Interview Wendy Day
She made groundbreaking record deals for hip-hop. She advised Eminem, 2Pac and the whole rap Who’s Who from New York to New Orleans. A relentless activist for artists’ empowerment, Wendy Day tells her impressive story.
Abcdr Du Son: What is your very first rap memory?
Wendy Day: My very first rap memory was probably listening to the radio in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1980, very very late at night. Grand Master Flash & The Furious Five. "Don't push me cause I'm close to the edge…" My actua l first memory was going to a concert at University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 1980 and actually seeing Grand Master Flash perform live. The show was a mismatch of all different styles of music – and thank God for universities, because they're great at this. They had Psychedelic Furs, Grand Master Flash & The Furious Five, and Clarence Clemons & The E Street Band, which was the backup band for Bruce Springteen at the time. It was a lovely mashup of music and cultures and people. I fell in love with the energy and passion of rap music. It was real and authentic. It made me seek out the music further from all of the underground shops and DJ's in Philadelphia so that I could get the hottest shit coming out of New York, where Hip Hop was from.
A: Is it true that you chose to move to New York right after hearing the Mr Magic Rap Attack show?
W: It was around 1987. At that time, I had only been able to listen to rap on vinyl and cassette. I don't know why it never crossed my mind to go where the cassettes were from! I went to New York for a week-end with a girlfriend. We went to Long Island to take care of her uncle, who was sick. When we got to New York, we put on one of the radio stations. It was very late at night and we got to hear Mr Magic and Marley Marl's radio show. I listened to the show for 45 minutes. I thought it was amazing. I went home that Monday, walked into my boss and said "I'm giving my two-week notice." I went home, started to pack. I didn't even have a job or a place to live, I just knew I was moving to New York. I didn't give a fuck.
A: Where were you working at the time?
W: I was selling local advertising in Time and Newsweek for a company called Media Networks. At the time, selling ads in major publications was kind of a prestigious job so it was pretty easy for me to find another job when I moved to New York. I started selling advertising for a legal magazine after I moved. I hated it, but the money was good.
A: How did it feel, being immersed in the New York rap scene?
W: It was awesome. I was immersed as a fan. Remember, I wasn't doing this for a living yet. I was seeing Run DMC, Public Enemy, Cold Crush, and Newcleus perform live. I was really getting to live the lifestyle of rap back then, which was very much a party scene. It was wonderful. I would go to the clubs every night. After the clubs there would be the after hours clubs: at 3AM, you'd go to the after hours club til 7:30 in the morning, then go have breakfast, and then shower and go right to work. I'd come home from work, sleep, and then get up and go to the clubs. That became my lifestyle for years.
A: At what moment did you feel like you wanted to work for hip-hop?
W: That didn't happen until 1992. In the late 80's, I dated a French Canadian guy who couldn't come to the US because of an immigration problem. So I moved to Montreal. The city sort of changed my listening habits a little bit. There was more of a punk scene and it also gave me access to some of the French Canadian artists like Michel Rivard and Celine Dion (back when she couldnt speak English yet). I was away from the rap scene. I was able to stay a little bit in touch but my history of rap has this gaping hole of about three years from 1988 to 1991.
A: A chunk that is considered the golden era of rap…
W: It is a golden era for a lot of people but because I didn't live it, it wasn't for me. I went from early De La Soul right into the Rap-A-Lot Scarface era. From sort of one extreme to the other [Laughs]. Here's what Montreal gave me that was so valuable in my growth: aside from the fact that I got to become bilingual – and I'm not anymore, that's why I'm talking to you in English instead of en français – I had the opportunity to see life from a more European sensibility. During the Desert Storm war, I got to see the news from a Canadian perspective and it showed how different America was, and how sensational and skewed American news is. It started me mentally questioning everything. The other thing that impacted me was that I helped set up a liquor company there. The owner was an engineer by trade, he didn't really have the time or the energy to set it up and run it so he allowed me to do it. He just funded it and said "Here, make it happen." And I did that. I redesigned the bottles, I reduced the sugar and alcohol content right as people were becoming more health conscious – and made the company successful. What it taught me was I could start a company, run it and be successful. That was probably the most important lesson of my life. When I came back to New York in June 1991, I didn't know what I wanted to do next, but I knew that I didn't want to work for somebody else. Plus, whatever I was going to do next, it would probably be in the non-profit sector because I really wanted to make a difference in the world. I really wanted to help people.
A : At at that time, you attended Bert Padell's music business class [Ed.'s note: veteran accountant whose clients included Madonna, Run DMC and Pink Floyd]. Was he a mentor for you?
W: I wouldn't say he was a mentor. He was a teacher. A mentor is somebody you build a relationship with and I didn't have a relationship with Bert. We weren't close, but he was somebody who saw value in me and knew that at some point in time I would be a force to be reckoned with in the music business. When I took Bert's class, I had an undergraduate degree in graphic design, a master's degree in African-American studies with an Afrocentric focus, and an MBA in marketing. My three lanes of study were very different but I knew I wanted to combine at least the marketing aspect and the black studies aspect. My thinking was to start a not for profit organization that would help young black people start their own companies. In Bert's class, I was listening to him talk about how black artists were so badly taken advantages of. I went to him after class and I said "How come nobody's helping these guys? Everybody seems to take their percentage when the money is there but when the money stops coming, it just seems that nobody cares anymore." He told me "Wendy, this is a business, and there's no money in altruism." What he said is very, very true, but back then it really pissed me off.
It made me angry enough to go home and write a business plan to start Rap Coalition. I designed the logo which was very Afrocentric – it sort of was what was happening in 1992 in rap as well. I was gonna start the company with a little less than half a million dollars, which was all the money that I had. Bert tried to talk me into giving him the money to invest for me rather than me starting Rap Coalition, but I was determined. At that point, I didn't know any rappers, any lawyers, I just knew that this was what I was gonna do [Laughs]. I pressed up some flyers and took them to all the clubs where the rappers were hanging out. I ended up meeting a group called Dasez Tempo that was signed to Def Jam. Russell [Simmons] wasn't doing anything with them. I went to Bert, who represented Russell. He introduced me to an attorney named Tim Mandelbaum, who got Dasez Tempo released from Def Jam for free. That was my first taste of pulling someone out of a bad deal.
A: What was a bad deal?
W: A bad deal, in my eyes, was when an artist was signed and the record was never put out. A bad deal might also mean somebody woke up and said "OK, I'm a record producer, sign your life away to me" but they didn't have the money or the connections to pull it off. Sadly, that still exists today. I was on Twitter yesterday making a joke about that. I said to my followers "Today, I'm a heart surgeon! If somebody can wake up and say they own a record label, then I could wake up and say I'm heart surgeon. So, today I'm a heart surgeon!" The funny thing about a contract is that it's not just what's in there that can hurt you, sometimes it's what's missing that can hurt you. So I learned to put things in contracts, like, if the artist doesn't sell X amount of records, they get to leave with their masters. Or if the artist isn't released into the record stores by a certain date – whatever date we decide is fair, they get to leave. I've seen labels sign twenty artists at once but obviously they can't put out all of them out, so the artists are just sitting there signed to the label, which is like in a giant parking lot. They can't leave, they can't work, they can't do anything. I made sure that in my deals, there was a guaranteed release date. I did that shit for a lot of artists, from 2Pac to David Banner…
A: Was this your only activity?
W : I was also doing a lot of educational work such as panel discussions once a month in New York first at NYU and then at the ASCAP building when we ran out of room. Additionally, almost every convention in the music industry had me doing at least one or two panels on urban music, if not coordinating all of the panels. This lasted until very recently. My approach was two-fold: we came from the proactive educational aspect to teach people not to sign bad contracts and then, we came at it from a reactionary point of view: if they did sign bad contracts, we would break the bad contracts for free. In 1995, it got to the point where I started negotiating people into good deals because having seen so many things in contracts that were bad, I sort of knew what shouldn't be in there. I learned from all the bad contracts I saw, what a great contract would be and was able to go on and do some really great deals!
A: Was it hard for you to get the trust of the artists?
W: Sure, it was very hard. I was a suburban white girl and in rap, at the time, and even still today, it was very difficult being white, and very difficult being female. So it was very hard for me to gain the trust. There were two rappers that were superstars back then who really embraced me. One was Vinnie, from Naughty By Nature, the other was Tupac. They used to come to my events and support me – not financially but emotionally, where it counted. Vinnie would teach artists how to not get jerked. His best example was when they put out their biggest album, the one that had "OPP" on it [Ed.'s Note: the eponymous Naughty By Nature in 1991 ]. They made so little money on that album, not because the industry was shady but because they took the 118th Street Posse everywhere they went, and some of the knuckleheads used to do shit in the clubs like start fights, grab women, break things... Naughty By Nature got sued so much that it was difficult for them to profit from that album. Vinnie's lesson to the 200 or 300 people who used to come to the monthly panels was "Be careful who's around you, because they don't have as much to lose as you do." It was one thing for me to say that, but it was something very different to hear from Vinnie from Naughty By Nature, which was one of the biggest rap groups in the world at the time. On the personal side, Chuck D was also very supportive of me. Public Enemy was one of my favorite rap groups when I was coming up, so I was honored and humbled. This is about three or five years after I started. Once I had these co-signs, it made things much easier.