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Spotlight: How Human Re Sources' J. Erving Is Thriving Upstreaming Talent to the Majors

J Erving
Teron Beal

J Erving

"We have to beat other companies to the punch, but at the same time we want to go through enough process where we're signing things we truly care about and love."

YBN Nahmir's "Rubbin off the Paint" had been on YouTube just a few days when teenage hip-hop aficionado Cory Erving reported to his father in late 2017: "Yo, this kid is gonna go."

J. Erving, who'd only marginally paid attention earlier, when Cory had similarly mentioned XXXTentacion and Playboi Carti before they took off, this time dropped what he was doing.

"For real?" he asked his son.

"Dad, I'm telling you," Cory said. "You've got to listen."

Erving, the veteran artist manager who was on the brink of launching the Los Angeles digital-distribution company Human Re Sources, officially released Nahmir's "Rubbin off the Paint," which eventually hit 208 million Spotify plays and received RIAA platinum certification. The lesson, says the 45-year-old son of basketball legend Julius "Dr. J" Erving, is to heed the youth: "I feel like some older executives can get caught up in just what they like and what they hear and how it was done in the early 2000s, when we came in the game. I try to be humble enough to listen to them in a real way."

Today, Cory Erving is 19 and works in A&R at Human Re Sources, an indie company that his father has grown into an important music middleman, upstreaming unknown talent into major-label-ready stars. Baby Rose, a Washington, D.C.-born singer with a big, haunted voice, records for Island; Bren Joy, a Nashville singer whose 2019 single "Henny In the Hamptons" has more than 2 million Spotify plays, recently signed with Warner; Pink Sweat$, whom J. Erving calls "this black kid from Philly who's singing acoustic records who wears only pink clothes," is on Atlantic. With so many DIY artists creating instant fame via SoundCloud, TikTok and the rest, Erving says his staff of 15 to 20 employees can be nimbler than major record labels in scouting and breaking talent.

"There's a lot of artist development and discovery being done outside of major labels -- maybe a little more than there used to be, because of the DIY nature of distribution and social media," says Tom Corson, co-chairman and chief operating officer of Warner Records, which signed Joy in what he calls a "handoff and partnership" deal. "J. has good taste and a track record. He's done his 10,000 hours. They've done a great job of identifying talent early."

"People like J. have created a stop where artists can find themselves and grow their audience over a period of time, and that becomes a sweet spot for doing a major-label deal -- or not doing a major-label deal," adds Darcus Beese, the Island Records president who signed Baby Rose. "J. is one of those people that has stepped up and added value to the process." 

The process, though, comes with frustrations. After launching rappers YBN Nahmir and YBN Cordae with "a few singles," as Erving recalls, their managers took them to Atlantic without including Human Re Sources as part of the deal. "It was a big learning for us, because what I don't want to be is a research-and-development company for record companies, where, when shit's working, they can just come snatch it," he says. "The goal is for us to show our partners that we add enough value that they should want to keep us involved in their projects."

A few months after Erving founded Human Re Sources in late 2017, his old friend, former Lady Gaga manager and Spotify executive Troy Carter, merged his artist-services company Q&A with Erving's company, and together they're working to break new talent like "Broke B*tch" rapper Delly and a new Los Angeles singer called Michi. In a record industry where the biggest labels have access to unlimited streaming and sales data and can suss out trends and jump on artists early on, Erving's staff is old school. "The entry point is all based around gut," he says. "If it's an analytics play, we're already too late, because it's a major-label conversation." 

While attending Clark Atlanta University in the 1990s, Erving plunged into the music business as part of street teams for hip-hop stars such as Cypress Hill and Mobb Deep. A friend who was a Universal Music executive suggested he take up management, to "learn every aspect of the business," and helped him sign a Chicago girl group called **A.S.K. M.E. ("They didn't actually break," Erving says.) Soon, he and Carter teamed up to launch a management company. 

"The story's changed a little bit, and my story's a little bit different than his," says Erving, who is co-founder of Q&A and president and CEO of Human Re Sources. "We both had different crews we were hanging with. His story is someone from his friend group stole a car from someone in my friend group. I think we let him borrow it. Either way, we were able to become partners."

Early in their careers, Erving and Carter worked with rappers such as Floetry, Eve and Nelly, taking artists who were "a little left of center and bring them back to the middle." Carter would go on to manage Lady Gaga with this same philosophy in mind, and Erving finds himself attracted to artists like Pink Sweat$. "It doesn't sound on paper like a guy who's going to be a pop star," he says. "It doesn't sound like it makes sense, but it's super-sticky."

Human Re Sources' core philosophy, Erving says, is to emphasize quality over quantity. They work with just a handful of acts at a time. "Great doesn't come across our desk every day," he says. "We have to beat other companies to the punch, but at the same time we want to go through enough process where we're signing things we truly care about and love."

SPOTLIGHT:

The best advice I've ever received probably came in the form of my favorite song, which is Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler": "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run."

I first fell in love with music when I was a kid. I never knew that I was going to work in the music business I was always very passionate about music. I grew up in a house where my parents were always listening to music. My dad and my mom were always listening to Earth, Wind & Fire and Teddy Pendergrass and Patti LaBelle. It just was always part of our lives.

I started off interning with a company called Loud Records and I was doing street promotions for them. I was going to school in Atlanta and I working Cypress Hill, a DJ Muggs record, Mobb Deep and a few others, and during that time in the South it was hard to get anybody to pay attention to that kind of music, so it was tough. But I learned a lot about guerilla marketing.

What makes you successful boils down to putting in the work and really building solid relationships, spending the hours -- that's what we preach to our young people, you get out of it what you put into it. I've missed a lot of birthdays, funerals, parties and weekends and holidays. 

Spotlight is a Billboard Business series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact spotlight@billboard.com.


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