Tony Draper, Dishonorable Mention
When VH1 announced that this year’s Hip-Hop Honors award show was going to pay homage to the dirty south, the greater rap community below the Mason-Dixon line seemed poised to get their just due. However, when the lineup of honorees was announced—including such pioneers as Jermaine Dupri, J. Prince of Rap-A-Lot Records, 2 Live Crew, Organized Noize, and Master P—some felt a few key names were missing from the lineup. Even Luther “Luke” Campbell, who’ll be honored alongside his 2 Live Crew members, voiced his discontent with the show for limiting his tribute to music and not his business acumen as the first artist to own his own label.
Now another trailblazing executive has come forward to express his disappointment with this year’s Hip-Hop Honors. Founding the legendary Suave House Records at just 16 years old, Tony Draper has been a influential force in the music industry for over 20 years. Completely independent, the Houston-based mogul introduced the masses to the likes of 8Ball & MJG, Tela and former Geto Boy, Big Mike, selling millions of records and earning plaques along the way. Draper also used his keen business sense to help Cash Money secure their six-figure deal with Universal back in 1998, as well as stepping in to negotiate the Clipse’s long-delayed release from Jive and was instrumental in Ice Cube’s comeback album, Laugh Now, Cry Later, becoming the highest selling indie album of 2006, with 650,000 copies sold.
Although Draper isn’t as visible as some executives, it’s clear that his behind-the-scenes work is right on par with his peers and friends that will grace the Hip-Hop Honors stage next month. XXLMag.com caught up with the industry vet to get his take on this year’s awards and to get his thoughts on the game.
XXLMag.com: What’s at the root of your issues with being left off VH1’s Hip-Hop Honors dirty south honorees?
Tony Draper: It’s like I don’t know how VH1 is putting their information together, but you’re speaking on Southern music and you’re speaking on the culture of Southern hip-hop and you’re speaking on people that have influence—the Rick Rosses, the Jeezys, the T.I.s and Ludacris’s and all those guys. Then it goes in this order: there’s Luke as the godfather, there’s J. Prince as well as the godfather, then it comes me, Tony Draper. I started Suave House at 16 years old. I put together one-stop distributors and made nationwide distribution at a time when that was unheard of. When I first came to New York in ’94, I did a distribution deal and kept ownership of all my masters. I was the first young Southern kid to own his masters as a teenager; nobody else was doing that. So when you speak on the culture of hip-hop, Southern hip-hop, then those guys they definitely looked up to big Luke, they definitely looked up to J. Prince, but they also looked up to Suave House… So when you mention Southern hip-hop and you don’t mention Tony Draper then your facts is wrong.
XXLMag.com: Have you spoken to anyone over at VH1 about being overlooked for your contributions to hip-hop?
Tony Draper: No. I feel like if you’re doing an essay it’s your business to get your facts together. It ain’t my business to tell you your business. I know what I done and they supposed to honor that and respect the whole movement.
XXLMag.com: Do you think it’s just a matter of the South being such a big region and the show’s producers not knowing everything being that they’re based in New York?
Tony Draper: Being from the South we never had a opportunity, like the parent companies were based in New York and Los Angeles, so if you trying to get on it probably was easier for a East Coast rapper to get on… Coming from the South I didn’t have that type a luxury and I’m glad I didn’t have that type a luxury. My situation was I built my own.
XXLMag.com: The same could be said for Luke, who came out recently with criticism of Hip-Hop Honors?
Tony Draper: When I heard VH1 didn’t really wanna honor Luke for being a contributor I knew that they was totally off base ’cause Luke sold millions of records with 2 Live Crew, Luke did Poison Clan… Then, he came to Houston and got a group called H-Town. They sold millions a records, so that just shows me right there the facts ain’t all the way on point.
XXLMag.com: Aside from yourself, who else do you think needs to be honored from the dirty south?
Tony Draper: How you don’t honor 8Ball & MJG? How you don’t honor Three 6 Mafia? Three 6 Mafia came out with the crunk… Where’s the boy Lil’ Jon? ...Where's Cash Money? …I think Ted Lucas is missing. He’s an incredible executive. Coming out of Miami, Miami wasn’t known for anything but Luke and then for Ted to come up with Trick Daddy and they did extremely big numbers… But there wouldn’t be no Memphis hip-hop if it wasn’t for myself, 8Ball & MJG, Three 6 Mafia, Tela, Gangsta Pat, these are just guys that paved the way. What I’m sayin’ is that sometimes we only really recognize the artist if they’re getting real commercialized—that’s not the artist that the people in the South, those gutta, gangsta people in the South, be embracing’… So for you not to recognize Tony Draper, it’s a real slap in the face. It’s a real slap in the face. And when you go to these ghettos in Atlanta, these ghettos in Memphis, these ghettos in Houston, these ghettos in Dallas, these ghettos in Louisiana, and you in Birmingham, and you ask them who you grew up listening to, most of them will say Suave House.
XXLMag.com: Because a lot of your success has been independent and for the most part off the mainstream radar, a lot of people might know your name but not your accomplishments. Do you think that could be part of why you were overlooked?
Tony Draper: You know what, that’s a true way to look at it, but you gotta understand something as well. The person that I am, I’m not an animated man, I don’t look for the attention, I don’t wanna go to the parties and pop bottles and jump on tables. I don’t do none a that ’cause I don’t drink for one and I’m not into buying 10, 12 bottles a champagne, I’m not doing that. So at the end of the day I’m gonna sit back and just do my work. Here’s a prime example, when people was wondering what’s Tony Draper is doing, well, I made a very incredible income off the catalog that I’ve kept since I was a teenager and also, I was the point guard in ’06 when Ice Cube went independent with Lynch Mob Records. He sold 600,000 copies independently and people act like the man didn’t do that. He did that with Tony Draper involved in his business. ’Cause nobody else was selling records independently but me. So when me and my friend Cube hooked up and he said, “Man, I want you to come join me and help me with my situation,” it was an honor because I’ve always been a fan but of course I knew the right moves my man had to make ’cause the music of course was gonna always be good.
XXLMag.com: Do you plan on watching Hip-Hop Honors this year?
Tony Draper: Hell no! I’m gonna tell you something, when I started Suave House there was no such thing as Southern hip-hop. I guess that came from an East Coast person’s category of Southern hip-hip. Yeah, I’m from the South but there wasn’t a thing as “Southern hip-hop.” When I started my company my whole thing was you had to be dope—it ain’t where you from, you just gotta be dope. Scarface and me was tighter than friends, he from the South but he wasn’t just doing it for the South he was doing it for the world, and when I started Suave I was doing it for the world. So it wasn’t a day where I’m like I’m just tryin’ to cater to the South, no! I wanted it to be reached in L.A. I wanted it to be reached in New York. I wanted to be embraced by all sides ’cause I embraced all sides… People always say what happened to our music? What happened to our music is that it’s the wrong people in power, that’s what happened to our music.
XXLMag.com: How do you think that’ll affect the next generation of hip-hop fans?
Tony Draper: I look at the game and say you know, when you’re speaking to young people sometimes a young person is very naïve and they believe what they hear and they believe what they see. So if they see the dirty South VH1 honorees and don’t see Tony Draper or Suave House, that’s gonna paint a picture in their brain like, “Wow, maybe Tony didn’t really do that much for the South,” and in all honesty that’s not true. I did wonders for the South…
XXLMag.com: What if VH1 turned around and decided to add you to the show. Would you accept?
Tony Draper: Well, if they turned around and said they wanna honor me that’d be real false and fake ’cause I already know… I just think that it’s an oversight but it’s a bad oversight. VH1 might say, well, we really couldn’t get everyone on the show. Well, that don’t count with me ’cause the show starts with Luke then it goes to J. Prince and then it goes to me. —Anslem Samuel