That's the Breaks

Houston rap labels and their artists look for that big deal

"In certain areas that we're in," Smith explains, "people may not be able to grasp gospel rap. And that's fine. Because anytime you're bringing something new to the mainstream, people tend to shy away from it. But you gotta realize that. See, this is a record label, but it's also a ministry. We have been commanded to carry out this assignment. So, whether we get the response that the secular people get, with open arms or not, we get love from the man upstairs, you see what I'm sayin'. For the most part, everywhere we go, people say that we have blessed them."

With traces of gray brimming out of his five o'clock shadow, Daryl Johnson, 40, sits in a booth at a restaurant, burger-and-fries basket in one hand, medium-sized drink in the other, as rush-hour drama unfolds through the window beside him.

And even though his mouth is full he plans on talking about his label, Imani Entertainment. With him is Paris Eley, a slightly older fellow (52, actually) with a full salt-and-pepper beard and a navy-blue baseball cap cocked backward. Oddly, wearing a T-shirt from Green Day, a punk rock band. ("I don't really pay that much attention about who's on the T-shirt," Eley says.)

Late last year, the Virginia-born Eley jumped aboard this soon-to-be-year-old label as president. He has been in the music business about 35 years. His stints have included a ten-year run as vice president of promotions at CBS Records during the '70s, a position at A&M Records (he worked on promotions for Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814) and a spell at Motown, where he helped usher in artists like Boyz II Men and Johnny Gill.

So why would a man with such an extensive background clunk down and become the president of a neophyte independent label? After his previous jobs had sent him to New York and Los Angeles, he discovered his longing to be close to his wife of 14 years and his four children. He also wanted to build a business from the ground up. "I thought it was time I have something," he says, wearing a diamond-encrusted pinkie ring with a sparkling letter P on his right hand. "I joined forces with this 'kid,' " he says with a laugh, referring to Johnson, "because I'm smitten with his tenacity. I'm smitten with his dedication. So why not work with him?"

Johnson, a Buffalo, New York, native, tried music after being a shoe buyer for a men's clothing store. With a couple of partners, he launched Bratty Boy Records in 1994. But soon after, Johnson lost interest in the venture. After a three-year hiatus, he returned to the music-distributing game, trying to hook up studio time for an artist. A quartet of Texas lads, Magical Sol Brothas, was getting ready to record. Johnson remembered the boys from his Bratty Boy days, so he reintroduced himself and, soon after, got them to agree to release their next album on his nascent label.

The first, and currently only, artists Johnson has on Imani (the African term for "faith"), the Magical Sol Brothas released their second album, Black N Mild, last August. A funky, rollicking collection of hip-hop tunes, the album wasn't greeted with the usual underground Houston rap fanfare. Sales have been lackluster. The album's first single, the Michael Jackson-sampled "Getcha Backs off the Wall," failed to catch on with radio DJs. Johnson is greeting this challenge with a combination of optimism and introspection.

"The thing about [the music business] is it's a business where you can actually starve," Johnson says, giggling over his food. "And being an up-and-coming label, we're trying to strive to be the best, and that's what I really want to do."

Johnson and Eley want more of the kind of rap that the Sol Brothas excel at, but they refuse to be pigeonholed as just a rap label. "I think music needs to have a diversity sound," says Eley. "Even though we are from the South, you know, music is universal. And that is how we wanna deliver it. I mean, we like the East Coast, the West Coast, the South, the Midwest. And the guys are making records, I think, that everyone can relate to."

Says Johnson: "[Hip-hop legend] Russell Simmons brought up a very valid point that the white kids of suburbia -- those are our record buyers. That's who's buying our music. And I'm not trying to say that the black kids don't support our music. It's just that they don't have the money."

But whether their Imani game is appeasing mass audiences or a small cult of listeners, both Johnson and Eley are pacing it with calculated efficiency. They're in negotiations to distribute their music on Private Eye Records, a division of the music bigwig Mercury. They've "restructured" the marketing and promotion of the Black N Mild album, and the Brothas are touring Sam Goody record stores. (They plan to tour Virgin Megastores next month.) The label is also pushing the Brothas' latest single, the zydeco-influenced "I, I ..." in other markets, including Louisiana, in the hopes that it will eventually find its way back into H-town. Johnson feels the work they're exhibiting is what makes an independent label tick. In his mind, substance kicks style's ass any day of the week. "Just because you have a big, fancy office in a building doesn't put you in the business," he says. "You need a record. You need an album. You need radio. You need marketing and promotions. Then you're in the record business. Until those ingredients happen, you're a label with an office.

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