Activist Helps Urban Artists Succeed
By Mike Andrews
She jumpstarted Eminem’s career. She let David Banner live on her couch for half a year. She rubbed shoulders with Tupac. Rap Coalition founder Wendy Day is silently but powerfully one of the most important people in the rap music industry; and you’ve probably never heard of her.
After starting the Rap Coalition in 1992, a not-for-profit organization started to help out rap artists who were being taken advantage of by major labels, 49-year-old Wendy Day has devoted nearly half her life to bettering the artists who make up her favorite genre of music.
“As a fan of rap music, I was hearing all the different stories about artists getting jerked; and I didn’t understand why these guys who are, like, my heroes were ending up at the ends of their career,” said Day.
One of Wendy’s main motives with the Rap Coalition is to pull artists out of raw deals with their record labels. It was an idea that hadn’t been done because many big-name lawyers wanted to help people out, but did not want to go searching in the depths of the ghetto to find people to help.
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“What I would do is I would put up a match-maker front. I would introduce rappers to really powerful attorneys and these were guys who make more money than God. They were happy to help people who couldn’t really afford to pay them, but they didn’t want to go to the hood and find people to help.” Day did their legwork for them and since then has released some big-name artists from their contracts such as Common, Twista, and The LOX. In a complete polar opposite, the Rap Coalition founder also worked to get urban artists signed to big-name labels, too.“The one quality that sort of resounds through all of my deals is that they were deals that were set up for the artists to win. If you look at the deals that I have done, all of those artists are still viable today because the goal was to build careers, not to just get them signed to any old fucking record deal. The goal was to build them to be the rap version of Stevie Wonder or the rap version of the Rolling Stones.”
The deal to sign the Cash Money Millionaires to Universal is, business-wise, one of her fondest memories of her career.“It was the kind of deal that should just never have happened. It was too good to be true. I remember coming out of the Universal building after the deal was done and I remember sort of just falling against the wall and sliding down because my knees were so weak.”In hindsight, Day realizes that Universal did the deal for market share in order to make some profit off of the deal, but she still cannot believe she got the deal done.
Eminem has publicly stated that he credits Day for being part of the reason why he is signed to Aftermath/Interscope records. She remembers the day just like it was yesterday. She was riding around Detroit with a little-known rapper named Rhymefest. The two had been in meetings all day and Wendy hadn’t eaten all day. All she wanted was to grab some dinner at the local Denny’s. Rhymefest handed her a demo from a local kid named Eminem and said, “You need to listen to this.”
“I had heard Em rap and was very impressed at what he was able to do, but I was equally dismayed by white rappers because I knew how difficult it would be for him to have a career. Most white rappers before him weren’t taken seriously.”This reason led her to tell Rhymefest that she appreciated the demo and would listen to it later and she proceeded to throw it on the floor of the passenger seat. After a few minutes of more convincing by Rhymefest, Wendy’s opinion was forever changed.
“I popped it in and it was so incredibly dope that I made a U-Turn and went back to the hotel. At that point, I was like ‘fuck food’, you know, and I sat down with Eminem and started talking to him…I thought he had a really great head on his shoulders.”
She signed him up for the Rap Coalition’s RAPOLYMPICS in Los Angeles in 1998 where he caught producer Dr. Dre’s eye. He won second place in the competition and he handed out copies of his demo to Aftermath/Interscope Records. Soon after, rap producer Dr. Dre took a chance on the white boy from Detroit and signed him.
Those deals succeeded and led Eminem and Lil’ Wayne to be as popular as ever, even to this day. Nearly 15 years after completing those deals, both artists have sold over 150 million albums combined since their contracts began. Eminem has completed an amazing feat of having two albums certified diamond (10 million sales in the U.S.) by the RIAA.
Wendy also worked alongside some classic artists who have already made it big by appointing them to the Rap Coalition’s Board of Advisors. The first advisor to be appointed was none other than Tupac Shakur.“He was the guy that actually talked me into having a board of advisors. I didn’t really want to make it look like I was playing favorites, but he told me, ‘Wendy, get the co-sign (from us), you need that.’”
Other members who have served are Chuck D from Public Enemy, rapper Too $hort and Vinny from Naughty by Nature. Being a part of the board means that you are an established artist who wants to help out and give back to the up and coming as well as already established artists.“In order to get added to the Board, they just need to be an established artists that wants to give back. They are the people I call when I need advice and when I need to know what I can do to be more helpful for somebody at the level of their career.”
Rapper Too $hort suggested that Day help rappers out with 401K’s, health plans and other long-term financial goals. Without the help of these rappers, Day would have no clue what they really needed in the industry.“They’re on the firing line and they know what best motivates them and what they need most. They’re the ones that give the feedback.”
Day is not shy to turn down helping people, as well. The artists have to share some of the same vision that she has with the music business. “I’ve turned down a ton of people, one reason is because I don’t have the time to work with everyone. But not everyone has the mentality that I need somebody to have in order to help make them successful.”
She recalls meeting with Nelly’s entourage in order to sign him a deal with all of his other rapper friends. She had to turn them down because the group wanted to all release tracks and see who got famous and who didn’t, and then go from there. Day says this method doesn’t work because it is not fair for both the artist and the label.
The label would have to dole out money for each track, and if only one out of six of those artists caught on in the mainstream world, then the rest would feel like they didn’t get a fair chance. She wants the artists to try and have the same vision that she does, but is never offended when they do not.
“I never want to be part of a situation that allows artists to lose and not win…the mindset is that not every artist is perfect for the way that I think. I don’t want to fight someone where I have to force someone to be successful, because they can be successful on their own.”
Day has realized that the persona of many of these rappers does not fit their true personality after her 20 years of work in the industry. According to Day, one of the most memorable moments of her career was having rapper David Banner come to her door after hitchhiking his way there.
“He showed up wearing overalls with no shirt on and this straw funky hat. He really didn’t fit in. He had a master’s degree in education, he was very well educated, but I’m sitting on the sofa with this kid who’s look did not match what I was hearing come out of his mouth. He’s so incredibly intelligent but his body just looked like a scarecrow.”
Banner lived on Day’s sofa for six months after the meeting while he got his life back together. Since then, Day has helped write business plans for David Banner’s label as well as consulted with him on albums that he released independently.
In the same way she was wrong about David Banner, she was also shocked by the success of the Wu-Tang Clan based on their appearance and personas. “I never thought Wu-Tang Clan would go anywhere. I never thought they’d be as big as they got. I thought they were too grimy. They came out at a time when music was very slick and very overproduced. Everything was very full and clean, and then here are these guys who had music that sounded like it was coming out of their fucking basement.” Wu-Tang Clan sold millions of albums as a group as well as selling millions of albums through solo projects from each of the members. Day looks back at the first time she heard them and formed an opinion of them, and is still in shock.“I remember the first time hearing them and saying ‘Man, this isn’t gonna work.’ And then it became super large and I just couldn’t have been happier to be wrong.”
Day reflects on her very memorable past, but she is always looking to the future and for new talent to help out in the industry.“Right now (in my CD player), I’m listening to a group named Rock City. When I listen to music, sometimes it’s for enjoyment, but most of the time it’s to pick out radio singles or what songs will flow together. When I’m about to start working with a group like Rock City, I feel like I need to live with their music and I need to know which songs we’re going to chase radio with and which ones we’re going to put on the streets.”
Her ears for music are not what you think they would be either. She says her favorite rappers are Ras Kass and Young Jeezy. The two have very different styles, and at least in Jeezy’s case, are not focused on being lyrical. Day is okay with this because it gives lanes in the industry to all sorts of people to make money off the greedy record labels.“I love the differences we have in rap. I love that we have a lane for Soulja Boy, I love the fact that there is a lane for Nicki Minaj, I love that there is a lane for Waka Flocka. It doesn’t mean that I listen to that and I love all of that, but it does mean that I’m thankful that it all exists. The more types of music we have, that means the more people there are out here making money in the music business. And that is my goal.”
In an industry where shady tactics are basically the standard, it’s good to know that there are still people out there with good intentions like Wendy Day. She has seen more in 20 years than most people will see their entire life, and if you are a fan of rap music, you better hope she has another 20 ready to go.