Making of a Mogul – LA Reid is today’s cover story of his hometown’s newspaper, Cincinnati Enquirer.
Antonio ‘L.A.’ Reid says his Cincinnati background has proven to be invaluable…
BY JANELLE GELFAND-Cincinnati Enquirer 10/8/2007
Antonio “L.A.” Reid couldn’t wait to talk about sitting next to Sarah Jessica Parker at a dinner party in the Hamptons recently.
“I gotta tell you this story,” the Cincinnati native says from his executive suite at Island Def Jam in New York. “It was just the most wonderful conversation, and I was so happy to finally meet someone else from Cincinnati that was in the entertainment business.”
One of the most powerful executives in the music industry and a triple Grammy-winner, he’s in his fourth year as chairman of Island Def Jam Music Group. The star-maker has discovered talents such as Usher, Avril Lavigne and OutKast. But Reid has not forgotten his Cincinnati roots. He flies into town every April to take his mother, who lives in Blue Ash, to dinner on her birthday
Last week, he expressed interest in helping his old high school, Hughes, renovate its outdated auditorium. “I’d be happy to come back and help them rebuild that auditorium, are you kidding?” he said. “That’s important.” No commitments have been made.
“The beauty of growing up in Cincinnati and how that’s impacted and affected my career is really great,” says Reid, 51. “I was able to listen to all kinds of music growing up. My taste in music has been vast and broad from the very beginning, because that’s what you learn in Cincinnati, that diversity.”
That Cincinnati experience is influencing how he is expanding Island Def Jam’s vision to encompass a smorgasbord of musical genres.
“I’m the only African-American in the business that does music across the board. That’s the thing that makes me unique,” he says, ticking off a diverse list of artists he is guiding, from Fall Out Boy, the Killers, Bon Jovi, Melissa Etheridge and Lionel Richie to Jay-Z and Ludacris.
Today, his Cincinnati upbringing might seem a distant memory. Celebrity headlines show him with Oprah at his 50th birthday party. Helping Barack Obama raise money for his presidential campaign. Inviting Jermaine Dupri, Kanye West and Diddy to perform at his son Aaron’s 16th birthday party at Jay-Z’s club, for MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16.”
He’s the man behind Mariah Carey’s comeback and last month’s triumph of Kanye West’s rap album sales over 50 Cent’s. The latter, a battle of albums released on the same day, played out at the MTV Video Music Awards, on BET and in Rolling Stone.
Reid saw past the media hype.
“The thing that excited me most wasn’t the fact that we had a showdown. It was that people still buy music,” he says. “Because there’s been so many reports from industry analysts, the media and skeptics, taking a position that our industry was a dying industry. … Sales are down everywhere, but great music still sells and people still want to buy it.”
‘WHERE IT ALL STARTED’
He received MBA training at Harvard Business School. But Reid did not graduate with the Hughes High School class of ’74. Nor was he one of the school’s most famous alumni or voted “most likely to succeed.”
There are no photos of him in the 1974 yearbook because, says Reid, “I dropped out. I was enrolled, but I did not participate. I went through the 12th grade, and didn’t have enough credits to graduate. I decided to pursue my music career. One thing led to another, and as I started to have success, I took the necessary steps to get a diploma.”
At Hughes, Reid was a star drummer who cut his teeth playing with bands in “Merry-Go-Round,” an annual talent show held in the school auditorium. He also played in the marching band. He says his music teacher, Terry Brown (now deceased), who had his own group outside of school, taught him how to be a professional.
Today, the marching band is struggling to come back after a 20-year absence. The now-shabby auditorium, last updated in the ’50s, has an unusable sound system.
“This is where it all started,” says boyhood friend Darryl Gaither, 53, of Colerain Township, in the auditorium at Hughes Center, where he is lead security officer. “Walking home from school, we got to talking about him playing the drums. He said, ‘One day, I’m going to be famous.’ ”
Reid talked about his dream a lot, says another childhood friend, Anthony Bowden, 52, of Fairfield.
“There was no question he wanted to be a musician. He and one of my brothers had battles to see who’d be the lead drummer. He always won,” Bowden says. “He could play anything – ballads, rock, hard rock. He was one of those kinds of drummer who could fit in with anybody.”
Reid doesn’t know where he got his drive.
He was raised in Mount Auburn and Madisonville, one of four children of Emma Reid, a seamstress and interior decorator. His father was mostly absent. His first drum lessons were with his uncle, Albert Baldwin.
Using sticks he bought with tips earned working in a barbershop, young Antonio would beat on anything he could find in his mom’s house – pots and pans, furniture, the refrigerator – “Including me, if I stood still long enough,” laughs Emma Reid, his mother.
She took him to Greater New Light Baptist Church in Avondale, where the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth preached and the choir sang spirituals. Spirituals, Reid says, taught him about emotion in music.
“I let him know he should always put God first in his life, and he was a good kid,” Emma Reid says.
MORE THAN JUST MUSIC
Reid idolized James Brown, who was then making history at King Records in Evanston. It’s an oft-told story of how the young boy would stop and listen outside the studio on his way to his karate lesson on Montgomery Road.
“I couldn’t hear anything, but I knew what was going on inside those walls and that was good enough for me,” he says. “I never spoke to him in person, but James Brown called me once, to tell me that he was proud that I was doing a great job.”
Even before 1981, when he founded The Deele with guitarist Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Reid was thinking about who Cincinnati’s great musicians were, and how he could get them into his band, or vice versa.
“It’s the same now. Nothing’s changed in that regard,” says the music mogul. “Where’s that great guitar player, where’s that singer, where’s that songwriter, where’s that dancer, where’s that hot girl? It’s just more channeled, more organized, and I’ve turned my passions into a business.”
Reid and Edmonds went on in 1989 to found Atlanta-based LaFace Records, where their roster included stars such as Toni Braxton, OutKast, TLC, Usher, Paula Abdul, Whitney Houston and Pebbles (whom Reid married and divorced).
Reid and Edmonds, who still has a successful solo career, have remained lifelong friends. They reunited on Edmonds’ latest album.
Reid hasn’t exceeded his dream – “not even close,” he says. Producing movies and television will be next, he says.
“I stay motivated by looking at my competitors, looking at the landscape of music around the world, and wanting to make more impact on more people,” he says.
“I believe that music has cultural impact. I know that it’s not that we’re brain surgeons, and it’s not necessarily true that we are stopping the war in Iraq. But to the extent that music can help one through the day and perhaps motivate you – I’d like to think that music’s very important.”
MORE FROM ANTONIO ‘L.A.’ REID
Talent – “I did really well as a songwriter and producer, but definitely not as a performer. I always knew I was a lousy performer. I thought that I had good taste in music, and that I picked talent well.”
Best advice – Hughes High School music teacher Terry Brown “told me, ‘Slow down, man, play it smoother. You’re playing it too hard. Just slow down and feel the groove. Play it like you’re making love.’ He helped me to understand the flow of music.”
Son Aaron’s “My Super Sweet 16” party on MTV – “I was the guy that said, ‘No, hell no. There’s no way we’re doing this.’ And I fought it and fought it, to the point where I realized I was going to make an enemy for life if I didn’t let him do the show. … He’s studying to be an actor. So for him, it was not necessarily about the party. It was about getting on television and starting his career.”
Job description – “I really spend most of my time coaching people, just to help them make the greatest music they can, and coaching executives to spread the music around the world. That’s what I live for.”
Executive style – “I like to be in the background. My style is to make sure my stars feel like stars. … As a manager, I’m a taskmaster. I’m a bit of a nudge. I absolutely kick and push people and give them tasks they believe are impossible, but when they accomplish them, they feel great about themselves. My whole style is about motivation.”
Harvard man – “I’m honored that I was accepted into the business school. It was a very difficult thing for me, because I didn’t come from a background of education. I came from a background of arts. But it was a necessary tool that has served me really well.”
Scouting for Cincinnati talent – “Nothing would make me happier than to put my arms around a band or an artist from Cincinnati, in any genre. It could be country, anything. I’m open to it.”
Talent spotter – “I look for the excitement factor. I want to get excited and if I’m right, the public will get excited.”
Taking risks – “Every day there is risk involved. When I decide to sign an artist, it’s a huge risk because it’s a huge amount of money involved. I like to think that I’m batting well, but you just really never know.”
Collaborating with “Babyface” on a new album – “I never stopped collaborating with Babyface. (The album) is covers of eight songs that we grew up on and a couple of original songs that he wrote. It’s a very pleasant album. You should listen to it on a Sunday afternoon.”
Can’t cut ties – “When I get involved with an artist, I stay involved with them regardless of which label they may work for. I’m exclusive to Universal Music Group … but I’m still close to OutKast, who just left my office, Usher, Pink, Avril Lavigne, Dido, Carlos Santana, Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston. None of these artists is signed to my label, but they’re all my friends.”
Most important person – “My mother was the most encouraging person in the world to me. She always believed in me, and that was very helpful.”