Braddock native and music producer Lee Davis rebuilds himself and his community
December 26, 2013 12:00 AM
Braddock native and music producer Lee Davis rebuilds himself and his community.
By Deborah M. Todd / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The week that Lee Davis ended up with a schedule conflict between a Kentucky meeting with hip-hop mogul Master P and a chance to link the Braddock council with an Alabama company seeking to expand in this region, he embraced the challenge as a gift.
After all, making connections in sectors as divergent as entertainment and manufacturing is an uphill for seasoned serial entrepreneurs, let alone one taking his first stab into the world of fabrication.
For Mr. Davis, who surrendered control of his first venture following a two-year incarceration on drug charges, deciding between a deal with a rap mogul and an introduction that could transform his hometown was a testament to a comeback inconceivable a decade ago.
Recently, he sat down in the Downtown hub for urban marketing company Promotional Push, music management company Mission Control Recordings and a handful of other ventures, and recounted how the journey from SCI Laurel Highlands prison to Braddock council chambers began with a passion for music.
As an ambitious 19-year-old with one foot planted in classes at West Virginia University and the other in Braddock's streets, Mr. Davis had hoped the music industry would pave a path toward a legitimate business. When he linked up with Braddock rapper Leonard "Fierce" Hammond to establish CPA Records in 1995, no expense was spared to make the company thrive.
Studio time, pre-produced music tracks, travel expenses and the independent pressing of 15,000 CDs were funded mostly through Mr. Davis's illegal activities.
Meanwhile, he marketed the company's production capabilities to local DJs seeking intros for their shows and concert promoters in need of radio commercials. Between the on-air exposure and increased contact with promoters, he made connections that put his artists in shows with big-name hip hop and R&B headliners such as Lil Kim and Donnell Jones.
Two years and tens of thousands of dollars later, CPA Records was home to seven Pittsburgh rap artists and was the region's go-to resource for hip-hop promotion and production. What was once funded on the back of Mr. Davis' illegal activities was finally profitable and able to stand on its own.
Until it all fell apart.
In 1999, Mr. Davis was sentenced to three years in prison for engaging in a criminal conspiracy and being associated with corrupt organizations. He surrendered his black book of industry contacts to his partner, Fierce's brother Deavon Hammonds, and told him to make a fresh start.
"At that time, I thought I was done, I thought the world was over," said Mr. Davis, 43. "All I could concentrate on was the time I had to do and the situation I was in."
Upon his release in 2004, he said all he wanted to do was make an honest living outside of the music industry. By that time, Deavon Hammonds had used his sources to create Promotional Push and also teamed up with friend Brett Allen to form IDI Productions, a video productions company focused on urban entertainment.
When the call from Deavon came to bring Mr. Davis back into the fold, he wasn't exactly anxious to answer.
"I was just trying to get me together, get a job, go to work, get back to family life. That was a time of real healing, not only for me, but to make amends with my family and a lot of people in the community who never knew what I was doing," he said.
For several months, he worked jobs he described as "menial" and "humbling" before joining Homewood-based Community Empowerment Association as an outreach coordinator.
Created by Rashad Byrdsong, a former felon who turned a $5,000 staffing agency into an organization that has generated more than $15 million to support intervention programs in low-income communities, Mr. Davis said CEA helped him to look beyond his troubled past to a future as an entrepreneur.
He also said finding mentors in established business owners, community activists, developers and other influential sources through the job helped to establish trust among the people most likely to aid his revival.
"That network helped me to more broadly see how businesses are run on a larger level," he said.
After leaving CEA in 2012, Mr. Davis teamed back up with Promotional Push and helped to grow it and IDI Productions to four full-time employees.
He also co-founded Mission Control Recordings, a joint partnership with San Francisco-based inGrooves Fontana Music Group and New York-based Universal Music Group. The record label works with what he calls "major label-ready artists" to build buzz and sell merchandise through e-commerce platforms.
He also co-founded The 3Horsemen, a music and entertainment company that provides marketing and brand management for everyone from international hip-hop artists to emerging reality television personalities.
With the businesses currently breaking even, Mr. Davis said he is not expecting to become rich anytime soon. But the income he does bring in help to support his family honestly and to continue community outreach through programs such as a recent Thanksgiving turkey giveaway.
The entry back into small business and community service has also put him in contact with people such as C.K. Johnson, CEO of modular housing company Convertible Structure Solutions in Tuskeegee, Ala.
After meeting Mr. Johnson through a Cleveland music industry contact, Mr. Davis ended up serving as a liaison between him and Braddock officials to discuss plans to create an income-generating business in the community.
So on Dec. 6, when the decision was between meeting with the rap mogul or attending the meeting with Mr. Johnson and Braddock council, Mr. Davis chose Braddock.
By the end of that day, discussions on reconstructing the former Motor Coil Building on Talbot Avenue into either a manufacturing or assembly plant for modular homes had entered the first stage. The proposed project would provide skills training to new hires and bring around 125 jobs.
Braddock council president Tina Doose said the arrangement is far from a done deal, but she looks forward to seeing Mr. Johnson's plans.
Adding that she's known Mr. Davis for years through the community, she said his past wasn't a factor. "I think Lee's a good guy and I like the fact that he's doing everything he can to find opportunities to help in his hometown and to move things forward," she said.
For Mr. Johnson, the matter was simple. Mr. Davis presented an idea that could grow the Alabama company and revitalize a distressed community.
That savvy and persistence was enough to spark the interest of Braddock council before Mr. Johnson ever had to step foot in Pennsylvania.
"Lee has been diligently pursuing me for the past two years trying to get me to bring my business to Braddock. My hat goes off to him. He loves his community," Mr. Johnson said.
Validation from the business community and public officials -- including a February proclamation from the City of Pittsburgh for his efforts in music education -- aside, Mr. Davis said he still catches the occasional side-eye from people judging him by his past mistakes.
But the harsh criticisms and knee-jerk dismissals of the past have led to a tenacity and passion that he says has secured his future as an entrepreneur.
"At the end of the day, when I talk to most of these business people, they have a family member who went through something so they understand. And if they don't, then they missed their blessing, because I consider myself a blessing to anybody that deals with me," said Mr. Davis.
"I work hard, I'm going to go hard, and I'm going to make you get what you're asking for and then some."
Deborah M. Todd: email@example.com or 412-263-1652.
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