J. Prince & Bun B Discuss Rap-A-Lot Records Ties To Death Row & Beyonce (Video)
2016 marks 30 years since James “J.” Prince launched Rap-A-Lot Records. The Houston, Texas-based independent label would go on to achieve #1 albums, numerous platinum plaques, and a hand in the careers of artists ranging from Scarface to Drake, Tha Outlawz to Trae Tha Truth.
The label’s founder is notoriously reserved from the spotlight. Prince, whose ventures beyond music have included boxing management/promotion and luxury car sales, rarely grants interviews. However, in his native Lone Star State, J was a 2016 South By Southwest keynote speaker. The man who would form the Geto Boys sat down with one of his artists, UGK’s Bun B for an hour-plus conversation on Hip-Hop, Texas, and family.
(4:50) J. Prince explained getting in the music industry in the mid-1980s. Notably, his iconic label’s name came from the stage of James’ brother, Sir Rap-A-Lot “I actually named the company after him. He would rap all the time, 24 hours a day. I didn’t want to see my brother in the streets. I said, ‘You rap, I’ll support you.'” Notably, Sir Rap-A-Lot would be a founding member of the Geto Boys’ lineup. He would be in the group alongside Bushwick Bill in the pre-Making Trouble lineup. Bill (and DJ Ready Red) would stay in the group during its late ’80s transformation, when would-be stars Scarface (as “Akshen”) and Willie D would join the collective.
(8:00) The discussion about the Geto Boys weaves into a bigger conversation. The group had members from Texas, New York, New Jersey, and eventually, Louisiana. “I wanted the group to be a representation of ghettos all over the world. I knew ghettos all over the world to relate to a group called the Geto Boys,” said Prince. “We spoke the language of the ghetto.” Notably, the group would thrive through grassroots promotion and word of mouth for much of the 1980s. Bun B asks Prince about the resistance to the independent southern group with dialect in their verses. “It was very hard. Nobody would embrace that kind of music at the time. I remember going to New York [City] and the Geto Boys performed a song. They booed us. We actually got booed. Of course Willie D didn’t take that well. I recall him wanting to fight the whole venue at the time [laughs]. I know we was outnumbered, but we was together—and we stood like men.”
In 1991, the third studio album of the GB’s, We Can’t Be Stopped would break the Top 25, for a group who had not previously charted in the Top 100. Eventually a platinum album, the group broke through with Top 25 single, “My Mind Playing Tricks On Me.” At the 13:00 mark, Prince explains how the Scarface-produced single changed things for the now-trio. “They would never embrace us, as far as where radio was concerned. [‘My Mind Playing Tricks On Me’] kicked in doors around the world, state-by-state.” The Geto Boys’ next five albums all charted at #26 or better, with several scoring gold and platinum certification. “It was undeniable. It was one of those situations where y’all don’t want to give us our respect, we’re gonna take it.” Bun B recalls the The Source magazine subsequently putting the group on its cover, a first for Texas Hip-Hop.
Later, Bun asks J. Prince about artists that Rap-A-Lot passed on. “Is Mathew Knowles here?,” asks Prince about his professed friend, peer, and father to Beyonce and Solange. “He brought Destiny’s Child to me. I gave Mathew a blank contract, I said, ‘You fill it in.’ I think I kind of spooked him. That was one of the groups [Rap-A-Lot Records passed on], along with Vanilla Ice.” In 1996, the group including Beyonce, Kelly Rowland, LaTavia Roberson, and LeToya Luckett would sign with Columbia/Sony Records. They have since sold more than 15 million albums.
Strangely, Prince would almost be home to a breakthrough southern rapper in Vanilla Ice. Having seen the Miami, Florida native perform in H-Town, Prince took interest. “I took him back to my facility. He stayed in Houston for like a week.” J. believed one of his partners had signed the artist. When he heard “Ice, Ice, Baby” soon after, he believed Rap-A-Lot had struck gold in 1990. Prince recalls saying, “Whoa, I got me a hit,” before learning Ice had in fact signed with EMI-distributed SBK Records. He also believes he had a shot at one of Bun B’s frequent collaborators and inspirations. “Too Short was an artist I feel like I could’ve pursued and got. But a lot of the females that worked for Rap-A-Lot at the time didn’t like the way he used the b-word.” Notably, the Oakland, California Rap pioneer would appear on numerous Rap-A-Lot albums by Seagram, Scarface, and Tela, among others.
(18:00) Along with 2 Live Crew’s Luke Skyywalker, J. Prince would be a pioneering executive in the South. In time, he would mentor No Limit’s Master P, Suave House’s Tony Draper, and Birdman and Slim of Cash Money. “All of ’em were my students, and I’m proud of all of ’em, ’cause they’re all relevant today,” explains Prince. At times, the Rap-A-Lot artist would sign talent that had previously been attached to these labels, including Juvenile, Tela, and Turk.
J. Prince then speaks in-depth about growing up in Houston’s fifth ward. Bun asks his onetime employer about Rap-A-Lot’s practice in hiring felons, and building a company of social second chances. Here, J. Prince made a powerful point about being a “ghetto boy” and a father at the same time. “When it came to raising to my kids, I didn’t allow Hip-Hop to penetrate my household for a lot of years. I didn’t want Hip-Hop raising my kids.” Several of Prince’s sons are in the entertainment and sports industries today, following in dad’s footsteps. “Even in the midst of me protecting them, they found a way to get in. But from a business perspective, there’s so many ways to teach business practices without allowing them to hear the lyrical content.” At ages seven and eight, Prince’s sons could be found around the Rap-A-Lot facility, despite not hearing the lyrics. “I didn’t want them growing up bein’ scared of work.”
(31:00) Today, Jas Prince is someone closely associated with the discovery and subsequent success of Drake. After there was a very public financial dispute over monies owed, which involved J. Prince, the mogul (and Bun) explain just how integral Jas is to Drake’s career. It started in the late 2000s, on a Lil Wayne tour. A conversation between J. and his son urged the younger Prince to make use of his time on the road. The father offered to stake $1 million in a label partnership between Wayne and Jas. Upon Wayne’s alleged interest, Jas brought an artist named Drake to the table. J. Prince recalls, “I wanted to hear Drake. He played me Drake, and Drake was singin’. I was used to that rough edge. I said, ‘Jas, you like this?’ ‘Cause I wasn’t feelin’ it. Jas said, ‘Daddy, this is the new sound. This is the new movement. Trust me.'” Adding the Wayne was also not particularly impressed by what he heard at the time, Prince recalls being off-put by an MC/singer being from Canada. “He said, ‘he buzzin’ in Canada.'” However, another word caught the H-Town exec’s attention. “When he said ‘buzz,’ my ears stood up like a German Shepherd.'” Wayne would subsequently bring Drake into the YMCMB fold. It was around that same time an extremely persistent Jas Prince pressed on “Uncle” Bun B to record a feature for the song that would become “Uptown.”
(39:00) Bun B asks J. Prince about his sports ventures. The promoter and manager who has at times maintained ties to Roy Jones, Jr. and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. initially created the boxing arm of his company to state a point to law enforcement. “I was under attack by the FEDS and different people. They thought I was one-dimensional.” Prince said he legitimized himself as a prominent community member and a businessman by appearing on HBO during high-profile fights. “They looked up and I was right there in the ring with Floyd Mayweather.”
Here, Bun personally reflects on how J. Prince advocates for underdogs. “When my record company didn’t believe me as a solo artist, he did—to the point where [Jive Records] had to come back and apologize.” Notably, Bun released three Top 10 solo albums on Rap-A-Lot between 2005 and 2010. “If there are four pillars in Hip-Hop, there’s North, South, East, and West, and this is the pillar of Southern Hip-Hop.”
(46:00) In response, J. Prince who has parted ways with much of his 2000s roster in the 2010s praised the Port Arthur, Texas MC. “A lot of artists I worked with, I didn’t like. It was just business; I really didn’t like ’em. [Bun B] was one…I love this man right here.”
At 57:00, the floor opens to audience question-and-answer. After several artist-advice driven questions, one audience member from Houston asks Prince about his rumored ties to the earliest days of Death Row Records. Although Prince recently expressed public criticism of Suge Knight, the two men and their rosters worked together extensively throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. “Okay, let’s start with Death Row [Records] because Death Row…a friend of mine at the time, Michael Harris, was the foundation from which Death Row was [started].” Michael Harris is often known as “Harry-O.” Prince explains, “After Rap-A-Lot took off, he called me. He was in the federal penitentiary.” Harris was serving a felony conviction of cocaine trafficking and attempted murder at the time. “He asked me, ‘I hear you’re moving [units]; this is happening. [How can I be involved?].’ I said to him, at that time, ‘Do you know Dr. Dre? Dr. Dre is a genius. Connect with Dr. Dre.’ However he done it, whether it was through Suge [Knight] or [somebody else], that came to fruition. They went and got Dr. Dre. So I didn’t put any money or nothing like that into Death Row, but I influenced [Michael “Harry-O” Harris] to make moves to bring that together.”
Harry-O and his wife Lydia would use attorney David Kenner in the early 1990s to establish Godfather Entertainment. Kenner would eventually become legal counsel of Death Row upon the creation of the company. Michael and Lydia Harris would sue Death Row in the ’90s and 2000s, eventually ending in major settlements during Knight’s ownership of the label. The Harris family has released multiple films and books surrounding the dispute.
J. Prince closes the keynote appearance with some opinions on politics, revealing that President Obama’s election was the first time he voted.
This is an extremely rare video audience from one of Hip-Hop’s longest-lasting independent giants.
#BonusBeat: The aforementioned 1991 Geto Boys Source magazine cover: