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Back in the Club

A & M Records Is Again a Player in Urban Music


"John McClain was vital to the inspiration, direction and spirit of Interscope," Iovine said. "He is one of the great music men in this business. I love the guy--and I learned a lot from him."

McClain left Interscope last year and took the position of senior vice president of artist and repertoire at A&M--earning about $1 million a year, according to sources--after turning down offers from several competitors, including Sony Music and Seagram's Universal Music Group. A&M Chairman Al Cafaro said he aggressively pursued McClain with the hope of rejuvenating his label's prospects in the urban music arena.

"We were having an awful time at A&M with black music," Cafaro said. "I kept watching the way John was blowing up everything over at Interscope, and I have to tell you, I was very jealous. Hiring John immediately turned things around for us. Now, the biggest names in black music stream in and out of his office on the A&M lot all day long."

McClain is known for spending most of his time on the street and in studios hustling for new artists. At Interscope he was occasionally criticized for not being in the office enough.

McClain beat out Sony, Mercury and EMI Music's Priority Records to cut a label deal with Ice Cube and his partner Terry Carter. "The Players Club," which is released on Cube's Heavyweight Records label, sold more than 85,000 copies during its first week out.

McClain also cut joint ventures with rapper Kurupt's Under Pressure label and Shaquille O'Neal's Twism label. He also negotiated an agreement to bring Michael Jackson's label into the A&M fold and is negotiating to release a new Jackson 5 album. (Jackson himself remains signed to Sony's Epic Records.)

"I'm not the kind of guy who needs to take a survey to figure out whether a song is good or not," the quiet-spoken McClain said in his first-ever newspaper interview. "I'm a musician. And what I aim to do at A&M is bring back the art form. I want this company to bring in great songwriters and players who know how to improvise. I want A&M to create music that makes the hair on your forearms stand up."

To advance that goal, McClain recently persuaded A&M to purchase a Hollywood recording studio once owned by Marvin Gaye. McClain intends to assemble an A&M house band at the studio, which is being renovated with plans to open this summer.

McClain has also been busy in the studio recording new tracks with Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5. He has been hired to shepherd new projects by both Jackson and his brothers to market before the end of the year.

McClain says his primary goal is to turn A&M's black division into a magnet for musical experimentation.

"We want to create an environment at A&M that thrills musicians--a place where kids want to hang," McClain said. "You know, African Americans have always led the art form in terms of musicianship and playing in this country. From blues to jazz to rock to pop--it all comes out of black music.

"But black music is in a terrible state now. It seems like what the kids want to do is to cook the turkey in the microwave. They don't want to create original music. They want to sample other people's ideas. But I want to turn that around at A&M. It's going to take time, but I want to create something here that is so undeniable it can't be ignored."

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