the industry, as its formula has been copied. Other companies have beefed up their black-music divisions. Small labels like Interscope have thrown down the challenge. Major labels like RCA, which has a black hit in the female singing group SWV, has expanded its black division, having recently made three major production deals.

But whatever happens, MCA has already had a tremendous effect on the cultural marketplace. "Eventually, money makes the decisions," Mr. Busby says. "We are just beginning to control the profit centers. If I started anything I'm proud of, it's that: taking control. I just hope other corporations see it the way I do."

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