How Janelle Monáe charmed Diddy

Janelle puts Wondaland on the map

Put yourself in Janelle Monáe's saddle shoes.

You're up late one night surfing the Web, checking out your digital properties and whatnot, when suddenly you get a MySpace message from the Bad Boy himself, Sean Combs.

You respond the way any self-respecting artist and indie businesswoman who's serious about her craft and emerging career would: You ignore the message.

"I didn't think it was him," Monáe says. "But Big Boi had called me at like 6 in the morning, like, 'Yeah, Puffy's been blowing my phone up all morning. Man, he just wants to talk and see how he can help.'"

Diddy's introduction to Monáe came via Big Boi's 2005 Got Purp Vol. 2 compilation, where she sounded like a young, pre-nose job Michael Jackson on her song "Lettin' Go." One year later, she lent her theatrical vocals to OutKast's Idlewild. But neither caught Diddy's attention like "Violet Stars Happy Hunting!" the first single from last year's Wondaland Arts Society release, Metropolis: The Chase. The song took listeners on a futuristic, electro-funk romp as Monáe transformed into a tragic android named Cindi Mayweather. Co-written and co-produced by Monáe in conjunction with Wondaland Productions, it sounded alien compared to her earlier efforts. Indeed, it was.

The seeds of Wondaland Productions first sprouted in the early 2000s at Morehouse College, where Nathaniel Irvin III, aka Nate Rocket Wonder; Charles Joseph II, aka Chuck Lightning; and Delvin Franklin met through the on-campus arts organization the Dark Tower Project. Janelle Monáe Robinson entered the picture after performing at a Morehouse Def Poetry Jam judged by Wonder and Lightning.

Mitchell A. Martin II, aka Mitchell A. Martian – who worked for Big Boi's Purple Ribbon label at the time – and personal manager Rico Rodriguez rounded out the clique a couple of years later. With everyone coalesced around the hyper-talented Monáe, Wondaland Arts Society launched as an independent label and set out to help redefine black music.

Like something straight out of a J.K. Rowling novel, Wondaland became the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to Janelle Monáe's Harry Potter.

But there's a method to Wondaland's magic. It consists of a savvy mix of marketing, technological know-how, brand innovation and genius for making just-right jams. The combination's created the kind of finished product and built-in brand recognition for which most major labels would kill.

The eccentric collective works out of a house in a posh enclave of African-American-owned homes in south Fulton County — an unexpected home base for an indie-music operation. The house's basement serves as ground zero, its floor covered in synthetic grass with golf balls and polo mallets posted in one corner. The walls are painted Easter-egg yellow, plum, and the same shade of blue as one of Mr. Rogers' sweaters. Pellegrino water bottles impeccably stacked on a built-in bookshelf represent "premium product," says Lightning.

It almost feels idyllic, but the books that fill the room let you know the crew means business. There's Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, Bo Burlingham's Small Giants: Companies that Choose to be Great Instead of Big, and a Wharton School Publishing title, Success Built to Last: Creating a Life that Matters.

"We read until we just can't read anymore," says Wonder.

"Berry Gordy looked at the automotive industry and he used that as a paradigm to build Motown. We looked at Silicon Valley when we were starting. Companies like Apple and Google were the companies that really fired up our imaginations and really made us figure out how to market this. I mean, if you look at the minimalist style of Apple and you think about the minimalist style we have in terms of our dress, there's a lot of symmetry there," he says referring to Monae's classic black-and-white uniform and the tuxedos he and Lightning don as the afro-punk duo Deep Cotton.

By synthesizing past and present success models, WAS hopes to create a new paradigm for independent, alternative-minded artists.

Author and marketing guru Seth Godin would consider Wondaland a "purple cow." His book of the same name convinced the collective to integrate his concept of "remarkability." The theory proposes that being the best means creating a product different than the rest. 

While the industry downturn has encouraged pop artists to give buyers more for their money by glutting CDs with 20 or more tracks, Wondaland's initial plan was to chop Metropolis into four EP-length suites and release one every every quarter to sustain attention over the course of a year. Monáe's first suite contained only five tracks. The liner notes, on the other hand, were an ambitious 14-page spread of lyrics, artwork and a brief primer on Mayweather and the city of Metropolis.

"One way we could differentiate our product is by putting out albums worth listening to," says Lightning, "where every song is about either a story or a rich idea or a concept."

Monáe's part of an emerging underground of artists — including such wide-ranging acts as Santogold, Ms. Jack Davey and Kid Sister — that challenges the all sex, no substance stereotypes black female artists have overwhelmingly borne over the past decade in pop. Songs such as "Sincerely, Jane" and "Many Moons" cry out against the living dead existence she witnessed in Kansas City, Kan.'s, economically depressed Wyandotte County, where she grew up with both a father and stepfather addicted to drugs.

But for all the socially conscious uplift, there's one rule Monáe and company swear by: the law of the jam.

"The substance is very important, but it's not as important as the jam," says Wonder. "If a song does not jam, it doesn't go out." Outside of the weekly marketing and product meetings the members of Wondaland would have to determine the artwork for the suite prior to its independent release, Monae, Wonder and Lightning would occasionally take 2 a.m. rides just to listen to a song in development to see if it passed the law of the jam.

A strong Web presence and consistent blogging helped Wondaland solidify its brand by cultivating a loyal following of early adopters enlisted to help spread the word. The group also refused to marginalize its audience when it came to live shows, and performed at a range of local Atlanta venues early on, including Apache Cafe, Smith's Olde Bar, Lenny's and Opera, where Monáe opened for the Black Lips in February '07.

The efforts paid off and Metropolis: The Chase sold more than 10,000 copies in less than four months, mostly through online sales and live shows. Monáe also earned the kind of industry buzz and critical bear hugs typically reserved for artists with a higher profile.

It turned out there was no need to independently release the remaining suites. In the first week of its release, Metropolis garnered Monae multiple offers from major labels. 

By the time news broke of Wondaland and Monáe's November '07 signing to Bad Boy, music bloggers and supporters let out a collective gasp. Would Diddy turn the enigmatic fairy princess into another one of his pop whores tricked out for mass consumption?

"I would hate for him to reduce all of her hard work, hustle and creativity to the latest trendy Bad Boy foolishness just to take credit," read an April 2008 post on music blog SoulBounce.com.

Monáe was in no rush to sign with Puff, either. But once he paid a personal visit to Wondaland, she was sold by "his excitement and his respect for my brand," she says. "I could tell he was really searching to be a part of something he hadn't done before."

Bad Boy re-released Metropolis: The Chase with two additional tracks, "Mr. President" and "Smile," this week, marking the first time the notoriously authoritarian Sean Combs has relinquished 100 percent creative control and direction to a label signee.

Still, Monáe knew she'd have to delicately break the news to her supporters. So she did what any self-respecting artist and indie businesswoman who's serious about her craft and emerging career would: She posted a MySpace blog.

"I wanted to just let them know things are cool," Monáe says. "I'm still the same Janelle Monáe, who's a very unique thing, and it hasn't been done before so I could understand their concern," says Monáe. "That was another reason why I decided to go the Bad Boy route because I feel like it's important to help bridge together that gap and not really play into the division that says, 'Oh, I don't belong on BET.' We wanted to make sure that as many people as possible knew about what we were doing as a company because God gave us this gift and it's selfish to say it's only for this particular audience."