When preparation meets opportunity, dreams can become reality. For rapper Bobby Sessions and High Standardz, the management company and record label behind Sessions since he began his solo career, that transformation has begun.
In January, social media posts surfaced showing Sessions in a high-rise Manhattan boardroom. There was no indication as to where he was or why. About a month later, on Feb. 7, High Standardz announced that it had inked a deal for Sessions with Def Jam.
Jeremy “J Dot” Jones and Vince Chapa, who have known each other for more than 10 years, founded High Standardz in Dallas. Over the last seven months, Jones and Chapa helped orchestrate a strategic national media blitz for Sessions.
On July 4, Sessions announced via social media that his third studio album, RVLTN: Divided States of AmeriKKKa (Chapter 1), will release July 20.
The High Standardz headquarters is nestled on the east side of Deep Ellum, a few blocks away from most of the music venues and restaurants. On a recent Friday afternoon, Chapa, the company's vice president, hosted a tour of the digs. The office is spacious and open with concrete floors, 12-foot ceilings and bare white walls. The tour concluded in the work space of Jones, CEO and president, where he and Chapa shared details about how their company developed its deal with Def Jam.
High Standardz began in 2015, but the seeds for its success were planted long before. Jones and Chapa have extensive resumes, each with nearly 20 years of talent management and A&R experience. Jones has managed rapper Yelawolf since 2005 and spent most of his career based in Atlanta working in a managerial and A&R capacity via Redd Klay Management.
Chapa, a Dallas native and NYU graduate, worked in artist management at Columbia Records, Star Trak and Def Jam before moving to L.A., where he became the manager for Frank Ocean and producer Malay.
In 2012, Chapa moved back to Dallas to start the next chapter of his career.
“Being from Dallas, I wanted to shine a light on the talent here," he says. "I was keeping my ear to the street, trying to find what I thought showed promise and had potential to get to the next level. I had been telling J Dot about the Dallas scene and keeping him abreast of everything that was going on. One of the first acts I picked up on and had interest in working with was Blue, The Misfit.”
At that time, Sessions and Blue, The Misfit were members of the hip-hop collective Brain Gang, which also comprised 88 Killa, Xes, Ca$hmir and Justus (who later signed with Dr. Dre).
“I’ve known Bobby since he was a kid; he had just started college at that time,” Chapa recalls. “He was one of those diamonds in the rough, but you could see the potential.”
2012-14 was a difficult time for Sessions. Brain Gang disbanded; his cousin James Harper was shot and killed at the hands of law enforcement; he dropped out of college and struggled to make enough money for basic needs.
“Bobby was going through a lot at that time," Chapa says. "He was just trying to find himself. After he watched The Secret and studied a lot of the principles he applies to his life and music today, he reached out to me."
In 2015, Sessions invited Chapa to hear some of his new music and proposed that they work together. Sessions previewed the early recordings of what eventually became his acclaimed debut album, L.O.A., released in November 2015.
L.O.A. became the foundation upon which High Standardz was built.
“'Black Neighborhood' did it for me, hands down,” Jones says, speaking about the first time he heard Sessions’ music.
"Black Neighborhood" is a song that paints a picture of the good, bad and ugly that exist in many predominantly African-American. The song features ominous keys sprinkled over hard-hitting bass lines with Sessions displaying a cleverly constructed couplet rhyme scheme throughout.
"It almost scared me," Jones says. "I felt like this is so special. We need to build around it."
Jones and Chapa assessed the music scene in Dallas and believed it was prime real estate for breaking new talent.
“From the outside looking in, I think what the artists here see as maybe holding them back is really an opportunity,” Jones says. “It’s dope to be in a market this size that isn’t as developed. We believed if we had the right acts and put a good plan together, we should look at creating something here, the right way, organically. When building an artist from the ground up, you want to start somewhere that has great fans, and the thing about Dallas is it’s a hot hip-hop market.”
"J Dot and I, we’re about building careers — that’s important to us," Chapa adds. "We’re not about one-hit wonders. Everyone we work with, we believe in them and the longevity of their career. We see Bobby being around for 20-plus years and having a career he can tour off of as long as he wants to.”
Jones and Chapa didn’t pursue major label deals for Sessions right away. They decided to invest time into honing his stage presence. They saw greatness in what Sessions was creating in the studio, but much of it was without formula, so they helped him develop methods to re-create those moments.
“Our plan was to not rush things," Jones says. "We decided to wait and help him figure things out. We felt if this kid can crack the code, this could be huge and have a worldwide impact."
With the recording process complete, Jones says, they were adamant about making sure Sessions was “doing the reps” — a reference to the barrage of performances they lined up after the release of the album. The intent was to groom Sessions into a complete artist. Jones and Chapa wanted to ensure fans would not experience a drop-off in quality, whether they saw him live or listened to his recordings.
After the release of L.O.A., Sessions’ fame and fan base quickly grew. His sophomore album, Grateful, came out in May 2017, building on the momentum of L.O.A. Jones and Chapa received interest from major labels that wanted to sign Sessions, but again they decided to be patient.
For popular independent musicians, signing with a major label can be a tough decision. Remaining independent can ensure a level of creative control for artists that can be compromised once they sign with a large company. Staying independent can also limit the fan base of artists because they simply don’t have the access to the marketing machines and distribution channels that major labels provide — preventing them from reaching their full earning potential.
Chapa and Jones agree no easy answer exists for this decision.
“In today’s music climate, everyone is screaming, 'Stay independent,'” Chapa says. “Everyone says do it yourself — it’s better that way, and there are definitely some truths to that. But I think it’s a case-by-case scenario.”
As Jones and Chapa deliberated their next move, they received word that a deal with Def Jam might be a possibility. In August 2017, Paul Rosenberg, Eminem’s manager and a co-founder of Shady Records, was named CEO of Def Jam Recordings. Rosenberg and Jones have known and worked with each other for years via Yelawolf, who is on the Shady Records roster.
Signing with Def Jam seemed appealing, and Sessions' growth as an artist made Jones and Chapa believe he was ready for a bigger stage.
“It began with the music. Bobby was in the zone,” Jones says, referring to a series of studio sessions with producer and frequent collaborator Joel “Sikwitit” Garcia.
Sessions and Sikwitit consider this period in 2017 as pivotal in both of their careers.
“I felt really unstoppable during that time," Sessions says. "I was literally recording music every single day. We created some pretty undeniable content. I was inspired by the fact that the most iconic rap label of all time wanted to do business with me. You should consider switching careers if that doesn’t inspire you.”
Sikwitit, who produced a large portion of Sessions’ Def Jam debut, says they were focused. He believes he and Sessions connect because of the hard times they’ve both been through. Sikwitit's lights have been shut off, and at times he's had no money to put gas in his car or to pay the rent. The shared difficult times played a part in establishing the pair's musical chemistry.
“With Bobby, I found a very rare gem," Sikwitit says. "Something that was initially going to be a one- or two-song collaboration grew into something different. When me and Bobby started working, I realized I have an opportunity to help break an artist right now, which a lot of people don’t get that chance. This wasn’t us creating a hit song; this was us creating a body of work, and I had the freedom to display who I am as a producer.”
With new music in tow, Jones flew to New York for a formal pitch with Rosenberg. From there, things moved quickly. A follow-up meeting was scheduled before Christmas for Sessions to meet Rosenberg in person.
“I remember being extremely focused leading up to the Paul Rosenberg meeting,” Sessions says. "I was 100 percent ready, and I knew everything would work out. J Dot did a great job preparing me for the meeting. I explained my vision to Paul, and he shared his vision of Def Jam to me. We knew it would be a perfect fit.”
Rosenberg’s tenure as Def Jam CEO began Jan. 1. He kept his word and started putting things in place to make the deal with Sessions and High Standardz official.
“That’s one of the things I love about Paul and his team — they do what they say they’re going to do," Jones says. "The people at Def Jam do things the right way. Paul isn’t in this for money. He wants to make an impact and return Def Jam back to what we all knew when we were growing up."
When the deal was finished, Sessions shared his accomplishment with those closest to him.
“The first thing I did was drink a bottle of Champagne with Vince and J Dot in Manhattan," Sessions says. "I spoke with Zyah, my labelmate/girlfriend, and my parents shortly after. It was a really big moment for everyone."
Jones and Chapa believe Sessions has the ability to be an artist with a global fan base, and a partnership with Def Jam will help them achieve that goal. Digital sales and streaming dominate the music industry, but for an artist with international aspirations, physical sales can still be a formidable revenue stream. In 2016, the physical sector accounted for 34 percent of the global market and led in countries such as Japan and Germany, which are major hubs for hip-hop music, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. High Standardz plans to use Def Jam’s distribution network to build a presence in these markets.
The current High Standardz roster includes Sessions, Zyah, Xes, Jason Burt of Medicine Man Revival, Blue, The Misfit and Dr. Dre protégé Justus. Jones and Chapa plan to guide the artists' careers according to what is best for each of them, and working with a major label isn’t necessary for everyone to succeed. Still, the connection with Def Jam helps anyone involved with High Standardz.
Jones and Chapa pride themselves on being innovative and finding ways to evolve in the music business. They believe perseverance and adaptability are key and offer a few thoughts for up-and-coming members of the Dallas music scene.
“In the music industry, you have to be able to adapt," Chapa says. "You can’t get stuck in the same model because it can change tomorrow. Here locally, Deep Ellum is very sought after, but at the same time it’s really small. It’s one corner of the city. It’s true there are certain gatekeepers, but that’s the case in every city. You can’t be intimidated by that, and you can’t be mad about it because it exists everywhere in every industry.”
Chapa also advises artists to make sure they are cultivating products that stand out and not get discouraged.
"Just be consistent," he says.
High Standardz hopes its success will extend to the entire Dallas music scene and not just its roster. Opportunities for artists to present their music on larger platforms are a major component to helping Dallas reach its full potential. Talented A&R reps, managers and people working behind the scenes for musicians are needed to make this happen.
This is an area in which both Jones and Chapa want to make a difference.
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“We’re staffing up right now," Jones says. "We’re looking for people who want to get real experience in the music business. If you really want to learn how this works from the business side, we’re looking for the brightest minds who have hustle to be a part of this team. Just as we’re signing and developing artists, we want to start developing the next executives."
He encourages artists and execs to look for silver linings in moments of adversity.
“Oftentimes when people see something to complain about, it’s really an opportunity," Jones says. "The music industry is the wild, Wild West right now; it’s a gold rush. There are no rules. You can define the rules for yourself. But if you’re negative, you’ll just miss the wave. If you believe in what you’re doing, you’ll find a way. Artists and their teams just have to buckle down and work harder.
"If you want to make this your career, take the clocks off the wall, get rid of your calendar, put all of your energy into it and move accordingly. If your music is good and if this is meant for you, it will happen."