Mark Pitts, the President of Urban Music at RCA Records and the CEO of Bystorm Entertainment, is one of the music industry’s most successful and well-liked individuals. Meet him in person and it is clear why. The East Flatbush, Brooklyn, native is instantly likeable. An endless fount of entertaining stories (like the one about getting into a wrestling match with the Notorious B.I.G. after slapping the 300-lb. rapper awake with a cold washcloth), Pitts is confident, yet humble; a man of faith, yet with a ribald streak; hilarious, yet serious as a heart attack about music — qualities that have earned him the fierce devotion of his artists and industry peers alike, who describe him as the de facto Mayor of RCA.
“I’m an emotional man,“ Pitts says about his strengths as an executive. “I’m in touch with that feminine side that helps us feel things. So when I hear music, I get goosebumps and I’m very animated. Then I can sell it. If I’m in a meeting and talking about it, my eyes will actually get watery. I’m going to pull you in.”
Pitts’ track record attests to that. Wearing both A&R and management hats, Pitts has worked with such urban superstars as Usher, Chris Brown, Nas, Biggie Smalls, Lil’ Kim, Miguel, Ciara, and Kelis over the course of a 20-year career bursting with accomplishments. These include founding Bad Boy Records with Sean “Puffy” Combs, managing Biggie from his early years until his untimely death, launching the powerhouse management company Bystorm Entertainment, serving as Sr. Vice President of A&R for Arista Records under L.A. Reid, and brokering the truce between feuding rappers Jay-Z and Nas. Pitts did all of this before becoming RCA’s President of Urban Music in 2011. This past year alone, he has shepherded Usher’s No. 1 album Looking 4 Myself, Brown’s No. 1 Future, and Miguel’s critically acclaimed Kaleidoscope Dream, which has racked up five 2013 Grammy Award nominations.
Pitts’ ear for music was honed at a young age. His grandmother was a piano teacher and young Mark studied classical piano from ages four to 14. He also loved to draw and says his first ambition was to be an architect. ”I let somebody talk me out of it,” he recalls. They said, ‘You know how hard it is for a black man to become an architect?’ I let it affect me. I would never let that happen again.” He also listened to a lot of music growing up, including jazz, classic R&B, and hip-hop. His cousin Wayne Barrow managed the act Wrecks-N-Effect, whom Pitts says made him want to be an artist himself. “They were just so fly with those Pelle Pelle jackets. I wanted to be in the group,” Pitts says with a laugh. “I used to tell Wayne, ‘Just put me in front of these people. Teddy Riley’s gonna love me.’” Pitts eventually formed his own rap group called Three Left, and in the early ’90s, sought out his friend Combs, who was then working for Andre Harrell’s Uptown Records, looking for a deal.
“Puff and I went to Howard University together,” Pitts explains. “Before we started the meeting, he said, ‘We’re not friends in this meeting, Mark. This is business.’ After that, I lost the nerve to play him my music. I realized then and there that I wanted to be behind the scenes. Puff’s exact words were, ‘I’m looking for a fly dude that I can mess with, who can be by my side and rock with me.’ That night I told my dad I was going to quit my job at the law firm I was working for and do this. He said, ‘You’re going to make your mistakes. Make them while you’re young,’” Pitts says.
The decision was far from a mistake. In 1993, Pitts and Combs founded Bad Boy Entertainment, which dominated the charts throughout the ’90s with records by Notorious B.I.G., Faith Evans, Mase, 112, Puffy Daddy & The Family, and Total. “I did everything,” Pitts says. “I was a driver. I was an assistant. I went to get the clothes. I picked up the artists. I was a full-service concierge.” From there, Pitts segued into management, overseeing Evans, Changing Faces, and Biggie. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but Biggie loved my hustle,” Pitts says. “We made our mistakes. We bumped heads, but we figured it out together.” (The first time Pitts ever spoke about his friend being gunned down was while serving as a producer on Notorious — the 2009 biopic about the rapper — an experience Pitts calls “therapy.”)
The next logical step for Pitts was to launch an artist management company. He teamed up with his cousin Barrow in 1998 to form Bystorm Entertainment, which is also a publishing company and joint label venture with RCA Records. The duo has managed the careers of Nas, Shyne, and Queen Pen, and the company’s current roster features Miguel, J. Cole, Jawan Harris, and Kardinal Offishall.
Meanwhile, Pitts continued to work his magic on the A&R side. In 2000, L.A. Reid tapped him to become Senior Vice President of A&R for Arista Records, where he worked with Usher, TLC, Anthony Hamilton, and Cee Lo Green. In 2004, Pitts left Arista to join Zomba Label Group as an A&R executive. He was eventually promoted to Senior Vice President and, in 2007, to President of the Zomba Label Group (which included Jive, LaFace, and So So Def) where he signed Chris Brown and Miguel.
In 2008, Pitts was forced to slow down when he was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy, a condition that paralyzed the left side of his face. “I couldn’t smile for six months,” he says. “That was my mojo; it was my thing, and losing that got my attention. It changed everything, and made me look at life differently. I’ve got 85 percent of the feeling back, but I’ll probably remain at this stage. I tell everyone it’s my Nike smile. I got the swoosh.”
Pitts’ condition motivated him to get into the best physical shape of his life, which helped bolster him when RCA was restructured last year. Pitts became President of Urban Music, working under RCA Music Group’s CEO Peter Edge and President/COO Tom Corson. “You could replace everybody in the industry with robots, but you can’t replace the music men,” Pitts says. “You can change how you sell music, but it still has to be good. I think when the smoke clears, we’re going to be on top because, at the end of the day, it’s about the music.”