Pop music starmaker L.A. Reid sees ’right through’ the obstacles
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In his new memoir “Sing to Me: My Story of Making Music, Finding Magic, and Searching for Who’s Next,” L.A. Reid, chairman and CEO of Sony’s Epic Records label, chronicles his 25 years shaping careers of pop music’s biggest stars. At LaFace Records, founded in 1989 with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Reid discovered TLC, Toni Braxton, Usher and Outkast. Helming Arista Records, he discovered Avril Lavigne, Ciara and Pink. At Island Def Jam Music Group, Reid, 59, signed Justin Bieber, Kanye West, Mariah Carey and Rihanna, propelling them to superstardom.
An R&B artist who got his start with the ’80s band he fronted with Babyface, the three-time Grammy winner was a judge on TV’s “The X Factor” for two seasons. He spoke to the Sun-Times while in town for Chicago Ideas’ Curiosity Series.
“The book isn’t a tell-all. The only person I throw under the bus is myself. What meant the most are the coming-of-age stories. My mother, Emma Reid, was a seamstress. She shaped me, with all of her sisters. I didn’t have a father but didn’t even realize it, because there was a lot of family around. He wasn’t there, he wasn’t there. People over the years have told me, ‘You know your father lives in Florida.’ I’m like, ‘Really?’ I didn’t care. I was very happy with my mother.
“I left high school and went straight into music. I didn’t go to college. Later, I got my executive M.B.A. at Harvard Business School. When first going out into the world trying to be a success, I was just knocking my head, trying things. Then I’d have light bulb moments. Like leaving Cincinnati to play in a nightclub in Indianapolis, four shows per night for two or three years before realizing, ‘I’m just spinning my wheels. I’m no closer to what I feel is my destination.’
“Then Kenny and I connected. We put out an album, went on tour with Luther Vandross. We produced our second album. While recording our third album, we began producing all the artists for Solar Records, then for MCA Records, artists like Bobby Brown. For Warner Bros., Karyn White; Paula Abdul for Virgin Records, Sheena Easton, the Mac Band. For Motown, Johnny Gill.
“We were making records for all the L.A. labels. I said, ‘This is the record business? I could hire a producer, have them record songs, pick the best ones and put it out!’ So we started our own label. Discovering new talent and managing people soon became as important to me as my love of music. That’s how I found myself on the other side.
“Obstacles are invisible to me. I see right through them to the destination. There’s never been a day in my life that racism held me back. I have to have 10 times the success as my white counterparts, but that’s not an obstacle, because I want 10 times the success.
“And it’s OK to make a mistake, as long as you don’t make the big one. My big one was Lady Gaga. This girl comes into my office. She’s unknown. She sits down and plays the piano. She’s incredible. She’s banging those keys like Elton John, singing, seducing the instrument. I was blown away. I signed her. Months later, she brings me her first demos. I listen to them, and said, ‘I really don’t like this, and I don’t think I like her. I think I was wrong.’ An artist easily worth $200 million to the corporation, and I let her go. I learned from that.
“I was walking through my office one day and one of the girls was listening to a demo. I said, ‘What’s that you’re listening to?’ ‘These girls from Philly.’ ‘Really! Turn it up a little bit.’ She did. I said, ‘That sounds kind of good. Let me see a picture.’ They were three white girls. I’d thought they were black. I’m like, ‘Hey, that’s unique!’ And I found Pink.
“When I needed somebody to run Def Jam, my dear friend Mariah Carey says, ‘You should hire Jay-Z.’ I pitch him the idea. There was this 48-hour period where I had every kind of emotion. ‘Oh my God, he’s Jay-Z. When he comes into the building, no one’s going to come to my office. I just hired Elvis.’ He accepts the job, and my company has an amazing run. That’s what it means to surround yourself with people arguably greater than you.
“Music has changed from when we were growing up. Kids don’t care for R&B. They prefer hip-hop, electronic dance music, pop. Soul is adult music. But hip-hop is simply the blues. They started out talking about what they saw in their neighborhoods, right? ‘This happened. That happened.’ That’s what blues is, the only original American art form. Jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm & blues — all derivatives.
“I would describe my career as bumps and bruises but no broken bones. I’m quite proud of what I’ve accomplished. But I don’t think I’ve peaked yet. Either I’m nuts, ambitious, or have some incredible vision, but I do believe my greatest musical days are ahead.”