By Radio and Records / May 15 2009

Def Jam alumnus Luis Duran returns to the label where he started with ‘Birthday Sex’

Feels Good To Be Home

Darnella Dunham /[email protected]

A chance meeting in 2007 between a regional label rep and a local record producer in a radio station lobby triggered a chain of events that helped catapult “Birthday Sex” by newcomer Jeremih into a top 10 hit at urban radio. But the path to the song’s eventual success was built one spin at a time by the rep who, after losing his label gig, took the then-unknown R&B singer/songwriter under his wing and used his tireless work ethic, polite persistence, passion and humility to open radio doors for the artist and get him a deal with Def Jam.

Luis Duran-who now manages Jeremih and Mick Schultz, the producer he met that fateful day at Clear Channel’s WGCI (107.5)/Chicago-entered the music business in 1996 via a pair of internships while studying sound engineering at Columbia College in Chicago:one for a recording studio an another with an indie promoter. A taste of record promotion was all it took for Duran to change his major to focus on the music business. In “98 he joined Universal Music Group’s (UMG) DreamWorks Records as an intern for Midwest regional rep Ronn Scott.

After graduation, Duran continued as an unpaid intern with the label for three years. He initially worked jobs here and there, but decided to immerse himself in the position as though he were getting a salary. Scott recognized Duran’s drive and frequently introduced him to other radio and record executives as his “assistant.” One of them was then-Def Jam senior VP of promotion Johnnie Walker. As he continued to intern, Duran repeatedly reached out to her, sending his resume, ideas and notes. Despite her lack of response, he remained undeterred.

In 2001, Duran landed a job in the UMG mailroom while continuing to intern for Scott. About five months later Walker summoned him to New York to meet with her. At the meeting in Walker’s office, she opened a drawer full of everything he’d sent her before offering him the Florida regional position for Def Jam’s urban department. Duran accepted, even though it meant leaving his hometown of Chicago.

He spent three years in Miami working for Def Jam before segueing to Atlantic Records’ Special Ops division shortly after its inception. In 2007 he transferred within the company to Chicago as Midwest regional. It was then that he made a pivotal connection while waiting in the lobby at WGCI. Local producer Schultz handed Duran a CD. Duran liked what he heard. One track caught his ear featured Jeremih, a college student, singing the hook. While it wasn’t Jeremih’s song, he outshined the lead artist. Before long, Schultz, Jeremih and Duran had a meeting.

Duran believed in Jeremih and Schultz but made it clear that he wasn’t in a position to get artists signed. Still, he stayed in contact with the duo as it recorded tracks and tried to help the pair secure a label deal. After losing his label gig, Duran used his promo experience to get airplay for Jeremih, with hopes that it would lead to label interest.

Don’t Stop Believing

Duran didn’t have to go far to find a station to give Jeremih a shot. “After listening to about 10 songs that Luis provided for me, ‘Birthday Sex’ stood out,” says Barbara “Baam” McDowell, MD of Crawford’s WPWX (Power 92)/Chicago. Duran hadn’t planned on making it Jeremih’s lead single, but he switched gears after unexpectedly hearing back-to-back spins of the song on Power 92.

The single was unproven, but that didn’t stop McDowell from bringing it to the attention of PD Jay Alan for his approval. “That single appeals to everyone young and old,” McDowell says. “The production was great, the feel of the song was perfect. I knew ‘Birthdat Sex’ was going to be huge nationally.”

With Power 92 onboard, Duran hit the road to work the track in the Midwest and then Florida, slowly gaining support. Every play mattered to him. “It’s crazy how you take these spins for granted as a rep,” Duran says. “If somebody would say, ‘I can only give you one spin,’ I was like, ‘That’s great-that’s all I need.’ I would be jumping up and down screaming, ‘Yes-I got one.’ “

Landing A Label Deal

As “birthday Sex” came closer to charting, labels began to express interest. After entertaining several offers, Jeremih, Schultz and Duran went with Def Jam, in part due to an affinity Duran felt with three of its executives: executive VP of A&R Karen Kwak; senior VP of urban promotion Benny Pough, who Duran previously worked for; and Island Def Jam Music Group chairman Antonio “L.A.” Reid. Kwak’s interest in Jeremih’s music was a factor. Duran also liked that Reid articulated what Def Jam could do to help develop his career, as well as Reid’s track record as a three-time Grammy Award-wining songwriter, producer and executive. As for Pough, Duran says, “He’s probably the best out there and I’ve seen how he works-he’s a monster. I knew that we were going to be in great hands with Benny working the record.”

While “Birthday Sex” has gone top 10 on R&R’s Urban chart and Jeremih’s untitled debut is slated for a June 30 release, Duran doesn’t think he, Jeremih and Schultz have arrived. “We’ve just been given an opportunity to do something,” he says. “We haven’t done anything yet. The door is just open for us and we can’t let it close. It feels great right now, but we can’t let it close. It feels great right now, but we haven’t made it. We can’t let this get to our heads. We’ve got to keep focused and keep being the same people.”

In an era when radio has taken a back seat to the internet as the medium most often credited for music discovery, it was radio that helped Jeremih get signed. Duran doggedly worked the record on his own yet several label execs thought a team was promoting the single as it began receiving more national airplay. But Duran readily notes he had help. “My staff was every single station, every single program director and DJ that played the record. Every station that played this record in the beginning had to do that. They went out of their way and looked out for me.”

Duran acknowledges that “Birthday Sex” was a fundamentally great song to begin with. “This blessing came because these guys are talented, “ he says. “My relationships, all they did was get me in the door-the music spoke for itself. What the guys created had enough weight that it was able to be heard.”

Leading The Charge

After debuting at No. 38 in the April 3 issue, Jeremih’s “Birthday Sex” took only six weeks to reach the top 10 on the Urban chart. Following are the 10 urban stations that have spun the song the most to date and thus played important roles in its development.

Stations, Spins To Date

WPWX/Chicago, 791

WHHL/St. Louis, 756

WGCI/Chicago, 546

WQHH/Lansing, Mich., 525

WJUC/Toledo, 504

WKKV/Milwaukee, 499

KATZ/St. Louis, 468

KOPW/Omaha, 424

WIZF/Cincinnati, 414

WWPR/New York, 369

KKDA/Dallas, 364

Source: Nielsen BDS data through May 10

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