Meet the man who turned a blogspot into a brand and unknown artists into superstars.
Not all owls hoot.
At night in the trees of Toronto, the label known as OVO Sound has made noise in the light by working hard after dark.
All around the world, anthems attached to Drake, PARTYNEXTDOOR, and Popcaan penetrate pop culture by way of both Billboard charts and underground dance halls. In 2023, all members of OVO ball, having the champagne stains and big rings to prove it.
Still, it’s someone in the shadows who makes it all work: OVO Sound President, Mr. Morgan.
“He’s the silent ninja,” producer Nineteen85 tells Boardroom. “The glue behind much of the OVO ship.”
Overly devoted and never self-promoted, the music industry vet has made a name for the likes of DVSN, Majid Jordan, and countless others while never trying to make a name for himself.
“I don’t do interviews too often,” Morgan tells Boardroom. “I’ve never been in it for the accolades. It’s not about me, it’s about everyone I work with.”
For one of the rare times in OVO’s 10-year history, Boardroom was able to talk to Mr. Morgan about his reloaded roster and what’s in store for 2023. Even better? We got to learn a little bit about the mystery man himself.
The Moon to the Stars
You might not know who Mr. Morgan is. Even some of OVO’s most die-hard listeners don’t.
Aside from a TED Talk panel and profile with SLAM, Morgan’s shifted the sound of modern music without ever saying much.
Over the course of a career that’s included consulting for Atlantic Records to serving as SVP of A&R at RCA Records, Morgan’s influenced our ears and evolved our sonic palettes whether we know it or not.
“At one point he was doing the radio servicing for Sean Paul,” Nineteen85 says. “Being the guy who introduced the world to the reggae boom of the early ’00s? He’s had so many different roles in the music industry that he’s the everything guy at this point.”
Being the everything guy means managing the likes of 40, Vinylz, 85, and others through his M3 Entertainment arm while also introducing new artists through his governing role at OVO Sound.
When it comes to taking new artists to new audiences, he’s been at it for a while.
“I managed Kardinal Official,” Morgan says. “He was an ambassador to Canada as far as breaking down a lot of doors.”
Working with a Toronto artist but having moved to New York City, Morgan started to see just what an MC from his homeland could do thanks to the success of “Dangerous.” Around the same time Kardinal was waving the flag, he flagged an actor-turned-rapper from the North intent on the same ascent.
“He told me, ‘People don’t realize, but Drake? He can rap his ass off,'” Morgan recalls. “And Kardinal was the super critic of everyone on that level.”
Sensing talent and timing, Morgan met with the Degrassi star set on making it in the unforgiving music industry.
“He definitely wanted to be taken seriously,” Morgan says. “He had a very clear vision of who he was, who he wanted to be, and what he was going to accomplish. It was almost to a point where I was having a hard time believing it.”
Unsure if the teenage actor was in it for the long run or in character, Morgan maintained an ear to the emerging Drake. The Toronto talent spent the New York winter crashing in the apartment of Morgan’s intern, Lowe, working away on Comeback Season.
That mixtape — Drake’s second project — aimed to establish Aubrey Graham as an MC. Mission accomplished. Perhaps more important? The tape also alluded to sounds yet to be explored.
“He played the original demo version of ‘Brand New,'” Morgan says. “I was like, ‘This is you singing? ‘He goes, ‘Yeah I can do that, but I don’t know if that’s me.'”
Quickly, fans found Drake while the artist found himself. Inside the industry, Morgan was an early advocate for the kid named Aubrey. Suddenly, he wasn’t alone.
“Fast forward and he’s like, ‘Dr. Dre reached out,'” says Morgan. “Then it’s getting the call to meet Lil’ Wayne.”
From writing on the still unreleased Detox to trading bars with the best rapper alive on “Ransom,” Drake’s rookie arrival meant proving his pen and sparring with Hall of Famers. However, it was more than raps that won over Wayne.
“When he heard ‘Brand New’ and those type of moments? Wayne really reacted to it,” Morgan says. “It gave Drake a different type of confidence.”
Suddenly, a monster was unlocked.
“He was determined — I think he’s born determined — but when he got some of that perspective and boost of confidence from someone else reacting to those things? There was no stopping him,” Morgan says.
And just like that, Drake was literally and figuratively So Far Gone.
Alicia Keys called for songwriting and Hov hit him for features. All the while, Morgan remained in contact, providing an ear and opportunities for Aubrey and his crew without ever inking a contract.
“To be honest, we never really approached it from a business perspective.”
After ascending, their relationship kept the same energy. Soon, the vision became broader.
Amplifying the Northern Lights
By 2012 — just three years after So Far Gone — Drake was not just a superstar, he was a certified tastemaker.
Following the commercial and critical success of Take Care, fans around the world and on the web were following his every move when it came to what was now and what was next. His domain extended beyond borders and boundaries.
However, like his crew, Drake’s domain remained localized in a digital sense.
“Initially, October’s Very Own existed as a blog,” Morgan says. “Drake and Oliver introduced the world to The Weeknd. I was like, ‘You’re introducing artists, should we do something here?’ They were like, ‘I guess, sure? What’s that mean?’ Those were the early conversations.”
Those conversations meant: Could OVO be more than a website? Could it be a label?
From the days of MC Serch putting on Nas all the way up to SZA ascending at arm’s length to Kendrick Lamar, a co-sign has always had value when it comes to taking a singular song or artist to millions of ears.
But from a business standpoint, just how valuable was getting a nod from 40, Oliver, and Drake?
“Drake had never pointed to anything before,” says Morgan. “And he actually pointed to something that was actually as good as he said it was. It started a firestorm and then everyone is like, ‘You guys should sign The Weeknd!’ But there was no label.”
That would soon change, but perhaps not soon enough.
“October’s Very Own was a thing, but it wasn’t a label,” Morgan says. “At that time, no one had ever seen such excitement or conversation around something like House of Balloons.”
Although the megastar-born Abel Tesfaye was never an OVO artist, the ability to point out and put on an artist was proof of concept to Morgan. Because of this, he suggested making October’s Very Own not just a blogspot site, but actually a boutique label.
“The conversation between 40 and Oliver was, ‘Cool, but you gotta run it.'”
Appointed president of the label he subtly suggested, Morgan went to work.
“We found PARTYNEXTDOOR and we put out that first tape,” he says.
Operating with no sense of urgency, Morgan and the team at OVO put out PND. Despite next to no one knowing of the fellow Toronto hybrid prior to the release, OVO stayed true to its know-yourself ethos when it came to feedback and patience.
“There was a lot of great reactions,” Morgan says. “But there was also a lot of, ‘He kind of sounds like Drake, he’s not as good as The Weeknd.'”
Thankfully, it didn’t take long for the cream to rise to the top.
“But when we put out PND2 a year later?” Morgan adds. “All of a sudden, ‘Aw man, PND is the wave! He’s it!’ Then they went back and discovered that first tape. This was before streaming was a thing, we put it up for free download on Soundcloud. It wasn’t at all about selling it. But as it developed, we saw we were on to something.”
Since signing PARTYNEXTDOOR — Note: Morgan doesn’t like the word ‘signing’ — the OVO roster has expanded to the likes of Roy Woods, Majid Jordan, and now Naomi Sharon.
“We pride ourselves on introducing artists that weren’t known,” Morgan says. “It wasn’t a streaming hit or a viral moment happening, it was taking artists whose names weren’t searchable.”
True to form, most of those artists are from Toronto, too.
In 2023, the discovery for OVO continues. That means introducing the world to new members like Naomi Sharon while allowing the space for stalwarts like PND and Popcaan to grow.
This means new music, new shows, and new energy.
While the revolution won’t be televised, it will be broadcast on OVO Sound Radio.
As Mr. Morgan sees it, OVO Sound is less a label and more a means of opportunity.
“It was always operating as a platform,” Morgan says. “Drake’s perspective was always, ‘Use our platform. It’s attached to me, but it’s about artists that can stand on their own feet.'”
Seem simple? It is.
“That’s our goal: give people the opportunity to do what they want to do,” Morgan says. “If you want to call it a business plan? That was the business plan.”
The strategy thrives by giving artists they like a chance. Early on, this meant presenting PARTYNEXTDOOR as an opening act to thousands of fans before he’d ever even appeared on stage.
This year, it means expanding OVO Sound Radio through a Sirius partnership positioned as SOUND 42.
“In the streaming world, people get on playlists,” Morgan says. “When we throw an artist on our station? A lot of kids these days never listen to the radio. But to be played on a radio station by Drake and OVO? That’s an, ‘Oh shit!’ reaction. That’s something for us not to take for granted.”
But providing a platform means introducing the world to signed superstars such a PND while also pointing early to acts like Lil Yachty.
“Drake, 40, and Oliver collectively find music that excites them,” Morgan says. “We have a platform where we can make sure people hear or see things. There’s such a moment of remembering where you when you first heard something.”
Using the likes of Yachty and The Weeknd for context, being introduced on OVO by blog or through radio doesn’t mean jockeying for a deal. Morgan notes that some of the most meaningful relationships never even involve ink.
“We realized we don’t have to sign everyone,” Morgan says. “It’s not a competition for us. We just want to work with people that we like and are passionate about, that’s what’s driven it.”
This isn’t an affront, it’s a fact.
“Dave for instance,” Morgan says. “When Drake decided to get on the ‘Wanna Know’ remix, a lot of people were like, ‘You’ve gotta sign him!’ We’re like, ‘Hey, we’re just getting to know each other.'”
Rather than rush it, they stayed true to the sentiment of letting things play out organically.
“Dave is an incredible individual,” says Morgan. “He’s wise beyond his years and has great perspective. He didn’t want to do a deal because he knew his surroundings and wasn’t looking for it. Drake invited him and his mom to a show and brought him out on stage at O2. Those type of moments are incredible, and it doesn’t matter if they’re signed to us.”
Deal or no deal, being in with the OVO family provides the foundation for moments, records, and unexpected opportunities.
“Dave ends up being cast in Top Boy which Drake and Future the Prince produce,” Morgan says. “We end up doing a soundtrack with Dave and his team. The relationship we have together lasts a lifetime and it’s not driven by the business. We’ll help each other for years to come. Those moments are really valuable for us and the most gratifying. We’ll always find moments to work together and if it’s successful? Incredible.”
Family ties keep OVO Sound massive both at home and abroad.
While the team’s tentacles touch everything from TV shows to Nike’s NOCTA line, it’s music that moves the ship Morgan so strongly steers.
2023 & Beyond
Only a month into the new year, Morgan’s made moves by amplifying the volume on all things OVO Sound.
Days ago, Drake shut down the Apollo in Harlem two nights in a row by playing B-Sides and bringing out Dipset. The highly anticipated show was a vehicle to drive home OVO Sound’s new Sirius deal while giving Day 1 fans an intimate experience they’ll never forget.
For fans of OVO Sound, the best news to start the year might be related to the first artist they ever signed.
“Party’s got a whole bunch of music,” Morgan says.
Following the release of PND’s first solo single in years, DVSN is embarking on a spring tour, Popaan’s released a music video, and OVO’s signed their newest artist, Naomi Sharon.
Hitting the highlights on rap, R&B, and reggae, Mr. Morgan has taken the Toronto team across borders and beyond genres.
“It’s definitely a roster,” 85 says. “I don’t think there’s any label that’s that diverse for being a boutique label. It’s a very unique collection of artists, producers, and just creatives in general.”
Why is that? Mr. Morgan was built for it. This year, the OVO Sound stable will be making even more noise than it did in 2022.
“People got back to touring last year, but it felt like kind of a false start,” Morgan says. “We made a conscious decision to not go all the way into touring because everyone was trying to go at once while some people were ready to go back to shows and some people weren’t.”
While everyone from Drake to DVSN will perform for fans on stage, it will still be Morgan smiling in the background and making it all possible. His multiple decades in the game gives him the know-how when it comes to placing artists in the right spaces.
Still, it’s his passion as a fan that makes it all work.
“His ear for knowing producers that are going to connect is phenomenal,” 85 says. “He’s been in a lot of our careers as far as getting us in the door early and nurturing that as it keeps growing.”
In 2023, the talent Morgan’s managed have gone on to achieve their dreams.
This year and beyond, you’ll hear hits made possible with the guidance of Mr. Morgan, but you won’t hear him hooting or hollering about his involvement or himself.
Simply put, it’s never been about Mr. Morgan to Mr. Morgan, it’s all about the art and the artists.
As Morgan says: “My life is entrenched in music.”
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