Getting Big

Ex-Denver DJ Big Jon Platt on how to succeed in business by really, really trying.

How powerful is Big Jon Platt? Powerful enough to convince rapper and current Rolling Stone cover boy Jay-Z to take time out of the best week of his professional life--a week in which his latest CD, Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life, debuted at the top of the Billboard album charts thanks to out-of-the-box sales of more than 350,000 units--in order to sing the praises of none other than Big Jon Platt. "He knows his business and everything," Jay-Z says. "But the main thing is, he's just a good dude, man."

Platt, who's six-foot-six and built like a linebacker, is also an urban variation on a Horatio Alger story. Five short years ago, he was a Denver DJ with a reputation that didn't stretch much beyond the city limits. But now, by virtue of great ears and boundless energy, he's an A&R consultant for Virgin/Noo Trybe Records and the vice president of the creative wing of EMI Music Publishing. In conjunction with the latter position, he handles the songbooks of some of the fastest-rising stars in the hip-hop and rhythm-and-blues realms. The issue of Billboard that sets down Jay-Z's accomplishment for posterity also marks the impressive accomplishments of several other Platt clients, including Jermaine Dupri and Tamara Savage (they helped pen Monica's "The First Night," a former number-one blockbuster that's still in the top five on the R&B and pop charts) and Warren Campbell (co-writer of Dru Hill's "How Deep Is Your Love," the nation's hottest R&B single). L.A. Reid, who runs LaFace Records, a company he co-founded with producer/tunesmith Babyface, says that Platt's current run "isn't unprecedented. It's happened a few times before. But it happens very rarely, and only to the superstars of the business world."

Such praise would satisfy most people, but not Platt, whose triumphs to date haven't begun to quench his ambition. As one of the few behind-the-scenes sorts who are represented by a public-relations firm, he pushes his own name like he touts those of his charges--and he's not planning to stop anytime soon. As he puts it, "My aspiration in life isn't just to be vice president."

Although he was born in Philadelphia, Platt considers Denver his hometown; he grew up in Montbello from the time he was in the fifth grade. He and several siblings were raised there by his mother, who worked security at Rocky Flats to support her family. Her toils kept a roof over her kids' heads and food in the refrigerator, but there generally wasn't much cash to spare--so from an early age, Platt set out to earn some of his own. "I'd do odd jobs to keep some money in my pocket or I'd do entrepreneurial things, like buying candy and then taking it to school and selling it," he recalls with a guffaw. "Then, at the end of the week, I'd go to the record store--and even then I had a sense of the business. Like, I knew that the Sugar Hill Gang was on Sugarhill Records, so if I saw something new on that label, I'd know it was probably rap and I'd buy it. And when I was in high school, I would call information in the city where whatever label was, get the number and try to get them to send me free records. And a lot of times, they would."

Unfortunately, these freebies came with a hidden cost. "One month I must have run the phone bill up to $500," Platt says. "It was so thick that I hid the bill from my mom--and then the phone got cut off. I got in so much trouble! My mom was like, 'As much as you're spending on the phone bill, you could buy the records.'" Today, he adds, his mother realizes that this investment was a wise one: "I just bought her a house in Atlanta, so in hindsight, I guess she thinks she did the right thing by letting me follow my passion."

By 1985, Platt had moved from merely collecting vinyl to spinning it at Norman's Place, a now-defunct club in Aurora. On his first night behind the tables, only six people showed up--but four of them turned out to be basketball stars at Denver high schools such as Manual and George Washington. Platt endeared himself to the young men, who promptly began spreading the word about his fresh hip-hop mix. "They were very influential on their campuses," he says. "They were people with pull. So when they went to school and told everyone, 'There's this guy, Big Jon, who plays the music we want to hear,' they listened. Each week the crowd got bigger and bigger until it got to a few hundred people, and then it took off. We were getting 700 or 800 people some nights, and it was fun. I was making fifty bucks a night, but I didn't care. I was there for the music."

Despite the throngs Platt attracted, the owner of Norman's Place sold the venue in 1987. Platt appeared there for the next two years under new management, but when he asked the man in charge for a raise commensurate with his well-established popularity, he says, "the guy said no. At that point--and excuse my language--it kind of clicked to me that I was making all this money for this white guy, but I was just a nigger to him. And that turned me off. The fun went away, and so did I."

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