Growing urban in a country music city
By Ron Wynn
OCTOBER 12, 1998: Jasmine Sanders and Michael West are bucking long odds: They're urban-music entrepreneurs in Music City. Granted, Nashville is a much different place than it was even 10 years ago. But still, no matter how diversified the local landscape has become, far too many outsiders still think of our city as a country-music town.
Regardless, Sanders and West, both native Nashvillians, firmly believe that there's plenty of local urban, R&B, and hip-hop talent to be developed. What's more, they're convinced that this emerging local talent has the potential to be developed into star material. West has created Max Fab (Fabulous) Enterprises, which includes the subsidiary label Max Fab Entertainment; and Sanders is president of Sybe Records, a label owned by former Vanderbilt football star and current Baltimore Raven Corey Harris. (Not only does Harris own the label, he's also on the roster, recording under the name C-Loh.)
A part-time disc jockey on WQQK-92FM and an assistant general manager at the Printers Alley club Somethin' Live, Sanders has been working in the local R&B and urban music industry since '94. West, meanwhile, began as a promoter, teaming with fellow Nashvillian James French to bring comedy and urban acts to town. Both are unfailingly optimistic, even as they acknowledge the difficulties of launching a venture that would have a better shot if it were based in New York, Los Angeles, or Atlanta.
"I've had contacts in the industry for a long time," Sanders says. "I've been aware that there's so much talent here, but when you talk to people they always say, 'Nashville--there's nothing there but country.' Corey and I felt that the time was right, and that someone had to step out and try and give these people an opportunity to record. We know there's a lot of skepticism out there, but if no one ever tries to change things, they'll stay the same."
"I've always had a passion for music," West adds. "I've listened to a lot of different types, and James and I used to write songs together. When we were bringing acts here, and when we were working with the Blow Pop Crew, we knew that this was an area that hadn't been tapped yet. I know people don't think you can make it here in urban and R&B and rap, but we're going to prove them wrong."
Each label already has a release out. Sybe's debut record is C-Loh's "Unrestricted," an EP featuring contributions from longtime R&B star Roger Troutman on "The Funk," plus the tunes "All or Nothing" and "Tricknowledgy." The set was produced by Carlos Broady, better known in urban circles as "Six July." He's been a contributing writer and producer on several huge hit albums, among them releases by Sean "Puffy" Combs, the Notorious B.I.G., and Lil' Kim. "The fact that someone like Six July believes in what we're doing speaks rather strongly," Sanders says.
Max Fab's first release, "Ah Sukie Sukie Na," by the Nashville duo Play House, is starting to attract regional attention. After two months, the song has generated airplay in Jackson, Tenn.; Birmingham, Ala.; Macon, Ga.; and Detroit. "I've gotten good notices everywhere that we've taken the song," West says. "I think that we're getting the buzz that we need for the record to take off."
The song was a recent winner on "The Battle of the Beats," WQQK's nightly showcase for new records, but it hasn't been added to the station's regular playlist. This is a small point of contention, for both Sanders and West say that local radio has to be a force in the promotion and success of the city's urban acts.
"We're not asking them to play just anything we send them, but we do need local radio to give us a hand," West says. "It would be nice if they'd get behind the record." Even so, he says, the exposure from "Battle of the Beats" is a definite bonus.
"I've worked both sides of the equation, so I know the score as far as radio goes," Sanders observes. "There is so much competition for the few slots that are available, and a lot of music and program directors take the attitude, 'We play the hits and we play what the audience demands.' I don't expect them to try and predict what songs will succeed; we just have to make the best records possible so the audience will demand that they play them."
Questions about local airplay aside, West says the response to Play House's single has been strong enough that the label has decided to record an album, tentatively slated for a March '99 release. In the meantime, he'll also be working with some of the label's other acts, which include the vocal ensemble Girl Talk and Lil Bit, a rapper/singer in the Lil' Kim mold.
Sybe's other artists include vocalist Sheri Hauck, an occasional performer at Somethin' Live; Tallahassee-based composer/performer Haziq Ali; and the Memphis group Nationwide.
Sanders and West both have strong ideas about the kinds of performers they're looking for. "There's nothing worse than someone who thinks they know everything and you can't tell them anything or offer them any kind of constructive criticism," Sanders says. "You don't just become a star in the entertainment business; there are no overnight sensations. We want people who are willing to work, who want to do the hard things and who can grow and ultimately last, instead of just getting a hit and then disappearing."
As budding entrants in the record business, Sanders and West insist that they're in it for the long haul. They have no illusions things will turn around overnight for their enterprises, but they are confident that they can help foster a market for urban, R&B, and hip-hop in Nashville.
"We want someday for the labels to open their eyes, look around here, and say, 'Let's come to Nashville and do things,' instead of just saying, 'We've got Atlanta,' " Sanders concludes.
"When that day comes," West says, "we've got to be ready."
Acts interested in contacting Sybe Records can call (615) 254-5483, or send tapes to 209 Printers Alley, Nashville, TN 37201. The address for Max Fab Entertainment is P.O. Box 60944, Nashville, TN 37206-0944; the phone number is (615) 816-4887.
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