Flava In Ya Ear
Issa Rae's knack for curating music moments made the Insecure soundtrack a breakout success. Now Raedio, her multi-armed audio platform, is slated to bolster new rap talent in music, film and beyond.
Words: Stacey-Ann Ellis
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
Issa Rae is in a bit of a funk. It’s a summer day in July and after four straight months of being holed up in her Los Angeles home due to the coronavirus pandemic, the writer, producer and actress is slowly, begrudgingly embracing the fact that prolonged inside time might be the “new normal” (a term she now detests) indefinitely. As is the case for most of Earth’s inhabitants, COVID-19 has halted many of her robust 2020 plans, even though earning 11 Emmy Award nominations during this time, winning one and hosting Saturday Night Live probably makes up for it. However, the pause has also given Issa more time to focus on her newest platform: Raedio.
Raedio, described by Issa Rae as an “audio-everywhere company,” is built on her storied love for music and keen ability to weave it into her storytelling process. Formed in 2019 by Rae and Benoni Tagoe, Raedio’s president and her long-time business partner, a top-level summation of the platform’s five verticals starts with the Raedio label (a joint venture with Atlantic Records) that’s home to two rapper-singer signees: ATLien Yung Baby Tate and Boston native TeaMarrr. The label is supported by a public-facing music library, music supervision through a Bonfire Collective acquisition, publishing through Kobalt Music, and, eventually, live events when the pandemic is past tense. “With my ambitions to write film and television, music was always a part of it,” Rae says, recalling how often she comes up with show and movie concepts and scenes based on a particular song she heard. “They kind of go hand-in-hand for me.”
Music has long been part of Rae’s DNA. Born Jo-Issa Rae Diop, much of the 35-year-old’s early listening experiences were molded by her parents’ must-hears (Tower of Power and Luther Vandross), as well as BET, MTV, 1990’s R&B and the last of the girl groups ruling the decade. However, she credits her brothers for her unmistakable love for hip-hop. From conscious cuts to Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker” to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill to Mase’s Harlem World (the latter two of which she can recite front to back), the rap world began to influence the way Rae absorbed music and then created her work with it. “That really started to define my taste where I was like, I want to seek music that makes me feel like I want to party,” she expounds. “Then it just kind of became a part of my storytelling.”
Case in point: Rae’s trademark whimsical, Nicki Minaj-inspired mirror raps, which became the lifeblood of her career-launching web series The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, and her four-season-strong HBO hit show, Insecure. Viewers may come for Issa, Lawrence and Molly’s messy entanglements, but they stay for the music. Insecure’s soundtrack has put bubbling acts—think Buddy, Kari Faux, Dreezy, Rico Nasty, St. Panther, Leikeli47 and KAMAUU, to name a few—in front of new ears and given them a space to premiere new music. So, it’s only right that Raedio do this in a larger capacity. According to Ashley Monaé, Raedio’s Director of A&R (formerly an A&R at Interscope Records), Rae has a love for finding artists that people don’t know. “At the core of it, [Issa Rae is] definitely just like, a music lover at heart,” she affirms.
Think about Yung Baby Tate’s bouncy “Never Lonely” featuring Jozzy setting the tone for Season 4 of Insecure in the trailer, Rae’s iconic open mic night with “Broken Pussy” or how to this day, thanks to Kelly’s Malibu girls trip, celebrants still request Trap Beckham’s “Birthday Bitch” from the DJ booth. They’re fun, delightfully ratchet, twerk-worthy songs that stick—all crafted with intention. Several of the Season 4 standouts were the result of a two-day writing camp, which Tate describes as an “ego-free” creative space complete with a fun mix of artists and producers, bomb catering, a little Hennessy and typed prompts to guide the process of crafting original music to fit Rae’s vision across 10 episodes of Insecure. When Tate and songwriter Jozzy made “Never Lonely,” the buzzwords were things like “party, block party, bad bitch, getting back to herself, feeling good about herself.” Then for “Do Me Like That” featuring Buddy, a more general ask for a love lost. “They just gave us simple prompts without trying to give too much of the season away,” Tate explains.
The camp not only led to dope music, but to Tate joining the Raedio family. Rae’s team quickly picked up on her versatility. “I worked on six songs in two days at that camp, and they were all different themes,” shares Tate, who announced her Raedio signing in April of 2020. “I’m very good at doing that, and I feel like that really impressed them.” With Rae’s penchant for hip-hop-pop-R&B hybrids, Tate raps, sings, produces and mixes her songs, then creates the concepts for all of her vibrant videos. “I’m just a very everything-ass girl,” she expresses with a laugh. Similarly, TeaMarrr, a slick R&B-pop singer-songwriter, also produces and helps direct her own elaborate, short film-like music videos. “I like to think of myself as a genreful artist not limited to any style of music or art,” TeaMarrr adds. “Being at Raedio, I’m able to water my sound, my vision and watch it bloom.”
And that’s exactly what Rae is looking for. “I would love to be the space for multi-hyphenate artists,” Rae conveys. “I want people to know that when you go to Raedio, that they do more than one thing. They’re quadruple threats, have their hands in different pots and do it well.” All things Rae knows quite a bit about.
Raedio fits neatly into the ecosystem of her other entertainment ventures consolidated underneath her new media company Hoorae, formerly Issa Rae Productions. In addition to her own TV, film and digital projects, she manages and amplifies the careers of content creators like writers, directors, photographers and videographers through ColorCreative. Combined with her other companies, Rae’s TV and film projects live underneath Hoorae and ColorCreative manages and amplifies the careers of content creators like writers, directors, photographers and videographers. Rae was already doing work in the narrative, audio content space with the Issa Rae Presents…FRUIT podcast and short films, chats and web series hosted on the Issa Rae Presents YouTube channel. Raedio’s music supervision team has already racked up an impressive slate of projects across networks, including A Black Lady Sketch Show on HBO, the titillating STARZ series P-Valley, and Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga and the Lamorne Morris-fronted comedy Woke.
Heading a label feels like a no-brainer given Issa Rae’s history, but her impetus to pursue it didn’t come until after turning down a personal music opportunity. While Insecure’s main character Issa Dee had viewers bumping to her on-screen freestyles, the real Issa Rae was getting label requests for meetings. “They were interested in seeing if I wanted to be an artist and I found that hilarious because that wasn’t my interest,” Rae reveals. “I didn’t consider myself a rapper, much less a good rapper, and didn’t want to do Lonely Island-type parodies either.” But a few folks in her circle, including her publicist, Vanessa Anderson, mentioned the idea of starting her own label. Immediately, the gears started turning. “The business side of me was really excited about that, given that it was something that I was already doing in terms of providing a platform for up-and-coming writers,” Rae explains. “I’ve always succumbed to the fact that I don’t have any musical talent whatsoever. So, to be adjacent in some way, even as a fan, to help artists that I love and to be able to develop them and help put them out to the world for the masses really excites me.”
Raedio is a small company—there are less than 20 people staffed across all brands—with big ambitions. By the end of the year, they hope to have a handful of signees joining Yung Baby Tate and TeaMarrr. “Raedio is an all audio-everywhere company, so we’re going to touch all aspects of music and sound,” Ashley Monaé declares, noting that the label is also eyeing producers. “More than just making them as an artist, Issa really wants to focus on creating a brand around people that we sign.”
Rae wants artists who, at their core, can tell a hell of a good story, no matter what form it takes. “I love people who can immerse you into a world,” she maintains. “In starting Raedio, I knew that I wanted to focus on storytellers as artists and people who also had ambitions outside of music.” Rae admires the business models of TDE, Dreamville and Interscope Records, labels that empower their artists, so that those artists can then empower themselves. A big advantage of signing to Raedio is that artists can get plugged into different areas of entertainment if they want to. “If you want to go into music supervision, you can do that,” she continues. “If you want to have a production company, if you want to make a musical, that’s all fair game with us.”
The team is working together to establish pathways for Tate to get roles within Rae’s pilot shows, as well as auditions beyond the Hoorae umbrella. “If I want to even write a show, they would probably be like, ‘Go ahead, girl,’” Tate remarks half-jokingly, even though it’s not a stretch by any means. It’s one of the reasons why Tate feels so at home at Raedio. The other is the fact that at Raedio, she is more than just a signee.” She is a partner with healthcare and retention of her masters. “I had some other deals on the table, but they didn’t want to partner with me,” Tate says. “They wanted to own my masters, whereas with Raedio, they don’t have ownership of my masters. That was my one breaking point with everything else. If you can’t accept this, then we can’t work together because I’m not making music for you. I’m making music for me so I own it.”
This sense of empowerment, especially for Black artists and Black women artists, is a point of pride for Rae. She chuckles when asked if Raedio is an intentionally Black label with a majority Black staff and roster to match. “It is FUBU, but that doesn’t mean we’re exclusive to who can listen,” she asserts carefully. “It’s FUBU, and you’re welcome to window shop, and I’ll leave it at that. That’s just what excites me, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not still open. But, I like where we’re at right now.”
Much like Rae, Ashley Monaé has long wanted to sign acts that look like her, where young kids could actually aspire to be like what they saw. “I want to show people that Black people, no matter what—male, female—we’re not a monolith,” she proclaims. “We’re so multifaceted. I don’t really see too many labels that have a spectrum of Blackness.” Monaé draws a parallel to the infamous lunch scene in 2004’s Mean Girls, where Regina George points to the wildly different groups of high schoolers. In a similar (but inherently less problematic) way, Black people exist in every subculture you can think of, and should be able to coexist in a label setting without fear of being lumped into one archetype. With Raedio, the possibilities are endless. “I think in the acts that we sign, what I’m looking for is for people to actually be very much different from one another.”
The Raedio team is eager to watch the platform grow into the vision they all have for a better, more inclusive industry. “I hope that more labels will realize that their old models are kind of outdated and don’t make sense and are related to slavery,” Tate voices. “Maybe they’ll start to make a change and see that it can be done a different way and still make everybody happy. It’s a great model for what the future can look like.”
For Issa Rae, it’s more than mastering a new industry and setting new business standards. “I want respect for female artists,” she says plainly. “They’re always pitted against one another in a way that is so misogynistic and always through this intense male gaze, and that’s throughout the Black music industry. We have an opportunity to change that narrative and to command it in a unique way.”
Turn that up.
Check out more from XXL’s Winter 2020 issue including our DaBaby cover story, an introduction to DaBaby's Billion Dollar Baby Entertainment label roster, an interview with South Coast Music Group founder Arnold Taylor, who discovered and signed DaBaby, one of King Von's last interviews, The Kid Laroi's move from rookie rapper to streaming success, how the coronavirus changed hip-hop, and more.
See Photos of XXL Magazine's Winter 2020 Cover Shoot With DaBaby