Behind The Steel Curtain
VIBE kicks off Comedy Week with the multitasking funnyman Nick Cannon, who shares how he balances business deals, music, television, comedy and a (very) active sex life with his better half Mariah
Words: Gregory Johnson
After two critically-acclaimed Showtime comedy specials, Mr. Showbiz (2011) and last November’s F#ck Nick Cannon, it’s clear that Nick Cannon can both make jokes and take a few as well; but take a close look at his work ethic, ambition and longevity, his climb from a tough, gang-infested neighborhood into the spotlight of mainstream success, his legendary courting of and marriage to global superstar Mariah Carey and his ever expanding business empire--the man is definitely no laughing matter.
Still, Nick strives to keep close to his working-class roots and stay San Diego classy even as he navigates Hollywood hype. He has his mentors—everyone from Viacom President and CEO Phillipe Dauman, who he breaks bread with monthly, to hall-of-famer emcees like Slick Rick, with whom he might roll to a comedy show just to scout talent and keep up with his comedic competition. (“Talking about how much jewelry and diamonds I’ve got, or how many girls, or doing fun storytelling stuff, that’s always been my vibe,” says Nick of Rick, his favorite rapper.)
A family-friendly actor and comedian, a family man, a former miscreant who decided to stop dodging police and gang violence and focus on conquering the world, a wildly successful businessman—it’s not easy to pigeonhole Nick Cannon, and he’d like to keep it that way.
VIBE: You’ve got Wild 'N Out and The TeenNick HALO Awards, the Incredible Crew situation with Cartoon Network, America’s Got Talent with NBC, and you’re relaunching Soul Train with them as well as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous with Style Network. You’re doing your business like Wu-Tang, all over the place!
Nick Cannon: Just being someone who watched how people get themselves tied up for a small check, I was like “I’ve got money, so unless you can afford my exclusivity, I’m gonna work with everyone.” I’d rather be free and not take a check, or take a smaller fee and operate on many different levels. Im not out there searching for a check. I’m trying to be one that can provide checks.
I always give myself an out. If you have that much demand, you can walk in those rooms and negotiate from a place of power. As long as you’re savvy, dedicating the amount of time and effort you need to provide, it doesn’t have to be a competition. I cross a lot of different demographics. If I’m doing children’s entertainment as opposed to more urban content….it’s beneficial all the way around, they can feed from all those different audiences.
So one of your first opportunities was as a Soul Train dancer?
The first time I was ever on nationwide television, I was dancing on Soul Train at 15, 16 years old. I used to drive up from San Diego, just trying to get into the game, so I’d be standing outside of Paramount Studios, trying to get chosen. You’re supposed to be 21 in the first place, but you know I hustled my way in. I had the first opportunity to meet Don Cornelius. Over the years as I became more successful, I performed on Soul Train, hosted the Soul Train Awards, licensed some footage and the brand for projects, and created a relationship. At one point [Cornelius] asked me if I wanted to host the show and bring it back. At the time I was in the middle of a film, and the timing just wasn’t right. To be able to fulfill that request, it’s full circle. I get the opportunity to make him proud.
You’re a recording artist who has his own roster of recording artists. Does having been on both sides help you develop their careers?
It’s interesting; I helped Nickelodeon start Nick Records; we took it to Jive [Records]. As the only artist on their record label, that gave me a way to see it as an artist and an executive. From there, having been in all the major systems—really I’m an independent label, but a full-fledged label. I have so much access to marketing tools. I’ve had executive jobs at Def Jam, I've learned from Doug Morris, L.A. Reid, Jimmy Iovine. Where the music game is now, there’s this 360 mentality where the labels are signing everybody up, taking all of their money, but not giving them a 360 opportunity. You come to Ncredible, you get to be involved with music, film and television, consumer products, touring, and then we’re not gonna stick you up like a major label would.
Lots of folks start T-shirt lines or liquor brands, but you’ve got different consumer products going—the NCredible headphones and tablets, the necktie line with Macy’s...
Just to produce consumer products is a dream come true. Physical, actual product, I handle it the same way that I produce content. It started off with investing my money in a couple of clothing lines, then I had a store on Melrose [Avenue in Los Angeles]. got involved with retailers [and saw] how lucrative it can be. Since 2011, we’ve sold over $45 million of headphones and the NCredible brand has moved on to tablets, next thing is mobile and our own network in a user-generated format. It all gets back, full-circle, to the content.
Why neckties and why Macy’s?
I guess I’m known as a connoisseur of fashion—my ties, my socks, my shoes. They were like “you should do a clothing line.” I’ve owned clothing lines. I knew it was something I didn’t want to just jump in to, I gotta start in one place and let it organically grow. A lot of people don’t know that Ralph Lauren started in neckties, and from there he built his business. When people see me host on America’s Got Talent dressed fly, they may not be able to get the $5,000 suit but they can definitely cop the $50 tie. Eventually it will be other items and suiting, but I don’t wanna be perceived as a celebrity clothing line. I want this to be a quality brand that’s been around a long time and actually stands for something, like a Ralph Lauren or Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger.
Coming from a tough neighborhood like Southeast San Diego, you could have modeled yourself after edgier guys like Eddie Murphy or Robin Harris. But you initially came out polished and family-friendly…