April 19, 2013

Not the Queen's English: NYC panelists talk hip-hop

Claire Lambrecht
Author and curator Johan Kugelberg, far left, who established the core of what would become the Cornell Hip Hop Collection, addresses the crowd, while Ben Ortiz, Rich Medina '92, David M. Ehrlich '82, L. Londell McMillan '87, Michael Seltzer '89 and Antoinette Trotman '87 look on.

Music industry pioneers traced the evolution of hip-hop from its humble beginnings to commercial dominance during a sold-out discussion April 17 in Manhattan.

“Hip-hop is today’s rock 'n' roll,” attorney, producer and publisher L. Londell McMillan ’87 told the crowd of 150 Cornellians and friends at Hudson Terrace.

While hip-hop is central to the music industry today, the culture was just beginning to flourish when McMillan and fellow panelists David M. Ehrlich ’82, founder of DME Management; Michael Seltzer ’89, senior vice president of Universal Music Group; and Antoinette Trotman ’87, senior director of legal and business affairs at Island-Def Jam, first became involved in the industry.

“It was all about these small pockets of energy from the streets,” said Trotman of hip-hop’s early years. “You had really dynamic people who didn’t necessarily have a Cornell or a Harvard education, but they were whip-smart, and they had this energy about them.”

While the talent was there, the infrastructure wasn’t. “I said to myself, ‘People in this business need representation,’” Ehrlich said. “There was nobody there to provide it. [In] entrepreneurship, I think you have to recognize the vacuums in the business, and be willing to step into those vacuums.”

McMillan and Trotman launched L. Londell McMillan PC in one such vacuum.

“We talked about creating a conglomerate – an industrywide, industry-dominant, black-owned firm,” Trotman said. “We were not even 30 yet. No one told us we couldn’t do it. So we just decided, ‘Let’s just do it.’” The company went on to work with hip-hop icons like Chaka Khan, the Rough Riders and LL Cool J.

“I remember Roberta Flack playing our off-key piano in the office,” Trotman said.

Such entrepreneurship is integral to hip-hop culture, said moderator Rich Medina ’92, a DJ, producer and poet. “If there’s ever a culture in the United States that speaks to that vocabulary without the Queen’s English, it’s hip-hop,” he said.

As time passed, hip-hop culture expanded. From its foundation in DJing, B-boying, MCing and graffiti art, hip-hop grew to encompass fashion, merchandizing, television and film. It also began to turn a profit. “When they started paying rock ’n’ roll money, the labels had to start treating it like a real business,” McMillan said.

Today, hip-hop’s transition from an upstart local scene to global cultural influence is evident, said Trotman. “Now, because hip-hop is so prevalent, it’s infused in everything you look at. There’s dialogue from the culture that you see on any sitcom. The clothing is a derivative of the clothes kids used to wear in the hip-hop days,” she said.

McMillan, publisher ofThe Sourcemagazine, said the current state of hip-hop is exciting: “People thought hip-hop was not going to last. Not only has it lasted, it is the biggest thing poppin’ around the world. It’s not just in the ’hood. It’s everywhere.”

“The Business of Hip-Hop” was sponsored by Cornell Entrepreneur Network, Cornell Mosaic, Diversity Alumni Programs, Cornell University Library’s Hip Hop Collection and NYC Cornellians. “Now Scream!” – an exhibition of the vinyl records, interview recordings, art and ephemera from Cornell’s Hip Hop Collection – is on view at the Kroch Library through Feb. 4, 2014.

Claire Lambrecht ’06 is a freelance writer based in New York City.