Ernie Singleton knows a good thing when he sees it. As an intern at the now defunct New York Uptown Records in the late 1980s, Sean “Diddy” Combs often showed up shirtless for work.
Singleton, who managed the label at the time, would often receive phone calls from Uptown Records founder Andre Harrell complaining about Combs’ attire.
“It freaked Andre out and he would call me saying Diddy has to go,” recalled Singleton, one of the music industry’s top movers and shakers, in his keynote address at the annual Mississauga Arts Council (MAC) MARTY (“M” stands for Mississauga, teamed with “ARTY” for arts) awards last week at the Living Arts Centre. “This was a formal office environment and Diddy was in his early 20s. I objected to Andre letting Diddy go because I knew he was key in getting artists to complete their music and when it came back to us, we would be gushing. I knew Diddy was very good at that.”
Despite selling a huge number of records, Harrell fired Combs, who later said that was the best thing to happen to him because he learned that putting out a record is a team effort.
Harrell is now an employee of Combs, who is a mogul in the entertainment industry with an estimated net worth of $700 million.
Last Saturday, Howard University conferred an honorary doctorate on Combs, who delivered the commencement address. Combs dropped out of the university’s business major program in 1990 after two years.
A creative genius who has built the foundation of Black music in the United States, Singleton admitted he’s not perfect in judging people.
He didn’t think much of the late Notorious B.I.G – he was also known as Biggie or Biggie Smalls – when Combs introduced him to the rapper.
“There was this big overweight dark-skinned brother with a dingy T-shirt and blue jeans standing in front of me,” recounted Singleton, a former MCA Records and Urban Music president who took Warner Bros. rankings from #7 to #1 in three years. “He was not somebody who I thought had real worthwhile sex appeal. That was my perspective. I live every day in the corporate environment, going places in private jets. I am from a different world even though I can relate to Biggie’s world.
“I share that with you not to tell you what my perception of him was because I too can be a victim of being judgmental and wrong. I am really talking about how Biggie brought everybody in the circle in. Versace didn’t make clothes for big guys like him, so he got a ghetto fashion designer who got fabric and made those clothes that we saw him wear. That became a clothing line and Biggie made sure that everybody that was involved made money. I say that because as you and your business begin to grow, your success ratio and opportunity also grow. We are talking collaboration and Biggie was great at that as is Diddy.”
Established in 1981, the MAC engages, connects and champions artists of all disciplines and facilitates partnerships, collaborations and competition among artists and organizations.
“This organization exists to help you,” Singleton, who has 140 gold and platinum records to his credit, told the artists. “But it’s a two-way street and you have to think outside the box. You may want to put on a showcase that the organization is not thinking about. In that case, partner with them. If there is money involved, you may have to figure out how to find it because it may not come from the council.
“Arts councils play a major role because you get an opportunity to collaborate with other people who may do a different kind of music or discipline than you do. That’s OK. The council is here to help you grow. Use it, embrace it and find ways to help it grow. Sometimes, you may not be the direct benefactor, but other artists and community people will benefit and as time goes by, you will become a major contributor.”
The MAC recognizes artists’ achievements through the MARTY awards established 20 years ago.
This year’s nominees included former National Council of Jamaicans & Supportive Organizations in Canada president Olive Steele whose first novel, Cry Tough, will be released next month. She was nominated in the emerging literary arts award category.
“This is the first time I have been nominated and it’s quite an honour,” said the former Canadian Ethno-Cultural Council director and Mississauga Halton Community Care Access Centre executive member. “I have always had a passion for writing and it’s something I have pursued vigorously since I retired.”
A Mississauga resident since 1972, Steele worked for the provincial government for 18 years and ran a staffing agency – Blackwood Consultants – before entering municipal politics in 2003. She was unsuccessful in her bid that year and again in 2006 to become the Ward 6 representative.
Steele is the author of two inspirational books, And When We Pray and Great Is Thy Faithfulness.
Other nominees included jazz singer and actor, Andre Reid; AJ Saudin, who is best known for his continued role in Degrassi: The Next Generation; writer/producer/performer, Craig Doyle Henry; web designer, Alpha Blackburn; Islington Evangel Centre youth pastor, Andrew James, who is an urban hip hop show director; poet & hip hop artist, David Record; former poetry editor, Jermaine St. Omer; ordained minister and professional actor, Diane Johnstone; photographer, Albert Barrocks and painter, Delroy Russell.