MBW’s partnership with the excellent Did Ya Know? podcast continues, as Adrian Sykes talks to hip-hop royalty and groundbreaking executive Cookie Pryce about her experiences as an artist and as a Black woman in the business on both sides of the Atlantic…
Cookie Pryce is a pioneer of Black British music who went on to become a trailblazing Black female exec within the UK industry.
As a teenager, she and childhood friend Susan Banfield (Susie Q) formed Cookie Crew, a rap duo from South London who pre-dated artists such as Wee Papa Girl Rapas and Monie Love.
They had a top 10 hit almost by accident, with Rock Da House (credited to Beatmasters featuring Cookie Crew), but then forged a career based around their real passion, old-school hip-hop (or, as it was known then, hip-hop), recording two albums and touring with artists such as Public Enemy and De La Soul.
When the group ran out of steam (and enthusiasm), Pryce re-invented herself as an executive, working on both sides of the Atlantic, in press, promotions, marketing, live – and now as Director, Label Management at The Orchard.
Growing up in South London (something Cookie Crew were always proud of and often rapped about, even if some of the references baffled their US audience), she says “music was second nature to us; that’s what we did, we flicked through the import sections of the record shops in Clapham Junction and then we went home and listened to music”.
One day, in Susan’s kitchen, “we were listening to The Message and we decided we were going to write a rap”.
Soon after, BBC Radio London turned up to broadcast from Battersea Town Hall, where they were hanging out with some friends and a beatbox.
The presenter asked them what they did, “and so we said we were rappers. We’d never touched a mic in our life, we’d never performed. But what had we got to lose?”
The resulting publicity led to them taking to the stage for the first time (becoming rappers just weeks after they’d told a sizeable chunk of London they were rappers), at local shows and community events.
Until one day they heard about a rap competition at the legendary Wag Club: “We were nervous as hell, but we went down there and we put our names on the list. I can visualise it now: the place was crowded, we were standing kind of away from the stage, not even talking to each other because we were so nervous.
“We wanted to be taken seriously, because we loved our craft. We were there for the music.”
“And oh, we kiiiilled it. The crowd was going nuts, we could barely hear ourselves. When it was announced that we won: Oh. My. Days. Our feet didn’t touch the floor. The prize on the night was £200 and a recording contract. But we weren’t interested, we didn’t pursue that. We just wanted to be in this scene that was building and be part of this culture. We just wanted to rap.”
Which is what they did, for the next few whirlwind years, before splitting (whilst remaining friends), at which point Pryce entered the exec life, faced a whole new set of challenges, and overcame them with the same determination, confidence and skills she brought to the UK rap scene and then the world.
When you walked offstage at The Wag, did you at any point think, this is going to change my life?
We felt we felt elated, and we felt supported by the people that were with us.
We felt on a high and we felt very proud of South London, because things were kind of booming there at the time. But no, we didn’t think this is the next step in our career. I guess it was a form of acceptance.
We felt like people would take us seriously. There weren’t many girls around the scene, and we wanted to be taken seriously, because we loved our craft. We were there for the music, we were there for the culture.
I can remember a point where UK rap became very fashionable, it became an acceptable part of the mainstream music business. What was the moment when you became part of that world?
It actually kicked off when we got a call from the guys who were the Beatmasters, but before they became the Beatmasters. They were creating TV ads at the time, and they needed somebody to do voiceovers. They knew Tim Westwood and Tim recommended us.
We went down to see them and we did a few TV spots with them. Through that, we realised that we enjoyed working together in their studio, which was in Wardour Street; we just bonded.
At the time, when we did shows, we were still rapping over cassette tapes, and we told them it would be good to have some original music, like backing tracks.
Then they created this backing track, and they wanted us to write a rap to it, and what we wrote became Rock da House (1987, No. 5), which turned into this beast – and became known as the first ever hip-house track.
It was their project, it wasn’t really anything to us. It’s just a track, whatever.
Then it got into the hands of Mark Moore, who had a relationship with Rhythm King, and they were interested. We went for a meeting, but we still didn’t understand the business, so we just said, sure, put it out, do what you’re doing.
When it was a hit, second time round, with the remix, it really escalated. It started making noise in the US, but it was happening in the background for us, because we weren’t mixed up in the music business.
We didn’t have management, we didn’t understand the legal situation. Plus, we didn’t really want anything to do with this track, because it wasn’t us. We didn’t want to ruin our reputation as hardcore rappers, right?
So we kind of disowned it. I’m not mad at it, I’m grateful for it, because if it wasn’t for Rock da House, we wouldn’t have had all those majors knocking at our door. I think we may have even come to see you back in the day…
You may well have done, but I’ve got a funny feeling that somebody offered a lot more money than I was able to put on the table…
I think so, Adrian [laughs].
At the same time we met an amazing woman called Jean Davenport, who eventually became our manager.
She was booking UK shows for US rappers, flying back and forth to the States.
She had heard about us and we met her when Run DMC were playing Busby’s.
She said she wanted to book us for a show called Rap Attack. If that meeting hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you today to be honest.
There were so many people coming after us to manage us. We were having meetings with strange characters, and we always knew there was something a bit dodgy about them.
In the end, we persuaded her, and she looked after us very well. She was the one that walked us through everything, when the labels were ringing, and all the publishing companies were ringing.
Her and another wonderful woman, her sisterin-law called Mary McLennan, they became our management team. They kind of took control, because me and Susan didn’t have a clue.
We’d be in these meetings with lawyers and label heads, and we’d be sitting on the sofa while Jean and Mary were up front. And let me tell you, those two women were tough.
They didn’t take no shit from no one. People tried to take the piss, manipulate them, but you can’t fuck with Jean and Mary, let me tell you.
They were the ones who set us up as a limited company, they put us on a payroll, they made sure we put a deposit down on property.
They taught us everything. You know when you hear tragic stories about managers ripping people off, the artist signs a recording contract, then the manager gets a big car and the artist is broke? None of that with us.
What was your experience of being signed to a label as hip-hop/rap artists, trying to do something that was absolutely true to the core of who you were?
We were very lucky, actually.
We were also quite headstrong, stubborn in some cases. We told them what we wanted, but things were amicable. Pete Tong was our A&R, we had a good relationship with our label, and we just made sure we delivered.
Out of all the labels that we sat with, London Records/FFRR felt like the right home for us, because they listened.
We told them exactly what we wanted to do, we said we do not want to make more music like Rock da House, even though I’m sure they would have loved that.
We didn’t really understand that signing into a record label is a business deal, right? It’s a loan, and everybody wants a return on their investment, but we just didn’t want people to control us.
The deal was with London, and through Polygram worldwide.
So even travelling to the US and slotting into that culture, whilst retaining our British identity was… fun and challenging at some points, because we refused to be controlled or told what to wear.
We just wanted to be us, a couple of girls from South London who do what we want to do. But yes, at the same time, we will deliver what needs to be delivered.
So, you have all this amazing success as an artist, what was the point where you thought, I’m gonna become an executive?
To be honest, it wasn’t a case of, this is what I want to do. Because even though we were signed to a label, and we knew there was a promo team, a press team, a PR team etc., I still didn’t really understand what those roles were.
And also there was nobody that looked like us in those roles. But at the same time, it got to a point where the music they wanted us to make wasn’t what we were feeling. It became a bit difficult, a bit of a chore.
They wanted pop hits that we couldn’t deliver.
Mentally, we were ready to kind of wind down. We were still gigging, we didn’t shut down completely, we just didn’t want to be tied to that corporate thing, we needed a break from it.
I think it was the best thing for us, because if we had carried on, it could have turned horrible I wanted to stay creative – but work at a label? I didn’t really know what that was.
How do you apply for that? I just got on a hustle, really. And I semi-reinvented myself.
I registered with a bunch of agencies, got my foot in the door with a couple of reception jobs here and there, and I just kept getting callbacks from different departments, because I was good at whatever I was doing.
I ended up in the press department at MCA, and I liked it, it was a nice environment. Then there was a round of redundancies, which was a blessing because there was this New York artist, A+, coming over to do promo.
We were putting together an itinerary, and in one of the emails I recognised this name, Vivian Scott Chew, the founder of TimeZone International [who had previously worked with Cookie Crew as part of the US promo team within Polygram].
She knew everybody, right? She also knows the culture of this country.
She came over with A+ and that’s when we connected again. That very same week, I was made redundant from Universal [who had bought MCA], she asked me if I wanted to go to the States and work with her.
And the interesting thing about going to work in the US is how people received me back in the UK.
Tell me what was different in the way people treated you…
The UK is a very interesting space, particularly the industry that we work in.
We see that things are now changing, we’re seeing people of colour in different spaces.
Back then, that wasn’t the case; there was a handful of us, right? But there was, God, it’s such a triggering thing sometimes…
You know that you’re right, and that you should be in different spaces, but you were never pulled through the ranks, no matter how hard you try, or what you do, or who you are, what your background is, what your credentials are, what your merits are; that didn’t mean anything to anyone.
So going to the US and seeing that flip around, being a person of colour with a British accent, that was a bonus in itself. And they respected the work that you put in.
If Vivian didn’t take me to New York, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you. Because I think she was the one that reminded me of who I was and how good I am and that there were possibilities.
So, when I came back to the UK, I came back with a different energy.
What do you remember about your experiences in the UK industry at that time?
There were lots of what I now know as microaggressions in the way urban music was treated back then, even just how things were dealt with in meetings.
There’s one incident which still triggers, it really shouldn’t, but it does.
We had a massive planning meeting for a massive artist, Missy Elliott. I set it up, all departments would be attending and it was during lunchtime, which meant we sorted out some food, sandwiches etc.
A few people dropped out nearer the time, but it was a very good meeting. And usually at the end of any kind of planning meeting, you get some kind of positive reaction from your leaders.
After this meeting, I was pulled back and someone said, ‘Er, Cookie, you’ve ordered too many sandwiches.’ Now, I hadn’t, people had dropped out, but either way, what a reaction.
What a thing to say. But those are the kinds of things I was dealing with.
Going to the US, it was a different space for me.
I changed, I was invited to meetings, I was included in conversations and I was communicating with people in the UK that probably never had the time of day for me when I was there. So that was interesting.
Also, going to the US and seeing people that look like us… they have their own problems in the States, we know that, but you do stand a better chance of being accepted into that environment and being a part of something where you’re going to grow together. In the UK, I wasn’t getting that.
Seeing all that, what made you decide to come back?
There was an element of something here that I was missing.
I wanted to come back and make it work.
But even coming back, applying for jobs that had my name written all over them, and being told you’re not experienced enough, it blew my mind. But I was determined to do it in this space, because this is where I’m from.
I could have easily stayed, but I was missing London, I really was.
And when you did come back, how was it trying to break into a space where, as you say, there weren’t many people who looked like you?
I think I was just determined, particularly when you’re working music that you’re passionate about, and you know more about it than those who are sort of trying to tell you about yourself. It’s like, this ain’t right. It just took time.
And let’s not get it twisted, we still have hurdles to jump over. But I wanted to win, I didn’t want to give up.
Some people I know have given up in the past, because there’s always moments where you ask, why am I dealing with this?
But hang on a minute, this is what I do. That’s why I’ve managed to keep myself relevant, I think.
What were some of the challenges that you faced, as a Black woman in the music business in the UK? What was it like for you?
Just not being included. Not being included in meetings about music and artists that you were going to be working across. Not being invited to that event, or sitting around that dinner table, with those artists I’m working.
And the truth is that when those artists come to town, they’re looking for the people of colour – and when they find you, they find you. I found that challenging.
They didn’t want our faces round that table for fear of… I don’t know what. Us getting on, us forming a working relationship. I think we now know what it was, but at the time, there wasn’t enough of us to fight the cause.
Although we did fight, and we had our moments, it wasn’t like now where you can actually have conversations and speak honestly. Back in the day, you say anything and it’s like, Oh, what happened to such and such? Silence.
How do you think the business has changed with regard to those moments of opportunity and that conversation?
It has changed drastically, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. Businesses need to do better. With this generation now, they’re the ones that are in control, with the power of social media, and the power of people talking directly to each other.
Back in our day, you can’t talk to that person over there, because you’ve got to go through this person and that person. Everyone was holding those gates closed. But now they can’t control that.
Things have gotten better because younger people, they have fire in their belly. And they’re not scared, they’re not afraid to speak. And what happened a couple of years ago, in 2020, I think that spoke volumes.
And I sometimes wonder, if 2020 didn’t happen, if the pandemic didn’t kick off, if George Floyd didn’t happen, if Blackout Tuesday didn’t happen, what would this space look like now?
2020 was the first time I was able to really speak my mind without repercussions. That’s a big difference. I think things would have changed, but it would have been at a slower pace.
I was seeing change visibly, seeing young people of colour, because somebody in that company was bringing people through.
You can’t ignore what young people of colour are doing for this industry, the music they bring in and what they contribute financially; people are making money, right? And that’s sexy stuff for this industry.
So people have been allowed in and given roles, but those roles need to be elevated. People are coming in at entry level, but what about the elevation?
That’s what’s missing, people are working hard and not getting the same opportunities. Since 2020, I’m very mindful of fasttracking, you know, promotions, different job titles. Okay, so we are good?
We are good for those titles? So why wasn’t that happening five, 10, 15 years ago? Because it could be performative action. I don’t want to think it is that, but there was a lot of fast tracking post-2020.
I love that, I love what I’m seeing, but where’s that come from? Why are you doing it now, and so quickly?
The most cynical answer is that a lot of it was window dressing, being seen to be doing the right thing. And it’s a conversation that’s come up a couple of times in this series. Do you see it as that? Or do you see it as the industry actually wanting to make meaningful change?
I think they do want to make meaningful change.
It’s just unfortunate, all the things that happened to kickstart and to go at the pace it did. So I suppose some of it will look like window dressing, but I want to see all that is happening flourish into something that is real and sustainable.
I want to see people grow in their roles, grow at a company.
“Are we allowed to have our own voice, or do we have to pay lip service until we catch up?”
I want to see more people of colour in leadership and making decisions.
And that’s happening, in the past 24 months or so, but it has to continue.
There’s still a lot of work to be done, and it has to be done right.
We also have to represent, right, when we bring ourselves through or bring people through and give people opportunities: do good, do things with purpose, don’t let us down, don’t let me down.
How do you think the music business has changed in its relationship to women and women of colour?
I’m not going to deny it has changed, but, again, it could be better. I think there’s more men of colour in leadership positions right in this country. I would like to see more women, and more elders.
Because we see elders in terms of white executives.
I want to see black people working in those jobs and then taking retirement, not all of a sudden disappearing after whatever period of time in the industry.
It’s about having that longevity, putting those people in senior positions and allowing them to be who they are.
Because the problem with not enough of those people existing is, when we do get in the door, do we have to comply with the way things have always been?
Are we allowed to create our own way, basically? Are we allowed to have our own voice, or do we need to play lip service until we catch up?
But yes, there needs to be more women and more women of colour.
And they’re out there, we all know they’re out there, and the young ones that are coming through, they’re gonna kill it – and I can’t wait to see that happen.
You’re one of the first black women execs in this business. And one of the fantastic things, and I hope you know this, is that there are so many Black women in this business who hold you up as someone that opened the door and paved the way. Do you see yourself that way?
Yes, I do, actually; I’m going to own that.
Because I’ve also had longevity, against all the odds.
I’m still here. Over the years, I’ve worked at different businesses, I’ve worked with different circles of people, I’ve worked with people from different generations, and I can still maintain, in any circle.
Which women, either from previously or now, do you see as role models and inspirations?
First and foremost is most definitely Taponeswa [Mavunga, Director of Africa, Sony Music UK] and Mel [Rudder, Founder, Three Thirty Music]. Walking into a label [Atlantic] and meeting those two was incredible.
I don’t think I’d ever worked at a label where I had Black female colleagues, and we got very tight. We still are very tight. You know, Mel didn’t realise that she was incredible. I had to tell her.
She knew she was putting in the work, but she wasn’t being told how amazing she was. We created such a bond, we called ourselves the urban angels, and we delivered.
We worked some amazing projects where it was just us as a team pulling it out of the bag. We made it happen. So I take my hat off to those two, they’re still my mentors to this day,
Give us an overview of your role as Senior Label Manager at The Orchard.
I manage the day-to-day of people’s businesses: setting up releases, getting tracks onto the DSPs, working with the retail marketing team, and just being the linchpin, getting their music to market, and overseeing all the internal mechanics that make a release.
It’s educating, it’s teaching them about best practices, how to set up a release.
Because a lot of people are creative, but they don’t know the processes of how to get their stuff to market.
We’re there to support that. And it’s across the board, it’s not just one genre, I’ll work across different styles of music, different businesses, and not only in the UK.
It’s running a label, basically, but multiple labels not one label at a time. I’ve been at this company for eight years, I’ve never stayed anywhere this long, because I like the people I work with – and that’s a big deal.
This interview is taken from a new podcast series, Did Ya Know?, which tells the often unheard stories of key figures in the British music industry, and is focusing initially on pioneering executives of colour. The team behind the new pod includes Stellar Songs co-founder Danny D and Decisive Management co-founder Adrian Sykes. Music Business Worldwide and our sister brand, MBUK, are proud to be partners and supporters of Did Ya Know?. You can listen to it wherever you find your favourite podcasts.Music Business Worldwide