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Was the mysterious ski mask-wearing artist RMR (pronounced rumor) ahead of his time or is his arrival simply well-timed? Those just now experiencing the country-R&B crossover, who became a sensation when his jarring video to the song “Rascal” — featuring RMR dressed in designer-brand militia wear surrounded by gun-toting cronies and crooning an interpolation of Rascal Flatts’ “Bless the Broken Road”— took the media and music industry by storm in February, will want to put aside any preconceived bucket for something entirely new.

That’s what Warner Records saw when the label partnered with CMNTY RCRDS (pronounced Community Records) for the signing, announced today with the release of a new RMR song, “Dealer.” Like “Rascal,” it features the soulful stop-in-your-tracks vocals of the enigmatic singer, whose age and origin is not entirely known — in his mid-20s and a self-professed “rolling stone” is how such queries are answered— with an unexpected lyrical flare even if the N-word serves as an end-cap for each line. (An EP called “Drug Dealing Is a Lost Art” is scheduled for release in mid-May.)

“He’s wildly talented, immensely creative, has a crystallized vision, and is making compelling music,” says Warner Records co-chairman and CEO Aaron Bay-Schuck of the signing. (Roger Gengo from Masked Gorilla, with whom Warner has a JV partnership, was first to flag it.) “That’s what we want at Warner. Anytime an artist isn’t afraid to break down barriers it’s good for culture. When I asked RMR why he wears the mask, he said, ‘It’s because I want people to listen with their ears, not their eyes.’ That is a poignant statement that really struck a chord with me. Too often we judge a book by a cover and he knew when people pressed play on the ‘Rascal’ video, what they heard was going to surprise the listener compared to the visual he was putting in front of them. It was a statement on prejudice and pre-conceived assumptions. The culture needs artists who are not afraid to make a bold statement and stand for something.”

The CMNTY partners felt the same way. Launched last year by Philip Lawrence, the eight-time Grammy-winning songwriter and producer who’s worked extensively with Bruno Mars and in 2016 purchased the Record Plant recording studio in Los Angeles, A&R tastemaker Malik Rasheed, formerly of Epic Records and Scooter Braun’s SB Projects, and marketing guru Chief Johnson (concurrently of Puma), with the recent addition of general manager Michele Harrison, a 16-year veteran of Monotone Management, CMNTY is structured as a “safe place” for artists, says Lawrence. “My having been on the other side of recording process coupled with Malik’s expertise in the A&R sector, we felt that we could offer artists some of the insights gained over the years to give them a leg up and help them navigate the roadblocks or hurdles that we went through.”

Adds Johnson: “We’re all from different sides of the business. Nobody’s looking at it just from the artist’s point of view, or a manager’s point of view, or an executive’s point of view. Everybody has some insight into all of those things but we can lean on each other for expertise.”

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(Pictured from left: CMNTY’s Chief Johnson, Phillip Lawrence and Malik Rasheed)

Rasheed was the first of the crew to catch on to RMR when the artist’s manager, Adrian Swish, brought “Rascal” to his attention. By that time, labels had already started sniffing around. Says Rasheed: “The majors had just as much chance as us to get it. We didn’t develop him. He already existed. But I just had a little bit of an edge because of relationships. This is a relationship-based business, right?”

Indeed, relationship building and an earnestness about the music-making process played key roles in CMNTY landing RMR and the company partnering with Warner. What attracted RMR to CMNTY? “What we were offering: someone to embrace and then nurture him because he’d been a songwriter who was looking to create something to cut through,” says Rasheed. “And he did it.”

Lawrence adds that, RMR is “a musical savant.” Recounting a recent writing camp held at Record Plant, before the coronavirus essentially shut down in-person collaborations, says Lawrence: “I’ve never seen someone navigate rooms and quickly come up with ideas the way that he did. It was like this creative tornado that we were all just kind of watching and getting out of the way of.”

Speaking to Rolling Stone last month, the artist himself cited such influences as Toby Keith, Jason Aldean, Blink-182, the 1975, John Mayer, Kanye West, Drake, Jay-Z and, of course, Rascal Flatts. (Interpolation rights to “Rascal” are still being sorted out with the songwriters.)

Bay-Schuck relishes in the “hard to define,” telling Variety: “It has always been in the DNA of Warner Bros. Records and the now Warner Records as well as my own personal A&R career. RMR has a deep understanding and knowledge of multiple genres and has some really creative ideas on how to reach audiences through his music and visuals.” Expect an “incredibly diverse” fanbase, the executive adds, “from core R&B to country, from young to old, and from male to female.”

“This motherf–ker will talk country with you on a whole ‘nother level,” says Rasheed of RMR. “He will talk Afro-rhythm with you, whatever you want. He’s a music lover. And he’s not just playing records, he’s playing his f–king soul. These songs mean everything to him. He doesn’t look at it like this is a commodity or this is commerce.” (For those wondering, RMR’s “Rascal” video, which you can watch below, cost $2,800 to shoot.)

But dollar signs abound nonetheless and the run-up to signing RMR was, according to industry insiders, highly competitive. It should be noted that no one at these meetings has seen RMR’s maskless face nor have the principles at CMNTY. “Not once,” says Lawrence. “I don’t need to.”

Rasheed recalls one amusing meeting at Republic Records’ New York offices. When RMR and his team arrived at the building to sign in, the artist’s refusal to remove his head covering caused a heated exchange in the lobby to 1755 Broadway, home of Universal Music Group. “The security guard was, like, ‘He is going to take that mask off. I don’t give a f–k if Lucian Grainge walked in right now. He’s gotta f–king sign in and show me his ID.’”

Republic chief executive Monte Lipman had to come down to the first floor to escort the guests up himself. Once in the elevator, “RMR just breaks into song with some very soulful spiritual,” Rasheed recalls. “And Monte said that’s what did it for him. It all crystallized in the elevator.”

Still, Rasheed said he left other meetings feeling that, “This isn’t going to be a partnership,” he reveals. “These guys were trying to extrapolate things, but not actually trying to help us grow. We’re not into that. We’re entrepreneurial, successful men all within our own space.”

Ultimately, Warner won out for several reasons, some more symbolic than fiscal. Practically speaking, of all the labels they met with, it had the smallest roster, which Lawrence notes, “really gives us a chance to have our artists shine in the way that they deserve.” Bay-Schuck and Lawrence also went way back — to when Lawrence was himself a developing artist and Bay-Schuck an assistant. “He and I came up in the music ranks together,” says Lawrence. “So over years, we’ve built not only a professional trust, but a personal relationship as well.”

Rasheed had a similar relationship with Warner’s head of promotion Mike Chester, another alum of SB Projects (and Michele Harrison’s cousin), as did Chief Johnson with Chris Atlas, the label’s head of urban marketing.

But kismet aside, Rasheed explains that it’s clear communication that will best position the partnership for success. “These long-standing relationships allow us to have very honest conversations,” he says. “We don’t worry about hurting feelings because everyone knows each other and know that’s not the intent.”

Also drawing the two companies to each other: both have something to prove. “They’re coming into a new season at their label,” says Lawrence of Bay-Schuck and co-chairman/COO Tom Corson. “And we’re focused on wanting to come out the gate with something super special. It’s the same energy that they have, together it’s a really great combination.”

“We all have a bit of a chip on our shoulder,” adds Rasheed. “We’ve got a lot to prove.”