Now, after 20 years and various jobs in the music industry, the friendship the trio built has not only survived but thrived — and it’s the foundation of their flourishing label, Generation Now. “Through us all growing in the music industry, we just kept in touch,” says Lake, 41, today over a Zoom call with his longtime friends and partners. “It turned into conversations, and conversations turned into a business.”
Since signing a joint-venture deal with Atlantic Records in 2015, Generation Now (the name comes from a 2004 mixtape Drama and Cannon curated) has risen to the top of hip-hop’s crowded field of imprints and boutique labels by building on each founder’s expertise and investing in artist development from the ground up. In the process, it has signed two of the genre’s biggest 2020 success stories: Lil Uzi Vert and Jack Harlow. “They represent the cross-section of traditional hip-hop artist development and culture and what the kids want to hear,” says Atlantic chairman/COO Michael Kyser of Generation Now’s principals. “They bring decades of experience and knowledge, as well as their unique ability to adapt to the speed and methods that fans want for their music in 2020.”
Generation Now’s road to success has paralleled that of the music its founders loved in their youth. Drama, Cannon and Lake kept in touch after college. And as the 2000s began, Drama made a name for himself as mixtape host to a slew of Southern rap all-stars — Wayne, Jeezy, T.I. — with his Gangsta Grillz series, then expanded his reputation over the next decade with mixtapes for Pharrell Williams, Chris Brown and the late Nipsey Hussle. By 2014, he had landed an A&R job at Atlantic; soon after, he opened his own Means Street Studio in Atlanta, an incubator for budding local talent.
Producing for Drama on Gangsta Grillz, Cannon, too, realized the power of building relationships. He landed credits for 50 Cent, Jeezy and Fabolous, and in 2008 left The Aphilliates to focus on his own production company, hosting Big Sean’s Finally Famous Vol. 3: Big mixtape and creating beats for Jeezy and Curren$y. In 2013, he became vp A&R at Def Jam Records.
Lake’s rap dreams didn’t last beyond college, but a key friendship did. In 2004, he was at a video shoot for Ma$e (whom he had met through a friend at Morehouse), where Cudda Love, Ma$e’s former manager, changed the way Lake thought about his future. “He pulled me to the side and said, ‘There’s all these dudes trying to rap. Try to do business,’ ” recalls Lake. So he dove into learning music management, eventually co-managing R&B star Bobby Valentino for three years — and, later, Drama and Cannon.
On their own, the three had honed a knack for uncovering raw talent while still maintaining tight-knit relationships with creators they had connected with years ago. At their respective labels, say Cannon and Drama, that didn’t always translate to signing the acts they wanted. “We had our hands close to various artists who are now superstars, who we had the opportunity to sign or just had the feeling like, ‘OK, this person is up next. Let’s be ahead of it,’ ” recalls Drama. (He and Cannon declined to name who those artists were.) “We missed on some things, [but] we said, ‘We don’t want to miss anymore.’ ”
The next time opportunity knocked, in 2014, they grabbed it. Driving to an Atlantic City, N.J., DJ gig, Cannon heard an up-and-coming Philadelphia rapper named Lil Uzi Vert on WUSL (Power 99) and, intrigued by his flamboyant lyricism, called host DJ Diamond Kuts to learn more about him. “I went back to Philly to meet Uzi and did some research,” says Cannon, 41. “I noticed people knew about him, but not too much. I just took it back to the squad and told Drama, ‘We need to do this shit for real.’ ”