Courtesy of United Masters

Steve Stoute Talks New United Masters, NBA Deal, And The Death Of Record Labels

"Our objective is to help artists get much better at turning their streaming revenue into other forms of revenue."

Perpetual trailblazer Steve Stoute is ready to bring independent artists into the new reality of the entertainment industry. Today (Nov. 8), Stoute’s United Masters and the NBA announced a global partnership that will enable independent artists to have a direct connection to the men’s professional basketball league to get their music featured on the NBA’s digital platforms, including Twitch, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat. As part of the multi-year partnership, the distribution company will also offer the opportunity for independent artists and their music to be featured in NBA highlight videos, exposing the NBA’s social community of 1.5 billion to new artists.

“I think the NBA is like the new MTV. The new music videos. That's how I feel about it,” Stoute told VIBE. “Because I find myself watching them over and over and over again. I know what's about to happen, but I still watch over and over again.”
There’s a lot of credence to that proclamation. The NBA has more than twice as many YouTube subscribers, and nearly three times as many Instagram followers, as ESPN. The average Instagram user is on just the Android app for 53 minutes a day, while the average American household spends under 8 hours watching all of TV, which doesn’t leave much time for an MTV that has been hemorrhaging viewers for the better part of this decade.

His United Masters company is built to be a direct competitor to the traditional record label model, providing artists with distribution and reams of analytics to help bring them to their target audience, for a fee, while allowing artists to maintain full ownership of their master recordings; pretty much unheard of in a major label system.

In an extensive interview with VIBE, the music industry legend spoke about arena-sized visions for the NBA partnership, why the idea of record labels is dying, how artists selling just music isn’t enough anymore, and how the new MTV is more than music.


Why is this partnership with the NBA so meaningful?
As a fan of music, the relationship between the NBA and music, it just feels so synonymous to me. When I first got into the advertising business, one of the first commercials I ever did was this spot with Jadakiss and Allen Iverson. Do you remember that?

With the basketball? That's classic.

Yeah, with him rapping to the sounds of the basketball. I've always seen it that way. I’ve always seen the world that way. So, when I decided to build an independent distribution company to really help independent artists, I was like "How can I take what the NBA has -- the fanfare, the global reach of it all -- and connect these independent artists so that they all can be able to get into that level of opportunity?" Wherever you walk around the world and you're watching Kevin Durant go off, Steph Curry on fire, and LeBron dunking the ball. All these things that you see. Putting the soundtrack behind those moments, to me, is what music—specifically rap music with the NBA—does that really well. It's synonymous. They speak to one another really well.

So I wanted to be able to take all these independent artists and give them an opportunity to not only be heard on a global level but to give them visuals that actually allow the audience, when they see, to connect to it. I think the NBA is like the new MTV. The new music videos. That's how I feel about it.

How so?
I find myself watching them over and over and over again. I know what's about to happen, but I still watch over and over again. You go to a game, and you look at all these guys on the sideline. It's everybody from the music business. Or you watch the relationships between the NBA athletes and the musicians. The entire thing feels like one holistic thing where the NBA and the music business is one. Those videos that come out every day, I know if you get the right music behind them—and you're tagging these artists, and it's sending you to a playlist—not only is your music there, you're being tagged and getting recognized, but then all of sudden, they're pushing you to the playlist where that music is located, and you're an independent artist. I think that's the best promotion in the world.

How are those artists selected? Do they opt-in?
The artist submits their music to Then, we listen to it, and go through the selection process, and pick them to be a part of the program. So it's not everybody. There’s a submission process.

Then you find out which video the artist and the music should go to? How is it going to look for artists?
The NBA has 19 billion views each year. There are 19 billion video views of NBA content that comes out each season, and United Masters' artists exclusively have that opportunity. It's a nonstop operation, to be quite frank with you. It's a 24/7 operation of getting the music cut to the films.

United Masters was announced in November 2017 and you already have a partnership with the NBA. How did that come about and how long did it take?
Well, fortunately for me, I've built a long career on working with partners, and over-delivering for partners. So, when I reached out to the NBA and told them I had the idea, it was really about how can we get this done and how can we help all these independent artists get an opportunity to be heard. It took us about three months.

Just so I can get a little more clarity on this. The press notes say artists’ music will be featured on the NBA's digital properties. Is it going to be a situation where the NBA does their highlight packages where there will be music from United Masters' artists in it?
Yes. That's right, and we're going to extend this stuff into the arena as well.


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When will independence become the norm in our culture? Powerful discussion from the first iteration of The Shop.

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So United Masters' artists will be getting played in Madison Square Garden and things like that?
Yeah. Don't tell me you're a Knicks fan. (Laughs)

Yeah, I'm a Knicks fan. Come on, man. Kevin Knox is the future.
By the way, Kevin Knox could be the future, for sure. I don't know what the hell is going on with Porzingis. Is he hurt? Is he not? It's unclear to me.

He's probably just trying to make sure New York doesn't mess him up with his contract.
Like the Kawhi Leonard thing from last year.

Do you have any plans to make a stamp at the All-Star Game with United Masters? Anything brewing right now with this partnership?
(Laughs) Throughout the NBA season, there is going to be a series of events that connect the partnership, for sure. I don't want to be specific, yet, obviously. I think whether it be to the All-Star Game or the playoffs, our job is to help make these artists [and] promote these artists whenever we can and however we can. It's a good time of year, being that the season is picking up, to help get these artists in front of these fans who love the NBA and obviously love music as well.

I've been following United Masters since its inception and I remember a Billboard interview you did in March where you revealed United Masters helped 2 Chainz see a 60% bump in merchandise sales. In the last six to seven months of United Masters being around, have there been any other similar success stories?
When we first announced the company in November [2017] we announced the company and really were focused on talking about our fundraising. We wanted to build something to give some light education around when you should post [and] when you shouldn't post. Looking at your socials and trying to get a gauge of how to maximize your social footprint. We ran some tests, I call them “tests,” with 2 Chainz and Future, specifically around their merch. We sold their merch stores out. It was very important because what I believe our objective is is to help artists get much better at turning their streaming revenue into other forms of revenue.

So—A: get them attention and get them heard. B: give them an opportunity to get more reach and create more revenue. I think it was very important to get cases that show examples of how we did that, to help certain individuals. 2 Chainz is a very good friend of mine. We did it for him. Him and his manager, Tek, were extremely happy with the results...they would have just opened up their merch store and tried to find people to get with them to see who was buying the Gucci Ghost stuff or whatever. We actually put a system around it to help find the people who were streaming music and loved them. We sold more merch for him in two or three years than he had sold previously through his merch store.

In 2018 and beyond, do you feel like record labels are necessary or useful?
I think record companies are really important, and they matter, for certain artists. If you want to build a business and own your rights and own your masters and be able to hand something down to your kids, if that matters to you, you shouldn't sign to a record company. But, if you're looking to stay in the best hotels, fly fancy, and all that other stuff, and that matters to you primarily, if that's the primary thing that matters to you, then you should probably sign to a record company.
T.I. just did an interview last week, and he said it really well about why he decided to go independent versus being with a record company with releasing his music. It just doesn't feel like, outside of the advance, you're getting your true value. I think you're starting to see, and correct me if I'm wrong, more and more artists are celebrating not being in a record deal than I've ever seen before. Young Dolph turning down $22 million or whatever it was. Even down to Iggy Azalea saying she's out of her record deal and how happy she is. To me, that's a brand new thing. I mean, I've been doing this for a long time. Artists are waking up to the fact that they should have more control and not be locked into this agreement that is not necessarily 100 percent in their long-term best interest.

As you said, you've been in the industry for a while. What artist or situation do you wish could have benefited from something like United Masters back in the ‘90s, when you were in the industry as a record executive?
That's a good question. What artist? I probably would say the industry at large, because back then... Let me rewind that. I would say back then United Masters probably wasn't going to be something that would have taken hold in the industry because you still had to make CDs. You still have to ship them to different warehouses. You still had to do all of those types of physical labor issues that require a lot of money, and a lot of manpower, which I think would have been labor intensive. The amount of artists [music] that were being released at that time, there was so much money because people were paying $16.99 [for an album]. Everybody was getting bags, and everybody was like, "Okay, well, why do I want to go through the effort of doing that?” Everybody wasn't looking to get sneaker deals or these type of deals. They were selling their music and making a lot of money.

It's now, today, where with streaming music you could do well if you have an outstanding smash. To make a lot of money from streaming is hard. But to use the influence that you have from streaming to go on tour, or to sell sneakers, or to sell merch, to me, that's the new business. And in order to do that, I think you have to link technology with culture. This is not about just helping the artist get down with the NBA. This is about linking technology and culture together so that you can be able to do what I did for Future. Put some music out, people like your sh*t, people like you, they listen to your songs. But then that's not where the money is going to be. The money is going to be at selling out that merch store. I don't think that was the focus or the emphasis of the industry at the time. You had Sean John, you had Rocawear, and you had a few guys like that. But the industry at large wasn't on it like that.

What analytics did you provide the NBA to get the deal to go through? How long is this deal going to last?
Well, the deal is several years. Yeah, there was a lot of analytics involved. The analytics came from a very simple place: Is there a crossover of NBA fans and music fans, and how can we connect those two together? Once we knew that, it was sort of not just you and I knowing it because we are fans of both hip-hop and the NBA, but actually going through the NBA system, [emphasizing] that this thing is a real symbiotic relationship between these two audiences. That was what we had to prove before we could move forward.


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The business is changing at an alarming rate. Adapt or die.

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Is this NBA deal a test case for United Masters bringing artists to other sporting leagues?
I don't want to show my hand. You don't want me to show my whole hand.

You left the music business for advertising with your ad company Translation. What made you want to get back into music?
I think there's a great opportunity for independent artists right now. I think that independent artists have an opportunity to be heard. I think independent orders are the next great creators of our generation, and if I can put together a platform that gives them the opportunity to make money doing what they love then, to be frank with you, that's what I've been trying to do my entire life. I've always been pushing culture forward. I've always been the first guy to say, “Let's go do this. Let's make a Jay-Z sneaker. Let's work with McDonald's. Let's do our own fragrance. Let's do Carol's Daughter.” I've always been that person. I see all these artists trying to get out there. They realize that they don't need to go to a record company, Instagram is MTV, and Apple and Spotify are the new Tower Records. I'm seeing that. How can I build a bridge to connect those two for them so they don't have to go to a record company anymore?

Speaking of merging technology and culture. These new entities you mentioned, Spotify and Apple, are gaining influence in the music industry. There's been a discussion around if these streaming services are getting big enough, should they become their old record labels? Spotify just made it easier for independent artists to get their music on the platform. Do you see Spotify becoming a record label?
No. I don't. I think that the record label thing is going to go away entirely. I think artists should sign to themselves. It's not about a record label or anything like that. I think every artist should sign to themselves. They should be their own record business themselves. There should be hundreds of thousands. [Like] Chance the Rapper.

Speaking of Chance The Rapper, he says he made $6 million from his "3" hats he sells. Deals like that have put the idea of independence into question. What is your idea of what independent means in 2018?
I think independent means, right now, is owning your future.

In 2017, artists reportedly took home 12% of the $45 billion of revenue the music industry generated, mostly from live performances. With artists making a sliver of the music energy revenue and streaming services becoming more influential on what is successful in music, how have those discussions between United Masters and streaming services been as of late?
Great relationships with streaming services. I think the streaming services realize the same thing I see that more artists could go direct. More artists don't need, you know, record companies to do what they were going to do. The relationship between independent distributors and the Spotify’s, Apple’s, and Tidal’s of the world is amazing.

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Errol Spence Jr. On His Return To The Ring, The Hip-Hop Community's Embrace And More

Having your life flash before your eyes in the blink of a second can shake a person to the core, but on the backend, survivors of that experience often bounce back with a renewed fervor and zest for life. Errol Spence Jr. falls in the latter category, as he's been able to bounce back physically and mentally, from the horrific car accident that could've potentially taken his life in October 2019. Eager to prove his sustained injuries haven't made his claim of being the best pound for pound fighter in the game any less valid, the 30-year-old boxing sensation is set to face fellow welterweight Danny Garcia in a title bout on December 5, 2020, at the AT&T Stadium in his home state, Texas.

A unified champion, having held the IBF title since 2017 and the WBC title since 2019, Spence Jr.—who is currently undefeated, with twenty-six wins on his professional resume—is regarded as one of the most exciting fighters in boxing, with a knockout-to-win ratio of 80.8%. Having garnered comparisons to boxing legend Floyd Mayweather and victories over tough competitors like Kell Brook and Sean Porter, Spence Jr. is highly regarded and battle-tested. However, there have been concerns if he can recover to his previous form, even within his own camp. According to Spence Jr., any doubt was quelled once he got back to what he loves best: letting his intense preparation work its magic in the ring.

"I mean, you have little small doubts when it first happened, things like that," Spence Jr. admits to VIBE via phone. “But I'm very mentally strong, I stay focused. I just got back in the gym and kept working and kept focusing on my skills in boxing. I think my dad and my coach probably had more thoughts of, 'Can I take a punch? Is my reaction time still the same?', and things like that. But once I sparred, it was all basically back to normal. So I just feel like stuff happens for a reason. It happened in my life for a reason and I feel like it refocused me back on the main mission, on the main goal." And that main goal is continuing on his path to boxing supremacy, which could include a road-block in the form of a potential showdown with rival and WBO welterweight champion Terrance Crawford. However, Spence Jr.'s attention is fixated squarely on his upcoming fight, where he'll face Garcia and remind the world of why Texas ain't nothing to play with.

VIBE spoke with Errol Spence Jr. about his return to the ring, earning respect within the hip-hop community, fatherhood, and what fans can expect come Saturday night’s matchup.

"It's the biggest comeback in professional sports." — Derrick James has been amazed with @ErrolSpenceJr's return back to form 😤 #SpenceGarcia #ManDown

— FOX Sports: PBC (@PBConFOX) December 1, 2020

VIBE: It's been over one year since your last title fight, in which you defeated Sean Porter. How does it feel to be getting back into the ring?

Errol Spence Jr.: Man, it feels great, really, indescribable. It's a blessing that I can come back in a little over a year and fight at the top level, fight a top opponent like Danny Garcia, and defend my titles. Especially fighting at home at the AT&T Stadium. I don't think it can get any bigger than that, so it's great. I'm very thankful for the opportunity to be doing this at this type of level coming out of my accident, and it's good. It's definitely a blessing.

Shortly after your last fight, you were involved in a single-vehicle accident in the early hours of October 10, 2019, and hospitalized in the intensive care unit. You sustained facial lacerations, but no broken bones. What impact did that experience have on you?

For me, I just feel like it was an unfortunate accident, but it brought me back down to reality. To take care of stuff that's really important in my life and means something in my life and not take things for granted with life and boxing. For me, it made me feel like it got me back on track and focused, and made me hungry for what I really wanted to accomplish in boxing and in life.

What would you say have been the biggest challenges on your journey back from injury?

I would say my biggest challenge was both mental and physical. There were days where I was hurting physically, but I mentally pushed myself or did something to better myself every day. Whether it was training or stretching or doing some type of work that was positive in my life. Whether it was staying focused and rededicated to the work and not slack off. When I had a bad week or bad day, I didn't let it put me down. I went harder the next day, so I would say mentally and physically.

Who are your biggest influences as a boxer and why?

I take stuff from everybody. A lot of people watch boxers just to watch the fighting, but I'm watching footwork. I'm watching how they react to punches, which way they slip, how they block, their counterpunching, everything. I grew up watching guys like Terry Norris, Lennox Lewis, Floyd Mayweather, Roy Jones, and Vernon Forrest. All of these great fighters that as you grow up, you're watching their skillset and you know how they throw their punches and how they react to punches. For me, it was a wide variety of different fighters I was watching.

In addition to surviving the accident, another moment that's impacted your life is the birth of your son. How has that changed your outlook on life and how you approach your craft as a boxer? 

I don't think it changes my life as a boxer and how I approach boxing. But it gave me a different perspective 'cause if I didn't survive the accident or something drastic happened, he would've never have been born or I probably never would've had him. I feel like he's a new blessing in my life, definitely a breath of fresh air. I always wanted a son, too. I've got two daughters and this is my first son. It was definitely a blessing to have a III 'cause my dad's name's Errol, too. It's really a blessing to have somebody else who's gonna look up to me and try to do things I do. It's all about setting the example and setting the table up right for him so he can eat, too, when it's his time.

A Texan at heart, you recently bought a sixty-acre ranch in Dallas and even learned how to ride horses. How would you say the culture of Texas impacted you and helped form who you are as a fighter and a person?

I think the culture of Texas impacted me a lot just because of being outside. It's wide open in Texas, everybody's outside. Owning the land basically gives me something to do with the cattle and the horses and all different types of things. I think it's a peace of mind to ride horses that I never had before. I've never been on a horse and I've never even petted a horse prior to me buying land. I feel like it's a positive in my life and it's something that I can pass down to my daughters and son, or they can grow up on a ranch and ride horses. I'm putting their mind into other activities rather than doing the other stuff that's not gonna benefit them.

A large segment of the hip-hop community are boxing fans, with many artists and listeners listing you as one of, if not, their favorite fighter in the game right now. How has it felt to be embraced by the hip-hop community and get that street cred and tag of approval?

I mean, it feels great. Rap culture is hip-hop culture. Period. That's what kids like me grew up on, watching BET and 106th & Park, and all the rappers' videos as a kid. That's basically who we idolized when we saw them get cars and jewelry and girls and money and things like that. Naturally, that's who we were drawn to. So that means a lot to see them embrace me and support me.

What are some songs or artists you usually listen to that get you hyped up while training or before a fight?

Artist-wise, I listen to Lil Baby. I listen to Yella Beezy. Jay-Z, Nas, those type of people when I'm in chill mode. Yo Gotti, Moneybagg Yo. Yeah, that's about it.

You're currently signed with Premier Boxing Champions, one of the best boxing teams in the game. How has it been working with PBC?

It's been great. That's really all I know so it's been great. I haven't had any complaints, never had any issues, everything's been going well. Everything's been going great, it's been a smooth ride.

Your fight with Sean Porter was billed as one of the best fights of 2019. With him being such a respected fighter, what did you learn or take away from that particular matchup that you'll be using moving forward?

Sean Porter, he's a different fighter. He's basically gonna go out and give his all and brawl and fight. For me, I didn't really learn anything going forward. Everybody just realized that if I have to fight, I can fight. I think I really showed that I can stand there and beat somebody at their own game and really buckle down and be really gritty with opponents if I really have to. I think that's the main thing I learned: that I can fight in the trenches.

Would you say that's been your toughest fight thus far? If not, who would you say presented the biggest challenge thus far and why?

I'd say my toughest matchups so far was...well, I think Sean Porter wasn't my toughest matchup 'cause I feel like it wasn't as mentally tough as Kell Brook. Taking a ten-month layoff and basically fighting someone in their hometown. Going overseas and having to train two weeks before the fight and all the different types of things you have to go through. Training somewhere different, different food and things like that. I would say Kell Brook. The mental preparation was very hard, especially fighting in front of 30,000 of his hometown crowd. That was mentally tough in itself.

On December 5, you'll be fighting Danny García, one of the more imposing boxers in the welterweight division. What do you feel sets Garcia apart from the other boxers you've faced?

I feel like Danny Garcia has great timing. He's very tough, packs a great punch, and he's a guy that's gonna fight. He has a great chin and he'll fight if he has to.

The fight will be taking place at the AT&T Stadium in Dallas. How does it feel to make your return in front of your hometown fans, where it all started?

For me, it feels great. It's a blessing just to fight in my hometown, in front of family and friends. I'm able to get tickets to a lot of family and friends who aren't able to travel to L.A. and New York to come to watch me fight. Just to get that hometown love. They're the people that supported me since day one since I was an amateur. And I feel like it's just a blessing to be able to do that and draw that many fans to really come to support me.

What can fans expect from you once you step in that ring on December 5?

They can expect from me what they get from every fight: an action-packed, one-sided beating. I want everyone tuned in on FOX Sports and Pay-Per-View. It's gonna be exciting. I've never been in a boring fight, Danny Garcia's never been in a boring fight, so [they'll see] an action-packed, electrifying fight.

One name you're constantly mentioned with is Terence Crawford, who many feel is the best pound for pound fighter in the game. What are your thoughts on Crawford as a boxer and are you looking forward to stepping in the ring with him one day to prove you're the undisputed champion of the welterweight division?

Right now, I ain't got no thoughts on Terence Crawford. I feel like l gotta get past Danny Garcia for that fight to even happen. So if I don't focus 100% on Danny Garcia, he's a real spoiler and he spoils the apple cart. My 100% focus is on Danny Garcia right now.

People often speak about the politics of boxing and how it prevents certain fights that the fans are clamoring for. What would be your message to the fans about how the business side of boxing matches up with the entertainment aspect?

I'd tell them to be patient. The fights worth happening are definitely gonna happen, especially if the two fighters want it. But at the end of the day, there's a business side of entertainment. You've got managers, promoters. You've got TV networks involved, things like that, and everybody wants to get paid. It's like you can have a great fighter. If he's not having any draws on TV and nobody likes to watch him and he's boring, he's gonna get shut out. Just like guys like [Guillermo] Rigondeaux. He's a great fighter, but nobody wanted to fight him. He wasn't a crowd-pleaser, so he basically got shut out. You gotta be patient, at the end of the day. Yes, we fight. We take punches and things like that, but we also wanna get paid for what we do. And we wanna get paid righteously just like the manager is gonna get paid righteously and the TV people are gonna get paid righteously, too. We wanna get a fair shake and get paid the same way.

What's next for Errol Spence Jr.?

I just wanna tell everybody that after this fight, I'm gonna go back to the gym and keep working and stay focused. I want everybody to go order the merch.—get your fight merch there. And basically, for me, just like every fight, stay focused, stay dedicated, and stay ready for a call.

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Mark Barboy

Interview: Suave House Founder Tony Draper Links With Celebs Like 2 Chainz, G Herbo and Nick Cannon To Feed Their Cities

The harrowing COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately disrupted Black communities across the United States with cities like Chicago being among the hardest hit. Throughout the year, artists from the city have stepped up and held socially distanced food drives and PPE donations across the city’s South and West sides. With his deep ties to Chicago since the early 90s, Suave House Records founder/entrepreneur Tony Draper, alongside NBA veteran Ricky Davis, made the Chi’ their next stop as part of the nationwide Feed Your City Challenge this past October 17th at the Pullman Park Community Center.

The chilly, yet bright and sunny Saturday saw hundreds of people drive through the parking lot of the complex, receiving groceries from the many volunteers, gathered from across the city. Masked up with PPE in the trenches with the civilians were local natives and celebrity supporters like Chitown’s Grammy winning producer/music executive No ID, rap star G-Herbo, new rapper Queen Key, NBA star Jabari Parker to media/music entertainer Nick Cannon. Draper and Davis were handing off items and loading boxes of farm-fresh produce and meats in the trunk of cars, and offloading the 95,000 pounds of food to feed 7,000 residents. While they were not in attendance, Common with Jhene Aiko and Social Justice Collective donated funds for the free groceries.

“You can’t lead the people until you feed the people. We’re out here in the community in a real way. People always talk about what’s going on in Chicago and these are the things going on in Chicago. Positive things for the community during a time like this. People coming together and it’s a wonderful event,” said Cannon.

For Draper, bringing the Feed Your City Challenge to Chicago and being able to pull it off successfully was crucial because October 17th, marks the 24th anniversary of the death of one of Chi’s most influential DJs, Rapmaster Pinkhouse, who passed away in 1996. “It feels like myself and my partner [Ricky] Davis coming to Chicago and partnering with Common, No ID, Jhene Aiko, Nick Cannon, G-Herbo, Jay Allen, [local FM radio] Power 92 and Pat Edwards was a sign from God that it’s meant to happen on this day. Even though Pinkhouse is gone, he’s still influencing the south side of Chicago and he’s still sending us blessings. We had to pull it off, we had to,” Draper said with conviction. 

Meanwhile, Power 92.3’s DJ Pharris, DJ Nehpets, DJ Commando, DJ Amaris and Hot Rod were on the 1s and 2s while Parker, Hot Rod, G-Herbo, and community activists Joey G and Nico Naismith played basketball with the kids. A nonprofit Hoop Bus was set up with a small hoop with Black Lives Matter symbols and the names of victims who were killed by police officers. 

G-Herbo, who has been volunteering his time to the kids of Chicago throughout 2020 says that events like this are important to build and strengthen Black unity across the city. “It’s beyond just being able to feed and provide, it’s allowing people to feel unity in the city. This is the city coming together and a lot of important and powerful people coming from the city, all walks of life coming together for a positive reason and that’s what it’s all about.” When asked if this event defied the stigma of Chicagoans not being unified, Herbo exclaimed, “Absolutely! We unified right now and it’s only gon’ get better, so we’re just trying to lead by example and make this normal. This is not just an event, this gotta be the normal for guys like myself and for the city.”

And the people who showed up to receive their free groceries were more than appreciative. Takara, a mother from the Southside of Chicago says that while she found out about the food drive at the last minute,“It’s a lot of food out here, a lot of good people out here and it’s something that we need. Events like this are very necessary and it’s filling the need for families who can’t feed their children during these times. I wish I could have volunteered and done something more, but we need this.”

In a one-on-one with VIBE, the legendary Tony Draper talks about his connections to Chicago, the importance and impact of the Feed Your City Challenge, the role celebrities play in activism, and more. 

VIBE: Earlier you shared that Oct. 17th was also the day that Rapmaster Pinkhouse passed away. For the younger readers who might not know who Rapmaster Pinkhouse is, could you share who he was and why he was so important to Chicago?

Draper: For young people that don't understand how music was heard back then, there was no social media [in the early 90s], there was no Instagram, so you had to get your record to the hottest person in the city. That person had to make a decision about whether it was good or not. And if that person touched your record in Chicago, that person would spread, it was automatic. That’s what happened to a young Tony Draper with 8Ball & MJG’s first albums. He put his hands around it and he exposed it to the Chicago market. Every time I think about Chicago, I always think about Pinkhouse. Pinkhouse was the main reason why I even came to Chicago.

Talk about that. What was Chicago like for you when you first came here?

Coming to Chicago was a very interesting moment for me because when I came, I had my hat cocked a certain type of way and I didn’t know the rules and regulations. And he told me, “Tony, man you gotta keep that hat straight (laughs). And I kept it straight ever since. So, for me, doing my journey as a young Black man from the inner city, raised by a single parent, establishing Suave House at 16 years old, seeing what I went through to establish [the company], and make it a force to be reckoned with. That was an accomplishment, but also I wanted to touch people I knew understood the music and understood where I was coming from and the importance of a young Black man that was a true, independent CEO and giving me the avenue to get my music heard. I’m from Memphis, raised in Houston, but Chicago is Suave House’s biggest market to this date. They supported everything Suave House did and I wanted to bless them [with the Feed Your City Challenge], the same way they blessed me.

With the conversation within the music business revolving around Black Lives Matter and supporting Black communities, what do you think it’ll take to get many of these CEO and executives from the major labels to support these communities like what you and many of the artists have been doing across the country?

I think they have to be involved with people they’re not comfortable with. Stop giving money to these organizations you think is giving the money to Black people, because they’re not. Nobody is holding these organizations accountable. Do business with somebody that has their finger on the pulse. A person that you know is in the music business that has been very successful in the business. Like right now, the Feed Your City Challenge, we’re in our ninth city. We’ve had eight of the top music artists host these cities without funding from the parent companies. [The artists] are giving the money themselves. Jhene Aiko gave money herself. Nick Cannon, himself. Rick Ross, 2 Chainz…Pee from Quality Control. 

Pee was on vacation in Mexico and he took a private jet back to Atlanta just to attend Feed Your City in Atlanta. He didn’t have to do that, but he did because he cares about where he’s from. He cares about the area. He wants to take [talent] from the area, but he also wants to give back to that community. See, white people want to come and exploit your community, but don’t want to build a library over there, never build a basketball court, never build anything. When an artist is dead, they say ahhh aahh ummm. If you wanted to demonstrate good character, you would have said, ‘I made a lot of money off that artist. Let me do something for that community as a token of appreciation for birthing that particular artist.’

I don’t think we’ve ever seen that before.

And you’ll never see it unless I do it and I am going to do it. That’s why I’m in Chicago. I’m going to every city that has blessed me and fed my family because every time I feed myself, I feed my family, my loved ones, it comes from my fans. My fans gave me the opportunity by buying my records. I had a dream, I had a drive, but without the opportunity, you might not have heard of Tony Draper. So, I’m always appreciative of people that have helped me, that’s why I want to help them. I’m in the best place I could ever be in my life. I’m 49 years old, I’m successful, I’m good. Bro, you want to know what makes me happy? Giving to somebody else. There’s another star out there that’s hoping and praying that they could get an opportunity and if I could give them that opportunity, I’ll give it to them. I don’t relish in the attention; I relish in the accomplishment. Let me help somebody. And if I help them and they become successful, they don’t owe me a quarter. I won’t sign them to a management deal or nothing. I just want you to acknowledge it and pass it on. See, we got to learn how to pass it on.

With the timing of this event brought on by the pandemic, how do you feel about it all?

I think it was God’s mission. With COVID that’s really unfortunate, a lot of people lost their lives during this pandemic. A lot of people have lost their jobs, their homes, their properties. My heart goes out to them. But if me and Ricky Davis can put a smile on a mother’s face, a father’s face and feed their children, that’s all I need. I remember me and my mother going to churches and food banks, walking with free government cheese, powdered eggs and we was happy. We were so happy, smiling and grateful. I think without that, I don’t think we would have made it to the following week. So, I’m always thankful for everything God blessed me with. I don’t think I’m special. I think that I had a plan and I stuck to my plan and made it happen.

Suave House has had a lot of artists who have always been outspoken about social and political issues, [similar to like an] Ice Cube recently. Considering that, and what you’re doing with these artists for the Feed Your City Challenge, do you think that the role of the celebrity today is to get in front of these issues or to fall back and support the people who're already doing the work?

I think it’s a choice. For me, I’m not a city official, I’m not a politician. I’m more comfortable with doing and getting my hands dirty on the ground. If I was in Chicago building houses for people, I would actually be there. I wouldn’t [just] send no money or send a crew there. I would be there. That’s how I feel blessed. I feel blessed by actually talking to the people and them seeing me out there distributing groceries. I feel good when a person drives up in their car and they pop their trunk and say ‘Draper?! You putting groceries in my car?!’ And they may be happy about ‘Space Age Pimpin’’ or ‘I’m So Tired of Ballin’’ or whatever, but just the mere fact that they were happy about me putting groceries in their car meant more to me than anything else. I think it’s a choice you make as an individual.

For a lot of people, some celebrities end up causing harm because their celebrity and actions might overshadow the actual issue.

You know what though? Without you being a celebrity, you might not be heard. So why not use that platform to be heard? I think LeBron James is phenomenal. I think Ice Cube is phenomenal. You don’t have to agree with him, but you have to respect him for speaking his mind and trying to get something for Black people. Nobody else did it! Nobody else took the initiative to write a Black America contract and present it to both [Biden and Trump] camps. So, I think that was a phenomenal move, whether I agree with it or not, it was still a phenomenal move. We got to stop with all this goddamn talking and do some action.

Draper and Davis’s Feed Your City Challenge will be arriving in Compton, California as their next stop on November 21.

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Interview: T.I. Talks Activism, Verzuz Battle, And His Desire To Produce A Biopic On His Life Before Fame

Although Tip "T.I." Harris has earned some very respectable stripes as an emcee for his successful rap career, the self-proclaimed “King of the South” moniker really began to take true form once he stepped into his community activism calling. He’s acted in blockbuster films opposite Denzel Washington, Paul Rudd and Kevin Hart, but his willingness to speak truth to power has shown an unwavering commitment to being on the good side of history, as opposed to choosing silence to secure a spot on the good side of Hollywood.

During this recent conversation, Tip talks about his upcoming Verzuz battle with Jeezy, politics, the Trap Music Museum, and his desire to make his TV/film directorial debut.

Be sure to check out his newest album, L.I.B.R.A available on all streaming platforms.

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