I. Labels, Legacy, Longevity
Record labels have long been honored by name drops and tattoos and crystallized in diamond-encrusted pendants to display a rapper’s pride and loyalty. Once upon a time in rap history, signing a deal with Dame Dash and receiving a Roc-A-Fella chain was the musical equivalent of earning an NFL contract and winning a Super Bowl ring; the mid-'90s fascination with Puffy and his Bad Boy letterman jackets is immortalized on Skyzoo’s 2017 deep cut “‘95 Bad Boy Logo.” Even Bryan "Birdman" Williams, with his long history of sleazy business dealings and corruption at Cash Money Records, continues to attract new artists in 2018 to join the legacy label he built upon the backs of New Orleans’ finest.
The industry may be swiftly changing, allowing new opportunities for independent artistry to flourish without the turning gears of a machine, but labels remain necessary for artists who want to extend their reach beyond a few Spotify playlist adds and niche corners of the interweb.
Hip-hop is no longer a new genre; the last 45 years have documented the victorious and turbulent relationship between artists and record companies. It is well-known now, who you choose to align with can lead to the opportunity of a lifetime or a disastrous career setback.
Caleb Brown, 19, signed his first record deal with independent label Rostrum Records in 2016. The deal is a joint venture with the label he started with his older brother, Do L.I.F.E. Records. At the time of his signing, Brown was on the verge of graduating from high school and had moderately attracted the attention of record labels through the music he released for free online. On July 9, just four days after the murder of Alton Sterling at the hands of a Baton Rouge police officer, Brown's song “W$GT$” was featured on the celebrated Pigeons & Planes series, "5 On It."
The rapper, himself a Baton Rouge native, channeled the angst, hunger, and determination of a thousand rappers raging against the odds in the song's three-minute runtime. Through the P&P post, “W$GT$” was able to reach the ears of Nicole Plantin, the VP of A&R for Rostrum Records.
Plantin, a 17-year music industry veteran, got her start in 2001 as an A&R coordinator, management coordinator, and executive assistant to the CEO at Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo’s Star Trak Entertainment label. Before joining Rostrum in 2014, Plantin was the director of writer-publisher relations at BMI.
With over a decade-and-a-half of experience in various industry spaces, Plantin developed a keen understanding of where the industry was headed and is trusted at Rostrum to help the label weather future storms.
In an interview over the phone, I asked Plantin what it was about Brown's music that grabbed her attention:
"What I was able to hear was an artist with something to say. He had a strong point of view and a creative way of expressing it. I could tell from his choices that he would be able to evolve over time. I see him as an artist who will have longevity. I gravitate toward artists who I think are tapping into a conversation. Caleb is very much talking about his surroundings, his observation of what’s going on was special coming from someone his age. He’s thoughtful in a refreshing way, without being preachy." —Nicole Plantin
Last week, before the release of his Sonny Digital-produced five-track EP, BROWN, I spoke with Caleb Brown about his decision to sign with Rostrum Records. He walked me through the process—the initial email he received from Nicole Plantin, the phone calls about his artistry, the politicking back and forth, and ultimately being flown out to Los Angeles where Rostrum is located.
The operation sounded seamless, no different than the gradual steps of courtship leading into a romantic relationship. Plantin had already told me what she saw in Brown, but I wanted to know what he saw in Rostrum, and the answer was simple:
"To be honest, it was a great opportunity. To be at the age of 17 going on 18—when you think back on the history of Rostrum for a second, when they signed Mac he was 17. When they signed Wiz, he was 16-17. We've seen those guys turn into moguls. How can I not take this opportunity? That would be ridiculous for me not to. I’m not doing much at home, why not go and expand my career?" —Caleb Brown
II. Patience, Artist Development, & Patience
As Brown mentioned, both Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller are Rostrum alumni; both were signed and managed by Rostrum founder and fellow Pittsburgh native, Benjy Grinberg. Prior to signing his first record deal with Warner Bros. Records, which predates his existing deal with Atlantic Records, and long before the release of his career-making single “Black and Yellow,” Khalifa went on his legendary free mixtape spree under the supervision of Rostrum, an approach that led to an outrageous tour run that built the initial foundation that his Taylor Gang brand still stands upon today.
Miller wouldn’t come around until 2010, with his breakout mixtape K.I.D.S., but four years later, he made history with the label with his chart-topping debut album, Blue Slide Park. Both Khalifa and Miller have since parted ways with Rostrum, but the label's track record proves it capable of elevating relatively unknown, regional artists into successful rap stars.
Before there was a Rostrum Records, Benjy Grinberg was the executive assistant to L.A. Reid at Arista Records. In 2003, Grinberg left Artisa and started his own label, with the intent of focusing on developing artists with patience and precision rather than tossing unfinished, but promising newcomers into the unforgiving fire that is the spotlight.
“I think that experience with Wiz taught me how patience was so important, and things would play out when it made sense for them to play out,” Grinberg said when I asked him about his approach to grooming artists. He elaborated further:
"The output of music, and the amount of interaction an artist needs to have with their public, has definitely increased where people are expecting things all the time. We are here to support the artist; we are here to support their vision. We follow Caleb’s lead and help to make that as great as possible. Help bring resources into the picture to help further his vision. As a label, that’s what we are here to do and we aren’t afraid to take our time.” —Benjy Grinberg
Grinberg and Plantin both described their signees as "partners," putting an emphasis on the Rostrum umbrella being a small but selective label. When they discover an artist, it’s about figuring out how they can help him or her to elevate, rather than who is of the moment. Their roster isn’t large, but since Mac's explosion and Wiz's departure, there hasn’t been a repeat star to rise in his stead.
“These days, artists are pretty hesitant to entering [into] a deal that could be binding. Unless it’s something they can’t make happen for themselves, artists tend to shy away from labels. We come in more so as a partner. You have your thing going on, but most artists need support to help move [their career] forward. You are constantly testing what is working. There’s a lot of unknowns. It’s a per-project basis at this point. Per-artist basis. There’s a lot more tailoring on a case-by-case basis when it comes to the individuals.” —Nicole Plantin
Despite this array of unknowns, Grinberg believes every artist has a different destined trajectory, which comes with the knowledge and understanding that not every artist is going to be a superstar. "The artist is going to develop as they develop," he says. "I can’t force that nor would I want to. An artist develops as they learn more about life, as they learn more about music, as they experience different things."
Knowing that it took Wiz Khalifa almost seven years to go from local rapper with an impressive mixtape (Prince of the City: Welcome to Pistolvania) to budding star on the cusp of releasing a major-label debut, I asked Brown if he's thought about how long he thinks it will take to reach the "next level" of his career. He paused for a second, considering the question, before responding, “I’ll give it another four years, maybe five.” Brown's goal, he says, is to help his family financially, providing his mother and siblings a chance to live a comfortable, stress-free life.
III. Past, Present, Future
The industry has changed immensely in the 16 years since Rostrum Records got off the ground. Long gone are the days of ringtone sales and pressing up CDs. Streaming has ushered in the new dawn for music consumption. As an indie label, Rostrum understands the need to be agile and flexible, but the climate changes haven't altered their vision as a company focused on seeking and priming artists with the potential to stick around. A reoccurring word in all three of my conversations was longevity, the shared vision amongst the team.
“I have the highest hopes with everyone I work [with], but let's take it step by step. Let's get the music that [Caleb Brown's] making out, and get it to as many people as possible. If not this year, next year. If you believe in the artist and the artist believes in you, it's a partnership that you commit to until it doesn’t make sense or until the artist doesn’t want to [make music] anymore.” —Benjy Grinberg
On “Die a Legend,” the intro to BROWN, Brown raps, “I ain’t have shit in my pockets, I ain’t always had food in my belly, momma just had an apartment,” before describing poverty as hell. His voice is heavy and deep, the texture of a soul weighed down by the raw and unmerciful circumstances life has brought to his welcome mat. This energy courses through the music, every blistering Sonny Digital beat paired with unfiltered realism.
When Brown tells me, “This is like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” it’s deeper than simply recognizing how rare it is to secure a record label deal of any kind—major, independent, or otherwise. “This will never happen again, bro," he says. "I have to take everything and run with it. You can’t go back to where we come from.” It's a chilling sentiment that doesn't require analyzation.
Everything Brown says, be it in conversation or in his raps, is thoughtful and unapologetically sincere. There’s a calm presence to his being, but also a gravity, a weight that will only be lifted by going the distance in music.
The future of Rostrum Records will be determined much like its past, in due time. It is too soon to predict how the label will fare in the coming years, if Caleb Brown will become their next flagship artist, or if they will usher in a new age of talent with a talent roster that resembles a TDE or Dreamville. What is clear, though, is that Rostrum is passionate and ready to move forward. If you thought the label was done without Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller in the fold, think again. The legacy of one of the most successful independent labels of the modern era is ready to write its next chapter.
By Yoh, aka Yohstrum Records, aka @Yoh31