Music to many ears Scene: Ravens wide receiver Michael Jackson hopes that he and his Big Play Entertainment company can help carry the Baltimore music scene into the big time.


December 25, 1997|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's fledgling music industry has had limited success. The few record companies based here have earned their 15 seconds of fame with mostly one-hit-wonders -- hardly enough to put the area on the map.

But since Ravens wide receiver Michael Jackson based his Big Play Entertainment company on Biddle Street in August, he's taken slow, methodical steps to give the area a hefty chunk of the billion-dollar music industry.

The young company is moving quickly in an attempt to make Baltimore a desirable entertainment haven. But some of the smaller record companies aren't sure if Big Play will be a savior of the developing industry here or a Goliath that will crush them.

As the parent company for Jackson's recording studio and Big Play Records, an independent record label, Big Play Entertainment: Has acquired Sports and Entertainment International, an event planning and sports management company.

Is working to release two albums next spring recorded by a new hip-hop, male-female duo and a nationally known rhythm-and-blues group.

Is negotiating with another well-known R&B duo to sign with the company.

"We are certainly making moves to legitimize entertainment in this area," Jackson said. "Baltimore and Washington is a huge untapped market."

Jackson is making these moves from a 53,000-square-foot, nondescript warehouse in a troubled East Baltimore neighborhood where he runs the operation with the help of a half-dozen employees, all from Baltimore.

No other local company has tried what he's doing, Jackson said, because of the fear of failure. "Entertainment is a hit-or-miss business," he said.

A recent misstep pitted Jackson against one of Baltimore's young start-ups.

Big Play Production began promoting its Cleveland-based hip-hop group Raw Elements while a Reisterstown-based independent record company already had the name trademarked.

Raw Elements is a five-man group of rappers that Joe Davidge, founder of OverKast Records, has been developing since 1995, a year after he created his local company.

After negotiating through their attorneys, Jackson bought the right to use the name from Davidge for an undisclosed sum last month.

"In the music business, sometimes you have to make a little business deal to make the moves that are best for the company," said Anthony D. Hammond, Big Play's vice president.

Davidge said he saw the incident as disrespectful to Baltimore's home-grown talent. The music scene here may be unestablished, but it's thriving.

"I'm very offended that [Big Play] could stroll into Baltimore and try to take over the industry while there are people here doing it already," said Davidge, 26. "The whole Big Play organization think I'm just a kid from Baltimore and I don't have anything to offer the industry."

Davidge has since renamed his hip-hop group Starving Artists, and is recording its first album in New York with Shane "The Doctor" Faber, a well-known producer who has worked with such hip-hop stars as Queen Latifah and De La Soul. The 13-song album is to be released in March, Davidge said.

It's a daunting feeling when a well-financed venture started by a high-profile entrepreneur comes onto the scene, but it may be worth it if it brings the spotlight to Baltimore, local record company executives said.

"Baltimore is just ignored. People might take us more seriously with Michael Jackson here," said Steve Janis, who signs artists and produces their music for CLR Records. "Of course, Jackson comes in with more resources but that's the way it is. Competition can be healthy."

CLR Records, based in Fells Point, has had Baltimore's most recent success with the signing of Washington rapper DJ Kool, who has been at the top of the rap charts for 65 weeks.

Ernesto Phillips, chief executive and president of Longevity Records in Columbia, said Jackson's company may be able to connect Baltimore to the national music scene.

"What he is doing is what I've tried to do for a very long time," said Phillips. "But it's difficult with a little company."

Jackson said he's not competing with the smaller companies; he's just trying to develop his own.

"The difference between what I'm trying to do and what others are trying to do is I'm putting my thoughts into action," he said. "The so-called music scene here in Baltimore is all verbal, no action.

"There are a lot of people with the right idea, but it's application that counts," Jackson said.

He points to his company's diverse ventures, especially the deal to bring Sports and Entertainment International to Baltimore.

SEI has begun lining up possible entertainment events for the city, including a Reggae Sunsplash concert, the Black College All-Star basketball games, and celebrity golf tournaments.

J. Wayman Henry, vice president of SEI's international division, who brought the company's attention to Jackson, said he sees the partnership between SEI and Big Play Entertainment as a conduit for "major change in the scene here in Baltimore."

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