From West Philly to Gagaland

With brains, drive, and help from stars, he has risen to the top.

Posted: February 25, 2013

Scene One: January 1990: Troy Carter, 17, was so obsessed with music and the record business that he dropped out of West Philadelphia High School. Every day he walked to Delaware Avenue, to the studio of hip-hop icons DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.

He went with his rap group, 2 Too Many, a name they chose because there were three of them, but always only bus fare for one, or food money for one, or whatever they needed or wanted, only enough for one. They hoped to find a way inside, a chance to perform.

Scene Two: Jan. 20, 2013. Troy Carter, now 40, left his marble-fronted office building across from Sony Pictures in Los Angeles and drove his Fisker, an electric car that sells for $100,000, to the Staples Center, where the artist he manages, Lady Gaga, was performing.

At the end of the concert, Lady Gaga, with 34.2 million Twitter followers, gave a shout-out to just two people - the pair who teamed with her before she was famous, when she was doing three clubs a night and wearing the same outfit for a year.

"I'd like to thank my record producer, Vince Herbert, and my manager, Troy Carter, for believing in me, and taking care of me so I can travel the world for all my beautiful fans, who I love so much."

After the show, at 2 a.m., Carter and Gaga flew by private jet to Washington to perform the next afternoon at an inauguration party for President Obama, for whom Carter and his wife, Rebecca, have helped raise millions of dollars.

Whatever it takes

Lady Gaga has sold 24 million albums and 90 million singles, and won five Grammy Awards. Her rise was so meteoric that the Harvard Business School has done two case studies - focusing largely on Troy Carter's role as manager.

His success with Gaga has given him means and access to indulge his entrepreneurial flair. In the last few years he has created what Billboard Magazine calls a "mini-empire," teaming with Silicon Valley techies and investors to back more than 40 high-tech start-up companies, from Uber, a site to hire a private driver, to the music download service Spotify.

Carter says the music business is a meritocracy. Nobody cares about his race, education, or background - only his ability to perform. He had the raw materials for success: brains, guts, resilience, determination. Perhaps he made his own luck, but he believes grace kept putting opportunity in his path. He just made the most of it.

He was willing to do whatever it took, from sweeping floors for Jazzy Jeff to getting a date for Puff Daddy.

Family ties

Gilda Carter, his mother, worked for 30 years cleaning surgical instruments at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Even after he made it big, she kept taking the bus to work until she reached her 30 years, then moved within half a mile of her son in the San Fernando Valley.

Troy's parents divorced when he was 2. When Troy was 7, his father, who had remarried, shot and killed his new wife's brother after an argument. He went to prison for 12 years. "That taught me about consequences at a really, really young age," Carter said. The couple stayed together, his father rebuilt his life, and today Carter calls him "one of my real heroes."

Gilda Carter threatened her three boys if they spent one minute on a drug corner, she'd be right out there with them, "and you know your friends don't want you on the corners with your mom."

Because his mother worked, Troy spent much of his time around the corner with his grandmother, Dolores Fuller Crawford, now 80. She has lived in the same house 51 years.

"Manners and respect is never going to go out of style," she told all her grandchildren. "They knew I had rules and regulations here."

Down the block lived the family of Lawrence Goodman, who had started a label, Pop Art Records.

"Pop Art signed DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince to their first deal," said Carter, "Salt-N-Pepa to their first deal."

When Goodman would return to 51st and Cedar to see his family, he'd bring Salt-N-Pepa and other acts. Carter would watch from his grandmother's front step. "That was my first real experience of 'Wow, this is really cool what he's doing, whatever he's doing.' "

As a boy, "Troy always had a composition book and pen," said his grandmother, "jotting down what he had in mind to do." And what he had in mind was the music business. One entry, his mother recalls, noted how he was going to be a millionaire by 25 - only off by a decade, and perhaps an order of magnitude.

Carter won't talk about money now. "Just say I'm doing OK."

His grandmother is not surprised by Carter's success, and says his entrepreneurial instincts are in his blood. Her brother, Gilbert Fuller, ran a popular shoeshine shop at 6300 Germantown Ave. He was always talking to Carter as a boy about business. Carter visited his great-uncle on his deathbed in August, and Fuller told him, "Of all of them, you were the only one that listened."

Carter grew up at 52d and Larchwood, in a two-bedroom apartment with kerosene heat and sometimes no running water, he said. His mother proudly says her three boys always had hot meals, love, and high expectations. But Carter recalls the days his mother would scrape together coins for bus fare. "You know, we were broke," he said. "You can, as a kid, kind of recognize the pain in your mother's face."

He went to Huey Elementary and Sayre Middle School. He tested well but "couldn't understand sitting in school," he said. He preferred the nearby public library. "I read every single thing about the music business."

His fifth-grade teacher, Marybelle Moore, is an educator who stood out. "I was always the kid in the front of the line because I was the smallest," Carter recalled, "and she used to call me 'The Big Guy.' Just by the way she would talk to me, she gave me the sense that I could do anything."

Last summer he friended her on Facebook and thanked her.

By his senior year, Carter had stopped going to school. He was spending all his time with 2 Too Many and honing his entrepreneurial skills, promoting house parties all over the city, hiring a DJ and charging $1 to $5 a head. His mother, however, insisted he get a diploma or the equivalent, and enrolled him in Job Corps, a federal education and training program, at a rural Maryland high school.

Carter learned he could master any subject and excel if he applied himself. He soon earned a GED and returned home.

And with 2 Too Many, he resumed his pilgrimages to Delaware Avenue.

'Our tenacity'

One January day in 1990, Biz and Izod, a rap group, were recording at Jazzy Jeff's studio. Biz had gone to high school with 2 Too Many. He let them in.

Sitting in a lounge were DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince - Jeff Townes and Will Smith. They had in 1989 won the first-ever Grammy Award for best rap performance. Smith was just starting his hit television show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Also in the lounge was James Lassiter, Smith's business partner then and now, who has produced many of Smith's movies, including Hitch and  Ali . "We literally just walked into the room and said we want to play some music for you," Carter recalled. "Will told us to go ahead and pop the tape in."

The lounge was too small for 2 Too Many's full routine, Carter said, "so everyone went outside and we danced in the snow."

"Basically," said Carter, "they just fell in love with us. We pretty much sucked as a group. They loved us and our tenacity more than anything else."

Recalled Lassiter: "Every night someone was down there trying to get put on. It was something about these three kids and their personality and sense of humor that we responded to. I don't remember if we thought they were talented or not. They just didn't give up."

"We would just laugh at them," Lassiter added. "I remember plenty of times driving them home. I would say, 'How are you getting home?' They hadn't thought it through. They didn't have gloves. They didn't have a Plan B."

Lassiter and Smith gave 2 Too Many a record deal on their WilJam label.

They even took the group on tour to Chicago. Armique Wyche, a member of 2 Too Many who lives in L.A. now and works for Carter, remembers Will Smith teaching them a new word each day. "I think he was trying to get us ready for interviews," Wyche said. "I still remember recapitulate."

After a year, 2 Too Many lost its contract.

But Carter went to work for Jazzy Jeff in the studio and for Lassiter as an assistant. He swept floors, emptied trash, carried records, even helped Lassiter's kids with science homework.

"There was always something about Troy," Lassiter recalled. "Aside from being bright, he had just a special quality about him. You knew he would be successful in life - if he could avoid the pitfalls that existed in Philly."

Star power

Carter soaked it all in.

"I remember when Will was getting ready to do the movie Six Degrees of Separation [1993], and I was down at Jeff's place, and I remember Jeff putting it on speaker phone because Will was on the line, and Will asked everybody what did they think about this scene he was going to do when he was going to have to kiss this guy.

"And we all thought he was nuts. Nuts. We thought it was going to ruin his career for Fresh Prince or whatever. That one move is what really made him a movie star and got him respect in Hollywood. He's always pushed the limit. He just has this maniacal drive that the only person who even comes close to it in my mind is Gaga. No pun intended, he wills things."

At the same time, Carter had graduated from throwing house parties to scraping together money to promote rap concerts.

In 1995, when Carter was 23, he was promoting a Notorious B.I.G. show in Philadelphia, and Biggie Smalls, a superstar, gunned down two years later, was a no-show.

"I got into a huge fight on the phone," Carter recalled. "He was shooting a video in New York when he was supposed to be on stage here. But they ended up coming down that night anyway, and we went to Club Fever, where I was throwing an after-party."

B.I.G. had signed with Bad Boy Records, a company started by Sean "Puffy" Combs, who was not yet the world-famous hip-hop artist and entrepreneur he'd become.

"We were having a conversation," Carter recalled, "and I said to Puff, 'Well, tell me about what you do.' And he told me, and I said, 'I want to come work with you.' 'Well, your first job is to get me that girl behind the bar.' And I went and got him that girl from behind the bar, introduced him. So I started interning for Bad Boy."

Carter spent a year and a half with Puff Daddy. He took the Greyhound bus to New York three days a week. What he gained most was confidence that a young black man with no formal education could make it on the business side of the music business.

Not that he was ready.

After Bad Boy, Carter rejoined Lassiter in Los Angeles but began to feel entitled, spoiled, even though he hadn't accomplished much himself. For example, he dated a girl in Long Beach, and ordered car service every night - at Lassiter's expense - to see her.

"James fired me and sent me back to Philly," Carter said. "That was one of the darkest times. My tail was between my legs."

Lassiter recalls the tough love: "Troy was responsible. People relied on him. In his nature that's who he was. There was also a hustle aspect to Troy. Usually that's good. The negative part of it he couldn't shake. To me it was a life lesson for him. If you really want it, you want to be successful, you have to leave the irresponsibility behind.

"I would constantly talk to him about it, about work ethic and starting at the bottom and working his way up. When he rejected it, I told him to go back to West Philly. He had to go back and experience this for himself, and come out on the other side."

Starting over

Carter didn't speak to Lassiter for a year. He was indignant, proud - immature. He now realizes what a favor Lassiter did for him. In 1999, back in Philadelphia, Carter started over. He knew an emerging young rap artist from Germantown, Eve Jeffers, who asked him to help her find a manager because he knew so many people. After meeting seven or eight candidates, Eve asked Carter to be her manager. That was his start.

He also teamed with Jay Erving, the son of basketball legend Julius Erving, whose surname gave them added credibility. They started a talent management company, Erving Wonder, that flourished. Carter managed solid rap acts like Floetry and Nelly.

Carter had learned much from Smith and Lassiter. In 2003, he helped Eve get her own TV show on the UPN network.

"She was part of the Ruff Ryders, a tougher kind of clique," said Keith Leaphart, a local physician entrepreneur, and member of the Lenfest Foundation Board who is a friend of Carter's. "He softened the edges of her and made her more commercial."

Carter moved back to L.A., went to Eve's set every day, learned TV.

In 2004, Carter and Erving sold their company to a British-based firm, Sanctuary.

They threw a big celebration at a cigar bar in Philly, and bought 250 copies of Cigar Aficionado magazine and put a picture of themselves on the cover. (Carter is legitimately on real magazine covers now, such as Wired UK.)

Over the next two years, the Sanctuary deal fell apart and Carter was out as vice president of the merged company. The cultures of the two firms were just too different, an invaluable lesson for Carter.

And a costly one.

 He had taken risks with his payday from the sale. "As an entrepreneur you take big swings of the bat," he said. "I struck out."

So he was broke. And  then after eight years, Eve fired him.

He had transformed himself, grown, yet it all had unraveled.

Carter recalled: "Eve's booted me, house is foreclosed, cars being repossessed. Pretty much eviction notice at my office."

Then came a phone call.

 


Tomorrow

With Troy as her manager, Lady Gaga turns golden.


Contact Michael Vitez at 215- 854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelvitez.

 

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