Massenburg, Kedar 1964(?)–
Kedar Massenburg 1964(?)–
Recording company executive
When Kedar Massenburg assumed the presidency of venerable but struggling Motown Records early in 1999, it was after a meteoric rise through the ranks of the music industry. Just eight years earlier, the young executive had started his own entertainment management business with a meager $1, 700 outlay from his own pocket. Along the way, he had combined a sharp appreciation for new, original sounds with an aggressive repertoire of promotional tricks that recalled R & B music’s glory days in the 1960s and 1970s, when independent promoters would stop at nothing to convince radio programmers to give their records airtime.
In an era when recording companies owned by large conglomerates often lost touch with ordinary fans, Massenburg’s techniques seemed like a breath of fresh air. “Kedar has a keen sense of how to develop an artist-he works from the street up,” former Universal Records president and onetime Massenburg mentor Daniel Glass was quoted as saying in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Best known for spotting the innovative young Dallas-area hip-hop/jazz/soul fusion phenomenon Erykah Badu and developing her career with spectacular success between 1995 and 1997, Massenburg was widely seen as the aging Motown label’s best hope for regeneration in the new millennium.
As he sat in his suite of presidential offices, an elegant midtown Manhattan space once occupied by legendary producer David Geffen, Massenburg could think back to a childhood spent in very different surroundings. Born around 1964, he was raised by a single mother, supported by welfare payments, in the tough Flatbush neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Massenburg was motivated to escape inner-city life. “I put myself through college and law school,” he told the Star-Telegram. “I always had that drive to do better,” he continued.
Even in college, though, Massenburg had his eye on the music business, not always a lucrative career path for dreamers. Involved in artist management, he directed the career of the pioneering rap group Stetsasonic for a time. After college, Massenburg spent several years in well-paying marketing positions, including two years as a district manager for Pepsico (maker of Pepsi Cola), and more than a year with SmithKline Beecham Clinical Labs Pharmaceuticals. But he still had his eye on the entertainment world. He was saving money for law school, having accurately noticed the close relationship between the worlds of popular music and the law. “One of the reasons I wanted to be a lawyer is I realized that everything in this business is controlled by legal documents and contracts,” he recalled in an interview with Black Enterprise.
Massenburg graduated from the law school of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, having
At a Glance…
Born ca. 1964; raised by a single parent in Flatbush neighborhood, Brooklyn, New York. Education: graduated from college; graduated from University of North Carolina Law School, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Career: Recording company executive. District Manager, Pepsico Corp., and sales work at SmithKline Beecham Clinical Labs Pharmaceuticals, 1980s; founded artist-management firm Kedar Entertainment, 1991; after diversifying company into various musical activities, made Kedar Entertainment a recording label, 1995; signed and promoted artist Erykah 8adu, 1996-97; named president of Motown label and senior vice president of parent company Universal Records, 1999.
Addresses: Business— Motown Records, 825 Eighth Ave., 29th floor, New York, NY 10019.
completed a project while he was there on the legal problems involved in developing a home-based business. And Massenburg’s music empire would indeed originate out of his New York home. In 1991, he spent $1, 700 of his personal savings to form Kedar Entertainment, which at first consisted of a desk set, fax machine, copier, and portable phone.
From such humble beginnings, Kedar Entertainment grew with startling speed. By 1994, Massenburg was negotiating artist contracts to the tune of more than $1 million a year. His own salary was in six figures, and he had hired two assistants, one of them working out of a satellite office in Los Angeles. Discussing his success with Black Enterprise, Massenburg himself pointed to his aggressive attitude. “I hear about groups a lot of time by word of mouth-the buzz on the streets,” he said. “Then I go after them, just like a recruiter goes after a ballplayer. I hustle.”
Massenburg diversified his activities into production, music publishing, and publicity, either bringing those activities under his own umbrella or forming relationships with outside companies who could play a part in the integrated vision Massenburg devised for developing the careers of the artists in his stable. As he became capable of shepherding the progress of an artist’s entire career, his influence increased. One of the artists he managed was the smooth soul crooner D’Angelo, an early beneficiary of Massenburg’s energy.
The singer’s debut single, “Brown Sugar,” had done well at radio on Massenburg’s East Coast home turf, but had failed to get crucial West Coast airplay. Working with Massenburg, D’Angelo’s label EMI flew dozens of West Coast radio programmers, and their dates, into New York for a D’Angelo performance, and for upscale dining and lodging accommodations for the duration of the trip. “Was it worth it to spend the money to fly all those programmers in? Absolutely!” Massenburg remarked to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “We saw a substantial increase in radio airplay immediately after the show,” he added.
Kedar Entertainment, without relinquishing any of its former functions, became a recording label in 1995, and one of its first artists signed was Erykah Badu. It was Massenburg’s work on behalf of Badu that really gained him wide notice in the industry. His first move was to pass out 1,000 copies of Badu’s debut single, “On and On,” at the 1996 Soul Train Music Awards. “And man, when I heard it banging out of somebody’s car going down the street that same night, I knew I had something,” he later told the Atlanta Constitution. He also helped set the mood for Badu’s innovative visual presentation by mailing radio stations and music stores a postcard showing a stick of incense, with its rising smoke plume mysteriously spelling out “Badu.” “It created a buzz throughout the industry,” Vibe magazine editor Miles Marshall Lewis was quoted as saying in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Musically, Badu exemplified the fresh approach Massenburg was looking for. While in no way ignoring or minimizing the influence of hip-hop and of other electronics-influenced musical styles, Massenburg was, as he said in an interview quoted on Kedar Entertainment’s world wide web homepage, “committed to signing and grooming the careers of artists who reflect a return to performing, writing, and live instrumentation.” Massenburg even coined a new genre name, “neo-classic soul,” to describe the music that was taking shape under his influence.
As he headed into his first year at the helm of Motown, Massenburg was aiming for a mix of “neo-classic soul” with other sounds. Consulting with label founder Berry Gordy, he had re-signed the legendary Smokey Robinson, a member of Motown’s original roster, to the label after an eight-year absence, and was also pushing more mainstream acts such as the girl group 702. In the fall of 1999, Badu’s long-awaited third album and a new release by R&B star Brian McKnight would be released, and would show the music world what Motown’s dynamic new president could do.
Atlanta Constitution, May 21, 1997, p. D9.
Black Enterprise, November 1994, p. 128.
Business Wire, April 8, 1999, p. 1.
Essence, August 1997, p. 90; November 1998, p. 84.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, September 9, 1999, p. 2.
Star-Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota), January 8, 1996, p. D7.
Variety, March 23, 1998, p. 27.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from http://www.kedar.com/kedarAedarbio.htm
—James M. Manheim
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