The Hip-Hop Hustle

Tommy Quon and goldfinger found out that Dallas is no rapper's paradise

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Quon owned two of the most popular dance clubs in Dallas: City Lights and Monopoly's Park Place. Both were huge dance clubs, each with occupancy levels exceeding 1,000.

Quon had developed a taste for soul and blues while growing up in a second-generation Chinese immigrant family on the Delta around Greenville, Mississippi. A soft-spoken, serious man, Quon had nurtured friendships with soul and blues artists all of his adult life; he built his two nightclubs into successful live performance venues featuring the likes of Vanessa Williams, Paula Abdul, Tease, and Zapp.

Then rap exploded on the Dallas scene in the late 1980s. The crowds demanded it, and the hip-hop culture was born. Quon was not entirely appreciative of this new art form, but moved with the times, showcasing new hit makers like Salt N Pepa, 2 Live Crew, and New Kids on the Block.

At the City Lights talent shows, where young soulsters once crooned soft ballads, angry gangsta types now blistered the mike with profane, shouted lyrics, grabbing their crotches for emphasis while recounting their latest sexual conquests. The crowds loved it.

By 1989, Quon was managing local artists he thought had potential for national success--people who'd pleased the crowds during performances at his clubs. That year, he represented soul singer Mikki Bleu in a recording deal with EMI.

Under the banner of his management company, Ultrax, Quon courted major labels for his growing roster of local soul talent. But by now, major labels were clamoring for rap acts--and there were more than enough hip-hop wannabes in Dallas. Venues for rap were cropping up everywhere: talent shows, street corners, nightclubs, radio programs, even churches. Dallas was full of rappers, from the hard-core to the fluff. Quon signed several promising rappers to management contracts, including Sabrina and Earthquake. His greatest coup was signing Vanilla Ice after the young white rapper won a talent show at City Lights in 1990.

Quon had some knowledge of the music business, however, and he knew that major labels dominated the industry. They had more money and greater reach. So Quon's idea for Ultrax, as he explains it today, was to "grow" artists: to help them produce singles or albums, distribute the work to receptive markets and, if the response from record buyers caught the attention of the major labels, to "sell" the artist to the big guys for a cut of future profits.

To further this strategy, Ultrax signed a distribution agreement with Atlanta-based independent label Ichiban Records, whose access to retailers put Ultrax artists in several major cities. When Ice's To the Extreme started to cross over into pop, however, Ichiban couldn't meet the demands of a wider market, and Quon went to SBK, a subsidiary of EMI Records that could distribute the album internationally.

Few independents can boast an act as lucrative as Vanilla Ice. When Ice hit it big, Quon made millions. To the Extreme, issued under the Ultrax and SBK labels, went platinum 10 times, grossing more than $80 million in sales worldwide.

In late 1990, Quon tried to capitalize on the success of Vanilla Ice. He recruited J.W. Sewell, an executive at Ichiban, to help develop Ultrax. Their roster grew to include the Mac Band, which had lost its contract with MCA, as well as U Know Who? and a host of local rappers. Most of the artists were Quon's friends from his nightclub managing days.

At least four Ultrax artists made it to the Billboard chart, including Don Diego and Benita Arterberry. Arterberry signed a recording contract with the major label SBK, and the Mac Band had been on MCA. Ultrax's track record put the company at the top of the heap among local record labels at the time.

Quon, his wife Terry, and Sewell ran Ultrax from a leased office in Plano. They split the company into two departments: production and management. Sewell, who handled the management side, spent much of his time "baby-sitting" the rappers. Soul singer Mikki Bleu signed on as a singer and producer.

Ultrax artists were generally well-received in Dallas, and showed some international potential. Arterberry, in fact, learned that her album, Thank You, made it to No. 1 in Britain.

By the end of 1991, Ultrax was bustling with activity. Goldfinger remembers being bowled over by the energy at the Ultrax offices, where he met other artists, agents, and promoters. "People were always in and out," he says. Quon would bankroll the artists' first videos--usually cheap and cheesy affairs.

Doris Cain, general manager for Dynamite Films Inc., Ultrax's video maker, disagrees with those who contend that Quon was exploitative. "He sincerely tried to help these folks," she says. "He put time and money and energy into it, and it just didn't happen."

Mikki Bleu, who now lives in Houston, agrees. Quon was simply too ambitious, too generous. "He was a great man," Bleu says. "Being a close friend of his, I tried to warn him about doing too many things for too many people all at once. But he got caught up trying to help everybody, and you know, it was a bad situation."

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