Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

October 18–25, 2001

cover story

Things Falling Apart?

Roots fans may have to wait even longer for a new album, as the band wages a battle of wills with record label MCA.

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There’s a Grammy Award sitting in Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson’s bathroom. And another on a windowsill in Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter’s house. Their Philly-based band, The Roots, won the golden gramophones in 1999 for their hit song "You Got Me," featuring the exquisite Erykah Badu.

One would assume that the award fills the group with pride and reminds them of their achievements as hip-hop’s best live band. Instead, to them, the statuette heralds their loss of control. It invokes memories of a defining battle with their record label, MCA Records, a battle that The Roots say they lost, forcing them to compromise their vision for the song. There was a certain way "You Got Me" was supposed to sound. But the song on the radio, the version that won the Grammy, isn’t the version The Roots wanted you to hear.

Fans had no reason to suspect anything like this at the time. But today, band members say it created bad blood between them and MCA and that the continuing tension has dampened their enthusiasm for completing their long-awaited follow-up to 1999’s Things Fall Apart.

When The Roots brought "You Got Me" to MCA in August 1998, the chorus featured the voice of a relatively unknown Philly spoken-word artist and singer named Jill Scott. She wrote the song along with songwriter Scott Storch, and when The Roots heard the result, they knew they had a hit. But The Roots claim MCA was stuck on Roots manager Rich Nichols’ earlier recommendation — made before "You Got Me" was ever written — that Badu sing vocals on a lead single. So, according to Trotter, the label "strongly, strongly suggested" that Scott’s vocals be re-sung by Badu. The Roots complied, asking Badu to sing the part that Scott had written.

But after the revision, lyricist Trotter, drummer and producer Thompson and manager Nichols all agreed that Scott’s version was far superior. "Erykah’s my people, but there’s no way she can even approximate Jill’s version, because Jill was the creator," says Trotter. "The record as you know it still doesn’t compare to the original version with Jill singing."

The Roots wanted to release the original Jill Scott version, but they say that MCA insisted on using Badu for her star power, regardless of which version The Roots liked better. "We wanted to add some name value to it, to make it more successful," explains a current MCA employee who wishes to remain anonymous. "We wanted them to actually have a hit." Indeed, conventional wisdom at the time held that The Roots needed a hit to avoid being dropped from the label. Previous albums, released through their former label Geffen/DGC, had failed even to recoup production costs (as reported by City Paper in a February 1999 cover story on the band, "Stakes Is High").

Regarding using Scott, MCA President Jay Boberg says that The Roots’ preference was "never communicated to me at the time."

Drummer Thompson disagrees. "It was sort of like the underlying threat of, ‘We are not going to push this record to the hilt if you don’t have Erykah on it.’ I had to tell [Jill Scott] I’m a slave to my record company, and I don’t really have that much control."

When the song was released to radio and MTV, the credits read: "The Roots featuring Erykah Badu" crediting Badu for re-singing the chorus, but not prominently mentioning Scott or then-up-and-coming Philly lyricist Eve — who raps on one of the verses. The MCA employee says that "the band and management always submit us the credits, so if it wasn’t on there it wasn’t provided to us." Yet Nichols maintains that he didn’t submit credits and that the label knew exactly what the full credits were supposed to be. "I felt bad about the Eve situation," Thompson admits. "Because I didn’t know that [MCA] was going to milk Erykah’s name and not really give Eve proper credit. [Eve] definitely felt dissed by us … And again, I’ve got to explain that, ‘Well, my record company controls the last word.’ And that’s some emasculating shit."

According to Nichols, similar problems arose around the song’s video because MCA had no intention of including either Scott or Eve. So instead of nurturing new artists and giving two talented women their big break, The Roots say they were forced to shove them by the wayside. Of course, within months of that shove, both Eve and Jill Scott blew up on their own. Says Nichols on the irony of fate: "I called it the revenge of the ‘You Got Me’ girls. They both came back and ended up going platinum." (Though, of course, it’s at least arguable that their presence on this song contributed to their later successes.)

When the song won a Grammy in February 2000, The Roots seemed pleased as they rolled up on stage to accept their well-deserved honor. But the situation still left a bad taste in their mouths. And recently, in May 2001, when they received a memo requesting approval for MCA to release Scott’s version of "You Got Me" for a compilation, the taste got worse.

"If we got dropped from MCA, I’d be happy man," says Thompson stoically. "We’re just numb. I’m not in a rush to give them any of my work. They’ve just proven to me that they don’t care.

"I want off."

 

MCA Records is an L.A.-based major label owned by Universal/Vivendi with a powerful urban roster, including K-Ci & JoJo, Common, Patti LaBelle, Mos Def, GZA (a.k.a. Genius), Mary J. Blige, Shaggy and Black Star (Mos Def and Talib Kweli). But in interview after interview, MCA artists and their managers complain that the label doesn’t support artists strongly enough. While MCA President Jay Boberg talks about focusing on artist development, the artists themselves complain of low marketing budgets and an inability to "break" new artists. Several artist managers and former MCA staffers say that two of MCA’s most recent urban successes — Shaggy and K-Ci & JoJo — were accidents, and other marquee acts, like Mary J. Blige, were previously established on other labels. A former employee who wishes to remain anonymous points out: "Everyone on the inside of MCA knows that MCA gets lucky on all the records they don’t plan and fails on every record they do."

For The Roots, frustration has mounted, even though they’ve had more success on MCA than ever before in their career. For its part, the label complains that The Roots don’t make it easy on themselves. A source close to the label says, "Rich Nichols has been difficult to work with." Nichols responds to this allegation with: ‘Yeah, I am hard to work with in the capacity of, ‘You’re getting fucked.’ What are you supposed to do? It’s a hostile environment. I can’t be friendly in a hostile environment."

Back in 1998 when Tariq Trotter, Ahmir Thompson and Nichols first met with Boberg, they all shared a vision of developing new talent and nurturing a "left-of-center" urban music movement. Boberg was the whiz kid who co-founded I.R.S. Records, a pioneering label that was home to The Go-Go’s, R.E.M. and Fine Young Cannibals. He landed as president of MCA in 1996.

"MCA, when I inherited it five years ago, was known as the ‘Music Cemetery of America.’ There was not much of an artist roster, and there was even less sense of artist development," says Boberg. "We tried … to develop a reputation as a label where artists would want to come, especially artists who were innovative and pushing the envelope artistically. All at the same time, the other half of the mission is to achieve the financial and business goals that I’m given working for a public corporation." When a merger led to MCA’s takeover of Geffen’s black music department (home to The Roots, GZA and Killah Priest) in 1998, The Roots were quite optimistic.

The group had helped usher in what some call the "neo-soul movement," occupying a musical space they’ve dubbed "left-of-center" with like-minded artists such as Erykah Badu and D’Angelo. The collective is admired for its arty musicianship, embrace of live instruments and habit of going against the status quo. Now, The Roots are furious with MCA. They accuse the label of under-funding marketing budgets, neglecting artist development and using the band as bait to attract other left-of-center acts — who are also undervalued.

Since signing The Roots, MCA has also signed Common, Mos Def, Black Star, Jazzyfatnastees, Dice Raw, Jaguar Wright and Jay Dee. But MCA hasn’t converted that roster into the powerful movement The Roots once imagined. As Rich Nichols frankly states: "We’re a magnet, and we’re attracting these left-of-center people who are just getting murdered."

"It’s sad," concludes a second former employee who requested anonymity, "because [MCA] has such talented artists, and as a possibility, especially with black music, it could have been such a powerhouse. But there’s just not the money put into it or the commitment behind it. I think it’s mostly because every quarter, they have to account to the stockholders."

"We’re responsible to how we run the business," says Boberg, who confirms that MCA has made its financial projections for each of the last five years. "We run the business like a business. In the sense that when you are making decisions, you’re making decisions in terms of a combination of your gut, in terms of what the upside market potential is for the music that you’re selling, versus the costs that need to be invested to achieve that. I would refer to that as being practical and accountable and responsible."

In defense of Boberg, the second former employee adds: "He’s a nice guy, really a smart guy but … he’s tied by corporate hands. … The stockholders have to see the numbers every quarter, so we’d put out records before they were ready. And time and time again, the artist would be sacrificed in order to make the numbers."

 

It didn’t take long for The Roots to fall victim to the bottom line, according to Nichols. When their first MCA single, "Adrenaline," from 1999’s Things Fall Apart was allocated a meager video budget of $100,000, Nichols was furious. Their last video on Geffen, "What They Do," cost $275,000, and Nichols had no intention of moving backward. Video director LITTLE x, who’s worked with Def Jam, Bad Boy and The Roots, recalls what the average video budgets were two years ago: "Two hundred [thousand dollars] would be the low end, and 500 [thousand dollars] would be high end. In ’99 and 2000, people were doing $1 million dollar videos on a regular basis."

"‘Adrenaline’ was meant to be a street-setup type of [single]," Boberg maintains. "It was not the song that anybody, band or [MCA], felt was going to be the song that was going to get on the radio or MTV play or any of those kinds of things. It was to raise the visibility of the band up and the credibility, re-engage with their core audience."

"[‘Adrenaline’] wasn’t supposed to be the song," Nichols concedes, "but even when you do a setup video, you don’t want to spend only $100,000, especially back in 1999." The Roots refused to make the video on that budget, and according to Nichols, MCA was annoyed.

After "You Got Me" was released, tensions between The Roots and MCA continued to grow. In November 1999, in an apparent gesture to foster artist development, Boberg awarded Nichols and The Roots with a label deal, an imprint they named Motive Records. Their first signee were the Jazzyfatnastees — two women self-categorized as "urban alternative" who had been working under The Roots’ guidance for several years.

"When [The Roots] got their own label, it was like, ‘Of course, it’ll be perfect,’" remembers Jazzy member Mercedes Martinez, who is also Nichols’ wife. "We’ll still be able to have our same aesthetic and do the music the way we want to and have the push of a major label. Or so we thought."

Then MCA revealed the Jazzy’s marketing budget for their debut album, The Once and Future— a figure that typically covers making videos, radio promotion, album artwork, promotional photos, magazine and TV advertisements, tour support, retail ads, in-store promotions and Internet marketing. "The Jazzy’s first marketing budget was $300,000. The average black act spends more than that on a video!" shouts Nichols. "I was completely confused to get to a company [this cautious] knowing that we were in this post-Puffy age where it was money-driven and front-loaded… I was stunned."

Boberg says the Jazzy’s marketing budget was "more than $300,000," but he won’t say how much more.

According to Mercedes, MCA forced the Jazzyfatnastees to choose from four MCA-approved video directors for their first video, which was assigned $100,000. After the video was shot, the "recommended" director’s footage was so poor, both the group and MCA agreed to dead it. Then, the Jazzys say, they begged for $15,000 to shoot a low-budget video in an apartment so they would at least have some visual exposure. Boberg refutes these claims. "[Rich] picked the director," he says. "And not only picked the director, but oversaw the entire thing. And ended up scrapping it or something? And then going back and shooting it again and doing a second version of it. [MCA] had nothing to do with this… This was complete Richardland."

After the video fiasco, Nichols explains that the remaining $185,000 in marketing funds didn’t allow for any radio promotion or TV ads and barely covered any of the necessary areas: $100,000 was allotted to tour support, $50,000 for co-op/retail ads and the leftover $35,000 went to promotional photo shoots, posters and Internet marketing.

Despite critical acclaim from Time magazine, Vibe and USA Today, the Jazzys sold a meager 60,000 copies of their debut album. Mercedes doubts that MCA is committed to helping its artists: "They couldn’t care less."

But according to various MCA artists and managers, development remains one of Boberg’s top selling points. Recalls the first former employee: "Constantly he would talk about it when he was trying to sign artists. Sitting in a room, waxing on and on about artist development. That was his No. 1 recruiting slogan."

"I think that artist development is very important," says Boberg. "I believe that [MCA] actually put[s] more thought, time and effort into every record that’s released than many labels do."

Corey Smyth , manager of Talib Kweli (of Black Star) and Res, a female act who released her debut album June 26 and sold 8,000 units in its first week, chimes in: "Are they committed to artist development? I don’t know if they totally know what artist development completely is. Because artist development really comes from a standpoint of breaking new ground, and I don’t know if they’ve necessarily been that type of label."

Field Mob, Dice Raw, Rahsaan Patterson, Chico & Coolwadda, Jazzyfatnastees and Melky Sedeck are among the black artists MCA has been unable to break. Many claim the root of the problem is money, allocated by Boberg, who some say operates MCA as a one-man machine. "When you have one guy making all the decisions and he’s not really tied into that area of music, it sort of pollutes the whole system," says the first former employee.

One of MCA’s only breakout urban acts says he’s pleased with the level of support — at least since hitting it big. "At first it was kind of rocky because I had to show my talent; a lot of people did not believe in me," says singer Avant, whose debut album My Thoughts went platinum. "Everything is great now," he adds, prior to recording his follow-up album. "I have a company that truly believes in me."

In contrast, Motive artist Jaguar Wright is repulsed by the idea of giving MCA credit for any of her possible future successes. "I don’t want Jay on television with me talking about how he believes in artist development," she says. "Because if he says it I might literally choke him on national television."

"Look at us," she adds. "Our peers are Rocafella, Ruff Ryders. … We’re not underdeveloped talent-wise or production-wise, but financially we don’t have the money to compete with our peers."

Even acts sharing a long history with MCA voice similar complaints. "From the jump, I don’t think MCA really believed in the group," says Damion Hall of R&B group Guy, which released The Future on MCA in 1990. "Then the world became Guy fans and it was like a Guy craze going on, and MCA tried to act like they did it."

Wu-Tang’s GZA experienced platinum success on Geffen with his debut album Liquid Swords. But when he moved to MCA and released Beneath the Surface, the album barely went gold, a defeat he credits to poor marketing: "My album debuted No. 1 R&B on the charts. I had no mainstream press. I was on no [magazine] covers. If I go to Europe, I’m on so many covers it’s ridiculous. But the album was just sitting here [in the U.S.] and whatever it did, it did on its own."

While GZA was satisfied with the $300,000 he received for his trucker-themed "Breaker, Breaker" video (a video he directed himself and claims that MCA initially resisted paying him a director’s fee for), his second video, "Crash Your Crew," was allotted just $100,000, so he chose to kick in $4,000 of his own money to add extra footage. To this day, GZA doubts MCA ever serviced that video to MTV or BET; he says the label couldn’t find the final version when he requested a copy of it only weeks after it had been submitted.

Some artists deal with MCA’s alleged shortcomings by withholding product. Mos Def signed a label deal in 1999 and has yet to release an album either solo, or as a member of the duo Black Star (both signed to his imprint, Good Tree Media). A representative from his camp states they’re in the process of "trying to restructure how our relationship works with MCA now.… Everything is in flux."

Thompson draws his own conclusions about MCA’s promotion and marketing: "I think it’s like the spaghetti theory, throw it against the wall and see what sticks."

 

One thing many agree on is how hands-on the label can be. Two former MCA employees and several artist managers maintain that Jay Boberg picks singles himself and rarely adopts other suggestions. The current MCA employee rebuts this, however: "Yes, [Boberg] does [pick the singles], but with input from appropriate parties. If we’re picking a song for radio he obviously asks the promotion department what their thoughts are. He seeks the appropriate feedback." Boberg himself says: "In terms of picking the singles, I’m very involved in that process."

Two of MCA’s black music department’s most recent successes blew up on songs that weren’t even originally picked as singles. Shaggy’s last album, Hot Shot, debuted in Billboard at a dismal No. 87 in August 2000. Its first single, "Dance & Shout," a remake of the Jacksons’ "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)," couldn’t stop the album from slipping further down the charts. Shaggy’s fate didn’t change until Pablo Sato, a DJ at Honolulu’s KIKI 93.9-FM, discovered the spirited "It Wasn’t Me" — downloaded from Napster — and started playing it heavily, ultimately breaking the song with no guidance from the label. "‘Dance and Shout’ was out for a certain amount of time, but it really didn’t pick up as [MCA] would have hoped to," says Sato. "I played ‘It Wasn’t Me’ once and got instant response. From there it just snowballed into a big song for our station. … We were pushing MCA, saying, ‘Hey, this is the song that you should be working.’" At that point, the label regrouped and worked that song, driving album sales to more than 5 million copies.

Similarly, the first unnamed former MCA staffer contends that K-Ci & JoJo’s 1997 smash hit "All My Life" was the result of a regional MCA promotions employee "sneak-working" the song at a radio station because he believed it was more of a hit than the two previously selected singles. "I’m sure they were going to pull the plug on the K-Ci & JoJo after the second single — until ‘All My Life’ suddenly took off," says the other former employee.

But where others see poor decisions, Boberg sees devotion to artists. "I think the different spin on this is that few record companies … would stick with acts for second and third singles," says Boberg. "What MCA should be getting credit for is having the willingness to chase a second single, or in the case of ‘All My Life,’ a third single, which is almost unheard of if you haven’t had smashes on the first two."

But even Common, whose MCA debut Like Water for Chocolate was released last year, reportedly had similar problems when it came time to choose singles for that album. "We battled it out about picking singles for Common’s records, and I’m sure every artist over there does," says his manager Derek Dudley.

Like Water For Chocolate went on to sell almost 700,000 units and became Common’s best-selling album, a feat Dudley doesn’t solely credit to MCA. "I have a more unique situation than some of the other acts that are on the label," says Dudley. "But that’s because of my ability to develop and maintain relationships with people within the company. Not to be sitting here blowing my own horn, but I recognize that I need to create alliances with certain people in order to get things done so I can circumvent some of the weaknesses within the company."

Dudley’s solution comes from the hard lessons he learned while releasing Common’s first three albums on their previous label, Relativity. "One thing Relativity got me to understand was … at the end of the day, you can’t blame the label for everything."

But The Roots don’t believe they’ve spent their time on MCA sitting around waiting for the label to take control. Instead, they say, they’ve worked hard, often through Motive, to create their own promotional vehicles, claiming little or no financial backing from MCA. "As far as I know, we took [artist development] into our own hands," says Ahmir Thompson. Their self-funded website, www.okayplayer.com, is a successful online community for fans of The Roots, Jazzyfatnastees and Common, and was recently named Best Website of the Year by Support Online Hip-Hop (www.sohh.com). Black Lily is a Roots-sponsored open-mic session in New York and Philly featuring female artists. Not to mention the band’s constant touring and renowned live shows, which have attracted fans from across the globe — but are executed, Nichols says, with little financial support from MCA.

While The Roots have sold more albums on MCA than ever before (Things Fall Apart sold roughly 800,000 units domestically), their self-generated following and self-sufficiency leads Nichols to question MCA’s role in the success. "How much of [our sales] was MCA responsible for? It’s very hard to tell," he says. "It would be completely different if we came out on [MCA] and no one ever heard of us, and then we sold 800,000."

Acts on major labels that haven’t sold well are often disgruntled, but for a successful, Grammy-winning group to feel the same and voice their dissatisfaction publicly is unusual. "I know from experience, from being on Geffen and from being on MCA, that whatever I put out basically has to be self-sufficient," says Tariq Trotter, who’s been working on a solo album for almost a year and continues to take his time. "My album’s pretty much going to have to be able to sell itself, because it’s going to get a minimal push.

"At this point, I would rather just sever the whole relationship."

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