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Back in the Club

A & M Records Is Again a Player in Urban Music

March 26, 1998|CHUCK PHILIPS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A&M Records shocked the music industry five years ago when it decided to shut down its urban music division, once home to Janet Jackson and other black stars.

But the Hollywood label bounced back this week with one of the hottest hip-hop records in the nation: the soundtrack to "The Players Club," a new film by Los Angeles rap star Ice Cube. The album burst onto Billboard magazine's pop chart at No. 10 during its first week out.

The abrupt turnaround for A&M's urban music efforts can be attributed to the return of one man: John McClain, an executive who over the last decade has quietly forged a reputation as one of the most talented and respected figures in the world of black music.

McClain, who launched his executive career at A&M in the early 1980s and went on to work at Interscope Records, has played a key role in pushing the boundaries of mainstream pop by transforming underground rappers, gospel choirs, R&B singers and producers into international stars.

He has been involved with commercial blockbusters by Janet Jackson, Dr. Dre, God's Property and Teddy Riley--recordings that have sold an estimated 50 million copies around the world. In the six months since rejoining PolyGram-owned A&M, McClain has already cut label deals with rappers Ice Cube and Kurupt as well as pop icon Michael Jackson.

"John McClain put A&M back on the map in a blink," said competitor Sylvia Rhone, chairwoman of Time Warner's Elektra Entertainment division. "The man is a genius."

McClain's impact at A&M illustrates how shifting a behind-the-scenes executive from one label to another can immediately bolster a company's fortunes. The ascension of McClain, 43, into the world's upper echelon of music industry power brokers also is a story with a unique Los Angeles twist.

His father, a notorious Los Angeles figure who rubbed shoulders with gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, started the city's jazz scene by opening the famous It Club, where such artists as Miles Davis and John Coltrane often appeared. His mother, a child prodigy pianist who studied at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, appeared with Lena Horne in several movies during the 1940s.

McClain, who was born in Los Angeles and reared by his father's sister Helen, began taking piano lessons at the age of 3. Although he grew up studying classical compositions by Rachmaninoff and Bach, it was the psychedelic music of Jimi Hendrix that inspired him to take up the guitar, his chosen instrument, during his teens.

McClain, also a martial arts expert, broke into the record business as the musical director for R&B act the Silvers and soon became a session guitarist on studio recordings for such acts as Gladys Knight, Diana Ross, Lionel Richie and Shalimar.

In 1984, McClain took a job as the director of black music at A&M, where he tapped the young production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to work on a project with Janet Jackson--who, at the time, had practically been written off by the label. McClain's behind-the-scenes maneuvering led to Jackson, Jam and Lewis turning out Jackson's first blockbuster, "Control."

During the 1980s, he helped A&M churn out a string of hits by black artists, including Jackson's 1989 smash follow-up, "Rhythm Nation." McClain, who got a slice of each Jackson hit he worked on, left A&M a wealthy man in 1990.

About a year later, McClain got a call from financier and aspiring entertainment entrepreneur Ted Field, who wanted to hire him and start the record label that would later be named Interscope. McClain joined Interscope even before Field had linked up with producer Jimmy Iovine and A&R man Tom Whalley.

Interscope struggled during its first few years, scoring sporadic hits with such pop acts as Gerardo and Marky Mark. Thanks to a relationship with Los Angeles studio owner Dick Griffey, McClain crossed paths with rapper Dr. Dre, who was at work recording a solo gangsta rap album called "The Chronic."

McClain liked what he heard and played a rough demo tape of Dre's new songs for Iovine and Field--who initially turned the project down. After the album was finished, McClain convinced Iovine and Field to release it and cut a label deal with Dre and his partner Marion "Suge" Knight. The company, Death Row Records, went on to sell more than 25 million albums over the next five years.

While Interscope quickly began to dominate the industry with a string of successful rock and pop hits, McClain continued to bring the firm a string of ground-breaking urban acts. He persuaded a skeptical Iovine to branch out into gospel and R&B by signing label deals with Kirk Franklin and Teddy Riley. Both pacts produced multimillion-selling urban hits that crossed over into the pop mainstream.

As a reward, Iovine and Field gave McClain a small piece of their company, which is now considered one of the biggest success stories in the music business.

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