Interview by Simon Glickman

Newly tapped as RCA President, Mark Pitts has been part of the label’s fabric for a decade, heading Urban Music for the company and shepherding an array of hot acts on his own ByStorm JV imprint, where he retains the title of CEO. He’s worked with artists like The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, J. Cole and Miguel in his capacities as artist manger and label exec. In addition to his considerable experience, Pitts brings to the table a commitment to mentoring and sustaining a supportive company culture. He was even patient enough to answer our annoying questions.

It’s fortuitous that I’m speaking to you during Black History Month, given that your career covers a significant slice of modern music history in traditionally Black genres.
I’ve never thought of it that way, but yes, I’ve been blessed. I’m looking at the wall in my man cave right now and seeing how it does represent a beautiful stretch of music history.

What does it mean for you to step into this role now?
I used to fight things like this because I always wanted to move like “the mayor”—I want to touch the people and the artists and make sure I don’t lose that connection to them. I’m passionate; I just say what’s on my mind, and that’s always worked for me. But the last couple of years, just paying attention to everything that’s been going on, I’ve embraced new opportunities in a way I maybe hadn’t before, because I felt like I’d been blocking my blessings.

This new position is a win for me, but it’s also a win for the culture, for us. The more I realized what was needed, the mentoring and so on, the more I saw I could help by being a kind of role model. I’d been through a lot. I’ve had a lot of loss, but I just kept going. When people understand where you came from and see where you’re going, it means they can do it too.

Does this apply to artists as well as people who work in the industry?
Absolutely. I was on this panel for Sony in Florida two years ago, and one of the topics was, how do we improve the relationships between the label and the artist? I’ve always felt the need to change the narrative, because it’s not supposed to be “us against them.” Artists have more power nowadays but less knowledge.

To me, mentoring an artist is about being transparent and helping them understand how the system works. If they really understand that, we’ll have better conversations, create better deal structures, be better partners. We need to break it down so it’s not just “gimme, gimme, gimme.” As a businessman who’s been on both sides, I wanna know the real.

What kind of knowledge is missing?
They go from zero to 100 so fast and bring their friends with them as managers. They skip a whole lot of lessons; a lot of knowledge is missing. They don’t get a chance to grow in that process, because the game is constantly moving.

When I came up, I was allowed to make mistakes; you live and you learn. These artists are missing that piece.

They’re being forced to get it quicker and learn more quickly, which can be stressful. So what’s missing is their development as an artist. I’ve worked with artists who’ve built long careers; they had hits 10 years ago and they’re still in it. They learned the lessons.

I always tell the artist, “All the labels have money and marketing, so you can’t base your decision on that alone. You should know the people you’re fuckin’ with. Google them! Because you can get the check, but what happens when that goes? You’ve gotta think about the person who’s going to guide you through it.” These artists getting money for the first time think it’s always going to be that way, but then the real work comes in, and you gotta know who your partner is.

It’s about doing the work. My dad always told me, “Do what you gotta do before you do what you wanna do.”

It’s the same on the label level—we need to be held accountable, too. We’re known for our artistry, but you’ve still got to put the points on the board; you’ve still gotta get the research, build that out. You have to generate the money to support the artistry. You gotta keep doing what you gotta do.

RCA has long been a place of marquee pop stars…
And we’ve been building the next wave, with artists like H.E.R., SZA, Khalid, Lucky Daye… We’re continuing to do that with newcomers like Tate McRae, Flo Milli, Mulatto and Fousheé. I always say about Chris Brown that he’s the past, the present and the future. I signed him when he was 15. He’s hotter now than he’s ever been, having the kind of pop success he hasn’t had in 10 years. The future is wide open.

Would you say your emphasis on artist development has been informed by your experience as an artist manager? What lessons have you carried from that part of your career into your work as a label exec?
I managed J. Cole, the artist, but I was very connected to Jermaine, the man. I believe I’m good with artists because I trust that connection, and it’s always worked for me. Adding to that, I sometimes think I’m an artist trapped in an executive’s body.

Another thing I got from management is I’m always the first one in in the morning—early. That’s from being a manager because you always assume the artist will be late. I also learned resilience from being a manager, because the manager is the first to get blamed and the last to get thanked.

I’m glad I was a manager before I went to the label, because when you’re in the room with the artist and the manager, even though we all have the same goal, we aren’t thinking about it the same way. But I understand where somebody’s coming from, because the manager in me would have said the same thing.

You were an artist when you sat down with Puffy and had the conversation that effectively changed the course of your life. Tell me about that meeting.
Puff was working in A&R at Uptown. We’d been to Howard together. I had a little group [Three Left] and I went to see him. I always wanted to be in the music business, but I was actually struggling with whether or not I wanted to be in a group. And I wasn’t sure I even wanted to play the music. During the meeting he said, “We’re family outside of here, but in here it’s business.” He got right to the point, and it made me feel a certain way about pressing play; I kind of lost my nerve. And then as we were talking, I realized, “I don’t want to be on front street; I want to be behind the scenes.”

We moved in together when Puff wanted to start Bad Boy [in 1993]. I lived with him for two years. We ran the company out of the house. For the most part, it’s been blessings ever since.

At what point did you start managing Biggie?
Puff was going to start a management company and sign Biggie to Uptown. Biggie and I connected right away. I was the one from Brooklyn, and I was the one by his side every day. When Puff got fired from Uptown and got the deal to launch Bad Boy, I became the head of Bad Boy Management. Big said, “You’ve been doing this from day one; why don’t you just be my guy full-time?” That was the day I left Bad Boy and started Mark Pitts Management [later ByStorm].

Biggie’s death inspired you to play a peacemaker role in the feud between Jay-Z and Nas. Can you say a little bit about that?
At the time I was working on Kelis’ album. Nas and Kelis were married and she said to him, “You need a good manager.” I sat with him and we had that conversation. I said, “You’re Nas; you’ve got these classic albums. But there are kids who’ve done much less than you who are making more money. It’s time to shake it up. Do a joint with Jay.” He says, “I would love to, but I don’t think he would do something like that.” I said, “I’m gonna find out.” So I went to Jay, and I had this whole speech rehearsed. But I didn’t need any of it; Jay got it right away—it was almost like he was thinking about it already.

We worked on setting it up for weeks without letting anyone know. We finally picked the date and the place. I remember being with Nas in the elevator. My stomach was hurting, and it got worse every floor we went up. I kept thinking: What if they start fighting? I’d been so gung ho. What if some nonsense happened?

So the elevator door opens. Jay is standing there. And they were like, “What’s up?” They shook hands, they went in the room and it was amazing how they spoke about things, quoting lines from songs. You could tell they always had respect for each other.

Jay had the whole plan; he’d just been waiting for the right time. It was an amazing moment. I felt good just to be part of it. L.A. Reid said to me, “It happened because they both know your heart.”

Blessed are the peacemakers.
Nothing will ever stop me from being that way. I have too much to give, and I’d rather walk away than ever let that get tainted. I also know that if Big had been around, he would have made that happen.

Circling back to this moment, what’s next for you?
I love the quality of what we have going on; I just want to add more quantity to it. The artists we’ve been building—that’s the legacy. I want to do more of that, of course, but I have to work within the structure, make the kinds of deals that will help us do that, so we’re not chasing the timeline all the time.

The last year has been a big rap initiative, which was happening before I took the new job. We need to be more in the rap conversation. So continuing that is big for me.

I’m gonna keep pushing and inspiring everyone in the company. It doesn’t matter what department you’re in, what genre of music you’re working on; there’s a lot we can do better together, have more accountability. I want to put some new batteries up in us! I want to help everybody maneuver more skillfully.

We have the best A&R team, the most creative and talented group of people I’ve ever been around. I’m so thankful for that. I always tell them that it’s not about changing. I’m not changing. I like me. What I’m going to do is grow. That’s what it’s all about. Once we get the boxes checked, I feel like everybody’s going to take their thing to the next level.

What can you tell me about working with John Fleckenstein and Peter Edge?
I like how Fleck moves; he’s like an on-the-court coach and point guard—he knows he has to move fast. I’ve learned a lot about strategy from him and I think he’s learned from my directness.

With Peter, I like to say there’s the PE side and the Peter Edge side. If it’s something creative, I need to speak to PE; if it’s about business and I need some fast answers, I need Peter Edge. Either one, you can have real conversations with him. We have a very good dynamic.