Dannell McNeil is a rapper, singer and soon-to-be music mogul with ambitions as stratospheric as Don King's hair. As the point person for his own record label and production company, W&D Productions/Risk Entertainment, McNeil has set some lofty goals, and he pulls no punches when naming them. "I want to offer something for everybody, something the family can watch and listen to, something for the teenage crowd and adults," he says. In this pursuit, McNeil has placed himself in some pretty estimable company. "My goal is to be like Berry Gordy with the flavor of a Tommy Mottola. I feel like I'm the Muhammad Ali of entertainment when it comes to music. I'm not holding my tongue -- I'm coming out striking and kicking ass because that's all I got, and it's coming from my soul."
Like many artists who decide to form their own recording companies, McNeil hopes to build a label that provides an alternative to the sheep mentality he perceives as pervasive in the record industry. "By me driving an independent label," he says, "we'll have the freedom to break the mold. Right now the industry is just follow-the-leader, ever since gangster rap set such a trend across the country." His observation of the industry's reluctance to accept and promote acts with a more positive orientation, especially in the rap world, has led him to follow an independent route, and he plans on becoming the first act to break out on W&D. Although McNeil originated the label's concept in the late '80s, it wasn't until last year that he got it up and running, with the release of his maxi-single, "Risky Lover." The single, currently available at area Media Play stores and at Sunshine Records in Aurora, is meant to give audiences a taste of what's to come in the early spring, when he drops a full-length album of the same name.
The taste that "Risky Lover" provides is a good sample of McNeil's style. It's a funky, up-tempo cut that manages to convey a message without sounding too preachy. The song, he says, has many different messages, all of which are drawn from McNeil's own experiences as a reformed player and a single father. "There's me being the risky lover, where, hey, I ain't afraid to take the risk," he says. "If a woman wanted to be with me, whether she's single or married, hey. But now I've grown more mature." There's also an overt message of the importance of practicing safe sex, something McNeil feels can never be stressed enough. "Going into the year 2000, everybody's screwing everybody. Let's just be real: How many people are thinking smart, being safe, using a condom?" "Risky Lover" fits in with McNeil's goal of creating songs that inspire and educate rather than degrade and denigrate, something that he sees as another point of departure between his work and business approach and that of many major labels. As an indie-label head and performer, he says one of his intentions is to "keep pushing the industry to stop calling women 'bitches' and stop pushing the drug and gang warfare."
Another song that attempts to achieve this end is "Don't Get Hooked on a Junkie," which will also appear on Risky Lover. Lyrically, the track is a frank narrative of substance abuse. "It's plain and simple," he says. "If you're using drugs, get out of my face, because I don't want to be a part of it. I'm conveying the message from a person that had to pull a child out of a drug-infested environment."
Perhaps the strongest track that McNeil has laid down so far is the autobiographical old-school-flavored rap "Single Daddy." The track chronicles his time in Los Angeles, when he had to make important life decisions that affected not only him, but his then very young son. "California turned me from a boy into a man," he says. The song has a man-child narrator who proves he's tough enough to ride with anyone ("Cruising from Cali/Straight out the Valley/Still rolling Caddy") but also poses a direct challenge to the OGs who ignore parenting in favor of gangster posturing ("So, punk, you think it's fun cold-cocking triggers like a sniper/Stay at home sometime and change your child's dirty ass diapers/Gangster baby-maker ain't the answer"). The lyrics, spoken with a braggadocio swagger, cut right to the heart of one of the rapper's core beliefs. "In America, there are too many piss-poor men who want to hop under the covers without taking responsibility for what comes out of the covers," he says. In the song, which he dedicates to his son (whom he asked remain unnamed in this article), McNeil challenges men to raise their children, because he believes it is one of the best gifts they can offer. "It's easy to pull a trigger, but it's hard to change a diaper," he says, adding, "Most men want to pawn their child off on their woman."
McNeil knows well the temptation to eschew parental responsibilities. In October 1990, his son was born in Denver. Prior to the birth, McNeil split his time between Denver and California, where he served in the Air Force and pursued his dreams as an actor and musician. He worked as an extra and behind the scenes in movies such as Disney's The Rocketeer and Ladybugs, with Rodney Dangerfield, and he fronted his own R&B group, the Risky Lovers. The Lovers enjoyed some moderate success, opening for such Def Jam comedy acts as Jamie Foxx.
During this period, when McNeil spent a lot of time bouncing back and forth between L.A. and Denver, he began seeing a Denver woman who became pregnant shortly after their romance began. But things between the two didn't work out, and like many young people who find themselves in the parental role before they are truly ready for it, maintaining a balance between his career and his son's well-being proved difficult for McNeil. "I had to make a choice between three things: the military in the U.S. Air Force, coming out as an entertainer, or full-time becoming a single daddy," he says.
Coming from a family that had a long line of strong father figures, McNeil wanted to provide his son with the same kind of leadership that his elders had provided for him. "I originally came out here to check on my son," he says, "to set up everything that a father should set up in order to make sure that his son is taken care of." But what he saw when he returned to Colorado convinced him that he need to reprioritize what was most important to him. "I saw that he was in inadequate conditions," he says. "I had to make a change, because I thought about him twenty years from now and where he would be. Would he be a son that's angry because he didn't know who his father was or had never seen his father?" Soon after, McNeil moved back to Colorado. "I made a decision. My father never left me, my grandfather never left my dad, and my grandfather's father was there for him. I looked at the whole concept and said, 'Why break the whole trend?' I feel that as a leader, I could help form the next generation, which is my son."
Most of the tracks McNeil has recorded convey a similar message of personal responsibility and could work as public-service announcements for future generations. In fact, McNeil did provide a public service recently, when he gave a presentation on music for his son's class at Village East Elementary School in Denver. "We did a hip-hop presentation on how music impacts our day-to-day lives as consumers and in the choices we make," he says, "and how music can persuade children in how they speak and how they present themselves." As part of the presentation, McNeil played snippets of "Don't Get Hooked on a Junkie" as a way to tell the kids "not to support the drug dealers and what they're doing. Hopefully, they'll make the right choices and stay away from drugs."
But not everything in McNeil's oeuvre is slanted along such "edutainment" lines. On the pending release, he promises to include some more adult-oriented tracks with "a funky, get-down sexual feel" that would feel right at home on a Barry White or Rick James album. The sound captured on such tracks is due in large part to Terrence Hillman, aka d/p lovv, whom McNeil contracted for production work on Risky Lover. McNeil likens their partnership to those of Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam and L.A. Reid and Babyface, with a chemistry that works because "[Hillman's] beats are what play in my mind. We have a lot of similar influences. Nothing against sampling, but d/p lovv and I both roll up our sleeves and play or orchestrate the designs of my sounds. It is the new pop/hip-hop flavor."
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McNeil still spends a good portion of his time flying back and forth to L.A., working his industry contacts and seeking a distribution deal that will put his album in stores coast to coast once it is released. He's learned a lot while doing so, and his experiences with California-based labels have helped him learn the business firsthand. "I'm not bashing the record labels, because they have to make their money, too," he says, "but what I've actually seen is that the artists don't get paid enough. They never really get paid what they're worth. I decided it would be smarter for me to own my independent label that treats people a little bit better."
McNeil also feels he knows enough to avoid the mistakes he's seen others make in the past. But he wasn't always so savvy. As a frontman for the Risky Lovers, a naive McNeil and his group almost made an ill-fated decision to ink a deal with Todd Headlee, the producer who had an important role in the development and production of Milli Vanilli. On the almost-alliance with one of the people allegedly responsible for the braided boy wonders, McNeil responds with a laugh. "I thank God that we didn't sign with them," he says, "because then we would have got caught up in the bull that they were in."
McNeil can joke about it now, but it is experiences like these that have helped him keep a level head and deepened his commitment to treat fairly the artists who come under the W&D roster in the future. "I'm going to treat myself right," he says, "and take care of the people that work with me, whether they're beside me or beneath me."
Instead of rolling with Milli, McNeil's glad he decided to plant the seeds of his creations in Colorado. "I thank the Lord each day," he says, "and I wonder what would have happened if I hadn't made the decision to give up some of the pleasures of California and the fast life to take a few moments of my life to help raise a young man to be an educated man and not another statistic."