In the first installment of our in-depth conversation, Warner/Chappell chief, future Sony/ATV boss and City of Hope Spirit of Life honoree Jon Platt addressed his COH honor and questions of diversity; in this excerpt, he recalls the early days of his illustrious career.

Take me back, if you would, to the beginning. What were the earliest records you remember spinning in your house?
I was born in Philadelphia, but I didn’t live there long. We lived in Oakland until I was in the fourth grade, then we moved to Denver. I remember music being played a lot at home, by my mother, as well as by my older sister and brother. My mom especially listened to Motown hits like The Temptations, and my personal favorites were The Jackson 5, Sly and The Family Stone and Gladys Knight and the Pips.

In Denver, there was only one black radio station, and it was an AM station. At night you could barely hear the signal. The FM radio stations had a much stronger signal, so my older brother started to gravitate toward rock music—Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan and Steve Miller Band, and I began to like those artists as well.

That’s how my taste in music, and songs, became so diverse. I couldn’t have ever imagined what that would mean for my life later. This overall deep love for music led me to become a DJ, and then into publishing. Being a former DJ, when I hear a song, to this day, I ask myself, “Would I play this song? Do I love it?”

What made you think of music as a path?
I was blessed that music chose me. As a teenager, I met a guy named Thomas Edwards, while I was working at a sporting goods store. Thomas was a DJ who lived in my neighborhood and had thousands of vinyl LPs. He would give me records and began showing me how to use his turntables. Before long, my high school friends asked me to DJ at a party. I didn’t have any equipment, so I asked Thomas if I could borrow his and promised to pay him $100. I only made $40 at the party, so I gave that to him. He said, “That’s bad business—you said you’d give me $100, you’ve only given $40, and now you have nothing left for yourself. You can’t do that.” That was my first real lesson about how business works.

Then I met a DJ named Al Your Pal. He was a very different type of DJ—he really taught me how to blend and mix. He showed me how not to be afraid to talk when I DJed. That changed everything for me. I got hired for my first club gig at a legendary club called Norman’s Place. My first night, there were maybe six people there, which was a humbling experience. But I used this time to practice and gradually word spread that I was playing Hip-Hop songs – and the crowd began to grow—20 people, 40 people, 200 people, 800 people a night. That’s when my name really started to buzz through the city. And it just grew from there.

Do you remember certain records from that period that would really blow up, and get that audible reaction?
Sure. Run-DMC’s “My Adidas” and “Peter Piper.” LL Cool J, Whodini, “Sweetheart” by Rainy Davis, “All n All” by Joyce Sims. I would play anything that Mantronix and Marley Marl produced. During that time most hip-hop artists weren’t on major labels yet, and it would be hard to get those songs in Denver record stores, because they were generally on East Coast indie labels.

The first time I went to New York, “Eric B. Is President” had come out that day. That night, I went to the legendary Latin Quarter club and saw Eric B. & Rakim perform, which was amazing, and all these other rappers, whose records I would play, were there too. I remember Cutmaster DC was standing near me; I couldn’t believe it. My friend, who was from NYC, had to tell me to chill. That weekend, I took a trip to Downstairs Records and purchased the 12” of the song. That’s how I met a guy that worked at the store, J.C. Hairston. When I returned to Denver, I would call J.C. every week; he would tell me the hot songs being played in NYC, and send them to me C.O.D. That’s how I would get all of the songs before anyone in Denver. I remember him telling me about a song I had to have, “Groove Me,” by a new group called Guy. He sent me the song—when I played it that weekend, the kids went crazy.

Whenever I bought a new album, I would always challenge myself to choose a song other than the single to play from it; my thought was, you could hear the single on the radio, and I wanted to play new music. People then started sending me records, and I began breaking them out of Denver.

"People then started sending me records,
and I began breaking them out of Denver."

I was friends with a guy named Dave “Funkin’” Klein, who was also from Denver. He ended up getting an internship with Def Jam in New York, and he was a college radio DJ at the University of Colorado. Dave became my connection to Def Jam. He sent me a record called “Public Enemy #1,” which was like nothing I’d ever heard before, in terms of the beat, the rhyming and the production. Public Enemy also had a track called “My Uzi Weighs a Ton,” which I started playing at the club when I received the album, and it was getting a great response. P.E. came to Denver for a concert. Dave was with them, and he invited me to hang out. That’s how I met Chuck D.

When the group arrived at the venue for the show, their DJ, Terminator X, immediately noticed that the turntables and mixer were just bad. I told him he could use my turntables and mixer. So he and I drove to my house in my Ford Granada, and we wrapped the turntables up in blankets—I didn’t have road cases or anything. After the show, Chuck gave me $60. I tried to give it back; I was just happy to help. But Chuck said, “No, you helped us tonight. We made money, so you make money.”

Time goes by and P.E. become stars; they’ve taken the world by storm. I find out that Chuck is going to give a speech at the University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley, a few hours away. I just wanted to hear him speak. I got there, and it was packed. On his way to the stage, Chuck happened to walk right in front of me. I tapped him on the shoulder and he said “Big Jon! Stay afterward.” I couldn’t believe he remembered me. We hung out that night, and after that, whenever he came through Colorado.

When was the first time you felt the impact of what you were doing outside of the club?
Through Dave, I met a guy named Lindsey Williams. Lindsey worked at Def Jam, and then got a job at EMI Records. One day, Lindsey calls me and says he wants to send me a record to play for him. I listened to the song, and thought, “OK, this is a different sound. I’m not sure how this will work.” I started to play the song in the early part of my set; over the next few weeks it started to get more and more of a response. Then, the kids who heard it in the club started to call the radio station to request it, but the station didn’t know the record. Eventually they started spinning it, and Denver became one of the first markets to give the song major airplay. The song was “Tennessee” by Arrested Development. Lindsey told me, “You broke that song.” At the time, I didn’t even know what that meant.

Is it true that Chuck D prompted you to reevaluate your path?
Very true. Chuck came to Denver for a concert Public Enemy was headlining with Ice Cube and Yo-Yo. [P.E. production team] The Bomb Squad had just produced Cube’s debut solo album. I happened to be the MC for the concert. So I’m at the arena, kickin’ it with Chuck, watching Ice Cube sound check.

Chuck was sitting one row behind me. Out of nowhere, he says, “So, Big Jon, what are you going to do with your life?” I said, “I’m good here in Denver. I’m the man here.” Chuck says, “Yes, you’re the man here, but unless you dream bigger, that’s all you’re ever going to be.” He started listing all these things I could do, and I had a reason why I couldn’t do each one. Finally he said, “I don’t know, I just think you have something to offer to the music business.” That talk really resonated with me and that’s when I started looking for information.

I read the book Hit Men. Then I heard about Don Passman’s book, All You Need to Know About the Music Business. I needed to find that book—it was the first time in my life that I’d gone to the public library to search for a book. It really spoke to me, because it contained a little information about every part of the business. But I still didn’t see where I would fit in the business. Then I re-read the chapter about management and decided to be a manager.

Later, I went to the Jack the Rapper music conference in Atlanta and saw Lindsey there. He starts telling everybody, “This is the guy who broke Arrested Development.” He introduced me to Steve Prudholme, who’d recently started at EMI Music Publishing.

So when did you move to Los Angeles?
Sometime around 1993. Prior to moving, I started managing some producers who lived in LA. One day, I was in L.A., on my way to a meeting at MCA Publishing. I asked Steve if I could come by, to learn about publishing so I could be prepared for the meeting at MCA. I played him some music the producers had made. He flipped out and begged me not to go to the MCA meeting. He wanted to sign them, and Jody Gerson approved the deal.

Soon after that, I made up my mind to really go for it. So, I decided to go home and DJ one last big party. The next morning, I woke up, put whatever I could in my car, drove to L.A. and that was it.

Read Part 1 here.

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