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Lounging on a leather couch in Miami's Circle House recording studio, Marcello Valenzano and Andre Lyon -- better known as Cool & Dre -- are dressed in crisp white T-shirts and sagging blue jeans. Dre is the talkative one, his tall, slim frame draped over the couch and long limbs gesturing for emphasis when he talks, and Cool's nickname describes him perfectly.
Over the past decade, this laid-back pair have worked their way up the ranks of the music business, learning virtually every aspect by trial and error. The reward is a multimillion-dollar label deal for their new imprint, Epidemik Records, and a burgeoning star on their roster in the form of Dirtbag, best known for his memorable appearance on R&B diva Monica's radio hit "Get It Off." But there's no hint of ego in the two's voices when they document their accomplishments; Dre carefully pays respect to "Miami's producers making incredible beats, labels sprouting up, and artists getting signed." One just gets a sense of the pure love they have for music. They seem to get along with just about everyone, which is a great asset to have in an industry where it's all about who you know.
Cool & Dre's partnership dates back to the early Nineties, when both were enrolled at North Miami Senior High School. They developed a friendship while singing in the school choir, where they managed to avoid the "band geek" label through their extracurricular activities. Dre played basketball and Cool -- known as DJ Cool One at the time -- made a name for himself by selling mixtapes and throwing parties. "We got away with [being in chorus] 'cause we were popular," laughs the latter.
After graduating from high school, the ambitious pair dove into the music game, trying to find their niche. They soon landed a slot on pirate radio station 91.9 FM, with Cool handling the turntables while Dirty Dre served as its host. The duo also formed an R&B quartet called Basic Unity. Instead of paying other producers for tracks, they scraped together enough money to buy a keyboard and make their own music. "We started banging out wack tracks," Cool says. "Those tracks were terrible, but it was a learning process." In 1995 several of their friends organized a talent show at FIU, offering a recording session with the duo as a reward. Though Dre notes self-deprecatingly, "That was no real prize," it did lead to a lasting friendship with the contest winner, Jermany James, who was then known as Jo-Vicious.
In 1996 Dre's cousin Davette Singleton landed an executive position at LaFace Records (later sold to Arista), which was then ruling the airwaves with acts like TLC and Toni Braxton. Hoping for a record deal, Cool & Dre moved to Atlanta and with Singleton's help garnered a successful audition for Outkast mentors Organized Noize, which was preparing to sign a label deal with LaFace. But Organized Noize's deal fell through, so nothing materialized for the duo.
Disappointed, they moved back to Miami, where local start-up label Heat Music hired them as in-house producers for their artists, Sly Kat and Havana. Although Heat folded before it could put out any records, Cool & Dre were able to orchestrate an Arista recording contract for Havana. Unfortunately she was dropped just a few months later. "It was [former Arista CEO] L.A. Reid's first signing," Cool says with a shrug. "So I think it was just muscle-flexing [on his part]. It was a bidding war, and she just got signed to prove something."
Cool & Dre realized that in order to build a name in the record industry, they would have to concentrate on making their own beats. "We were never trying to be super producers or the biggest guys on the block. We just wanted to make great albums with our own people," Dre says. "But eventually we figured out that we'd have to make a name for ourselves before we could put out our own artists."
Luckily a mutual acquaintance introduced the young musicians to Fat Joe in late 2000, who assigned them to produce tracks for his R&B artist, Tony Sunshine. They produced Tony and Fat Joe's tribute to the late Big Pun, "Dedication," which was released on the mixtape circuit to create a buzz for Tony's upcoming album. The project sealed the team's friendship, leading to Cool & Dre's induction as members of Fat Joe's Terror Squad clique. Although Tony's debut was never officially released, Cool & Dre managed to land a few beats on Fat Joe's 2001 platinum album, Jealous Ones Still Envy (J.O.S.E.).
"Both of Fat Joe's artists, Remy Martin and Tony Sunshine, were signed to Loud Records," explains Dre, shaking his head at industry rumors that the portly rapper was taking the spotlight away from the rest of his crew. "Before their albums could be released, Loud lost their distribution deal with Sony [in early 2002] and folded. So Joe was in a position where there's no Big Pun, and in order for Tony and Remy to be relevant, someone in the crew had to be hot. He had to focus on himself to draw the attention."