MCA has transformed sounds of black youth culture into America's pop music

July 04, 1993|By Peter Watrous | Peter Watrous,New York Times News Service

With the release of Bell Biv DeVoe's "Hootie Mack" late last month, there's a good chance MCA Records, specifically its black-music division, will have another hit. The company has shipped 500,000 copies of the album, betting that young record buyers around the country will have fond memories of the group's 1990 debut, "Poison."

In that album, which helped establish new jack swing as mainstream pop, the group mixed soul music's vocal prowess and rap's harder beats. "Poison" sold more than 3 million copies, a number that would be unreachable without the help of white fans. It was, in the words that make every record company executive's knees weak with excitement, a crossover hit.

Like the legendary Motown several decades before, MCA has managed to transform its music -- born of black youth culture -- into America's popular music. Its roster defines the breadth of its territory, from new jack swing stars like Bobby Brown and Mary J. Blige and singing groups like Bell Biv DeVoe and Jodeci, to crooners like Chante Moore.

As did Motown, MCA produces music that appeals to young people, period. Where Motown stayed away from hard Southern soul, MCA has largely kept away from rap, instead concentrating on music that incorporates rap's street feel and sound yet uses ** singers to wax romantic. But MCA is not so much defined by a sound as by its ability to market youth culture.

The strategy has worked spectacularly well: The Los Angeles-based label has ranked No. 1 on Billboard's annual listings of black-music sales seven of the last eight years. And this ranking clearly means money. Black music has increased its market share from 11.7 percent in 1988 to 16.7 percent in 1992, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, the industry trade group.

Translating those figures into dollars shows that the value of the black-music market has roughly doubled in five years, from $731 million to $1.5 billion. And though a few other labels -- Atlantic, Motown, Arista -- can claim many black hits, MCA predominates. If black music has exploded, then MCA, which refuses to discuss its earnings, has undoubtedly reaped a good portion of the profits.

'The new Motown'

"MCA is the new Motown, there's no question about that," says Ed Eckstine, president of Mercury Records and one of the few upper-level black executives in the record industry. "They've really managed to work with the demands of the marketplace, and those demands are for black music."

While MCA's role in propagating -- and exploiting -- a blacker shade of youth culture has been important, it has also done something else, perhaps equally significant. In an industry whose business side is notoriously closed to blacks, MCA, which will not discuss its hiring policy for minorities and women, is considered by many within the industry to have given black executives real power. The label's rise to prominence has been engineered by black employees as well as outside production and record companies run by blacks that are tied to MCA by contract.

Black executives and producers have been given authority to a degree never seen before in the record business. At least six black-run labels or production companies exist within MCA's black-music department, roughly twice as many as in the label's other divisions. In many ways, MCA has defined the way black executives are gaining positions of clout in the industry.

This is not to say that MCA is a land of unlimited opportunity. For one thing, the largesse extends only so far, with some company insiders suggesting that power sharing has only been cosmetic; blacks still work primarily on black music. As usual, it's difficult to quantify exactly what artists are getting from deals, and black managers have traditionally been as willing to take advantage of black artists as have white managers. And to the extent that MCA has stage-managed the sound of popular black music, it has been done at the expense of the artists -- whose music, sculpted by producers, often sounds generic.

For Jheryl Busby, one of the first black vice presidents at MCA and the architect of its rise to prominence in black music, the emergence of black executives in the music industry ultimately means access to power outside music. Mr. Busby, 44, is a highly articulate insider, at ease with the power.

"Now that Wall Street has recognized the entertainment industry, there's a real opportunity for black executives to take our places as visionaries," says Mr. Busby, who is now president of one of MCA's main competitors, Motown.

"Look, Black Entertainment Television is traded on Wall Street. I believe that MCA and other labels will become multicultural, multimedia entertainment companies. Ethnic programming is part of the mainstream, and as it blossoms, we'll see the growth of our people throughout the entertainment food chain."

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