If this year has taught us anything, it’s how important it is to give flowers to the people who have shaped our culture while they’re still here. And when it comes to influence on the current landscape of rap, the guys over at music label Generation Now—DJ Drama, Don Cannon, and Leighton “Lakeshow” Morrison—feel like it’s about time they get the credit they’re due.
“We’ve been here,” co-founder DJ Drama tells Complex. “There’s so many things we don’t even get our flowers for. People don’t give us credit for what we’ve accomplished.”
Each of the label’s co-founders have long histories in entertainment. DJ Drama is known for his legendary Gangsta Grillz mixtape series, which included appearances from Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane, Fabolous, and more. Over his career, Don Cannon has produced some of the biggest hits for 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, and Lil Uzi Vert, among many others. And Lakeshow has served as an executive manager for Mase, Uzi, and Beanie Sigel.
“This isn’t these guys' first rodeo or mine,” Lakeshow says. “We’ve been doing this for a while. We’ve been breaking new artists for a while now.”
In 2015, Generation Now launched as a joint venture with Atlantic Records. While each of the co-founders had experience breaking hip-hop artists, one of their first goals as Generation Now was to tap into the unique sound and energy of a new generation of stars.
“[Generation Now] is self-explanatory. It’s the generation of people: the now and the future, not the past,” Don Cannon explains. “It’s just one of those profound words in general that speaks to ongoing sets of kids, artists, and architects. And it just moves beyond a certain genre. It’s beyond R&B, hip-hop, rock music, country music. It’s everything.”
Getting behind artists like Lil Uzi Vert and Jack Harlow, Generation Now has already developed a proven track record for grooming global stars. And what the label has managed to accomplish in 2020 alone could be a case study for future labels.
In March, Lil Uzi Vert scored his second No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 albums chart with Eternal Atake, moving 288,000 units in its first week. It’s a major accomplishment, but one that everyone at Generation Now expected. From the time Uzi signed with the label in 2014, the co-founders knew he was an artist with a unique and clear vision.
“He has a lot of great qualities, and those qualities don’t come in just having the freshest clothes. It was an all-around thing,” Cannon says. “He knew what to do. He almost knew where the game was going, and he attacked that threshold of where the game was going. That type of stuff is special.”
Uzi entered the industry during a transitional period, as everyone was adapting to the fast-paced nature of the digital age, and DJ Drama notes that not everyone at Atlantic understood how to break or market an artist like him at the time.
“Uzi started the deluxe [trend]. It’s like he’s doing a whole other wave of visionary sh*t.” - Don Cannon
“There were meetings where people were talking about how we had to break a rapper in their backyard. So people were telling me that we had to get Uzi hot in Philly. And we all begged to differ,” Drama recalls. “That’s not the game anymore. We saw how Cole didn’t have to break out of Fayetteville, or it wasn’t necessarily all in Toronto that Drake made his way. This is a whole new generation. We broke Uzi in a very non-traditional way.”
“Non-traditional” is a good way to describe most aspects of Uzi’s career, but especially his approach to making albums. Lakeshow admits there was a bit of a learning curve when it came to his rollout process.
“I used to get upset that he would want to put stuff on SoundCloud, but honestly, he was 10 steps ahead of the game, because he was allowing his fan base to digest his music,” Lakeshow explains. “It wouldn’t be any positive or negative effects if it didn’t go up, but if we could do the research and see what record would do good, then we could put it up on a digital platform. So it made it where it was easy for us to dictate which record we will put out before and after.”
It worked. Lil Uzi Vert’s massive single “XO Tour Llif3” was initially released on SoundCloud in 2017, before it eventually hit streaming platforms. The single quickly blew up online, becoming Uzi’s highest-charting song at the time, and proving that his way of doing things could produce results.
When it came to the marketing of Eternal Atake, Lakeshow points out that the naturally high anticipation for the album made things easy on them. “Honestly, when you let people know with the trailer that it was coming, there wasn't much left to do,” he says. “[Uzi] makes the marketing promotion aspect of it super, super easy.”
The road to actually releasing Eternal Atake wasn’t quite as simple, though. The album finally arrived after a nearly two-year wait, amid disagreements between the label and Uzi. In January 2019, Uzi announced that he was “done with music.” A few days later, he suggested his label was holding him from dropping the album. At the time, DJ Drama stated that the co-founders supported him releasing the album whenever he wanted.
Looking back on the situation now, Lakeshow says they handled the conflict the best way they could. “I think we navigated through it cool,” he says. “We stayed together, we put our heads down, we worked, we developed more artists, and we continued to do what we had to do.”
Still, they learned some valuable lessons from that experience. “I think our initial response all the time is to take the high road,” Lakeshow adds. “But sometimes, in a land where social media is the judge of you, I think we shouldn’t necessarily go against an artist, but speak out when we feel like we have a good foot to stand on. Time shows everything. I don't think we do any sort of bad business. So one thing I would learn is to speak up for ourselves, instead of sitting back and letting it play out. Honestly, the land of public opinion ain’t fair anyway. They don’t really want to hear the truth. They just want to hear what the popular person is saying.”
Despite the early hiccups, Eternal Atake has been met with widespread critical acclaim, including a No. 1 spot on Complex’s Best Albums of 2020 (So Far) list in June. The co-founders of Generation Now insist it’s the best album of the year. “We didn’t even go radio top heavy, and it’s so successful,” Cannon points out. “It’s covered every ground.”
Lakeshow adds, “The best thing that you have to do as an executive is to be smart and stay out of your own way and allow him to market and promote it. And that was the easiest thing with Eternal Atake. I think people were waiting on it so much when he announced it, it spoke for itself.”
They also agree EA started the trend of rappers releasing deluxe editions. “Uzi started the deluxe [trend]. It’s like he’s doing a whole other wave of visionary shit,” Cannon says. The deluxe version of Eternal Atake included 14 additional songs, many of which were previously recorded with Cannon and other inner-circle producers. Lakeshow says Uzi “wanted to provide the new feeling of this new Uzi. He made his fans wait so long, but he also wanted to give them a little bit of that old Uzi, too. That’s why the name is Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World 2.”
“One thing I would learn is to speak up for ourselves, instead of sitting back and letting it play out. Honestly, the land of public opinion ain’t fair anyway. They don’t really want to hear the truth. They just want to hear what the popular person is saying.” - Lakeshow
Lil Uzi Vert is a tough act to follow or recreate, but Generation Now managed to have another major win this year with Jack Harlow. In January, the 22-year-old rapper dropped his breakout single “Whats Poppin,” which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Six months later, he returned with the remix featuring DaBaby, Lil Wayne, and Tory Lanez. To many, Harlow’s journey might look like an overnight success story, but the co-founders say there’s been a lot of build-up to get to this point.
“It didn't happen as quick as everybody thinks it did,” Lakeshow says. “It's taken about three years. We put out maybe three to four projects. It seems like he just came, but he's literally laid a lot of groundwork three or four years in before he even got the success for ‘What's Poppin.’”
Laying down the groundwork paid off, and once “Whats Poppin’” dropped, everything else started to fall into place. “You have a hit record when all clocks [click] at the exact same time,” Lakeshow explains. “It’s a combination of a good video, support from the DSPs, radio helps, and the artist being interactive with their fanbase and so on. It’s all continuing to give the record legs.”
Jack Harlow is the only white artist listed under Generation Now, but the co-founders say his appearance hasn’t played a factor in how they’ve steered his career or even how others in the industry perceive him. “We don't have a white rapper. We have a rapper that happens to be white,” Cannon says. “With the color barriers and the things that are going on now, we're just showing that he has all the talents without having privilege, in my opinion.”
Having two artists reach major milestones in the same year comes as a gift and curse. While they’re still riding the high of those triumphs, the co-founders recognize the pressures of recreating that in the years to come. “It’s not easy to do once,” DJ Drama says. “It’s definitely not easy, and even harder to do it again and again and again.” But that hasn’t deterred the label from developing new talent. “Obviously in our history, we’ve done it before in different facets, so for us, it’s like, ‘Okay right, but watch what we do next,” he adds.
The biggest priority now is to build out a consistent and diverse roster. Lakeshow says that not everyone on the label has to be a “super duper star,” but the idea is to “to develop the roster to a point where it’s not really dependent upon one or two or three guys.”
DJ Drama suggests Florida rapper and singer Seddy Hendrinx is up next. “Seddy Hendrinx is from Jacksonville, Florida. He’s somebody we’re super excited about. He’s had a record out that caught some traction called ‘Low Key.’ He went on tour with myself and Wiz Khalifa last year, and he’s just a phenomenal artist. He creates incredible songs, and we’re really looking forward to his next release, as well as what he’s going to do for this upcoming year.”
Artist discovery and development isn’t the only thing Generation Now is looking to get into. The co-founders reveal an interest in expanding initiatives around philanthropy and education. In the past, they have participated in turkey drives and other charitable events, but they would like to create more opportunities to reach underserved communities, as well as help fund aspiring college students.
Those initiatives are coming in due time. But the co-founders say Generation Now’s legacy as it stands today is clear. “We change culture and provide for the culture, and we represent it to its fullest capacity. That's something that we've always stood by and we've built our careers on,” DJ Drama says. “When it's all said and done, we're three guys, that if you check our resume or if you look at our accomplishments, our bonds are solid. We're good guys that are thankful to be doing what we're doing, and also giving artists opportunities and helping them go to the next level. We love what we do, and we have for some time. That's why we're still here.”