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New York Times | Street Image Helps a Young Rapper, Until It Doesn’t
Hip-Hop Star Bobby Shmurda, in Jail, Finds His Label Unsupportive
In the two months that Ackquille Pollard, better known as the Brooklyn rapper Bobby Shmurda, has sat in jail on gang conspiracy and gun charges, his mother has visited twice a week. His hip-hop idols have offered words of support.
But Mr. Pollard says that he hasn’t heard what he wants from his label, Epic Records — namely a firm reassurance of its backing and help making his $2 million bail: “When I got locked up, I thought they were going to come for me,” he said in an interview from the Manhattan Detention Complex, “but they never came.”
Barely six months ago, Epic, a subsidiary of Sony, wooed Mr. Pollard, 20, with a seven-figure, multi-album deal, largely on the strength of one viral hit, known in its censored version as “Hot Boy.” With the label’s support, that song went on to reach No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.
But now, after Mr. Pollard’s electric performance on “The Tonight Show” and almost 1 million downloads sold — more than 800,000 for “Hot Boy” alone, according to Nielsen Music — Epic has distanced itself, declining, despite pleas from music industry figures like 50 Cent, to help the rapper get out.
CreditKrista Schlueter for The New York Times
Mr. Pollard, who was raised in East Flatbush, is not the first artist to use his hard-knock stories to try to leave behind a bad neighborhood, only to find himself stuck in the world he was rapping about. But his rise and fall at light-speed illustrates the clash that can occur when a music business seeking street credibility signs a rapper hoping to escape the street. Labels may believe that by offering money and celebrity, they are giving troubled youths a path out. But some rappers like Mr. Pollard think, perhaps naïvely, they are receiving that and more — a guiding hand and unyielding loyalty, whatever may come.
Older hip-hop stars remember when labels were full service: 50 Cent recalled getting rappers on his Interscope imprint, G Unit, out of jail in a matter of hours; Suge Knight of Death Row Records infamously paid Tupac Shakur’s bail in exchange for a recording contract.
But as rap has become more corporate, that kind of aid is unusual. Matthew Middleton, Mr. Pollard’s entertainment lawyer, said that while Epic is not obligated to cover bail or legal fees for Mr. Pollard, the artist expected more support, financial and emotional, especially after the label’s spirited pursuit of the rapper made them business partners.
“These companies for years have capitalized and made millions and millions of dollars from kids in the inner city portraying their plight to the rest of the world,” Mr. Middleton said. “To take advantage of that and exploit it from a business standpoint and then turn your back is disingenuous, to say the least.”
Epic declined requests to comment on Mr. Pollard’s status. But industry sources say they understand the company’s reluctance to get involved, given the seriousness of the charges.
Mr. Pollard was arrested for what city prosecutors said was his role as the “driving force” and “organizing figure” behind the street gang known as GS9, an offshoot of the Crips. In one incident just a month before he was signed, prosecutors said, Mr. Pollard shot at his brother, shattering glass at a Brooklyn barbershop. He faces up to 25 years in prison for conspiracy, reckless endangerment and gun possession; others charged, including Mr. Pollard’s childhood friends, face more serious accusations, including second-degree murder.
Mr. Pollard denies the charges. Kenneth Montgomery, his defense lawyer, called the indictment “a glorified gun case at best,” disputing that GS9 was a gang with Mr. Pollard in charge.
Until last summer, the case would have received little attention. Raised by his mother — his father, Gervase Johnson, is serving a life sentence in Florida for attempted murder — Mr. Pollard had dabbled in music, but had also been in and out of juvenile detention centers, once for an arrest for gun possession.
Leslie Pollard, his mother, remembers the date, March 28, that the “Hot Boy” video was released independently online. “I said, ‘Ackquille, this is a hit,’ ” Ms. Pollard, 40, recalled. “I just watched the video over and over.” But the song stayed under the radar until June, when a user on Vine uploaded a six-second clip of Mr. Pollard’s hip-centric “Shmoney Dance,” a move mimicked by N.F.L. players and Beyoncé.
A bidding war commenced among labels. But Epic had an advantage in Michael Clervoix, its executive vice president of urban A&R since 2013. Known as Sha Money XL, he had developed a good reputation among rappers by helping 50 Cent establish himself as a legitimate businessman and global brand.
By July 17, Mr. Pollard had signed with Epic. “They told me they were going to help me make myself a star in the business for a decade,” he said. To sweeten the deal, Mr. Middleton said, Epic gave the rapper his own imprint: GS9 Records, named for his neighborhood crew.
Mr. Pollard announced his arrival with a performance in an Epic conference room. A cellphone video shows a mostly white crowd of employees looking on stiffly as Mr. Pollard, ever limber, mimes shooting with his fingers and jumps on the table, an awkward five minutes that now feel foreboding. L. A. Reid, Epic’s chairman and chief executive, watched with a smile.
Back then, Mr. Pollard seemed relieved. “I don’t want to sell drugs; I’m tired of getting in trouble,” he said in a radio interview the week he was signed.
Initially, Mr. Pollard’s dark, gun-heavy songs were celebrated for being a narration of what goes on in the street. Mr. Pollard raps about selling crack, and says, “Everybody catching bullet holes.”
Now, from jail, Mr. Pollard, who once stood by the veracity of his rhymes, said that the lyrics were “fabricated,” because “that’s what’s selling nowadays.” And, he added, Epic “grabbed me up at a vulnerable time.” He continued: “I was desperate to get out of the ’hood. I knew I was going to lose my life or go to jail.”
But the record deal may have been too late to save him. According to the 101-count indictment, the city had been investigating GS9 since 2013, well before Mr. Pollard became famous.
Mr. Clervoix was at the studio with Mr. Pollard and his friends when they were arrested. In a statement the next day, Mr. Clervoix pointed to his good intentions: “I signed these kids to give them a better way in life,” he said, calling himself “one of the only few black men signing black artists from the streets and giving them a chance.”
Mr. Pollard said Mr. Clervoix has since visited him in jail, but said that the executive would not say whether Epic would help supply the collateral necessary to secure bail, typically a small percentage of the bail plus fees. (Mr. Clervoix declined requests for an interview, saying “Sony does not want me doing any press.”)
Reggie Ossé, an entertainment lawyer who has represented hip-hop figures including Jay Z, likened Bobby Shmurda’s story to that of the rapper Shyne, a former client, who was signed by Bad Boy Records before going to prison for nearly nine years for a shooting at 22.
As with Shyne, “Bobby got this deal from his persona, from this gangster lifestyle,” Mr. Ossé said, “so in a sense the label and listeners are encouraging him.”
But record companies are not built to help artists navigate their way out of their tough circumstances: “The label only cares about what you’re contracted to produce — the deliverables,” Mr. Ossé said. “Who’s that bridge to take you from this world to a safer world? There is no bridge.”
Larry Jackson, a former executive at Sony and at Interscope, said nurturing a volatile artist was a personal decision, not the label’s obligation. Interscope’s former chairman Jimmy Iovine stuck by high-maintenance acts from Suge Knight’s Death Row, Mr. Jackson said, but “that’s a real anomaly for people to go above and beyond.”
More often, that guidance and personal involvement “is reserved for a manager or an attorney — or parents,” he said. “Maybe in healthier times for the music business there would be a little more human compassion. But now, the business is in a really troubled place, and people have other responsibilities, like their own livelihood.”
Epic has likely turned a profit from Mr. Pollard’s music, according to Mr. Middleton. He said that based on sales and the advances Mr. Pollard has received so far — in the low six figures — Epic has “made their money back at least two or three times over.”
He added, “I understand from a corporate standpoint that companies cannot put themselves in a position where it appears they’re supporting and condoning criminal activity. But he hasn’t been found guilty of anything yet.”
Mr. Pollard is now wary of the business he once believed was a lifeline. Should he be released on bail, he will seek a different kind of freedom: “I’m going to try my best to go back on the deal,” he said. “If not, I’ll give them their music and bounce.”