Here’s the Story of How Mello Music Group Defiantly Built a Haven for Real Hip-Hop (Interview)
For the better part of the last decade, as independent label mainstays have been closing up their doors, going on hiatus, or reconfiguring their audience, Mello Music Group has secured a foundation. The Tucson, Arizona-based label has cultivated new voices, redeveloped lyrical legends, and built an industry model rooted in commissioning art, establishing organic chemistry, and looking for enduring music before return on investment.
Mello Music Group is the brainchild of Michael Tolle. The thirty-something former educator and DJ entered the music industry amidst its great decline of the mid-2000s. A purist at heart, Tolle stressed the value of vinyl and CDs in the face of the digital boom, he asserted paying talent for their work, and believed in creating an idyllic environment for creativity, authenticity, and evolving voices. The conversation grew, and by 2015, Mello has re-introduced Oddisee and Apollo Brown to audiences, and been a place of refuge for veterans such as Ras Kass, O.C., and Open Mike Eagle. From year-end lists to Rap/Hip-Hop charts, BET backroom appearances, and collaborations with iconic figures, Mello Music Group is now a destination label.
In preparation for the just-released Persona compilation, Tolle spoke at length with Ambrosia For Heads. He explains how he’s trying to make Soundboming-like compilations and assume the vacancy Rawkus Records seemingly left a decade ago. Tolle shares some of his philosophies on business, art, and building a fan-base from the ground up. Few behind-the-scenes players in Hip-Hop know their catalog as well as Michael Tolle, and this is one persona fighting the good fight, and seemingly turning naysayers into bystanders of his record company renaissance.
Ambrosia For Heads: Firstly, it’s great to speak with you after years of following Mello Music Group. This Persona album is really phenomenal. For me, I’ve been so jaded with Rap compilations. I remember growing up, buying soundtracks, buying label compilations, buying NBA Hip-Hop compilations. In the burst of the industry bubble, compilations became a bit obsolete. This is not Mello’s first compilation, by any means, but I will say it is the best.
So many of the songs on Persona are about the here-and-now that we’re dealing with as a nation as a human race. Tell me about you fighting the good fight, as far as Hip-Hop compilations, and what really stands out to you about Persona…
Michael Tolle: Much like you were saying, I remember these amazing compilations. They were nothing less than a great album to me, whether they were Soundbombing, or anything else. They were things I looked forward to. For some reason, in recent times, it seems like people use them as throwaways. For me, running the label, they’ve always been like my personal chance to put my album out the way that I would. Instead of just putting anything out on there, my battle is always with the artists, letting them know how important it is to me: this is like my record, so don’t give me throwaways. Because if they make an amazing track, they want to hold it for their record. This is my one chance a year to show what I can do. It’s sort of my vicarious executive producer’s role. Often, I’ll pick the beats. Sometimes I pick who is collaborating with who, and arrange it. While the artists do all the actual work, I take it really personal—as far as the artwork and stuff too.
On [Persona], I think I finally really got in the groove. I know what I’m looking for, and I brought my A-game. The nice thing about the compilation is artists don’t have to wait for their whole record to be done, don’t have to wait for the schedule to open up. We can get this out well in advance, so people can really digest the material.
For me, the political [side] or the activism within Hip-Hop, it’s always been there—at least when you’re dealing with the genuine music that I listen to that comes from an organic place and not a studio deadline, or a corporate office. So I feel like with so much happening in the American landscape today, in recent months and years, everybody is feeling. It just came out of them, and was truly expressed. I was glad to hear it. I had a few people ask me, “Are you sure you want to put something so political out there?” I was thinking, “Of course we do! That’s what this music is and always has been—at least when it’s good.” That’s where this came from.
Ambrosia For Heads: It’s a bad analogy, but it’s not unlike playing God—or online dating. You’re taking an O.C., who may or may not have heard of an Apollo Brown, and having them make an incredible album together, in Trophies. Obviously, Phonte and Oddisee are contemporaries, they came into this thing at the same time—maybe Oddisee even earlier, actually. This is the first time I remember them working together, and to me, “Requiem” is the best song I’ve heard in 2015. For you, it’s gotta be weird to put two strangers in a room and see what happens…
Michael Tolle: That’s what my job has been since the beginning, with the label, in general. It’s finding things and knowing the artist well enough to know things will blend even when they don’t think that they will. Because Hip-Hop has such a crew mentality, that nobody ever wants to work with anybody outside of their group. That’s exactly what fans want them to do. For me, it’s always been about finding people that once they get in the room, or once they start talking on the phone, they’re gonna be as inspired as I am by the idea of it. That’s a huge thing for me.
The other part is, as a label, we don’t have the traditional five guys. “You’re the soldier, you’re the general, you’re the lady, you’re the sex symbol…” To me, as a label, we’re much broader than that. At night, I might want to sit down with my kid, or take my wife out on a date on Friday. Or, I might want to go to the gym. Or, I might just be in battle-mode or something. I need different music for those time frames, but I generally listen to the same spectrum of music within Hip-Hop, Soul, Funk, and so, my roster reflects that. Somehow, I’ve got to convince people that yes, Open Mike Eagle can stand beside Ras Kass, Apollo Brown, Oddisee, Red Pill…all these different sounds actually do go together and fit very well. This compilation is my chance to show that, and I work on that. [Chuckles]
Ambrosia For Heads: We are living in an age when so many artists are emailing each other beats, verses, and stuff. At a certain point, about 10 years ago, it became wildly noticeable to me as a listener that something was synthetic, or “ordered off of MySpace.” Mello has seemingly challenged that, and sent artists to record in a room together, shoot press shots together, etc. Tell me about the value of that in a penny-pinching industry…
Michael Tolle: For me, there’s two versions of this that happened. One is the chemistry. You have chemistry from growing up together, knowing each other. The other is the organic process of building. I want to capture that, whether that ends in destruction and you guys hate each other, or they end up being great friends. You mentioned Apollo. Essentially [in making Blasphemy] with Ras Kass, the same thing happened. Apollo and Ras talk on the phone, they agree they want to do some work together, they admire each other’s body of work—but they don’t know each other, in that sense. The difference in what we do is at that point, then they gotta meet. They’ve got to get together. It might just be for a few days—or in Ras’ case with Apollo, it was a week. Then, they go back to work, they do their separate things, and then we have them back together. We try to have them back together when they do the video shoots, shows, etc. By the end of the campaign for the record, six months into it, they genuinely know each other from doing a lot together. So it becomes more…they grow together with time—and sometimes they grow apart. In most of the cases, it’s really positive.
Ambrosia For Heads: There was a time, and I’m sure you lived this too, when consumers could trust a record label. If you saw that Main Source was on Wild Pitch Records, you’d be curious about The Coup, even if you never heard of them, or weren’t buying Bay area Rap. Vinyl culture had a lot to do with this, but so many labels created a standard and launched careers from the platform. Mello is one of the few imprints I feel any semblance of that with now. I remember taking a greater interest in Has-Lo’s In Case I Don’t Make It, or The Left’s Gas Mask, two of my favorite Mello releases, simply because I trusted the brand, based on Oddisee or Georgia Anne Muldrow. How important is to you, even if it only applies to a few select die-hards, to have created that aesthetic?
Michael Tolle: It’s everything to me. That’s exactly who I was as a fan, and that’s what I want to be. We can all do anything in life. We can work management at a corporation, become singers, dancers. So if you choose something, you’ve got to put everything into it. With me and music, essentially, I’m a selector or a taste-maker in some sense. If I’m gonna do this right, I’ve got to really know what I’m doing. While I can’t change my personal taste to make people like me, one of the processes that I do—and I always say this, “If I haven’t listened to a record 100 times, front-to-back, then I don’t know it.” While most things I listen to for pleasure outside of the label, I can’t say I know like that. But by the time any Mello release comes out, I’ve played it front-to-back at least 100 times—usually, a lot more than that. I’ve got to see, before I buy a record from somebody or cosign it, that I can still listen to it, and know which tracks evolve and change, and which tracks are weak, and which tracks are strong.
One of the things I’ll tell the artists is, “If we lose everything on this, and nobody likes it, I really don’t care, because I’m confident that this is an amazing record.” We have our slips and falls. We have our moments. But there’s usually reasons why it’s picked up, even the ones that don’t do well. I usually can stand by that and feel very confident, personally. That’s because I’ve listened. That’s one thing in the industry that kills me, is I don’t think people are listening. I think a lot people buy records, and listen to it once, or pick their six songs. I miss the era in the industry when people were listening all the way through, all the time.
Ambrosia For Heads: Do you think that it comes from over-saturation?
Michael Tolle: Sure. It comes with trying to keep up with everything, and I’m guilty of it too. But you have to force yourself. It’s like reading a book—it’s hard nowadays. It’s hard in a fast-moving life to read a novel that might take you two weeks, at three hours a day. Most people won’t commit that kind of time to things. For me, I want the consumer to not have to make that kind of decision. I’ve already committed to it for you, so you can at least come in here with something that’s quality.
Ambrosia For Heads: I think it’s super corny when people come into the music business and want to be treated like artists. I’ve read maybe only one interview with you. For more than five years, I’ve been covering Mello and only now are we ever speaking. I’d like to know more about your background, and your deliberate choice to play the background…
Michael Tolle: I grew up, and the first thing I remember is the Ice-T Power tape. It was Public Enemy, and Sir Mix-A-Lot’s Swass, and all that was what we were getting into when we were real, real little. I think I finished high school having never been good at anything. I had never committed myself to being great. It came to a point in my life where I started getting older, my early twenties, and I’m saying, “I’d like to see what I can actually do myself.” I was graduating college, I had a degree in English, and I was trying to write stories in fiction, English Literature, and teaching. I had been DJ’ing and making tapes to pay for things, and having fun. I end up graduating in 2007, 2006, and everything crashes. There’s no economy, there’s no market, there’s no jobs. So I start my own little teaching company for foreign international students coming over from Asia with their parents on sabbatical. I’m teaching the kids.
I started making a little money—which nowadays isn’t much money. Then, it was to me. I didn’t know where to put it, ‘cause you couldn’t buy stocks, couldn’t buy real estate, if you were smart. So I said, “Well, I love music, and I know a little bit about this. Let me try to support some of these artists, ‘cause it seems like some of the infrastructure has fallen out.” Everybody was like, “You’re crazy. Why would you get into music now? Everything is free. Everything is over.” It was ideal timing, because they were right. All these big [labels] had these infrastructure: offices, A&R’s, staff, all these things to support and they couldn’t, and the sales were falling. I was coming in with, “Let’s do this digital, and then let’s revive vinyl, but in small quantities, and build it the way we want to build it.” Artists were receptive, because somebody was giving them a paycheck. It was the perfect time to get into it for me. It was never about dollars to me, in the [capitalistic] sense. Even today, I don’t really care about money—but of course we all want it. You just got to remember it’s a representation. If I want to create a video or a song, or take an artist somewhere to do something, I only look at the price to need to know what I’ve got to do to get that done. Then, somebody should be willing to support it if you do it well enough. In that case, it’s me, most of the time. So that’s how I do it: create the things I want, and worry about the price tag after. And then go get that amount.
For a lot of the years when I was starting, I was still working 60 hours a week at my other company, and then working 60 hours here, and maybe sleeping three or four hours a night for three or four years. I paid the cost in health a little bit, got out of shape, but then things took off. Now I’m able to do what I do now, and enjoy it.
Ambrosia For Heads: There seems to be two schools of thought. People either imagine a label owner something like the Jerry Heller caricature of those Dr. Dre videos, smoking cigars and driving a Lincoln Continental, or they dust off labels—especially in Rap, and assume no money can possibly be made—or even break even.
Michael Tolle: Or profitable. That what I was able to do with teaching English Literature. Ask somebody in the field about how those jobs pay. [Laughs] I was in my early twenties making over $150,000 a year doing that, just because I was really working 80 hours. I was passionate about it, I loved it. I think that’s something that’s true in any field.
You can be as rich as you want to be if you understand how to be talented and devote yourself to your craft. The company has been able to make some money, and the artists have been able to make some money. While we’re not a big player yet, we’re all living comfortably, making music. That’s a good thing.
Ambrosia For Heads: I remember speaking to Tanya Morgan, when they were still a trio, seven or so years ago. After the Questlove cosign and the OkayPlayer love, everybody was approaching the guys asking for stuff “on the strength” or with “it’d be a good look.” The infrastructure of paying artists for art seemed dead around the time 2010 hit. Speaking recently to Diamond D, he bigged up Mello for cutting a check without fuss and muss. How important is it, as a culture, that we get back to funding artists, even from the label to artist perspective?
Michael Tolle: [Laughing] That is the most beautiful thing in the world. That’s exactly what we think is important. Facts are facts. If an artist is worth $1, try to give ‘em $10, and he’s gonna be grateful. If he’s not, you’re not in the wrong. You’ve got to learn people’s value, and always give more than you can. It really does come back. It’s not just the musicians, but it’s the photographers, the illustrators, the graphic designers—we are building the industry, literally, with the people we choose to work with. When we started, it might be $200 for a beat. But guys were happy to get that ‘cause they were [used to getting nothing]. Then you give them $500, then $1,000, then $2,000, and they appreciate that—and they keep coming back. That’s how me and Oddisee started. “Send me a beat tape,” and I might buy one beat for a few hundred dollars. Then I buy three. Then I’m paying $500. Suddenly, I’m offering him a deal for his [101 album]. We’ve always made an effort to pay as much as we can, and re-invest. Some people have always made more money and [still] wanted more, and others are surprised we paid them that much. I know what the records make and how much I can do, and I offer as much as I can that makes sense. We just built our own industry, that’s all it is.
Ambrosia For Heads: Tucson is becoming an interesting epicenter of independent Hip-Hop. You’re there, Murs is there, Isaiah The Toothtaker, and so forth. As a frequent visitor of Tucson, I know the city has great record stores and book stores, but did you ever see it becoming a source for art of its own?
Michael Tolle: I love the city. I can literally go on my rooftop and see Murs’ [house] down the street. That’s part of the reason I’m here today, because of Murs. We used to stand outside, downtown, and cypher in front of this little Hip-Hop shop that Murs used to run for a while, and then passed off to somebody else. That little store was a major influence for us, and I don’t know how many other people. Everybody asks me, “Why aren’t you in L.A.? Why aren’t you in New York?” ‘Cause this is where I’m from. This is my home, and I like it. If you seek it out, it’s here as a good cultural city.
Ambrosia For Heads: Hearing In Case I Don’t Make It, and later, Conversation B blew my mind. I’d never really heard Has-Lo before, but somehow felt like I did. Similarly, I recall seeing Red Pill perform a small Detroit Rap showcase in South By Southwest in 2011, and absolutely bringing the house down in front of 40 people. To many, these are new artists with a lot of dues paid. Mello takes chances on them, and gives them that album platform. While you work with vets, how important are the new or locally known guys to your mission?
Michael Tolle: Red Pill is the perfect example ‘cause we’re in the middle of doing this right now. It’s an intimate relationship between me and him, where I have to constantly tell him what we’re doing, ‘cause he’s new too. “Every item is sold one at a time, every song is sold one at a time.” The first step, when he’s finished [Look What This World Did To Us] is to convince me that it’s great. It’s me for me to listen to it that much. Once we have me and him on board, I gotta grill him. “Do you love this record, seriously? Can you be performing this six months from now?” We go back and forth until we’re both convinced it’s something that we both love. Then our job is to convince our team, our publicist, the people we interact with before we even think of fans. We think of certain [music journalists] as much as we think of the sites. We think of people. We have to do that one at a time. It really doesn’t take that many people, maybe 100 people who will spread this for you. Once you have that…
That’s why we release more product than a lot of people. I could care less if you go tour for a year. I hope you do, and make your money, ‘cause I love you as a person. But I want you to keep making music, ‘cause that’s what interests me. I hate this lottery that the industry plays. “You’ve been making great music for years. Congratulations! Now I’m going to take you out of your world, put you in amazing hotels every night, have you get drunk and laid every night, have you travel the world but not really see anything or know anybody. Do that for a year and a half, and then when the record is done, and we milk it, go back into the studio and make another one about those experiences.” There’s nothing left. Then, you just become a guy rapping about rapping. I’d rather a musician have a life and keep that life, and just keep making music and developing skills. That’s gonna be interesting to listen.
As an owner and head of a label, I fail if musicians don’t leave this label better than they started as musicians. So that’s what I’m trying to go and do with everybody.
Ambrosia For Heads: As a former DJ, how critical is it to have your releases on physical, CD and vinyl?
Michael Tolle: It’s huge. I think CD is just as important as vinyl. Vinyl is the gateway to people of my generation. You were able to get instrumentals, acapellas; you were able to participate. There’s an engagement that comes from vinyl that does not come from MP3s. CDs were the intellectual component for me. You can carry it with you, you can read the credits. You can read the lyrics. That was important, that experience. One thing I hate in the digital world, is that it’s decided when something is no longer available. It’s something that vinyl Heads understand, because things go out of print. I love having the material manifestation of this stuff out in the world, because if you have it, nobody can take it away. That’s such an important part.
Ambrosia For Heads: I asked you about taking chances on new artists. Mello has also found great success in working with veterans. I am a big fan of both O.C. and Ras Kass, and somehow Trophies or Blasphemy feels bigger, and more complete than some of each’s recent work. Some of the artists Mello works with are perceived in a certain light that appears disproved—Kool Keith and L’Orange’s “Sometimes I Feel” illustrates this on Persona…
Michael Tolle: If I’ve got an artist like Apollo, he’s going to get better by working not just with new artists—which he needs to do—but also with old artists, who can teach him. So, “who are you, 20 years ago?” If I listen to L’Orange, “If you were who you are, in 1990, who would you have been working with?” Probably Del [The Funky Homosapien]. “Are you Dan The Automator of today? Who are you?” Well, he’s just L’Orange. But let’s reach out to some of those people and see how you interact with them, and see how the songs come about. Likewise, “Who’s the young kid who’s going to be you in 10 years?” Let’s try to find them too. So [you have] the passing of the torches, the fan-bases, and the lineage. You create it and reinforce that, and it’s something that’s important to me.
Kool Keith is an example, as one of the greats for me. He’s such an oddball genius, and I just love what he’s done. I always feel like these guys need a producer to hold them in line. When you become a legend, nobody wants to tell you no. They just take whatever they get. All of our producers are strong, in the sense that they’re willing to [be authoritative]. Apollo will cut a Sean Price verse from an album because there’s another Sean Price verse that he likes better. “This one fits too?” He’ll say, “Yeah, but this one’s better. I’ve got two good ones, I’ll use the best,” whereas other people would just use both. He’s willing to make the cuts and to walk away from things. I think that makes some of these legends better too, because in their prime, they had producers more willing to do that for them. That’s something we like to do continue to do.
L’Orange, Apollo, Oddisee are all real hands-on, to the point they’ll get into arguments with some of these MCs. MCs want their vocals up loud, and they want this one ad-lib in there ‘cause they were having fun. [Laughing] The producer has to say, “No. I’m producing. This isn’t what the record is about as a whole, and we need to sacrifice this,” even if [the MC] is somebody bigger than them.
Ambrosia For Heads: My fan-boy question: last year, a Chance The Rapper song emerged, “The Writer,” produced by Apollo Brown. It was among the best Chance songs I’d heard to do date. Very quickly, it was pulled offline. Will fans ever get that properly?
Michael Tolle: Yeah, I would hope those get to the market in a proper way or format. At this point, I can’t say for sure if they will.
Ambrosia For Heads: Your philosophies on running Mello have been really enlightening. More than 10 years ago, I remember working on this Beatnuts interview. It was around Milk Me, and Juju and Psycho Les ultimately said that people’s interest in that album would dictate if there would be another LP. Mello has released so much material, and artists are constantly evolving. As a fan, if I want another Left album, can I dictate that in the marketplace enough to make the label push the button?
Michael Tolle: That’s hard. To me, it’s sort of like summer movies. Every studio releases a sequel, ‘cause they know it will make them money. We almost never make sequels, even though it would probably make us money. We are always running to explore new territory. The only time we’ll generally follow up on some of these projects is if it feels like there’s new music and terrain to be covered. I don’t want to make another Left album—I don’t think Apollo does either—that just rehashes [Gas Mask]. I want if we do it, it to be because [Apollo Brown, Journalist 103 and DJ Soko] are working together and reaching new terrain together. That’s so rare. Often, to find that, you have to go to new places. I feel like a lot of these follow-up albums people want to make, actually will come—but they’ll come a little later than they expected. So instead of a year later or two years later, it might be four years down the road, like Diamond District [following up 2009’s In The Ruff with 2014’s March On Washington]. That’s when I think those occur, with time. Artists, individually, need to develop. That works when they can go off and continue exploring.
Persona is in stores now.