Like a mirage rising from a Deco desert of stars, skin, and heat, Pure Records and its sole recording artist, a 22-year-old R&B singer from Ohio named Na'sha, emerged this past summer as a major new force in Miami's music scene. Until recently, few outside the industry had heard of Na'sha, and even fewer were aware of Pure but suddenly they were everywhere: The vocalist's single "Fire" garnered spins not only on local radio but also in most major markets across the United States and Europe; her debut album, My Story, featured production from hot producer Scott Storch and was distributed by major-label imprint Sony Red; and Pure's celebrity-infested label launch party at South Beach nightclub Amika was one of the hottest tickets in a crowded Video Music Award weekend.
Outside Amika that night in late August, lines snaked back a block, while inside, b-ball incredible hulk Shaquille O'Neal and reggae-pop legend Shaggy listened to freestyles and monologues from hip-hop MC/movie star Mos Def. At the center of this unholy matrimony of decadence and networking was Na'sha. The preternaturally gifted siren was overwhelmed by the attention and was ecstatic to meet the mighty Mos Def.
"I was a little nervous. [Amika] was so packed, and I've been a big fan of Mos Def for a long time," Na'sha confides. "It made my night when he came up after my performance and said he liked it."
Though it would be a bit inaccurate to say that Pure has found the pot of gold at the end of the indie rainbow, the success the fledgling label has achieved is staggering. But Pure didn't rise slowly from the streets of the Magic City (à la hip-hop label/collective Crazy Hood), attach itself to a specific music scene or cultural movement that had been incubating for years (such as indie label Sutro Records), or labor in relative obscurity for the sake of art (the laptop magicians at Schematic come to mind).
Pure Records is pure business, plain and simple, and though it stakes its base of operations in Miami and reps the city when convenient, its principals have no intention of getting their hands dirty in the local scene excepting, of course, the occasional celebrity-driven party.
"We're not looking to be the biggest independent label in South Florida; my goal is to be the biggest independent label period," declares Pure CEO Joseph Safina.
The label's genesis can be traced to Nichols, Safina, Lerner Inc., an investment-banking firm owned by Safina. In 2003 a friend of Safina's slipped the investment banker a demo tape from Na'sha, who was living in Ohio at the time. Though Safina had no prior history as an A&R man, he instantly recognized that the young woman was something special. With pitch-perfect inflection that melted over her tracks like honey butter, the soprano was a tremendous raw, unmined talent, and Safina knew it. He convinced Na'sha to make the journey to South Florida and then contacted an entertainment attorney to review his options.
"[The lawyer] said that we could either shop around for a record deal or we could get a really great producer and come up with one good single and get a bigger deal," the 37-year-old Safina recalls.
Around this time Safina purchased a house that once belonged to famed producer Desmond Child. The home included The Sound Villa one of Miami's finest private studios and Safina offered its use to Storch, who would soon record there hits such as 50 Cent's "Candy Shop" and Terror Squad's "Lean Back." (Local superproducers Cool and Dre also used the studio.)
Having Scott Storch around the crib is never a bad move if you're in the music business, and Safina soon introduced Storch to Na'sha. Bowled over by her talent, the producer offered her the subtle yet muscular "Baby Luv," which would eventually find its way onto her album My Story. Safina liked what he heard and decided that instead of serving as a middleman, he would record an entire album for Na'sha and release it on Pure Records.
My Story is stunning a seamless assimilation of 30 years of pop, R&B, gospel, and soul. The young Na'sha wrote all but one of the album's tracks an increasingly rare feat for a pop performer. "Mama" is an intimate, multidimensional portrayal of a broken relationship disguised as a dialogue between a mother and a daughter, while the sly and seductive "Go Slow" is a more traditional plea for a certain type of attention. Many of the tracks veer closer to the slinky live instrumentation of neo-soul.
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Despite the album's strength, Safina had reservations about releasing it. "We put together a great record, or what we thought was a great record, but there's no way for us to know if it's really great or not," Safina says. "Coming from an investment-banker background, you have data that will confirm your theory. But music is generally more subjective, so I was intrigued by [marketing firm] Hit Predictors."
For a fee, Hit Predictors presented Na'sha's album to various focus groups to determine if the album had commercial potential. The album ranked favorably alongside those by heavyweights such as Mariah Carey and Destiny's Child, and Safina was pleased. "After seeing the results, we knew we had the product," he says.
It's easy to be cynical about Pure's corporate background and less-than-organic approach. For most indie startups, there are no focus groups or VMA label launches, Sony is not jumping at the chance to distribute their first releases, and neither Scott Storch nor Cool and Dre are willing to contribute a couple of tracks.
Pure was able to avoid a lot of drudge work, and generally labels have to make an impact locally before setting their sights on the national stage. Then again, making music and achieving popularity might be the end game, but the scenes that sprout up around these local labels are oftentimes just as important to the local communities as the music they produce.