The atmosphere in the basement of Detroit’s Straight Gate Church is warm. Hundreds of people have gathered tonight, waiting for the arrival of hometown heroines Ramiyah, a pop-gospel quartet whose debut self-titled album just hit store shelves and left a paper trail of great reviews. The ladies have performed on staple gospel programs like the Stellar and Trumpet awards, and have received kudos from heavy hitters throughout the music industry.
The event this evening is Ramiyah’s listening party. They are signed to Musical World Entertainment, the label owned by Matthew Knowles, father to superstar Beyonce’ and manager of Destiny’s Child. Though Ramiyah are under Knowles’ company umbrella, he doesn’t get the credit for creating the group. The women of Ramiyah are the brainchild of one the biggest Detroit-based production and marketing teams to come along in years. Thing is, you’ve probably never heard of them.
Walter Kearney, Paul Allen and J. Moss are collectively known as Pajam, and in about nine years they have contributed to millions of records sold. That’s right, millions.
Pajam is not an acronym. It’s more like “Pajam!,” or “Bladow!,” or “Shazam!” — a sniglet, like the funny words those puppets used to make up on “Fraggle Rock.” It describes a feeling. In musical terms, it describes that feeling. The one you get when you hear that track, that beat, or that lyric.
From gospel to R&B and pop, the folks who have recruited the team are huge in their respective fields: N’Sync, Boyz II Men, Dru Hill, Kelly Price, Karen Clarke-Sheard, Dorinda Clark-Cole, Hezekiah Walker, Trinitee 5:7, Tyrese, Tamia, Aaliyah, Dawkins & Dawkins.
Despite working with A-list talent, Pajam has managed to stay under the radar by sticking to a stealthy business regimen.
“Because most of the industry is done in LA and New York, we use Detroit as our hideout,” explains Allen. “We don’t really get caught up hosting parties, and advertising that Pajam is in Detroit. We try to make sure that there’s a comfortable environment for whoever we may have come to town. We’ve had Ray J. come here, Boyz II Men. We’ve had so many groups come here, and we want them to feel comfortable. We don’t want them to feel like it’s gonna be one big party.”
Kearney adds, “A lot of times, when we are out of town, it is a lotta hype. We just wanna come home and chill. We come to the D just trying to relax and be comfortable in our own environment.”
Detroit is not just a resting place for Pajam, as much as they’d probably like it to be. In fact, their schedule provides little time for relaxation. They work constantly, developing a stable of burgeoning artists that includes Ramiyah, poet/rapper Michael Ellison (“Bubbling under,” Metro Times, May 7-13) and singer/rapper/dancer Monica Blaire. The team also handles the marketing for Detroit-based outfitter Pelle Pelle. A full-page ad currently running in national magazines features Ellison modeling Pelle Pelle gear. It’s a useful tool in promoting Pajam’s business agenda while servicing their client.
The members of Pajam are cagey about revealing their ages, but are apparently in their 30s. The group began to take shape more than a decade ago. Allen polished his production skills at Vanguard Studio in Oak Park (operated by Michael Powell, best known for his work with Anita Baker). Allen was friend to Moss, a producer and vocalist who hails from the immensely talented Clark family. (Karen Clark-Sheard and Dorinda Clark-Cole are cousins.) Allen and Moss grew up in the same church denomination, and began working together after Moss left the label to which he’d been signed. Allen, meanwhile, had been working on side projects with Kearney, who’d been in advertising.
The three decided that pooling their talents would triple their chances of success in the music biz. Hence, Pajam. Their first nationally released production was Clark-Sheard’s 1997 Polygram album Finally, Karen. The family connection helped, but it did not pave the upstart trio’s road in gold.
“That was the coming-out party. You have to go through the years of proving you’re worthy of being on an album like that,” explains Moss. “God saw fit that we could come together and actually be a part of a record of that magnitude.”
Maybe God also saw fit to give them a start in Detroit, unofficially the capital of gospel music, and the city with more black churches than any other in America. Maybe God saw fit to bless Pajam with a rep that would become a great segue into pop music.
“In most instances, a lot of artists request us,” says Allen. “Then we’ve gotten to a place where a lot of record companies request us.”
On the subject of N’Sync, Moss lets lose a euphoric “Whooooo.” Working with the zillion-selling boy band was “like nothing we’ve ever experienced before. The boy band thing had preceded them, so you go in thinking ‘Those cats can’t really sing. They’re just a man-made band.’ Those guys came in, and it was probably the easiest week of recording we’ve had, for real. None of them were in the booth for 60 minutes, at any time.”
“Extremely talented guys, man,” adds Kearney. “We’re not just talking about Justin (Timberlake). We’re talking about all of them.”
Skilled boy bands matched with skilled producers made for such a quick session that N’Sync and Pajam spent the bulk of their work day bowling and jet-skiing down in Orlando.
The work ethic N’Sync brought in is just what Pajam instills in their own artists. Ramiyah worked with Pajam for two years before going into the studio. The album was done in three weeks.
Pajam’s training regimen for their artists would make Hitsville U.S.A. proud; physical workouts, media training, grooming, vocal coaching, and education about the music business are all essential.
“One thing that we stress to our artists as part of our boot camp is to try to break the ‘Detroit mentality,’” says Allen. “A lot of people think that, because you’re known locally, that’s it. And it’s bigger than Detroit. That’s what we’ve been successful in teaching our artists, that Detroit is just a smidgen of the marketplace.”
“For the most part, you’re gonna learn the business,” says Moss. “You’re gonna do your homework. You’re gonna be healthy. You’re gonna be taught how to be a man or a woman, how to answer questions. Conduct. Everything!”
Pajam stresses that most major music camps incorporate some form of artist development, but to see that happening in Detroit harks to the days when Berry Gordy revolutionized the maturation process of artists like the Supremes and the Miracles, project kids who became soul ambassadors. Kearney suggests that, because many labels have rid themselves of artist development departments, they often have to contend with artists struggling to maintain careers. Thus, the hard work has a definite purpose.
“It’s no holds barred,” Blaire says of the boot camp process. “It’s 150 percent, every day, all day. Everybody understands that it takes more than just your all to really express what you have in your heart.”
“Whatever it takes, get it done,” adds Michael Ellison, who has a development deal with Pajam. “I’ve been with Pajam at least four years. It took time to build to the level where we are now. They don’t set a time limit, but they won’t put you out there until you’re ready. They wanna build artists that can go anywhere, (in front of) any crowd, and rock it.”
Pajam says they have gotten this far by learning one major lesson. “Only trust God,” says Allen. His partners concur. “Man’ll let you down time in and time out,” adds Moss. “Throughout our journey, we’ve been fortunate. When this industry throws a punch, Lennox and Tyson ain’t got nothing on it.”
At the listening party, the members of Ramiyah enjoy their moment, thanking family and fans, dancing and miming the words to their music played over the sound system. Papa Knowles, who bears an eerie resemblance to Honest Hank of downtown Detroit’s Colonial Merchandise Mart, lends his support. One of his daughters, the singer Solange, drops by. Michelle Williams (Destiny’s Child) leaves a rehearsal to get there on time.
Allen, Kearney and Moss host the event, but spend most of the evening working the background, but being the foundation of it all.