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Drake: From teen TV star to rap royalty

July 18, 2009 |  8:00 am

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

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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.

"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."

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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.

"Put out a record and a video and work it station by station, city by city, club by club," said Roberson, chief executive of Hip Hop Since 1978. "With Kanye, we put out his single 'Through the Wire' and had him doing spot dates, opening up for established acts. That affiliation with a marquee artist makes the battle easier. Earlier this year, we had Drake on tour opening up for [Lil] Wayne. He was selling out 5,000-seat theaters. It's a grass-roots way to build him up."

Establishing the right rapport with his audience was integral to creating listener awareness. So Drake digitally released his third underground mix-tape, "So Far Gone," featuring songs produced by West, Just Blaze and Diplo in February.

As the story goes, it caused a sensation in the underground, with more than 8,000 people downloading the music in its first two hours of release, although some blogger detractors dismissed it as " '808s and Heartbreak' lite" -- a swipe at a perceived sonic similarity to West's last album.

Branch, Hip Hop Since 1978's general manager of marketing and promotion, pointed out that Lil Wayne became rap's top dog largely through his mix-tape game. Counterintuitive though it might seem, by flooding the market with hundreds of free songs, the New Orleans rapper built a dedicated fan base willing to fork out cash in droves for "Tha Carter III."

"If you're a good artist, you make hit records," said Branch. "It doesn't matter if you're doing it for fun or if you're getting paid. If you're a hit-maker, you make hit records for free, for mix-tapes, for albums. Drake's a hit-maker."

That much was established earlier this year when listeners began calling and text-messaging New York's taste-defining hip-hop radio station Hot 97 FM to request that it play a cut off the mix-tape: "Best I Ever Had." Alternately rapped and sweetly crooned (with the added punch of digitizing Auto-Tune technology), the song is an earnest expression of admiration from a young man to the object of his desire. And despite the coarseness of its explicit lyrics, "Best I Ever Had" is surprisingly tender -- at least, as emotive as hardcore hip-hop gets without being declared "soft." On April 9, the song went into rotation.

"It sounds like a hit song. It's catchy. It was being played in clubs and getting a big reaction," said Hot 97's program director Ebro Darden. "People were texting us, 'Hey, you're cool for playing this. Thank you!' I started doing research. He was opening for Lil Wayne on tour, had been on this TV show, he's obviously a good-looking kid, and the music is good. I put two and two together: We should be playing this guy's song!"

Branch said he tried to discourage its airplay: "I said, 'Give me time. This is good for a mix-tape. I'll give you another record.' But he was like, 'I can't wait. This record's hot.' "

Now Hot 97 has played a "clean" version of "Best I Ever Had" more than 1,300 times and other stations across the country followed suit. Nonetheless, with Drake still shopping for a record deal, the song wasn't on sale anywhere until he independently released it on iTunes in mid-June. The Boi1da-produced tune hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Rap Tracks and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts and peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100.

With empirical evidence of Drake's mass appeal, his managers began tough negotiations with executives from Universal Motown, Warner Music Group and Atlantic Records in what Billboard magazine described as "one of the biggest bidding wars ever."

"They saw the radio spins, that we were selling 300,000 iTunes singles in two weeks after we had the record out there for free for four or five months," Bryant said. "That gives them numbers."

In the end, Drake signed a distribution deal with Universal because the label puts out his mentor Lil Wayne's Young Money imprint. (Universal declined to comment on the terms of the deal. Drake said in an interview that although his deal is unusually profitable, he does not give Bryant or the executives at Hip Hop Since 1978 a bigger cut of his earnings than other artists do. "I give them what most managers get," he said.)

Branch coined a new term for Drake and Lil Wayne's synergistic working relationship: "cooperitation."

"It's when competition cooperates together," he said. "Wayne is cooperating with Drake to achieve a common goal, to help each other out. The competition aspect is each rapper wants to be the best rapper that ever lived. But Wayne realized that in order to be great, you also have to collaborate with the best."

In the four months since being anointed hip-hop's next big thing, Drake has notched an impressive number of top-tier urban music collaborations, recording with Jay-Z, Jamie Foxx, Mary J. Blige, Pharrell Williams and Rihanna. He's working on his debut album, "Thank Me Later," with Justin Timberlake. And July 27, he embarks on a 22-city "Young Money Presents: America's Most Wanted Music Festival" tour with Lil Wayne, Young Jeezy and Soulja Boy (it reaches Los Angeles on Aug. 13).

Elliott Wilson, founder and chief executive of the respected urban music website RapRadar.com, spoke in complimentary terms of Drake's live-performance ability, likened the fan frenzy on his YouTube videos to "Beatlemania" and compared the rapper's ear for melodies to that of West. Wilson also pointed out that the public seems hungry for "a new rap star."

"He's shown the potential to make hit records," he said. " 'So Far Gone' is one of the few quality releases this year. It's outlasted a lot of studio releases in the last few months. The kids today want to believe in something. It seems like they want to believe in Drake."

--Chris Lee

Photos:

HITMAKER: The 22-year-old artist’s “Best I Ever Had” is burning up iTunes. Credit: Matt Barnes

GUIDING LIGHTS: Drake’s management team includes Al Branch, left, Gee Roberson, Cortez Bryant and Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times

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