It was around 10 o'clock on a Friday night in December when Ricky Reed walked into a meeting at the Sony Music building in Beverly Hills with no idea what to expect. Less than 36 hours later, Reed — the creative force behind a comically crunked-out Oakland pop-hop outfit called Wallpaper. — had signed to Epic Records, an imprint of the Sony empire run by the celebrity record executive and X Factor judge L.A. Reid.
In the span of a weekend, Reed, whose real name is Eric Frederic, morphed from a promising but small-time independent Bay Area artist to a new star in the pop machine responsible for radio staples like Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" and Rihanna's "Umbrella." It's a sharp change for Wallpaper., whose boisterous, bass-heavy funk is half a parody of the hit parade, and half a winking embrace of its charm. While much radio R&B embraces the bling-flashing, bottle-popping fantasies of mainstream hip-hop, Wallpaper. songs glorify drinking Two-Buck Chuck and cruising in your friend's mom's minivan. Its biggest hit, "#STUPiDFACEDD," is a bouncy blast of self-deprecation about getting wasted at a friend's apartment. Reed calls his songs "pop music for the 99 percent."
The project has been successful: Since 2007, when Reed started Wallpaper., he has played the Treasure Island Music Festival, toured the country, and won support from MTV. Wallpaper. has more than 97,000 Twitter followers, and the video for "#STUPiDFACEDD" has been watched more than 2 million times on YouTube. (Reed writes and produces all his own songs, and even finds time to write and produce for other artists.)
But by signing to Epic, the 25-year-old Bay Area native stepped into a different realm. Reed knows that the big leagues aren't what they used to be — "I'm no fool, I know what's happening with the record industry," he says over coffee one recent morning — but he's thrilled. Ecstatic, even. And to understand why a smart, talented artist like Reed would be so happy to sign a major-label deal in the desolate and uncertain music business of 2012 (aside from the presumably ample paycheck), you have to understand what happened that night at the Sony building.
Reed tells the story of Dec. 2 in exacting detail: He cuts short a date — some rare personal time — after getting a phone call from Larry Wade, a vice president of Wallpaper.'s indie label, Boardwalk, telling him to be in Beverly Hills in 30 minutes. Unknown to Reed, Wade has been inside the Sony Building for hours, playing Wallpaper.'s music for Christopher "Tricky" Stewart, the producer behind "Single Ladies" and "Umbrella." (Stewart loved "#STUPiDFACEDD," and when he found out it was by one of Wade's artists, he wanted to introduce Wallpaper. to the head of Epic.)
Reed arrives at the Sony building uncertain why he's been called there, and Stewart asks him to perform. At first, Reed is skeptical ("I'm not gonna fuckin' tap-dance to an iPod"), but he agrees to play the slow, lounge-y "#STUPiDFACEDD (Reprise)" on a piano. They get to the piano room, and the ever-dapper Epic CEO L.A. Reid walks in wearing a black vest, black slacks, and a white shirt unbuttoned to halfway down his chest. With him is the R&B artist Ciara. "That's when it hit me what was happening — that [this] could potentially be the single most important performance of my whole life," Reed remembers.
Reed begins playing the song, nervous and shaky. By the first chorus, Stewart is singing along. The audition becomes a jam session. When it's over, the record exec says to a befuddled Reed: "That was so beautiful." The meeting moves upstairs, where Wade plays Wallpaper.'s music through a sound system in Reid's office. Loud. ("Record label guys listen to music so ferociously loud you can't even believe it," Reed says.)
They move through Wallpaper.'s hits, listening to each one completely, and the best songs several times. Reid glides his head back and forth approvingly. Then Wade plays tracks from Wallpaper.'s first album, Doodoo Face, and some songs that Wallpaper. recently recorded with funk legend George Clinton. "At this point I'm not playing him hit records," Reed says. "I'm playing him my funk catalog, the real musical shit that turns me on, and that I would hope that would turn him on." Wallpaper. may make some pop songs, but Reed is obsessed with old-school funk: "The thing about funk ... is that when you hear it, you know instantly if somebody really knows it or not," he says. "And then if it is the real deal, you already understand so much about that person."
The Clinton material elicits a different look from the Epic CEO: "He just stares at me almost in this mean way, just glaring at me," Reed remembers. "And he starts shaking his head side-to-side, the song finishes, and he literally says, 'Where'd you learn to make funk like that?'"
By midnight, the conversation has wandered through subjects like production and West African drumming. Reid begins to wrap up the meeting: "He says to me, 'I do believe that I'm in the presence of greatness,'" Reed recalls, laughing. "And it was just like, 'All right, what do you guys want to do?'"
It was early Saturday when Reed left the Sony building. By Sunday afternoon, he had signed all the paperwork making him an artist on Epic Records. (The Wallpaper. creator wouldn't share financial details of the deal: "I'll just say that I can focus on the music.")
Major record labels aren't known for always treating their artists well, or for allowing them creative freedom. Much of Reed's excitement about signing with Reid, Stewart, and Epic comes from his feeling that they all bonded over music, not business, that night. Reed didn't tell the label guys that his ambition for Wallpaper. is to continue making blue-collar pop songs that celebrate listeners' actual lives, rather than selling them some unattainable fantasy. But he believes that was understood. "These guys didn't sign me 'cause I'm a hot, petite, 18-year-old girl," Reed says. "They signed me for my ideas. L.A. Reid is too smart to sign someone like me and then have someone else write all my songs and have me learn how to do choreographed dancing."
Though he may be on his way to the charts — Epic plans to push new Wallpaper. single "Fucking Best Song Everrr" to radio stations — Reed insists that his distaste for the materialism of much mainstream pop hasn't softened. "When I started Wallpaper. ... I thought that the best way to change something was to sort of throw rocks at it from the outside." The Bay Area's newest major-label artist then lobs a heavy look over the top of his sunglasses, and it's clear that that view, at least, has changed: "I like to believe that I'm the Trojan horse," he says.