When you think of the term “Black Music,” names of mega-watt music superstars likeAretha Franklin, James Brown, Diddy and Beyonce may come to mind. And while those bold-faced names should be well associated with any celebration of black music, there are an array of behind-the-scenes movers and shakers who keep the industry alive.
From ‘Soul Train’ creator Don Cornelius, black radio maven Cathy Hughes and the top ranking black women in the record business, Motown Records’ own Sylvia Rhone, to hip-hop super-producer Swizz Beatz, media relations expert Gwendolyn Quinn, and the man who programs all of the music on BET, Stephen Hill, there are a wealth of talented executives in radio, management, production, public relations and at record labels. It’s like the old saying goes: there’s no show without the business.
Take a look at 40 people who’ve contributed greatly to the industry of black music.
When you look up the term “hip-hop” in the dictionary, a photo of Russell Simmons should accompany the art form’s definition. As the co-founder of Def Jam Records, the former artists’ manager made history with the most storied rap record label whose stable of talent included the biggest and the best, including Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Method Man, Redman, Foxy Brown and countless others. Simmons’ innovative and entrepreneurial spirit took hip-hop beyond the realms of making records into the fashion, television, film and finance arenas. The Queens, NY native even brought the brand to Broadway and garnered raves. Nowadays, he’s using the power of hip-hop in politics with the Hip-Hop Action Network.
Hailing from Hickory, Mississippi, Bob Johnson (born Robert L. Johnson is a force to be reckon with in the entertainment and sports world. The founder and former Black Entertainment Television CEO banked a cool $1billion once he sold the company to media giant Viacom in 2000, making him the first African-American billionaire. Since stepping down as BET chairman in 2005, Johnson is currently the chairman of RLJ Development and part-owner of the Charlotte Bobcats NBA team alongside Michael Jordan and rapper Nelly.
Ashford & Simpson
The New York City-based duo made history as a songwriting duo behind songs for Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, and many others. Nikolas Ashford and his wife Valerie Simpson also recorded hits of their own, including ‘Solid,’ ‘Count Your Blessings’ and ‘Is It Still Good To Ya.’ Their publishing catalog is worth gold nowadays and they keep the music alive every week as the proprietors of their own New York City nightclub, The Sugar Bar.
When record companies need to make an impact at black radio, the one man to call is Tony Gray, a world-class radio programming expert based out of Chicago. Hailing from a small town near St. Louis, Gray started out as an intern at St. Louis’ KSLQ and worked his way up to working his magic at New York City’s WRKS, Philadelphia’s WUSL and Detroit’s WDRQ — all stations that went to #1 during his tenure as programming executive. Via his Gray Communications shingle, the dapper mover and shaker provides market monitoring, talent critiques, media analysis and programming evaluation.
As the president of Motown Records, the former radio promotions expert oversees the careers of Lil’ Wayne, India.Arie, Marques Houston, Ja Rule and music legend Stevie Wonder. Before taking on her current post, the Wharton School of Business graduate made history as the highest ranking black woman in the record business, as chief of The Elektra Entertainment Group, where she molded the careers of EnVogue, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, Gerald Levert, Keith Sweat and Busta Rhymes.
Crafting tracks for the likes of Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and Jay-Z is a long way from being the resident track master at the edgy rap label, Ruff Ryders, in the 1990s. Legally known as Kasseem Dean, the Bronx, NY native is not only a sought-after, award-winning producer, he’s also tried his hand at rapping via his Full Surface imprint.
With his groundbreaking variety show, ‘Soul Train,’ the Chicago native will go down in history for having produced the longest running show of its kind in the history of television. Images of beautiful black people enjoying the sounds of soul is what the visionary was able to put out to the masses way before booty-shaking music videos became commonplace on black entertainment networks.
Considered one of the most influential executives in the music industry, Stephen Hill has been President of Music Programming & Specials for BET Networks since November 2008. His responsibilities include managing and directing the creation, development and production of all music programming and specials including ‘106 & Park,’ ‘The BET Honors,’ ‘Spring Bling,’ ‘Rip The Runway,’ ‘The BET Awards’ and ‘The BET Hip-Hop Awards.’Born in Southeast Washington, D.C., Hill got his start in college radio– then going on to transform Boston’s WILD-AM. He also executive produced the nationally-syndicated ‘Tom Joyner Morning Show.’
As a member of the seminal gangsta rap group N.W.A. , Dr. Dre (along with Ice Cube and the late Eazy-E) helped put west coast hip-hop on the map. From those wild times, the Compton, CA native (born Andre Romelle Young) morphed into his own brand when he released the best-selling album, ‘The Chronic,’ in 1992. Known as one of the co-founders of Deathrow Records, Dr. Dre crafted hits for Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur before launching his own Aftermath Entertainment. Though he’s not rapping as much as he used to, he’s still making hits for artists such as Eminem, Eve, Mary J. Blige, Gwen Stefani, Nas, Busta Rhymes and 50 Cent.
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