Veteran musician-turned-record label executive Antonio “L.A.” Reid strives to bring out excellence in anything and everyone with whom he comes in contact. Since the late 1980s, he and longtime collaborator, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, have been responsible for creating some of pop, R&B and soul music’s most memorable hit singles to date.
The prolific Grammy-winning duo’s groundbreaking imprint, LaFace Records, was their platform that made superstars out of chart-topping, million-selling artists like Usher, TLC, OutKast, P!nk, Ciara and Toni Braxton.
Their gold and multi-platinum hit factory was among the first African American-owned brands that solidified the city of Atlanta as an undeniable mecca for music and entertainment.
L.A., the current chairman and CEO of Epic Records, was recently honored at the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) third annual Rhythm & Soul Legends Dinner. The well-dressed Cincinnati native wearing a blue and green-squared blazer, white poplin and starched denim was escorted into the Mandarin Oriental Atlanta ballroom joined by a tranquil Babyface, wearing dark sunglasses and a gray two-piece suit.
When L.A. refers to Babyface as “a visionary,” he points directly towards him. The pair took the Coming to America approach when they launched LaFace back in 1989. “He thought we should leave California,” says L.A. “We collectively looked at a map, picked Atlanta and got lucky.”
L.A. and Babyface found initial success as members of the R&B outfit The Deele. The ambitious, hard-working duo would go on to land in the studio to pen and produce for Whitney Houston, Boyz II Men, The Whispers, Pebbles, Bobby Brown, Shalamar, The Boys, Sheena Easton, Johnny Gill, Karyn White, Paula Abdul, Troop, After 7 and The Jacksons.
Once LaFace opened its doors for business, L.A. especially instilled values onto the staff that stressed the importance of quality control. Some of the then young executives perceived his mentorship as an invaluable asset essential to the office’s day-to-day environment.
Shanti Das, for example, was hired in 1993 fresh out of Syracuse University as LaFace’s National Director of Promotions before being promoted to Senior Director of Marketing. The passionate and relentless Atlanta native developed artist campaigns alongside L.A. and Babyface.
She traveled extensively with the company’s roster to ensure that the public and other industry professionals knew of LaFace’s brand presence.
“[L.A.] didn’t really believe in mediocrity,” says Das, “and I’ve always respected that about him. He always told me to strive to be my absolute best. I still try to do that today in everything that I do.”
Das, referring to her old boss as “powerful,” further elaborates on L.A.’s high standards. She remembers TLC having to shoot three different music videos for their chart-topper “Creep” because L.A. didn’t like the first cuts.
“It just wasn’t right,” she adds. “He didn’t want to put it out there. He really respected intellectual property and made sure the video was right before we released it.”
Indebted to the former judge on the FOX talent competition series, The X Factor for giving her an opportunity, Das believes L.A.’s ongoing mentoring provided her with a stable foundation to become a super successful, high-ranking woman executive in the music business.
Post-LaFace, Das advanced to numerous posts at Arista, Columbia and Sony Music before reaching her pinnacle as Universal Motown’s Executive Vice President of Urban Marketing and Artist Development.
“He told me that I needed a little more fight in me back in the day,” says Das, “and I didn’t really understand that. I do understand it now because sometimes women are taken for granted in the workplace. He was just trying to toughen me up a little bit.”
The Mt. Vernon, NY native and creator behind the theme song to the Emmy-winning sketch comedy series, In Living Color, was responsible for signing and overseeing the careers of The Tony Rich Project and Donell Jones.
Always one to produce work that exceeds expectations, Eddie F. remembers the LaFace office being “a real fun, creative company.”
“It was one of the few, even though it was an entertainment company, to run like a professional first-class business,” says Eddie F. “It was relaxed with a sense of excellence to everything. I always tried to do the best that I could with anything that he wanted to get done and knock it out the park.”
Day-in and day-out, Eddie F. and L.A., also the founder of Hitco Music Publishing, would chat for hours about concepts and ideas they wanted to execute alongside timelines and budgets.
The two also connected through their shared love of both music and producers.
Eddie F. feels that L.A.’s decision to embrace him defined the pinnacle of his career. He says L.A. reiterated that music was a team effort. “He used to say you don’t know if it’s the guy in sales that made the extra push or the guy in promotions that went to radio,” says Eddie F.
“You don’t really know who made your record happen.” Das, on the other hand, comments on L.A.’s manifesto for finding and signing successful recording artists. He believes those artists have “the IT factor.”
“We saw it in Usher and P!nk, who came to audition for LaFace,” adds Das. “It’s hard to put your finger on it. It’s not really tangible, but you know what artists have that confidence and that excitement about them.”
T-Mo and Gipp, one-half of hip hop quartet, Goodie MOB, call L.A. “Superman.” Their unprecedented style of conscious music and contribution to the LaFace catalog eventually rubbed off on the savvy businessman.
Their subject matter and musical offerings enhanced L.A.’s appreciation for musical innovation.
In turn, the multiple BMI Icon award winner and the Recording Academy’s 2013 President’s Merit award honoree encouraged Goodie MOB to embrace their authenticity and individuality.
“We brought an alternative to what he was used to,” says T-Mo. “He was used to flashy things and all the good stuff. We brought that street edge to him…that ATL realest…the real Southwest…the whole Atlanta.”
Since L.A. and Babyface sold their shares of LaFace in 2000, the recording industry has undergone numerous infrastructural changes. Through mergers, shifts to digital platforms and staff downsizing, L.A. headed Arista for four years followed by Island Def Jam Music Group for another seven years.
To this day, L.A. insists that his greatest achievement is OutKast. Coincidentally, he received his ASCAP honor the day prior to the iconic six-time Grammy-award-winners highly anticipated weekend homecoming concerts in Atlanta.
A proud yet modestly dressed L.A., surrounded by a small entourage including Usher and Jermaine Dupri on opening night, attends the first two shows. He nods his head to OutKast’s live set as he walks through the massive audience.
The nod is also a nod to something the game changer said before stepping into the Mandarin Oriental’s reception area to receive his award. When asked what makes a great leader in the music business, L.A. says, “It’s about making sure that the people that follow you are well taken care of.”
Christopher A. Daniel is pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.