Known to pop bottles, party and politic with your favorite rapper's favorite rapper, Kenny Burns has spent the past decade branding some of the biggest names (Jay-Z, Kanye West) in the music business. In the process, he succeeded in branding himself. So it's no surprise that the subject of his new documentary is none other than Kenny Burns.
As he strolls through Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in the film's opening scene, designer luggage in tow, it's anyone's guess where he's headed or what's on his mind as the camera catches him gazing out of the concourse shuttle window. One could speculate, as people have been doing that for years where Burns is concerned. Defining his day job is a task in itself. Of course, his self-proclaimed title, "lifestyle specialist," only adds to the ambiguity.
Since new millennial hip-hop hustlers rarely come with resumes, it's apt that Burns would take to the big screen to chronicle his career in B.U.R.N.S., the 45-minute documentary slated to screen at the American Black Film Festival in Miami on June 26. According to him, the film with the acronym for a title (Be Ultimately Realistic and Never Sellout) proves "you don't have to walk to Brooklyn for cheesecake" in order to attain success. While the Washington, D.C., native who calls Atlanta home has never had to trudge across the Brooklyn Bridge on a Diddy reality TV show, he has always been ready for his close-up.
Burns began his industry ascent after arriving in Atlanta in the mid-'90s to attend Morris Brown College. Throwing parties locally and at such far-flung college campuses as Hampton University and Florida A&M led to the formation of his promotions company, 2620 Music. The documentary includes vintage footage, such as one scene from 1997 (time-stamped 2 a.m.) which features stars and hit-makers Diddy, Missy Elliott, Irv Gotti and Ginuwine on the dance floor while a young Burns is on the mic getting his hype-man on.
After brushing shoulders with celebs, throwing countless soirées and breaking artists in the Atlanta area, Burns landed a position at Motown Records. One of the funniest moments in the film is Burns' impersonation of Andre Harrell, the former Motown president and coiner of the term "ghetto fabulous." It's almost surprising to discover that Burns has a genuine sense of humor. Charisma and cockiness one might expect, but funny? Burns admits that people have a lot of misconceptions about him. "I get judged a lot. If I don't talk to a person then I'm stuck up. One of the biggest [misconceptions] is that I'm a big gigolo pimp ladies man," the husband and father of two says. "I do have women around, but women are good for business in my business."
Eventually, as a vice president at Roc-A-Fella Records, Burns worked with artists including Kanye and served as A&R on Ol' Dirty Bastard's last unreleased album. Some of the production process for that album is caught on tape with O.D.B. singing "Guess Who's Home," while the Neptunes man the boards and Burns cheers on O.D.B.'s tomfoolery. But the fun and games eventually came to a halt when Roc-A-Fella founders Jay-Z and Damon Dash broke up. "To see them split was kind of the last straw for me," he says. "I already didn't like what the music business stood for. I never was a fan of the business after I initially got into it."
Fed up with the politics of music, Burns shifted to upscale menswear. The RyanKenny line he started with Ryan Glover gave hip-hop the fashion sense to "Change Clothes" (with an assist courtesy Jay-Z) from jerseys to button-ups. But when RyanKenny's partnership with Roc-A-Wear eventually fizzled, Burns and Dame Dash clashed over the amount of money Dash alleged he was owed, says Burns.
On film, Burns appears hurt and insulted by the souring of his deal and Dash' allegations. But as anyone who has ever seen an episode of "Behind the Music" or listened to a LOX album knows, the music industry is not about love, fairness or friendship. It certainly left him salty, as proven by the choice words he uses to summarize the music biz at the beginning of his film: "You make people money, they fuck with you." Burns got another up-close look at how unforgiving the business can be when he lost his close friend and former Def Jam Vice President Shakir Stewart to suicide in 2008.
But like Diddy, Burns can't stop, won't stop. Under his current holding company, Studio 43 LLC, he provides marketing strategy to such companies as Heineken, Axe Body Spray and Belvedere. He also has his own weekday online radio show on BeeHive radio, and he continues to host parties in cities ranging from Miami to Detroit while still dabbling in music. After discovering and signing D.C. talent Wale, Burns is now pushing another artist named Marky who hails from the same region. "I still have a passion for music," Burns says. "But I don't get into the politics of the business [anymore]; I do it on my terms."
Indeed, Burns continues to follow his heart, leaving his Louis Vuitton shoe print all over the industry. "I would love to go down in history as someone who always did what he said he would do, and made it happen," Burns says, leaving me to wonder what exactly it is. But perhaps that's part of Burn's appeal; you're always left wondering.
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