Home Business & Ventures Brent Faiyaz on ISO Supremacy Label & ‘Keeping My Ear to the Street’

Brent Faiyaz on ISO Supremacy Label & ‘Keeping My Ear to the Street’

by cashonbank.com
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At just 10 years old, Christopher Brent Wood’s ­metamorphosis into indie disruptor Brent Faiyaz began.

As he collected CDs by D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill and Joe, among other R&B/hip-hop artists, the youngster would steadily pore over album liner notes, absorbing the behind-the-scenes details of how his favorite albums were made. By middle school, he had set up his first home studio, with a USB mic and downloaded software — the start of his shift from music fan to music-maker.

“I was making money selling beats; that’s how I got a lot of my friends when I was younger,” Faiyaz, 28, recalls today of his teenage years in the Baltimore area. “It’d be like grown motherf–kers coming to the house to get beats off me. My parents were like, ‘Who are these grown adults coming by the house? What’s going on?’ ”

Faiyaz’s parents had once pushed him to attend college. But eventually, that morphed into, “Can you just please graduate [high school]?” Faiyaz recalls with a chuckle, “because my grades were so bad. It was like you can do something all day every day, but if it’s not bringing no money to the house, they figured you needed a plan B or C. But music was all I wanted to do. So I kind of had to prove them wrong.”

Faiyaz has done just that. Since he began releasing his own music on SoundCloud over a decade ago, he has upended the contemporary R&B scene with his raw, frank lyrics and ’90s-vibed alt-R&B sound — and become a bona fide mainstream hit-maker in the process. After gaining national attention with his guest turn (alongside Shy Glizzy) on GoldLink’s multiplatinum hit “Crew,” Faiyaz dropped his debut studio album, Sonder Son, in 2017. His loyal fan base continued to grow, and he broke through on the Billboard 200 in 2020 with his EP F–k the World, which bowed at No. 20; two years later, his second studio album, Wasteland, debuted at No. 2 on the chart, powered by the platinum singles “Gravity” (with Tyler, The Creator) and “Wasting Time” (with Drake and The Neptunes). Faiyaz has earned 4.7 million equivalent album units in the United States and 6.5 billion official on-demand U.S. streams for songs on which he’s the lead artist, according to Luminate, and he has charted 13 songs on the Billboard Hot 100, 20 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and 33 on Hot R&B Songs. Faiyaz’s solo catalog of songs on which he’s credited as a primary artist generated 2.16 billion on-demand audio streams (inclusive of user-generated content) in the U.S. over the past 12 months ending May 30, 2024, according to Luminate. That’s the most among acts whose catalogs are distributed independently and outside of the major-owned indie distribution system.

It’s Faiyaz’s unwavering work ethic, creative visual flair and keen entrepreneurial instincts that have helped him craft one of independent music’s biggest recent success stories. In 2015, he and his manager, Ty Baisden, co-founded the label Lost Kids, which released F–k the World and Wasteland, and their success caught the attention of music distributor UnitedMasters and its founder and CEO, Steve Stoute. The company partnered with Faiyaz in 2023 to launch creative agency ISO Supremacy, and Faiyaz’s first ISO album, Larger Than Life, arrived that October, reaching No. 11 on the Billboard 200. The same year, he embarked on his F*ck the World, It’s a Wasteland world tour, playing theaters and grossing $5.3 million over 18 shows, according to Billboard Boxscore.

“A lot of it was timing,” the soft-spoken Faiyaz reflects today over his lunch of Mongolian lamb at a tony Beverly Hills restaurant. “I was fortunate enough to be in a space where I had the mainstream hit record with ‘Crew,’ and then I also had the underground sh-t. So I was able to tackle the super music heads and the mainstream audience all at one time. By the time Wasteland dropped, it was just perfect timing.”

Wales Bonner suit and Ray-Ban sunglasses.

Austin Hargrave

Of course, for him to take advantage of such perfect timing, he had to put in the work first. After graduating from high school in 2013, Faiyaz (whose stage surname means “artistic leader” in Arabic and was inspired by a close high school friend who’s Muslim) relocated to Charlotte, N.C. While he worked jobs at a grocery store and Dunkin’, Faiyaz continued to record and upload music on SoundCloud for his budding fan base. That’s where his kindred indie spirit — and eventual manager and business partner — Baisden discovered him. But it was Faiyaz’s singing, not his rapping, that intrigued Baisden.

“I clicked on a song called ‘Natural Release,’ ” says Baisden, who broke into the business as a manager in 2008 before co-founding multisector firm COLTURE in 2018. “It was the only song that Brent was singing and had more plays than all the other songs. While it gave me a whole wave like Frank Ocean, the way Brent’s tone felt made it his own world. I was like, ‘Man, this is fire,’ because he raps how he talks but he doesn’t sing how he talks. It’s a completely different audio experience.”

But despite his love of R&B, Faiyaz didn’t initially see himself as “built for R&B singing. I wasn’t really a take-my-shirt-off-and-show-my-abs kind of guy [onstage], so I didn’t think I was suited for it. And Ty said, ‘That doesn’t necessarily have to be what you do.’ So I just took the things that I would have been rapping about and put it in a way where I could sing it.”

Brent Faiyaz photographed April 11, 2024 in Los Angeles.

Givenchy shirt and jacket.

Austin Hargrave

Baisden flew to Charlotte to meet Faiyaz, and the pair ultimately joined forces as founding partners in Lost Kids, named for Faiyaz’s high school crew; he has the letters tattooed on his knuckles. “The whole ideology of Lost Kids came from [Brent],” Baisden says. He handles everything related to Faiyaz’s business; Faiyaz maintains control over all creative aspects of his career. (“He isn’t in the studio with me; he isn’t picking my singles,” he says of Baisden.) As 50/50 partners in Lost Kids, Baisden and Faiyaz have — beyond music and publishing — also invested in startup companies, real estate and the Show You Off grant program, which supports Black women entrepreneurs. In a full-circle moment, Faiyaz’s mother, Jeanette, is also involved in Lost Kids’ philanthropic efforts.

“If we hadn’t met each other,” Faiyaz says of Baisden, “we would both definitely still be successful in our respective lanes because we’re both so driven and focused with similar visions. We’re learning from each other, but we didn’t go into this trying to do each other’s jobs. That’s what makes our alliance so special.”

As he and Faiyaz started working together, Baisden laid down one cardinal rule out of the gate for independent success: “That budget is the Bible.” Indie artists especially “have to really understand that,” he says today. “Brent would get mad because I’d say, ‘We can’t afford that, it’s too much. We’ll go out of business.’ ”

“Oh, man, it was the worst,” Faiyaz recalls with a laugh. “I was so focused on creativity that my ideas were outrageous. For me, a budget limited my creativity; it was like, ‘Pop the balloon.’ ”

“The funny thing,” Baisden explains, “[is] that when you look back today at our 2018 video for ‘Gang Over Luv’ [an early Faiyaz single], it only cost $50,000. But we still had Brent on a dirt bike, flying on a plane, the plane blowing up… it was incredible for being shot independently. There weren’t a lot of videos, but those that were shot were good investments. And the [budget] backlash at the time grew a smarter executive.” Now Faiyaz says he knows not only how to work with a budget but “how to maximize off the bare minimum — probably one of the most important things I’ve learned.”

When Faiyaz began truly blowing up in 2020, he found himself among a formidable contingent of male crooners including PartyNextDoor, Bryson Tiller, Lucky Daye and fellow newcomer Giveon. His supple tenor, which effortlessly slides into falsetto range in a way that’s reminiscent of R&B’s ’90s heyday, helped him stake his claim.

“I love things that sound throwback but are unique,” says Grammy Award-winning producer No ID, who collaborated with Faiyaz on Wasteland. “Brent’s music gives me a lot of the energy I felt from what I call the basement crew back then with Jodeci, Timbaland and Static. It has a gospel overtone, but it’s not gospel. There’s a tension in it. But it’s not overly soft even when he says ‘soft’ things.”

Brent Faiyaz photographed April 11, 2024 in Los Angeles.

Brent Faiyaz photographed April 11, 2024 in Los Angeles. Stüssy x Levi’s pants.

Austin Hargrave

That tension stems from Faiyaz’s raw, fearless lyrics, which explore subjects ranging from life post-pandemic and the pressures of fame to romance and self-love, paired with his melodious and innovative blend of R&B, Afrobeats, rap, pop and other sonic influences. “His music always has a little edge to it. I love witty lyrics and syncopation,” No ID adds. “It’s just a great mixture for me. And a lot of people don’t have that naturally.”

Because of that edge, especially in its lyrics, some listeners have labeled his music “toxic,” pointing to songs like “F*ck the World” (“Your n—a caught us texting/You said, ‘Baby, don’t be mad, you know how Brent is’ ”) and “WY@” from Larger Than Life (“I be doing sh-t I really shouldn’t do for real/That’s why I always tell you to come through for real”). But Faiyaz says he’s simply drawing on real life, whether his own experiences, those of friends or just “keeping my ear to the street and checking the temperature.”

“R&B music is soulful and reality-driven,” he continues. “I want to portray the good, the bad, the ugly… I want to have a song for every situation you could possibly be going through. Life can be toxic sometimes, and I have records for that. That word tends to be the narrative because of the shock involved when people say, ‘Man, I can’t believe you said that.’ But people who have been following my music know that for every toxic record, there’s a heartfelt record, a sweet record. But being toxic was never the vision or intentional identity I was trying to portray. I’m making songs that to me are true.”

The initially shy Faiyaz grows impassioned as he discusses his love of songwriting. Prince and Stevie Wonder first sparked it in him, but he also names Max Martin, Dolly Parton, Kurt Cobain and more from far beyond R&B and hip-hop as influences. “When it comes to songwriting, genre doesn’t matter,” he says. “I grew up on a lot of different music, and I’m big on lyrics. I love writing music because it’s cathartic, my biggest form of release. If I leave it on a song, I don’t have to walk around with it.”

Faiyaz has considered, more than once, what a nonindependent career might look like. Early on, he pitched himself to major-label A&R executives. “The idea of going to a label and doing a deal was only something that I knew to do because that’s what I’d seen done so many times,” he reflects. “They offered me deals that I wasn’t trying to sign: Giving me a percentage of some music that I made before I even came to [them] just didn’t sit right. There was no deep spiritual stance or me planting a flag of independence. It was just, ‘This deal doesn’t make sense, so I’m not going to do it.’ ”

By 2016, multiple labels under the majors were courting him. And following the one-two punch of F–k the World and Wasteland, they came calling again. At that point, it had been several years since Faiyaz had last met with executives on that side of the industry — so despite “already having a grudge” from that first experience, he was willing to hear them out. This time around, however, he kept another of Baisden’s key rules of independence in mind: Know your value.

“It kills me when labels sign an artist knowing who that artist is creatively, but then they try to dictate their music and other things,” he explains. “Nothing is going to stifle your creativity more than having to say yes to some lame sh-t that you don’t want to do or being told no to some really cool sh-t that you want to do. It’s really no deeper than that for me. So I went with my gut.”

Brent Faiyaz photographed April 11, 2024 in Los Angeles.

Isabel Marant jacket, shirt, pants and shoes.

Austin Hargrave

That brought Faiyaz to UnitedMasters and Steve Stoute. “Brent was unapologetically independent prior to me meeting him,” Stoute recalls. “In fact, that was what made me so interested in him. I knew that he was turning down major labels left and right. He had built a very strong team and infrastructure with his manager, Ty. So what he was looking for was a partner to provide him financial capital to go into other ventures that were creative.”

In a partnership deal signed in May 2023 — which a source close to the situation told Billboard at the time was valued at nearly $50 million — the pair announced the launch of Faiyaz’s own creative agency specializing in “visual and sonic art”: ISO Supremacy (ISO stands for “in search of”). “I liked the model, the creative freedom,” says Faiyaz, who serves as CEO. “And I was able to keep working with the people I’d been working with.” At the agency, “from the artists we work with to the creatives and directors we have on board, everything is pretty much about just what we think is cool [or are] hearing word-of-mouth spreading about something that is fire — and then we see how we’re going to translate and elevate this sh-t to the world.”

“Brent is a very talented musician and visual artist,” Stoute says. “He’s a very intelligent businessman whose contributions to the music business and independent artists have been profound.” One of those artists is R&B/hip-hop singer-songwriter Tommy Richman, ISO Supremacy’s first signee — brought to Faiyaz’s attention by his high school friend and ISO partner/COO Darren Xu — through a joint venture with PULSE Records. (Faiyaz’s relationship with PULSE dates back to 2016, when he entered his first publishing deal with PULSE Music Group after moving to Los Angeles; he renewed it in 2022.) Following his August 2023 signing, Richman — also managed by Xu and who opened Faiyaz’s recent tour and appeared on Larger Than Life — rocketed to No. 2 on the Hot 100 in May with his first single, “Million Dollar Baby.”

“You soak in a lot,” Richman says of his time spent with Faiyaz. “I feel like if I didn’t move with Brent this past year — with the shit that’s happening right now — I would crash and burn. Being with him at clubs or shows, seeing how he interacts with people and how he carries himself, I picked up on a lot. You’d think that hanging out with somebody like that, you’d get a big ego. But honestly, it has humbled me more. He’s just a normal f–king guy from Maryland who just makes beautiful songs.”

As with Baisden, PULSE Music Group senior vp/head of creative Ashley Calhoun and now with Xu, Stoute and Richman, Faiyaz’s business interactions reflect how he has prioritized building long-term relationships as an independent artist. “I’m about the people more than I am about anything else,” Faiyaz says. “If I can run with you and kick it with you when there’s no business being discussed, then you’re somebody I want to do business with.”

Brent Faiyaz photographed April 11, 2024 in Los Angeles.

Givenchy shirt, jacket, pants and shoes.

Austin Hargrave

Since wrapping his most recent tour in November, Faiyaz, who lives in Miami, has been enjoying some downtime. But that doesn’t keep him from enthusiastically reeling off a list of projects he’s currently developing, ranging from films, commercials and signing more artists to further expanding his clothing brand, NUWO (an acronym, in keeping with his indie ethos, for Not Unless We Own). He’s even picking up a long-forgotten passion again: drawing, which he last did in a class he received a scholarship for at the Maryland Institute College of Art when he was 8. When it comes to creation of any kind, Faiyaz says, “I love everything about the ideation process, every piece of it. Then once it gets to the point of consumption, I’m past it and moving on to the next.”

As our lunch winds down and the restaurant becomes quiet, our waiter returns with the culinary director in tow: It turns out that both are major-league Faiyaz fans. “Thanks for coming,” the director says with palpable excitement. “I wish you’d been at Coachella. Keep doing your thing; you’re killing it!”

Faiyaz seems surprised to be treated like a rock star. “Thank you, man. Appreciate you,” he responds politely, seeming to register a gamut of emotions that evolve from slightly surprised to humble to quietly moved as he agrees to the duo’s tentative request for a photo. But that brief exchange encapsulates just how far Faiyaz has come in his unwavering quest to own all facets of his career — and to telegraph that message to aspiring artists and listeners alike.

“My role musically and artistically, that’s not really up for me to interpret,” Faiyaz says matter-of-factly. “There are still a lot more things I want to learn. But now I’m realizing how important it was to break the mold so that people can see my story, see what we did and say, ‘All right, I can do that. It’s just another way to go about it. It doesn’t really have to be so black and white.’ That has been my role: to usher in this new wave of creative freedom.”

Additional reporting by Shira Brown and Carl Lamarre.

Brent Faiyaz Billboard Magazine Cover June 8, 2024

This story will appear in the June 8, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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