The History of Producer Kay Gee’s Divine Mill Record Label – From Jaheim to Next and Beyond
Since producer DJ Kay Gee of Naughty by Nature is such a low key guy, it’s very easy to overlook the accomplishments he’s had in the industry through the years. Not only was he the main producer behind the legendary hip hop group’s biggest hits, but he also branched out and created a successful r&b label as well. Divine Mill Records is a label that Kay Gee created in the mid 90’s where he discovered and signed acts such as Next, Jaheim, Zhane, Koffee Brown and Tha Rayne. Each of these artists went on to achieve different levels of success and each had hits courtesy of Kay Gee. We recently took a look back at some of the biggest r&b hits that Kay Gee has produced, but this article serves to tell the story of Divine Mill. Through numerous interviews through the years with many of the artists involved, we’ve been able to piece together the history of the label.
Although Kay Gee is known as part of the iconic hip hop group Naughty by Nature, he found success with his own label in r&b. He was deeply rooted in the genre, growing up on the classics, so it’s not surprising he came back to it.
Kay Gee: R&b started for me as a little kid growing up. My parents were from the south, so we’d go down and visit their family in the summer all of the time as youngsters. My father would just play his tapes all the way on the long ride down there, the 12-14 hour drive, he would just play all of the classics. That introduced me to music from there from Sam Cooke to Marvin Gayne to The Sound of Philadelphia to Teddy Pendergrass to Luther Vandross to the Jackson 5, everybody. He would play all of the records. I just learned those records growing up.(Kay Gee Interview, 2012)
Kay Gee: Divine Mill started with me as a producer as a whole. It started off as Illtown and it evolved and developed into Divine Mill. I’ve always wanted to be behind the scenes and I do my part as the DJ/Producer and the member of Naughty by Nature but I’m a lot more laid back. At the same time, it’s all about evolution and it’s all about growth and it’s all about maintaining and having that stability to maintain. I’ve always knew that I could most likely be a producer or be an executive or be a manager or something behind the scenes a lot longer than you can in the front. It’s just how it is. From day one, I’ve always worked towards that and I’m still working towards that and I just knew coming out of the box that I had to start building from day one. That’s where I started with Illtown and it grew into Divine Mill. I’m still here to this day working on developing new artists and keeping my name out there on the production side. At the same time, it’s always a lot more fruitful and a lot more impactful when you develop artists of your own from scratch.(Kay Gee Interview, 2012)
Treach (of Naughty by Nature): I was mad as hell, I didn’t want him doing shit but Naughty by Nature! *Laughs* Nah. Kay is one of the most talented producers out there. It really shows when you can go from different genres of music like hip hop which we started in, and then we see him going and doing Zhane, Koffee Brown, Jaheim. He wasn’t just our homey, we weren’t just saying he was a dope producer because he was with us. Once he started doing that r&b stuff, we knew he was a world class producer. You could see everything he’s done throughout the years, he’s right there. We never questioned why he was doing stuff outside of hip hop, a producer is a producer. When a producer is a real producer, he can do all types of music. I felt like my brother was doing something that I was proud of. You see your brother like in sports, I felt like he made it. He wasn’t just a hip hop producer, I was telling people “My DJ is one of the dopest.” Once he started doing r&b and other genres, I was like “See!” (Naughty by Nature Interview, 2014)
Arguably his most successful discovery was r&b group Next, comprised of R.L., Tweety and T-Low, who went on to have some massive hits and crossover appeal.
Kay Gee: I was once on that side as well, people would get demo tapes and people would send in tapes hoping people would listen or running up on artists hoping that they would give them a chance. I was once on that side. Some people gave us a look or a chance and a lot of people didn’t. I always remembered that. A lot of times I tried throughout my career if I got something to always listen to it and give it a chance if I had time. At least try to find time to give somebody a chance if they ran down on me. Looking at even us, if they didn’t check us out, I was like “They don’t know what they’re missing”. I knew that if you don’t give that artist or that demo tape or cd a chance, you might be missing something. I’ve always done that and that’s how I was able to find Zhane and that’s how I was able to find Next and Jaheim. I was able to find all of them by doing the same concept for what I believed in. Next was just another one of those cases where we were in Minnesota, I ran across T-Lo from Next and he came up to me. They were a group called Straight Forward at the time and he was like “Yo, we’re a group called Straight Forward and we’ve got a great following out here.” I asked one the DJs and he knew of them and said they were pretty good, so I said “Alright cool.” So I got a tape from them and I checked it out. I checked the tape out and I felt like it was well put together. I felt like I wanted them to finish what they started along with me.(Kay Gee Interview, 2012)
RL (formerly of Next): To be honest, it was a village. He was the one that had the label, but it was like Vin and Treach who were giving us tips and teaching us the ropes. Tonight was bittersweet because it was almost like I was 18 again. I’m in awe when I’m around them anyway, I think I almost start acting immature again because I look up to them so much. When I said that besides God and my parents, without those guys I wouldn’t be here, I really meant it. It was amazing. (RL Interview, 2015)
Kay Gee had another huge success with Jaheim who he discovered out of his home town of New Jersey. The r&b star continues to make timeless music and have success to this day.
Kay Gee: Jaheim was as raw as any artist I ever worked with. He was just young, looked like a rapper, didn’t really care or know too much about the business, nothing at all. Just a dude with raw talent that could sing. He didn’t even know nothing about it. When I first heard his demo tape, we had a store called The Naughty Store where we sold the Naughty gear and all of that down in Newark. He dropped the demo tape down there. I would come and get the boxes and all of that and listen to the tapes. I heard this one tape by Jaheim from New Brunswick. I listened to it and it was this dude singing Luther Vandross. It was a 17 year old Jaheim and I thought “This dude can’t be no 17!” I played it over and over and over again and finally I called the number and told them to bring him down so I can meet him. When I saw him, he was raw, really rough around the edges, jeans, timbs and a t-shirt on, didn’t even look at me really too much, was shy. He didn’t even really care about music too much, he didn’t have too much to say. You know how most people want to sell themselves like “I can do this, I can do that”, he didn’t have too much to say. I was just looking at him like “I can make this guy 8 to 80” meaning that I can make him appeal to kids from 8 years old all the way to an 80 year old woman because of his voice. With him being so young, he can appeal to the younger people and the voice is going to grab the older people. That’s the way I went with it from the beginning. As I started working with him more, he just started understanding a little bit more and he would just sing all day and get on everybody’s nerves! He would walk around with a radio all day just singing, they started calling him “radio man” or something like that. He would just walk around with a radio all the time. He was around just as long as Next and everybody was, but like I said, he was just so rough around the edges he had to develop way more than they did. Next came with a producer, they were already polished, they were already doing shows, so they were ready to go. It kinda pissed him off because he felt like “I don’t think you believe in me, why haven’t I come out yet, everybody else has come out and I didn’t.” I was like “Jah, you’re just not ready yet, when it comes time you’ll be ready. Once you get your chance, you’re probably not going to stop, the type of artist you are. It’s coming”. Here we are, he’s the last one but he’s still going.(Kay Gee Interview, 2012)
R&B group Zhane was Kay Gee’s first discovery and he helped them deliver a couple of solid albums and the smash single “Hey Mr. DJ”.
Kay Gee: My love has always been in r&b so it was always fitting that the first group I put out was an r&b group. I came across them when they dropped their demo off down at the office and a girl by the name of Les Scott was like “Yo Kay, some demos came in, you should check these demos out.” She gave them to me and I just checked the demos out over at the office and Zhane stuck out to me.(Kay Gee Interview, 2012)
Jean Baylor (of Zhane): Well it really jump started everything. The song with Jazzy Jeff was great to get recorded but it didn’t really jump start too much after that. So there a gentleman who took us up to some of the record companies in New York and the one that stuck was Flavor Unit, and that was Latifah’s management company at the time turned record label. That’s where we started to work with Kay Gee of Naughty by Nature because he was looking for a girl group. So it really worked out well from there, he was looking for a girl group, we were looking to do an album, and that’s when “Hey Mr. DJ” was created during that time. We were still in our very last year of college so we would go up to the studio on the weekends and we would come back home and go to school and that’s when “Hey Mr. DJ” was created along with most of the first album. Graduation was in May of 1993 and I finished up school and moved up to New York and got started with everything, finishing up the album, starting to do promo dates and that kind of thing. That’s how it all got started from there; we signed our deal with Kay Gee and Motown at the time. (Jean Baylor Interview, 2011)
Why Koffee Brown Didn’t Work
Koffee Brown was a group that Kay Gee discovered with tons of potential, but unfortunately disbanded before they had a chance to realize their success. They did give us the hit “After Party”.
Kay Gee: They would have if they wouldn’t have broken up before they started. Even before we got the chance to even do the first video for “After Party”, that group was already disbanded and on its way out of there. So we said “Let’s save face, we’ve at least got to shoot the video”. It was tough. I was mad about that whole project because I feel like it was a great project and idea and it could have gone a long way. I feel like it’s still missing in r&b even today. They’re missing that fly guy and that fly female, those two together. I was actually just working on a project not too long ago, trying to put a new Koffee Brown together. I had a group I was doing called Melissa Malone. That fell apart as well, I dunno, this whole thing with guy and girl. The only one that kinda had a chance to work like that was Kindred the Family Soul and that’s because they’re married. When you guys appear to be a couple and come across as you’re not, it’s rough. You’ll have the guy who has his own girl, and the girl who has her own guy, then they have that friction with each other and it’s just tough.(Kay Gee Interview, 2012)
Why Tha Rayne Didn’t Work
In a similar situation to Koffee Brown, Tha Rayne, led by Yummy Bingham, disbanded before they had a chance for real success, but had plenty of potential. They left us the minor hits “Didn’t Ya Know”.
Yummy Bingham: Well Kay Gee from Naughty by Nature discovered myself, Tina Jenkins out of Atlantic City and Shaquana Elam and he made a group called Tha Rayne. We came up with the name because Kay Gee was about royalty which is still a seed that he imbedded in me to be a queen in the game. So he called us Rayne Supreme, but we just ended up with Tha Rayne, and we just wanted to be something fresh out of the tri-state area. It was like we were 14, 15, and 16 years old, and I was the baby, so because we had our own dreams and our own goals already set, and then when you sign to a label, you have to compromise. Everyone doesn’t like to always agree so that had a lot to do with why we didn’t go to the next level. (Yummy Bingham Interview, 2011)
Discovering Noel Gourdin
Noel Gourdin is an artist that Kay Gee didn’t discover, but certainly had an impact in his early development and music. He helped him craft the #1 single “The River”, and Noel continues to have success today.
Kay Gee: I didn’t actually discover Noel, he was actually brought to me by my man TO from up in Rhode Island. TO is always bringing me talent and all of that. He actually called me yesterday and told me he’s got two other artists for me. It’s the same thing again, you always gotta give it a shot because you never know. There’s certain people when they do call you, you at least definitely gotta check it out even if it’s not your cup of tea at the time because you respect what they bring to the table. TO came to me with Noel and said “Yo Kay listen, I’ve got this artist, we’ve got something on the table”. We started working with him and developing him and I started helping out a little bit with it and they ended up signing him over at Sony. We did a couple of records on him. He’s not my artist, he’s TO’s artist, but he’s somebody that I helped develop with TO and we helped get a situation. Another great artist and great talent and singer as well. That’s what I’m into, I’m into real r&b, straight r&b. (Kay Gee Interview, 2012)
Noel Gourdin: Originally, I was in New York and I was working with my production company at the time Track Addicts and he had a pretty good relationship with Kay Gee. To make a long story short, I had dealt with Track Addicts, and through them I met Kay Gee and he really liked my style and feel and ended up putting me in the “Cookout Movie.” So that was the beginning of our relationship and we just took it from there and created “The River” and the rest of the album. So it went pretty good, we got a lot of support from that. (Noel Gourdin Interview, 2011)
Legacy of Divine Mill
One of the most impressive parts of what Kay Gee put together at Divine Mill is that most of the artists are still having success today. This has created a lasting legacy not only for the label, but through the timeless music that each of these artists will live on through.
Kay Gee: It feels great that artists I worked with are still around. Even Zhane is still out there doing their thing. Next is still out there, I talk to them all of the time. RL is actually on his way up here, I’m putting a project together with RL and Treach. Jaheim is still out there doing his thing. It’s great to see that. I think it’s definitely not time wasted when people love what you do. If you put a lot of time and effort and soul into this music and craft it, you just want people to respect it and love it and take it in. It just feels great that Zhane has been around almost 20 years now. Jaheim has been around 12 or 13 years now. It’s great to see and hear that type of thing. That’s the same I’m trying to shoot for with Chris Lawrence and Elite. I don’t want to do disposable music because that’s what it’s become now. People sign artists for one record, and then you don’t hear them or see them anymore. I’m not trying to do that, I’m trying to do get a legacy. I’m trying to create a brand, that’s the best way to describe it like I’ve done before. (Kay Gee Interview, 2013)