On the 35th floor of the Sony building in Manhattan, two conference rooms have been requisitioned for what stylist Maeve Reilly calls her “pop-up store.” One is circled with racks of high-fashion finery; a large table overflows with jewelry and accessories, the floor littered with dozens of pairs of shoes. The artists signed to Wondaland — Janelle Monae’s Atlanta-based label, which recently entered a joint venture with Epic — wait their turns for a photo shoot in the next room, dressed in outfits that share a Prince-esque theme. That consistency carries over to every aspect of the label, whose artists hew a bass-heavy fusion of R&B and hip-hop.
“It’s not just one type of artist, but there’s a connective tissue,” says Monae’s manager Mikael Moore, who also heads up the five-employee label.
The partnership will bow in May with compilation The Eephus, featuring tracks from rapper Jidenna, singer Roman GianArthur, duos St. Beauty and Deep Cotton and Monae, 29. The artists appear on each other’s songs, and they and the label staff have worked with Monae for years; Moore — former chief of staff for Rep. Maxine Waters — met the singer at Atlanta’s Morehouse College a dozen years ago.
The label-as-family vibe is no accident. “We looked at what [Sean Combs] and Jay Z have done, Jack White and Prince as well,” says Monae. “But I’m also really inspired by strong women in business, like [Dreamworks Animation’s] Mellody Hobson and Queen Latifah.”
Monae and the artists met with several majors and drew interest from many — including Monae’s home, Atlantic — but collectively made the decision to team with Epic. And while artist-run labels have an uneven track record — and Monae, while widely recognized, is not a superstar, having sold 455,000 albums to date, according to Nielsen Music — Epic CEO Antonio “L.A.” Reid insists, “Janelle is a boss. She’s the first female [indie] label boss I’ve met like [Combs] and Jay Z and Andre Harrell — she’s the first one cut from that cloth.”