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POP MUSIC

Drake: From teen TV star to rap royalty

The Canadian hip-hop artist ('Best I Ever Had') has built a huge following with a gift for melodies, powerful allies and savvy management.

July 19, 2009|Chris Lee

By any modern measure of musical popularity -- YouTube views, radio airplay, ring-tone ubiquity -- the single "Best I Ever Had" by Toronto rapper Drake is not only a hit, it's arguably 2009's "Song of the Summer." Since debuting on iTunes last month, the hip-hop lust track has sold 600,000 digital downloads and topped three separate pop charts. Even if you can't summon to mind its rap-sung vocals or brassy syncopated beat, you've probably heard "Best I Ever Had" blaring out of a convertible somewhere.

Less than a year ago, Drake was basically a zero in the music world, unsigned and virtually unknown as a rhyme-sayer. But thanks to some out-of-the-box branding efforts by several of the best-connected marketing executives in the urban world and the institutional backing of his mentor, rap superstar Lil Wayne, Drake landed two songs in the Top 10 this month -- "Best I Ever Had" as a solo artist and "Every Girl" as part of the rap group Young Money. He had already amassed a devoted fan base before he'd even landed a record deal.

Every Song of Summer has a saga behind it. And Drake's breakthrough arrives as a happy accident built on plenty of high-level networking, a label bidding war and an astonishing degree of cooperation among rap world big shots. Chief among them, Drake's career overseers: the heads of the New York management firm Hip Hop Since 1978 and Cortez Bryant, Lil Wayne's longtime manager.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, July 22, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 99 words Type of Material: Correction
Toronto rapper: An article about Toronto rapper Drake in Sunday's Arts & Books section said the heads of management firm Hip Hop Since 1978 -- Gee Robertson, Kyambo "Hip Hop" Joshua and Al Branch -- are also credited with raising the stature of artists Jill Scott and the Roots. Hip Hop Since 1978 does not work with those two artists. It was another individual, Shawn Gee, who had a hand in boosting the careers of all three; Robertson is not a part of Hip Hop Since 1978, but he cooperates with the firm as one of Drake's business managers.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 26, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 92 words Type of Material: Correction
Drake: An article last Sunday about Toronto rapper Drake said the heads of management firm Hip Hop Since 1978, Gee Robertson, Kyambo "Hip Hop" Joshua and Al Branch, are also credited with raising the stature of artists Jill Scott and the Roots. Hip Hop Since 1978 does not work with those two artists. It was another individual, Shawn Gee, who had a hand in boosting the careers of all three; Gee is not a part of Hip Hop Since 1978, but he cooperates with the firm as one of Drake's business managers.

"They have given me one of the greatest situations in hip-hop," Drake, 22, said of his team.

Under the unusually lucrative agreement he struck with Aspire/Young Money/Cash Money Records distributed through Universal, Drake received a $2-million advance. He retains the publishing rights to his songs and cedes only around 25% of his music sales revenues to the label as a "distribution fee," his managers said. By contrast, the overwhelming majority of new artists sign financially restrictive "360 deals" that sap their touring and merchandise income and offer much more restrictive profit-sharing.

A dissection of how the rapper was able to drive such a hard bargain underscores an evolution in the music industry. At a time when CD sales have declined by 15% over last summer's numbers and major labels remain more fixated on scoring hit singles than sustaining artist rosters, managers such as those working with Drake have stepped into the void to become king-makers in urban music.

"The record company doesn't have any ownership of Drake," Bryant said. "The label does not have participation on profits. They don't have ownership of his masters. We control his entire career. Those deals don't happen anymore."

Although already famous in his native Canada for portraying a disabled high school basketball player on the teen television drama "DeGrassi: The Next Generation," which also airs in the U.S., Drake (government name: Aubrey Drake Graham) didn't exactly take the music industry by storm when he self-released a mix-tape, the appropriately titled "Room for Improvement," in 2006. "I was recording, and the music was decent. But I was on my own. I had no team in place," Drake said. "What you learn as you progress is this business is based on relationships in a major way."

After a subsequent mix-tape (as such al gratis digitally downloadable music compilations are known) brought the rapper to the attention of Lil Wayne, everything changed. The rap superstar, whose "Tha Carter III" was the bestselling album of last year, contributed a scorching guest verse on Drake's September underground banger "Ransom," effectively vouching for the newcomer's legitimacy. More important, their "collabo" compelled Bryant to sign on as Drake's manager.

"Here's a guy who's not an established artist, and lyrically he's close to or on the same level as Lil Wayne," Bryant exclaimed.

From there, Bryant entered into a managerial tandem with the heavyweight firm Hip Hop Since 1978, whose marketing prowess has resulted in two of the biggest rap releases of the decade: Kanye West's "Graduation" and "Tha Carter III," both of which sold around 1 million copies in their first week of release. The firm's principles -- Gee Roberson, Kyambo "Hip Hop" Joshua and Al Branch -- earned their stripes working at Roc-A-Fella Records, the influential label established by rap rainmaker Jay-Z in the '90s.

They are credited with raising the stature of such artists as Jill Scott and the Roots by grooming them into lucrative touring acts. The firm's greatest renown comes from transitioning West away from his reputation earlier in this decade as a beat-maker for hire into a superstar rapper-singer.

The plan, going forward, was to build Drake's "brand" in much the same way they had built up West's. According to Roberson, the key would be "old-fashioned artist development -- the kind that doesn't exist anymore.

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