“Nowadays they just be dap, straight from the Timbos up to that baseball cap”
It was 1995. I was managing singer Billy Porter (Kinky Boots) and secured him a record deal with A&M Records through an imprint called DV8, which was owned by a very successful record producer named Ric Wake (Celine Dion, Taylor Dayne, among many others). An “imprint” generally meant a production and distribution deal that would be given to artists or producers. Because we were outliers operating once removed from the major label system, I was able to use my professional capital with Wake for having brought them Billy to create a few opportunities for myself. The most significant of these experiments was convincing Ric to let me produce an R&B music video for a song called “Cutie” by a girl group called Raw Stilo that Ric had signed to a singles deal. My idea was to hire a grad student from N.Y.U. film school—my alma mater—to direct the piece inexpensively. The filmmaker I chose was Malcolm Lee, who went on to become a major Hollywood film director (The Best Man, Roll Bounce, Soul Men). After the jump, I’ll tell you the story of my crash course in mid-1990s R&B music.
There is a big difference between producing hit songs and running a record label successfully and at the time Ric Wake was as in over his head as any other producer who had ever been given their own imprint. It wasn’t really his fault, running a label successfully requires a very different skill set than producing hit records and record business history is littered with the debris of great (or not great) producers who utterly failed at the administrative and managerial challenges of successfully running a label. It always begins with the best of intentions or, at least, the urgent need to suck up or cash in a trend. It almost always ends poorly.
The record business was also nothing if not a culture of everyone acting “as if.” Given that I had a film degree and, at that point, a surfeit of ambition, I figured why not act “as if” I could produce a music video; thus I convinced Ric that for a fraction of the cost of hiring an experienced director, I could hire a film student and give him the opportunity of a lifetime. To my amazement he acceded, so I contacted the dean of Tisch School of the Arts and asked her to have interested grad students submit treatments for “Cutie.”
The song itself was derivative though it had a certain jaunty, T.L.C.-style appeal and catchy chorus: “Cutie’s got it going on, every time I turn around, one of them is steppin’ to me.” The artist was called Raw Stilo, comprised of two girls, Carmen Brown and Chandra Simmons, featuring a spirited rap contributed by Egypt (Audrey Blanc). I think Ric gave me a budget of $25,000 or $30,000 dollars and I set to work.
Of all the treatments submitted, a student named Malcolm Lee’s was unambiguously the strongest. I met with him and was impressed by his professionalism and enthusiasm. In fact, his confidence completely put me at ease due, no doubt, to his talent, his own surfeit of ambition, and the fact that his cousin is Spike Lee, a detail that had certainly given him a unique window into the world beyond university or, at least, taught him that dreams can come true. Malcom’s concept was clear and simple: the ladies were basketball coaches managing their respective teams. We would shoot at a school in Brooklyn (Malcolm’s home turf, if memory serves) and cast the video with some of the hottest guys in the borough. Oh yeah, he threw in a Mercedes with a “Raw Stilo” vanity plate and a female MC named “Egypt” just for good measure. It sounded good to me and, by 1995 standards, Malcolm’s treatment seemed to hit the requisite reference points that were so common in urban music at that time.
We worked out the budget and Ric got the approvals from A&M and without me ever meeting or even speaking to anyone from the parent label, Malcolm and I were in business. He was a director and I was a producer. Thank God he had a basic handle on the situation because I pretty much remember being completely in over my callow, strawberry blond head, having only just learned what “stilo” was, for example, to name just one thing that separated me culturally from the task at hand.
So here’s what I remember about the day of the shoot: the girls had an early call but their hair and make-up took so long that we were running behind schedule from the jump. Though they went in to their trailers as neophytes, the magically emerged from their glam squad transformations as full-blown divas: demanding; entitled; and, most certainly, as fearful of the actual shoot as I was. Malcolm moved with his by now customary confidence. He got his set-ups fairly quickly but, as I recall, the day became overcast, which is why the shots in the finished piece are inconsistent in terms of the light.
I remember liking Egypt a lot. I think she added a great deal to the song. Everyone was young and eager; I think that Malcolm really did a great job, delivering a piece that looked like it cost a lot more than it did. In the end, the “Cutie” video ended up getting quite a bit of airplay on BET, though I don’t think the song did that well at R&B radio. Of course we know what happened to Mr. Lee but still wonder what happened to the three women.
I went on to other challenges, particularly managing artists and songwriters, but even today, if I hear the slang word “Timbos” or “stilo” I can’t help but thinking about my experience making “Cutie.” Though it may not be the slickest music video ever made, I do think it has considerable charm and especially from this vantage point, remains a perceptive window into 1990s R&B culture.
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