Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Teen TV Star Drake Ascends To Rap Royalty

By: By Chris Lee (Los Angeles Times)
Source: The Oakland Tribune

By any modern measure of musical popularity — YouTube views, radio airplay, ringtone ubiquity — the single "Best I Ever Had" by Toronto rapper Drake is not only a hit but is 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 pop charts.

Even if you can't summon to mind its rap-sung vocals or brassy syncopated beat, you probably have heard "Best I Ever Had" blaring out of a convertible somewhere.

Less than a year ago, Drake was 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 already had amassed a devoted fan base before he even had landed a record deal.

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 company 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.

class="subhead">First tape was a dud

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 (born 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 star, 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.

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 company's principles — 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 1990s.

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.

Campaign to air 'Best'

Earlier this year, 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 lyrics, "Best I Ever Had" is surprisingly tender — at least, as emotive as hard-core hip-hop gets without being declared "soft." On April 9, the song went into rotation.

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.

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 this week he embarks on a 22-city "Young Money Presents: America's Most Wanted Music Festival" tour with Lil Wayne, Young Jeezy and Soulja Boy.

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