XXXTentacion's Manager on Discovering the Late SoundCloud Star & His New Label Sounds Music Group
If you look at Elmont Memorial High School's Class of 2007 yearbook and flip to the 10 Years From Now section, you'll find a photo of Solomon Sobande and his ambitions. In his hand is a fistful of debit cards and roughly $60 dollars in cash, which seems underwhelming for someone with dreams of being a future rap mogul. Despite the New York native's modest bank account, his goal of becoming an indomitable force in music woke him up every day of his senior year of high school.
"I always knew I wanted to do this," Sobande, 29 tells Billboard, 11 years later. “There’s been great heights and there’s been terrible lows. It’s a big blessing and this is just the beginning for me. I’ve finally arrived."
Sobande's path to the music industry was a shaky one. After landing a 1.6 GPA during his first semester at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, he buckled down that spring and bumped it up to a 3.8. Though he had ambitions of being a lawyer, Sobande re-shifted his focus onto music so that he could fulfill his yearbook promise. After his spring semester in 2008, he left Hartford University to the dismay of his mother in hopes of capturing his elusive dream.
"My mom had this really big smile on her face when she was like, ‘What are you going to school for?’ I was like, ‘Uh, law?’ And it was lit," he says. "But my mind wasn’t in it and my heart wasn’t in it. Also, do I want to be a lawyer? I don’t even like to read shit that much. It’s not fun for me.”
With Sobande no longer a student in college, he asked a girl who he was dating at the time -- an Ivy Leaguer from Harvard -- to forge a letter stating that he attended the school so that he'd have a shot at nailing internships with record labels.
"I coerced her to give me a fake letter," recalls Sobande. "I don’t even want to say she gave it to me, because I made her do it. She gave me a fake letter saying that I went to Harvard and I was a student there and that Universal [Records] and all these labels should give me an internship."
The letter worked: Sobande landed internships at E1 Entertainment, Columbia Records and RCA Records. It was in the A&R department at RCA where he developed a strong passion for finding artists. This prompted Sobande to create his own management company, Sounds Music Group, with his first artist R&B singer Anthony Flammia.
"I called all my friends and I was like, 'Bro, please give me all the money y’all got,'" says Sobande, who was looking to build a studio at his house in Elmont. "N----s looked at me so crazy. And they gave me all the money they had. I took that money and I did some illegal things. Going broke, doing crimes. Getting new money to go broke again with. Just trying to figure shit out because I believed in [Anthony] and somehow, some way, I got to be in the music industry and be successful."
Though he hustled up the money to build a studio in his house, Sobande grew antsy. He and Flammia had difficulty gaining any traction. With few options, Sobande looked to SoundCloud to find newer artists to help accelerate Sounds Music Group. Thanks to a local friend from his high school, Krida, in November 2016, Sobande learned about a boisterous 18-year-old from Florida who was looking for a chance to make noise of his own.
"Krida was a hustler. He was doing all types of whatever to get money," Sobande says. "He was back and forth from Florida. He was like, 'There’s these kids in Florida and they’re getting mad views. I know you had a hard time with Flammia but you should fuck with them. Maybe you could help them.'"
Krida was especially taken with an emo-leaning MC named XXXTentacion, but Sobande initially brushed off his friend's advice. "At the time, I would never even consider managing anybody else," he says. "Eventually, I was like, ‘let me just listen to them.’ I hear [XXX's single] 'Look At Me!' and I’m like, 'This shit is fire.'"
Though the caustic record was racking up views on SoundCloud (It eventually debuted at No. 95 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February 2017), it was 'Tentacion's "I Don't Wanna Do This Anymore" that caught the ear of Sobande. "I was spending a lot of time with his music," he says. "I was watching his interviews. Just trying to really get to know him before I really reached out to anybody on the side. I spent maybe a week living with all this shit and then I was like, 'Where is this kid?'"
In October 2016, the mercurial star was arrested on charges of aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment and witness tampering, related to incidents involving a then-girlfriend. A police report noted that XXX, born Jahseh Onfroy, allegedly “punched [her] to where both eyes became shut and [she] could not see.”
Despite X's "horrendous charges," Sobande researched lawyers who would be able to exonerate his future client. With only $5,000 to his name, Sobande's chances of freeing Onfroy appeared bleak, until he came across Florida lawyer Robert Tractman. Sobande knew his odds of cajoling Tractman were slim to none, considering his retainer was $20,000, and Onfroy was in a no-bail situation. Unfazed by those hurdles, Sobande called Tractman and explained the potential Onfroy had to become music's newest superstar. Though he was skeptical, Tractman agreed to work Onfroy's case, despite the obstacles ahead. Billboard reached out to Tractman, who was unavailable for comment.
With Tractman on-board, Sobande worked on swaying another lawyer to help bolster his client's chances of seeing daylight. Sobande sought out Bob Celestin, an entertainment lawyer who previously worked with Desiigner and Pusha T, to join Onfroy's team. Like Tractman, Celesin had his reservations about Onfroy, especially when he first heard "Look at Me!"
"The record wasn't even mixed, but I liked the intensity of it," Celestin tells Billboard. "It was a very male-oriented, alpha-male, testosterone-driven record. It reminded of Onyx back in the day. Solomon kept telling me, 'Oh, this is the single and it's blowing up.' He was so insistent. Then, he finally beat me down."
With Tractman and Celestin in tow, Sobande finally pulled together a sturdy team of reputable lawyers with the goal of exonerating Onfroy. Sobande maintained contact with 'Tentacion daily through a series of jail calls, which were connected through one of his friends. He would meet with the rapper once a week, while speaking with him on the phone regularly on three-way calls with Celestin also on the line. With his eyes set on X, Sobande arranged a flight to Florida to meet the troubled artist and sell him on being one of his clients.
"I told him the truth and I said I’ve done a lot of interning. I’ve been studying the game for mad long and I know all these managers are coming after you and trying to offer you things. But A., these n----s is not going to help you get out of jail and B., I’ll do it for half. That’s how I got him. He was like, ‘Fuck it, come through. We’ll do a short deal memo.’”
After hearing that, Sobande drafted a one-page contract at the request of Onfroy and flew back to Florida to get his signature."I literally booked a roundtrip ticket and didn’t get a hotel or anything. I was going to sleep in the airport. I went down there with a neck pillow and my one-page agreement. I went to the jail and waited for mad long. I was like, 'Can you sign this agreement?' He was like, 'How am I going to sign this through the glass?'”
With only $100 in his pocket, Sobande handed his last bit of money to the jail guard in order to allow Onfroy to sign the contract. "I gave the $100 to the guard, he took the contract to X, X signed it and gave it to me. I looked at the signature, and this shit said, 'J.O.,' laughs Sobande. "I was so excited. I gave him a pound through the glass and left."
Not only did Sobande get X to sign his management deal, he and Celesin were able to get the rapper to agree to a distribution deal with EMPIRE after fielding offers from several major labels, including RCA and Atlantic. Because he was in jail, Onfroy's mother, Cleopatra Bernard -- who had his power of attorney -- signed the deal for him.
In March 2017, XXXTentacion was released on probation. With Onfroy free, Sobande eyed his friend, Ski Mask The Slump God, as an additional client. Before 'Tentacion was released from jail, Sobande visited Ski Mask after discovering his music on SoundCloud. Following a jail visit with Onfroy, Sobande and Celesin found Ski Mask The Slump God hanging out at a "porno house" in Florida and explained to the burgeoning rapper the potential he saw in him.
"I'm looking at Ski and I was like, 'You're a superstar bro,'" says Sobande. "We’re saving a man’s life. [X] needs help. He could be in a whole new position. We could do the same thing for you."
In May 2017, 'Tentacion and Ski Mask joined forces for The Revenge Tour, which was organized by Onfroy and renowned agent, Cara Lewis. The Florida twosome dealt with a myriad of violent issues while on their multi-city jaunt, including Onfroy punching a fan during a performance and him later being thrown into a barricade.
"The tour was literally the most tumultuous, craziest experiences of our lives," recalls Sobande. "Lots of crazy nights. Between girls to safety issues [and] lives being at risk. But the energy of 2,000-3,000 people every single night, clinging onto his every single word, repeating every single word back, almost being like drones to him the way he would control the crowd, was so amazing to watch every single night."
Following the tour, X released his debut album, 17, under Bad Vibes Forever/EMPIRE Recordings in August 2017. The album reached No. 2 on the Billboard 200, had seven songs debut on the Hot 100 and garnered praise from music luminaries such as Kendrick Lamar & Erykah Badu. Despite its splashy impact, 17 was overshadowed by Onfroy's legal woes.
In September 2017, Pitchfork published a testimony from January of that year by Onfroy's alleged victim, dating back to his October 2016 domestic violence arrest. Onfroy vehemently denied her allegations through various videos posted on social media, while Sobande chose not to comment on his client’s charges. Onfroy’s legal troubles continued when he was arrested for eight additional witness tampering charges in December 2017, stemming from his 2016 domestic violence case. He was released on house arrest two weeks later.
With X quickly on the ascent, Sobande began entertaining the idea of running his own label after several meetings with Republic Records in regards to Ski Mask. While he was working on getting Ski Mask a landing spot, Republic’s CEO Monte Lipman, had other ideas in mind with the budding manager.
“I fucking loved [Monte’s] energy and everything about him,” says Sobande. “Bob [Celestin] came with me to the meeting. Bob and Monte started off in the promotions department together. It seemed like family already. I was like, 'He got me.'”
In April, Sobande launched a joint label deal with Republic Records for Sounds Music Group and signed his first artist, Flammia, restoring the partnership the two first started back in 2010. “At the time, right when X and Ski Mask were blowing up, I got Flammia a deal at E1 just because I felt like I needed to do something for him,” recalls Sobande. “But it wasn’t the right deal. I ended up giving them back their money, and basically just buying him out of the deal. As soon as I could, I signed him to Sounds Music Group.”
With Flammia signed, Sobande continued racking up wins for his resume. After aligning himself with EMPIRE on 17, Sobande shifted X to Capitol Records/Caroline, where Onfroy’s new distribution deal was reportedly worth $6 million. In March, XXXTentacion notched his first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 with ? moving 131,000 album equivalent units.
“They had to run that deal through Caroline because it would be too crazy to run through Capitol,” says Sobande. "But Capitol paid for it and we had Capitol staff and Caroline staff and we worked together. Shout-out to [Caroline president] Jacqueline Saturn, because I love Jacqueline and Elliot [Grainge]. Elliot fucking believed. Elliot was smart enough to come through and put an aggressive offer on the table. He went through hell and fucking high water to make sure everything was great. He knew that even with all the controversy, with all the everything, he was able to see X’s stardom."
With ?, XXXTentacion also earned his highest charting single with “Sad!,” which debuted at No. 17 on the Hot 100 and later peaked at No. 7. Though Onfroy reached the apex of his career with his sophomore album topping the charts, in May, he returned to EMPIRE for a deal reportedly worth $10 million because of his strong relationship with founder, Ghazi Shami.
“We went to Capitol and did the Capitol deal, which was huge. I guess the biggest deal at that time. We put out the Capitol album, that shit went great. He realized that he built a certain rapport with Ghazi and he wanted to go back with Ghazi and finish his breakfast. We went back with Ghazi,” says Sobande.
But before Onfroy would release his third album, he was shot and killed on June 18 outside of a motor sports store in Deerfield Beach in Florida. He was 20. Videos of Onfroy laying slumped inside of his Black BMW were shared across social media. According to the county sheriff’s office, Onfroy was approached by two armed suspects who were attempting to rob him. One of the suspects fired a gun, which struck Onfroy and later killed him.
Artists throughout the hip-hop community mourned Onfroy’s passing, including J. Cole and Kanye West. Fans showed their support and helped “Sad!” rocket to No. 1 on the Hot 100, a week after his shooting. Onfroy’s milestone made him the first rapper since The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo’ Money, Mo Problems” in 1997 to top the Hot 100 posthumously. Sobande and X’s mother -- who is in control of his estate -- released videos for “Sad!” and most recently, his top 20 single “Moonlight.”
“It’s just been about keeping his memory alive and preserving it the right way. Getting the rest of his ideas out, his music out, and his clothes,” says Sobande, whose artist has been posthumously featured on Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V and Lil Peep’s “Falling Down.” According to Sobande, XXXTentacion has more than “two albums worth” of music and will be releasing his new project under EMPIRE "very soon."
As for his label Sounds Music Group, Sobande nabbed two more artists. First, he signed Bronx lyricist Kemba, who gained underground acclaim for his 2016 release Negus. Then, he acquired 21-year-old Bandopop, whose song "Jammed Up" currently sits at over 250,000 views on YouTube.
Though the pain of Onfroy continues to linger, Sobande is aware of the path he must travel in order to help his artists reach higher heights.
“I’m definitely rich already,” says Sobande. “That’s out the door now. Now, what’s next? Since financial shit is not a thing, what really matters? What really matters is being great. What really matters is having a dope legacy. What really matters is saving lives. That’s what’s important to me and that’s what I want to project with my label. I’m not signing no bullshit. Anything I sign is literally going to speak volumes and talk to the culture and be something."