“Artists need to start doing something for themselves first. Make tapes or CDs and sell a few of them.”
Mickey Bentson owns and runs rap-orientated Pay Up Management with Elis Pacheco and Ice-T. He was one of the founding members of the Zulu Nation, arguably the most important catalyst for hiphop. He has previously managed Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Everlast, Body Count, and Big Punisher, and he now manages Ice-T and Fat Joe.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a manager?
I lived in the Bronx River Houses, where hiphop originated, and I was the World Council Spokesman for the Zulu Nation, whose members included Afrika Bambaataa, Mr Biggs, Amad Henderson, Pow Wow, Globe, DJ Jazzy Jay, and Afrika Islam. We used to be in gangs, the Black Spades, the Peacemakers, the Royal Crown, the Seven Immortals, etc. Because we lived in the projects, we didn’t have to pay for electricity, so we would put the speakers in the window and play music as loudly as possible and people would come round and enjoy themselves.
You might see somebody dancing and say, “This is cool! You see that dude over there dancing? He’s not from the projects, he’s from across the bridge, and he’s with that other group.” We had discovered that music cools the savage beast. Then we started playing in community centers; people came and we would charge 50 cents to a dollar fifty, which was expensive in those days.
Afrika Bambaataa was the first to suggest that I would make a good manager, just because I was so talkative. But I didn't have a clue what he meant, so I took no notice. Then a gentleman by the name of Tracy Marrow, better known as Ice-T, came over from Los Angeles, and, when he saw me being followed around by ten or fifteen people, he asked, “Who is this guy controlling all the people behind him?” He wasn’t aware of the fact that I was a Zulu Nation member and that's why people were watching my back. Later he asked me to be his manager for the East Coast (he already had a West Coast manager called Jorge Hinojosa).
He said he liked the control I had and the fact that we had a very intelligent crew, that we weren't a gang and that we were about understanding, unity and peace. Still, I told him I knew nothing about managing. So he gave me some money and a bunch of his records, and told me to send them to the radio stations on a list he gave me. Then he gave me the name, Pay Up Management, the logo, and a computer. I knew nothing about the music business except I was one of the original founders of the Zulu Nation and we started a thing called hiphop.
What experiences have been important to you in developing your skills as a manager?
Being able to get real contacts and to stay in touch with people. Those are the most important things for a manager, because all you are is a mouthpiece for the artist.
If you’re an artist signed to Tommy Mottola at Columbia, then I’m the middleman. You'll tell me to tell Tommy that we need $500.000, not $250, for the video. As the manager, I'll forward what you say, but try to keep you clear of any backlash. So, when Tommy calls you and says, “Hey, you told Mickey to get $500.000 for the video, when we'd already told you the budget was $250", your reply will be, “I didn’t tell him that, I told him we probably need another $50.000, so I guess Mick just boosted it up.”
As the manager, you’re the bad guy and you always play the bad part of the game when managing urban artists. But you get the contacts and you're the one who stays in touch with them. That’s what makes you a manager. The artists themselves are so caught up in the fame that they don’t stop to talk to people, but as a manager I have to listen to what people have to say because someone might be offering us a deal.
As a manager, do you work on development strategies for your artists?
All the time. I watch what I’ve done with my other artists and then I say, “I can take a little bit of this, and I can take a little bit of that.” When I was moving to the state of Virginia, Fat Joe said, “Yo, I want you to manage me.” “Manage you?" I said. "Nobody knows you, dude. You got a little hit record that’s regional and it’s only in New York City.” So he goes, “But you work with Ice-T! Why can’t you work with me?” And I thought, "Here’s a Puerto Rican, and hiphop is dominated by blacks. How the hell is he going to get into this game and get respect?"
Then I realized that the first to do it might be the first to win, although he might not make all the money he possibly could, because whoever does something first never reaps the full benefit. So I started to work with Fat Joe. I knew a lot of agencies, so I'd call them, “Hey, it’s Mick Bentson, how you all doing. Look, I’ve an artist and his name is Fat Joe, I’d like him to open up for a few of the shows.” “Uh, I don’t think we can do that.” “Well, if you don't, the very next time you give me a call to do something with Ice-T, I’m going to have the same attitude. Let my guy open up, man. Give me 500 bucks to open up a damn show.” So it started at five, then it went to 750, then it went to 10.000, and then people started recognizing him, and in the end he made it, big time.
Do record companies take an active part in developing an artist?
Record companies spend a lot of money and they call it marketing. When you sign a paper they may give you $150 to $300.000 dollars in advance, and that advance is for you to go into the studio and cut a record. Then you do the artwork and they may spend another 20.000 on that. Now, they put you in magazines, Source magazine costs $20.000, Impact costs this, Gavin costs that, Hits costs this, XXL costs that. That’s how they get you recognition, by visually showing your face to the public—that’s called marketing.
Then they say now we'll do promotion. I thought it was the same thing. Now we’ll give your stuff to radio, we’ll send CDs to the radio stations and we'll pay them to advertise your record—that’s promotion. They think they’re influential because they're able to do that, but what they’re actually doing is building up a bigger debt for you to pay back, if your record does in fact sell.
What other artists do you manage?
A new group called SMG, and that’s Smoothe da Hustler, Trigger Tha Gambler and Ice-T. Then we've put together a compilation of our artists for a soundtrack. We have an artist called Noe Money who is soon to be released, and we've signed a female called Amil who was with Jay-Z’s camp before, but now she’s with our camp.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes. People tend to lose focus on how they got in the business. Russell Simmons, and Tommy Mottola, those guys would say, “I don’t want that, because I don’t know you," and I think that is so unfair. I owe it to the average kid that thinks he’s doing something to give him that inspiration, that “If you do another 3 records like this, maybe we can work together.”
Most of the kids who are truly rapping don’t have a high school education and they don’t have jobs, but they might be selling weed and stealing from stores. If you can be the man who pulls up in a nice car and says, “Come on kid, you’re definitely a good rapper," then you’re giving him some inspiration, whether you work with him or not, and what you have just done is saved someone’s child. If you can help someone get into the music industry you're doing a good job as a manager, even if you never sign him. But you always accept unsolicited material to make the kid think he’s one step closer to fulfilling his dream.
I get 35-40 tapes on a weekly basis. A lot of the stuff sounds the same, but if I hear something very out of the ordinary, then I'll insinuate, “Look, at this point I might not be interested, but if you make some flyers and posters, and you post those up around your neighbourhood, and you go to your radio station and get them to play the record, if you bring some steam to the record, then I need to work with you. But don’t sit back and wait for me to call you because I might never do that.
You need to start doing something for yourself first. Make tapes or CDs, put a little picture on them, go to the park or the club or the community centre and sell a few of them. Go to the stores with a box and say, “I got 30 CDs and I want $4 a CD. I’ll come back in 30 days and whatever you’ve sold I’ll just take $4 and you keep the rest.” Start a little business. That will let me know that you’re serious about getting into this game.”
How did you find Big Punisher?
Me and Fat Joe found Big Punisher through a guy named Flex who is on the team. Big Punisher lived in the Bronx in my neighborhood, but I never paid him any attention because I was a big shot. Flex called me and said, “Mick, remember Punisher?” “Who, the fat dude?” Flex told me that the guy was incredible, that I had to listen to the new songs he'd just given him. My answer was, “Take it to Fat Joe, see what he says.”
Joe called me up three weeks later, saying, “Mick, we need to get this guy a deal, he’s dope. Have you still not heard the songs he made?” I said, “No, I’m not listening to that party stuff.” I wasn’t really feeling him that much but Joe insisted, so me, Fat Joe and Flex got him a deal. I called Steve Rifkin at Loud Records and said, “Steve, you ever heard of Fat Joe?” He said that he hadn't. “Fat Joe is dope," I said, " He’s got a record out right now, it’s very local, but we’ve got another artist, Big Punisher, and he’s dope.”
I didn’t really believe it, but I respected my artists telling me that the guy was dope. He said, “Well, send him to me, let me hear him, ” and I said, “No, we’re not going to let you hear him now. We’re going to put together three or four songs and then Fat Joe is going to have a meeting with you, would that be cool?” He said, “I’m in Florida right now, I’ll call you when I get back.” And I told Joe, “Get 3 or 4 songs together with this motherfucker, take it to Steve Rifkin and I guarantee you, we’ll get a deal, because Steve Rifkin likes me.”
What do you look for in an artist?
I look for talent, stage appearance, and the way you handle yourself when you’re talking to people. Talent is when you get on the stage, that if the music messes up you don’t say, “Boo hoo hoo, the music messed up and it’s not my fault.” I want you to continue your show. If you’re a rapper or an r&b singer, don’t worry about the music, if you can truly sing or rap, you don’t need any music, you can do it acapella, you can get over it, you can do something.
That’s what I look for in an artist. Can he take a mistake and then make it better? Many kids can freestyle, but when you put them in a vocal booth with a beat behind them, they don’t know how to do it, all they can do is rap straight across, and that’s not good.
What is a common mistake rappers make?
They all rap about their block. I tell people, “No one cares about your nightclub or strip club, they have their own and yours means nothing to them. Make it a national record and not just a regional one. Do something universal, something that everyone can relate to.”
Do you think unsigned artists are knowledgeable about the music industry, or is it something they need to learn more about in order to stand a better chance?
No. We’ve been in the business for 21 years now, but we didn’t know about royalties or publishing when we started, and the kids today don’t know either. We made a record with Chaka Khan, “I Feel For You”, and Grandmaster Melle Mel rapped on it. It was up for a Grammy, and guess how much we got paid? We got something called a studio fee, which means you go into the studio and get $500 dollars to cut the record. The album sold 500.000 copies and we never made another dime!
Did you know that if a record company signs you, they'll want 50% of your publishing? You might be able to get them down to 25, because you really want to sell your publishing to people like Jellybean Benitez and they give you a nice advance, until they recoup it. Advances are what the business is all about, and all you're getting is a loan.
Once signed to you, do you support artists financially so that they can focus on the music?
Sometimes, but you’re a manager and not a bank loan. If anything, the artist should pay you, because you’re the one with the talent. It’s for the labels to advance the artist. What you do as a manager is make sure the artist gets paid, including artist and publishing royalties, merchandising, advertising, side artist work and endorsement, etc. You're the one that goes in and negotiates the money.
Do you work with the artist’s image?
It happens, but, as I said, you’re only a mouthpiece. You can’t tell Ice-T to bleach his hair because then people will like him more. You can’t tell an artist what to do, but you can give advice.
What input do you usually have on the productions and the repertoire?
I get known producers and artists to make guest appearances on the album. I can call anybody in this business, can you? No? Then that’s my job. Having contacts is the most important thing for a manager, and a manager should have credible contacts to help further your career.
Has the amount of time labels give new acts before they break decreased in recent decades?
When a label breaks a new act, that act will usually have got in via another artist on that label who likes them. So, if the label doesn't don’t do it for the new artist, the other artist just says, “If you don’t do for Cuban Link what you do for me and Fat Joe, I won’t do interviews, I won’t do nothing, because you’re treating my other artist like a piece of shit.” “OK, Joe, OK, we got that, we understand.” They make the new artist happy, and the old artist that brought him in is also happy because he’s getting a cut of it.
The artist will say, “Y’all, this guy right here, he’s hot.” If the artist tells you that and you’re a label, you’ve got to listen. They’ll say, “Are you going to rap on the record, Fat Joe?” “Yeah, I’m going to rap a minute.” So the label don’t lose, because they've still got a popular artist on the record. It’s just a new artist that they’re putting out in front. That’s what most new artists do now, they start with an artist who is already established.
What are your experiences working with major and independent labels?
Majors have more money and a lot more wheel behind the turn than independents do. A major will say to MTV, “If you don’t take care of my little rapper right now, the next time you guys need something from us, you might as well forget it.” They don’t actually say it, but they know that’s the game. An independent doesn’t have that much weight, although because they’re spending less, they're going to make more money on something successful. But the majors can get you into bigger places where the independents can’t go until you’ve become successful.
Do you think it’s fair that artists pay for promotional costs like, for example, videos and the making of an album?
Yes, it is. If a record label spends a million dollars and then, when they make money, they offer to split it across the board, how would they make any money? That’s not business, and the record companies are out to make a dollar.
Do you think the royalties recording artists receive from record sales are adequate?
Hell no! Because one thing that record labels do, and I don’t care if it’s scrutinized or not, record labels give record stores extra goods. Meaning, if you ordered 5 boxes, I’ll send you 7, you pay me some of the 6th box and the 7th box you keep, and that’s unfair.
Record labels are also involved in bootlegging. There’s no way I can cut an album, I did it in let’s just say Sony studios, and nobody was in there but me, the engineer and the producer. Now, how did my record get out on the street before it went into the stores? Someone has sold a copy of the master. Let’s say the studio costs $30.000, maybe they sold it for 30, and then they get the studio money right back. That’s fraud. These guys are making money under the table.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would stop radio stations’ favouritism. Def Jam Records get their every goddamn record played. Why? Because Def Jam take the DJ on one side and say, “Hey, we’ve got a concert coming up in Las Vegas. Play this record and we'll fly you in, get you a room, and give you $2.000.”
If they don’t go for the DJ, they’ll go for the programme director or the music director. “We’re going to do a lot of advertising on your radio station, we’re going to spend $200.000 dollars on radio commercials this year, and we need our records played.” It’s favouritism.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Watching Fat Joe and Big Punisher going platinum out of nowhere! Watching Big Punisher being nominated for a Grammy. The NAACP giving Ice-T an award for Best Supporting Actor, for his role in a TV programme called “Law and Order Special Victims Unit”. Watching Ice-T working with Denzel Washington. There have been so many highlights, and I’ve been around the world three times. That’s what music has been able to do for me, and I love it.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
Hopefully, running a real record label myself. I have an entertainment company, which is distributed through Ingrooves . I see Mickey Bentson being a big record label doing r&b, gospel, rock&roll, country and hiphop. I want to be a successful label all-round, because I’ve watched everyone else doing it and I know it can be done.