SCAM AFTA SCAM: A TRUE STORY
OZONE investigates how a new breed of greedy artist managers and booking agents, led by Gucci Mane’s representatives, are sucking the blood out of the music industry.
by Julia Beverly (this article also appears in the upcoming print edition of OZONE Mag)
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“Johnnie [Cabbell] is the grand vampire,” proclaims legendary Chicago-based promoter Godfather. For over twenty years, Godfather has been promoting concerts through his company Star Power Entertainment Group. He estimates his losses from bad business deals with Johnnie Cabbell and Debra Antney to be nearly $100,000. “I don’t work with Johnnie anymore,” he states emphatically. “He sucks the blood out of you.”
As the CEO of Hitt Afta Hitt (otherwise known as HAH), Johnnie Cabbell is Gucci Mane’s exclusive booking agent and also manages Bankhead rapper Shawty Lo. Johnnie’s “partner in crime,” Godfather says, is Debra Antney, who describes herself as Gucci Mane’s “business partner and manager.” As CEO of Gucci’s So Icey Records and the management company Mizay Entertainment, Antney also oversees the careers of OJ da Juiceman, Nicki Minaj, and others. Multiple promoters from across the country allege that Cabbell and Antney have collaborated to defraud them collectively of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
THE SO ICEY TOUR
Scheduled for at least 12 cities in July 2009, the So Icey Tour was supposed to feature OJ da Juiceman, Nicki Minaj, and the headliner, Gucci Mane. It sounded promising. Gucci’s buzz was at an all-time high. He had just returned home from prison a few months earlier to ecstatic crowds at “Welcome Home Gucci” parties throughout the South. His artist/protégé OJ had been steadily building a buzz of his own and helping to keep Gucci’s name alive by flooding the streets with mixtapes and fresh material. They were both hot commodities. And in an industry nearly void of female artists, up-and-coming emcee/sex symbol Nicki Minaj was quickly building a name for herself, strengthened by her affiliations with Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane. The timing seemed perfect.
But by all accounts, the “tour,” organized by a Carolina-based promoter named Shannon Marshall, was a mess and fell apart almost immediately. None of the artists showed up for the first two Florida dates (July 4th & 5th), leaving veteran promoter Mr. CC (who, like Godfather in Chicago, has been successfully promoting concerts for over 20 years) with losses of over $140,000. He claims that nearly half of that money, around $70,000, is in the hands of Cabbell/Antney, who refuse to return the deposits or reschedule his dates.
On July 19th, 2009, midway through the scheduled tour dates, Soulja Boy tweeted, “My nigga Gucci back in jail. Free Gucci.” (right) Rumors quickly spread that Gucci had again violated the terms of his probation and was back in jail (or rehab). Although Gucci’s management and label denied the rehab rumors and it’s still unclear exactly where Gucci was in mid-July, it’s clear where he wasn’t: He wasn’t on the So Icey Tour. Of the 12 scheduled tour dates, OZONE has confirmed that at least six, but probably more of these shows (Jacksonville, FL; Pompano Beach/Ft. Lauderdale, FL; Louisville, KY; Chicago, IL; Baltimore, MD; and Detroit, MI) never happened, leaving furious promoters demanding refunds.
That’s a less than fifty percent success rate. “People get fired for those type of numbers in baseball,” laughs Baltimore attorney Paul W. Gardner, of the Gardner Law Group. Gardner spoke to OZONE on behalf of his client, who also lost “a significant sum of money” by booking the So Icey Tour for a stop in Baltimore on July 18th, the day before word of Gucci’s alleged re-incarceration leaked on the ‘net.
“[About] four days before the event, [Cabbell/Antney] said that [Gucci] might not show up,” says Gardner. “Later we found out it was because he was in some sort of rehab facility.” Gardner declined to reveal the exact amount of the deposit, but based on other promoters’ experiences, it is reasonable to assume his client’s total losses were in the range of $40,000-50,000.
When Gardner’s client attempted to reschedule the date, So Icey suddenly changed their story. “They said, ‘How can we reschedule something we don’t have the [deposit] for?’” he laughs. It’s a theme that is repeated over and over in other promoters’ stories: after months of contracts, wire transfers, and conversations, Cabbell/Antney suddenly played dumb, either pointing the finger at each other or hiding behind a complex web of multiple contracts with middlemen.
The So Icey Tour dates were officially contracted through two other entities: reputable New York-based booking agency Ujaama Entertainment, and the much less reputable third-party agent Shannon Marshall. Both of them apparently kept a small percentage of the deposits as a booking fee before sending the bulk of the funds to Cabbell/Antney, presumably to secure all three artists. Because of the complicated paper trail, most of the various promoters’ attempts to legally retrieve their deposits have been difficult and thus far unsuccessful.
“I’m not sure if it’s on purpose,” notes Attorney Gardner, “but [the way the contracts are written up] are very nasty and sinister. It’s multi-layered. From a legal standpoint, when someone does something wrong to you, you can sue that person. Person A sues Person B; laymen understand that [concept]. But the problem arises when a middleman is included and the person on the backend does the harm. Person A has to sue Person B to get to Person C, but in this situation, Person B’s contract says ‘You can’t sue me.’ With the [So Icey Tour] contracts, Person A is the promoter. Person B is Ujaama [and/or Shannon], Person C is Johnnie, Person D is Deb, and E is the artist.” For this reason, he explains, proceeding with a lawsuit is both a difficult and costly endeavor. “Because of the difficulty of the third-party situation, I have to prove which party has the money,” he explains. “Or maybe it’s all of them.”
Complicating the matter even further, the agents’ contracts state that they cannot be sued in the event of a breach of contract. Although this clause is standard in most booking contracts where the agent is only a broker for the artist, Gardner advises his clients to cross it out before signing. “You can’t do business with people you can’t sue,” he says. “It’s legally impossible.”
Ujaama’s attorneys have advised them not to comment on the matter due to pending litigation. Shannon Marshall, who did not return numerous calls for comment, appears to be in hiding. Most of the promoters interviewed have not been able to reach him at all since the cancelled tour dates. “I guess Shannon was a guy that got caught up with them thinking they were good businesspeople over there at Mizay Entertainment and found out they weren’t,” theorizes Godfather. “They were double-booking shows and Johnnie was taking all the deposits.”
Unanimously, the disgruntled So Icey Tour promoters say their money vanished into the hands of Cabbell and Antney. Although the initial deposits were wired to Ujaama, most of the promoters have seen confirmed wire transfer receipts that verify the money ended up in Antney’s bank account. Many have done business with Ujaama for years and never experienced similar issues. “I’ve dealt with Ujaama [before] and never had a problem, so if they say they [sent] the money to the next person, I tend to believe them,” adds Attorney Gardner, who compares the scenario to the sleight-of-hand shell game (left) practiced by street magicians. “It’s like being on the beach and watching the guys with the coconut shells. We just don’t know whose hand is on the coconut.”
“I’ve had a great relationship booking artists with Ujaama for over ten years and I really didn’t wanna get into a legal battle with them. [In the past,] if [an artist] didn’t show up, Ujaama promptly refunded my money. But this? This is a nightmare,” says a frustrated Mr. CC. “I’m out so much money right now that I don’t have a choice. Legally, I have to sue Ujaama. Then Ujaama has to sue Shannon, who disappeared, and then Shannon’s gotta sue Gucci’s management.”
Godfather, while emphasizing that his Ujaama representative Dave Nelson is “a good dude,” blames the fiasco on Cabbell/Antney. “[Ujaama] did a good job of trying to sit down and work the [So Icey Tour] situation out, but [Johnnie and Deb] didn’t want to. If you had $300,000 in deposits, would you want to ‘work it out’?” he asks. “Who’s going to come down to Atlanta and mess with an old lady and go to jail? That’s why you have to sue [Deb]. Everybody else is suing her too.”
Attorney Gardner agrees that hundreds of thousands of dollars appear to have vanished. “The one [deposit] my client sent was a significant sum, and if you multiply that by a 10+ city tour, that’s a hefty bill they have to return. Somebody has the money and can’t repay it,” he reasons. “I don’t know if it’s Johnnie, Deb, or Ujaama. We don’t know how deep the rabbit hole goes, but what’s in the dark always comes to light. If my client decides to sue, we will get to the bottom of it. Multiple defendants always end up telling on each other.”
MODERN DAY SLAVERY
While it’s clear that Ujaama, Shannon, Cabbell, and Antney all received a piece of the So Icey Tour pie, it’s unclear how much – if any – of the initial hundreds of thousands of dollars in show deposits actually went to the artists. It appears that none of it went to OJ da Juiceman or Nicki Minaj, and it’s questionable how much the headliner Gucci received, if any.
Chicago-based John Mosley of Power Move Promotions, a.k.a. John Doe, believes Gucci received little or nothing of the upfront deposits. Since 1997, Mosley has been successfully promoting events in Chicago, Miami, and Atlanta with artists like R Kelly, Jeremih, Twista, Too Short, Gorilla Zoe, and Plies. He partnered with Godfather for the Chicago So Icey Tour date. Although he didn’t reveal the source of his information, Mosley claims that Gucci is locked into a 360 deal with So Icey/Asylum/Warner, and a good portion of the initial show deposits goes to the label, So Icey, which Deb controls. “Gucci Mane is a slave, man,” says Mosley. “Call him and ask him how much of the [show deposits] he’s actually getting.”
360 deals, which are the norm in today’s digital music world, guarantee record labels a percentage of their artists’ revenue from many different sources, including touring. A high-ranking executive at Warner Music Group wouldn’t disclose the exact terms of Gucci Mane’s deal, but did confirm that 360 deals are now standard. “All new [record] deals are inclusive to everything [including a percentage of show monies]. It’s a full-fledged deal,” says the exec. If true, it would appear that large portions of the show deposits (the 50% upfront) are being pocketed by Cabbell and Antney, and the artists themselves don’t get paid at all until they actually show up for the show and receive the back-end money – which could explain why Cabbell/Antney don’t appear to be too concerned if the shows actually happen.
Another source familiar with 360 deals at WMG doubted that Warner itself would have received a portion of the show deposits, stating that the artists’ performance revenue isn’t closely monitored by the major label.
Regardless, “I’m sure Gucci never saw any portion of the deposit,” insists Attorney Gardner. “The artist [only] gets the back end when he shows up [to the show]. I’ve seen it [in other situations]. The label tells the artist, ‘You have fees.’ It’s just business. If Gucci owes them $10,000 for bottles or flights or jewelry, they’re gonna take 100% of what’s owed out of the [deposit].”
The most sinister element of the scenario is the fact that it appears Antney/Cabbell continued accepting show deposits throughout much of the Fall 2009, fully knowing that Gucci would not be able to leave the state of Georgia. They allegedly told one promoter that they were simply “hoping” the judge would clear Gucci Mane’s legal obligations.
According to Attorney Gardner, conspiracy to commit federal fraud (which can bring both civil and criminal charges) “involves two or more people coming together to fraudulently take someone’s money.” Accepting deposits and signing contracts for show dates that legally cannot happen is fraud, and money has been wired across state lines, potentially making it a federal offense.
Taking it a step further, Gardner implies that Gucci himself could be liable for criminal fraud charges, even though he didn’t personally sign the contracts. “The state [of Georgia] already has Gucci [imprisoned], and the Feds are licking their chops to get him on something,” notes Gardner, who is also advising his clients to demand that artists personally sign booking contracts in addition to their management. “If you want to hire Gucci Mane, there should be one page with Gucci Mane’s signature saying, ‘I know about this date, and I agree to be there.’ Tie him into it legally.”
Attorney Gardner notes that both he and his client had previous dealings with Deb, before her stint as Gucci Mane’s manager, which were “extremely positive.” So although his client is not currently pursuing criminal charges, Gardner adds, “I wouldn’t play with it [if I were them]. I’d say Johnnie, Deb, and Gucci need to meet and figure out where the money is, [because] any attorney that really wants to spend some time on this could make things interesting for them.”
Even if Gardner’s client chooses not to go that route, it appears that Pittsburgh attorney Jim Cook, who represents promoter William Marshall of B. Marshall Productions, is preparing to “make things interesting” for Deb and Johnnie. Marshall, along with his partner Derrick Brown of Rock Star Entertainment, invested nearly $50,000 for two Gucci Mane dates that never happened. Their pending lawsuit alleges that “[Radric ‘Gucci Mane’] Davis/Cabbell/Antney have continued to book shows, take money from other associates & clients, refuse to return deposits or lost promotion expenses, and reschedule show dates, although they are/were aware that Gucci Mane is not allowed to leave Georgia..thereby committing a state and federal fraud.” In addition to a civil lawsuit on behalf of Marshall, Cook is threatening to turn the case over to the Pennsylvania Attorney General and the FBI for investigation into criminal fraud charges.
In June 2009, Marshall wired $27,500 to Hitt Afta Hitt and So Icey Entertainment to book Gucci Mane for a show on August 22nd, 2009. He also spent an additional $13,500 to begin promoting the show and secure the venue. About a month later, in mid-July, Marshall heard the rumors of Gucci Mane’s imprisonment and immediately contacted Johnnie and Deb, concerned about his $41,000 investment.
On August 5th, Deb and Johnnie assured Marshall both verbally and in a written letter on HAH letterhead (below) that the show was “in good standing” and would proceed. They also offered similar assurances to G. Rowell, an associate of Marshall’s in Washington D.C. who had another upcoming Gucci Mane show. Based on these guarantees, Marshall continued spending money to promote the event. Just two days before the scheduled date, he was notified by Deb that Gucci Mane would not attend. She refused to return his $27,500 deposit or cover any of the $13,500+ he lost promoting the show.
“At no time would Cabbell/Antney explain Gucci Mane’s confinement or restriction or the length thereof, and both were aware that Gucci Mane could not make the Pittsburgh or DC show dates when they issued the letters [on August 5, 2009],” Marshall’s pending lawsuit continues.
Several weeks later, Marshall was issued a new contract for a rescheduled date and guaranteed a video drop to help salvage his reputation in the city. Video and/or audio drops are typically used by promoters on radio or TV commercials to prove to local fans that the show is legitimate (for example, “Hey, this is Gucci Mane, and I’ll be in Pittsburgh on November 7th!”) After two months of waiting for the video drop, which was never received, Gucci was again a no-show for the rescheduled date.
“Why are [they] continuing to book shows and Gucci Mane doesn’t have movement yet?” asked Godfather, during our interview in late October. “What if the judge says no when he goes to court?” It appears Cabbell/Antney continued scheduling dates for Gucci, including Birmingham, AL, Chicago, IL (Nov. 19th), Lakeland, FL (Nov. 28th), and Houston, TX (Dec. 27th), even as he was legally unable to leave the state of Georgia.
And as it turns out, the judge did say “no.” On November 12th, 2009, Gucci was led away in handcuffs from a court hearing and sentenced to twelve months in prison (he may only be required to serve six months; his lawyer, Dwight L. Thomas, is optimistic and told MTV News that Gucci could possibly be released as soon as the first of the year with good behavior).
The second paragraph of Marshall’s contract with Hitt Afta Hitt explicitly states, “In the event that Artist fails to appear, 100% of the show money is guaranteed to be refunded to the Purchaser.” But despite the written guarantee, as of press time, Marshall has not been refunded the $27,500 deposit that Cabbell/Antney have held for over six months, not to mention the money he lost on promotion, the credibility he lost as a promoter, and the money he could’ve made had he invested those funds elsewhere.
Around the same time B. Marshall sent his Pittsburgh deposit, Florida promoter Mr. CC of Mr. CC Productions (right) says he wired $105,000 to the Shannon/Ujaama/Cabbell/Antney collective to secure three consecutive dates on the So Icey Tour - July 4th (Pompano Beach), 5th (Jacksonville), and 6th (Orlando). According to Mr. CC, his contract with Shannon Marshall – who then had contracts in turn with Ujaama, Cabbell, and Antney - stated that the total $55,000 fee was all-inclusive, meaning that CC was not responsible to pay additional travel expenses (OZONE was not able to obtain copies of these contracts and was therefore unable to verify the specifics of the travel arrangements).
On July 4th, says Mr. CC, “I spoke to Shannon the evening of the [first date] and he said [the artists] were on their way.” He never heard from Shannon again and the artists never showed up. Frantic, he tried to contact Ujaama, So Icey, and Hitt Afta Hitt – and the following day, no one showed up for the second date either.
By the time Mr. CC finally got in touch with Johnnie, he says, word had spread that Gucci and co. were no-shows for the tour dates. “[Johnnie] told me the artists didn’t come [to Jacksonville and Pompano Beach] because we didn’t send them travel money,” reveals Mr. CC, who says that his reaction was one of shock. “’Travel?!? My contract doesn’t say anything about travel. It’s all inclusive. It’s stated specifically in our contracts!’ They said my contract [with Shannon] was wrong.”
Johnnie told him the only way to make the Orlando date happen was to send $10,000 – that same day – for travel expenses. To salvage his name, Mr. CC paid the $10,000 immediately and Gucci and OJ did perform in Orlando on July 6th (but no Nicki Minaj – Johnnie refunded Mr. CC only $3,000 for Nicki’s no-show, while during the same timeframe, he was charging promoters upwards of $7,500 to book her). The previous no-shows, CC says, seriously hindered the turn-out. “We lost $30,000 in Orlando,” he sighs, noting that the local crowd didn’t think the artists were coming. “Those other two Florida no-shows directly affected the Orlando date.”
“Johnnie and Deb admitted that they did receive the [deposits] for all three dates. No one ever called me [prior to the shows] about travel [expenses],” insists Mr. CC. “Not once. They had all my information and nobody called me, so I had no idea [that travel was an issue].”
Between the $30,000 loss in Orlando, the $35,000 Jacksonville deposit, the $35,000 Pompano deposit, and an estimated $40,000 he spent securing venues, radio commercials, flyers, and other forms of promotion, Mr. CC calculates his losses to be over $140,000. And on top of that, he alleges that Johnnie personally robbed him of an additional $5,000. “I said, ‘Look, man. I just need those two makeup dates because I’m out a lot of money. I’ll deal with the travel,’” recalls CC. “He said if I sent him a $5,000 [booking fee], he would work it out for me. He didn’t work it out, and now he refuses to refund my $5,000. He’s lost his damn mind, because I’ve never heard of that in my life. Holding money for a booking fee for an event that never happened?”
CC even agreed to pay the additional $10,000 travel fee per date, even though he says it wasn’t included on his initial contract, just for the opportunity to try to recoup some of his losses. “I just want my damn dates!” he exclaims. After months of getting the runaround from Johnnie, who insisted that he would reschedule, the story suddenly changed. “Now he’s blaming it on Ujaama and Shannon. He’s saying, ‘We didn’t get paid for travel, so it’s a breach of contract. We don’t have to give you back your money.’”
“I guess I have to do a lawsuit that includes everybody,” sighs Mr. CC. “I have to go after all of them for my money and let the judge decide who’s gotta pay. Somebody’s gotta pay for damages – potential earnings and the losses I incurred while going through all of this.”
Cabbell told Atlanta newspaper Creative Loafing, which briefly investigated the fraud allegations, “I’ve been doing business since 2002, and I never [before] had a problem with any promoter.” But OZONE found plenty.
“If any promoter deals with [Johnnie Cabbell], [it’s because] they just don’t know. I’m not gonna do business with him ever again. I’m done,” says Mosley. Several promoters didn’t want to speak on the record to avoid “burning bridges” or damage pending dates, but many have a negative impression of Cabbell as a businessman. One word that kept coming up over and over again: “disrespect.” And phrases like, “I just don’t like his attitude.”
At worst, Johnnie Cabbell is conspiring with Debra Antney & co. to commit federal fraud. At the very least, he’s a liar, according to promoter Jesse Peak (left).
“That whole camp is fucked up. Johnnie is someone who continually tells you he’s gonna do something and then doesn’t do it. He promised me 200% support [on my show],” says Peak, who followed up a successful Plies show in Orlando by booking Gucci Mane in New Orleans in May 2009. In early 2009 when he sent a deposit for Plies [to his booking agent Coach], he promptly received a phone call with a voice drop, an email with eight pre-recorded studio drops, and met Plies at a local radio station to film a video drop for promotional TV commercials.
Impressed with Plies’ camp and their professionalism, he then contacted Gucci Mane’s agent expecting the same courtesy. “I told [Johnnie], ‘This is what I expect from you.’ He promised me radio drops as soon as I sent my deposit. They promised video drops so I [paid extra] to book TV commercials,” recalls Peak. But after sending his $21,000 deposit, weeks went by with no response. Finally, HAH directed him to the Mizay/So Icey office, where he also spent several weeks calling with no response.
“Once Johnnie gets your money it’ll be at least a week before he picks up his phone again,” concurs Godfather, who also never received drops for multiple Shawty Lo shows before his attempted Gucci Mane booking. “Johnnie must be busier than damn [Barack] Obama,” snorts Mr. CC. “I have to call eight or ten times before I can get him on the phone, and he’s always ‘busy.’”
According to Peak, his show’s turnout suffered without drops to add credibility to the promotion. “The city of New Orleans thought it was a fake [Gucci show], just some bullshit, because I didn’t have any [drops].” Also, when he brought the balance of $17,500 cash to Gucci Mane’s road manager G-Boy on the day of the show, he was told that he had to pay an additional $3,500 for travel or Gucci Mane would not perform. Peak’s contract does state that he was responsible for travel – however, he claims that So Icey/Hitt Afta Hitt never told him the cost or details of the travel even after repeated calls to their offices inquiring.
Some people have successfully booked shows through Cabbell. “We haven’t booked Gucci Mane, but I haven’t had any issues dealing with Johnnie Cabbell or Hitt Afta Hitt when I’ve booked Shawty Lo through them,” states Amy Jurkofski of Atlanta-based booking agency The Music Group. Tallahassee, FL promoter Willie McKenzie, who booked Gucci Mane to perform at Florida A&M University’s homecoming this past October, received his deposit back (from a third-party booking agency, not Hitt Afta Hitt) when Gucci was unable to perform due to his legal troubles.
If there’s one thing Johnnie has done right, it’s lock down a niche in a previously untapped market. While Hollywood actors and actresses have a wide selection of agencies to choose from and New York-based acts or major pop/R&B artists are often represented by established agencies like the William Morris Agency (WMA), ICM Talent, or Creative Artists Agency (CAA), the recent explosion of Southern rap left a void waiting to be filled. At least in Atlanta, Cabbell helped fill that void by representing many of the smaller acts that sprang up.
“Johnnie came to me for advice on how to do [bookings],” says Coach of Florida-based Direct Connect Entertainment, a reputable agent who has been booking shows for over 15 years. Currently, Coach is Plies’ exclusive booking agent (pictured at left together). “I’m not saying I trained [Johnnie], but I kinda lectured him on the business when he first started out,” Coach recalls. “And as far as what he does [now] I’m not 100% pleased, and he knows that. He’s never put me in a bad position, but I’m hearing stories from other people saying that he has. He’s never done me wrong, I guess because of his respect level for me or because he knows I wouldn’t tolerate that type of behavior.”
Pittsburgh promoter B. Marshall agrees. “[Johnnie] does a lot of deals with dope boys because he knows they won’t go the legal route. He wouldn’t try to pull some of these moves on [someone like well-known Atlanta promoter] Alex [Gidewon of AG Entertainment] because he won’t get away with it.”
Some of Cabbell’s affiliates defend him. “I think [Johnnie’s] reputation comes from being a hard-nosed businessman,” says South Carolina DJ Chuck T. “He’s known for having crazy ass riders… but he’ll bring in one of the lesser-known groups he fucks with and have them open up. So basically you get a good deal on booking artists but at the expense of bringing one of his new artists and paying for their shit.” Marcus “Rip” Rippy, of Hoodrich Entertainment, echoes the same sentiment. “I’ve seen Johnnie at work and I can understand why some people could feel the way they do. But the truth is that he goes hard for his artists. They are his top priority.”
California-based DJ Nik Bean (left) disagrees, arguing that Johnnie’s bad business practices hinder his artists more than help them. Billing himself as “LA’s Mixtape King,” Nik Bean has toured with Cali up-and-comer Glasses Malone and worked with many other West Coast favorites like Daz, Kurupt, and Nipsey Hussle. Prior to the BET Awards in June 2008, Nik says, he contacted Shawty Lo to inquire about doing some work with him as a DJ.
“[The experience] changed my perception of [Shawty Lo],” says Nik, bitterly. “I liked his music but [dealing with Johnnie] made me question him. Like, ‘Why are you doing business with this guy?’ I can’t say anything bad about Lo, but I’m not doing no more business with Johnnie, period, point blank. And I’ll make sure he can’t do business out here [in L.A.].”
As Shawty Lo’s manager, Cabbell asked Nik for a favor. “[Johnnie] was like, “We’re gonna be out there [in L.A.] for the BET Awards. Set something up for me; get me some money,” recalls Nik. “I made some calls and got the ball rolling on a situation for him to make some show money.” As other promoters got involved, Nik sensed things getting too complicated and backed away. “I was supposed to get some money off the show but the situation got too sticky. I saw too many sharks in the tank, so once I realized I was gonna get screwed, I’m not a professional booker, so I just said ‘fuck it.’”
Johnnie agreed to “make the situation right” with Nik by promising him a Shawty Lo verse for his digital album. Shawty Lo got his money for the LA show Nik set up, but Nik never got his verse. “I had everything ready,” recalls Nik. “I had Glasses Malone do the hook, and we put the beat together. We left an open verse for Shawty Lo. The song was custom-made for him, ‘Concerns of A D-Boy,’ right up his lane. Johnnie promised me, ‘I got you. No problem,’ and I assumed that since he’s Shawty Lo’s manager, it was official. I didn’t think people would do business like this; it just didn’t make sense to me. I would think an artist of that caliber would have the sense to have a decent manager.”
After the BET Awards, four months passed. Nik called Johnnie’s phone repeatedly only to hear, “Yo, I’m in a meeting.” “He kept bullshitting me; I heard the same thing four or five times,” says Nik. “I could smell the bullshit from a mile away. How many ‘meetings’ could you have?”
Nik never received the promised verse. “I told Johnnie, ‘Don’t ever come back out here [to L.A.],’” Nik recalls. “It’s not a [physical] threat, but I meant, ‘Don’t try to [break] no records here.’ There’s other people in the game like [him] too. I guess I’m too nice. If I ever get wind of Johnnie trying to work a record out here, best believe I’m gonna try to shut that shit down.” While it might appear a minor incident, Nik felt personally insulted. “I was so mad because I helped him make money in my city. It’s disrespectful and foul.”
Personally, I’ve had my share of problems with Johnnie. The first was a feature I booked for Shawty Lo for an independent label. Johnnie quoted me $10,000 and I set up the deal for $12,000. I sent the record and the paperwork to Johnnie’s email and waited several weeks as he continually assured me that Shawty Lo would get the verse done. When I later learned that Johnnie had contacted the artist directly after seeing their name on the paperwork and charged them $12,000 for the feature, pocketing my commission, I confronted him. He claimed to not know that it was the same feature I had set up – even though I had emailed him the record three weeks prior. I reluctantly gave him the benefit of the doubt and let it slide.
Then, I booked Shawty Lo to host a party at Las Vegas nightclub Prive on a Monday night with Johnnie’s explicit assurance that he would perform two songs from the DJ booth to satisfy the club’s expectations for the event. I was awakened at 5 AM East Coast time on the night of the event to a conference call/screaming match between Johnnie, the club’s manager, and one of the club owners – a huge mess which went on for hours until Shawty Lo calmly took the phone from Johnnie and agreed to fulfill the requirements of the date. Problem solved. The manager is supposed to fix things for the artist – not the other way around.
Diamond, who was a standout member of the group Crime Mob (represented by Cabbell) before launching her solo career, feels that Deb, not Johnnie, is primarily to blame for the bad business. “I’ve heard of [promoters] having situations with Johnnie, but when I was dealing with him, he was about his business. I haven’t had problems with him myself. It’s about 50/50. I know some people that don’t fuck with him and some people that do fuck with him,” says Diamond. “But I don’t deal with Deb at all and I don’t wanna ever deal with Deb. I’ve heard her attitude is fucked up and her business is fucked up. I’ve never heard anybody have anything nice to say about Deb.”
Often confused as Gucci Mane’s “auntie” because of her last name, Debra Antney is actually not a blood relative of the rapper. She is, however, the mother of up and coming So Icey rapper Waka Flocka Flame (pictured at right together). 49-year-old Deb made the unlikely transition from a non-profit organization called Rah Rah’s Village of Hope and popped up on the scene as Gucci Mane’s manager after bonding with him at a charity event a few years ago.
And yet even with a background in non-profit and charity organizations, many people who’ve dealt with her question her integrity. “[Deb] is the ringleader behind the desk,” says Godfather. “She’s got everybody by the nuts. She’s robbing everybody over there [at So Icey/Mizay], and Johnnie is her partner in crime.”
Some evidence appears to corroborate this. Although most of the promoters’ anger is directed at Cabbell, it appears that bad business practices existed in the So Icey/Mizay camp long before Cabbell/HAH got involved in March 2009. A high turnover rate within both entities and poor communication between the two appears to have only complicated the existing problems.
A year ago, in the fall of 2008, Gucci Mane’s asking price was $15,000 plus expenses. Illinois party promoter Yungwaun (left) booked him through So Icey/Mizay for $17,500 plus expenses – a premium rate for a holiday performance. Gucci was scheduled to perform in Rockford, IL on Halloween (October 31st, 2008). Yungwaun sent a $10,000 deposit along with several thousand dollars for travel, secured a venue, and began spending money advertising the show.
“No one ever [contacted me] to let me know that he wouldn’t make the date,” he says. On September 12th, 2008, a month and a half before Yungwaun’s scheduled show, Gucci appeared in court for a probation violation hearing. Various websites reported that Gucci, who had been convicted of assault in 2005 and sentenced to probation, had failed to meet his required community service hours (he was required to serve 50 hours a month and had only clocked in 25 hours over a three year time period). In addition, he had reportedly tested positive for ecstasy, marijuana, and alcohol during a random drug test. The judge revoked one year of his probation and sent him to jail.
Concerned, Yungwaun contacted So Icey/Mizay to find out the status of his show deposit. Severe Green, a So Icey employee, told him that it was not her responsibility to handle his show because the original person he dealt with at the company had already taken a commission and no longer worked there. After repeated inquiries, Severe assured Yungwaun that the show would move forward as planned and advised him to continue promoting, but he was skeptical. “My investor said, ‘No one’s gonna come because [they know] Gucci is locked up,’” says Yungwaun. “It’s all over the internet.”
Two weeks before the scheduled date, he was officially notified that Gucci Mane would not be attending. Naturally, he wanted his money back. But So Icey/Mizay refused to refund Yungwaun’s $10,000 deposit, first claiming that the “force majeure” clause in the contract released them from the obligation. According to Wikipedia, force majeure is “a common clause in contracts which essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as a war, strike, riot, crime, or an event described by the legal term “act of God” (e.g. flooding, earthquake, volcanic eruption), prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract.” Clearly, Gucci Mane popping pills, smoking weed, failing to do community service, and therefore returning to prison on a probation violation does not qualify as an “act of God” (continues Wikipedia: “force majeure is not intended to excuse negligence or other malfeasance”).
So Icey/Mizay held Yungwaun’s money for over six months. When Gucci Mane was finally scheduled to be released in March 2009, he says, “[Gucci] was so booked up [So Icey] wouldn’t even tell me when he was getting out.” Instead of scheduling a make-up date at his initial contracted price of $17,500, So Icey/Mizay tried to sell him a date for $30,000. “They told me I couldn’t get a date unless I paid the [difference of $12,500],” recalls Yungwaun. “I told them they must be out of their mind, because I had a contract.”
After months of back and forth, Yungwaun, who could not afford the $30,000 price tag, reluctantly accepted his deposit back – minus a $500 commission. “They kept the commission for a show that never happened!” he laughs bitterly. “They held my money for six months! They had $10,000 just sitting there. Plus I had [paid for] commercials and flyers. I lost the potential to make money; I could have made more [money] off the show than I spent.”
Around the time of Gucci’s release from prison in March 2009, So Icey/Mizay handed over the booking responsibilities to Cabbell and Hitt Afta Hitt. Due to a combination of factors (including OJ’s buzz, a slew of Gucci Mane mixtape material floating around, and an overall slump in the music business) the street demand for Gucci Mane had risen during his incarceration. According to simple economic theory, a combination of high demand and low supply (because of his unavailability) equals an increase in price. So during the span of his 6-month incarceration, Gucci’s asking price magically rose from $15,000 to over $40,000. And instead of honoring the previous contracts that had never been satisfied, So Icey/Mizay allowed Johnnie to double or even triple the original prices.
“There’s no way I would have charged [the promoters] more,” says Coach. “For their inconvenience, they should be charged the same price [as their initial contract] or even given a discount. When an artist fails to show, not only is the [promoter’s] name and character at risk, but [the promoter] has incurred a lot of advertising expenses. The radio money, the flyer money, the street team, the venue rental…he’s not gonna get any of that money back. So there’s no way he should have to pay more, because he already lost [money] the first time the artist didn’t show. The booking agent’s responsibility is to get all the money that was sent [for the deposit] returned.” Beyond that, Coach says, the promoter would have to sue the artist directly for breach of contract to attempt to recover funds lost on promotional expenses. “Some [promoters] have won [additional monies in a lawsuit] for damages when the artist couldn’t give a legitimate excuse for not being there.”
Less than a hundred miles away, promoters Godfather (right) and John Mosley (below right) experienced similar drama when they teamed up to bring Gucci Mane to Chicago, IL in the fall of 2008. Their contract was for $15,000. Since Gucci Mane was incarcerated on the date of the scheduled show, So Icey/Mizay promised to reschedule. Mosley estimates that he had to call So Icey at least 200 times before they finally confirmed a make-up date.
After the make-up date was confirmed and they had been advertising for four weeks, Godfather says, Cabbell suddenly tripled the price. “[Johnnie] called and said someone else wanted the date [for a higher price],” Godfather recalls. “I don’t care that his stock went up. That’s why you invest. I lost over $15,000 [on the deposit and promotions] and they held my deposit for a whole year!”
Johnnie threatened to book a show with another promoter in the same city if they didn’t agree to match the offer. “We were only supposed to owe $8,000 [on the back-end to So Icey/Mizay],” confirms Mosley. “But Johnnie got involved and said he was getting thousands of calls [for shows in Chicago] from promoters who want to give him $40,000, and we’re gonna have to match those offers, even though we already had a contract!”
Cabbell refused to honor the $15,000 contract, saying that Gucci was hot in the market and deserved more. Laughs Mosley, “Right! I made him hot in the market! They played his records on the radio because we spent so much money [promoting his show] with the station.”
To avoid losing the date to another promoter, Godfather and Mosley ultimately agreed to pay Cabbell $42,500 for Gucci Mane, plus a $10,000 travel fee – a total of $52,500, plus the money already gone down the drain on advertising and venue rental fees. Why did they continue spending money rather than demanding their deposit back? “I’ve been promoting shows for 20 years and in this market I have a reputation to uphold,” explains Godfather. “My name means more to me [than money].”
Almost a year after sending their initial deposit, the show finally happened in May 2009 and 5,000 people showed up. According to Godfather, it was the biggest show Gucci Mane has ever done (right) [as the headliner] to this day. Mosley says there was plenty of bad blood in the city from his previous no-show. “People were threatening [Gucci’s] life,” he recalls. “The things we went through even getting him into [Chicago] and on stage alive were ridiculous.” The promoters were able to recoup their previous losses (and, one would assume, turned a hefty profit).
Several days later, Johnnie called Godfather and offered him a date on the upcoming So Icey Tour. “He told me, ‘I apologize. Let’s do another date to make it right.’ He tricked [us]. He told us he had a tour coming and he was gonna show me some love,” recalls Godfather. In retrospect, he snaps, “If this is ‘love,’ I don’t want nooooo love from him ever again.”
Godfather and Mosley agreed to book a date on the So Icey Tour for $55,000, which was scheduled to take place on July 24th, 2009. They sent a $35,000 deposit for the artists, a $5,000 booking fee which went directly to Cabbell (“Johnnie thought I was trying to go around him [by dealing with Ujaama] and said I couldn’t do another show unless I sent him $5,000 cash,” alleges Mosley), and $10,000 for travel. But after wiring over $50,000, the promoters learned that all three of the artists on the So Icey Tour were booked on their date in various other cities – so they were forced to push the date back a week, to August 1st. “Johnnie just completely lied [to me],” says Godfather. “On top of that, he knew Gucci was scheduled to take a drug test three weeks before my show and he was high as a kite.”
“I found out Gucci was in jail on Twitter,” laughs Godfather. “Johnnie never called, management never called [to tell me he wasn’t gonna make my show]. Soulja Boy said on Twitter [on July 19th] that Gucci Mane was in jail, and I know him personally, so I was asking him not to say that because he was killing my ticket sales in Chicago.” Nicki Minaj, Godfather adds, was also posting “free Gucci Mane” on her Myspace and Twitter pages less than two weeks before their scheduled event. Meanwhile, Johnnie reassured Godfather, “Gucci is straight. He’ll be at the show,” but never sent the promised drop. Shannon stopped returning calls altogether.
Less than a week before the show, Godfather says, they suddenly changed their tune. “Johnnie is like, ‘Aw, man, I don’t know [if Gucci will be able to come].’ Then he says, ‘We’ve got a bunch of deposits. How do we know we have your [money]’? I’m like, ‘What?! We’ve been talking for months! I’ve got all kinds of contracts! So now you’re trying to say you don’t have my money?’ Deb plays like she doesn’t know what’s going on and hangs up.”
So Godfather retraced the paper trail: Ujaama received the initial deposits. Ujaama in turn wired money to Shannon, who then deposited the money with Deb. “I have definite confirmation that Johnnie and Deb have my money,” says Godfather. Having spent over $50,000 plus promotional expenses, with less than week before the show, he says, Deb or Johnnie didn’t answer the phone for three days. Finally, he reached them by calling three-way through one of Gucci Mane’s bodyguards and sent copies of all the contracts, paperwork, and receipts proving that the money was transferred to Deb’s account. According to Godfather, at that point Deb finally admitted, “I don’t know if Gucci can make that date.”
“This is four days before the event!” exclaims Mosley. “When we advertise an event in Chicago, we blow it up. No one has it on lock like we do. We’ve been promoting for six weeks. 100,000 flyers, [SMS] text blasts, Facebook [invites]. Gucci Gucci Gucci! Gucci’s coming! And four days before the event, they’re telling me he’s got legal problems. Are you kidding me?”
The next day, just three days before the show, Deb demanded an additional $3,500 “security fee” that was never previously discussed and was not included in the contract or rider. They threatened a no-show if the fee was not paid. “Johnnie said my show wouldn’t happen unless I [paid for] more security. He threatened me and my business partner!” Godfather says, incredulous. “At that point, I told him, ‘Fuck you. I don’t care if any of y’all come. It’s embarrassing now.’”
“[Calling a promoter at the last minute with additional charges] is not standard practice for a booking agent,” says Coach. “Everything should be on the contract. Nothing should be added on [verbally] unless somebody defaults on the agreement that’s already in writing.”
With Gucci Mane’s status in limbo, Godfather then learned that no funds from his initial deposit had been used to secure OJ da Juiceman or Nicki Minaj, even though all three artists were supposed to perform. He took matters into his own hands and booked OJ through a local Chicago artist who had a relationship with the rapper, spending an additional $12,000 and getting a studio drop from OJ to continue promoting the show. Nicki, who was on the road with Lil Wayne’s Young Money crew on the America’s Most Wanted Tour for most of the summer, did not attend the show.
On the day of the scheduled Chicago date for the So Icey Tour (right), Godfather was informed that Gucci wouldn’t make it either. “Of the three artists I booked on the tour, OJ was the only one who came, and I had to pay him [an extra] $12,000 to salvage the show!” he exclaims. At the end of the day, Godfather estimates they lost over $90,000, including $8,000 for security, $5,000 on advertising and over $46,000 in ticket refunds that Ticketmaster issued to unhappy patrons because of Gucci Mane’s failure to appear. “I didn’t get a dime back from the ticket office,” laments Godfather. “We put signs on the door saying ‘Gucci will not be here,’ and we still got 3,500 people in there, but we had to give all that money back,” sighs Mosley. “[The fans] blamed us, saying we were false promoting. DJ Pharris had to get on the radio [in Chicago] and let people know it wasn’t our fault.”
“[The promoter] should definitely get their money back if the artist can’t fulfill the contract. Without a doubt,” says Coach. “It’s just like a [UPS] delivery. If you agreed to do a show for a certain amount and now you’re unable to do the show, you have defaulted. If [UPS] promises to deliver something and they don’t, for any reason, the bottom line is they didn’t deliver. It doesn’t matter if the tire was flat or the driver was sick or the weather was bad. The fact is, you had an agreement to deliver, and you didn’t.”
As of press time, Godfather says his $35,000 deposit has not been refunded. Godfather says that he also lost the $5,000 Johnnie pocketed as a booking fee for a show that never happened, as well as the $10,000 travel fee and $3,500 last minute security fee for artists who never arrived. “They haven’t even tried to give me my money back or reschedule the show,” says Godfather. “Getting my money back would be cool, but I want them to reschedule a date with me so I can try to save some face with the radio station. These are people who I’ve known for 20 years, and [the no-shows] ruined my name with the station, fans, and artists. I have to do a make-up show with the radio station to save face with the Program Director.”
It also hampered Godfather’s ability to continue promoting shows in his market. “All the venues here talk to each other. Even though I had no fights and people got their money back [from the Gucci Mane tickets], they still question letting me get venues. I’ve never experienced anything like this,” he adds. His credibility and reputation, he feels, are priceless.
While Johnnie and Deb refused to refund Godfather’s money or reschedule his August date, they accepted a Gucci Mane show deposit from one of his competitors, Chicago promoter Mark Yukon (that show, scheduled for November 19th, 2009, also did not happen).
“Gucci Mane can’t come to Chicago unless I okay it,” declares Godfather. “They all know it. He knows it, his security knows it. He knows his squad is messing up, so it’s on him. He can’t come here unless he works it out with me, so he’s pretty much dead in the market. The radio is gonna stop playing his record and everything. I’m a part of the reparation squad for Johnnie Cabbell’s overcharging. OJ [da Juiceman] is a good guy, but Gucci has signed his life over to Johnnie Cabbell.”
Booking back-to-back shows in the same city with two different promoters is another favorite trick of Cabbell’s. When a savvy promoter requests an exclusivity clause be included in the contract, which normally prevents an artist from performing anywhere in a certain radius for 30 days prior or 30 days after the show, HAH’s carefully worded “exclusivity clause” reads, “artist(s) are not permitted to perform two weeks before or two weeks after the date above at the listed venue,” a loophole which could technically permit Cabbell to book the same artist at two competitive venues on the same street, in the same city, on the same day.
“That’s not something I would do out of respect for the promoter I’m doing business with. You’re going to cause both people headaches,” says Coach. “That definitely shouldn’t be happening at all and that’s one of [Johnnie’s business practices] that I disagree with. I know promoters that have had real bad episodes with [Johnnie] and are displeased.”
Godfather feels that Cabbell’s shiesty business practices have rubbed off on other up-and-coming booking agents. Combine that with the desperation of the recession and it’s an ugly formula. “There’s a lot of guys like Johnnie now. People in Young Jeezy’s camp are doing the same thing,” mentions Godfather. “[Jeezy’s booking agent] Asha is now following standard Johnnie Cabbell practice: they call you a week before the show and threaten to not show up if you don’t send an additional $5,000 or $10,000 for travel [or security]. Then you have a choice: either cancel it and [forfeit] all the money you put into it and disappoint [the fans], or go ahead and take that $5,000 or $10,000 hit because you’ve already sold thousands of tickets. These new dudes like Johnnie are spreading venom to the managers and killing the smaller promoters. I’ve known Asha for years, but she just turned into a vampire last year. $10,000 for travel!? He’s not using jet fuel to get here. He’s using regular gas [for his tour bus]!”
“Travel buyouts” seem to be one of the vampires’ favorite ways of sucking every last drop of money out of a promoter. After Orlando, FL promoter Dawgman (left) sent in a deposit to book Shawty Lo through Cabbell in Spring 2008, in addition to the artist’s fee, he learned that he was also required to spend $4,000 on a “travel buyout” instead of booking flights himself. Johnnie explained that the fee was high because their travel agent was purchasing “refundable” tickets for the entourage, and because Shawty Lo needed to fly first-class (which is always refundable).
But on the scheduled date, Shawty Lo never showed up, and Dawgman was forced to issue refunds to his patrons to salvage his reputation in the market. During separate phone calls to the promoter and the promoter’s assistant, Cabbell and Shawty Lo’s road manager Jay provided two different reasons for Lo’s absense - one claimed he was in the hospital, while the other said he was attending an aunt’s funeral. Of the seven round-trip flights that were supposedly purchased with the $4,000 travel buyout, only three of those people showed up (the road manager and two entourage members). When the date was rescheduled, Johnnie threatened a no-show if Dawgman didn’t again pay a $4,000 travel fee. So what was the purpose of paying extra for “refundable” tickets if they weren’t really refundable? And more importantly, where did that initial $4,000 go?
“Johnnie is trying to pocket money everywhere,” complains Mosley. “He gets it any way he can get it, and he never leaves [Atlanta] to deal with the problems [on the road]. He’ll send the road manager [like Gucci Mane’s G-Boy, Shawty Lo’s Jay, or OJ da Juiceman’s Big Sam] out there to deal with the problems.”
Any hot artist with records getting regular radio spins (like Shawty Lo, back in Spring 2008) is generally working at least 3-4 nights a week – meaning that each of those three or four promoters is paying a high “travel buyout” for round trip travel. Multiply that $4,000 by 3 or 4 and if you’re really only paying one-way expenses – from each city to the next (if the artist even shows up), and you can see how it could become profitable. Let’s say Johnnie charges four promoters $4,000 each for travel expenses for Shawty Lo to go out on the road for four consecutive dates (Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, for example) and only spends $10,000 on travel. Who do you think is pocketing that extra $6,000?
Mizay and So Icey seem to have gotten wise to this additional source of revenue early on in their relationship with HAH, insisting that all travel and hotel be handled through their office for Gucci Mane and OJ da Juiceman shows instead of through Johnnie. Similarly, they demand that promoters pay a high fee upfront which is wired directly to them. Traditionally, for most bookings, an “all-inclusive” artist fee means that all flights, hotel, and ground transportation is included – unless otherwise specified. But So Icey/Mizay often require a “travel buyout” and then later inform the promoter that there is also an additional “hotel buyout” due, plus ground transportation, which must also be booked through them at a premium rate. The HAH contracts generally only vaguely define the travel expenses, leaving room for “the vampires” to tack on thousands of dollars in additional fees at the last minute.
Kym Hall of Royal Pair Entertainment booked OJ da Juiceman to perform in Orlando, FL on Saturday, November 21st, 2009, and although ultimately pleased with his performance, she expressed exasperation with the Mizay/So Icey booking process and feels that they skimmed off the travel money. She claims Jamie Dixon, her So Icey representative, refused to divulge any of OJ’s basic travel information (such as when his flights were arriving, so she feared he would be a no-show) and refused to show her any receipts documenting the actual travel costs.
In addition to paying the “travel buyout” for the flights, So Icey demanded a large sum (which Hall feels was excessive, but declined to disclose the exact amount) for a “hotel buyout,” stating that OJ must be placed in a four-or-five star hotel, but refused to tell Hall where he was staying. “The only reason we found out where he was staying is because [OJ had] an ‘incident’ at the hotel and we had to go over there,” explains Hall. It turns out that Mizay/So Icey had taken her large lump sum “four-or-five star hotel buyout” and placed OJ at the SpringHill Suites Maitland, a three-star hotel at best which can be purchased online for around $80. Hall says she is demanding to see receipts and insisting that So Icey refund the difference between the amount of her “hotel buyout” and the actual amount they paid for the hotel (good luck, Kym).
In the January 2009 issue of Atlanta-based Street Report Magazine, the editor General addressed his issues with Deb in his editorial (below) stemming from an OJ da Juiceman no-show at a Street Report event at Club Frequency. According to General, Deb had promised OJ’s attendance in exchange for advertising in the magazine.
“One of the 2009 topics is burning bridges and breaking your word to sell your soul for the almighty dollar,” wrote General. “What’s up to OJ da Juiceman (Chevron Shawty) for keeping the streets on fire in the A and getting to the money. I also want to add that you are a grinder and the streets are loving you but the flip side to that coin is ‘WOW’ when it comes to your management grinding just as hard as you? Debbie we are talking about you so therefore we are not going to do it like the rappers do it by subliminally sneak dissing. You know what I am talking about with the December 10th Club Frequency situation…”
General continued addressing OJ later in the editorial, adding, “A rapper can be hot today and glacier frozen like the titanic the next. So have that street/business meeting with your camp and tell them the minute that they lose focus of becoming that fucked up word in the game, that shit follows you no matter what business that you are in and people are whispering about it now but they are just keeping shit quiet is kept until they are positioned to voice their say so. Keep getting your money Juice and remember that every move is a calculated step, but your management can lose my number because their word is in the same book as George W Bush (I don’t trust what is being said to me) and for the record, I am not trying to assassinate your character (Debbie) by telling people not to deal with you. Everybody can fuck with you as far as I am concerned but I know not to fuck with you because you lied to me directly and it was not a third party lie. Street Report Magazine doesn’t want any bargains from you. Send over some ad money not a conversation. Aye!”
Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of Street Report Magazine’s bad experience when I made a similar deal with Johnnie and Deb in May 2009 to trade an advertising package in OZONE for a free OJ da Juiceman show.
After fulfilling our part of the agreement, we here at OZONE shopped around for a venue and finally settled on Club Libra in Atlanta. As the Libra representatives sat in my office prepared to sign the contract, I called Johnnie and Deb to let them know we had secured a location. Johnnie told me that OJ would not perform at Club Libra because they had “issues” with the club. After much discussion I reluctantly agreed to keep looking. Less than three weeks later, a commercial began playing on Atlanta radio for - guess who? - OJ da Juiceman performing live at Club Libra! Rather than giving OZONE the free date we had agreed on, Johnnie apparently went around me and booked the date himself.
I suppressed my urge to curse him out, opting instead to try to peacefully resolve the situation. I shopped around for an alternate venue and closed a deal with Freelon’s Nightclub in Jackson, MS, for OJ to perform on August 8th, 2009. Johnnie sent me a signed contract confirming that the OJ show was paid in full as per our advertising agreement. As per the contract, we (OZONE and the promoter) were obligated to pay $3,500 for travel and there were no additional funds due for the show. The promoter wired the travel money to So Icey/Mizay several weeks prior to the show. The contracts were signed by myself, Johnnie, Deb, and the promoter in June.
Almost two months later, on the afternoon the day of the show, Johnnie and Deb called me on 3-way demanding that I pay an additional “security fee” of $3,300 or OJ wasn’t going to leave Atlanta – a fee which had never been mentioned or discussed at all during the month and a half that our contract had been in place. It was also never included on our paperwork. OZONE had fulfilled our obligations and now Johnnie and Deb were refusing to fulfill theirs. Deb claimed she didn’t know the Jackson date was my show, pointing the finger at Johnnie and saying it was his fault. I told them I wasn’t going to pay an additional $3,300 for a “free” show and whatever miscommunication had happened was between the two of them, and they needed to figure it out immediately. A few hours later, Johnnie told me, “We worked it out,” saying that he and Deb had settled their miscommunication and OJ’s tour bus was leaving Atlanta, headed for Jackson.
At 11 PM the night of the show, as a line of fans eager to see OJ formed at the club, I was still 45 minutes outside the city. OJ’s road manager Big Sam went to Freelon’s and told the club owner that if they didn’t receive $5,500 cash immediately (including $500 overtime for their driver – another additional fee that was never discussed and was not our responsibility) they had been instructed by Johnnie and Deb to leave town immediately. Without $5,500 cash, OJ would not perform at OZONE’s “free” show. So here I was faced with the choice that so many other promoters have had to make: cancel the show, ruin my relationship with the promoter and the promoter’s reputation, and fight Johnnie and Deb in court for $10,000 (the value of the advertising package)? Or move forward and only fight them for $5,500?
Similar to the So Icey Tour contracts, the OZONE contract with Johnnie involved multiple parties, so going the legal route would probably also mean suing a long-time client and friend (Freelon’s) because of Johnnie and Deb’s fraud. I later learned that OJ and Big Sam had no idea what was really going on, didn’t know that I was even involved with the show, and were simply following Deb and Johnnie’s instructions.
THE GOOD OL’ DAYS
When established artists like T.I. and Lil Wayne first started doing nightclub shows years ago, they were reasonably priced. “They earned their way up the ladder, and they have stronger foundations because of it,” explains Coach, who recalls booking T.I. for $1,500 or $2,000 in the early days and Lil Wayne for $10,000 when he was touring with Sqad Up and already had two albums under his belt. “They made solid movement all the way up the ladder until they’ve reached this point [where they command six figure show prices], and I can respect any artist that is willing to go out and work from the ground up.” Johnnie is certainly not the only booking agent to charge exorbitant prices for an artist with one hit record, but it’s one thing he is infamously known for – resulting in a short lifespan of many artists he has represented (where are the Shop Boyz, of “Party Like a Rock Star” fame? Fabo? D4L? Crime Mob?).
Nicki Minaj, for example, has a strong buzz, but doesn’t have an album out yet. Jesse Peak inquired about booking Nicki for a BET Hip Hop Awards afterparty in Atlanta in October 2009 but quickly changed his mind when her former manager Cortez directed him to Hitt Afta Hitt. “They were shooting out dumb numbers like $12,000 plus I’ve gotta pay a travel fee, even though she was already scheduled to be in Atlanta,” says Peak. “When an artist is represented by Hitt Afta Hitt, it discourages me from booking them because I know exactly what to expect from them: They say whatever you wanna hear to get your money, and once they get your money, you can’t get a call back.”
Mosley laughs while offering some words of advice to artists considering Hitt Afta Hitt representation: “You’ll have better luck diving off the Sears Tower.”
“A lot of artists are overpriced, and that hurts their career,” explains Coach. “If an artist is really overpriced and a promoter takes a risk on him and loses badly, when the artist tries to make a comeback the promoter is gonna say, ‘I did you when you were hot and I lost, so I’m definitely not gonna do you when you’re cold.’ So when you put the artist’s price up so high just because they’re new and the demand is high but they haven’t been proven, you’re risking their career longevity. These artists today get one single and they want $7,500 for a show. They haven’t been tested. The single may be hot, but the promoters lose money. Some might win, but most lose. And [as a result] the artist’s careers are short-lived. Very short-lived.”
D4L frontman Shawty Lo (left) is a perfect example of this phenomenon. “I don’t get requests for Shawty Lo [now],” says Coach. “In my opinion, he should have been charging less than [he was] at his peak. It would have made him a much more viable product today if he had been at a lower price when he was really hot. More people would’ve had accessibility to him. He would’ve been in more venues; more promoters would have been successful with him and would’ve had a better opinion of him. When [a promoter] loses, it leaves a bad taste in their mouth as far as that artist afterwards. Not saying that they lost at every show, but there were some where the price was just too high.”
Godfather is even more direct. “[Johnnie] killed Shawty Lo; destroyed his career,” he confirms. “[Shawty Lo] can’t get shows now because of his relationship with Johnnie. Johnnie overcharges and double-books. [Shawty Lo] was battling with T.I., the so-called King of the South. How were you on his level and then you fell from grace that fast? It’s because [Johnnie] was overpricing him, [charging] $40,000 or $50,000 for a guy with two songs, then doing no-shows, then threatening you with the $5,000 booking fee. He took his price past what he was worth and he fell off quick. [Now] I wouldn’t give [Shawty Lo] $1,000 to go anywhere. That’s not personal on Lo, it’s Johnnie. And he’s gonna do the same thing to Gucci [Mane’s career]. I didn’t deal with him on D4L because they had so many no-shows. No one wanted to book them anymore and they fell off. Anyone he touches, he kills their career. He’s bad, man. He’s a very shiesty businessman.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, artists like Lil Boosie and Webbie and legends like Too $hort and Uncle Luke have consistently toured throughout the country, putting on good shows and hosting parties at a reasonable price. The cost is fair and the demand is still strong. In turn, the promoters are able to turn profits and bring these artists back time and time again, contributing to their career longevity.
“Boosie and Webbie get [booked] for a lot of shows because their price is good enough that promoters can make a profit,” agrees Coach. “There’s two people involved: the artist and the promoter. In the end, both people should be happy. I don’t think it should just be one guy coming to get all the money and going home happy, while the promoter lost all his money and he’s unhappy. [Promoting shows] is a risk, but there should at least be the opportunity for the promoter to make some money if he does it correctly. If the artist’s price is too high, the promoter doesn’t have the opportunity to make money.”
With all the hype surrounding Gucci Mane’s 2009 shows, you’d think the price tag would be worth it. For $40,000 or more, you should get a well-rehearsed, energetic, exciting sixty minute performance and the fans go home satisfied, right?
“Gucci’s show is garbage,” says Yungwaun. “I saw him perform in Milwaukee. He doesn’t move, he just stands there.” Comparing Gucci Mane’s performance to other in-demand rappers of a similar genre like Plies or Young Jeezy, agrees Jesse Peak, is laughable. “[Gucci’s] show is shitty. He doesn’t have much showmanship at all. If you pay somebody that kind of money, you think they’re gonna get down [and put on a good show]. He comes to shows high as a kite and he just doesn’t do anything. He sits on a stage like he’s in a booth and raps into the mic. That’s it.”
“I wouldn’t book Gucci Mane again even if the tickets were pre-sold out,” emphasizes Peak. “I wouldn’t pay him anything. He’s not worth it. I was completely disappointed with the whole experience. I wish [Gucci] luck, but I hope Johnnie don’t ever come to one of my parties.”
To be fair, there’s always more than one side to a story, and Deb and Johnnie’s side is not represented here. But when a dozen promoters in different cities with no prior affiliation are interviewed separately and all tell the same infuriating tales, chances are there’s some truth to it. Although I too have been bitten by the vampires to the tune of $5,000, that amount is pennies compared to some of these promoters’ alleged losses, and I have made every attempt to be reasonable and objective in my reporting.
As they became aware that their dirt was being dug up, Deb and Johnnie tried valiantly to slander my name (hateful email blasts about me containing baseless insults), damage my credibility (recording highly unprofessional online “conference calls” with racial accusations), and scare me (attempting to sue me and get an emergency injunction for “defamation of character”) away from investigating these fraudulent activities. I did not reach out to them for comment because I doubt it would be a productive conversation for anyone involved. Johnnie even attempted to file a warrant for my arrest when I commented on Twitter that he rapes promoters. I think this article contains sufficient evidence to prove that fact, and telling the truth is not a crime.
“What Johnnie is doing ain’t right, and it’s dangerous because you’re dealing with people’s money,” says Mosley. “I respect promoter’s money,” concludes Coach. “I don’t think [Johnnie] respects promoter’s money.”
The solution to all these problems, it would seem, would be for management to put more effort into keeping Gucci sober and free, and less effort into taking deposits for show dates he can’t legally attend.
“I can’t see how [artists] would want to put their trust in someone like [Johnnie],” laments Nik Bean. “Gucci Mane obviously needs new management. Everybody’s talking about ‘Free Gucci Mane’ when we really should be saying, ‘Gucci Mane needs to get a new manager.’ Why’s he doing all this time [for failure to meet community service requirements]? They’re supposed to be managing him and his time.”
Unlike Gucci, Lil Boosie, who began serving a reported 2-4 year jail sentence in November 2009, did not leave behind a slew of angry promoters. Courtney Scott of Trill Management, who handles Boosie’s show bookings, explains that they “slowed down” on Boosie’s dates as soon as they became aware of his legal troubles. They returned three promoters previous deposits, Courtney says, adding, “We made a conscious decision as a management team to prepare for the fact that he might [have to go to jail]. People kept offering to book dates, but we just didn’t take their deposits. We told them we can’t accept it, because he has to go to court.” This seems to be a much more logical management strategy than the get-as-much-money-as-possible-now-and-worry-about-the-consequences-later mentality exhibited by Cabbell and Antney.
Mike Jones (not the rapper), who handles marketing for the clothing store chain DTLR, sponsored Godfather’s Gucci Mane no-show in Chicago. “It’s [all about] the fans, man. You can’t blame them for wanting to see their favorite artists,” he reflects. “I was at the show [where Gucci was scheduled to appear] and it was just a bad look. Some fans don’t even care if you perform. They just wanna see you and take pictures with you. When you don’t even show your face, it’s just bad for business. It’s about the fans; the consumers.”
“Y’all see what’s happening in Chicago on CNN and the news [with so much violence]. It’s Beiruit out here,” finishes Mosley. “People can’t afford to jack off $50 or $60. To play with people’s money and emotions, it’s not a good look. All that money is going somewhere.” Jones vividly recalls tearing down the Gucci Mane promotional posters from his stores, one by one. “I don’t even wanna be affiliated with Gucci Mane anymore. I don’t wanna see anything with his name on it,” he vents. “The word up here [in Chicago] is, ‘Man, I wouldn’t touch Gucci Mane’s show if Jesus was hosting it.’ Real talk.”
Now that Gucci is gone again for at least six months, most of the promoters just want to cut their losses and get their initial deposits back. “Cash is king in this recession. Rescheduling a show isn’t even a possibility for at least eight months, [and that’s] assuming Gucci behaves himself and gets out early on good behavior,” explains Attorney Gardner.
Although Gucci’s previous 6-month incarceration increased his demand, this time around, things could easily go the other way and cool down his buzz like it has for many other rappers (Mystikal, for example, is out of sight, out of mind). “When he does get out, who’s to say he’ll even be relevant at that time?” questions Gardner.
But as long as Gucci, OJ, Nicki, Waka, and the rest of the So Icey artists continue making hot music, the streets will continue demanding their appearances and promoters will continue to book them. Gucci has found a way to make lemonade out of lemons, turning his legal troubles into the theme of his upcoming album, The State vs. Radric Davis (left). At the end of the day, though, the artists’ management is supposed to be working for them, not against them, and all the fraud allegations can’t be good for business. “This is how empires fall,” says Mosley. “It’s going to come back on them.”
When confronted with the accusation that her and Cabbell’s actions have not only been unethical but also criminally fraudulent, at least in the case of Marshall’s Pittsburgh no-shows, Antney defended herself to Creative Loafing. “The only thing you have is your name, and if you ruin your name, you ruin everything,” she says. At least we can all agree on that. //
If you have experienced similar problems as the promoters interviewed in this article, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To comment on this article, http://www.ozonemag.com/2009/11/30/scam-afta-scam.