A Little Song and Dance
My brief career at Atlantic Records
I often forget that, for a little while, I worked at Atlantic Records. It was such a bizarre position that every day I was there, I wasn’t sure I still worked there. Even now, more than fifteen years later, I’m not sure I ever actually quit, like maybe I could just show up tomorrow and everyone would shrug and go on with their business. I don’t think I even had a job title. I would say that I was excited to work at Atlantic because, as a longtime fan of Atlantic R&B, it gave me a chance to be part of a recording heritage that included Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Ray Charles. It’s the label that released Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly,” and that is a great song. Mostly though, I had been unemployed for several months and was just happy to have a job. Also, it turns out Atlantic in 2001 had a slightly different roster of artists than the ones with which I was familiar.
My first day, I met with someone who was the head of something. She was a nice, efficient, business-like professional; a slightly older British woman who dressed smartly and conservatively and who overlooked the fact that, at 29 years old and ostensibly a professional myself, I was still dressing the casual slob. I’m not 100% certain who she was or what she was in charge of, but I assume I fell under her department since she called me into her office for a “getting to know you” session. And maybe her name was on my paycheck? When asked if I was familiar with any Atlantic artists, I rattled off the list of soul and R&B greats that formed a good portion of my listening.
“Are you,” she asked, struggling for the polite way to say it, “familiar with any of our more…current artists?”
I confessed that, having spent the 1990s immersed in punk rock, I had no idea who was on the Atlantic roster and probably wouldn’t recognize the names if they were relayed to me. My knowledge of hip-hop petered out round about 1994, and even then was spotty, at best. She assured me that was OK, but that I should get up to speed if I was going to be working with these folks. Egos, you know. No artist wants to work with a guy whose first words are, “Hi, I’ve never heard of you.” She then extracted a box of CDs from her desk and issued them to me. “Oh,” she said in that upper-class accent as she handed a disc to me, “this one will be good for you.” Which is how I came to own Trick Daddy’s Thugs Are Us.
I was part of the fledgling online team, at a time when having a website was something companies had decided they needed to do but didn’t exactly know how to go about it or what to do with one when they had it. A former colleague was their digital art director and brought me on to do design, website building, and whatever other tasks came up since, of the six people on the team, only she and I had any experience. To give an idea of the tech-forward set-up with which we worked: among my sundry chores was creating MP3 versions of songs to post to artist sub-sites (no Spotify back then). However, I was forbidden from installing any sort of CD-ripping software, which would have made creating a good mp3 version a matter of seconds (well, a minute probably, back then).
I was allowed to install Audacity (or rather, have someone from the IT department come up to install something like it) but I was not allowed to “record directly from any release.” While not exactly new to the scene in 2001, mp3s were only just beginning to be embraced…skeptically…by labels. Mostly they thought of them as a pirate-y Napster-y thing. After a bit of go-around, it was determined that the most logical thing to do was put a mic connected to a computer set to record next to the speakers of another computer set to play, then ask everyone to get real quiet while I old-schooled it.
I didn’t have a permanent desk. I drifted from station to station depending on who was out on vacation. That meant that on any given week I’d have a completely different set-up and would have to request everything I needed be installed all over again on the new machine (we were not allowed to install any software ourselves) — which is a big part of the reason why, every day, I wondered if I actually worked there. Had I made a mistake, and everyone was just too embarrassed to tell me? I was assured I worked there, though, and that assignments would be coming my way.
Mostly though, I sat there collecting a paycheck and waiting for something to do. Because I couldn’t play CDs on the computer (they wouldn’t let me install Winamp), all I had to listen to was whatever was being piped into the room by someone who was allowed to play CDs (she had a Sony Discman plugged into a speaker). That “whatever” was, for weeks, Alicia Keys’ “A Woman’s Worth” on repeat. Not the whole Songs in A Minor album; just that one song, with my office-mate warbling it with as much passion as lack of singing talent. I have immense respect for Alicia Keys and will fire up “Karma” when it’s called for (which is frequently), but for a while, the mere thought of Alicia Keys sent me into shivers.
When I did actually get an assignment (other than the 2001-version of holding a tape recorder up to a radio to record a song), it was usually as interesting as it was ridiculous. When it was discovered that I was handy with words when I needed to be, and fairly adaptable in my voice, I was taken off the design team and put “on content,” my primary task being to compose online tour diaries for various Atlantic artists. For a brief, glorious period, no joke, I was Lil’ Kim—at least online; I used to get weekly bullet points from, I assume, one of her personal assistants, though honestly it could have been any random person. I had no way of verifying anything. I then converted those to a couple of paragraphs and uploaded it tto the website (the FTP days; no content management system for us!).
To this day, I second guess the placement of the apostrophe in her name, but who am I to tell Lil’ Kim what to do? I figured, even though she probably never read what I was writing, she would find out if one of her tour diary entries announced “I am moving the apostrophe; I am now Li’l Kim.” I also posted tour diary entries for Ian Astbury, lead singer for The Cult, but he wrote those himself. They were hilariously self-aggrandizing and rock starrish, which I guess I should have expected. When a band is a little off the beaten path, you sometimes assume they’re not totally full of themselves. Well, they probably are.
My most involved assignments were with newly signed up-and-comers, usually part of the Lava imprint, which was actually a good deal of fun. Lava handled a lot of alt-rock bands, but I again I ended up on hip-hop most of the time. Some were egomaniacs, some were genuine talents, and a few were both. I’ve never minded an ego if you can back it up and as long as it’s not wielded as a weapon to degrade others. I was usually tasked with creating and building promotional sites for them, something within the Atlantic umbrella but with a unique design. Some artists were deeply involved in the process; others had no idea what a website even was. I can’t remember most of the artists with whom I worked, but I bet they can’t remember me either, so fair’s fair. Atlantic gave me almost no guidance, and if the artist themselves wasn’t interested, I had carte blanche to design and upload whatever wacky nonsense I wanted, back when websites were their Flash animation or a bunch of complicated tables and sliced up images.
I spent time at the Lyricist Lounge on the Lower East Side with a hip-hop group called Little T and One Track Mike. They were kind of a goofball act but were good dudes to work with, not that interested at the time in the web but interested in putting something cool out there regardless. And the rapper, Little T, was into painting and sketches, so we had a lot of art with which to work and integrate into the site design, which put me in a better position that I usually was. Their single “Shaniqua” was gaining some traction, and we were working on the site in support of it and their first album, Fome Is Dape, which was released in August 2001 and had a big party planned for its release on September 11. That didn’t happen.
The site we designed together looked pretty good, though. I was into what a former art director boss of mine once described as “Swiss design” — big bold fonts and judicious use of red, grey, black, and white. I don’t know if the site ever actually launched, though.
At some point, I just sort of stopped working there. I was never officially let go, as far I can remember. I think maybe everyone who had been on vacation eventually came back, and there was just nowhere for me to sit anymore. Things trailed off, and I doubt anyone noticed I was no longer in the office, since most of them didn’t know my name and, to be fair, I didn’t know theirs. It was such a bizarre, ephemeral experience that it sometimes seems like a dream. I didn’t really work at Atlantic Records, did I? Did an older British woman in Brooks Brothers clothing really lecture me on not being familiar enough with Trick Daddy?
But I guess it did happened, because every now and then that goddamn Trick Daddy CD will show up in my closet even though I could swear I threw it out years ago. He’s like a cursed totem. I didn’t get to write anything about Otis Redding. Aretha Franklin didn’t need a website. I didn’t get to go to any posh industry parties, though Lyricist Lounge was all right and probably better suited to my temperament. I turned that Alicia Keys fan on to Grand Royal and Giant Robot magazines. I didn’t get to meet Lil’ Kim and talk to her about apostrophe placement, though I’m still willing.