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Seated in a dark room, illuminated only by two glowing computer monitors, Russell "Kwation" Culvin looks more like the head of night security at the Penobscot Building than the "CEO" of Fallen Angelz Entertainment. His fingers click out responses to a fan on his Fallen Angelz MySpace page. His eyes occasionally shift to an indie film he's executive-producing called Say Goodbye to Jimmy Springs that's playing on the other computer screen.
"The movie is about a governor who puts a hit out on somebody that has some blackmail information on him," he says, keeping his eyes steady on the monitors. "There's going to be a soundtrack with Big Herc, the Dayton Family and MC Breed on it."
Culvin, it appears, is riding high. He's just come off the Chino XL Poison Pen tour it was Fallen Angelz first big jaunt, with Chino, Spice One and other cats and he recently dropped two new albums, Dice's Red Rain and Paypa Boiz's Street Newz. His Fallen Angelz stable of artists includes Arcane, Lynn Swan, MC Breed, Dykkon Isaran and Boo Boo Breed. In six years, Culvin has quietly made Fallen Angelz Entertainment a nationally known label: He landed a distribution deal through Universal-owned Activate, and FAE's record sales add up to more than 50,000 a year. Though Fallen Angelz has had its share of national media attention, much of it had to do with the constant feuding between two of its ex-artists, Dice and J-Neato.
Neato went from street promo-team guy to signed artist and accused Culvin in a 2005 Metro Times story of not paying royalties promised.
Culvin shakes his head casually. "Neato got his $4,000 signing bonus," he says. "He was staying with me, on the run from the police. He was mad at me because he wasn't getting paid when we didn't even have his album out yet." Culvin refuses to say anything else about Neato. Then he clicks off his Myspace page, gets up and stretches.
Culvin's tale with longtime local hip-hop artist Dice is storied. Dice basically built the musical foundation upon which Fallen Angelz sits. He was the first artist signed, and Culvin considered him a brother. In a 2006 MT piece, Dice accused Culvin of taking his name off Fallen Angelz ownership papers, and of not being fairly compensated for his services. He admitted that he wasn't that business savvy but claimed that he got cheated. He called Culvin "a fake."
Culvin pulls a beige folder out from under his desk, opens it and reveals what he describes as Dice's artist contract. It states that Culvin put up $60,000 to start Fallen Angelz Entertainment and once Dice came up with half, he would be half-owner of the label. He says Dice didn't come up with his share. (During this interview, Culvin reads the MT article and responds to it.)
A blank look falls over Culvin's face. "How can your name be taken off paperwork when you have never vested in the label? I'm paying for production, I'm paying for graphics, I'm paying for studio time; all he had to do was come up with thirty grand." The CEO sighs and sits back down. "He had never been in magazines until he got with me. After nine months he had sold 12,000 records and had a fan base, but he just bailed on me."
Culvin is more annoyed than frustrated about his broken relationship with Dice. But the split hasn't kept Culvin from promoting and profiting from Dice's music. "We're releasing The 40 Made Me Do It [Dice's 1992 album debut on Raw Dogg] as a joint venture with World One records, and I just bought some vocals from a local studio that Dice owed money to," Culvin says.
The CEO refuses to name the studio but says he used the purchased vocal tracks to complete Dice's unfinished album Red Rain, which dropped in late October. Culvin also plans to purchase the rights to Dice's second album 1996's Theneighborhoodshittalka from the Reel Life Productions label as soon its owner, James Smith, gets out of jail.
"These days, the major labels want an independent to own an artist's whole catalog. Dice doesn't have to be down with me, but I'm still gonna feed [his] music to all the fans he left behind."
Culvin gets up, puts Dice's contract back under the desk, pulls out a DVD and slips it in the computer. Paypa Boiz rapper Arcane appears on the screen. It's a video for a track called "Dirty Glove" off the Boiz' just-released Street Newz album. The clip is raw and grimy, all hood, all Detroit. It's set at Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project on the city's east side, with flashes of people chanting and fighting. Another video follows. It starts with MC Breed's familiar rasp and the Dog Pound's Korrupt adding adlibs in the background. The video shows all that is rap culture ubiquitous bling, girls and liquor. Culvin bobs his head to the bass line, talks about its producer Lynn Swann moving to Vegas, and his anticipation of MC Breed returning to the FAE team.
Breed (who's also in the Paypa Boiz) went to prison in April, for not paying child support. The story made national hip-hop news. Culvin, who manages Breed, shakes his head. "It's not that he wasn't taking care of his kids, but he wasn't going through the Genesee court system to do it."
As he shuts down the computer, Culvin says this is the last time he's going talk about beefs. He's tired of looking back and wants to focus on his current projects. He didn't launch Fallen Angelz to reinvent hip hop. He understands that the themes and content of his albums aren't much different from other minor and major emcees and labels. The guy is out to represent his brand of raw Detroit hip hop. Besides, he's a savvy marketer who knows how to strategize and build on contacts.
"This business is about a lot more than music," he says. "You gotta use your head for more than just a hat rack to get ahead."
Kahn Davison is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.