Take note, aspiring Detroit musicians. Grammy-winning producer Che Pope is on the hunt for the next Eminem or Big Sean.
Pope, a longtime friend of billionaire entrepreneur Dan Gilbert, launched WRKSHP, a music-based lifestyle company headquartered in downtown Detroit, on Wednesday. The company will work with aspiring musicians and other artists on talent development, management, marketing and more.
“It’s more than a record label,” Pope said.
Pope, who has worked with everyone from Kanye West and Lauryn Hill to Eminem and The Weeknd, said it was Gilbert who really talked her into moving to Detroit. A native of Boston, Pope has visited the city several times over the past five years and has been amazed at its progress over the past 15 years. He was really drawn to Detroit and the “story” it would provide to budding artists.
“Everything we do — whether it’s a song, creating an artist, or publishing content — it’s always about their story, right?” says Pope. “The WRKSHP story is so much better a story coming out of Detroit than it is in LA or any of the places that’s already sort of established because Detroit was the Mecca.”
The launch of WRKSHP falls on the 63rd anniversary of Motown’s founding by Berry Gordy Jr.
“It was literally a mecca for culture and art,” Pope said. “Not being a company that leaves town, but a company that comes back and sets up shop, that’s much more of an amazing story that I would love to be a part of.”
WRKSHP will share space with Woodward Original, an independent film company, in the same building as the Detroit Institute of Music Education in Griswold and Grand River. Pope said the business will eventually get its own space, but it will take time to grow.
Gilbert’s Detroit Venture Partners is an early investor in WKRSHP. Others include Peter Boyce of Stellation Capital and KKFarm, the Taiwanese music technology company.
“Music is the compass that connects people on a collective path. Detroit, more than any city, validates this connection across many generations. Arts and culture are the catalysts that ignite renaissance cities,” Gilbert said in a press release Wednesday. “Che is a renaissance man whose life’s work culminates in the bold vision of WRKSHP.”
Pope, who plans to split his time between Los Angeles and Detroit, discovered music after realizing his first love, basketball, was not a career option. A finance graduate from Hampton University in Virginia, he has always focused on music. While there, Virginia became a hotbed for future stars such as Pharrell Williams and producer Teddy Riley.
“It was all happening around that time, so I got to meet everyone,” Pope said. “It was very fortuitous. I had no idea how to get into the music industry. I had no idea how to become a music producer. I really fell into it.”
Over the past two and a half decades, Pope has worked with Mary J. Blige, The Game, Eminem, The Weeknd and A$AP Rocky. At one point, he was COO of Kanye West’s GOOD Music label. The Red Bull Academy has described him as “one of the most influential figures in contemporary American rap and hip-hop culture”.
It was while Pope was working with West in the 2010s that Gilbert, whom he had met through StockX, an online marketplace primarily for sneakers that Gilbert co-founded with one of Pope’s friends, asked him if he was considering going out alone.
“He said, ‘Do you want to stay here? Is that your intention? Or would you like to do your own thing?'” said Pope, who will be CEO of WRKSHP. “I said it was funny that you asked me that, because I told him I was working on something and he (Gilbert) loved the idea.”
One of the big differences between WRKSHP and other record labels is how it approaches contracts with new artists. Pope calls the music industry contract “one of the most outdated documents in the business world,” one that’s “well overdue” for an overhaul.
He said WRKSHP’s contracts will be more succinct and “transparent,” less royalty-based and more profit-sharing. Many artists, 90-95%, are still signed to royalty-based contracts and do not participate in the ownership of their masters and intellectual property.
“The idea is to move the contract until 2022,” he said. “…What I’ve realized in my 25 years in this business is that you’d be surprised how many artists really don’t know their craft. You’d be shocked.”
Pope already has five musical artists he works with, at least two of whom are based in Detroit. He declined to give their names. And he’s looking for more.
Pope also wants to drop the term “signed” for artists who work with record labels and instead use the term partnerships.
“Our trade agreements will reflect a partnership,” he said. “…We take a different approach to a music company. And I think that’s the difference (compared to other record labels). I don’t think there’s ever been anything like that at Detroit.”
Eventually Pope sees the business, which is why it’s a lifestyle brand and not just a record label, producing documentaries, community workshops, even working with schools. And the company hopes to work with artists of all kinds, like fashion designers.
“We’ll have fashion, other products,” Pope said. “There really is no limit.”