The secret of his success

Gene Griffin scored hits in three genres over three decades by knowing when and where to hang out

Photo credit: Jim Stawniak
EARS TO THE STREET: Gene Griffin at Sound of Atlanta

For music-industry veteran Gene Griffin, hanging out has paid off nicely. It put him in the right place at the right time to hit it big. Three times.

He squeezed one of the more notable, and last, hits out of the disco era in the early '80s. He found himself at ground zero for the birth of that late-'80s R&B/hip-hop fusion known as new jack swing, where he scored his largest success as a songwriter and producer. And after years of struggle, Griffin's skill at hanging out jump-started his career once more, when he brought Georgia's dirty underground hip-hop to national attention.

Ask business associates like Universal Records Executive Vice President Jean Riggins and they'll say Griffin's chief strength is his ability, even at 58 years old, to "keep his ear to the street." Of course, that's just another way of saying Griffin is very good at hanging out.

It's a weekday afternoon in mid-winter, and Griffin sits in his office reminiscing like he's got all the time in the world for you. He's the only staffer currently at Sound of Atlanta headquarters, located in a nondescript single-story office park down the street from Peachtree-DeKalb Airport. The rest of the place is mostly quiet and dark, and Griffin strikes a commanding presence in his executive office — middle-aged, bald, with tinted shades and two thick, loop earrings. He's part Quincy Jones cool, part George Foreman friendly.

The slow pace at SOA might have to do with the current cycle of business that finds the label between releases. Late last year, it put out Augusta rapper Miracle's second album, Keep it Country, through a deal with Universal Records (the record has failed to take off the way its predecessor did, yielding the hit "Bounce"). Next up is the debut of South Carolina's South Kak, whose first single, "Freaky Dreams," features Roger Troutman's distinctive vocoder-bent singing, one of the late funkmaster's last recordings.

Or maybe, the office's laid-back vibe has something to do with Griffin's Southernness. Though you can hardly hear it in his clear, unaccented voice, his Georgia roots run deep. He grew up in Columbus, where his father served in the Army, his grandfather was a minister and his mother still lives. Griffin, though, left the first chance he got — he took a bus to New York at 14, he says, after graduating high school early. After his own stint in the Army and some college time, Griffin settled in Harlem and slowly gravitated toward music.

"Back in those days we all hung around 7th Avenue at 135th Street," Griffin recalls. "Small's Paradise was right around the corner. And all the bands would come in there, including Jimi Hendrix and all those people, so you met everybody. We'd go to Birdland, we'd hang out at the Village Gate. Music was something you were naturally drawn to because there really wasn't anything else to do but go to work and hang out. Then I just started to say, 'Well, maybe I should do some of this.'"

In the late '60s, he took his first job in the music business, promoting records for CBS. It lasted a couple of years, until he got laid off. But he kept a foot in music through the '70s, owning parts of clubs, promoting shows and trying his hand at being a dancer himself.

"I thought I could dance. I couldn't," he says. "But it kept me in the clubs. And that made me aware of music, the kind of music people wanted to dance to and hear. And that was subconsciously the beginnings of my record career."

First, though, Griffin spent 18 months in jail for "selling weed in the streets." But once he got out, he reunited with another former record promoter and founded Sound of New York Records. After some initial success with an early rap song — 1980's "Rock Skate Bounce" by Trickeration, which featured two kids rhyming over a pre-recorded instrumental track they bought in a record store — Griffin finally scored big. He put out a single by a group destined to be a one-hit wonder. But one is all it takes to get a career going, and the international success of Indeep's disco-funk romp, "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life," launched Griffin as a player in the music industry.

With Griffin established as a bonafide hitmaker, he set out looking for new acts to break. After a few misses, he arrived at a teen singing group called Kids At Work. He'd known the act's leader for years. Griffin met Teddy Riley the typical way — hanging out.

"Teddy lived in the projects on 7th Avenue, behind the Apollo Theater," Griffin says. "I would come down and hang around on the corner, and there was a handball court where we used to play handball. And there was this little kid that was always talking about music, trying to play guitars and all that nonsense. And he became like a little kid of mine, he was 7 at the time. He didn't want to go to school, but I saw to it that he went to school, and helped his mom out, because his mom would come home late. And with me hanging out in the streets of 7th Avenue, he would just hang around me."

By his teens, Riley had earned quite a reputation for his multi-instrumental and production abilities, and he formed Kids At Work with friends from the projects. Under Griffin's direction, the group signed to CBS and put out one record in 1984. When it flopped, the group replaced one of its members, signed a new deal with MCA and changed its name to Guy. This time it clicked.

With Guy's substantial success on the R&B charts, by the late '80s the production partnership Griffin and Riley had formed — GR Productions — became a focal point for a new urban-music sound. A writer in the Village Voice dubbed it "new jack swing" — a mix of traditional vocal-group R&B with a contemporary hip-hop flavor — and it stuck. During that period, Griffin (usually with Riley) had a hand in writing songs like "My Prerogative" for Bobby Brown and "Just Got Paid" for Johnny Kemp (recently covered by none other than 'N Sync), and producing tracks for other leading new jacks, including Keith Sweat, as well as acts like the Jacksons and Boy George.

By 1990, Griffin had steered the members of Guy to move with him back to Georgia, where they all settled in Gwinnett County's Berkeley Lake. But within the year, the group had dissolved and the decade-long relationship between Griffin and Riley — which, in a 1994 issue of Vibe magazine, Riley acknowledged was like a father and son — ended on less than amicable terms.

According to Griffin, factions at the record company interested in breaking Griffin's influence over the group worked to convince Riley that Griffin had taken money from him. Riley, who could not be reached for comment, now lives in Virginia Beach and has continued to have success as a producer (Michael Jackson, 'N Sync), with the mid-'90s group Blackstreet (he's currently working on his solo debut). Though a settlement for money withheld from Griffin during the dispute later brought him what he calls a seven-figure sum, the damage done to Griffin's career — both from the breakup with Riley, and from the harmful allegations against him — kept Griffin largely on the outside of the music industry for most of the '90s.

"I was straight-out scuffling," Griffin says of the period. "By them making the allegations that I had taken from them, young kids didn't want to deal with me. They thought, 'Well if he took from Teddy and he was his son, what would he do with us?' So we had to get that straight before I could get back on track."

At decade's end, the dispute — nine years after it started — finally ended. Griffin's credibility was largely restored, though he still feels the sting of his personal loss.

"I was real hurt over it, and bitter for a while, because I was his father," Griffin says. "It was family. I've got pictures around here of Christmases we spent together. He was like part of our family. So it was really disturbing."

With Griffin's name out of the mix for nearly a decade, he knew time was running out if he ever planned on getting his career back. After considering a return to New York, Griffin decided too much had changed since he'd left and instead turned his attention to the boom market in Southern hip-hop. "I really don't care for that kind of music," he says, "but I had to get a money maker. You can't stay out of the business for too long, because people forget about you."

To get back in, Griffin reverted to tried and true methods: hanging out and keeping his eyes open for opportunities. Soon, he'd heard about a rapper out in Augusta named Pastor Troy and decided to go there and take a look for himself.

In judging Troy's potential, he applied a "theory" he learned long ago. "The way you can tell if a person's a star: you don't need 10,000 people, you don't even need 1,000. All a person has to do is get everyone in the room. There were only about 50 people there and Pastor Troy had them all trying to climb on the stage. I knew I had something there."

He did. After signing Troy to his newly formed Sound of Atlanta label and scoring a regional hit with his We Ready album, Universal Records picked up Troy's contract and paid off Griffin in a way that put him back on the urban-music map. SOA's second Augusta signing, Miracle, earned Griffin a similar pay-off from Universal. With those successes, Griffin is once again living comfortably (if not extravagantly), now in a Brookhaven townhouse with his wife, while his 19-year-old son attends Georgia Perimeter College.

Of course, in the music business, you're only as good as your last hit. And so Griffin's still hanging out. While he yearns to get out of hip-hop and back into R&B, he's "100 percent sure" his latest signing, south Georgia rapper Confetti, has a hit on his hands. The song is called "Throw Dem Rags Up!," which plays on the current hip-hop vogue of wearing doo-rags. He's planning a promotional campaign where he gives away rags in the colors of various high schools and colleges — maybe even the Hawks — turning the song into the latest arena-rocking sports anthem.

"If I let myself get old, I'm old," Griffin says. "If I don't go to clubs, if I'm not abreast of what the kids wear, the sayings they use, there's no way I could write a song for them. I'll go to a hip-hop club and look at the people, see what songs make them go crazy on the dance floor, look at them and wonder which song is going to come on that makes them gotta get up. You want to know what it is about that record that's making them act like that. And if you can figure that one out, you can do it."


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PARTING SHOT: I've got some advice to impart to you, the members and followers of Atlanta's local music scene. Yes, of course, you haven't asked for any advice from me. But you'll get it anyway, dammit, because I'm leaving and that's the kind of thing people who are leaving allow themselves to indulge in.

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