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The secret of his success 

Gene Griffin scored hits in three genres over three decades by knowing when and where to hang out

For music-industry veteran Gene Griffin, hanging out has paid off nicely. It put him in the right place at the right time to hit it big. Three times.

He squeezed one of the more notable, and last, hits out of the disco era in the early '80s. He found himself at ground zero for the birth of that late-'80s R&B/hip-hop fusion known as new jack swing, where he scored his largest success as a songwriter and producer. And after years of struggle, Griffin's skill at hanging out jump-started his career once more, when he brought Georgia's dirty underground hip-hop to national attention.

Ask business associates like Universal Records Executive Vice President Jean Riggins and they'll say Griffin's chief strength is his ability, even at 58 years old, to "keep his ear to the street." Of course, that's just another way of saying Griffin is very good at hanging out.

It's a weekday afternoon in mid-winter, and Griffin sits in his office reminiscing like he's got all the time in the world for you. He's the only staffer currently at Sound of Atlanta headquarters, located in a nondescript single-story office park down the street from Peachtree-DeKalb Airport. The rest of the place is mostly quiet and dark, and Griffin strikes a commanding presence in his executive office -- middle-aged, bald, with tinted shades and two thick, loop earrings. He's part Quincy Jones cool, part George Foreman friendly.

The slow pace at SOA might have to do with the current cycle of business that finds the label between releases. Late last year, it put out Augusta rapper Miracle's second album, Keep it Country, through a deal with Universal Records (the record has failed to take off the way its predecessor did, yielding the hit "Bounce"). Next up is the debut of South Carolina's South Kak, whose first single, "Freaky Dreams," features Roger Troutman's distinctive vocoder-bent singing, one of the late funkmaster's last recordings.

Or maybe, the office's laid-back vibe has something to do with Griffin's Southernness. Though you can hardly hear it in his clear, unaccented voice, his Georgia roots run deep. He grew up in Columbus, where his father served in the Army, his grandfather was a minister and his mother still lives. Griffin, though, left the first chance he got -- he took a bus to New York at 14, he says, after graduating high school early. After his own stint in the Army and some college time, Griffin settled in Harlem and slowly gravitated toward music.

"Back in those days we all hung around 7th Avenue at 135th Street," Griffin recalls. "Small's Paradise was right around the corner. And all the bands would come in there, including Jimi Hendrix and all those people, so you met everybody. We'd go to Birdland, we'd hang out at the Village Gate. Music was something you were naturally drawn to because there really wasn't anything else to do but go to work and hang out. Then I just started to say, 'Well, maybe I should do some of this.'"

In the late '60s, he took his first job in the music business, promoting records for CBS. It lasted a couple of years, until he got laid off. But he kept a foot in music through the '70s, owning parts of clubs, promoting shows and trying his hand at being a dancer himself.

"I thought I could dance. I couldn't," he says. "But it kept me in the clubs. And that made me aware of music, the kind of music people wanted to dance to and hear. And that was subconsciously the beginnings of my record career."

First, though, Griffin spent 18 months in jail for "selling weed in the streets." But once he got out, he reunited with another former record promoter and founded Sound of New York Records. After some initial success with an early rap song -- 1980's "Rock Skate Bounce" by Trickeration, which featured two kids rhyming over a pre-recorded instrumental track they bought in a record store -- Griffin finally scored big. He put out a single by a group destined to be a one-hit wonder. But one is all it takes to get a career going, and the international success of Indeep's disco-funk romp, "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life," launched Griffin as a player in the music industry.

With Griffin established as a bonafide hitmaker, he set out looking for new acts to break. After a few misses, he arrived at a teen singing group called Kids At Work. He'd known the act's leader for years. Griffin met Teddy Riley the typical way -- hanging out.

"Teddy lived in the projects on 7th Avenue, behind the Apollo Theater," Griffin says. "I would come down and hang around on the corner, and there was a handball court where we used to play handball. And there was this little kid that was always talking about music, trying to play guitars and all that nonsense. And he became like a little kid of mine, he was 7 at the time. He didn't want to go to school, but I saw to it that he went to school, and helped his mom out, because his mom would come home late. And with me hanging out in the streets of 7th Avenue, he would just hang around me."

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