The Producers

From a suburban roller rink, identical twins David and Darren Stith gamble on future hip-hop stars. Getting paid is everyone's preoccupation.

Apr 10, 2002 at 4:00 am
Tucked away in a small public park off North Warson Road in Olivette, Saints Roller Skating Center is an institution. For a quarter-century, it's been attracting legions of mostly African-American skating aficionados from all over the St. Louis area. Constructed in the mid-'70s, when rollermania reached its apex, it's a sprawling, barnlike one-story time capsule. With its lurid orange-and-yellow circus-theme décor, it could easily serve as a set for That '70s Show.

Within these charmingly anachronistic walls, future pop stars are groomed for world domination, and multimillion-dollar deals are struck.

In addition to housing the area's premier roller-skating rink (there's not much competition, alas), Saints serves as the official headquarters of D2 Entertainment, a recording studio and music-publishing company helmed by 31-year-old identical twins David and Darren Stith. Amid the general din of skaters, the tinny screech of the video-arcade games, the brothers field calls from label executives, corporate honchos and expensive lawyers.

While gaggles of little kids glide around the rink and stagger over to the concession stand for sodas and hotdogs, the Stith brothers are pacing around with their cell phones, making deals, scouting out talent, schmoozing with suits on both coasts. When Avery Lipman -- president of Republic Records, a subsidiary of Universal -- calls to discuss a six-figure marketing campaign for D2 artist Pretty Willie, the person who answers the phone might be the kid who rents out skates or the lady who handles the time cards and collects money at the door.

"Record labels are in town looking for the next Nelly," Dick Ford solemnly intones in a 9 p.m. news segment titled "Hip-Hop in the Lou." "And they aren't disappointed with what they're finding."

The Fox News feature surveys hot talent on the St. Louis rap scene: There's 12-year-old Meesha, a cute, cornrowed girl who's just signed with Tony Davis of T-Luv, Nelly and the St. Lunatics' management company. There's Twan, whose single "Real Life" recently went into rotation on the local hip-hop stations, and Abyss, veterans of the circuit who reportedly just inked a deal with Atlantic. There's Pretty Willie, whose debut CD, Enter the Life of Suella, is about to be released by the biggest label in the world, Universal Records.

Ford and his mainstream-media ilk would have you believe the major labels are hovering over our city as we speak, ready to swoop down and pluck the next lucky superstar from our midst. It doesn't work that way, but the star-is-born paradigm makes for better news bites than the complicated, unsexy truth. The fact is, stars are made, not born, and mostly it's not the big-city executives who are making them. Out of the limelight, away from the TV cameras and the newspaper reporters, is a whole other tier of businessmen, unsung hustlers who scout out the talent, determine its potential on commercial radio, hammer out a business plan and wrap it all up into a tidy package for the consideration of the suits.

Hustlers such as David and Darren Stith.

Unlike many of the artists they represent, the Stith twins don't go for the bling-bling. No flashy platinum-and-diamond pendants, no Rolexes, no designer-label tracksuits for these guys: They favor dark jeans, cotton sweatshirts, baseball caps. David wears small, rimless eyeglasses; Darren wears a plain gold wedding ring. They're businessmen; they don't have time to front.

In photos, they're near-doubles, the same small, regular features set in unlined round faces. In person, they're easy to distinguish: David seems more intense, assertive; Darren is more laid-back. David, the elder by seven minutes, started the business and convinced his twin, who was in his second year of college, to drop out and join him.

"David tied Darren's shoes until they were about 5 years old," recalls their mother, Almeda, with a chuckle. She's proud of her boys -- the youngest of seven children -- but it still irks her that David didn't go to college. In fact, he didn't graduate from University City High School with his twin. Though David got his GED later, his father, Lloyd, who died three years ago, couldn't accept his decision to leave high school and go to work for his older brother André, who owns Saints.

"His father gave him many spankings," Almeda sighs. "But we have to accept that all our kids don't function the same way," she says. "College is not for everybody. But as far as David goes, I think he's done really well with the education he has. He'll be a good businessman someday."

Chuck Atkins thinks the twins are good businessmen now. The operations manager at 100.3 The Beat, Atkins has been an important figure in D2's business plan from the beginning. Before the twins bring an artist to a label, before they invest in expensive professional mastering, they play the best songs for Atkins and get his professional input.

At first, Atkins recalls, the twins seemed shocked that he even agreed to meet with them. "I thought that was kind of flattering," he says, laughing. "Most producers and artists, they want to come late in the afternoon. They say, 'I really want you to hear my stuff,' and I say, 'How about 8 -- I get started early,' and they'll say, "We'll be there!" And I'm like, right. But David and Darren were right there, waiting in the lobby by 8 a.m."

In the first couple of meetings, Atkins told them bluntly that the stuff they'd brought in for him to hear would never get airplay. It just wasn't up to the standards of the other music in rotation at the station, he explained -- and, as a commercial radio station in a competitive urban market, they couldn't afford to give local artists a break just because they were local. He explained what was wrong with the recordings, the performances, the songs themselves, and the Stiths got to work. By the third meeting, they had something good to bring him, a track by an unknown rap group from U. City called the St. Lunatics.

That single, "Gimme What You Got," would change their lives forever.

David and Darren started out as musicians. Beginning at age 9, Darren took piano, and David studied guitar. Both took lessons at the CASA conservatory and began to write songs and perform live in various bands with their U. City High buddies, some of whom now work at D2 as producers. Back then, they all liked Prince and the Time, the slick, funky, keyboard-heavy dance music of the '80s, the extravagant purple stage outfits. They dreamed of careers in the music business, but they weren't sure how to make that happen.

In 1992, David and Darren opened D2 Recording Studios in an empty suite of offices at Saints and began to shift their focus from performance to production. By 1994, they had decided to move into artist development, signing an R&B vocal quartet called Ol Skool. When singer Keith Sweat expressed an interest in signing the group to his Kia label, an imprint of Warner Bros., the brothers agreed to let the members of Ol Skool out of their contract -- but, in a canny business move, they insisted on keeping the publishing rights, which ensured them a cut of future profits.

Ol Skool sold 400,000 units worldwide before fading into oblivion. David and Darren didn't get rich off the deal, but they learned an important lesson about the music industry, one that would serve them well a couple of years later, when they hooked up with the St. Lunatics: Get the publishing rights.

"The Lunatics used to come into our studio to record," Darren recalls. "We never really paid attention for, like, a year. They'd just come up to the studio and pay; they were real good customers." He laughs ruefully at the memory.

David and Darren began to pay closer attention to these customers when the Lunatics performed at a local showcase held by Jive Records. "The whole crowd was amped on them," Darren marvels, his eyes wide and shining, "and we were, like, 'Whoa! This is hot!'"

After researching market practices and looking at other artists' record contracts, they signed the Lunatics to a full publishing deal. Shortly after acquiring the contract, they worked with the group on a demo single, "Gimme What You Got," which exploded on local radio and quickly sold 7,000 copies regionally. "It just took off!" Darren exclaims, still struck by the implausibility of it all. "First local act ever to go No. 1 and stay No. 1 for five or six consecutive weeks! And it was hard back then to get something played on commercial radio."

It didn't happen overnight. First the twins had to train the Lunatics' future producer, Jay E [Jason Epperson], creator of those irresistible bouncing beats, the so-called Midwest swing of Nelly's breakthrough solo single, "Country Grammar (Hot S**t)" and the vast majority of tracks on both Nelly's and the Lunatics' CDs.

Back then, though, Jay E was just a white kid from St. Charles County, a DJ who worked exclusively with turntables. An acquaintance of his who worked at the rink introduced him to the twins. "The thing that got me about Jay E," Darren says, "Jay E would go into the studio and just work on scratches and stuff for eight or nine hours straight! I said, 'Dude, you need to work on this sampler, start programming stuff!' So I showed him how to go through all that, thinking to myself in the back of my head, 'If I can get him to stay here eight hours and start creating songs ...'"

With the help of the twins and the other producers, Jay E eventually had the studio skills necessary to work with a group. Darren hooked him up with the St. Lunatics for a recording session that eventually culminated in "Gimme What You Got."

"They started working together," Darren recalls, "and I was, like, 'From now on, Jason's gonna do all your stuff.' You couldn't stop the progress!"

Most of the tracks from Nelly's debut, Country Grammar, were recorded during these sessions, on D2's equipment and with the help of D2's producers, two of whom played keyboards and guitar on Nelly's third big hit, "Ride Wit Me."

Over the next couple of years, the Stith brothers tried -- and failed -- to get a major-label deal for the Lunatics. They knew they had something big, but they couldn't seem to make the major labels take notice, despite the regional success of "Gimme What You Got." "I think why they said no at first was that we were from St. Louis," Darren admits, "and they were scared to take a chance on something unknown."

The Lunatics were frustrated by their apparent inability to get a record deal and wanted out of their D2 contract. They were anxious to sign with Cooda Love, the former manager of Notorious B.I.G. and Mase and the founder of FoReel Entertainment. Love, who was based in New York, had a lot more pull in the industry than D2, the group reasoned -- and they were right. Aware that a compromise was in order, the Stiths agreed to release the Lunatics from their contract -- but, as with Ol Skool, they opted to retain a generous portion of the publishing rights.

It was a wise decision. Country Grammar soared to the top of the charts; it still appears in the Billboard Top 200, nearly two years later. The CD has sold more than 8 million copies, making it the most successful album ever to be released by a St. Louis artist.

Although D2 lost the group -- and the credit for developing them -- the money will keep rolling in for a while. "We came out pretty good on the publishing end," Darren admits. Asked whether the royalty split constitutes a kind of finder's fee, he laughs uncomfortably: "How am I going to explain this so it doesn't come out -- " He stops midsentence and is silent for a moment. "I mean, we've had issues already."

"D2's game is publishing," he continues after another long pause. "We like to have the rights, do the deals when we go to labels. What happened with the Lunatics is that they wanted to do their own publishing deals and then kick back a percentage to us. So we went and struck a deal with Universal. They weren't happy about it, but they did OK with the deal, too. Country Grammar was such a huge success -- and you get those royalties for the rest of your life. If a record doesn't hit and you do a million, 2 million copies, you're gonna have to fight for what's yours. But when you're talking about 8 or 9 million records, well -- if you get any significant amount of publishing on a deal like that, you can't be mad at anybody for anything."

That said, the relationship between D2 and the St. Lunatics camp is decidedly chilly. No one speaks directly anymore, and the rumor is that the Lunatics think they got the shaft. Darren is philosophical. "When guys walk in here," he says, absently stroking a keyboard in the recording studio, "they don't have anything, they're not doing anything, and you're just spending your time with them. I don't care if a person says, 'I will never forget who I am; I'll never forget where I came from' -- trust me, he will. We see it before it happens. So we're fair about it -- if you're not, when you go to court and you're there in front of a judge, you look like a monster who took advantage of someone, and you pay for that. We didn't do that, and that's why we ended up with such a wonderful deal with Universal.

"And, like the lawyers say," he continues, "you're always gonna have problems with an artist if there's any amount of success. There will always be renegotiations."

"Skaters are serious music listeners," Darren explains, perched in a small Formica booth just outside the empty skating rink. "You get the real deal from them right away. If they're skating and vibing to it, you know it's hot, especially if it's a new song they haven't heard on the radio yet. And if they don't like a song we're playing, they'll all pull out and go get drinks."

Once a month, the rink hosts a lock-in, a supervised slumber party for teenagers, who spend the night vibing to hot tracks, skating and dancing in the party room. If D2 has come up with a promising mix on one of its artists, the song goes right into the DJ's rotation. Later, someone from D2 might pass around a survey form to gauge the kids' reaction.

While Darren explains the ins-and-outs of D2's consumer-survey approach, David sits in the front office, patiently trying to download Pretty Willie's first video, "Roll Wit Me." He's on speaker-phone with Scott Franklin of Partizan Video. "If I click on this QuickTime thing, will it automatically open?" he asks Franklin. "Something just came up. Do I click on 'accept'?"

In the last cut he viewed -- back in LA, where the video was filmed -- the Hummer that Pretty Willie is driving looked too fake in certain scenes, and David asked the director, Scott Palmer, to re-edit the film, make it look more realistic. He and Darren must approve this version before it's released to BET and MTV, but it's going to take at least two hours for the video to arrive over the Internet. In the meantime, the twins have a lunch appointment with their lawyer.

"You drive," David says to Darren, tossing him the keys to his Ford Expedition. "When we come back, hopefully it'll be ready to watch."

A preternaturally self-confident young man with an immaculate pencil-thin goatee and lots of platinum-and-diamond jewelry, Pretty Willie is slouched on a folding chair in a back office that's still under construction, just off the main studio. It's early on a Friday evening, and he has to leave soon to see his cousin in a play. He looks smaller, more delicate in real life than in his video -- when he's not swaying and mugging and racing around in a yellow Hummer, surrounded by admiring models, he seems like any nice-looking, well-built 22-year-old from Berkeley.

At a glance, you'd never know he was D2's great hope, the artist everything is riding on right now, the one who will make or break D2's reputation in the music industry.

Pretty Willie (né Willie Moore Jr.) isn't a bona fide star yet, but if anyone could get famous through sheer force of will, it might be him. He talks in a hurried drawl, one sentence tumbling from the next in a glib, semirehearsed spiel. He just returned from a radio showcase in Portland, Ore., with industry kingpin Master P, and he's about to audition for a role in a cable movie about a blood feud among rappers. When he's not promoting his new album or recording with his crew, Frontline, he's juggling his stock portfolios, making investments in real estate, reading books about finances, hosting a radio show on The Beat. He's hustling.

Pretty Willie had known about D2 for years before signing anything, and he was aware of all the grumbling from the St. Lunatics camp. "Well, Nelly and them didn't seem to care for [D2] too much," he says cautiously. "But everything's been all right for me so far. David and Darren are businessmen at the end of the day, so they're gonna try to get what they can get. I'm a businessman myself -- I know. If you handle your own business, there's no way you can get done in. If you don't pay for it now, you'll pay for it later. I learned that early, and I've got one of the best lawyers in the country.

"Of course we care about each other," he continues, toying with the sparkling pendant that dangles to his waist. "But at the end of the day, it's a business that we're both trying to make money at. They let me in their studio for free because I had a dream and a hope. I didn't have a major deal when I came here; all I had was a strong talent, and when somebody believes in your talent, lets you in their studio to record night after night instead of making you pay $500 an hour -- well, you got to give them some love for that."

The critics scoff, but the little girls understand. So it has been in pop music, and so it shall remain: Pretty boys sell records. Nelly's sold more than seven times the number of units the rest of his crew has sold, and although the reasons for this are surely numerous, the most important one is that he's the cutest. Those perfect cheekbones, accented by the mysterious, ubiquitous tiny black Band-Aid! Those six-pack abs, those almond-shaped eyes! Such a stroke of genius, his recent collaboration with 'N Sync on the Neptunes-produced hit "Girlfriend" -- bubblegum aristocrats uniting in a biracial orgy of preteen-targeted bliss.

It's a song about girls, duh. Girls are desirable -- a tried-and-true precept of pop music throughout the ages, not to mention a savvy marketing strategy. Every generation has to have its fave rave, its Ricky Nelson, its David or Sean Cassidy, its Michael Jackson, its Justin Timberlake. Are Nelly and Justin all that different, when it comes right down to it? "Girlfriend" says no. It's the perfect fuck-all-y'all to those hard dudes out there who say Nelly's gone soft, that he's lost any semblance of street cred by hanging with a Disney-sanctioned boy band. Nelly doesn't give a shit whether the thugs like him. Thugs don't buy his records anyway.

And Pretty Willie wasn't named Pretty Willie for nothing. His debut is called Enter the Life of Suella -- "Suella" being one of his nicknames. It's an acronym for "suave usually educated luckily ladies ask," a not-quite-grammatical -- and unintentionally hilarious -- phrase meant to underscore his appeal to the fairer sex.

"Women dictate radio," Alfonso Everett insists, "and radio dictates sales. Men don't even count. Ain't no men calling the radio stations, saying, 'I wanna hear this or that.' Women doing that. That's who buys the records, the women. The guys just steal the CDs from girls."

Everett, who lives in Detroit, has been in the business since 1988. An early mentor to the twins, he inspired them to transform D2 from a simple pay-by-the-hour recording studio to a full-fledged entertainment company. Now, it seems, the tables have turned. Everett's hoping to interest them in a business partnership, a joint effort to develop and market Janine, an R&B singer who used to be part of a duo called Fabu that Everett launched in the mid-'90s.

Everett is riding in the back seat of Darren Stith's SUV, on his way from the hotel to D2. He's on a roll, holding forth on the state of the record industry, obviously pleased that a reporter's in the car. A big, serious man with a basso profundo speaking voice, Everett expounds at length on the music business and how it conspires to keep guys like him down. Some of his arguments are convincing, a few are clearly full of shit, but Everett's no dummy. He sees what D2 has achieved, and he's trying to get in on the action.

One of Everett's pet theories is that New York and, to a lesser degree, LA have effectively sewn up the recording industry. He's at a particular disadvantage, being from Detroit, a city he believes is blacklisted by the corporate overlords running the major labels from either coast. By promoting Janine from St. Louis, Everett hopes, they can get her in through the back door.

"Detroit can compete with New York and LA," Everett says emphatically. "St. Louis is a neutral market -- it ain't no threat. They ain't worried about these people taking over the industry. And you've got more support for local artists here than in Detroit. Coming out, [Janine] has got a better chance here. D2, they got a vision. They got an opportunity, an avenue to break some groups here."

Asked later whether D2 will merge with Everett's company, Darren is noncommittal. They'd like to work with Janine, see what happens after they run a few songs by the radio programmers. But their friendship with Everett probably won't influence their decision. As David explains in another context, "The only consideration for us is, is it going to sell?"

Occupying a row of windowless offices between Saints' entrance and a cavernous playroom, D2's recording studio is nothing elaborate. A worn loveseat and a couple of chairs fill one corner. Covering one wall are posters and press shots featuring Pretty Willie, the Lunatics, Out of Order and a bunch of people no one's ever heard of, has-beens and never-wases. The rest of the space is devoted to recording equipment. It's a decent setup -- a 32-track Tascam soundboard, a couple of samplers, a computer loaded with editing software, a DAT recorder -- but it's hardly state-of-the-art. It's a preproduction studio -- a place to come up with rough mixes, not to put fancy fillips on a finished product. It's a place to work.

Early on a Wednesday afternoon, MoCapo is cutting a downtempo, feel-good hip-hop track called "Thug No More." His producer and engineer -- Roderick Smith, who goes by the nickname LS -- looks a little tired; the 12- and 13-hour days are getting to him. At 21, MoCapo is a good 10 years younger than LS, and he bristles with youthful energy. While LS shuttles among the soundboard, the DAT recorder, the samplers and the computer, MoCapo grabs his notebook and hunkers down in an easy chair, trying to come up with another eight bars' worth of lyrics.

MoCapo -- his real name is Chester Holland, he admits with a mortified grin -- is a polite, friendly kid with a thick East Coast accent and permanent dimples. The twins flew the aspiring rapper in from his home in upstate New York after hearing a demo he sent them on the advice of a juiced-in industry acquaintance. D2 is putting him up at a nearby hotel, but he spends most of his time in the studio, writing lyrics, listening to playbacks and taking catnaps on the couch. Sometimes, when he's feeling blocked, he'll borrow some skates and take a spin around the rink, something he'd never done before visiting St. Louis. He'll stay here about two weeks, during which time he's expected to complete 15 to 20 songs.

"This song we're about to do is the only time I've used anything that I'd already written," he explains. "I've always been adapted to rushing. It takes me about 20, 25 minutes to come up with a song, and we're ready to fly."

He points to LS: "I credit these guys because they have to be able to make music that can move me in that way. If the track doesn't move me, we have to try something different. But once the foundation is laid, it's my job to go in there and do it."

A few minutes later, MoCapo returns to the sound booth and begins rapping over LS's keyboard hook, a simulated Rhodes electric-piano riff that sounds as if it could have been lifted from the soundtrack to some '70s blaxploitation flick.

MoCapo spits out the rhymes, bobbing his head and waving his arms: "I used to be confused, consumed by rage/Idolizing hustlers when I saw money be made/Driving down the wrong track ... I'll never go back."

He stops. It's not working. "When I come off the back of that ad-lib part, I gotta take a breath," he calls out to LS. He tries it again, subtly adapting his delivery to fit the flow of the beats.

While LS plays back what they have, MoCapo explains what he hopes to accomplish with the help of D2 -- get an album's worth of hot songs together, garner some regional airplay and then score a major-label deal.

"As long as the quality product is there, you can't lose," MoCapo concludes. It sounds as if he's recited this maxim many times before, hoping that it's true.

LS comes up with a harmony vocal for the chorus, singing along with the playback and idly strumming an acoustic guitar. MoCapo's excited -- he likes the way LS's sweet, gospel-inflected harmonies augment the main hook -- and he sings a contrapuntal melody under his breath. When LS emerges from the sound booth, blushing from the spontaneous applause, MoCapo goes back in and sings his countermelody.

"We don't have to thug no more, sell drugs no more," he sings, indulging in some old-school R&B melisma. Although his rapping style is guttural and propulsive, his singing voice is surprisingly sweet and flexible, the product of a childhood spent in the church choir. "Once I got to high school," he admits sheepishly, "I was, like, 'I'm too cool to be in the choir!'"

A half-hour elapses, and the two listen to the track in its entirety. MoCapo can't quit beaming. "This is my favorite part, watching it all come together," he says, marveling at how quickly they've created a song. "I walked in at 10 to 12, he made the beat at maybe a quarter after 12, and we just came up with the hook right when you came in. We're gonna keep doing it, record every day, keep getting the concepts out and make good music."

Three weeks later, MoCapo's back in New York. Asked whether any of the mixes were ready to be brought to Atkins or tested on the public, a producer groans and says, "Aww, please don't even go there. He still hasn't found his sweet spot."

D2 flies him back to St. Louis for another marathon recording session.

D2 doesn't have a payroll per se, and getting paid is a constant preoccupation for all the producers. The twins are musical matchmakers, setting artists up with producers, who help them create songs in exchange for a share of the royalties. Usually a producer gets between one-and-a-half and three points of the artist's royalties; one point equals 1 percent of a CD's suggested retail price, minus the marketing deductions that come off the top. "When you're talking about a lot of sales," explains D2's entertainment lawyer, Dan Friedman, "you're looking at a lot of money."

It's a gamble: If an artist takes off, a producer can do very well. If an artist flops or doesn't get signed at all, the producer probably won't get paid.

David and Darren are the executive producers at D2, but they don't do much actual production work anymore. Most of their time these days is consumed by administrative duties, not fiddling with knobs and building tracks in the studio. The twins are talking to lawyers, negotiating contracts, scouting new talent and meeting with record-company executives and radio-station program directors while the other producers -- "Big Al" Henry, LS and Willie Woods -- work with the artists in the recording studio.

Big Al holds the job title of co-executive producer. Like the twins, he spends a good part of his day taking care of business outside the studio. He still produces songs in the evenings sometimes, but lately he hasn't been working with the artists as much. Less musical than the main producers, LS and Willie Woods, Big Al sees himself as more of a straight-ahead rap guy, able to program beats and evaluate performances but not as suited to the more melodic R&B-flavored songs the company's been leaning toward of late.

"Who produces has a lot to do with the artist," Big Al explains. "In the beginning, Pretty Willie mostly worked with me. Then he kind of fell into the guitar-driven thing, and him and Willie Woods just vibed so well. I was, like, 'These songs are hot. I'm not gonna disturb that!' -- because I'm a music fan myself; it takes a little unselfishness."

LS was a music major at Columbia College in Chicago. There he learned to use ProTools, an audio-editing software program, a skill that would stand him in good stead years later, when he moved into production and engineering. After college, he toured with Fontella Bass and even did a short stint with Michael Bolton. He spent some time in Atlanta, producing tracks for Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes of TLC and doing session work before moving back home to U. City.

LS makes a living as a producer now, under contract to D2 but able to freelance at other studios during his downtime. These days, he's grinding out the tracks at D2 and has little time for anything else. "Every time I see a band play in the clubs," he says with a wistful smile, "I'm, like, 'Wow, I wish I was up there.' But I still play -- if I'm in the middle of a project and we need a different feel on it, I might grab a guitar and bass and add that in there."

Willie Woods is a dark, heavyset guy with a soft, rumbling voice. His new club remix of "Roll Wit Me' -- a bit harder and more uptempo than the album track -- blares through the studio's big speakers. After being complimented on the cut, Woods breaks into a huge, shy grin. He's proud of his work with Pretty Willie. If the album explodes the way everyone at D2 hopes, he'll get much of the credit and the biggest share of the production royalties. Nicknamed "Hitmaker" by the twins, Woods is responsible for most of the music on Enter the Life of Suella. Pretty Willie, a trained pianist, co-wrote the music and came up with all the lyrics, but Woods delivered the actual goods, created the beats and the arrangements, the hooks and the textures.

"It's a totally clean record," Woods says proudly. "That's important to me personally. I want my music to be heard -- don't kill nobody on my record! I got kids. Whatever music I do, I want my kids to be able to listen to it."

Woods' daughters, 7 and 8 years old, are, predictably, ardent Pretty Willie fans. "At first they just thought he was cute," Woods chuckles. "What do they know about cute? Then they start hearing his stuff on the radio, and they're, like, 'Oooh, Dad! Pretty Willie's on the phone! Tell him I said hi!'"

Hanging in the studio is a promotional poster for "Roll Wit Me" that testifies to one daughter's devotion. Carefully inscribed on Pretty Willie's face and neck are the words "I love you Will so much By Amber."

Woods doesn't mind that his girls are so crazy about Pretty Willie. It's a good omen.

David, Big Al, LS and Willie Woods are hanging out in the studio early on a Friday evening. Their voices rise and fall, occasionally ascending to the level of actual shouting, but the dispute seems less like a fight and more like an animated discussion. They're couching everything in hypotheticals at first, but it soon becomes clear that Big Al is upset because he doesn't think he's getting his fair share of the production credits. He doesn't seem pissed, exactly -- more wounded, disappointed, confused.

At occasional intervals, the other producers weigh in with their takes on who deserves what and whether Big Al's work should come out of the co-executive/development part of the budget or whether he deserves straight production credits -- and thus a share of the royalties. David's trying to explain how D2 employees get paid -- the 'Four Ways of Getting Paid' -- a lecture they've heard on previous occasions.

"My question is," Big Al says patiently, "if you're giving so much to the writers, why is it so unfair to give me some credit? I want some of the production because I'm not gonna get any of the writing."

David's sitting on the dingy carpeting, idly plucking at an electric bass that's not plugged in. "It ain't nothing but negotiations," he exclaims. "Work it out beforehand, say what you're worth."

Al interrupts him: "I don't want to work for hire. I want to take part in the royalties."

David puts down the bass, jabs his finger in the air: "Then you got to sit yourself down and say so. That's your politicking time!"

Al brings up a Pretty Willie song he worked on, a track that wasn't working until he stepped in with his ideas. "That's where I came in -- almost like the song overseer," he says. "Willie [Woods] makes it seem like the production thing just comes out of the studio. That's fine, but you've got to remember that I did that for you at the same time I'm also riding with David, making errands, finding artists to do graphics. I'm willing to take credit from any way, but I'm not gonna let you all pass it around."

David suddenly leaps up from the floor and starts testifying, holding forth in a preacher's singsong cadences: "I will tell you from my total experience of having Ol Skool, St. Lunatics, Pretty Willie -- this ain't no thing I'm making up. How do you get paid? You bring me talent, and I say, 'That's a finder's fee. That's A&R.' Take an independent person like myself. I have to go out and do all that footwork, all that jazz, and I never got paid for it for real. Nobody ever paid me for doing Ol Skool or Lunatics stuff. The only thing I got out of it was publishing."

"That is getting paid, though," Big Al mutters stubbornly.

"But let's say I didn't have the publishing," David interjects.

"You wouldn't do it!" Big Al says.

The debate goes on and on with a maddening circularity, David bringing up examples from his experience and Big Al returning to his original question: How do I get paid? Nothing is resolved -- Big Al doesn't get an answer; David's inspirational bromides are met with bemused skepticism from the three producers.

"Nobody's bankrolling your future," David concludes. He sounds tired now, a little exasperated. "You have to make it happen for yourself. I think I've been pretty cool, pretty decent about everything. Everybody's not going to agree with the way I distribute money, but that's the way it is."

David leaves the studio, and Big Al sits on the couch alone. He's not mad at David. In fact, he seems a little worried that they've conveyed the wrong impression to a reporter, who's captured the entire argument on tape. They're all friends, he insists, friends who respect and trust one another.

"We were all in the same position at first," he sighs. "We didn't need lawyers. Now that things have happened, money and what have you, what had no value at first has now become valuable. You might not have thought you needed a lawyer; you might have thought you could go to your lifelong friend and straighten it out anytime. But what if you can't come to an agreement?"

He frowns sadly, considering the possibility. It's not as if friendships haven't come apart over money before; their experience with the Lunatics has taught them that much.

Suddenly he brightens. "You know what the best thing is?" he asks rhetorically. "It goes back to what David said: If we can sit down and figure out how to mesh it together, pay everybody for what they do, I feel like we have a lot better grip on the business. Obviously all of us dreamed once about being big. We didn't know we were gonna be talking about MTV or BET. When it happened, we had to go and backpedal, search our souls to find out how we're gonna go as a team. I think that's where we're at now."

Just as Pretty Willie said, though, it all comes down to handling your business, each man out for himself. After all, D2 is the name of the company -- for the two Ds, Darren and David, who are at once close friends of the other men and their bosses. The twins sign the contracts, and it's their reputation that's landing the deals and attracting the talent. Willie Woods, LS and Big Al are, incontestably, talent. As long as they keep producing, they collect royalties and advance checks: They get paid. In the meantime, they have to gamble away their time on artists, who might -- but probably won't -- sell a million records. There might be four ways of getting paid, but all of them are risky.

Whether Pretty Willie hits it big -- and people get paid -- remains to be seen. At this point, it's out of the producers' hands; their work is over. It's on to MoCapo or Janine or some artist they haven't found yet, on to the next song, the one that gets the roller-skaters vibing and the radio-station phone lines lighting up.