GSE executive David Kelly discusses with Boardroom why the Warriors have a record label and the impact they’re making in the community
When a sports ownership group wants to diversify its assets, it usually takes the route of owning surrounding real estate around its stadium or arena, maybe owning a regional sports network or media platform that broadcasts its team’s games. Or perhaps a foray into the hospitality industry is the play.
Last year, however, the Golden State Warriors took a different route and founded Golden State Entertainment (GSE), which includes not just live events and documentary film production but its own record label. It’s yet another value add for the Warriors, whose $7.7 billion Forbes valuation is the NBA‘s highest.
Warriors chief legal officer and GSE chief business officer David Kelly spearheaded this novel, outside-the-box approach as a natural extension of what Golden State tries to accomplish both on and off the court. Before attending Morehouse and getting a law degree at the University of Illinois, Kelly was one half of the legendary Chicago hip-hop group All Natural, where he was known as Capital D. He joined Golden State in 2011 but didn’t consider the entertainment concept until about four or five years ago.
People always talk about the relationship between hip-hop and basketball — and music and sports more broadly — with a growing number of artists using basketball specifically to promote their work, Kelly told Boardroom. It slowly grew from a seed in his mind to a larger, actionable idea.
Kelly put together an internal business plan and pitched it to Rick Welts, the celebrated longtime former NBA executive with the Warriors and Phoenix Suns. Welts helped Kelly revise the plan and set up a call with majority stakeholders Joe Lacob and Peter Guber.
“The plan was consistent with Joe’s vision of us not being just a sports team, and Peter already operates in the creative space,” Kelly said. “They had a lot of questions but got the idea pretty much off the bat. We should be creating and thinking about ourselves as a sports entertainment, media technology company.”
Golden State Entertainment’s overarching goal, Kelly said, is to engage in storytelling far beyond surface level. That applies to all three arms of the company — events, music, and film.
Scenes from Stand, the documentary released earlier this year about former NBA star and social justice activist Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, were filmed at Chase Center. GSE had a consulting producer credit on that film. GSE also played a supporting role in 38 at the Garden, the 2022 short film about “Linsanity” that was nominated for two primetime Emmys and won the 2023 Sports Emmy for Outstanding Short Documentary. Since Jeremy Lin was still an active NBA player during filming, GSE couldn’t play an official role in the movie’s financing or production. But Kelly said the company facilitated key behind-the-scenes connections.
On the music side, the GSE label has several signed artists with other projects actively dropping or in the works:
- Alternative group Tiny Deaths, led by Lizzo‘s former bandmate and The Guardian NBA columnist Claire de Lune, dropped its debut album of breakup ballads, “Spirit Of The Staircase,” Friday, Nov. 17 on GSE. Kelly had been following her on Twitter for her NBA takes and realized she’s also a talented vocalist. “It was divine timing because they were looking to get the label off the ground, and I had just recently left my old label of over four years and became a musical free agent,” de Lune told Boardroom. “It feels like all the stars aligned in my life. I never really thought music and basketball could intersect in such a cool and unique way.”
- Grammy-nominated dance duo SIDEPIECE dropped a sports-themed anthem, “Feel The Need,” on Nov. 10 in conjunction with GSE.
- Oakland-born rapper, singer, and producer Mayzin was introduced to Kelly by DJ D Sharp, the Warriors’ in-arena DJ. Kelly explained GSE’s vision to Mayzin and his manager and how he could fit into their plans as their first signed artist. “Over some time, it took some convincing for him to get the full vision of what it is that we were doing,” Kelly said. “But once he got it, we were able to sign him to a contract.” Mayzin and fellow Bay Area rapper Simba released a song under GSE last year, and a music video for “Paper Thick” by CALIsthenics featuring E-40, Casual, and Del the Funky Homosapien will also include the single dropping later this year headlined by Warriors fan and Bay icon E-40.
- Legendary Chicago writer, producer, and battle rapper J.U.I.C.E is also signed to GSE. In addition to writing music for the likes of Big Sean, Saweetie, Cash Doll, and Kanye West, J.U.I.C.E also defeated Eminem in one of the most famous rap battles of all time.
- Kelly and hip-hop luminary Rhymefest go back decades, growing up together in Chicago, and fit right in with GSE’s mission of working with nuanced and multifaceted artists. After not talking for nearly a decade, they were re-connected by chart-topping producer and former Def Jam and Capitol Music executive Dion “No I.D.” Wilson, who’s GSE’s creative and strategic advisor.
“Rhymefest has always been someone who deserves more light and attention than he’s ever received,” Kelly said. “I was blown away by some of his new music and said, ‘This is what we need to be involved in as Golden State Entertainment.'”
Kelly laid out GSE’s vision to Rhymefest, trying to make an impact in addition to turning a profit. Growing up, Rhymefest told Boardroom, Kelly helped him innovate and professionalize hip-hop when all Chicago rappers were just trying to win battles, create the hottest songs, and get them played on the local college radio station.
“Dave said, ‘No, man, we could press this up, sell it, and create a business around our brands or commodify our ideas,” Rhymefest said of young Capitol D.
Kelly urged Rhymefest to bring new music to Golden State, which aims to create content that impacts the community. Rhymefest is a rapper and longtime writer and collaborator, with writing credits on West’s Grammy-winning song “Jesus Walks” and Common and John Legend’s “Glory,” which won Academy and Golden Globe Awards. But he hasn’t put out new music that he’s written in more than a dozen years, turned off by what the music industry has devolved into.
“I saw the internet and the state of music as being an ocean that when you throw your droplet in it, it disappears into the ocean,” Rhymefest said. “I didn’t see how I could make music without exploiting my identity. What they proposed to me is ‘all Golden State wants is the type of deal I’ve been waiting for since J Records. My experience with the major labels soured me on the industry. My experience with Golden State is resurging my confidence in my music publicly. I know that with Golden State, it won’t be something where I have to betray myself in order to do it.”
Rhymefest’s upcoming project will see him rapping during breaks and pauses during a historic conversation between James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, a nearly 30-minute continuous song where Rhymefest will interject with bars, beats, and features.
“You can’t skip this project. If you try to skip us to the next song, it goes to the end,” he said. “We want people to engage with art again, and the only way you can engage with James and Nikki is to take it in like a rhythmic audiobook or a podcast that contextualizes history. So you’re hearing this dynamic conversation between James, Nikki, Rhymefest, and all of the wonderful women rappers that are on the album.”
This past week, Rhymefest completed a seminar series as a fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. He brought in Kelly for his final lecture on how sports and culture are ascendant business models and how they can be leveraged for social justice.
That overarching theme was the driving force for Golden State Entertainment’s events, which began with a performance by K-pop star BamBam last year that included co-branded merch. The Warriors went to the White House to celebrate their 2022-23 title before playing the Wizards on Martin Luther King Day. GSE released a song by Mistah F.A.B. called “My Perfect City” that included a timely message and a performance at halftime of the Morehouse-Howard game that day.
After the game, there was a panel discussion between Andre Iguodala, Wizards wing Johnny Davis, and Howard head coach Kenneth Blakeney about how to break into the sports industry.
While Kelly wants to mainly keep a separation of church and state between GSE and the Warriors, center Kevon Looney is interested in a post-playing career in the music industry. GSE brought Looney in with Mayzin as he was working on his album to show him that side of the business.
“We’ve had conversations with him about what his goals are, and just sharing information and getting his ears on some of the things we’re working on,” Kelly said.
When asked about GSE’s pathway to profitability, Kelly quoted Guber, who likes to say, “They don’t call it show show, they call it show business.” In addition to music streams and fees off of documentary projects, Kelly the value GSE brings sponsors from community content, events, and films that typical record labels can’t offer.
GSE has three full-time staffers and two others who have other positions with the Warriors. The next year will focus on looking at various music and film projects and nimbly moving in several different directions at once. Of the 10-15 projects they’re working on, Kelly said he’d like to see 3-4 of them come to fruition, including GSE’s first foray in the scripted space.
As the Warriors continue to excel on the court, Kelly and Golden State Entertainment strive to ensure a lasting cultural and social impact in the community in the years and decades to come.
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