Label Look: How LVRN Is Building a Next Gen Hip-Hop/R&B Roster

From Top Dawg Entertainment to Quality Control Music, the industry’s black-founded record labels are focused on fostering cultural bonds. The latest to do so: Atlanta’s LVRN (short for Love Renaissance). “It felt like music was getting into a very dark place in 2012,” co-founder Justice Baiden says, explaining his label’s name. “It was almost corny to say that you loved a girl. So we wanted to figure out how to make the concept of love cool.” The latter part of its name, he says, was plucked from the Harlem Renaissance.

Baiden, 26, head of A&R, is one of five co-founders, along with: 30-year-old Sean Famoso McNichol, head of marketing and brand partnerships (a.k.a. “head of energy”); 26-year-old Carlon Ramong, creative director; 26-year-old Junia Abaidoo, head of tour operations and finances; and the 31-year-old Tunde Balogun, the “head of bags” who oversees the management company and label. They all met between 2008 and 2012 while attending Georgia State University and Kennesaw State.

McNichol and Balogun started their careers as event promoters, while simultaneously interning at Disturbing Tha Peace Records for a year before running its publishing company at 23 and 24, respectively. “The publishing company was really our baby,” says McNichol, “and we had the opportunity to cut check for kids in the city that we believed in.” They also had the opportunity to plant deeper roots in a city with a rapidly growing music scene.

In 2013, the label scored its first signee with Raury, the up-and-coming singer-rapper that Ramong and Baiden were previously managing. And though the artist left LVRN last year, the label has only continued to grow. Its roster now boasts 6lack, D.R.A.M., Boogie and Summer Walker, the label’s latest breakout R&B artist and sole female signee. “Our own stories are part of the story of LVRN,” McNichol explains. “We’re finally realizing the company has its own culture that people are identifying with.”

Though LVRN now has its footing, the founders admit they had a tough time getting to where they are. At first, the label wasn’t financially stable and found shortcuts in order to fund various projects, like Raury’s 2014 video for “God’s Whisper” -- the jacket he wore in the video was returned to Nordstrom (where Ramong and Abaidoo worked at the time) as soon as they finished shooting. They paid the video’s director Andrew Donoho $5,000 in crumpled dollar bills. “It looked like blood money, like somebody had to go down for it,” recalls McNichol. “A lot of [our initial success] was people buying into potential,” adds Baiden. “We got a lot of things we weren’t supposed to get, because people believed in what we had.”

DRAM, the Virginia-born singer who signed to LVRN’s management wing in 2015, says, “They give you family vibes, it’s not forced or anything. When you think of Death Row Records, Murder INC., TDE -- where the label’s name alone is its own thing -- you know what it stands for. [LVRN] sticks to their aesthetic so well by just being a collective of forward thinkers. They’re doing shit in a real avant-garde way, but not too far out to where people can’t get it.” The year after DRAM signed to LVRN, his breakout hit “Broccoli” (featuring Lil Yachty) reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, it has since earned 903 million U.S. on-demand streams, according to Nielsen Music.

Also in 2016, 6LACK’s debut, Free 6LACK, earned a Grammy nomination for a best urban contemporary album. His follow-up, last September’s East Atlanta Love Letter peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, gave the artist his first No. 1 on the Top R&B Albums chart and earned a best rap/sung performance Grammy nod for the J. Cole-assisted “Pretty Little Fears.” Says Abaidoo: “He’s an example of an artist who really puts in the hours and studies exactly what he wants.”

Balogun says, eventually, he and the other co-founders “really started to feel ourselves,” especially, he adds, because they finally had some money coming in. LVRN was distributing music through EMPIRE at the time, but knew they needed major label backing to make it despite concerns about losing control. And so they hopped on the merry-go-round of endless lunches, corporate meetings and flights out to Los Angeles. Until one day, McNichol got a FaceTime call from Interscope executive vp Joie Manda.

Manda was interested in signing 6lack, after discovering his music on Soundcloud, so he asked LVRN about the singer. But the label politely declined major executives' requests in order to avoid the aforementioned merry-go-round. Manda says, “They weren't bringing 6lack into any meetings because their plan wasn't to sign him for a while, they wanted to keep developing him themselves.” After they met, Interscope chairman/CEO John Janick told Manda how sharp and driven the LVRN team came across. Interscope then pivoted its plan. Instead of just wanting to sign 6lack, they now wanted all in on LVRN. In 2016, Manda and Janick offered LVRN a joint-venture deal.

“They have incredible taste and tone,” says Manda. “They're based in Atlanta, which is obviously, one of, if not the most important musical city in the world [right now]. I know they're going to keep bumping into talent. That is important, but [it's also important] what you do with it, how you cultivate it, the vision that you have and the strategy. There's a reason everyone wants to be at their parties. There's a reason that they're behind the artists with incredible music and visuals. They're a deep company.”

As for McNichol, the deal offered LVRN the chance to continue growing as LVRN. “We always wanted to be progressive, next-level thinking black businessmen and we wanted to get a share of what the labels were getting.” And now, they could.

With its latest signee, Walker, LVRN has been able to offer everything a budding artist should have, including a headlining tour (which kicks off on March 21 in Chicago). They discovered her by chance, when LVRN’s studio manager, also named Summer Walker, decided to Google herself one day. “She saw there was a girl also named Summer Walker who sings and puts videos on YouTube and Vine and built a relationship with her because they shared the same name,” recalls Baiden. Soon after, they all got a text in their group chat that there was an artist they had to meet.

“[Walker] is one of those people that pisses you off just by how talented they are -- but she’s not a try-hard,” Baiden says. “She might be the first punk-R&B chick. She doesn’t like doing press. When you speak to her, her responses are literally one-word answers. She did her first TV performance in a hoodie. As an R&B chick, you’re supposed to get dolled up, stand there, look pretty and sing. But she gives no fucks.”

The independence that Walker craved is what drew her to officially signing to LVRN in 2018. “They're very cool and laid-back dudes,” she says. “They don't really need me to be glammed out or [force me to] do things I don't want to do. They just let me go on my own path, whatever that is. And I like that freedom.”

The singer -- who grew up on old-school acts like Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin and Teddy Pendergrass -- released her debut album, Last Day of Summer, in October. This month, she scored her first entry on the Billboard Hot 100, as her "Girls Need Love” remix with Drake debuted at No. 87.

Another recent addition to the label, on its management side, is Compton rapper Boogie (who is signed to Shady/Interscope). His first LP, Everything's for Sale, arrived in January. “I think he’s a lyrical genius,” Abaidoo says of Boogie. “He’s the type of person that when you tell him, ‘Hey we’re about to do press, we need you to freestyle’ he just does it. Knowing the level of talent and trust that he has in our ideas is really amazing to me. Even if he doesn’t agree with something, he’s always willing to try.”

But, as Manda said best, even as LVRN’s roster grows and its artists hit new career highs, what remains most compelling is the success of the men behind the label. All five are first-generation immigrants with roots in Jamaica, Trinidad, Ghana and Nigeria. And though their parents were reluctantly supportive, not knowing if music was the most financially sound decision for their sons, they’ve more than proved themselves. [My mom] didn’t understand it until I brought home a [platinum] plaque for Rihanna’s ‘Loveeeeeee Song,’” says Balogun [he was managing producers of the 2013 single at the time]. “She finally got bragging rights that she could tell her friends about.”

Running a record label as five young black men is a daunting responsibility in an often-cutthroat and whitewashed music industry. But the co-founders feel that despite an increasingly tense political climate, the music industry, at least, has been forced to open up: “There seems to be a way to treat ‘urban’ acts, from what kind of deals they’re given, how venues treat them, says Baiden. “But you can’t lie to us anymore and tell us that we’re not popping. You’re gonna respect Lil Uzi Vert as much as you do Kacey Musgraves. Now that we all know that, the best thing is to figure out how to devise a plan to make sure we maintain control and equity in everything that we do -- because we can easily get robbed.”

With its artists on an upward climb, LVRN is now turning its attention on itself. Recently, the co-founders have transformed LVRN’s flagship Atlanta office into a hub that offers local creatives a free space to take meetings. Next? They plan to go Hollywood. They are consulting on films and developing an untitled scripted TV series that they hope to sell to a major network, which Manda is all for. “They're responsible business owners [and understand] they have a big responsibility to artists day in and day out because this is their livelihood. They’re not spending the money on Ferraris and yachts in the Mediterranean.”

But, amidst so much change, the team’s big-picture goal remains the same: Advancing black industry executives. “We’re a united front,” Balogun explains. “The greatest things to happen to black music is the Music Modernization Act and streaming. You can’t deny [our impact] or force-feed people shit anymore.”

That “you,” the co-founders say, largely falls on the media, including Billboard. “Billboard is doing what everyone else is, and that’s sectioning [us],” Baiden says. Adds Balogun, “It’s crazy that you see the same people over and over again [on The Power 100]. The president of a label should get recognized, but if 75 percent of your label’s market share came from black artists, don’t you think your urban department should be on the Power 100 with you? I get why these executives are up at the top, but who’s really doing the work?” [Editor’s note: Joie Manda, who also heads Interscope's urban department, was on 2019’s The Power 100].

Even so, such racial disparities only drive LVRN even more. “If there were five white boys doing what we’re doing, they’d be getting more money, more recognition and they’d have a Billboard cover,” says Balogun. “It’s not right when our culture is doing everything. But we’re not going to complain -- we just have to work harder and show everybody what’s up.

A version of this article originally ran in the March 2 issue of Billboard.