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Lena Waithe and Def Jam’s Hillman Grad Records Builds ‘New Age Blueprint’ for Artists

"We really want to sign artists that can tie generations together," says Tebs Maqubela, head of A&R. "Something that feels nostalgic but also modern."

In March 2021 actress, producer and Emmy Award-winning screenwriter Lena Waithe teamed with Def Jam Recordings to launch Hillman Grad Records. In a press statement announcing the New York-based label — a division of her TV and film production company Hillman Grad Productions — CEO Waithe said, “At Hillman Grad Productions we believe in identifying and amplifying new talent, and we want to continue to do that in the music industry.”

From signing Jai’Len Josey, its first artist, in summer 2021 and releasing the soundtrack to the Mr. Soul! documentary, including Lalah Hathaway & Robert Glasper’s top 30 R&B single “Show Me Your Soul,” that fall, Hillman Grad Records hit the ground running. Over the last year, the label has inked deals with three more artists — Davion Farris and Siya — and released a soundtrack for another critically acclaimed documentary, The One & Only Dick Gregory.

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Grammy-nominated songwriter Farris (Mary J. Blige, SiR) is the first Hillman artist to issue an EP. Released this past May, Moved features his latest single “Tunnel Vision” as well as prior singles “Bad Guy” and “Sometimes.” Farris’ “Sometimes” has been featured in Waithe’s Showtime series The Chi and her BET series Twenties as have tracks by Josey (“She Got It,” “Come Correct”).

In addition to Waithe and Def Jam chairman/CEO Tunji Balogun, the Hillman Grad label team includes general manager Albert Cooke, head of A&R Tebs Maqubela, operations coordinator Donna Marie and A&R coordinator Angel Blaise. “We’re trying to reach folks that came up with R&B,” says Waithe. “I don’t like to call it ‘real’ or ‘fake’ R&B; R&B can be whatever you make it. I do think that because of the music I was raised on [from Motown, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston to Usher and Brandy], I want to hear singers, I want to hear lyrics.”

Set to produce Gifted & Black, the forthcoming Verzuz-inspired documentary about Black music alongside Verzuz co-founders Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, Waithe adds, “A bit of an old-school feel that still feels very modern …  That’s the kind of music I want to make and find artists that can evolve, have long careers. It’s a lot of pressure, but we’re excited for what is to come.”

Echoing Waithe’s sentiments, Hillman Grad Records’ Cooke and Maqubela also spoke with Billboard about the cultural significance of the label’s name, zeroing in on artist development and designing a “new age blueprint” for future artists and industry executives.

What significance does the shared name of the label and its parent company carry for you?

Cooke: I grew up on the TV show A Different World [set at Hillman College, a fictional Historical Black College and University] and attended Lincoln University, an HBCU in Pennsylvania. So I automatically understood the meaning of the name and the importance of what Lena is doing. Also of what it represents in terms of Black culture and the importance of excellence; of building something that stands the test of time. As an extension of Hillman Grad Productions, a lot of the TV and film projects carry the mood and feel of the music our artists are creating; telling true, vulnerable and relatable stories from their lives. And that’s a unique space to be in.

Maqubela: Given the importance of the work that Lena has been doing and continues to do in television and film, we want to have a similar level of impact on the music side. So adopting the label name from the production company was an easy way to connote that.

In addition to Lena, fellow show runners/producers Issa Rae (Insecure) and Kenya Barris (black-ish) have launched their own labels, Raedio and Khalabo Music respectively. What advantages are there in launching a label via this route versus starting from scratch?

Cooke: There’s not only more opportunity to showcase artists but also to discover a diverse array of artists and sounds that are coming up in the music scene. The shows of the people you mentioned were known for celebrating Black culture. And an important part of that culture is music. Being able to plug the music of emerging artists into TV and film projects is almost like an additional advertisement to help build more awareness of their music. All labels are looking for opportunities like this to further amplify what they’re doing to develop emerging artists as well as sustain their superstars.

Davion is the first Hillman artist to release an EP. What is the timetable for rolling out releases from the other acts on the roster?

Cooke: The goal is to have an EP out on each one of the artists within the next year. Right now Jai’Len is in the studio recording and fine-tuning her project. The same for Siya.

Is the label focusing solely on R&B/hip-hop?

Maqubela: We really want to sign artists that can tie generations together. Something that feels nostalgic but also modern. That’s the sweet spot that we’re trying to hit. But honestly, in today’s era of genre-less music, you’re seeing a lot of R&B and hip-hop artists becoming pop. So we definitely don’t want to box ourselves in. I’d say Hillman Grad is definitely rooted in R&B/hip-hop — with the desire to expand.

What are the key qualities you look for in signing a Hillman artist?

Maqubela: Albert puts it best when he says it’s about music you can feel; that’s thoughtful and moves you. We want artists who have an identity that’s clear and are telling stories in an original fashion but also recording the music in an emotive way. We’re also a label that doesn’t just talk about artist development. We send our artists to boot camp to learn a variety of things from media and performance training to dance/choreography and fitness. We have them in there for months. Our first signing was in June of last year and we haven’t released any music from that artist yet. I think at other labels it’s hard to be a priority with a year passing by. But that’s not the case at Hillman Grad. Every artist is a priority because we’re not signing tens of artists a year. That’s really enabled us to take our time in developing and working with our artists until they’re ready.

Cooke: We definitely want to be a successful artist development label for people of color so they can build careers and ultimately sustain themselves in the business. It’s about giving artists avenues to establish multiple income streams through partnerships that we’re creating at Hillman Grad. It’s also about literally building a cultural legacy for future artists and executives who want to launch labels in the multimedia space; about giving them a new age blueprint that’s different from what’s already out there.