Wasserman agent Callender’s professional ethos can be traced back to his voracious musical appetite as a kid growing up in New York.
“When Napster came out, I was downloading [Red Hot Chili Peppers’] Californication, Puddle of Mudd, but then also getting the Biggie Born Again album and Jay-Z’s Blueprint,” he says. “My MP3 player had a hodgepodge of music. I wasn’t, and I’m not, into just one specific genre.”
Over the last decade, Callender has amassed one of the agency world’s most diverse – and formidable – rosters, representing EDM stalwarts (RL Grime, Baauer), critical favorites (outré rapper JPEGMAFIA, alternative R&B musician Kelela), Grammy-winning gospel artist PJ Morton and, last but not least, Jack Harlow, who he signed in 2017 and has shepherded to hip-hop headliner status.
Callender’s journey in the business began in the late ‘00s promoting parties with talent such as hip-hop producer and DJ Just Blaze around New York, including at trendy lower Manhattan club Santos Party House. Callender also managed a handful of clients, among them a then-unknown Harlem rapper named A$AP Rocky, and he caught the eye of AM Only’s Lee Anderson, who offered Callender an internship at the agency. (Paradigm brought AM Only in-house in 2017, and Callender moved to Wasserman with Paradigm’s North American music team in 2021.)
As EDM exploded in the early ‘10s and rappers mined the genre for beats, Callender identified their shared audiences and worked the intersection. One early client, producer AraabMuzik, “came from hip-hop but with the way he performed live I was able to just get him in the dance music circuit and cross him over,” Callender says. Next, he “struck gold” when another client, the producer Baauer, became an internet sensation – and topped Billboard’s Hot 100 for five weeks – with his 2012 hit “Harlem Shake.”
But Callender realized the EDM bubble would burst eventually, and began managing the touring careers of his marquee clients with an eye toward the future.
“With RL Grime, instead of playing nightclubs, I was putting him in hard-ticket situations,” Callender says. “It looked stupid at first. He made a lot less money, but the long-term gain for him and for the artists I represented … put them above the other artists in their class.”
If there’s a hallmark of Callender’s approach, it’s patience. Especially in the hip-hop space, he explains, agents can be lured by a buzzy artist with a hit single.
“Why waste your time on that when you could be going after something that you can really build and nurture that has longevity?” he asks.
“I compare looking for a client [to] sports scouts,” he continues. “You look at kids in high school or in college. You see the mechanics. If you teach him a couple other things, he could end up being the next Jason Kidd.”
Paras Griffin / Getty Images – Harlow and Behold
Callender has shepherded the live career of Jack Harlow, pictured performing at Atlanta’s Music Midtown on Sept. 19, 2021. The Kentucky rapper has quickly ascended to hip-hop’s highest echelons.
The kid who dunks or blasts homer might not be the best bet long-term. Tom Brady, after all, was picked 199th in the NFL draft.
“I saw the mechanics with Jack,” says Callender, noting the then-teenage Harlow’s sense of humor and lyrical prowess.
Harlow, a Louisville native, toured heavily in 2018 and 2019, and exploded with his January 2020 single “Whats Poppin,” which took TikTok and the rest of the internet by storm.
“When I first signed him, I would always say that Jack Harlow was gonna be the one that’s gonna take me to the next level,” Callender says. “No one believed it or saw what I saw in him – you know, because he’s a white rapper. It’s like, ‘What do you mean this six-foot-tall white rapper is gonna take you to the next level?’ But he did.”
Harlow, who wrapped 2021 with a headlining tour that included his highest-grossing outing yet, a sold-out November gig at Denver’s Mission Ballroom that raked in $189,150, is prominently billed at this year’s Governors Ball in New York, and he’ll headline his hometown fest Forecastle. But count on Callender’s steady hand not to overexpose the in-demand rapper.
“Jack was far bigger than the rooms we were putting him in” on his fall 2021 tour, Callender says, “but it was the right move to make for him and his career and for him to learn how to control those crowds in those rooms so he could take the next step and then the next step.”
Harlow’s just one component of Callender’s wide-ranging roster, which also features Houston rapper Maxo Kream and neo-soul artists Brent Faiyaz and BJ The Chicago Kid. That range is one of Callender’s favorite parts of his job, which he’s imparted to New Orleans-area youth as a member of the advisory council for the Upbeat Academy Foundation, which helps to nurture future generations of musical talent and entrepreneurs.
“Music,” Callender says, “is kind of like a giant fucking buffet, where you can go get a salad then a slice of pizza and then a brownie all at once.” And for Callender and his clients, the eating’s good.