The Hip-Hop Hustle
Dale Lane was seething. Just the other day, a friend had called the 27-year-old Dallas rapper--better known by his stage name, Goldfinger--long-distance from Florida.
"Man, did you see your new album?" the friend asked. "Man, it's all over the place down here."
At first, Lane had no idea what his friend was talking about. He asked him to rush him a copy of the CD--that he'd pay him back later. And a few days afterward, the proof arrived at his door.
The CD, titled Bass Freaks, sported three scantily clad, big-haired women with pouty lips and prominent backsides posing in front of a souped-up, lowrider truck. The company that manufactured the CD had also slapped on a puny credit that read "Featuring Goldfinger."
When he listened to the CD, he heard the women making husky sighs and slumber-party chatter before each track. But almost all of the music was his.
Goldfinger couldn't believe it. "That damned Tommy Quon!" he fumed.
The rapper hated Tommy Quon--absolutely despised him. Quon, a former nightclub owner and manager, was the discoverer of one-time rap sensation Vanilla Ice and the mastermind behind the Dallas record company, Ultrax, that had signed Goldfinger in early 1992. The rapper had sued Quon that summer, alleging that Ultrax had withheld royalties for his music. Quon said he hadn't--and claimed that Goldfinger's album on Ultrax, This Beat Is for Freaks, hadn't racked up enough sales to recoup the $150,000 spent by the record company in manufacturing, marketing, and distributing it. Goldfinger, Quon maintained, wasn't owed any royalties.
Quon had hired Dallas attorney and state Senator Royce West, who, armed with a 25-page, densely written contract bearing Goldfinger's signature, practically ran the rapper out of court.
Goldfinger went from limousines and groupies back to the Dallas projects. No car, no money, no nothing.
And now this. His discovery of the new Bass Freaks CD was like getting kicked in the face after already being thrown in the mud.
"It is all mine and it's selling, and I haven't gotten a penny from it," Goldfinger says. "Not a damn cent."
Dale Lane hadn't planned on going back to where he'd started--in South Dallas' Frazier Court projects. But here he was, toiling invisibly in a tiny studio he'd set up in his apartment, making music only a handful of folks would listen to.
Four years ago, he had been living large, one of a handful of popular Dallas soul and rap artists who had signed with the ambitious local record company Ultrax--the purported first stop on the way to the majors. Lane was a "bootie bass" expert, exquisitely skilled in making rap background music that people felt compelled to dance to. He could fill up a dance floor with his cuts, something people in the music industry consider a gift. His music, with its relentless bass rhythms and crude, nonsensical lyrics--"Scheek that bootay, make it nice and juicy"--was what Los Angeles was looking for. Goldfinger knew he was headed for the big time.
Back then, he had happily signed his music over to Ultrax owner Tommy Quon in exchange for a $20,000 advance and the promise of riches and fame.
Quon had a reputation as the kingmaker for Dallas' thriving rap scene. He'd already made millions for Vanilla Ice, a white rapper from Carrollton. Ice, whose real name is Robby Van Winkle, was one of the most successful rap stars of the early 1990s. When Vanilla Ice hit it big in 1991, so did Quon. Quon began parlaying his newfound wealth into building Ultrax. The management and record company, which had assets of about $2 million in its prime, would make Dallas--as they say in rap parlance--blow up in the soul and rap music industries, Quon believed. In fact, Quon used Motown Records, Berry Gordy's legendary soul label, as his model for Ultrax.
"He was absolutely dedicated to putting Dallas on the map," says J.W. Sewell, a former Ultrax executive. "He was going out of his way to plant a musical seed--very dedicated to breaking Dallas artists, raising the visibility of the city--but maybe too much. And this is with his money."
For a while, Quon's ambitions seemed to be bearing fruit. Some of Dallas' most promising soul and rap artists--among them the Mac Band, which had a national hit with its 1988 cut, "Roses are Red"--had signed to Ultrax, producing well-received music and touring throughout the country. But Ultrax never realized its dreams, closing down amid lawsuits, debts, and the dashed ambitions of its fledgling stars after only four years.
When the smoke cleared in 1994, Quon would be broke, as well as resented and mistrusted by just about everybody he'd worked with in town. Dallas never really blew up, not with Ultrax. Ultrax artists have gone back to their day jobs and Quon, devastated by the dissolution of his dream, went into self-imposed exile from the music industry he loved.
"You know, I am just really disappointed in the way things turned out," Quon says today. "It's like I spent basically all of my money trying to mine and develop the talent here. Most of the artists who were with me ended up bitter and sour that their careers didn't make it. They really thought I destroyed their careers. But you know, I just did the best that I could."
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."
J.W. Sewell says that he and Quon made the common mistake of newcomers to the music industry: They thought talent automatically would sell. Not so, they learned. "It's actually based on two things--the quality of the song, and politics--personal relationships with the people you are dealing with," Sewell says.
Arterberry is a case in point. The voluptuous singer has a riveting, versatile soul style that impressed the president of SBK, Charles Koppelman. SBK acquired the music from Ultrax for undisclosed terms. But Arterberry's CD, Thank You, stalled on the charts.
"When [Koppelman] got the masters," Arterberry recalls, "he was very excited about it. He said he would make it his personal baby. That was in April . By the time it came out in October, he didn't seem to have any interest at all. I don't know what happened."
Larry Friedman, a Dallas attorney who worked with Ultrax and Vanilla Ice, says Ultrax artists, and ultimately Ultrax, were the victims of the music industry's capriciousness. "I don't know if any of us recognized the shallowness of the Beverly Hills community," says Friedman, who represented Vanilla Ice. "It's a tough, vicious, cold business, and those people in Beverly Hills, they look at these artists as commodities. They aren't even people."
Still, for a time, Ultrax seemed to be delivering on its promise to showcase Dallas R&B artists. Ultrax artists routinely made appearances at fairs and black expos all over the country.
But problems endemic to the industry thwarted Quon's ambitions. Despite the success of Vanilla Ice, Ultrax did not have enough clout to get play time on R&B stations, even in Dallas. Quon spent thousands to get his records on the air, to little avail. "All we got were a few plays in the middle of the night," Quon recalls.
But a 23-year-old local boy wouldn't know all that. When Dale Lane--a.k.a. Goldfinger--got a meeting with Ultrax executives, he thought he'd finally made it.
Lane began pursuing a music career right after graduating from Roosevelt High School. In the mid-1980s, rap was just emerging as an extension of R&B, and Oak Cliff was the perfect incubator for the style. Talent shows and amateur hours featuring rappers proliferated, and Lane knew all the venues: Spanky's, Club 220, Bishop College.
He gathered a group of young men who could sing, and they practiced their music at Lane's house. He called his group the G-Crew. Every Friday evening, Lane would go to the Texas Theatre with G-Crew and join all the other rappers, singers, and break dancers who'd convene on the sidewalk to showcase their talents. He played all his music on a small Casio keyboard. "He got a lot out of that Casio," says friend Leon Thompson. "He had a very unique sound."
Lane soon tired of the amateur scene. While he scraped together money to buy equipment, members of his posse threw theirs away on new clothes and shoes. "They weren't putting their hearts into it," he says. "They didn't see the picture I saw."
Goldfinger saw himself blowing up, hitting it big. "I saw a group that could come out and sing very well and with nice rapping skills and a producer like myself," he says. "A Jodeci with a rap flavor." His group was constantly performing at talent contests. "The plan was for us to keep going to the public, letting people hear us, and looking for management," Lane says.
Goldfinger's group recorded its first single, titled Strung Out, in 1989. It cost $1,400 to print 500 cassettes. The group gave away 100 and sold the rest.
Local entrepreneur Larry Johnson takes credit for discovering Goldfinger. At the time, Johnson ran a small office, Metro Talent, that supplied extras--mostly blacks and other minorities--to movies filming locally. One day in 1988, as he tells it, he was walking to his office when he came across Goldfinger and a group of young singers performing in the parking lot of his business office. Impressed, he invited them up to his office. And the more he learned about Goldfinger, the more excited he got.
"I can spot talent," Johnson says. "Goldfinger is extremely gifted. He can play the piano, and he has one of the best ears for what's contemporary or cutting-edge that you can find. And he could play music just from hearing it."
Johnson was the first manager who offered to represent Goldfinger, and Goldfinger gladly signed a contract. Johnson's job was to find gigs for Goldfinger, and ultimately, a record deal. Johnson had never gotten close to a record deal before, but he knew folks who knew folks who knew folks who had.
Goldfinger fired Johnson just a year later. "I found myself spending all my money," Lane says. "He never hooked me up on my gigs. Everything I got, I hooked up myself." Still, Johnson hung around, and occasionally offered his advice.
In the winter of 1991, Goldfinger produced "Scheek Fool," a hip-hop rap track imploring women to dance...well, without inhibition: "Shake that butt from side to side/watch the fellows in the club come alive." He tooled it around town, convincing various dance clubs to play it. When the DJs played "Scheek Fool," the dance floor would fill up. Encouraged by the club response, Goldfinger took a copy of the songs to two local soul stations.
At first, no Dallas DJ would play "Scheek Fool." Then KKDA-FM 104.5 played it once; soon radio stations were deluged with requests. The more "Scheek Fool" was played, the more people wanted to hear it, but the demand never translated beyond the regional market, and actually worked against the song.
"The local stations, they played the crap out if it," says Sewell. "They burned it, which is too bad, because for a local independent to get a song in with the 20 or 30 songs that a radio station in a major market has in rotation is quite an achievement." Getting on the radio, Sewell says, "is like a war."
Ricky Ricardo, an Ultrax promoter, was visiting KKDA for a promotion when he heard repeated telephone requests for "Scheek Fool." When he learned that the single was the creation of an unsigned local musician, he told Quon about Goldfinger.
Johnson's networking skills kicked in. Although no longer employed by Goldfinger, he took charge, arranging a meeting between his former protege and Tommy Quon. At the first meeting, Quon asked Ricardo if he thought "Scheek Fool" could be a national commercial success. "Ricky said, 'Man, this record is slamming!'" Johnson recalls. "Tommy told me, 'I'm going to make him famous, and I am going to make him rich.'"
According to Goldfinger, Quon handed him a $20,000 advance against royalties, and Goldfinger scrawled his signature across the bottom of a 25-page exclusive solo artist recording contract. Advances against royalties can issue one of the cruelest wake-up calls in the business: Young, impressionable artists--still more in touch with the myth than the mechanics--get a bunch of cash and think they've arrived, not realizing that they've yet to make the money they're holding in their hands.
The document committed Goldfinger to Quon for three years, and gave Ultrax the rights to the songs Goldfinger had already produced.
Johnson, for his efforts, received a $400 finder's fee and learned he would not be invited to the second meeting.
When Goldfinger signed with Ultrax in early 1992, he joined a financially troubled company.
Sewell says that major labels such as SBK and EMI were slow in paying royalties for acts they'd signed from Ultrax, and the company simply had too much overhead. Vanilla Ice, Ultrax's gravy train, had already begun his well-documented spiral back into obscurity.
To make matters worse, everywhere Quon turned, someone was suing Ultrax. In a 1992 case, a jury awarded a $1.1 million judgment against Ultrax, ruling that the company had promised a former business acquaintance profit-sharing in the Vanilla Ice project. Quon settled for $300,000. Manufacturers were also suing for nonpayment.
In 1992, laws covering sampling and the rights and obligations of their commercial use were just beginning to be hashed out in court. Ultrax's output, heavy with samples from deep-pocketed, aggressively self-interested artists like Michael Jackson and Queen, set the company up for a drubbing in court. The death blow, however, came after a dispute with distributor Ichiban.
Flint, Michigan-based MC Breed was solely Ichiban property, but Quon had stepped in as his manager at the label's behest. "What they wanted," Quon explains, "was someone to manage him and basically front him money." When a three-way wrangle about money ensued, Quon tried to shop MC Breed to bigger labels. "I had a fiduciary responsibility to represent my client's interests," Quon says today.
When, around the end of 1991, Ichiban president John Abbey learned that Quon was peddling the rapper to rivals, he canceled the distribution agreement with Ultrax. The move devastated an already shaky company. Ultrax had thousands of CDs, singles, and vinyl albums in inventory, but no way to get them to the public, Quon says.
Goldfinger, however, had no idea that Ultrax was struggling financially. For Goldfinger, those were heady days. People were hearing his song and recognizing him on the street. Quon treated him like a star. Goldfinger went on tours with major acts, mingled with celebrities, and stood amazed as legions of women threw themselves at him. He produced a CD for his new label titled This Beat is for Freaks.
After a few months, Goldfinger noticed that while the song and album seemed hot, he wasn't getting any royalties. When he asked Quon about it, he says, he was brushed off. As time passed--and as that $20,000 signing bonus dwindled--Goldfinger wanted to know exactly how well the album was selling. "He wouldn't tell me," he says of Quon. "He was like, 'I'll get back to you.'"
Goldfinger says he learned from a friend that Ultrax was using a distributor in Houston as well as a distributor in Dallas. When he talked to the distributor, Goldfinger says, he was told that This Beat is for Freaks had sold some 172,000 copies.
Quon says that while the CD was showing potential, it had not sold enough to recoup Ultrax's costs of making, mass-producing, and distributing it. His estimate of album sales is dramatically lower than the rapper's: a mere 10,000 units, and production costs for This Beat were more than $100,000.
Goldfinger says he began to distrust Quon. "I never got a statement, nothing," he says. "They kept me in the blind.
"They're full of shit, real good talkers," he adds. "He knew I was struggling. I told him I didn't know the system, and he told me to trust him. But what he did is he took advantage."
Quon denies improperly withholding any royalties from Goldfinger. The CD, Quon says, was not a major hit by anyone's standards. Goldfinger "had a small hit here [in Dallas] and his singles were moving well, but all of a sudden he got big-headed," Quon says. "As far as Goldfinger is concerned, he is nowhere near recouped, and hey, if he had to spend the money out of his own pocket, he would know it."
Goldfinger, frustrated, opted to leave Ultrax and search for another studio. He took Quon to court, alleging that Quon was withholding royalties and failing to honor verbal promises he had supposedly made to the young rapper. The trial did not go well for Goldfinger.
"They brought in Royce West, and he was waving my contract and saying, 'Mr. Lane, did you read your contract?' and just pounding on me," Goldfinger says. "Before I knew it, I was like, agreeing with the man."
Goldfinger eventually dropped the suit with the understanding that Ultrax could keep using all of his music except "Scheek Fool." He wasn't able to secure a deal with another label, and faded away.
Ultrax, meanwhile, was polishing its own tombstone. Vanilla Ice had been transferred to SBK in 1990, but differences in expectations regarding contract specifics and royalties kept Quon and Ice in litigation for four years. "The attorneys were the only ones who made out," Quon says with resignation. More lawsuits and bills, as well as unhappy artists, took their toll; Sewell jumped at an offer from Atlanta-based Intersound.
Quon shut down Ultrax in late 1994, and moved his office into the label's warehouse. On top of the pile of unused CDs and legal documents lay framed gold and platinum records associated with the Vanilla Ice project.
"I think in this business, you win and you lose," Sewell says today. "What Tommy tried to do is become independent, and that is expensive. Between his cash flow being depleted and [the cost of] defending frivolous lawsuits...it was too much."
When Ultrax failed, Quon sold the master of This Beat is For Freaks to his old pal Sewell, who was managing the Solo Jam label, a subsidiary of Intersound. Sewell repackaged it as a compilation of Goldfinger's work, naming the "concept" CD Bass Freaks. So far, Quon says, the CD that Goldfinger's buddy found "all over the place" in Florida has sold about 15,000 copies.
But Goldfinger hasn't gotten any closer to earning royalties. Production costs still have not been recouped, Quon says.
Goldfinger doesn't trust either Quon or Sewell. He believes they lied to him about sales of the single "Scheek Fool," and that they are lying now. "This is how low they are," Lane says. "They didn't even give me a copy of [Bass Freaks]. I had to go buy it in the store." (Sewell acknowledges that he made no attempt to contact the rapper about the CD.)
Goldfinger doesn't understand the business, Quon says, and the rapper's accusations sting. "If anything, I helped create him," Quon says. "I think the situation is that you have a young man on the street. They all think they are worth a million dollars. Believe me, if it was creating any waves, it would be on the charts. I am not inventing the wheel--that's the business."
After the failure of Ultrax, Quon disappeared from the music scene for two years, and Goldfinger returned to the projects. Quon spent some of his time managing a convenience store--a far cry from the glamour and excitement of Dallas' short-lived rap scene.
But today, Quon says, he's ready to end his self-imposed exile from the music business. He wants another shot at the big time.
Quon has emerged slowly, popping in to visit a warehouse where he'd stored Ultrax office items, chatting with old business associates and friends. He talked to Vanilla Ice once; he reveals little about their conversation, saying only that Ice had matured.
Although Quon says he isn't bitter about the millions that came and went with Ultrax, he realizes he made some tactical errors. "The money that I made with the Vanilla Ice project basically went into my artists here," he says. "I thought I could build it and develop it, and it just turned out not to be.
"We were not politically 'in' enough," he says. "In learning to play the radio game and the industry game, it was more than we could handle. The majors have it all locked up, and they don't want any independents to come in. There have been a few who have done well, and [the majors] end up buying them up pretty quickly. And a lot of people try it and make the effort and they don't make it, and we were one of those."
Quon would never again personally bankroll projects he's excited about, he adds. "Ultrax will look for artists who are willing to share in the risks," he says. "If there are young artists out there who believe in themselves, they should find some way to bring things to the table."
Quon now promises exposure, not fame or riches. If he still thinks he can find another Vanilla Ice, he's not admitting it.
He does say that he wants to represent Benita Arterberry again. "Her voice just blows my mind," he says. "She is just so incredible."
Today, he's excited about a 10-year-old country & western singer named Britanny Jade Ozier. "She is a tremendous talent," he says.
He has reconciled his differences with Ichiban, and has set up a tenative distribution agreement. He also is re-establishing ties with EMI.
Just the other day, Quon says, the president of Ichiban asked him about rappers from Dallas who might be ready for the big time. The question intrigued Quon, and he's already courting new acts. "It's sad to have all the talent just sitting there," he says.
Meanwhile, Goldfinger, after suffering a bout with depression, says he recovered from his Ultrax experience. He built a $65,000 studio in his apartment, and turned once again to his music. He worked odd jobs and caught the bus, putting every spare dime into the studio. People started coming around, wanting background cuts for their own rap lyrics. Soon, Goldfinger had a thriving business providing original tracks to local rap artists and nightclub DJs. His reputation as a producer of high-quality hip-hop and funk tracks has swelled in Dallas, and he is weighing offers from agents and talking to investors.
"He's got stacks of great music," says Larry Johnson, Goldfinger's ever-present one-man booster club. "The young man needs to be heard. He's a great producer. What he needs is the major opportunity."
But this time, Dale Lane is not in a hurry. He's still bitter about his experiences with Ultrax.
He's excited about his own discovery, a promising young pop rapper, J. Fabian. Fabian, a well-muscled, blue-eyed, blond male stripper with tresses past his shoulders, believes that Goldfinger--with his talent and war wounds--could make him a star. Goldfinger is producing Fabian's cut "Cat Daddy," and has introduced him to a local management company, Back Stage.
Goldfinger, like Quon, his nemesis, still believes that Dallas can be a hip-hop, bootie bass mecca.
And who knows, he just might have the next Vanilla Ice.
Dallas Observer Music Editor Matt Weitz contributed to this report.
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