Since taking over at Arista Records three years ago, former Atlanta-based music mogul L.A. Reid has been dogged by the big shoes of his legendary predecessor, Clive Davis. Despite how Reid's success with acts like Avril Lavigne and Pink has proved wrong those who doubted his aptitude for mainstream (read: white) pop, rumors of his fall seem to circulate with each failure. Ironically, the largest area where Reid has come up short at Arista has been urban music -- the genre he built his reputation on as CEO of former Atlanta label LaFace.
With the exception of Usher and OutKast (holdovers from LaFace), there hasn't been much to celebrate. The casualties are many: Whitney Houston's much-plagued Just Whitney; Toni Braxton's under- performing More Than a Woman; TLC's 3D, largely the victim of the group's personal tragedy.
As once-bankable artists disappear or run out of steam, Reid knows he needs to bring new acts to the table. To that end, he's now returning to the place where three of his biggest stars -- Usher, OutKast and Pink, as well as TLC and Braxton -- emerged. Reid's returning to his Atlanta roots.
At the beginning of the year, Reid announced a deal with Jermaine Dupri to bring his Atlanta label So So Def under the Arista fold, making Dupri a senior vice president and exclusive in-house producer at Arista while remaining So So Def CEO. On its face, it was a look back at where Reid got his start, but it was also an acknowledgement of black music's changing landscape. The crossover pop sounds of LaFace's black artists are fading. Today, hip-hop dominates every facet of black music. And Dupri's So So Def label has always had a harder edge than Reid.
It's easy to understand why Arista came knocking on Dupri's door. His success as a producer and label head has been proven over more than a decade. And despite last year's reports of IRS woes, no one thinks a producer as in-demand as JD is broke.
But given So So Def's track record, what appeal does an executive slot at Arista have for Dupri? "I get to run a record label and help run a major," says Dupri. "The fact that I have a huge load within running a major, all the records that Arista already got become my responsibility. That's been my overall dream, to become the real Berry Gordy out here in the streets."
Dupri wasted no time making some noise at Arista. The ink had barely dried on his deal before he had signed his first artist: Atlanta rapper Bone Crusher, whose debut album, Attenchun!, comes out at the end of the month -- the first product of the So So Def/Arista partnership.
Unlike many of Dupri's best-known proteges, including Da Brat, Kris Kross and Bow Wow, Bone Crusher is fully grown and seasoned. And unlike LaFace and So So Def's most polished successes, Bone Crusher is no Atlanta transplant who came to the "black mecca" to pursue his musical dreams. In fact, Bone Crusher comes from the side of Atlanta that few transplants have ventured -- the Southwest Atlanta neighborhood of Adamsville.
Located just off I-285, Adamsville is a black neighborhood out of yesteryear, a largely working-class area that's economically diverse -- closer, perhaps, to L.A.'s South Central, with its good and bad elements, than bling-blinging Buckhead.
Bone Crusher says he grew up in a household that would be considered average by many African-Americans, one where his grandparents played significant roles. For this and other reasons, he believes he represents the city. "When they see me," he says, referring to everyday Atlantans, "they see Atlanta. They don't see somebody from here that's trying to do something else."
Dupri is clearly thrilled by the early regional success of Bone Crusher's single, "Never Scared," a full-on crunked-out street grind -- the kind typified by Lil Jon & the Eastside Boyz. Dupri also knows it's a bold statement from him and Reid.
"It shows that we intend to break records that a lot of people would be scared of," he says. "In the past, Arista probably wouldn't have signed an artist like Bone Crusher. Lil Jon is one of the hottest crunk artists out here, and he is still not on a major label. I think what I did with Bone Crusher was help knock down the doors for the rest of these rappers out here in Atlanta, on that same circuit, to get discovered."
Every artist, however, is not a Bone Crusher. Prior to breaking bread with Dupri, Bone Crusher honed his craft with partners-in-rhyme Bizar and Baby B, in a group called the Lyrical Giants. Soured deals with Erick Sermon's Def Squad, Tommy Boy and J-Cor almost killed Bone Crusher's ambitions. But now that "Never Scared," a hit in Atlanta since the summer, has got heartbeats racing in the clubs, Bone Crusher's career has leaped into overdrive.
Bone Crusher brings a tested product to the Arista table. Attenchun! was independently released last summer, under the name Bone Crusher and His Industry Friends, on local label Break 'Em Off Records. At his performance for this year's BET Spring Bling in Daytona Beach, the partying crowds were already going nuts to the beats of "Never Scared."
This doesn't surprise Bone Crusher. "The thing about Atlanta is we got people from all over," he says. "So if your song is a hit in Atlanta, that means your song is going to be a hit everywhere."
Besides re-sequencing the album and adding a couple of skits, almost nothing was changed in bringing Attenchun! from regional independent release to major-label debut. Bone Crusher wonders, how would you change it anyway?
"It's vaingloriousism, it's phenomenal, it's cooly-wooly, it's fresh," he says. "When people hear it, that's what they hear. They hear the freshness of it. I'm not a rapper's rapper. I am not an entertainer, either. I am a person who is a [free spirit] with a lot of soul. I'm into the song. If the song is right, it's right. I don't try to force it. ... I learned that from the old-school greats. I learned that from the Run DMCs. I learned that from Marvin Gaye."
Still, he knows Atlanta artists are watching him. "Jermaine has taken a chance on an Atlanta artist who is to be the next big whatever," he says. "Somebody who is ghetto and street and yet has crossover appeal. It's just gon' be real big for Atlanta."