It was during the pandemic that Ghazi began speaking to Hankerson in earnest about the Blackground catalog, and the idea of EMPIRE being the one to rerelease it became a reality. “They’re a smaller company with very hands-on executives,” says Hankerson about his reasons for going with EMPIRE. “Ghazi is almost a reflection of what I would be doing if I just came into the music business — I would try to have my own distribution company. So he was just a match for me, and when we sat down and talked in San Francisco it was a no-brainer to give him the opportunity of working our music.”
From EMPIRE’s side, the trepidation that others had felt toward the possibility of a deal was secondary to the opportunities it could open up. “The easiest way to approach it is to say, ‘If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen,’” says Ghazi. “You are entering into something that is quite possibly one of the most monumental things you’ve encountered as an executive, for me. So you’re excited, but you’re a little anxious, because you want to make sure you do everything right, that you don’t fumble and that you treat everything with a certain level of respect.”
The plans for the catalog’s reintroduction are now in place, and they mirror the rollout schedule of a record label lining up a lucrative quarter. On Aug. 20, EMPIRE will release One in a Million, followed weekly by a rough approximation of the original chronology of Blackground releases: Aug. 27, Timbaland & Magoo’s Welcome to Our World, Indecent Proposal and Under Construction Pt. II albums, as well as Timbaland’s solo album, Tim’s Bio; Sept. 3, the Romeo Must Die and Exit Wounds soundtracks, as well as Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody” single; Sept. 10, Aaliyah and the music video to her single “Miss You”; Sept. 17, Tank’s trio of albums for the label, Force of Nature, One Man and Sex, Love & Pain; Sept. 24, JoJo’s first two albums, as well as Ashley Parker Angel’s Soundtrack to Your Life; and in October, Toni Braxton’s Libra and two Aaliyah compilations, I Care 4 U and Ultimate Aaliyah.
“All of these artists have serious fans, and if you do it wrong — especially in this cancel-culture world of social media — the attacks will start happening,” says EMPIRE vp A&R Tina Davis, an executive with extensive roots in R&B/hip-hop. “So I think that one of the main things was trying to make sure that we represent them properly, thinking of how long it has been, how we approach it, how we make sure that the fans are OK with how we do approach it and how we do market it, considering them in every aspect. That was the only way for us to put it together.”
The plans go beyond just the rerelease of the catalog, and into new ways of introducing the music to the platforms that didn’t exist five, 10 or 20 years ago. “It allows us to bridge the gap — her era was very much a brick-and-mortar marketing approach,” says Ghazi. “So to be able to bridge it into Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat and Twitter and TikTok, and so on and so forth, is going to be fascinating to watch generations that are aware of her mystique and have heard her music be able to access it and consume it more readily. We’ll see how impactful that will become.”
Along the way, Hankerson will also be rolling out a new streaming app called Music360, which will have licensing deals with a wide swath of record companies as well as video features, a vinyl-scratching tool and new Blackground remixes and releases that will initially only be available through the app. And, should anyone think this is all a swan song to his career, Hankerson will also be relaunching Blackground as a new front-line label, with distribution through EMPIRE, to which he has already signed one artist, Autumn Marini, from Atlanta.
“I really hope that in this next phase of Blackground, we can spot talent that maybe doesn’t fit the cookie cutter of what an artist is and bring them forward on our own platform to give them an opportunity to be seen,” says Hankerson of his plans.