Growing into the job hasn’t been without challenges: Vaughn started at Capitol just two months before the pandemic upended the industry. The last 18 months, he says, have been a “real challenge” as he worked to foster his relationships within CMG — the group also includes Astralwerks, Harvest Records, Blue Note Records, Capitol Christian Music Group and the independent distribution division, Virgin Music Label and Artist Services — as well as with the company’s overseas partners. “My purview is to solve problems and empower,” says Vaughn, who also credits CMG president/COO Michelle Jubelirer and her “institutional knowledge of Capitol” with easing the transition.
He’s also not the only label head eager to invest in more hip-hop. Capitol’s history with legendary Black artists goes way back: The iconic Capitol Records Building in Los Angeles, of course, is known as “the house that Nat [King Cole] built.” Yet the company’s biggest names right now are largely pop and rock artists, and its rap roster shrunk earlier this year when Motown Records — whose partnership with Quality Control has made stars out of Lil Baby and Migos — became a stand-alone UMG label outside the CMG umbrella. Vaughn isn’t worried about competing for new talent, though. “The Capitol legacy speaks equally to artists of all backgrounds and genres — everyone knows The Beatles, Halsey, Katy [Perry], Lewis [Capaldi], Sam [Smith], so it hasn’t been a tough sell,” he says. “But it’s important that Capitol is in the game. We can’t afford not to be because hip-hop culture, for which I have deep love and respect, is pop culture.”
His team’s efforts are already starting to pay off. He didn’t sign R&B singer Queen Naija, but he played a key A&R role with her missunderstood album, which last year summited Billboard’s Top R&B Albums chart — the label’s first No. 1 there in a decade. “He wanted to specifically work with me one-on-one because he saw a lot of potential in me,” Naija says. “I had a whole album that I trashed. He redirected and set up all new studio sessions, new people to meet and producers to work with. He pushed me to do better because he knew I could.”
This year, Capitol has also had successes with rappers Mooski, whose song “Track Star” went viral earlier in early 2021, and recent signing Capella Grey, who just cracked the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time with “Gyalis.” “He understands the culture and isn’t trying to change me,” Capella Grey says. “He’s just assisting the vibe to make the vision come to life.”
It’s the same quality that also drew electronic musician Surf Mesa to CMG (he’s signed through Astralwerks) after breaking out on TikTok with “ily (i love you baby)” last year. “I’ve met people before coming across Capitol that didn’t offer what Capitol showed me as far as first impressions,” he says. “There are people out there that just see you for one thing. With Capitol, they saw me not only for the song that was popping off at the time, but for the artist I was, the artist I aspired to be that they have helped me grow into.”