I remember back in the early '90's when Eight Ball & MJG worked at a burger joint with my best friend, little Barry. We were teenagers, I worked at McDonald's and he worked at Central Park Burgers. He would always tell me how these two guys were rapping out the frame; burning fries, flipping burgers and skillfully rapping the whole time.
I took his word on it and the first chance I got to go see them perform I took it. It was at The Crystal Palace Skating Rink over on Third Street. The crowd was thick inside and out, much like the Craig Brewer movie "Hustle and Flow" depicts. Eight Ball & MJG did not disappoint. They rocked the house! I remember Barry and I leaving there that night saying, "Them guys going to make it big, if somebody important ever see them."
Well, someone did and his name was Tony Draper. A chance meeting recently at a Wing Stop off of Wilcrest Street in Houston, Texas gave me a great opportunity to chop it up with one of hip-hops greatest music moguls.
"Music in Memphis is legendary because of Stax. But when it comes to hip hop, there hasn't been a stronger movement since my Suave House movement," Draper said. "I ain't talking about hype, I'm talking about the translation of record sales. Even though I'm not on good terms with Eight Ball & MJG, the history that we created isn't going anywhere."
With five million records sold, Eight Ball & MJG are really the biggest rap group to ever come out of Memphis, he said. Bigger than Triple Six Mafia and Yo Gotti, on the hip hop side.
"I think Yo Gotti is doing his thing, he's hot! Triple Six has done wonders for the city by winning an Oscar. That was amazing! But when it comes to record sales, no one out of that city has sold more records than Eight Ball & MJG, period!"
Draper recalled "Coming Out Hard" – his first collaboration with the group – and then the last – "In Our Lifetime" – and said the journey represented transformation and growth. And, he said, it came from him putting every dollar he had "into the marketing/visibility of every project I put out."
His vehicle is the Houston-based Suave House label, which he founded in 2008. He focused on developing talent and guiding that talent toward recognizing that "they can be appealing to a nationwide audience."
I asked who all he had on his label at the time.
"Eight Ball & MJG, Tela, Crime Boss, South Circle, Mr. Mike, (the) Ill Hillbillies (a group the late Jam Master Jay brought to him in a joint partnership deal before he was killed), Psycho Drama, NOLA, Lil' Noah and Rick Ross," he said.
"Hold up, Mayback Music, Every Day I'm Hustling, Rick Ross?" I asked.
"Yes, I found Rick Ross first and I signed him in 2000." Draper answered.
"I was known for taking virtually unknowns and turning them into something. So when somebody says Tony Draper didn't do good business with Eight Ball & MJG or Tela, then they obviously don't understand the business aspect of the music business," he said.
Draper took some to "share the truth of the entire story" regarding his association with Eight Ball & MJG.
"My brother, Ernest Draper, took me to this showcase in Memphis and it was during the time the city was having their annual Memphis in May and there was a rap contest going on at this club on Beale Street," he said. "There were all kinds of rappers there – Triple Six, Eight Ball & MJG, Skinny Pimp, Al Capone, etc. But I saw this fat guy and this skinny guy and they stood out and I thought it was something special about them.
"I met Eight Ball after the show. I told him I was going back to Houston to take care of some business and I would like to sign them in six months and I wanted them in Houston with me. You got to understand, I was born in Memphis, but when I was three we moved to Houston, Texas, so this was my way of paying homage to where I was born and where I came up at."
His son, Santana Draper, enjoying some Lemon Pepper wings, watched with admiration.
"I knew what it took to make those guys pop. I knew what it took to make them stay relevant in the market place. You have to always stay ahead of the curve instead of following the curve. When I had Eight Ball & MJG, I kept them hidden. I made you love the music, so in essence you loved them, but you never seen them," he said.
"No matter what people say, they will always pay big money to see the arrogance of a star. As much as they talk about Kanye West, they will pay every time to see Kanye West, but if Kanye was always seen hanging around, nobody would pay to see him!"
When he did "Coming Out Hard" Draper was the first young black CEO buying two full cover ads in Source Magazine and Rap Pages magazine, he said.
"I was spending $23,000 dollars a month. I was doing it because I felt like radio was such a hard task and the people I needed to talk to were the people in the penitentiary, the people in the street. They could relate to the kind of music that I was doing. It was a good run," said Draper.
Eight Ball & MJG later signed with P. Diddy and Bad Boy South. I asked Draper why they moved on if "what you were doing was so hot and they were making money."
"In the end, I think they got a little blindsided on what we were doing and ruined their own legacy to me" he said. "I had them on a whole another level. They couldn't be touched in the South at that time. Outkast, who has now sold over 20 million records, came to me and told me that they use to listen to Eight Ball & MJG in high school. Young Jeezy, Ludacris, Rick Ross – they all have told me that they salute Eight Ball & MJG. So how do you go from being the king to you becoming the follower?"
Draper said he saw the business get watered down, turning from passion to a money game and that he wasn't willing to compromise with that. Eight Ball & MJG had a seven-album commitment with him and fulfilled six of them, he said, launching into detail about the winding path the group traveled after separating from him.
"After me, they released an album with another guy before going with P. Diddy and that album was titled 'Space Age Forever' and their sound started changing then. The album didn't do well at all. It was a garbage album. People only bought it because they were riding the headlines that they left Suave House Records, he said.
"Then Eight Ball did a solo album titled 'Almost Famous' and it flops! How are you almost famous when you have already sold five million albums! I want your readers to understand the mind of some of these artist that's not in touch with the music or the coach that's been leading the way for them.
"Next, they go with Bad Boy (Records), P. Diddy gave them a $ 1 million dollars, real talk," said Draper. "On this album they released with him there is not one established producer on it. They paid themselves and they paid their lawyers, then put on those fat puffy coats like they were from New York and the album bummed. They believed they were winning because they had more money, but no. See, I had the same kind of money invested, but I paid for the best features at that time, I paid for the best production. The best engineers mixed/mastered the records."
Draper wound down to Eight Ball & MJG signing with Grand Hustle and producing what he called a garbage album.
"I'm saying, why are you still signing with people when you came from the Tony Draper school of independence? Why you not putting your own records out? However, I wish them well. What we had was very special to me, I didn't think that our situation would end how it ended."
He had envisioned the group with him as he transitioned to his new venture, film/television.
"This came about after I took Ice Cube independent and he sold over one million records with the 2006 album 'Laugh Now, Cry Later,' that fascinated the industry. They couldn't believe it with a six man staff. I really had that TV bug then after being around Cube.
Draper said he left the music business by choice and naturally moved into television.
"Will I do some more music? Yeah, I'm sure I will, if the opportunity that is presented is right. I started Suave House when I was 16 years old. It gave me a natural high, that's the same feeling I get from the different challenges of the television/movie business."
His son, Santana, 10, is "doing big things in his acting career," said Draper. "He will be that next big kid, watch what I tell you. He just came from New York on a six-day shoot on the HBO hit 'Board Walk Empire.' He's already worked with and met stars such as Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson to name some. He's in the movie 'Django Unchained' with Jamie Fox and Kerry Washington that's due out this Christmas.
"So yeah, he's modeling and acting and he's doing it all with passion, because that's the way that I'm grooming him," Draper said. "To do things with passion and the money will come."