Action lady — Karen Mason and the story behind Elektra reggae
This is the fourth in an eight-part feature on the impact of women on reggae as artistes, administrators and managers. Today we feature record executive Karen Mason.
When the annals of dancehall are documented, most musicologists will agree that the 1990s were the genre's golden age. One of the persons responsible for that glittering period was Karen Mason.
Mason was an executive at the major Elektra Records which had a number of dancehall and reggae acts on its roster. They included Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, Steel Pulse, Terror Fabulous, Beres Hammond and Nadine Sutherland.
The Marleys were Elektra's biggest Jamaican act but through its EastWest subsidiary, the label made its mark with dancehall songs like Action by Nadine Sutherland and Terror Fabulous, and Anything For You which heard Canadian deejay Snow leading an all-star dancehall cast.
Mason had worked at Epic and Colombia Records prior to Elektra. There, she helped push Super Cat's Don Dada album, as well as the careers of hip-hop groups Kriss Kross and Cypress Hill.
In a recent interview with the Jamaica Observer from her home in Atlanta, Georgia, Mason said her policy at Colombia and Elektra were similar as far as it related to dancehall performers.
"My world really came together when (Colombia executive) Carol Cooper signed Super Cat. It was a proud moment to create and design the marketing plan that would launch the Don Dada album," she recalled. "The goal was to keep him true to his roots without compromise."
Don Dada's commercial success not only established Super Cat as a dancehall giant, but introduced him to the emerging hip-hop audience. It would serve him well later when he collaborated on massive hits with Kriss Kross and surfer group Sugar Ray.
Mason said Colombia set the pace for move to Elektra where she found a mentor in the label's influential CEO, Sylvia Rhone.
"She was very open-minded and trusted my decisions, so after she signed Terror Fabulous I convinced her to release Action even though it had been out for two years," Mason explained.
She added: "I had no interest in re-packaging Terror, I wanted to present him as he was while marketing the nuances, culture and style of Jamaica."
Action entered the Billboard pop chart in 1994 while its music video made the MTV Top 10. Fabulous' hardcore Yagga Yagga album, released that year, sold a respectable 250,000 units.
Making a name in the music business was high on Mason's chart since her years as a student at Syracuse University in New York where she majored in communications and music industry.
Born in Reading, St James, she immigrated to the United States in the 1970s and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. She entered the music business in the early 1990s when major companies were embracing urban sounds, namely rap and hip-hop.
Senior executives at these companies were also keen to work with small, aggressive independent labels like Uptown Records and Bad Boy Records. The latter was run by Sean 'Puffy' Combs.
'Indie' reggae labels like VP Records and RAS Records eventually got into the game as feeder trees for majors such as Atlantic, Colombia and Epic which had Jamaicans like Maxine Stowe and Mason in their Artist and Repertoire and marketing departments.
Mason believes the music industry has gone through a massive transformation since the 1990s. She doubts current industry players would log on to her premise of 'taking reggae mainstream without compromise'.
"The music business as we know it is done. Marketing and multiple streams of income is what will separate the successful artiste from the others," she said. "Managers and artistes must develop multiple licensing streams."
The mother of an adult daughter, Mason is presently a producer, location scout/manager and music supervisor for films and television. Her credits include several Tyler Perry movies, MTV's Teen Wolf, BET's The Game and most recently the movie, Let The Church Say Amen, directed by actress Regina King.