Then there's Hiriam Hicks. Never heard of him? He's from Philadelphia. He's president of Island Records' Black Music division. And he built Dru Hill into one of the hottest R&B acts around and rebuilt the career of Ronald Isley and the Isley Brothers.
Hicks doesn't have the bottom-line success of Knight and Combs, and he doesn't want their notoriety. He's about as obscure as they come.
``That's the way I prefer it,'' said Hicks, a rarity in the music business - a big-time figure who conducts his daily life and his business in a reserved, on-the-down-low manner.
Hicks is generally acknowledged by music-business observers and record-company insiders as one of the top young executives and entrepreneurs in the music industry.
``He's the executive of the '90s,'' said Dyana Williams, head of the International Association of African American Music (IAAAM) and a friend and associate of Hicks' for 15 years.
``Hiriam is a shining star in the R&B industry,'' said J.R. Reynolds, former R&B editor for Billboard magazine.
Those who know Hicks also say he can be egomaniacal and a very hard man to work for. His reputation in the business is not like that of Suge Knight - the larger-than-life Death Row Records chief whose name can cause men to tremble in fear - but he is also not to be trifled with.
``Hiriam Hicks,'' said Williams, ``is no joke.''
Hicks, who splits his time among New York, Atlanta and Philadelphia, is generally considered to be an intelligent, disciplined, tenacious man, who, by force of his own talents and with the help of some luck, parlayed that skill into a career as a black-music entrepreneur, manager, and record-company executive.
He used his connections with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, heads of Philadelphia International Records, to build a career as a hip-hop club promoter and magazine publisher, and then moved into managing. As manager of Michael Bivins and Bell Biv Devoe, Hicks' negotiating skills attracted the attention of former Island president Chris Blackwell, who brought Hicks to the company two years ago and appointed him Island Black Music president last spring.
Hicks is low-key but commanding, a man whose almost diffident demeanor belies his intelligence, and whose smartly tailored wardrobe and cream-colored late-model Mercedes-Benz bespeak his high-six-figure salary. Hicks' wife, Rhonda, is his high-school sweetheart, and he is the father of three. The executive owns homes and business properties in Philadelphia, Atlanta and New York, and he often eats at Center City's Palm restaurant, where a drawing of him is on the wall among scores of other Philadelphia luminaries.
He is also a community-oriented businessman, who used his Island connections to start ``Unity in the Community'' programs at Simon Gratz High in Nicetown and at a Newark, N.J., high school. The eight-month program places students in mini-record companies at their schools to help them learn the business firsthand. They will be taught how to make their own videos.
``I want to teach these kids what is truly important about this business,'' said Hicks. ``If I can educate these kids through teaching them what I know, I feel it will be something worth doing. I am hoping some of the things they learn through this program will stay with them the rest of their lives.''
Hicks wants to give inner-city youth an upper hand in the business, he said. ``There are so many talented kids at Gratz and in other inner-city schools. I mean, that's where Tupac came from. That's where Puffy came from. That's where Kenny came from, and Gordy in Detroit. We breed stars. Not just singing stars, but entrepreneurs.''
Last year, Hicks was threatened with a lawsuit filed by representatives of the Baltimore R&B quartet Dru Hill. The representatives alleged that Hicks assaulted them and created a situation that made it impossible for Dru Hill to work with Hicks and Island.
In the suit filed in New York Superior Court against Island Black Music and PolyGram Records - Island's parent company - Dru Hill attorney Londell McMillan asked that the group be released from its contract and sought more than $50 million in damages. The suit was later consolidated with those filed by Dru Hill manager Keith Ingram and University Music Entertainment, Dru Hill's original producers. University contended that Island reneged on a promotion deal with the company.
The complaint stemmed from a May incident at an Atlanta nightclub. Ingram and McMillan said that Hicks and his brother beat them up in front of the four Dru Hill members and made intimidating statements. No charges were filed in Atlanta against the two brothers. Ingram then applied for an arrest warrant in a Magistrate Court in Georgia but was rejected.
Asked if a beating or any physical altercation had taken place, Hicks referred to the judge's decision, declining to directly address the issue.
The New York lawsuit was settled in late November with Dru Hill staying with Island. The group reportedly received a seven-figure settlement and an increased royalty rate. Hicks would not divulge details of the settlement.
``The family is back together,'' Hicks said.
Neither McMillan nor A. Haqq Islam, head of University Music Entertainment, returned several calls seeking comment. Neither Ingram nor his attorney, Charles Sullivan, could be reached for comment.
Billboard's Reynolds said the controversy may have damaged Hicks' reputation, but that it likely would not affect him as a businessman. ``I don't think it was the most positive thing to come down for him,'' said Reynolds. ``It was not good for his image. But there are two sides to every story, and I am hoping . . . that people will not focus on things that may not directly affect his ability to be an executive in the R&B business.''
Hicks, in an interview at the Palm, said he was exhausted by the Dru Hill ordeal, but that he felt strangely invigorated by it.
``When you become [a public figure], people take certain things and try to create a negative situation,'' he said. ``That is why I tell my children and others that it is important to be focused. When you win, they'll come for you. When you lose, they applaud. That's why you have to take it all with a grain of salt.''
Later, he added: ``All of the experiences I have had, including Dru Hill, are grooming me for greater things. You have to be focused, disciplined. You have to be ready to deal with adversity and negativity. Be tenacious. Don't quit. Discipline. Self-esteem. Staying focused. That's what it takes.''
Hicks said he is a voracious reader of business-oriented newspapers, magazines and books, and spends many hours on the phone consulting with executives such as Gamble, Berry Gordy and Combs.
``I admire many people. Bill Gates, Reginald Lewis, even Michael Milken. Even Don King,'' he said. ``Why do I say Don King? Well, these kids in the inner city, those who are getting in a lot of trouble, have not yet to be in the amount of trouble that Don King has been in, but yet he comes out of it and perseveres. Just because you may be in something, you can still get out of it. We can't use race, class or background as an excuse. We just have to fight harder and build ourselves.''
The preternaturally mysterious Hicks has always been very reluctant to speak about his life or background. He volunteered that he was born in South Philadelphia and later moved to West Oak Lane.
Hicks' late father was his greatest influence. ``He was a strong man, a longshoreman who worked on the waterfront,'' Hicks said. ``We lived in a multicultural area, but he was respected by all. He kept me grounded and kept me focused and told me the importance of giving back.''
It was his mother, who sang and played piano, who got Hicks interested in music. ``Music was always around us, and it was an outlet for me. I loved it, but I couldn't sing or dance, so I started hanging around Philly International and taking pictures. That was my way of getting into the door.''
He picked the brains of Gamble and Huff and others he met at or through their company, read books about Motown king Gordy and studied business administration at Temple University.
``I learned what promotions were, what publishing was, all the things that are behind the scenes,'' Hicks said. ``I learned what it took to make a record successful.''
In the early to mid-'80s, Hicks began promoting shows at a club known as After Midnight on Cherry Street. He then worked with two close friends, Philly rap pioneer Lady B and the late promoter/manager Melvin Wallace, on a magazine called Strictly Hip Hop and then began promoting small-time rap and R&B artists. He hit pay dirt with Bell Biv Devoe, who were the remnants of the kiddie-pop supergroup New Edition after stars Bobby Brown, Ralph Tresvant and Johnny Gill went solo. He also put together tours for the female rap trio TLC.
``After that, I felt as though I had taken management as far as I could take it, and I wanted to learn the business from the inside out. Until then, I had been looking in from the outside,'' Hicks said.
He briefly worked for Arista Records and was then wooed by Island. ``The difference between Chris [Blackwell] and the other guys is that Chris is a visionary. He is not limited to just records. When we had our meeting, he told me about his vision, and I told him about my vision, and our visions meshed. He gave me the opportunity and latitude to do with [Island Black Music] what I wanted. He told me to go create a label.''
Hicks has used his label to break singles by the rap group Lost Boyz, R&B crooner Joe, and female rapper Mona Lisa. His biggest successes, though, have been the Isleys' latest record and the first effort by Dru Hill. Both have gone platinum.
``Being around Kenny Gamble, and Berry Gordy, and others, I have learned how to recognize [talent],'' he said. ``Kenny taught me the difference between a record and a song. A record is something like `Rump Shaker.' It was a hit, but you won't see anyone recording it again. A song is like `Me and Mrs. Jones,' or `I Heard It Through the Grapevine,' which you'll hear over and over and over again, that others will record. I am here to create songs.''