First and foremost who is the man behind the Mello Music Group brand?
Mello Music Group is really the whole team - no one person makes us. As for who, let me break it down long form: I (Michael Tolle) founded the label in 2007 after graduating from the University of Arizona in 2006 where I studied English Literature, Composition, and Linguistics. Throughout school I made these "Mello Mixtapes" of music I was listening to that featured local, regional, and national names. My friends threw after hours at clubs and promoted shows to make money too so I was always around in that manner. Once I graduated, I started teaching International students and professors visiting from overseas on sabbatical - I didn't know enough about houses or stocks to invest so I put the money I made into what I knew: Kev Brown beats, Rob Swift Scratches, and Kenn Starr verses!
From there I reached out to Dudley Perkins & Georgia Anne Muldrow to do some verses and singing for me over this Kev beat I had and created the song Agape. Dudley schooled me in many ways for the next year and actually was the minister at my wedding - Georgia was also there too, it was a trip! At the same time I had been buying beats & verses from Oddisee and building a rapport with him. Between Dudley & Oddisee I learned an immense amount. Dudley went on to start his label with Georgia "SomeOthaShip Connect" and Oddisee and I then started working together even more here at MMG. He was doing consulting and helping develop artists along with me. So the label's architecture started with myself, Dudley, and Oddisee. At this point in time it's Oddisee & myself running things with Apollo Brown starting to step up into business affairs as well, Apollo's a workaholic and very business minded too. I still talk with Dudley & Georgia - so we're all trading ideas and advice.
In addition I would be remiss if I didn't mention the support players along the way who taught us the aspects of the game: the marketing people like Audible Treats and Synergy Works. The radio people like Black Fist Radio. And of course the distributors who helped me every step of the way: Demian at Groove Attack, Table Sauce when he was back at FatBeats, Joe Dent over at FatBeats now, and the genius duo of Corey Sheridan & Oz Ogktur at IODA who help every step of the way with our digital game.
Add to it, every musician on the label who gave their heart and talent and time: yU, Has-Lo, Boog Brown, Trek Life, The Left, Hassaan Mackey, Stik Figa, Nick tha 1Da, Tranqill, Slimkat78, DTMD, J Bizness, Diamond District, Finale, Kenn Starr,, plus all the graphic artists: Mear One, Gene Pendon, Goldi Gold, Flux Wonda, Tokio, Castle, Aaron Sutton and more. Not to mention all the people who looked out for us at blogs (Bloggerhouse), graphic design, and guests like Magestik Legend. I really can't credit enough people, it's been every piece making the right moves.
That's a huge long answer, more than you wanted to know, but that's the squad, that's a lot of people making up Mello, that's why it's called a group - I'm grateful as hell for all of em.
It is evident that you have a deep appreciation for quality hip-hop. Did the appreciation serve as the foundation for Mello Music Group?
It did, I grew up listening to my sister play Ice-T "Power" and then moved through elementary school on Public Enemy and Kool Moe Dee. So I've been listening for a long time. I did the thing when I was young where I wanted to be a DJ. But, I never paid enough dues to be a talented enough DJ - I mean real DJs breathed it, and were working 8 plus hrs a day at it, and I only put a few hours a day into it back then. But that taught me a lot. So I worked hard to always listen first and make sure I followed what I heard from the speakers, not charts.
On a cultural note, I have to mention how affected I was by African American culture. I mean, when I started learning history and looking at what the Black community had created over time in America despite every racist trick in the book, I was mesmerized. Hip-hop epitomized greatness for me. It was living and breathing all around me. And the thing was it didn't care what color I was, it was teaching empowerment, entrepreneurial lessons, and family values all at once - and managed to do it with style! That was something I had to know about. I had to let myself be open to the genius of that!
Mello Music Group was established in...
My living room, on my first laptop and first cell phone during the fall of 2007. Though Mello Mixtapes date back to 2004.
Businesses worldwide continue to experience the affects of the economic crisis. Mello Music Group was affected by the economic crisis in what ways?
The economic downturn was a blessing for the label. It happened right when major labels didn't know what to do with the internet. So, these big old companies had so much overhead with big offices, a&rs, and warehouses with stock - not to mention they moved slow. This was a time when they had to scale back and adjust, but for MMG, we we're just entering so we could model our business on the new methodologies, not cling to old methods.
Additionally, big labels stopped giving everyone and their brothers deals and cut many talented people from rosters - so to be stepping in and supporting, supplying some income and push to artists at this point, well, it was an opportune time - we were able to get top quality people at less cost because they knew the market had fallen out. So, it was a perfect time to build. You also have to be lean and competitive to survive right now, so each day I work to stay in touch with what's happening, there's no cushion or safety net - no margin for error, so that wakes you up and keeps you on alert.
You have been instrumental in the establishment of one of the fastest growing labels in the country. When you created the label did you envision the success of Apollo Brown, Oddisee, Diamond District, Has Lo, yU, Boog Brown, Trek Life, and others?
I imagined it in that I worked hard to visualize how it would occur. It took a lot of alone time, a lot of picturing, and listening. But then I put it down on paper and worked towards manifesting it. It started with Oddisee, I knew he was amazingly talented and an excellent business man - so I couldn't understand why he hadn't been snatched up, why no one was backing him. Then we laid out a plan and worked it with patience. The same with Apollo. He was so talented and just needed a team and time. Diamond District was Oddisee's genius, but I'm glad he put me on to his game and introduced yU - who is one of my favorite lyricists and a major part of what MMG does and is about. Right now I'm working on doing the same for Has-Lo, an incredibly gifted lyricist and producer, with a lot of business sense and taste.
I love the fact that Mello Music Group provides alternate ways for fans to purchase product. In May, you will present a vinyl release of Oddisee's Odd Seasons. What developments led to the production of this special release?
I'm a fan myself and a collector so I always do what I can to put actual product out there. I buy digital too. So, we put out things, get a feel for how many people are behind it and try to give them what they want. Odd Seasons is one of those projects that Oddisee let everyone see as he developed it, leaking it himself for free and getting input. Now we have the mixed, mastered, and final arrangement with art. And this vinyl... man...it's sounds so sick. The brass and strings are so rich. Vinyl was a must for this project. Gorgeous result sound wise.
What are you looking for when you scout a potential addition to the roster?
I want artists to bring me the project of a lifetime. I want musicians who have paid dues as far as commitment goes - years. Gas Mask was Apollo's baby. In Case I Don't Make It was Has-Lo's. Diamond District was Oddisee's. I mean I want people to bring me something it's hard for them to let go of it's so good. I want that trust. I want to fall in love with it and feel like I don't care if it sells or not because I have a gem regardless of what anybody else thinks. Then the rest is easy, and working the project is tireless because I'm dying to share it with people. I also want people willing to learn and watch and listen - people who are hungry to keep growing and build a career. People who see themselves doing music in some way till they die, whether they get money or not.
What projects are you currently wrapping up and when will they be released?
A gangload of greatness:
We got Oddisee Odd Seasons in May.
Trek Life Wouldn’t Change Nothing The Remixes in June,
Daily Bread from Hassaan Mackey & Apollo Brown in July, plus Boog Brown The Brown Study Remixes in July, and an Oddisee Instrumental called Rock Creek Park in July.
Then August is DTMD Makin’ Dollas and Finale The Grand Scheme of It All, plus Has-Lo Conversation B – The Remixes.
On top of that we’re wrapping Kenn Starr’s project Square One, yU’s The Earn, J Bizness Flight Plan, Nick Tha 1Da Give Tha Drummer None, and Slimkat78 Sound Freakers LTD.
There’s more in the works, but that’s summer & fall right there.
What are some of your interests outside of hip-hop?
Art – I love museums, street art, architecture, sketching.
Reading – books are my thing, I’m a word junkie. Sherman Alexie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, Deng Ming-Dao, Charles Bukowski, Aurelie Sheehan, Dan Stolar, Denis Johnson. I love short fiction – that tedious New Yorker, Paris Review, Harpers, Atlantic, literary fiction that cuts to the bone if you can get through it.
Chess, film, good television, trees, swimming, eating a well cooked meal, tea, wine, beer, liquor, greenery. Conversation with interesting people. The world is so full of people who blow my mind with what they’re doing. Plus I love spending time with my Wife and my Family.
Tao – I read a little Tao each day and study a bit. I like looking to the natural world for understanding and seeking harmony from within.
What are some common misconceptions about being a label owner?
People think it’s all big business and not personal. Every bit of this is personal. I put my whole being into this – it takes time from my Girl, my Family, and so the results matter. Plus this is my life, I want to do something that matters, for me helping to facilitate a culture rich in art and music and giving career choices to creative people is the most important part. I’m entrepreneurial, I want to be successful, but I don’t care about the bottom line as much as a lot of people. If you chase money you’re always behind it. If you stay focused on ideas and the work you need to do, then the rest falls in place. Do what you came to do. You can't be the boss so much as the conductor.
I know that you are heavily involved with the promotion and marketing of projects that the label releases. Where does the work ethic come from and where do you see Mello Music Group in five years?
In high school I was never the best at anything, in college I was never the best. But all around me friends were state champs, valedictorians, doing some pretty amazing things. My brother became a successful director (Smells Like Teen Spirit, Eminem Chrysler Commercial), my other brother a great painter and comic creator. My sister and 2 brothers lawyers. My other sister is a pharmacist. (Big Family, lol - 4 brothers, 2 sisters, and now in-laws!) But the one thing I saw was them working for it. Not a little bit, but non-stop for years, decades in fact. My Dad worked hard. My mom worked hard too, she was a public librarian and a single mom for a number of years. She worked to raise us right, offer us culture, and discussion. I realized I hadn’t ever committed to something like that – so I wanted to as well. This was in my early to mid twenties, and I went for it.
Then I started to realize what work was, work was doing things for other people. The more you give to others, the more you can ask in return. I liked the cycle. I liked things happening fast, so I started working more. The more I pushed myself for others, the more the people around me pushed themselves for me. It was fun seeing things develop so quick. These days I work 50+ hours for the label and I run an Language Academy for international students full time too. Both are passions.
As for MMG in 5 years – I see us having a great catalog, branching out into more forms of music, being heavily involved in art world, being involved in literature, and beginning to get involved in film. I think all four go hand in hand – film, music, art, and writing. So I want to create not just entertainment, but culture. I also hope we can be more involved in community art and music programs. It’s up to private businesses to helm that.
Do you have any tips for artists that are focused on catching the attention of independent labels?
Yeah, work more, focus on your skill, your craft. Be humble and professional. On stage you may be a beast, but on the phone you’re a business man or woman. Take your best work and do it again. Then again, and when it’s better than anything you’ve ever done before, present it humbly and ask peoples opinions without being defensive of your creation.
Take the long term route. It takes 5 years at 40 hours a week to be decent. 10 years to be professional. 15-20 to be a master. So start paying dues in terms of logging hours in your craft. We’ve all got a long way to go, so enjoy doing it.
On a practical note. Learn the trade. Know something about recording, production, mixing, mastering, manufacturing, distribution, marketing, art, graphic design, photography, videography, merchandise, touring. Learn a little about all of it, pay attention to who's good at it and cultivate relationships by offering what you're good it in exchange. Don't push yourself on people, just make yourself available if you can be of assistance.
Any final thoughts?
Thanks to all the fans, artists, musicians, and family out there who have been supporting Mello Music Group with their time, money, effort, and thoughts. I hope we can all do the work we love and run this whole world together. Props to Praverb for the chance to talk at length about the label.
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