Source Exclusive: Universal Music VP of Urban Catalog Andre Torres Talks Kicks, Culture and the ‘Urban Legends’ of Vinyl

Any self-respecting music fan understands the significance, importance and just straight up awe that comes with the words Universal Music Enterprises — a company with decades worth of classic records at their disposal. Now, imagine having that same enthusiasm about the music empire, and then getting the dream opportunity to spearhead its department of urban music — more on that word later for those that cringe at categorization — doing as you please with 30+ years of Hip-Hop and R&B records.

For UMe Vice President of Urban Catalog Andre Torres, it’s not just a dream; it’s his daily reality.

The seasoned music industry vet worked his way up from the journalism world, getting his start by creating the crate-digger aficionado music pub Wax Poetics, and also spending a stint at Genius.com — one of the top 200 websites in America; top 300 in the world — as their Editorial Director. Now, he’s spearheading Urban Legends, a sort of melting pot of every job title he’s ever held down, with a focus on his primary love: vinyl records.

In our exclusive chat with this extremely talented Renaissance Man, we dug deep into the crates, and even further into the sneaker vaults at Stadium Goods, to have a well-rounded talk about the culture of Black music, the importance of preserving the classics, and just how well sneaker culture and Hip-Hop coincide with one another.

Keep scrolling as Andre takes us through some of his most cherished music memories, using five special sneakers from the Stadium Goods stock room to help guide the stories:

 

Image: Keenan Higgins/The Source

Image: Keenan Higgins/The Source

Image: Keenan Higgins/The Source

Image: Keenan Higgins/The Source

Image: Keenan Higgins/The Source

 

Before becoming a music exec, you also had a pretty illustrious career in music journalism, too. Tell us a little about your history and editorial experience.
I really come from an editorial background. After college, I was making beats, collecting records and got really into that around the time the Internet was really starting to pop off. I ended up launching a magazine about all my hobbies up until that point — that was called Wax Poetics. I think that was early 2000 or 2001. I did that until the wheels pretty much started falling off the print industry, and then went over to Genius, formerly Rap Genius. I was Executive Editor over there for almost a year, and [my position there] was really just trying to get at the intersection of tech and music. It was a perfect fit because it was really about [having] that rap knowledge and Hip-Hop “nerdery.” I was also running the Spotify collaboration so it was everything I was looking to do at that point. I got that call from Universal about eight months in at Genius. I been over here ever since.

 

The Vinyl: Moment of Truth by Gang Starr
Year: 1998
The Sneaker: Nike Air Max 98
Andre Says: “For me, this is one of my favorite albums and sneakers of all time. Looking back at 1998 in New York…man, it made for the perfect combination.”

Image: Keenan Higgins/The Source

Image: Keenan Higgins/The Source

Image: Keenan Higgins/The Source

 

So being a music head pretty much laid the path for all the success you’ve had so far, especially professionally.
Without a doubt, yeah. I get people all the time that say, “How do I get into the industry?” For me, it’s not even a question that whoever’s in never really asked to be in. It’s not something you can really create; it creates you. It takes the sort of passion where you’re not waiting for someone to get you hip to how to do this and that or how to get in over there. You certainly need people around you that can guide and point you in the right direction, but if your engine isn’t already revving — if those gears aren’t already turning — you really haven’t figured out the beginning point of all this. It’s the passion. It comes out of you having an unwavering passion for music. You tend to end up start working on your own thing, whether it’s writing about music on a blog, doing illustrations for albums, doing your homeboy’s mixtape cover — whatever! You can’t sit around waiting for somebody to say,”Yo! You look like a kid that belongs in the music industry!” That is never gonna happen, so it really just starts with that passion.

 

The Vinyl: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Public Enemy
Year: 1988
The Sneaker: Nike Air Jordan 3 Retro “Black/Cement”
Andre Says: “The Jordan 3 was 1988, which is amazing because we’re in the 30 year anniversary right now. That sneaker was the one that took that turn and set the new standard, kind of the way Public Enemy did it at the exact same time. You look at it 30 years later and see the new Tinker Hatfield version, and they’ll probably have another one 30 years from now. Same with It Takes a Nation…you put that record on now, 30 years later, it’s still relevant. Hopefully some of this sh*t right now won’t be playing 30 years later [Laughs], but a record like this really makes you think ‘Damn! It’s been 30 years and we’re still stuck in this sh*t?!’ [Laughs]. Albums like that are always a good reminder to play back and be able to check society, and also check yourself.”

Image: Keenan Higgins/The Source

Image: Keenan Higgins/The Source

Image: Keenan Higgins/The Source

 

Once you got to Universal and was assigned to spearhead the urban catalog, did you immediately have the idea to take the classics down the vinyl route?
[Vinyl records] are primarily what we were talking about in Wax Poetics. A lot of these records that we were talking about that people were sampling and making beats out of couldn’t be found on a streaming service; there weren’t any at the time. They weren’t even on iTunes, and the big record labels weren’t reissuing any of this stuff. DJs and people who’ve been amassing this stuff for 20 or 30 years were going straight to The Source to get the stories of how those records became so important in Hip-Hop. I just think it’s been fortuitous that as CDs and downloads have died, all while streaming becomes the prime way of consuming music, there’s been this huge resurgence of vinyl. They’ve become this physical manifestation of what people are consuming on their own. It worked out perfect for me because I’m already in the vinyl game — I’ve got thousands of records myself already.

I’ve always understood the culture of vinyl. You’ve got people who listen to music and you’ve got people who listen to music on records. I have a better understanding, especially within urban music. I know [the quality] of what DJs and producers are looking for. I’m pretty much like a kid in a candy store over here now [Laughs]. A lot of the stuff I’ve talked about editorially and/or through the magazine is now in a vault that I have the key to. I definitely understand the historical significance of the position, without a doubt.

 

The Vinyl: Paid in Full by Eric B. & Rakim
Year: 1987
The Sneaker: adidas Conductor Hi “Ewing”
Andre Says: “I just saw them the other night, but I don’t think Rakim was wearing those Ewings [Laughs]. I wasn’t even living in New York at the time back in 1987, but man — the way people were trying to get those sneakers down in Florida! If I’m not mistaken, I think Eric B. is actually wearing them on the back album cover in that crew photo. During that period, these were definitely the go-to. Even on the first Public enemy record, Yo! Bum Rush the Show (1987) they’re all wearing those Ewings. It definitely goes to show that in ’87 Patrick Ewing really had New York on lockdown.”
[Editor’s Note: The adidas Conductor Hi “Ewing” has been a rare sight since they last dropped in 2012, so we found the next best thing: the Ewing 33 Hi “Knicks”]

Image: Keenan Higgins/The Source

Image: Keenan Higgins/The Source

Image: Keenan Higgins/The Source

 

Which brings us to Urban Legends. You’ve got so many records in the chamber of UMG’s Hip-Hop and R&B releases to play with, and ultimately do cool releases around. How did this company idea even come to fruition?
Having been in magazines and on the editorial side of music for so long, I understand, especially now, how important the narrative and storytelling is to engaging people around music. I saw how important it was at Wax Poetics, and then again with what we were doing at Genius and the “behind-the-lyrics” initiative. Spotify even taught me about streaming music services, and how kids who aren’t even looking at vinyl are interested in learning more about these songs. Once I got on the inside, I noticed we were always relying on someone on the outside to tell these stories, whether it be other media companies online or other mediums altogether, like film and television. You can’t always rely on some third party to tell these stories about stuff that’s ours. Even if they’re going to tell those stories, we should be part of the story – driving the story at times. If we don’t lift this stuff up to the upmost concern and celebrate it, we can’t always expect someone outside to do that for us.

When I started to realized the freedom I would have [in the Universal position], I just approached my CEO and was like, “Yo, I have this idea and want to create this platform.” I envisioned it as a digital platform and e-commerce store that talks about music and everything from the urban music side of things at Universal. We’ll also be releasing records, doing events, creating content and getting into other forms of media like film and television. Lots of digital video, too. I saw it as a one-stop shop, at least for these sort of A-list, top-tier urban artists like Jay-Z and Kanye West, all the way back to Eric B. & Rakim and Public Enemy, and then on the other side with Mary J. Blige and Rihanna.

I’ve certainly had problems with the word “urban” and how it’s been used to describe Black music over the years, but I understand it’s sort of an industry catch-all term. I took that and flipped it [with Urban Legends]. It was important for people to understand, especially those within Universal Music Group, what it is we were doing and how to message that out to the rest of the world. “Urban” was a word that we were not going to get away from, so I had to take that — almost like the word “ni**a” if we’re being 100% — and flip it in a way that’s clever and gives us the opportunity to take the power of it back. Our idea of it plays on the literal meaning of urban legends, within a music context, and also on the editorial, storytelling narrative side. Many of these stories that we hear about these artists and the making of these records are ones that people have talked about but you may have not heard it directly from the horse’s mouth. That’s what we’re here to do.

 

The Vinyl: DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar
Year: 2017
The Sneaker: Nike Cortez
Andre Says: “These are more of the new wave, but when you think about classics — that man won a damn Pulitzer! I don’t want to hear anybody say anything! It’s iconic already and will live on in history. I saw he had a Reebok thing going, but when he came together with Nike and they chose the Cortez with all that history the sneaker has here in L.A.? It wasn’t even something I had to think about; I thought about the album and the sneaker just fit like a glove. Mad organic.”

Image: Keenan Higgins/The Source

Image: Keenan Higgins/The Source

Image: Keenan Higgins/The Source

 

There’s definitely something to be said about the name, especially with all those urban legends that exist within Hip-Hop and R&B circles. You might even have a few of your own stories about these records. Got any that stand out?
Oh God [Laughs]! Pretty much every record that I have holds some story attached to it. For me, it’s about music that you can put back on 30 or 45 years later and it instantly transports you back to a very particular place and time. Putting it on is almost like time travel; I close my eyes and put on a record like 3 Feet High and Rising from De La Soul and really picture myself in college, in my dorm room listening to that record obsessively for months on in. Those were the formative years for me.

Another good memory is from when I was making beats in the early to mid ’90s. We didn’t exactly have a deal, but we were doing all these tracks and they’d come out on instrumental compilations. We were working with this one label called Freeze Records, and I remember going over there to pick up some stuff or just kick it with one of the producers. I walk in and see the Reasonable Doubt record, and I was like “Yo, y’all working this?” and they said, “Yeah, we did this deal with some guys named Dame and Jay.” It was literally right before Def Jam — the original copy of that record is Roc-A-Fella Records through Priority and Freeze Records. It was this tiny little dance label in New York [Laughs]. I grabbed two copies of it thinking, “What?! This is crazy!” This was before anybody really understood because Jay couldn’t even get a deal at that point. I still have both of those copies and now they each go for like $200.00 a piece. Having been there at the very beginning and understanding that nobody would even give this dude a chance, to seeing where he is 22 years later, it’s a testament to anybody in the game who has ever been told they’re not good enough to feel like “No, f**k the bulls**t!” It’s all about how you feel about it. If you’re determined and passionate enough, and you get on your path, there’s no telling where you can go. That one holds a special place in my heart particularly.

 

The Vinyl: Reasonable Doubt by Jay-Z
Year: 1996
The Sneaker: Nike Air Force One
Andre Says: “Reasonable Doubt is just clearly one of the top Hip-Hop records ever made. Even Jay would probably say it’s his favorite of all his albums. When you think about an iconic album like that, especially during that period, the shoe that I close my eyes and see is without a doubt white, bright, untouched, fresh-out-the-box, Air Force One in the summertime. It’s a match made in heaven, and the correlation was an instant for me.”

Image: Keenan Higgins/The Source

Image: Keenan Higgins/The Source

Image: Keenan Higgins/The Source

 

What’s the biggest thing you want to accomplish with this Urban Legends imprint?
I want to change the perception of urban music. Last year we saw Hip-Hop dethrone rock ‘n’ roll as the No. 1 consumed genre in America, and it shows no signs of slowing up. We clearly dominate popular culture and the data is there to prove this. On all the streaming services, Hip-Hop is the running leader; it’s kind of how we became the No. 1 genre. I think there’s been a perception about Black music since the beginning of recorded music. It was considered marginal, for a specific group of people and that there was no interest on a global level. If you can say that about the Blues, Jazz or R&B, you can say that 10x about Hip-Hop. 30 years ago they were telling us it was a fad! To see how this music changed the world and, on a global level, changed how people see us, it makes me want to get up and be like, “See?! I told you so!” Then there’s the other part of me that’s like “Ok, no we got to get to work.”

We’re being given the opportunity to do something that’s only happened in other spaces, like rock ‘n’ roll or Jazz, where they get deluxe edition treatments and box sets. We can package these albums in a way that people understand its importance. Physically, as we move further into the digital space, those iconic pieces of product — vehicles for celebrating this amazing music — become that much more important. Again, vinyl is sort of the go-to physical format. I think we now have so much opportunity to historically present Hip-Hop in a way like it’s never been done before. That’s what I’m really excited about. In the process I’d also like to change the perception of our music and make people understand that it isn’t a fad. If it was fly in America, musically, more than likely we were the ones who came up with it. I want to be able to tell those stories and place it in the same context as Frank Sinatra, The Beatles and Beethoven. I truly believe that’s possible to accomplish, at least within my lifetime.

 

To get the full Urban Legends experience, head over to the brand’s official website to shop vinyl and read editorial content, like their 20th anniversary recap of DMX’s classic debut Universal Music album It’s Dark & Hell Is Hot.

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