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POP MUSIC | Pop Eye

Magic Johnson Gives His Label an Assist

February 13, 2000|STEVE HOCHMAN

Ready to see Magic Johnson making like Puff Daddy and dancing in videos or doing guest raps on songs?

Neither is he.

The retired basketball great may cite Sean "Puffy" Combs and Babyface as mentors who have helped teach him about the music business. But just because he's launching his own record label, Magic Johnson Music, a joint venture with MCA Records, doesn't mean he'll be out front like those two stars.

"I don't think you want to see me doing that," says the former Lakers star with a laugh. "And I never wanted to sing. I sing in the shower, but that's it. I'm a fan of the music, though. And that's why I got into this."

Even news that current Lakers star Kobe Bryant has signed a deal to make a rap record doesn't tempt Johnson. He's going to leave the performing to his artists, the first being Avant. The young, Cleveland-based singer's debut single, "Separated," will get its official radio release in early March, with an album, "My Thoughts," coming in early May.

Well, remember that Johnson's greatest talent on the court was passing for assists.

"That's how I run my business--the way I play," he says. "You gotta know when to shoot, know when to pass and know when to play defense. I don't have to be out front. I want my artists to be out front."

In fact, he's taken the same team philosophy to constructing the whole record company.

"I don't want to say I know a lot about the music industry," he says. "But I hired people who know the music business."

So what is his role?

"I'm a businessman, and what I know is numbers and business," he says.

It was the success of his businesses--which include his Crenshaw district movie theater complex and a thriving Starbucks joint venture--and the synergistic opportunities they create that in part made the deal attractive for MCA.

"We are working together with his other businesses, doing tie-ins with the theaters and Starbucks that will help MCA and Avant," says Marilyn Batchelor, MCA Records senior director of marketing, noting poster displays and sampler tapes will be given away at the theaters. "This was a wonderful opportunity, a vehicle just waiting to be seized."

Johnson has also been able to provide Avant other platforms, including a performance slot at a party Johnson is hosting this weekend in the Bay Area during the NBA All-Star Game festivities.

"Marketing, PR, getting Avant out there on the 'Soul Train Awards' and using contacts I have in radio, those are things I'm great at," Johnson says. "All the other things, I let my staff handle."

And despite the failure of his 1998 TV talk show, having Johnson's name attached doesn't hurt.

"It first boils down to the music, but people may be more open to giving it a chance," says Violet Brown, urban music buyer for the Wherehouse stores chain. "People love him. The black community will support anything he does, and the white community has great affection for him as well. People always want to see him win."

*

"SMOOTH" SAILING: When Matchbox 20 started work on its next album last fall, the stakes were already pretty high, with the Florida-based group's debut, "Yourself or Someone Like You," having sold nearly 7 million copies. But the band still was largely anonymous--singer Rob Thomas could even go shopping without getting hassled too much.

All that changed while the new record was being made, thanks to Thomas' role as the singer on Santana's ubiquitous "Smooth" song and video. Suddenly he was a household name and face.

While that put pressure on the band to live up to this new recognition factor, there were no star trips sending Matchbox's musical progress off track, in the opinion of Matt Serletic, producer of both Matchbox 20's records and "Smooth."

"We talked about [the Santana factor] and everyone was excited," Serletic says of the album sessions. "People are discovering Matchbox for the first time thanks to that. But it doesn't change the music. The band's matured and grown on its own, just playing 3 1/2 years on the road."

For his part, Serletic, 29, is finding that his own increased renown--he's also set to start producing the next Aerosmith album--has brought certain expectations, but he hopes to defy them with the deal he's made with Clive Davis at Arista Records to distribute his own label, Melisma.

"People want to shove me into a box now," he says. "I'm an orchestrally trained musician and studied jazz as well, and it's amusing that people now go, 'He's the guy who gets that guitar sound.' With Melisma I want to work with cutting-edge groups, people breaking new ground, but still create music that's the soundtrack to people's lives. People get married to songs you worked on! That's what I love about it."

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SMALL WORLD, BIG SONG: If you're not already sick of Lou Bega's "Mambo No. 5," just wait--he's done a new version customized for the Radio Disney network and planned as the lead track of "Radio Disney Jams 2," a collection that also includes familiar versions of hits by the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and others.

Bega's new version takes on a Disney theme, with lyrics changed to incorporate Disney characters. The new chorus:

A little bit of Minnie in my life

A little bit of Mickey by her side

A little bit of Donald's all I need

A little bit of Daisy's what I see

And so on.

Additionally, other lines were tamed a bit to meet Disney standards. The original's mention of a liquor store has been changed to a candy store.

A video with Bega and the Disney cast will be shown in theaters before "The Tigger Movie," which opened this weekend, and an album release party will be broadcast live on the radio network March 4.

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