Suddenly loud murmurs emerge from the assortment of media types who are rushing about, trying to secure interviews, when the legendary Isaac Hayes enters the building. Hayes is being recognized as an "Icon," joining previous honorees like James Brown and Chuck Berry. "It's a great feeling," says Hayes before the ceremony begins. "BMI is big. I've been a family member for almost 40 years, so BMI does it right."
During the show three of today's hottest R&B acts -- Anthony Hamilton, Bilal, and Floetry -- pay tribute to Hayes by performing his music. Other award winners include the ubiquitous Neptunes, named Urban Producers of the Year; Cam'ron; Eminem; Mannie Fresh; and R. Kelly. But undoubtedly the highlight of the show is the performance Hayes gives after accepting his award. Everyone responds with "ooohs" and "aahhs," cheering when they hear the familiar guitar chords that open Hayes's classic "Theme from Shaft. " Dramatically, he keeps his back to the audience as he conducts each musician during the song's funkdafied introduction. Then, when he finally turns around, his smooth voice asks the famous question: "Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks?" The crowd yells, "Shaft!"
The evening's casual elegance and jovial atmosphere serves as the perfect kickoff to the fourth annual Billboard/American Urban Radio Networks' R&B and Hip-Hop Conference Awards, which begins the next day at the nearby Roney Palace Hotel.
Standing in front of the double doors that lead to the auditorium, Baltimore MC DK freestyles for Atlanta-based songwriter Minx Dragg. A small group of people is beginning to gather around them. DK notices and steps up his showmanship. "Man, that shit was dope," says Dragg afterward while onlookers nod their heads in approval. DK isn't famous and neither is Dragg, but they are exchanging information so that they can help each other.
The conference is a three-day event where aspiring artists, talent managers, and songwriters mingle with established industry personalities. It offers open forums and panel discussions, with topics ranging from a debate on independents vs. major labels ("The New Art of the Deal") and the importance of securing radio airplay ("Let's Get It On") to music production ("Producers Panel") and the business of exploring and exploiting emerging markets ("Beyond the Music").
Sparsely attended yet filled with potent commentary and poignant questions, "The New Art of the Deal" proves to be the most efficiently run session of the entire conference. Abdul Haqq Islam, former CEO of University Records, addresses how major labels often try to corrupt a relationship between an independent label and its clients. To illustrate he talks about Dru Hill, an R&B quartet that started out on his label in the mid-Nineties before being whisked away by Def Jam Records. "[Def Jam] started filling [Dru Hill's] ear with a lot of stuff and before I know it I walk into a boardroom one day and there are all these lawyers," he remembers. Since then he has moved from New York to D.C. and started a new label, Greene Street Records; though he acknowledged that he did so "to be closer to my artist," he's apprehensive about mentioning the person's name. "If I see any major trying to talk to them I'll shoot 'em," Islam says. Though he makes the threat with a straight face, everyone laughs anyway.
But not all of the sessions run as smoothly. Many of them convene late and end early, leaving little room for audience participation. Others are dominated by self-promoting industry executives who rattle on and on about their upcoming projects or past accomplishments. During "Beyond the Music," Chris Lighty, the infamous CEO of Violator Management, answers any questions posed to him by talking about his success with Missy Elliott, 50 Cent, and countless others. Meanwhile audience members try to use the question-and-answer segments to spotlight themselves, frequently asking the panel members, "How can I get you to look at my stuff?"
The most productive moments are when the sessions finish and the various power players are rushed by hungry artists and promoters eager to seek their counsel. It usually takes 30 minutes for a room to empty for the next session. The best aspect of the conference is the networking opportunities it provides.
On Friday the conference ends with the awards ceremony. Falling short of the precedent set by the well-done BMI Awards, it's a poorly executed event marked by sudden bursts of feedback and distortion flooding from the loudspeakers, corny commentary from host Russ Parr, and general confusion. Still the performances given by Jacki-O, Mystic, Little Brother, Anthony Hamilton, Goapele, Nappy Roots, and Kanye West make the show's idiosyncrasies worthwhile. Goapele shines when she sings "Closer," while Hamilton gives a solid rendition of "Comin' Where I'm From." Then the last performers of the night, Nappy Roots, steal the show when everybody claps along to "Round the Globe," the lead single from their forthcoming album, Wooden Leather.
Outside the theater, there's more evidence of the true success of the conference, as people two-way beam each other and exchange business cards. Even in its eleventh hour, the event inspires fledgling business types to hustle.