Back in the Club

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A&M; Records shocked the music industry five years ago when it decided to shut down its urban music division, once home to Janet Jackson and other black stars.

But the Hollywood label bounced back this week with one of the hottest hip-hop records in the nation: the soundtrack to "The Players Club," a new film by Los Angeles rap star Ice Cube. The album burst onto Billboard magazine's pop chart at No. 10 during its first week out.

The abrupt turnaround for A&M;'s urban music efforts can be attributed to the return of one man: John McClain, an executive who over the last decade has quietly forged a reputation as one of the most talented and respected figures in the world of black music.

McClain, who launched his executive career at A&M; in the early 1980s and went on to work at Interscope Records, has played a key role in pushing the boundaries of mainstream pop by transforming underground rappers, gospel choirs, R&B; singers and producers into international stars.

He has been involved with commercial blockbusters by Janet Jackson, Dr. Dre, God's Property and Teddy Riley--recordings that have sold an estimated 50 million copies around the world. In the six months since rejoining PolyGram-owned A&M;, McClain has already cut label deals with rappers Ice Cube and Kurupt as well as pop icon Michael Jackson.

"John McClain put A&M; back on the map in a blink," said competitor Sylvia Rhone, chairwoman of Time Warner's Elektra Entertainment division. "The man is a genius."

McClain's impact at A&M; illustrates how shifting a behind-the-scenes executive from one label to another can immediately bolster a company's fortunes. The ascension of McClain, 43, into the world's upper echelon of music industry power brokers also is a story with a unique Los Angeles twist.

His father, a notorious Los Angeles figure who rubbed shoulders with gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, started the city's jazz scene by opening the famous It Club, where such artists as Miles Davis and John Coltrane often appeared. His mother, a child prodigy pianist who studied at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, appeared with Lena Horne in several movies during the 1940s.

McClain, who was born in Los Angeles and reared by his father's sister Helen, began taking piano lessons at the age of 3. Although he grew up studying classical compositions by Rachmaninoff and Bach, it was the psychedelic music of Jimi Hendrix that inspired him to take up the guitar, his chosen instrument, during his teens.

McClain, also a martial arts expert, broke into the record business as the musical director for R&B; act the Silvers and soon became a session guitarist on studio recordings for such acts as Gladys Knight, Diana Ross, Lionel Richie and Shalimar.

In 1984, McClain took a job as the director of black music at A&M;, where he tapped the young production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to work on a project with Janet Jackson--who, at the time, had practically been written off by the label. McClain's behind-the-scenes maneuvering led to Jackson, Jam and Lewis turning out Jackson's first blockbuster, "Control."

During the 1980s, he helped A&M; churn out a string of hits by black artists, including Jackson's 1989 smash follow-up, "Rhythm Nation." McClain, who got a slice of each Jackson hit he worked on, left A&M; a wealthy man in 1990.

About a year later, McClain got a call from financier and aspiring entertainment entrepreneur Ted Field, who wanted to hire him and start the record label that would later be named Interscope. McClain joined Interscope even before Field had linked up with producer Jimmy Iovine and A&R; man Tom Whalley.

Interscope struggled during its first few years, scoring sporadic hits with such pop acts as Gerardo and Marky Mark. Thanks to a relationship with Los Angeles studio owner Dick Griffey, McClain crossed paths with rapper Dr. Dre, who was at work recording a solo gangsta rap album called "The Chronic."

McClain liked what he heard and played a rough demo tape of Dre's new songs for Iovine and Field--who initially turned the project down. After the album was finished, McClain convinced Iovine and Field to release it and cut a label deal with Dre and his partner Marion "Suge" Knight. The company, Death Row Records, went on to sell more than 25 million albums over the next five years.

While Interscope quickly began to dominate the industry with a string of successful rock and pop hits, McClain continued to bring the firm a string of ground-breaking urban acts. He persuaded a skeptical Iovine to branch out into gospel and R&B; by signing label deals with Kirk Franklin and Teddy Riley. Both pacts produced multimillion-selling urban hits that crossed over into the pop mainstream.

As a reward, Iovine and Field gave McClain a small piece of their company, which is now considered one of the biggest success stories in the music business.

"John McClain was vital to the inspiration, direction and spirit of Interscope," Iovine said. "He is one of the great music men in this business. I love the guy--and I learned a lot from him."

McClain left Interscope last year and took the position of senior vice president of artist and repertoire at A&M--earning; about $1 million a year, according to sources--after turning down offers from several competitors, including Sony Music and Seagram's Universal Music Group. A&M; Chairman Al Cafaro said he aggressively pursued McClain with the hope of rejuvenating his label's prospects in the urban music arena.

"We were having an awful time at A&M; with black music," Cafaro said. "I kept watching the way John was blowing up everything over at Interscope, and I have to tell you, I was very jealous. Hiring John immediately turned things around for us. Now, the biggest names in black music stream in and out of his office on the A&M; lot all day long."

McClain is known for spending most of his time on the street and in studios hustling for new artists. At Interscope he was occasionally criticized for not being in the office enough.

McClain beat out Sony, Mercury and EMI Music's Priority Records to cut a label deal with Ice Cube and his partner Terry Carter. "The Players Club," which is released on Cube's Heavyweight Records label, sold more than 85,000 copies during its first week out.

McClain also cut joint ventures with rapper Kurupt's Under Pressure label and Shaquille O'Neal's Twism label. He also negotiated an agreement to bring Michael Jackson's label into the A&M; fold and is negotiating to release a new Jackson 5 album. (Jackson himself remains signed to Sony's Epic Records.)

"I'm not the kind of guy who needs to take a survey to figure out whether a song is good or not," the quiet-spoken McClain said in his first-ever newspaper interview. "I'm a musician. And what I aim to do at A&M; is bring back the art form. I want this company to bring in great songwriters and players who know how to improvise. I want A&M; to create music that makes the hair on your forearms stand up."

To advance that goal, McClain recently persuaded A&M; to purchase a Hollywood recording studio once owned by Marvin Gaye. McClain intends to assemble an A&M; house band at the studio, which is being renovated with plans to open this summer.

McClain has also been busy in the studio recording new tracks with Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5. He has been hired to shepherd new projects by both Jackson and his brothers to market before the end of the year.

McClain says his primary goal is to turn A&M;'s black division into a magnet for musical experimentation.

"We want to create an environment at A&M; that thrills musicians--a place where kids want to hang," McClain said. "You know, African Americans have always led the art form in terms of musicianship and playing in this country. From blues to jazz to rock to pop--it all comes out of black music.

"But black music is in a terrible state now. It seems like what the kids want to do is to cook the turkey in the microwave. They don't want to create original music. They want to sample other people's ideas. But I want to turn that around at A&M.; It's going to take time, but I want to create something here that is so undeniable it can't be ignored."

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