Nat Robinson, is the quintessential, grandfather of time. When the CEO opened the doors to First Priority Music, he used concepts from his former experience in marketing and club promotions, to manifest a booming business that would appeal to young and more cultured consumers. It was the first of its kind, housed in Brooklyn, New York, one that would foster rhythm & blues, as well as hip hop under one dynamic helm.
“Marketing is marketing whether it’s computers or music. It’s still marketing. I kind of used my skills with IBM for the club business first, and then the music business.”
From 1986 until now, First Priority Music has been a pivotal dais for the hip hop community, and it all started with a white-collar position.
“I was actually an engineer for IBM,” explained Nat, “I outgrew them. After that, I went into the concert business. That was a disaster. From the concert business, I went into clubs. I had a very successful club called Tribeca, in lower Manhattan, and after that I got into the music. The club and music business happened because of the influence of my kids. Milk wanted to be a rapper, and I knew a lot of people from the club business that got into the music business. I created some meetings and set it up. Ultimately, it was my kids that drove the hip hop label forward.”
Nat Robinson launched his sons Kirk "Milk Dee" Robinson and DJ Nat "Gizmo" from legendary group, Audio Two, under First Priority Music Group. The group released a stunning single called Top Billin, which secured the distribution deal with Atlantic Records in 1987. After that, MC Lyte, propelled her career as the first female rapper to secure a huge contract under the label. In 1989, she released "I Cram to Understand U (Sam)," and the single bopped to #1 on the Billboard Hip-Hop charts.
List of rappers and singers affiliated with First Priority Music here.
Audio Two "Top Billin"
It was a milestone effect, where Nat established First Priority Music as an independent label in the format of a mom and pop shop that subsequently grew by partnering with Atlantic Records to gain worldwide distribution. The company decorated itself as a majestic dynasty, where pioneers were born, fueled by passion, reason, and lyrics. During that time, Nat learned the rules of supply and demand from an entertainment perspective … “The reason we signed with Atlantic [Records],” he says, “is because we had opened so many doors around the nation.”
Later, Nat would work with young acts like Positive K, Big Daddy Kane, and MC Lyte for her albums Lyte as a Rock, Eyes on This, Act Like You Know, and Ruffneck. By then, Priority secured another distribution deal with Jive/Zomba Records.
Nat enjoyed working with other artist like Will Smith, Queen Latifah and The Roots.
“In those days, it was very cliquish and territorial cliques. You had everybody in Brooklyn hanging out with Brooklyn, and Jersey hanging out with Jersey—The Bronx hung out with the Bronx. That was the time that we all hung out in our territories, but as it [hip hop] grew, we started to intermix with each other and that’s when it became the real hip hop scene.”
Many of the rappers that Nat worked with, like Will Smith and Queen Latifah, have gone on to become A-list celebrities, appearing as lead actors in top box office hits. Interestingly, Nat doesn’t take any credit for their successes, even though he was an essential entity that launched them into the limelight. “I’m a humble person. Was it me, or was it just that time? I believe it was the time, and it was time for me to get involved. Did I do anything special? I think the most special thing I did was hustle, work hard, work 26 hours a day, and work every avenue just to try to get things going. We must remember that there were a lot of independent labels. We all worked with each other instead of against each other, so that helped a lot. I just figure it was the time. There were a lot of young kids that really wanted to make it happen. I went from the club business to music business. I had to buy this book called, “The Business of Music,” and read itnabout five times. I learned about music as much as I could, as fast as I could."
Nat switched gears recently and re-branded by launching First Priority Media, a revolutionized concept of their record label. Nat says that they needed to re-brand. However, if you visit their website, you’ll notice that the visuals are nostalgically clever—It’s adorned with old-school cassette tapes, and a legacy roster, with photos of artist past and present—It’s very organic. Nat said that it was important to keep the true essence of the 80’s music, but with innovation. Instead of it being a music platform, it’s now First Priority Media, an all-encompassing group for entertainment.
“Music is music. It’s like, you’re addicted to something, and I was always addicted to music. Really, music was my thing before I went into engineering. As a kid, I always wanted to be a songwriter, which, I never did that, but it was my dream,” he says. “I would listen to songs from Motown, and the writers… I just loved music. My kids taught me hip hop and they made me love hip hop. My club was a dance club, so I went into hip hop. It was a totally new experience. They taught me to appreciate the hip hop world, their stories their lives and things that they went through because they were amazing storytellers. A lot of the time they could tell you stories about a certain part of life that you wouldn’t necessarily know about. They could tell you about incarceration, but if you never were incarcerated, you wouldn’t know about being in jail. You listened to their stories, and it became more and more amazing because it taught us. They would teach us form their experiences, then gradually, you hear the beat and you just can’t let it go. Now, we are working with the younger guys. We have a lot of artist that are all current. We have unreleased albums that we didn’t put out in the years past, and we are releasing those albums now. We have a nice mix.
We went through a lot of changes. In the earlier days, we would find artist by our ability to asses a hit. Then, we went from that to what’s current now, and just checking people’s metrics. We paid close attention to their fans and followers on Instagram, Facebook or whatever. We are slowly getting back to what we did before. We are into development again. We are not looking at the metrics; we are looking at their ability. We are using the metrics, their music, and the complete process. We are back where were in the beginning. We are looking at your ability and not your metrics anymore."
Nat went on to say that they are really searching for musical talents with an alluring presence that will get people excited… “That’s where we are now,” he says. “Let’s develop them, let’s give them education, let’s give them music, and let’s build every aspect of their career. In the days back, we didn’t really do that. It was always about the music. Now, it’s about the music, it’s about the merchandise, its about the shows, the commercials and the acting. You must have a well-rounded person, now, to really be very, very successful. The success is out in space right now because everyone has opportunity.”
When Nat began his label, the artist was making an average of five-hundred dollars a gig, and that was big money back then. Now, the artists are raking in over twenty-five thousand for their first show, which is an astronomic jump compared to the 80’s and 90’s. Recently MTO [Media Take Out] published a chart that disclosed the average booking fees for rappers and vocalist that variate between twenty-five thousand to one-hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars. “The thing we have to do now, because kids really make so much money,” says Nat, “they really need a team of professionals behind them. They need amazing accountants and great management, because they make so much money. It’s sad if they come out broke five years after that. I can’t imagine that, but they must do the right thing and make sure they’re good for their lifetime and they are good for their kids. If you get kids that can listen, you can connect them with good people that you know are on top of their game. You can get them in the best agencies and merchandising companies, so they will make money. These kids are independent contractors, so the thing they must remember is that they need to pay their taxes to the IRS. They must pay taxes. Don’t let that fly because penalties and interest will take one-hundred thousand dollars and run it up to one-million. There is common sense that you need to deal with. Once you get that big check, the common-sense thing to do is pay your taxes. Don’t buy that one-hundred thousand dollar car. Just pay your taxes first and maybe even put money on a home. Buy a car after that. Sometimes, when you receive money in your bank account, you may forget the important things. With my company, we try to make sure kids take care of the business first, so you are never caught out there.”
Nat is pushing First Priority Media into filming as well, adding another layer to the media platform… “We’re working on a two-part film called “Top Villain,” and we’re working on an animation called “Bird Land.” We have a few other things that we haven’t pulled out the pot yet, but we are looking at other stuff. Of course, we are doing music that we’ve always loved. We have a lot of great artist, with mostly rap. We have a pop-rock band too. I have partners that are working with that. We have a few rock things coming out. We’re in a different time now, and things have changed from the old to the new game. A couple of years ago, the music industry fell off and it lost 40% of its business a year. Streaming became the business. Now, it’s not falling off. Currently, the business is building as it was before. We have technology and a digital market, and we have a global community. If you drop a record, its all over the world with one shot.”
Nat explained that they still make revenue with streaming by the crypto term, “MicroMoney.” It’s not a lot of revenue for artist that’s getting one hundred downloads, but, for artist that’s streaming in the millions and billions, that money grows.
So, its obvious that Nat is a business pundit with an eye for talent. He’s seen the best of the best as well as the worst. He’s certainly survived the times of hip hop in its many influxes. With all that insigth, Nat says that he’s happy with the current state of hip hop. “I like what’s happening in music—I’ll call them legacy artist. They are all becoming real business people. They are learning how to maneuver through the game, and that’s amazing. You must be so proud of Jay Z and the things he’s accomplished. It’s amazing to see them grow from then until now. Latifah, with all her great films and Lyte is out there, a businesswoman. It’s a great time to look back at them and say, “Wow, they got it.” They did what they had to do to maintain. You must make sure you put your business in order."
On October 30th, Nat along with business partners hosted a listening session for his primary group, Audio Two, which brought out flagship artist like Eminem, Pioneer DJ/Rapper Eric B, VP of A&R Jonathan Michael, and Actor Mark Wahlberg. “One thing that I love is Milk, from Audio Two. He has one-hundred and twenty-five samples of one song. It’s the most sampled hip hop record ever—It goes back to Mary J Blige, Dr. Dre, Biggie, 50 Cent, Lady Gaga, Usher, and it goes on. All these people sampled it, like Jay Z, and Kanye, they all sampled this song. For one song to have two-hundred and eighty-five samples, it’s amazing. I would love to take the credit, but I can’t. It materialized on its own. We’re happy that it happened. Fergie used it recently, and we used it in the Hustler, with Jennifer Lopez. That song is in the film. You love it and you look at it, and you thank God that you’re still around to see it, enjoy it, and do it again.”
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