7:16 am Aug. 11, 20101
"What kind of name is Laurent Luke?" a reporter asked a tall, dapper 21-year-old who had just finished a performance in Saint Albans Park in Queens on an afternoon early this summer. "What do you have to say to your gay audience?" asked another. Luke thought for a moment, then answered calmly.
After the questions, a group of screaming, applauding young women ran towards him, thrusting notebooks at him to sign. Through the onslaught, Luke maintained his professional demeanor—which is, in his manager's words, "that of an urban gentleman."
Then the reporters and the fans were told that they could stop. Luke had done well enough, and it was time for laps and pushups. The reporters were fake reporters. The women were fake fans. The whole setup—makeshift stage and all—was what his manager, Steven Carthan, calls "R&B boot camp."
Carthan is the man who is trying to make Laurent Luke an R&B star. He is 25, not much older than his client, but he has wanted to work in the music industry for more than two decades, ever since his father bought him his first drum set. With little money and few connections, he is trying to get his company, Start 2 Finish Productions and Publishing, off the ground, and Laurent Luke is the key to his plan.
ON A WITHERINGLY HOT THURSDAY IN EARLY JUNE, CARTHAN drove me through Saint Albans, a neighborhood of one– and two-story homes in the far east end of Jamaica where he lives with his father, mother, a sister, and three brothers. He has a lot of energy, and when he speaks his deep voice is forceful, direct, and certain. He typically wears T-shirts, but he said he was thinking of switching his style as he pulled a brand-new polo out of the back seat of the car.
Carthan currently represents two groups. One is a hip-hop collective called LOWFI, or Locked On Wisdom For Insight, that models itself after socially-conscious groups like The Roots. Carthan plays drums for LOWFI, and one of his childhood friends plays the keyboard. But he is staking the future of the company—as well as his time, energy, and all his money—on the second act, Laurent Luke.
"There are days I don't eat," he told me, "so that Luke can go into the studio."
He brought me to meet Luke at a Starbucks just off a highway on Long Island. The boyishly handsome singer, who was born in Haiti and lives in Elmont, on the border of Queens and Nassau, seemed out of place; he had two large, sparkling earrings and wore a black suit and brown leather shoes. Luke does, in fact, carry himself like a gentleman, and his manners seem too naturally good to be the product of training. He speaks quietly, never interrupts, and considers his words carefully. He kept running his hands down his lapels to smooth out any wrinkles. He has been fixated on his image ever since he decided to become an R&B singer.
"Soon as I started taking this seriously," he told me, "I started dressing this way. I never leave the house without looking a certain way."
Luke began taking things seriously three years ago, when he graduated from Elmont Memorial High School.
"First I tried getting beats," he said. He had seen some of his friends, other 17– and 18-year-old singers who were already playing small local shows, getting music from producers based in Queens and Long Island. But these producers wouldn't share with him.
"I didn't have any credibility. Nobody knew my name," he said. "Some producers would let me use their studios to record over industry beats"—samples of songs already released and recorded—"but they were charging me $30 an hour."
Luke figured he could do it for free, so he did. Every night of his freshman year at Nassau Community College, he wrote songs over all the instrumental samples he could find on YouTube.
"In seven months," he said, "I put out over two hundred songs."
He would time himself to see if he could write under pressure. In the mornings, he would run along the placid, suburban streets of Elmont while singing, to build up his vocal stamina.
He specializes in the kind of earnest, love-torn R&B popularized by performers like D'Angelo and Maxwell, though on his MySpace page, in the "Sounds Like" space, he writes, "arrrgh they would always want you sounding like someone......giving you no room to make your own Sound......"
Luke first started writing love songs at an early age, saying that he learned "by listening to my sisters and her friends talk about their relationships."
He began singing in church, and while he wants eventually to include gospel values in his songs, he focuses on love.
"But the clean part of love," he said.
He's not interested in R. Kelly-esque sex romps. Luke's lyrics are plain, sweet, and a bit banal—a typical line: Don't ever be scared to trust / If you try to lock away your love/ make sure you give me a key—but his pleading, slightly husky voice adds a hint of eroticism.
"I would record my voice, then play it back to myself," Luke said of his early days of marathon songwriting. "If I liked it, I would play it to my older sister. She didn't used to like my music, so I knew that if she thought it was all right, then it must have been good."
He smiled widely. He has told this story to fake reporters a few times before.
"I was working with another producer—"
"Don't say his name," Carthan interrupted, suddenly focused. And then, to me: "Just call him John Doe."
Luke shrugged his shoulders, and got the story back on track. He had been out late one night in January, 2009 with his friends at the USA Diner in Rosedale when he overheard Carthan, who was at a nearby table, talking about his budding production company. Luke introduced himself as a singer, and Carthan challenged him to serenade the entire diner. Luke did well enough that Carthan told him to call the next day. He did, and—after the difficult work of extricating Luke from some contractual obligations to "John Doe"—they've been in business ever since.
The past year-and-a-half has been focused on vocal training, making money by writing lyrics for other singers, and, of course, developing his image.
"You never know who is going to see you when you go out at night," Luke said. "Someone important might see me in these clothes and ask about who I am."
At this point Carthan leaned in and gave one of his rare smiles.
"The truth is," he said, "you gotta fake it till you make it."
"WE HAVE THREE CONTRACTS WITH LUKE," CARTHAN explained to me a few days later. "A production contract, a publishing contract and a manager's contract." All of which means that Carthan is responsible for every element of Luke's career, from physical fitness to distribution.
We were in Carthan's backyard, sitting at a small glass table with his business partner, Carl Patton-Radjpaul. Carl is a large man, 28 years old, with sharp eyes behind a thick pair of glasses. He seemed distracted, almost suspicious, when we began talking. But the discussion of the production company enlivened him. He said that he and Carthan hire Luke's stylists and the vocal trainers.
"We have backup artists," he said. "We had to hire an assistant once, a graphic designer."
All this is paid for, as they said time and time again, "out of pocket." The two men fund the operation entirely on their own. They have decided, after surveying the field, the available talent, and the current means of listening to and sharing music, that they have a greater chance of success creating their own production company than by marketing Laurent to the major record labels.
Patton-Radjpaul leaned back in his chair and became expansive as he talked about the state of the music industry.
"These days, people are better able to do it themselves," he said.
When he mentioned record labels like Sony Red and Universal Subsidiaries, he pointed at the ground as if at their corpses.
"They're losing to the independent labels."
In the age of Twitter and MySpace, an artist can reach a large audience without the advertising resources of a major label.
"Everyone hates the labels," he said, laughing. "They're a bunch of snakes in the grass."
Making it on your own is one of the primary narratives of hip-hop and R&B. Easy-E is often cited as the first of the self-produced superstars of hip-hop. Allegedly using drug money, E started Ruthless Records in 1987 and produced N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton in 1988 and his own, multiplatinum solo album Eazy-Duz-It the same year.
"Easy was the first ever," Patton-Radjpaul said, "but P took it to another level."
Indeed: At one point (five years before declaring bankruptcy), southern rapper Master P's label, No Limit Records, was but one subsidiary of a bona fide media empire, including No Limit Clothing, No Limit Films and No Limit Sports Management, as well as a real estate company and travel agency. What are frequently derided as the materialism and arrogance of hip-hop and R&B seem more innocuous—and even inspirational—when one takes into account this history of independence and self-marketing.
At a very small company, of course, it is easier to realize a return on investment.
Dipset is a favorite example for Patton-Radjpaul. The Harlem-born collective broke away from Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella Records (which is itself a subsidiary of Universal Music Group) to start Diplomat Records.
"They don't even have to sell very well," Patton-Radjpaul said. "They pocket all the proceeds from album sales, radio and live shows, and they walk away with 1.2 million off an album that only did OK."
So the men feel confident in their prospects.
"I've seen everyone do it," Patton-Radjpaul said, "from the South, to the Midwest and West Coast."
The temptation that drives Carthan and Patton-Radjpaul is an old one: cut out the middlemen and recoup the lion's share from album sales and performances. But they are not the first to do this math, and Start 2 Finish Productions faces intimidating competition: other independent labels, such as Asphodel and 212 Records, and those big media empires, dying but still powerful.
"Everybody out here has the same ambition," Patton-Radjpaul said. The men were silent for a momentas they considered this. Carthan became pensive, until he broke into a scowl and said, finally, "I don't have time to worry. This is it. It's do or die." He gestured at his backyard, at the wrought-iron fence, the plastic table and basketball hoop. "I've invested everything, everything I have."
CARTHAN BEGAN WORKING WITH OTHER musicians as a teacher. At 14, when he had been playing drums for 11 years, his father rented a space in Rochdale Village, Queens, and opened a music school.
"I can remember handing out flyers for the center outside Pathmark," he said. "We had a lot of people go through that school."
But, soon after, he took up with a rough crowd, and at 16 he was sent to the New York National Guard Challenge Program—"boot camp," he calls it.
"The kids out there were really rough," he said. "You couldn't sleep. People were getting beat, throwing boots. At night I would go outside and pray to God."
This was the first time Carthan had taken to religion.
"I didn't know any prayers, I didn't know how to pray, so I recited lines from DMX songs," he said.
Before long, other boys from the program joined him, until the nightly excursions became more like meetings. Carthan became known as Reverend DMX.
He paused for a long while before saying, calmly, "I could have been any of those kids out there. They were crazy. They had no structure. That's what these kids need these days, structure and discipline."
We were sitting in the main hallway of a public elementary school in Bed-Stuy, where Carthan works as a school aide. It is a small school, and noise from the classrooms carried through the building. Carthan's official duties include maintaining computers and retrieving office supplies for teachers, but his real job seems to be handling the students who are sent out of the classrooms.
"The kids here," he said, shaking his head. "Sometimes they really lose it."
So he has begun an after-school program, serving some of the most difficult students and training them to be members of a drum line. "We do it military-style," he said.
At a performance in front of the student body in April, Carthan had his group march toward the stage in precise lockstep. When they performed, it silenced the boisterous auditorium. The students in the drum line were stone-faced, calling to each other as they kept up a rapid, heart-pounding rhythm. When they finished, the auditorium erupted, but the drummers, silently and in tandem, tucked their sticks under their arms and calmly marched behind Carthan out of the room.
"I don't know how he does it," one teacher told me. "He's the only one they'll listen to." One student, another teacher said, will focus only when he's threatened with the loss of his drumming privileges.
A FEW WEEKS LATER, WE WERE BACK IN CARTHAN'S backyard. Patton-Radjpaul told me that, if they are successful, they want "to reinvest in the community. Like Steven and his father's drum school."
Patton-Radjpaul, too, attended the Challenge Program "boot camp," a few years before Carthan.
"The kids out here have no structure," he said.
"There's no structure within the community." Carthan added. "The kids are bored. If we had the money, we could build a center for kids to come and be themselves. For kids who don't just want to play basketball all day."
Patton-Radjpaul looked down at his hands and said, "If you're bored, the gangs will give you something to do."
Their ambitions sometimes seem outlandishly grand. But Carthan believes that is precisely what will carry them to success.
"You don't understand," he said, repeating the words he uses over and over. "We want this more than anyone else out there. Other people don't have our hunger."
Patton-Radjpaul nodded in agreement, but added, as if translating Carthan's vague words into practical terms, "If we can get a buzz off a first single, maybe a ringtone. If we could get a commercial, then we're already in business."
Shrugging, he poured himself a cup of ginger ale.
Three years after spending his nights on Youtube, Laurent Luke is now receiving beats from producers. He is currently in the studio with Red Spyder, a producer who has worked with Lauren Hill and Mary J. Blige, recording his first single; a mid-tempo love jam called "Finest:" Yeah, they call me Superman / and I'm flying super high / You could be my Lois Lane / We could take it super high.
"I'm going to take it round to Power 105, 93.5, Hot 97," Patton-Radjpaul said. "It's getting big. You ask people around here, they know who Laurent Luke is."
Carthan told me, "Check out his MySpace page, or Facebook. He's also on—what's it called?" He looked to Patton-Radjpaul for help, but found the word: "Twitter." Before I left, he handed me a business card, then pulled it back. It was a sample from the designer, the only one he had.