Filed under: BK All Day,Features,In The Trenches,Internets,Interviews,Not Your Average
Written by: Robbie Ettelson
After some unforgettable inside-story posts at Bol‘s spot a few years ago – one of which gave me some great material when I interviewed Pete Rock – Combat Jack started his own site at the beginning of 2009. Having worked with hundreds of artists during his career as music attorney, CJ has behind-the-scenes tales for days. Combined with a slick style of pen game and an infectious sense of humor and you’ve got yourself an internets triple-threat. I caught up with dude as he was about to commence some celebratory booze intake on the night of his birthday.
Robbie: When did you discover you had a knack for writing?
Combat Jack: When I started my career years ago, I really set-out to just follow my passion, which is love of the music, love of the culture – love of hip-hop and being a part of it. So even when I went to law school, I didn’t necessarily wanna be a lawyer but I knew at the time that I really wanted to empower myself. Even back then, my theme was Boogie Down Production’s Criminal Minded. I played that shit like every fuckin’ day in law school, ‘cos law school was such an intense and adverse situation – the hardest shit I had to go through at the time – and the only thing I could hang on that would really keep my focused and maintain my sanity was KRS, was hip-hop! So here I am now, it’s twenty years later, and sometimes some shit will jolt a memory outta my fuckin’ brain – like Loon on Al Jazeera! I’m like, ‘I know this dude!’ I been through the trenches with this motherfucker! So it’ll jolt some shit out and the ability to be able to do that? I just feel really fortunate, man. I think my first passion is film – or like visual shit – and went I went to law school it really helped me with the words. Twenty years later I’m able to combine my passion with my technical training….
Did you ever try your hand at rapping back in the day?
[laughs] That shit is embarrassing right now…when we first heard rap, it was formless, there was no industry. In 1978, everybody rapped! It was like kids doing the double dutch or kids playing handball. It was just another part of street culture. So yeah, I rapped! We was the crew on our block – Kings of the Turntable, man. But I wasn’t trying to be a rapper, because there was no business back then! The difference between when I started rapping and when Sugarhill dropped is like, ‘Yo, I’m going to college! I don’t have time for rapping right now’. That’s when I got on my career path, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m good – but I ain’t no rapper!’
So did you start off doing law at college?
I was a Fine Arts major. My whole shit was graphic art, around the whole John Byrne/Frank Miller movement in comic books. I was looking at how comics really started taking-off as serious art. It became underground literature, it became pop art. It birthed the whole industry of the graphic novel. The art was serious back then – it was sorta like the visuals to the hip-hop I was hearin’ back then. So I gotta get into the art scene. I got accepted into Cornell, and when I was at Cornell, man, it was a great school but in terms of the graphic game and making you a competitor? That shit wasn’t about that. It was all liberal arts – motherfuckers standing around a class all day, sculpting and painting – which is the true essence of art, but I didn’t have that lease on life! I could not come out of Cornell with a fuckin’ Fine Arts degree! Fuckin’ from Brooklyn, New York, first generation American Black kid – I couldn’t do that shit! I had to hustle in terms of something that would give me some more earning potential. I figured, ‘You know what? I don’t want to be a lawyer, but I could be a lawyer!’ So I enrolled in law school to see if I could get in, and then I ended-up getting into Georgetown, I was like, ‘Fuck it! I got three more years to learn some more shit before I gotta figure out what I gotta do’. So I wasn’t trying to get into a certain industry, I was just trying to get through and extend my lease. Then in my last year of law school, the industry really started to explode in New York. I really owe my drive to jump into the music industry to Al B. Sure. A cousin of mine who was an attorney, he was older than me, he became General Manager of this new label, Uptown Records. He was the first person that I knew that was really in this industry, and I remember in Washington, DC, I came home from class and turned on the television and I fuckin’ saw the first Al B. Sure video, ‘Day and Night’. This motherfucker was singin’ in New York, on the rooftop, and I was like, ‘Yo! I’m one person away from that dude. I gotta get in this bitch right now!’ It was the late 80’s and a lotta shit was happening, from Spike Lee and Do The Right Thing, even club and House, there was a lotta culture going on in New York. And I figured with my law degree, I had to get in that shit, ‘cos I’d figure out a way to make some money. So Al B. Sure was the first person that really made me say, ‘You know what? Stop being just a fan and really get busy with this shit!’
So how did you get through the doors at Def Jam?
Unlike a lot of other attorneys that have to work in-house at a law firm before they can even get to the sexy parts of the industry, I just jumped feet-first into Def Jam. So it was really more about breaking the ice, really getting into the doors of that culture, getting myself known so I would have Def Jam on my resume. But at the same time it was my and Bobitto when he was working at Def Jam. He used to run with Kurious Jorge and he was running around with KMD. This is when Def Jam was at Columbia, so it was about two blocks from The Source magazine. It was really just a matter of getting to hang out with some of the ground-level, legendary writers who were at The Source. We were working, but we were also creating this industry stone-by-stone. We were on the crest of this business shit, but it was still very organic.
This was when Cee Wild and Reggie Dennis were at The Source?
Yeah, exactly. You had the Kierna Mayo‘s, you had Chi Modu – one of the illlest photographers – you had the dream hampton‘s, you had Reginald Dennis and Chris Wilder. You had Ronin Ro with his crazy ass, Bonz Malone. That shit was really fly. It was a fun time, it was like hip-hop high school, for real.
Just reading the magazine in those days had an energy to it that made it exciting to read.
All of us would have done that shit – and most of us probably were doing it at the time – for free, or for peanuts.
Tell us about your daily operation in those days.
It was myself and my former partner Ed Woods. Ed Woods was this cat that went to Hampton undergrad and Howard law. Here I am, coming from an ivy league background and my partner was coming from a historically Black college background. Like I said, it was really organic, ‘cos around that time a lotta cats that started making noise in the industry, all of them went to college together. Either they went to Hampton or they went to Howard. So it wasn’t a matter of trying to get to Puff because a lotta people knew him from Howard. You knew Puff, you knew D-Dot (Deric Angelettie), you knew Ron Lawrence, you knew Harve Pierre – it was kinda phenomenal that we were all in the same circle, in the same mix. The first rap act that I ever represented was Two Kings In A Cipher.
‘Daffy Was A Black Man?
Right. They were at Howard University at the time, when that record came out. We did their deal, not knowing that three or four years down the line these guys would be super producers. In a sense, Puff was like one of their biggest cheerleaders, ‘cos they were the first couple of cats in that setting that really had a verified deal. So that was kinda like a big deal. So I did the Deric deal, cleared all their samples – that’s when they started cracking down on samples. After Two Kings In A Cipher it opened up the flood gates – I became that young, hip-hop attorney industry dude. So if cats would come in and they’d see the whole selection of Jewish attorneys or even Black attorneys that were kinda coming out of that whole R&B era. I was the youngest attorney doing what I was doing at the time. My whole shit was, ‘Yeah, I could wear the suits but you’d most likely see me in the Timbs and Girbaud’s. Yo, I saw you at the club last night!’ And shit was so beautiful because, yeah, I’d be at the clubs looking for talent but most of the time I was looking at talent ‘cos I was there to enjoy myself. I guess my circle of influence started to grow because from D-Dot I started working with the Dash cousins – Damon Dash and Darien Dash –and this is way before the Roc-A-Fella shit, and these cats brought a lot of deals to the table. The whole Future Sound and Original Flavor – I worked those deals. Working with Ski, Ski was so fuckin’ talented, man. He was such a cool, cool, cat. I did the Ill Al Skratch deal back in the day and that fuckin’ Ill was such a fuckin’ asshole to work with, man.
The guy who dissed Kane at his own birthday party?
I remember when he did that shit! He was in my office shortly after that. He was like, ‘Yeah, I kilt him! I had to kill that nigga with a surprise attack!’ I was like, ‘Yo, but why the fuck would you wanna kill Kane? You’re an asshole, dude! So what? Ha, ha, ha. You sneak attacked him? Fuck you!’
A lot of artists would have been naive with their contracts back then, right?
I got into the industry in 1989, but when I really started studying contracts was around 1990. I was working at Def Jam at the time, and the industry standard fuckin’ contracts…they were so fuckin’ sub-par back then, but it was the standard because it’s a fucked-up industry! Then it was the advent of the super-producer. You had your Marley Marl‘s, but then overnight somebody could become a super producer, like Premier. Or at the time Large Professor had the opportunity to be a super producer. My fortune was really fuckin’ with producers, dude, because to this day – don’t get it twisted – without a producer, you don’t have the industry. The women that trained me, at the end of the day she was like, ‘You gotta know publishing and you gotta know production, because without that rappers would be rapping on the subway all day’. Working with producers and being like, ‘OK, I’ve just did twenty songs that have all been in the top ten. You have to get me a super producer deal’. So I learned about the industry from that perspective.
It seems like traditional record deals are just like bad bank loans. ‘We give you some money to record and promote your album, then you pay us back out of your tiny cut!’
That’s exactly what it is. But the flip-side is, the best thing about the industry, particularly back when it started to pop is, ‘We’ll give you a bank loan. The stakes are a lot higher, so we’ll give you $300,000, $500,000, $750,000…a million dollars. We’ll give you this money as an advance. Maybe a third or half of that shit up front – so we’ll give you a half-a-million, we’ll give you $300,00. And if you flop? Yeah, you owe us that money, but you never have to come out of pocket for that shit’. If my record bricks, it’s like, ‘Sorry buddy! OK, fuck it.Yeah, I lived good but see ya later!’ To this day, where is somebody gonna give you $500,000? Yeah, you gotta record some records, but if you don’t make your money back you can fuckin’ walk off!
[laughs] That’s a good point!
Now the game is fucked because nobody is making money, so their giving you far less money and advances than they were five, ten years ago. You’ll get some money, but you can’t max-out now. It’s not even gonna be $150,000. And now with these 360 deals, it’s like, ‘OK, so we own your records, we own your likeness, we own your tours – which is unprecedented – we’ll own your publishing, we’ll own everything about you. Your merchandising!’ So right now that industry does not make sense to me at all. The business model is broken.
Didn’t the touring money used to be the sweetest piece of the pie?
You’re half right, but the most important aspect of the industry is publishing. Back in the day, you would do a deal with a label, it was like apples and oranges. ‘We own your records, but you can do whatever the fuck you wanna do with your publishing!’ These guys now are like, ‘We gotta own a piece of your publishing, because you might not sell a record, but we’ll have a hit’. The reason why publishing is so important is that publishing is the string of income that could possibly never die. You’re not necessarily on the tour all the time, but if you do a song that’s a hit in ’95 and then somebody redoes that shit again in 2000 and then you have that shit in a soundtrack or a movie in 2010? Dude! Publishing is the gift that keeps giving. Today I was joking on Twitter that in light of this Michael Jackson thing, what kept popping in my mind was the only shit that Sony is concerned about right now is where that Beatles catalog is going, because that’s a fuckin’ Pandora’s box that will never stop making money! And Michael Jackson owns it! Or he owned it, or his estate owns it. So their whole thing right now is, ‘How can we get our hands on that? Fuck everything else that Michael Jackson did! He owns the Beatles catalog’. That’s the story that’s really gonna be interesting to me. Not the custody shit, not what happens to his animals or his body or whatever. Watch the news…
So publishing is really the most important thing. Touring is the shit keeps you fed while you’re hot, particularly in hip-hop. And you haven’t really seen that many major tours anymore. You don’t see the mega tours you saw back in the day – you don’t see the Hard Knock Life tour, you don’t see the Bad Boy Family tour, you don’t see the Up In Smoke tour. The game is fucked-up right now, but I’m glad that the industry got fucked-up, ‘cos motherfuckers were spending money backwards. It’s like Wall Street – that shit was bound to crash.
It was an unsustainable model.
You gotta understand, Robbie – even if you were half-assed you were making money. If you were in the industry, money came your way. As many deals as I write about or I’m known about, I’ve done hundreds of deals from individuals that will never see light of day! How do these labels sign thousands of artists a year just to stockpile them and never really develop their project? That’s how that shit was, dude. The standard was, back in the day, if you went platinum? If you sold a million units? You was just alright. Motherfuckers would joke, like, ‘Oh, you only sold a mil? Alright…I guess you in the VIP, but you know…that’s only one bottle of champagne for you, buddy!’ ‘You only sold four million? Eh. You get to five yet? Eh.’ We were so drunk off the industry as a whole – and I take responsibility for that – we were so fuckin’ drunk off that money that when motherfuckers started talking about the advent of digital music and MP3 players, I was like, ‘I don’t wanna hear about a fuckin’ MP3 player! I got a fuckin’ CD player and I’m fuckin’ making money! So what!’ So when Sean Fanning approached the labels and showed them the technology and they didn’t embrace that shit? The writing was on the wall,dude. All Universal or somebody had to do was give that kid half a mill and he would’ve been happy. If we had owned that technology it would’ve been a different world – but hindsight is 20/20, right? [laughs] And I’m glad that it’s a wake-up call, because everybody’s gotta get back on their toes. Adversity breeds ingenuity.
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