Blueprint Group And Maverick’s Cortez Bryant On His Rise From New Orleans, Marching Bands & Shady Promoters
Johnny Nunez / Getty Images – Millis and Millis
Lil Wayne and Cortez Bryant attend the Lil Wayne Live 2015 Pre Super Bowl Party at The Culture Pearl on Jan. 30, 2015, in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Cortez Bryant, co-CEO of the Blueprint Group and partner at Maverick, is one of the most successful executives in the music business, having worked with superstars including Lil Wayne, Drake, Nicki Minaj, T.I., Lil Nas X, and G-Eazy among others. This in addition to leading Blueprint Distro and overseeing tech ventures including Tsu, a new social media company compensating users.
In this excerpt from a longer conversation, Cortez discusses his early career and how his native New Orleans, one of the greatest American cities, influenced him. This included leading his school marching band, lettering in sports and especially his middle school friendship with a boy by the name of Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr., aka Lil Wayne. Here, Bryant discusses attending Jackson State on a band scholarship, giving up a job at CNN, getting ripped off on his first big show – all of which helped inform his storied career.
Pollstar: How did growing up in New Orleans, one of the greatest cities in terms of music and culture, influence you? And what about attending Eleanor McMain secondary school?
Cortez Bryant: New Orleans is definitely rich in culture. And now that I’ve been blessed enough to travel around the world, out of every continent I visited, every place I’ve been, nothing compares to this city. It took traveling to all these places to really appreciate it. Growing up there, I wasn’t tapped into all of those places and venues for music. We had our culture, like bounce music culture and Cash Money. We learned in our history books about Louis Armstrong and the birth of jazz and there was an appreciation. You don’t see too many hood kids hanging around, going to bars in the French Quarter. We didn’t really venture outside of our hoods and our block. So the block parties, the bounce music, second lines, we saw at funerals and weddings, and sometimes in the neighborhood. We got this thing called Super Sunday with events that centered around uptown and downtown.
Now I’m 41. I can track my steps back and understand how all of that shaped where I am now. At that school, Eleanor McMain, is where I met my best friend, who the world knows as Lil Wayne. Curren$y was also at the school at the same time. Toward the end of that, I found a passion for marching bands, which is like a sport in New Orleans. There’s rivalries across the city as in football or basketball with marching bands. That’s kind of where it started.
And you lettered in basketball and track and were captain of the school’s marching band. There’s a lot of discipline in sports and marching bands that helps with leadership, but where did your entrepreneurial spirit come from?
It came out of necessity. That high school marching band led me to Jackson State University on a marching band scholarship, where I learned a lot of principles of discipline and leadership, a whole lot of things that helped with running my company, running Young Money. A lot of those fundamentals I learned at Jackson State. I was a Mass Comm major so I thought I was going to be in this field some type of way, probably behind the camera in the media world. Right before I graduated, my senior year, Wayne called me and asked me to be his manager because he never had one and he had trust in me because we were best friends. So when I got into it, I didn’t know anything.
Didn’t you almost get a job at CNN?
Yeah, I had a job set up at CNN. I had my resume and they were going to give me an entry-level editor’s position at CNN. That was my senior year. So December is when Wayne called me, right before I graduated that May, so I was already set to go into my career based off the work I did at Jackson State.
What’d your mom say when you gave up a job at CNN to work for Lil Wayne?
I don’t think she even knew. In January ’04, I was still in school and on weekends I was flying out of town on the road booking shows for Wayne. That’s how I started bringing money in. She didn’t even know this probably until I graduated. After a while it was just like, “Yeah, this is what I’m doing.” I felt it with all my heart and God kind of told me, protect your best friend, so I kind of jumped in.
Prince Williams / Wireimage) – Cortez Bryant
That’s a big moment and a big risk to not take a job at CNN. What was your thinking when you decided, “Okay, I’m throwing my lot in with Lil Wayne?”
At that time, it wasn’t like I was risking it for an artist who hadn’t established himself. Wayne, at the time, already had a couple of platinum tracks and had already established his career. I wasn’t taking a chance, like, “Let’s try to figure this out from scratch.” He hadn’t developed his nationwide, huge superstardom yet, but he had something to start with. I tell that to a lot of starting managers. First, I had a friend, so it wasn’t like I had to interview for a job. And then I had a boost because he already had a foundation, so it wasn’t as hard for me like these people just starting out, these young entrepreneurs who are trying to get in the business, starting from scratch, and starting with an artist with zero followers. I was blessed, I’m not gonna lie to them about how I started because getting in this business when you talk about diversity, especially being Black, it’s hard.
I’m teaching a class at Jackson State called Careers in Music right now and that’s what it’s shaped around: giving students the reality and the exposure to everything they could do in and around the business, but also giving them the real about how you got to get on and what to do to get on. We don’t have a lot of opportunity and our families don’t have a lot of money, so we can’t intern in New York for a summer or in L.A. at these labels and try to matriculate up the pipeline, which is usually how you get in this business. You’re either doing it that way or you know somebody. I’m trying to help them and build this music business degree program at my alma mater to try to expose them to the business and try to help solve this diversity problem in the music business and get the pipeline going because we don’t have it.
What was the first thing you did with Lil Wayne?
One of the first things I told Wayne was, “Lord forbid something may happen to you in a couple of years, or you may lose your voice, so you may wake up five or 10 years from now and be like, ‘I don’t want to rap anymore.’” I was like, “We have to build your brand.” One thing I understood from the advertising classes I took at Jackson State was brand building. I always looked at the music business, from not knowing nothing about the music business, but knew that we got to look outside of you and your artist’s career. If we don’t pop that off, we got to do something else.
The first thing I leaned toward was in and around music. We were thinking about Young Money for years at that point. We just listened to mix tapes down in New Orleans, so probably in ‘98 we formulated the company thinking that it was going to be a label. This was the time I was like, “OK, let’s take this seriously.” One thing we did know is that we’re going to build a brand outside of your music. So that got us building the Young Money empire.
There’s a good story about the first show you booked in Dallas, can you talk about that?
That’s the first thing I ever did. That was January 2004. The way we knew how to make money, the way Wayne knew how to make money, was to book shows. We didn’t know about that world, right? We just knew the Chitlin’ Circuit, so dealing with these clubs and the cities we knew down south. My first thing was tapping into his audience that he’d already built and that was the South.
Did he have an agent?
No, he didn’t.
So you’re the agent?
I didn’t even know what that was at that time, right? [laughter]
Yes, I was the agent. I just knew, basically, calling the hot clubs. I knew he had a couple of these clubs he had been to with Cash Money before, so I took those leads and followed up. We put out music, mixtapes and just hit the Chitlin’ Circuit. But that Dallas show that you’re talking about was the very first thing I ever booked.
We get to the city at night. I’m like, I’m going to go in advance, because at the time I’m DJ, security, manager, all this stuff. It’s literally just me and Wayne. There was an assistant and that’s it, just three of us, literally. No security, none of that. So I go to the club, and it’s empty. I’m talking to the promoter, it’s like 10 o’clock, and I’m like, “Okay, maybe it’ll pick up. It’s Dallas.” It’s 11, then it’s 12, it was just empty. Hours are going by. So I’m looking for the back end of the money, this is Chitlin’ Circuit, so it’s hand to hand, cash transactions.
And then the dude disappear. I wait another hour, and I’m like, “Wait, he hasn’t been around.” So I’m looking, I’m looking, and then there was a guy – he was an accountant. I don’t even know how he was involved with this show or if he knew the promoters, but he brought me back home. So the very first show I did I got ripped off by janky promoters. So I had to go back to Wayne and be like, “Yo, bro. Man, I can’t do this. I quit. I’m going back to school. Like I ain’t I got the money.” They had me in tears. I might have dropped a tear, that’s how broken I was. He just started laughing. And I’m like, “Man, it’s not funny, man.” He told me one thing that resonated through my whole career. He was like, “I brought you out here because I see something in you that you probably don’t see in yourself.” He was like, “Do we have our flights back home?” I was like, “Yeah.” He was like, “OK, well just take this as a learning lesson and grow from it. You’re going to come across mistakes.” So he instilled a measure of confidence in me when I was ready to quit because this is literally my first date ever and it went bad, and I got ripped off.
What did that teach you, especially for kids just starting out in the business? That could have destroyed your career and you didn’t give up. How do you hold your head up after something like that?
He believed in me and we trust each other. I’m very spiritual and that’s what made me make that decision also from CNN to jumping into the music business. I felt that it was my direction, my purpose to protect him. Even with that, that first time was one of the worst things that could happen to you in this business. He still just had confidence in me and he saw something in me that I didn’t even know I had in myself. So I couldn’t let him down. So that made me get up and keep going and persevere.
Going back to New Orleans and your upbringing, New Orleans, it’s the Big Easy, the most fun you’re going to have, incredible music. But it’s kind of hard scrabble. You grew up in the Fifth Ward and New Orleans East, some pretty tough places – did that give you kind of a strength and character that maybe you didn’t even know you had until you get into situations like that?
Absolutely. Absolutely I think anybody could tell you, from New Orleans, who grew up in that type of environment, if you could survive there, you could survive anywhere in this world. We know how to move. Danger was a thing in the ‘90s that was a custom. We saw it a lot. We dealt with it a lot. May have some PTSD from it, but you learned how to survive. It was gritty, it definitely built a lot of character, and those things definitely come into play especially in the cut-throat music business. It definitely builds your character growing up in the city or New Orleans. Any of my peers who made it out can attest to that sentiment.