Damion Presson was still settling into his position as svp of talent relations at Republic Records early last year when, amid a global pandemic and lockdown, he decided he wanted to recruit Chicago rapper G Herbo to the label. At the time, Herbo was in a partnership with Epic Records and indie label Machine Entertainment Group, through which he had just released his third studio album PTSD.
“I happened to see Herb quite a bit on Instagram. I think because of the volume that I kept seeing him, repeatedly, I said, ‘There’s something here. I need to explore what this is and why I keep seeing him,’” Presson says. “He’s the culture.”
Presson, who previously worked as a marketing director for Reebok, fostering partnerships with entertainers including Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B, Future and Travis Scott, says he reached out to Machine Entertainment Group less than a year ago with the hopes of forging a partnership with the label and Herbo. “Hearing about how Machine Entertainment Group actually conducts business, they have a very unique way of looking at the business and how they interact and deal with artists. [They give] artists the autonomy to really be them and be true to their art,” he says. “I was really attracted to the business acumen that these guys have, and the vision that they have set forth for Herb.”
Earlier this year, Herbo released 25 through Machine Entertainment Group LLC / Republic Records. It’s his first project under the new deal and was distributed by Ingrooves Music Group. The release, Herbo’s highest-charting project to date, debuted at no. 5 on the Billboard 200 chart last month.
“It was [about] us being able to work with a company who had the relationships that were going to ultimately allow our partners to flourish,” Machine Entertainment Group’s co-founder Joseph “JB” Bowden says of the new partnership with Republic. “[Ingrooves has the] technology that will allow us to have a level of transparency with the artist that we work with to allow them to be able to understand themselves, not just as an artist, but as a business person.”
One of the things that encouraged G Herbo to sign with Republic Records was the label’s willingness to invest in the rapper’s mental health and hometown initiatives. “I’ve never been an artist that caught a big record. I’m still working on [that],” he says. “By ‘our way,’ I mean [we get to focus] on just the importance of what I do for mental health along with my music.” (Regarding that last point, he also notes his Swervin’ Through Stress initiative, which is aimed at providing therapy services to Black people who have experienced trauma.)
With the label’s support, the Chicago rapper and the indie label Machine Entertainment Group also plan to finally break ground on a 10,000 square foot multimedia center for local kids. The facility will occupy the shuttered Anthony Overton Elementary School in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Machine Entertainment Group’s Bowden bought the building in 2014 through his Washington Park Development Group, according to Chicago Reader. (Bowden’s partner in the real estate development group is Ghian Foreman, who also serves as Chicago’s police board president.)
The former school occupies four and a half acres and two buildings, which will be used to house various programming that will introduce local youth to DJing, merchandising, music engineering, and graphic design. The space is also set to include a tech incubator, as well as trade courses. Herbo and Machine Entertainment Group say they hope the space will provide an outlet for kids to channel their energy and stay out of trouble.
“Having the ability to control our profit and loss statement allows us to make investments in things that allow us to help grow our own community and not sit back [waiting] for others to do it,” Bowden says.
“Mentorship is at the core of what we’re really trying to do,” Mikkey Halsted adds. “[The kids will] be able to touch Herb, Joseph, me, our partner Ghian. They’ll be able to touch Damion, and all the executives and heavy hitters that come in. It’s really important just to be a beacon of hope in that community.”
Herb says he views the programs aimed at Chicago kids, in addition to his mental health work, as a part of his larger purpose. “I want to be known as an artist that shows other artists, or just people in general, how to create [their] own legacy, and [their] own destiny when it comes to what [their] purpose is,” he says.
And, he believes staying authentic to these passions will also lend itself to continued musical success, too. “I like to use the term escalator-style. I always grow slowly but surely,” he says. “I feel like I’m going to grow and break as a global superstar being myself. I don’t have to put myself in any uncomfortable environments or be some kind of artist that I’m really not. I feel I’m going to be able to have those big records that give me the global recognition that every artist wants.”
Presson says he sees Herbo as one of Republic’s next big artists, and a way for the label to increase its presence in hip-hop. “Republic has a long-lasting track record of global superstars [but] outside of Pop Smoke, we didn’t really have anything in the hip-hop space — and I think that Herb brings something totally different,” he says. “I think  is a breakout album. [It’s] going to set Herb up for his trajectory to be in the same mentions as the Post Malones and Weekends. And, that’s what we’re here for. We’re here to sign superstars.”