Artists Looking to Break Out Pay Mr. Love’s Crew to Spin New Songs
HANNAH KARP Wall Street Journall 8/30/13
ATLANTA—On a recent Monday evening, 12 of the most powerful figures in this city’s music industry gathered over Buffalo wings and Sprite in a cramped recording studio, making decisions that could propel a handful of aspiring musicians to prominence in some of the most important venues in town: strip clubs.
Atlanta’s strip clubs are a proving ground for rap and hip-hop songs aiming for mainstream recognition. The DJs who provide the soundtrack at such clubs have formed an alliance that picks potential hits and—for a fee—promotes them via regular, coordinated play at a dozen clubs throughout the city.
Each member of Coalition DJs, as the group calls itself, is responsible for spinning five new songs two to three times a night over an eight-week period, working them in between better-known hits. Artists, who pay several thousand dollars per song for the service, get a customized printout of data verifying where and when their song was played.
The result is similar to what happens when radio programmers across the country add a record to their limited rotations: The sheer repetition turns many of the songs into instant hits—in this case, on the streets of Atlanta, hip-hop’s unofficial capital city. That, in turn, can lead to record deals, radio airplay and national exposure.
Many Southern rap stars, from Outkast to Lil Wayne, got their first exposure in Atlanta’s strip clubs, said Yvette Davila, a promotion executive at Def Jam Recordings, a division of Vivendi SA’s Universal Music Group.
“A lot of my records have to break out of those strip clubs,” she said. “If they don’t get that stamp of approval, they just won’t make it.”
Coalition DJs is run by veteran music promoter Nick Love, a 33-year-old Atlanta native who hatched the idea with the help of one of the DJs, Xavier Hargrove, in the early 2000s. “The thing that makes a record hot is everyone playing it everywhere simultaneously,” he said.
By 2008 Mr. Love had managed to convince most of the top Atlanta strip-club DJs to join forces. He recently launched similar groups in Detroit, Dallas, Houston and Miami.
He declines to specify how much the Atlanta group charges to break a song, but says it isn’t much when the amount is split 12 ways. The DJs say they make most of their money from the clubs that hire them rather than from the fees they charge artists. Mr. Love says he reaps the bulk of his income from other marketing and consulting gigs.
Still, Mr. Love said the money compensates them for the time they spend meeting on what they call “New Music Mondays” and pays the rent for the studio space they use, tucked away in a ramshackle building on the outskirts of Atlanta’s downtown district. Coalition DJs was founded as an LLC in 2011.
The fee also helps to screen out artists who aren’t serious, a necessary filter in Atlanta, “where half the city raps,” said Mr. Love.
DJ crews have existed in many cities for decades, typically accepting money or other favors in exchange for promising to play music. Unless the DJs in such crews also host radio shows, these arrangements don’t appear to violate federal and state payola laws, which prohibit payments of cash or gifts to radio programmers in exchange for airplay unless the transaction is disclosed to listeners.
Promoters and artists say few crews have proven as effective at breaking music as Coalition DJs, thanks in part to the group’s Atlanta location, its small size, its use of software to monitor how frequently members spin records and its strategic focus on strip clubs, where DJs have street influence. Rap acts including 2 Chainz, Future and Migos all credit the Coalition DJs with turning their recent records into hits. Buying in is no guarantee a song will top the charts; some tunes have fizzled even after eight weeks in the regular rotation, said Mr. Love.
Terri Fischer, 56 years old, has owned the popular Atlanta strip club Strokers since 1992. Ever since one of her veteran DJs, Daryl James—better known as DJ Funky—joined the coalition five years ago, she said business has grown, most noticeably on “Funky Sundays” and “Funky Tuesdays” when the other DJs in the crew show up, bringing artists and their acolytes in tow.
“They have a great following, and a lot of entertainers that follow their group,” said Ms. Fischer.
Cash Out, a 23-year-old rapper whose real name is John-Michael Hakim Gibson, enlisted Coalition DJs to break several songs two years ago.
The strip-club DJs put one of his songs, “Cashin’ Out,” into their rotation in November 2011, and two months later the song had risen to No. 25 on Billboard’s rap chart. Epic Records, the label owned by Sony Corp.’s Sony Music Entertainment, flew him to New York and signed him to a record deal last February, though he still personally enlists the strip-club DJs to break records.
“Before I spend money on the strippers I might give $1,000 to the DJ,” said Mr. Gibson, who is currently employing the Coalition strip-club DJs to work his new single, “Another Country.” His label has “too many artists” to promote his music as fast as he would like, he explained, adding: “It’s a better way to do things anyway.”
Epic executive Benny Pough said the Coalition DJs have been instrumental in breaking every artist out of the Atlanta market over the past five years.
The strip-club DJs won’t accept just any song. They vet potential clients at their weekly meetings, inviting a handful of artists each week to play their best tracks. They critique the work on the spot and make suggestions, often advising the artists to rework certain sequences or invest in getting a track mixed and mastered by a professional, not “your cousin.”
On a recent evening a trio called Da Arsonist came in and blasted three songs on the studio speakers while the DJs bobbed their heads.
After the first track, William Fernando—known as DJ Nando at the Atlanta strip club Onyx—broke the awkward silence. “The hook is kind of muffled,” he said, zeroing in on the refrain, “Hey shawty, let me see?”
“For a split second I thought you were saying: ‘Hey shawty, H.I.V.'” he added. “I’m just thinking about the consumer; you might need to get that hook cleaned up.”