Wax Poetics Founder Andre Torres Joins Universal Music Enterprises to Unearth New Value From Hip-Hop's Golden Era
To vinyl fanatics, Andre Torres is living the dream. As founder of Wax Poetics, a magazine for hip-hop, jazz and soul crate-diggers that he launched in 2001, Torres has been a champion for lost classics for the past 20 years. Now, after stepping down from the publication in 2016 and spending a year as executive editor at lyrics site Genius, Torres has been named the first-ever vp urban catalog at Universal Music Enterprises, the major's global catalog division, reporting to UMe president/CEO Bruce Resnikoff.
In an interview this month, Resnikoff explained his decision to expand into urban with Torres' hiring. "When I started in this business, catalog releases and marketing favored classic rock and pop," he told Billboard's Robert Levine. "We’ve always had a strong urban catalog -- look at Motown. But there are hip-hop catalogs from the ‘90s and the ‘00s that have yet to be marketed [as reissues]. So I hired Andre Torres to oversee our urban catalog business."
For Torres, whose time at Wax Poetics was often spent digging up those old recordings and giving them a new luster in the pages of the magazine, the chance to get into Universal's vast archives -- which include iconic hip-hop labels like Def Jam, Ruff Ryders, Roc-A-Fella, No Limit and a slew of others -- was irresistable. "I would have never been able to write this job description, because it would have seemed like a dream come true," Torres tells Billboard. "This is our classic music. This is what we see as the future of catalog."
As he looks to get his new job under way, Torres explains to Billboard his plans to revitalize an archive of pioneering labels to give their records another spin, and lays out his plans for what the catalog business could be as hip-hop comes of age.
This role is a newly-created position for UMe. Why is it necessary now?
Look at what they’ve done for The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, the guys who traditionally got that box-set treatment. Hip-hop is now 40 years old. We grew up with a different set of heroes, and a lot of these titles on the urban side have been out of print for 20, 30 years. A lot of these artists have never gotten their proper due for the culturally relevant, groundbreaking music that they were making.
Traditionally, hip-hop has always been thought of as the hot new thing. Certainly streaming music and all the data that's coming from Spotify, Apple, Tidal, is showing that what we thought maybe at one point didn't have a lot of shelf life is actually what people are coming back to these streaming services for. And it's not just hip-hop, it's a lot of catalog that's being streamed.
As we move from an ownership model to a consumption model, the role that catalog plays in peoples' lives is much different. You don't have groups of people who are splintered off into, "I only listen to old hip-hop," versus, "I only listen to new hip-hop." It's side by side; all that is existing at once. With that data, we can clearly see there's a group of fans out there who have been under-served out there. There is a desire for deluxe packaging, creative marketing campaigns around catalog. I'm looking at collaborations and working with brands and really bringing the urban catalog back into everyday life and inserting it into culture, where people are into this experience on a daily basis, where a traditional record label hasn't seen that aspect of it. That's where I feel I could do some good here in repositioning catalog, especially on the urban sense.
What types of products are you looking to release?
We're looking at deluxe editions, box sets, lots of content creation on the digital side. We're dealing with Spotify, Apple, Tidal, coming up with creative ways to document certain periods of time, like the Golden Era, and taking a close look at groups on our catalog -- whether it be a guy like DMX, or a label like Ruff Ryders, or a group like Eric B. and Rakim who have the 30th anniversary of their debut album this year -- it's about including this music in what's already being done on the rock side. It's serving this audience just as well as the rock audience has been served.
I’m looking at, “What does the box set of the future look like?” When you’re trying to either reintroduce these artists to an older audience or introduce them to a younger audience for the first time, it’s about creating a narrative and looking at all those different elements -- from physical products to digital plays to merchandising, pop-ups, working with brands -- to provide a cultural moment. Is it a headset with a VR experience for someone like my son who has never bought an album? I’m looking to reinvent this catalog game.
You guys are releasing the Beatles box set: six discs, $150, all for an iconic album like Sgt. Pepper. Which hip-hop albums might deserve that type of treatment?
When you look at our catalog: Def Jam, Interscope, Priority, certainly a guy like Jay Z's catalog starting with Reasonable Doubt which turned 20 years old last year, the first rapper to get into the Songwriters Hall of Fame -- he's like our Beatles. I'd say 95 percent of his records would warrant that. Certainly someone like Kanye; I'm dying to do something with 808s and Heartbreak, that was a game-changer, especially when you look at a lot of the kids who are hot right now, and that turns 10 years old next year. If you look at a rock act, they would have taken another 10 years before they looked at that record, but for me, it's about celebrating it now, and continuing to do that over the next 10 and 20 years.
I think artists like Kanye, Pharrell, who have always come into the game with a real vision, would provide me with a good platform to do creative things. When you look at the Republic side with The Weeknd and Drake and Lil Wayne's catalog, especially Tha Carter series -- there's a lot of potential there to do some great stuff that may not have been thought about. There's a wealth of material there, and that's really just the hip-hop side. I have everything going back to Stevie Wonder and James Brown to the whole Blue Note catalog and George Clinton. A lot of those guys never really got this treatment either. So for me, it's two-fold in making sure we hit the nostalgic hip-hop heads, the newer kid who could be buying Kendrick Lamar vinyl, all the way back to someone who's digging in the crates and wants to see that kind of experience for someone like a Stevie Wonder or a Marvin Gaye.
The box sets we all know well will often have different versions of songs, early versions with different lyrics. Are we talking about lost verses or things like that?
I'm digging into the archives. Sometimes it's working directly with the artist to see if they have extra material. We have the whole Gang Starr catalog and I've been talking to DJ Premier's team a lot and there's definitely some material there that hasn't seen the light of day yet. Traditionally, a lot of hip-hop dudes have sat on that stuff. But if you look at Fade To Black, you see Jay Z recording multiple tracks with Rick Rubin. Only one made it onto the album, but you know there are like five others.
But this is really about the fans and letting them inside the process and behind the scenes. And I think with the right conversations and the right packaging and showing how we can present these box sets and market them, these are the conversations I've been having with various artists' camps about letting us into those vaults and getting access to some of that material. And it is an ongoing conversation and there's definitely a learning curve there, but that's the goal, to fatten up some of these packages with unreleased material.
Sampling is a problem with older rap records. Will you tackle that issue?
Without a doubt. Thank God there's already been some proactive movement on that side with a group like Public Enemy, which used hugely sample-centric production from the Bomb Squad and for a while there a lot of that stuff was locked up in sample purgatory. But in the last few years, there have been great efforts in cleaning all that up and now it's pretty much where it needs to be to where we're working with Public Enemy's camp about putting together some sort of career look box set in the next year or two.
There are still some of those that are still lying around that haven't been addressed yet and we'll have to look at them on a case-by-case basis. But if the album is culturally-relevant enough and important, it warrants that extra work in order to get it back out into the world. That's something I've been doing a lot on the back end just to make sure we're working with artists and creating a relationship that everyone's comfortable with. I want them to be involved in this process and know where the hurdles are. Sometimes these things pop up as you're in the process and we just want to make sure we're moving in tandem with what they're doing.