Venerable label becomes hip-hop leader

Atlantic changes focus without missing a beat

The history is inescapable inside Atlantic Records’ new Los Angeles studio — you merely have to examine the walls. Blown-up sepia stills of Jerry Wexler and Solomon Burke beaming over a piano. Eric Clapton and Cream pose with volcanic perms and bubbling guitars. Dusty Springfield. Led Zeppelin. Ray Charles. They’re all there — spirits stalking the new creative nerve center of the imprint that Ahmet Ertegun founded.

Atlantic’s official West Coast headquarters remains in Burbank, where a 25- to 30-person staff handles A&R and other tasks. Its other 200 employees report to work in Midtown Manhattan. But since January, its artistic pulse throbs on Cahuenga Boulevard, within a few offices, four studios and a modest cafeteria/lounge filled with intern-types hunched over Macbooks.

The studios are currently empty, but the aroma of marijuana lingers from last night’s session. The lounge crackles with the intensity of a start-up flush with its first infusion of capital. In one corner, a businesslike brunette trawls the rap blogs. Conspicuously, she cranks up one would-be anthem; a chant of “We gettin’ money!!” emanates from the speakers ad infinitum.

The phrase may well be mantra for Atlantic, the WMG subsidiary holding down its parent’s bottom line. Between pop prodigy Bruno Mars and crossover rap stars Wiz Khalifa, Cee Lo, B.o.B., and Lupe Fiasco, the label has weathered industry turbulence with relative ease. From MTV to Major League Baseball, it’s wrangled massive licensing deals; its records regularly go gold or platinum, and last year, the label earned 38 Grammy nods.

Nearly 65 years after its birth as a jazz and R&B haven, Atlantic has recast itself as a vertically integrated, hip-hop-oriented one-stop shop, controlling the means of production, recording, marketing and even show promotion — with all artists signing 360 deals.

The label’s chief creative officers, chairman Craig Kallman and exec VP of A&R, Mike Caren, have sculpted a paradigm that bridges gaps between race, gender and genre, using Motown as a model. Hence, its lucrative fusion of Atlanta street rap and emo choruses, indie rock samples and lyrics that criticize government oppression, techno synths and tongue-twisting lyricism. Nothing epitomizes the aesthetic better than Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow,” a No. 1 Billboard smash rapped by a blog-adored Pittsburgh stoner and produced by a Norwegian duo best known for their work with Beyonce and Rihanna.

“Top 40 radio isn’t our focus,” says Caren. “We have no manufactured boy bands or girl groups, no Katy Perry or Britney Spears. We aim to produce the best songs of every other genre — music that doesn’t start in the top 40, but forces its way in. We don’t just look for big singles. We look for career artists.”

Responsible for many of the label’s breakout stars of the last decade and a half, the 34-year old Caren signed T.I., Trey Songz, Plies, Flo Rida, B.o.B., Khalifa, and Cee Lo Green. Intuitively anticipating industry trends, he inked a deal with seminal Miami rapper Trick Daddy in 1997, back when Master P and No Limit were the only Southern rappers crashing the national charts.

Atlantic has also successfully revived the careers of previously signed artists. Khalifa and T.I. had spent time at Warner and LaFace, respectively. Mars had been signed to Universal Motown, the imprint that suffered heavy layoffs earlier this month.

“Recently, everything has become more crossover oriented, but (Mars) was initially unclassifiable. Was he urban or alternative or pop? We decided to let the music dictate it,” says Aaron Bay-Schuck, the VP of A&R who signed Mars. “We’re about a high success rate. We don’t just throw stuff out there.”

If Atlantic is seeking to emulate Motown, Mars is its Smokey Robinson. During his 24-month hit streak, he’s co-authored Flo Rida’s multiplatinum “Right Round,” B.o.B’s “Nothin’ on You” and Cee Lo’s “Fuck You!” — in addition to his solo debut, the million-selling “Doo-Wops & Hooligans.”

But the executive branch’s instincts can’t be ignored. Caren recounts how Kallman, a former DJ, still clamors to hear every beat that comes through the pipeline. Caren remains an active producer, recently earning credits for Asher Roth’s “I Love College” and Kanye West’s “Hell of a Life.”

In the case of last year’s “Nothin’ on You,” Atlantic executives initially considered the track for T.I., Fiasco, or B.o.B.

“Lupe liked the idea and experimented with it,” Caren says. “So did B.o.B., and it was obvious that his version was magic. Look at Otis Redding. He’s one of the greatest singers ever, but we remember Aretha Franklin’s version of ‘Respect.’

“We sign artists, we don’t control them. We just promote working with a variety of different people to find chemistry.”

However, the label’s hands-on role in shaping records has drawn the ire of some of its artists. Most notably, Fiasco publicly complained that he had been forced to record crossover-oriented, Modest Mouse-sampling single, “Show Goes On.” He also claimed to have hated the label squabbles that occurred during the recording process of his full-length “Lasers,” only to backpedal when both single and album became his highest-charting efforts to date.

“Fans want to feel hip-hop is anti-establishment and authentic. When (Fiasco) and (Khalifa’s) records sounded nothing like their mixtapes, people got disappointed,” says David Dennis Jr., a writer for the popular hip-hop website the Smoking Section. “As much as they’re criticized, you have to respect the formula. A rabid Internet fan base rarely translates to opening week sales, and Atlantic rarely ever flops.”

Reading the rap blogs that once nurtured Fiasco and B.o.B., you’d be hard-pressed to find much mention of Flo Rida. Yet his 2009 Atlantic single “Right Round” set the record for first-week digital sales, selling 636,000 singles and shattering the mark set by Eminem, Dr. Dre and 50 Cent. Unlike Fiasco, he immediately valued the label’s creative input.

“If you want to be relevant in the contemporary music climate, you have to be versatile,” Flo Rida says. “The game’s changed, and if you’re going to sell records, you have to have pop appeal. Atlantic values thinking outside the box to make sure you wind up with a great record.”

And with its inhouse studio ramping up production, Atlantic’s brass maintains that it’s spurring an increasingly fertile environment.

“Artists don’t have to worry about daily studio fees affecting their budget. They can get really experimental,” Bay-Schuck says. “We can afford to fly in A-list producers and songwriters with all the money we’re saving in studio fees. The next hits are already being written.”

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