Scooter Braun is the Hustla 

How a white kid from the North became a power player in Atlanta hip-hop

Scooter Braun is doing what he does best. He's multitasking.

"If I'm about to crash, just tell me," Braun says as he texts with one hand and steers with the other. Braun is pulling out of Chaka Zulu's west Atlanta studio, where the two just discussed a possible venture in the movie industry, when the light at the intersection turns yellow. He pauses for a second, then seems to remember that he's driving a Mercedes CLK 320 with a 215-horsepower engine and steps on the gas. The light turns red, but Braun zooms through, anyway.

That's how Braun lives: fast, and with a certain disregard for the rules. It's how he's navigated his life since arriving in Atlanta five-and-a-half years ago as an Emory University freshman.

There are few people who could have predicted Braun's career would have unfolded the way it has. His family and friends assumed that the former high school class president would go into politics or maybe law. That's a long way from Braun's current job. Braun calls himself a "power player" in the entertainment industry, but his business associates describe him as a "hustla."

One thing is for sure: Wherever Braun is headed, he's moving fast. He has shot through the ranks of the hip-hop industry, establishing himself as one of the country's top party promoters, a growing force in media marketing, and just generally a guy "in the know." He has starred in music videos, brokered deals between controversial rappers and major corporations, and partied with Britney Spears, Ashton Kutcher and Justin Timberlake. And at 23 years of age, Braun's just getting started.

Today is a typical day for the kid from Greenwich, Conn. He's spending his afternoon in the car, bouncing from recording studio to recording studio, meeting with producers, artists and studio execs, pitching projects and nurturing relationships.

As he's driving and texting on his T-Mobile Sidekick, Braun's Verizon cell phone rings. It's the representative for Britney Spears. Braun is throwing a party for Kevin Federline in Miami at the end of the month and has found a place for the celeb couple to stay while they're in town -- a luxurious $3.7 million house on nearby Allison Island.

"How insane am I?" Braun asks Spear's rep, his voice rising in excitement. "Love me right now. It's pretty hard to believe, right? It's 5,700 square feet. It's right on the water. It's gorgeous."

The voice on the other end of the phone doesn't seem to share Braun's enthusiasm.

"What's wrong?" Braun asks. "We're still doing the party, right?"

The rep assures him that the party is still on (though it would later be postponed); it's just that the Spears-Federline camp is dealing with a little bit of drama. She tells Braun that he should check the Star magazine website (later that day, the gossip sheet would report that Spears accidentally dropped her infant son, Sean Preston, on his head and that social workers had paid a visit to Spears' home).

Braun seems reassured. He looks up to see that he's stuck in a long line of cars waiting to pass through a downtown intersection near the Georgia Aquarium. He pulls a U-turn in the middle of Luckie Street and then goes back to talking about how great Spears and Federline's new house is. "The only thing I want is a key," Braun says. "I want one bedroom that I can stay in when I'm in town."

The rep laughs off his request. Braun hangs up his cell phone. But as soon as he hangs up, his Sprint phone rings. This time it's one of the managers of the exclusive downtown restaurant and lounge BED. The management of BED allocates passes to VIP guests, which entitles them to automatic access to the restaurant's rooftop lounge. The manager wants to know who Braun thinks should get a VIP pass.

"Send me the list you've got so far and I can tell you if they're the wrong people," Braun says. "Because a lot of people you think may be big, but then they come in and don't spend a lot of money and bring the wrong people with them."

As he's talking, Braun notices flashing lights from a Georgia state patrol car in his rearview mirror. "I've gotta go," Braun says. "I just got pulled over."

A state trooper walks up to the driver's side window of Braun's purple Mercedes and asks for his license and registration. Then she tells him he's getting a $25 ticket. He wasn't wearing his seat belt.

Don't call Scooter Braun a "party promoter." He hates that.

In March, Braun threw a party for "K-Fed" at Vision nightclub and the AJC ran a series of photos on its website from the event. In one, Braun was featured and identified as a "local party promoter." He wasn't too pleased. "I throw parties in NYC, L.A., Miami, London, and I'm 'local'?" Braun says. "I broker deals between a major hip-hop star and a huge corporation, and I'm still just a 'party promoter'?"

But you can't blame people for getting confused about what Braun does for a living. It's complicated.

"To be honest with you, I don't know what the hell he does," says his best friend Fernando Cuartas, who played basketball with Braun in high school and lived with him for a year after college. "But he's always got several projects going on. Whether it's promoting, or developing artists, it's always something."

Talk to the people who have worked with Scooter Braun, and they'll all describe him the same way: He's a "hustla."

"It's not just hustle, it's focused hustle," says Chaka Zulu, who is co-CEO with Ludacris of Disturbing Tha Peace Records. "He takes the opportunity and knows how to stretch it."

"He's hustle concentrate," says Jazze Pha, the rap producer who has worked with Ciara, Slick Rick and Nelly. "You ever made Minute Maid out of a can? That's the kind of hustle he's got."

"He hustles, that's what's good about him," says record producer Dallas Austin, one of Braun's friends. "Just because you're in the industry doesn't mean you know how to hustle. Scooter does."

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "hustle" as "to make strenuous efforts to obtain especially money or business." The hip-hop culture defines it a little differently.

"I think the urban community uses 'hustla' as the ultimate honor," Braun says. "A hustla is somebody that doesn't take no for an answer; somebody who has a vision and a goal and works to realize it; somebody who works his ass off to make it happen."

Of course, Braun has a somewhat different take on what it means to "work." Many of his deals are struck while sipping drinks on club rooftops or sitting courtside at Hawks games. He spends late nights partying, building relationships with the hip-hop industry's biggest producers and stars. He owns three cell phones -- one for text messaging, one with a number given only to select clients, and one that anybody can call -- and he is constantly talking or sending text messages to friends, family and business partners.

Braun's frustration at his inability to shed the "party promoter" label is understandable, though maybe a bit naïve. After all, he got his start and made much of his fortune throwing big, popular, successful parties.

When he was a freshman at Emory in 1999, Braun was broke. He came from a wealthy family, but didn't like borrowing money from his parents and wanted to find another way to pay for beer and pizza. First, he got involved in the fake ID market, serving as a link between the kids who needed the IDs and the guy who made them. In exchange, he kept 50 percent of the profits. "I was the fake ID king," Braun says. "I made so much money doing it, but I was afraid that I was going to get caught. So I quit after four months."

Then one Thursday night, while he was out with friends in Buckhead, Braun passed by the Paradox nightclub. The club was empty and Braun asked the bouncer if he could speak with the manager. "I knew that club was full on Friday and Saturday nights," Braun says. "And I thought, if I could fill it on a Thursday night, I could clean up."

Braun made the manager an offer: He would pack the club the following Thursday, and in exchange he would get to keep the door receipts. He put up flyers all over the Emory campus advertising his party and hired a DJ for the event. That Thursday, 1,000 people showed up at Paradox. Braun made a net profit of $600.

That was the beginning of something big. Braun continued to throw parties and his Thursday night events became a focal point of the Emory social scene. People who attended the parties say there was an energy to them. The DJs played all the right songs, a mix of hip-hop and rock that appealed to both blacks and whites.

Everyone wanted to party with Scooter. Stars like Ciara, J-Kwan, Chingy, Cee-Lo, Jagged Edge and Ludacris would stop by and sometimes perform. And as his parties got more popular, and Braun learned the ins and outs of the business, profits soared. By the end of his freshman year, Braun estimates that he was making $5,000-$10,000 from every party.

Thursday nights weren't the only ones Braun would stay out late. On Tuesdays, he would head to the Velvet Room, where many of the city's hip-hop elite gathered. Most weeks he would take a date, and Braun quickly became known as the "king of the white chicks."

Entrance to the Velvet Room on Tuesday nights was $100. Braun would stay until the wee hours of the morning, often having spent much of what he had earned at the previous Thursday's party. But Braun says he wasn't just pissing his money away. He had a plan. He wanted the major players in the hip-hop industry to notice him. Braun says he met Ludacris, Fat Joe and P. Diddy at the Velvet Room. These were stars he wanted to impress. He wanted to show them that he was for real. Of course, he wasn't for real, but they didn't have to know that.

Chaka Zulu, one of several businessmen who has served as a role model for Braun, says Braun's attempt to gain access by throwing money around isn't a new idea. "It's called flash money," Zulu says. "People call it 'faking it till you make it.' It's like when you switch out cars with your buddy so it'll look like you've got two cars instead of one."

Braun kept faking. He bought a purple Mercedes Benz with rims on eBay for $35,000, paying for it all up front. He was flying all over the country to show up at the hottest events. He'd buy bottles of Grey Goose or champagne for everyone around him. All those expenses left him with little pocket change. There were times, Braun says, when the college kid with the purple sports car would have to scrounge for change to pay the pizza delivery guy.

Then Braun got his big break. Ludacris was about to go out on tour with Eminem. Ludacris and Zulu had gotten to know Braun at the Velvet Room, and the two were looking for somebody to throw parties in association with Ludacris and Eminem's Anger Management Tour 2002. They asked Braun to organize parties in five cities: New York, Tampa, Hartford, Miami and Atlanta. Braun says that Zulu recognized that many of the kids buying tickets for the Anger Management Tour were white, and he wanted a party that would appeal to both a white and black audience.

That gig really got the ball rolling. Before he knew it, Braun was the legit player he hustled to become in the hip-hop world. And that led him to super-producer Jermaine Dupri.

Dupri is one of the producers behind Usher's Confessions album and Mariah Carey's Grammy-winning comeback album, as well as the boyfriend of pop star Janet Jackson. Braun says Dupri was fascinated by Braun's ability to get white kids into historically black clubs.

When Dupri asked Braun to join So So Def Records, Braun was just 19 years old. But Dupri told him that he had a bright future in the industry, and he was going to teach Braun the ropes. "He told me that he didn't want me involved in his parties," Braun says. "He said I had more to offer than just parties. He wanted me doing his marketing, his business."

Within a year, Braun was named So So Def's executive director of marketing. He was living large -- making more than six-figures throwing his Emory parties and doing work for So So Def that involved flying back and forth from Atlanta to New York, Los Angeles and Miami.

The makers of 3 Vodka approached Braun and asked him to help market their product in the Southeast. Braun suggested teaming 3 Vodka with So So Def, and soon Dupri became the face of the brand, as well as part owner.

Braun produced Music Midtown's urban stage for two years, and threw a week's worth of parties in conjunction with NBA All-Star Weekend 2003 in Atlanta.

Braun's father came to visit that weekend and attended one of the NBA parties that his son was throwing. "I remember seeing John Salley standing outside and he was having trouble getting in," Ervin Braun says. "My son was standing near the front and Salley was yelling, 'Scooter, Scooter, come on, man, get me in here!' That's when I realized how successful Scott had gotten."

Braun was recruited to throw parties for NSYNC Celebrity Basketball Weekend and Britney Spears' Onyx Hotel Tour 2004, both in Miami. He was so connected by that point that Prince showed up at his birthday party at Midtown club Eleven50.

In his junior year, with his grades slipping from spending too much time traveling and not enough time in class, Braun decided to drop out of Emory. His father, who is a cosmetic dentist, says he was upset with his son's choice. "To say I was disappointed is an understatement," Ervin Braun says. "I went to four years of college and four years of dental school and four years of training. So him dropping out was difficult for me to accept." But he says he also realized that Braun had a unique opportunity.

Scott "Scooter" Braun became accustomed to dealing with white men in suits growing up in Greenwich, Conn., a New York suburb where businessmen are in no short supply.

Braun's family was wealthy. He lived in a house with tennis courts, a swimming pool and an indoor basketball court. Cato, a member of the rap group O.D,, which Braun represents, visited Braun at his family's home recently. "I had gotten some dental work done and I needed to get some painkillers," Cato recalls. "So we go to the pharmacy and fucking Pierce Brosnan bumped into me. That was the highlight of the whole trip."

Some of the guys on Braun's basketball team, which his dad coached, lived in local housing projects and they turned Braun onto rap. "Hip-hop is not a genre," Braun says. "It's a culture. It's not restricted to the 'hood. But at the same time, I'm not about being the white guy who's all, 'What up?'"

Braun wasn't initially comfortable telling his Atlanta hip-hop friends about his past. When he first started hanging out at the Velvet Room and working at So So Def, he told Dupri and everyone else that he was from Queens. He had worked at So So Def for six months before he 'fessed up about his past.

When he moved from party promotion into marketing, Braun's skin color helped him connect with people in the boardroom as much as it allowed him to stand out among a sea of wannabe producers and marketers.

"These older white executives, they see me and they see themselves 20, 30 years ago," Braun says. "Because I'm white and I'm comfortable around black people, I can serve as a bridge between the mostly black hip-hop world and the mostly white, corporate world."

Braun is walking through Vision nightclub, shaking hands with producers, artists and managers. Tonight the scene is "very political," he says. It's DJ Drama's birthday party, and much of the Atlanta hip-hop industry has come out to pay their respects, as well as to try and get their songs played in the club. There isn't much dancing happening on the dancefloor, but the VIP section is packed. Two guys are drinking Moet & Chandon out of the bottle. Braun pushes his way through the crowd, making his way toward DJ Drama, who is perched up on the DJ platform. Braun wants Drama, who is the biggest mix-tape producer in the game, to produce a tape for O.D,, the local rap group he's managing.

On his way over to Drama, Braun passes Usher. The two are being pushed in different directions by the crowd. They briefly shake hands and keep walking. When Braun gets to the DJ platform, Drama gives him a shout out on the mic. The two exchange pleasantries over the din of the crowd, and Braun shouts that they'll do business soon. As he's leaving the club, Braun stops to talk shop with the members of O.D,; schmoozes with Vision's owner, Alex Gidewon; tells Drama's business partner, DJ Sense, to expect his call; and shakes hands with Hawks forward Al Harrington. As he's heading to his car, somebody shouts at him, "Hey, Scooter, let's do something together!"

These days, Braun is doing a lot of things with a lot of different people. But last September, he did something for himself.

He left So So Def. Braun says he learned a lot from working with Dupri, but he wanted to be his own man. He had a few side projects in the works, one in particular that he felt could help him make his name as a player in the marketing world. Only a few weeks after leaving Dupri, Braun brokered a $12 million campaign deal between Ludacris and Pontiac. The deal was huge. Hip-hop stars traditionally haven't had much luck landing big endorsement packages because of their thug image. And this deal was especially significant because two years earlier, Bill O'Reilly of Fox News organized a campaign to boycott Pepsi for using Ludacris as the face of its advertising campaign.

Braun was able to convince Pontiac that the O'Reilly factor shouldn't dissuade them from jumping in bed with Ludacris.

Braun told Pontiac representatives, "You guys need a younger audience." Ludacris has a song called "Two Miles an Hour," and Braun says he convinced Pontiac to do a deal where their cars were featured in the song's music video, and the song was featured in their commercials. He also got Pontiac to let Ludacris choose the director for both the video and the commercial.

After the Pontiac deal, Braun got a gig as an entertainment consultant for the Atlanta Hawks; it was his job to bring celebrities to the games. He signed on to represent Brit and Alex, 20-year-old blond twin sisters who were the faces of the John Frieda Sheer Blonde campaign; Braun thinks they are going to be the next big thing in pop music. O.D.'s new single, "Boi Stop," just hit the airwaves and Braun says rapper/producer Akon has agreed to produce the group's next track. He just signed a contract with a production company to make a reality television show about his good friend, NBA player Jay Williams, and his comeback from a horrific motorcycle accident. And he's talking with Ludacris and folks in L.A. about getting involved in the film industry.

When Braun leaves Vision with the members of O.D., they meet producer Frank Nitti outside on the sidewalk. Nitti says he has a studio just around the corner and Braun tries to convince the group to drop everything and go there to record a track. But it's nearly 3 a.m. and everyone is tired. They decide to do it another day.

As he gets into his purple Mercedes, Braun stops and pulls his Verizon phone out of his jeans pocket and checks his voice mail. Then he steps on the gas and zooms out of the parking lot and back out on the street, full speed ahead.

coley.ward@creativeloafing.com

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