Devyne Stephens: The Secret Force Behind Akon, Usher, Diddy Speaks
Atlanta’s Devyne Stephens isn’t the first successful music mogul, but what separates him from the pack is his focus, which goes beyond the music industry. As the CEO of Upfront Megatainment, Devyne oversees a full-fledged entertainment empire which houses several companies such as The Complex, a facility which focuses on artist development, Upfront/Konvict Music which he create with Akon, and most recently his foundation Devyne Intervention just to name a few.
His list of accomplishments continues and while his schedule is pretty tight, he currently sits on the board of an under-construction children’s hospital in Atlanta. Stephens, who had a helping hand in many high profile artists’ careers, talks about how he doesn’t mind virtual anonymity, why a shelved album was probably one of the best things that happened to his career and why he’s inspired by the struggle.
Planet Ill: How did you manage to become a household name in the industry yet keep a very low-key image?
Devyne Stephens: The focus has always been the talent and making sure the talent that I’m working with gets the proper shine. So it’s never really about me, just me providing the service and making sure they get the service they need to make their career successful.
Planet Ill: How did you get hooked up with LaFace Records?
Devyne Stephens: I’ve been in the music industry starting in 1990 with L.A. (Reid) and Babyface, but prior to that I was in a group and we used to do a lot of talent shows in the city. I got hooked up with LaFace through a friend who auditioned for Pebbles, and then Pebbles took me to meet L.A. and Babyface.
Planet Ill: During that time was your focus on being an artist, or was your main interest to work behind the scenes with other artists?
Devyne Stephens: My main interest was always being in the entertainment business; being in the music business in some capacity. I did have a desire to become an artist but then that got molded into being able to produce, choreograph, style and being able to develop other artists. That kinda jumped off before the artistry.
Planet Ill: So here you are in this group which never released an album. What was your next move after that?
Devyne Stephens: Immediately afterward I took a meeting with L.A. and he kept me on board to help develop some of his talent. He saw what I was doing for the group that I was in. He saw my work ethic and that’s when he offered me a position to work with some of his other talent. At the time I was doing imaging and choreography in artist development. Pebbles was my first [artist choreographed] and I’ve also had the opportunity to perform with her on Arsenio Hall. I rapped on Arsenio Hall.
Planet Ill: What exactly is Upfront Megatainment and all of its subsidiaries?
Devyne Stephens: Upfront is a record company as well as a management company. Under that umbrella, we have a distribution deal with Universal Music Group. We also have an artist signed to SRC-Motown and another female artist signed to Upfront Megatainment/Interscope. There’s also a roster of producers including Dallas Austin, Jazze Pha and other up and coming producers as well.
Planet Ill: Tell me about Devyne Intervention and why it was created.
Devyne Stephens: It’s based on me giving back to under-privileged kids and also giving incarcerated kids a second chance such as what I did with Akon in his early days. Giving them the talent that puts them on the right path. Right now I’m on the board of a children’s hospital that we’re building in Atlanta. It should be open in late 2010.
Planet Ill: Can you talk briefly about your ties to Akon?
Devyne Stephens: Akon and I started off as friends. I was introduced to Akon by a rapper by the name of Lil’ Zane. He brought Akon by my rehearsal hall which is where Usher, TLC, and other talent were being developed at. He’d stop by and come in asking me for advice and that’s how it started off; as a friendship, with me mentoring him with the business aspect of it. When he lost his deal with Elektra I signed him. From there we had some success and I then signed him to SRC/Universal. Since then we became partners and I brokered his deal with Jimmy Iovine with Interscope and we formed KonLive Distribution. We also have Upfront/Konvict where Konvict Music has their production deal with Jive. We also signed T-Pain. KonLive is also what gave birth to Lady Gaga.
Planet Ill: After you re-develop these artists, do you follow their careers fully or do you just bring them to the initial stages and let them go off and do their own thing?
Devyne Stephens: No it’s an on-going process. There’s always artist development and ways to develop them into mega stardom. Let’s take Usher for instance. We started with him when he was 12 and’ til this day we’re still close friends and do business. Same thing with Diddy. We just produced Cassie’s first single featuring Akon so we’re even able to help keep the Diddy brand going.
Planet Ill: What was the first roadblock you’ve had to overcome early in your career?
Devyne Stephens: That was being an artist trying to make that transition into becoming a record executive. Or becoming a guy that develops talent. Sometimes people like to pigeon-hole you into one thing. There’s always a challenge when you venture off into new territory.
Planet Ill: You’ve been in situations in the past where you’ve fallen on hard times and each time was able to get back to “millionaire status”. How did you feel about the career you’ve chosen during those times?
Devyne Stephens: I’m a spiritual person and I think sometimes we don’t really appreciate things in life until you lose it. So once you regain it, I think at that moment you begin to treasure it a little bit more. It was just an experience or a moment in time as I like to call it. It really wasn’t the end of all ends, it was more of a beginning. I look forward to different things, once you go down to the bottom there’s nowhere else to go but up.
Planet Ill: How has the music industry changed within the last 20 years? Are the musicians you come across just as talented?
Devyne Stephens: Kids now, they have more talent and are more advanced than we were. They got access to more things than what we had growing up. With the internet, they’re definitely able to manipulate the system more. But true talent will be around for a long time so it’s only so far you can go with that [other] stuff. When it comes to talent I try to find out what’s unique and different about them and magnify it and give it to the world. Once you discover that then the talent must shine through.
Planet Ill: What drives you?
Devyne Stephens: Always lending a service. I’m just trying to serve the entertainment industry and I’m always willing to share the gift that I have with others. That keeps me going, it keeps me motivated and I’m inspired by the struggle. Every day when I wake up and see different people going through different challenges in life, I always wanted to continue to keep serving and giving back. I’m committed. Regardless of what the obstacle is that comes with it, I’m very passionate about what I do and very concerned about others making sure that they deliver and they put in the time and energy into their craft to become successful. It’s an on-going passion for me.
Planet Ill: You’ve been mentioned as the “Berry Gordy” of this generation. At what point in your career do you think you’ve earned that status?
Devyne Stephens: With the new age, I’m able to do business globally. When you go back to when Berry first started with Motown they didn’t have access to as many things as I do and even though he had the talent that went worldwide over the years, I have a faster approach in terms of having the internet and venturing off into different areas in regards to management and songwriting and touching a lot of different areas in a short span of time. So not quite Berry Gordy status, but the way things are moving I’m taking notes and really paying attention. It’s an honor and privilege to even be mentioned in the same sentence.
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