Pay Some Respect: Inside the return of Payday Records

Pay Some Respect: Inside the return of Payday Records

We have a long history,” Patrick Moxey tells Music Week, sitting in his New York office. “We’re probably the longest running hip-hop label with the same ownership since 1992. I don’t know any other label that can say that. I know the majors have rebooted some old logos, but I don’t think there’s anyone that’s got the same people involved.”

Ultra Music’s founder and president is, of course, talking about the recently-revived hip-hop label Payday, the record company that he first formed a quarter of a century ago.

Moxey can still remember 1992 like it was yesterday. At the time he was not only co-manager of highly-venerated act Gang Starr, alongside Empire Artist Management’s Neale Easterby (pictured above with DJ Premier), he also had another considerable string to his bow.

“I was throwing the hottest warehouse party in New York City called Payday,” he grins. “It happened every Friday, and it was one hell of a party.”

Essentially a magnet for the entire NY hip-hop community, on your typical night there you could see everyone from Def Jam’s Lyor Cohen and Russell Simmons to Spike Lee and Tommy Boy’s Tom Silverman. Not only was there a half-pipe with skateboarders at one point, it even hosted De La Soul’s first show.

I was throwing the hottest warehouse party in New York City called Payday

Neale Easterby, Payday Records

“He had one of the hottest clubs you would hope to be chosen to be let into,” recalls DJ Premier, hip-hop producer extraordinaire and – alongside the much missed late rapper Guru – one half of Gang Starr. “It was sort of like Studio 54 the rap version.”

From there, the idea dawned on Moxey that – with help from DJ Premier and Easterby – they could take the brand name of this hugely successful night club and, well, turn it into a hugely successful label. This is the story of how they did it, why it lay dormant and why, in 2018, it’s back with a vengeance…

In 1992, Payday records was born, its ears pressed to the streets, ready to scoop up talent in an incredibly fertile New York hip-hop scene. And that included a young Brooklyn lyricist by the name of Shawn Carter. Indeed, Payday’s eternal claim to fame is that they were the label to release Jay-Z’s first single – In My Lifetime (plus its dizzying B-side I Can’t Get Wit That) in 1995 – a whole year before his debut album Reasonable Doubt was hailed as an instant classic.

Moxey still recalls someone in Payday’s distribution company showing him a cassette bearing Jay-Z’s name, informing him that it was moving 200 tapes a week from one store in the Bronx alone. His curiosity was piqued. “I got Jay and Damon [Dash – co-founder, Roc-A-Fella Records] in and the first thing they showed me was a video they’d made in the Bahamas or something with them on jetskis! “I didn’t ask them how they financed it,” he laughs. “I just said, ‘Hey, let’s put this out!’” “We did one single and he wanted to go off to bigger and better things,” reflects Easterby. “But it was fun to spot the talent that early.”

For Easterby, however, there’s one notorious artist in particular that escaped Payday’s grasp that he still regrets to this day. “Biggie was around at the time, we wish we could have signed him,” he continues. “It took a while for him to get signed, he was floating around on the scene for a very long time, and he actually did a guest rap on a Neneh Cherry record which we helped with, because we were friends with her. It’s just unfortunate we didn’t end up signing him because it would have been a massive game-changer.”

While it’s true that Payday never changed the course of hip-hop like, say, a Def Jam or Death Row did in the ’90s, that’s not to say it didn’t have its virtues. “It was a really great New York hip-hop label,” reflects Easterby. “Unfortunately, Loud was going at the same time, and they had the Wu-Tang Clan. We didn’t have a Wu-Tang, but we had some great, credible hip-hop.”

With Payday, we always thought that anything was possible

Patrick Moxey, Payday Records

Indeed, with DJ Premier’s assistance, recruiting artists and producing hits, Payday became a hub for some of the most celebrated rappers of the ’90s. Under its banner, a then unknown Yasiin ‘Mos Def’ Bey released two 12” singles as part of his group UTD (or Urban Thermo Dynamics) in 1994 and 1995. Plus, there was hip-hop duo Group Home’s first outing, Livin’ Proof, in 1994 and, most famously, esteemed wordsmith Jeru The Damaja releasing his critically acclaimed debut The Sun Rises In The East in 1994. Moxey recalls how, owing to Jeru’s profound love of Eastern philosophy and martial arts, they flew him all the way to Hong Kong to film the kung-fu-tastic video for 1996’s Ya Playin’ Yaself.

“With Payday, we always thought that anything was possible,” says Moxey. “Payday’s always been a tribute to the power of the concept because the concepts are always the most important thing. Budgets are great, but if you don’t have ideas, then it doesn’t really matter how much you spend on your video – you’ve got to have that idea.”

Not too long after Jeru’s second album came out, however, the sun started to set on Payday. A number of theories are put forward as to why, exactly, this happened. Payday’s situation with London Records changed, for one: in 1998 Polygram merged with Universal Music, with London Records subsequently acquired by Warner Music. DJ Premier would, of course, continue to be hailed as one of the best hip-hop producers in the world, but for other Payday alumni, there were new horizons to explore.

“New York wasn’t the hip-hop city it was,” reasons Easterby. “Whether there was a bit too much violence around it in New York, or the standard wasn’t there anymore… It kind of disappeared.”

After nine years in NYC, Easterby returned to Blighty and, with Empire Artist Management, would work with the likes of Lily Allen, The Feeling and Fraser T Smith.

Moxey, meanwhile, was senior VP of A&R of Virgin Records, where he would sign, among others, a couple of artists that did pretty-OK-for-themselves, including Pharrell Williams and N*E*R*D. He would also enjoy enormous success by leaping headfirst into the EDM world by founding Ultra Music, where he remains president.

Why, then, given the blockbusting success of Ultra – and with the continued commercial dominance of hip-hop ensuring that the market is both more saturated and more competitive than ever – did the lights in the Payday office flicker on again last year just in time to celebrate its 25th anniversary?

Turns out that even those close to Moxey didn’t really see the re-launch coming…

"It was surprising that Patrick wanted to re-open the label after all the years of doing the dance label with Ultra,” admits DJ Premier to Music Week.

That’s not to say people weren’t excited about the prospect of re-launching Payday. Easterby, for one, recalls his reply to Moxey as an unequivocal: “Great! Let’s do it.”

Payday 2018’s team is impressive. There is, of course, in addition to his current role at Ultra Music, Moxey as president of Payday Records worldwide, with Easterby taking the position of MD of the UK office. Other notable additions to the team include Ultra Music’s Adrian Nunez as VP of A&R and Will Scott, who is heading up product management and marketing divisions, after formerly working as product manager at Mass Appeal Records.

Together they are building towards a bold new vision for Payday Records. “The quality and the opportunity is there to do something different,” reasons Moxey. “It was the right time to come back and start running Payday as a great hip-hop label with an open sense globally.”

“That’s the whole point of Payday,” adds Easterby. “It’s such a competitive market at the moment – literally everyone’s signing an act a day. We’re trying to do things slightly differently.”

Broadly speaking, Payday 2018 is built around two pillars: integrity and global reach. When it comes to cementing the first, Payday 2.0’s first move was a peach: signing DJ Premier to a four-single deal. He is, after all, one of the most in-demand producers around, but it helps when you have a relationship that spans close to 30 years.

Patrick trusted me to bring in music that I felt was worthy of the brand

DJ Premier

“Patrick has the ear of knowing, ‘This is a good record,’” says Premier. “He saw Gang Starr, heard our single when we didn’t have a manager, and he said, ‘I’ll take that to the next level’. And he did just that.”

And that trust works both ways. As well as being the label’s biggest artist, Premier is once again acting as a key talent spotter for Payday.

“Patrick trusted me to bring in music that I felt was worthy of the brand,” explains Premier. “We wanted younger artists, and I went with A$AP Ferg because he would be a good start-off for the whole relationship.”

Released in November 2017, Payday 2.0’s first offering was DJ Premier’s track with A$AP Ferg, Our Streets –
an utterly brilliant throwback to the golden days of ’90s NY hip-hop that has hit over two million streams on Spotify and three million views on YouTube. Premier has since gone on to have something of a huge 2018, producing the beat for Sandra’s Rose on Drake’s record-obliterating album Scorpion (“It’s a beautiful thing,” he says. “I’ve been a Drake fan since day one”), plus releasing a critically acclaimed album as part of hip-hop collective PRhyme with Royce Da 5’9. More recently, he followed-up Our Streets last month with Wut U Said? featuring rising star Casanova. Moxey doesn’t mince his words about it: “To be honest, it’s probably one of Premier’s best beats ever,” he says. “It’s that crazy.”

While Premier isn’t sure what shape his next two Payday singles will take, or who he will roping in to co-star – though he tells Music Week he still has both DMX and Ghostface Killah on his all-time dream collaboration bucket-list – something can be gleaned about Payday’s approach so far. In the hardcore stylings of Wut U Said?, they are not exactly chasing streaming smash hits. The game plan is quality.

“Authenticity is critical because when you’ve got one great artist it can bring you 10 more artists,” reasons Moxey, who cites MGMT bringing in a host of acts to Columbia as an example. “I don’t think we’re going to get mesmerised by any kind of gimmicky song – it’s got to be a real artist proposition. Even if we’re going single-by-single, we have to be building something solid. And I think we’ve done that.”

The interesting question that springs from this is whether a label – hip-hop, or otherwise – can still have the sufficient clout of, say, a Def Jam or Rawkus. The kind where people will buy a record even without knowing anything about the artist just because of the quality assured by the brand. 

“It is definitely a goal,” replies Easterby, quickly. “One hundred per-cent.”

“I think when you’ve got 25,000 records coming out each week onto Spotify, curation is more important than ever,” observes Moxey. “I’d say the audience right now reacts really well to that, they want that curation. With Payday we’re building that, but everything is going to be interesting – the videos will be interesting and the music will be credible, wherever it’s from.”

And that really speaks to what has changed about Payday: while the signing of Premier, plus Brooklyn natives Gloss Gang and Radamiz may suggest it remains NY-focused, it’s not. Also signed to Payday are UK rap stars Yung Fume and Isaiah Dreads – it’s compelling evidence that this is a label with international focus.

But is there a pre-existing model for that – for how a true global hip-hop label should operate?

“It’s us,” beams Moxey. “This is why we’ve rebooted Payday. Exactly that. I heard a guy from Copenhagen who sounded amazing the other day, you can’t just rule it out based on where it’s from.”

“We’re looking to sign great, quality artists,” says Easterby. “We’re looking to sign MCs from other territories, whether it be Danish, French, German – we’re open to all of that because we’re worldwide.”

In a Music Week interview back in January 2018, Easterby mentioned that part of Payday’s ambition was to offer UK acts a “boutique” service to help crack the US. “Obviously, we can’t compete with some of the numbers that are flown around by the majors,” says Easterby. “But I think we bring a bit more to the party.”

Moxey is quick to raise that Payday has recording studios in LA, London and Atlanta and that their roster is already starting to move between those places to cut records with Payday’s own producers. Easterby points to the success they’ve had in sending Yung Fume to Atlanta to work with producer – and Ultra International Music Publishing client – Zaytoven (Migos, Gucci Mane, Future) and how they will soon be sending him to NY to meet key radio stations, sites and magazines. The same plan is in place for Isaiah Dreads, too. On top of that, Payday have been sending Ultra publishing client and producer Cassius Jay (Migos, PartyNextDoor, Future) to London, Paris and Amsterdam to work with their artists.

“We’re not saying we’re going to break every act in America or any of that,” says Easterby. “But we’ll certainly have some boots on the ground and give it a go.”

“A lot of acts don’t even see the light of day over there...” he adds.

The lessons Moxey’s gleaned from Ultra, in particular, should stand to be transferable to Payday’s relaunch. “Ultra’s YouTube channel, which has had over eight billion views and 14 million subscribers, is a great tool to help us break artists for Ultra,” he notes. “We’re putting a lot of time and care into building Payday’s social properties and getting good quality content out. It’s going to be a work of development, but I’m really happy Premier’s video came out and did three million views. It’s reassuring that people still like quality.”

Easterby, meanwhile, says there are currently quite a few offers on the table to other artists. “People know about the label, people like what we’re telling them,” he says. “It’s quite interesting when you say Payday, managers say, ‘I remember! What a great label!’”

“All the stuff we’re putting out is really solid, fan-based and growing,” concludes Moxey. “I couldn’t be more pleased with the quality of the stuff we’re putting out. We wanted to put stuff out in the beginning in a global way, and we’ve already got releases from the south, New Orleans, New York and London. That’s just what
we wanted.”

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