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Doing It With a Latino Spin : Jellybean Benitez Discusses Aims for Bilingual Music Firm

March 07, 1995|JAMES BATES

With no formal musical training, John (Jellybean) Benitez became one of the best known producers and mixers of hit songs during the 1980s, relying largely on his instincts.

With no formal business training, Benitez hopes during the 1990s to use his instincts to tap what he sees as an underdeveloped Latino music market. His vision: create a major bilingual music company, with a recording label and music publishing arm, that he hopes will become the kind of home for bilingual Latino artists that Motown was in the 1960s for so many black artists.

Although such a goal might sound like hyperbole in an industry where such is the norm, Benitez's business instincts have passed muster with some of the top financiers on Wall Street. The investment bank of Wasserstein Perella, impressed with his business plan and the way he has handled the books for his music publishing operation, is backing Benitez with about $15 million, its first such music investment.

"Wall Street is naturally suspicious of entertainment figures in general," said Townsend Ziebold, a director at Wasserstein Perella. "The stereotype is that they are high on the creative end and low on the business end. But Jellybean combined elements of both. This guy built a lot from nothing."

Over a cheeseburger at the Hotel Nikko in Beverly Hills last week, the soft-spoken, prolific producer of songs for the likes of Madonna and Whitney Houston rolls off statistics that he says mean the timing is right for such a project. Chief among these is that the Latino population in the United States is about 23 million, or roughly 10% of the total.

But critical to its success, he says, is the company's bilingual thrust--it will simultaneously tap not only the growing Latino market but also that for established pop as well. Only a handful of artists have done that successfully--Jon Secada, Gloria Estefan, Gerardo, and Los Lobos are recent artists who come to mind.

"It's a very small number," Benitez says. "But there's a very small number of artists who have even attempted it."

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Benitez argues that the undiscovered talent is there. It just hasn't been properly nurtured.

Reminded that every major record company says it wants to expand its Latino business, Benitez counters that they usually the rely on executives who may not be very familiar with Latino culture or even speak Spanish.

"They've all identified this as a growth market, but nobody has stepped up to the plate yet and said, 'We're going to create this fully bilingual division.' Some have dabbled in it," says Benitez, who currently is negotiating with the major record labels for a distribution deal for his product.

Benitez, 37, grew up poor in the Bronx, where, he says, music played nonstop inside his head. He's been called Jellybean since he was 10, a nickname stemming from his initials, JB.

Many of the kids on his block, he says, grew up to become drug dealers or bouncers or dead.

One night in the disco-crazed 1970s, some of his bouncer friends took him to a dance club. Fearing that he'd be thrown out if the club managers saw him, Benitez hung out with the disc jockey, peppering him with questions about what he was doing.

He loved the way a disc jockey could, with the right mix of music, control the party. Soon he was calling clubs, bending the truth a bit, saying he was an experienced disc jockey who had heard they had an opening. It resulted in enough temporary jobs that he made a reputation, soon landing in some of the top clubs in New York, including trendy spots such as Studio 54.

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That led to his experimenting in "remixing," or taking an existing record and fiddling with it in a studio to create a dance version. Artists would soon call requesting him to mix. Benitez says he knew he had arrived when ex-Beatle Paul McCartney called to ask him to mix a dance single from his hit "Say, Say, Say" with Michael Jackson. Benitez said he at first thought the request was a joke by his friends and hung up the phone on McCartney.

It was during his disc jockey days that he met music industry executives and artists, among them the then-unknown Madonna. He introduced her to the song "Holiday" and ended up producing what became one of her early hits.

Now married and a father, Benitez has for the most part retired from the club scene in favor of producing and new ventures. He's become a sought-after producer of movie soundtracks, including the upcoming "The Perez Family," "Species" and "Lie Down With Dogs." He also has benefited from the explosion in TV talk shows, writing theme songs for the popular "Ricki Lake Show," "The Charles Perez Show" and Fox's "House of Buggin.' "

Although Benitez's still-unnamed record label won't be running until later this year, he's going after publishing rights, most recently signing Grammy-winner Arturo Sandoval. As for Wasserstein Perella, Ziebold says the firm is glad to be in on the ground floor.

"No one wants to be the company that passed on the Hispanic Motown," Ziebold says.

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