Masked Gorilla: How Warner Helped It Go From Blog to Label

By the time Roger Gengo was 17, he already had founded the music blog Masked Gorilla — but he had his sights set on more. In June 2009, he tweeted: “I want to start up a record label, it’s been on my mind my whole life.” In the decade since, Gengo, now 28, has expanded Masked Gorilla to a concert series called Unmasked — a showcase of underground talent — and now, finally, a record label.

In September, Masked Gorilla announced its joint venture with Warner Records to launch Masked Records, signing rapper 2KBABY as its first artist. “Our partnership is a logical next step, as Warner Records wants to be positioned with not only people who can identify talent, but people who can also relate to and help cultivate” new artists, says Jeff Sosnow, executive vp A&R for Warner and Reprise Records. As Gengo puts it, “It was made clear from the start they believed in my vision.”

Born and raised in Long Beach, N.Y., Gengo started Masked Gorilla in high school, differentiating the site from other rap blogs by covering artists way under the radar. After graduating from Purchase College, he moved to Los Angeles where, in 2014, he launched Unmasked, booking artists like Seshollowaterboyz, Odd Future and the late Lil Peep. Gengo supported the growing SoundCloud rap scene early on. “I was around the same age as all these kids,” he says. “Instead of just reporting on a scene, I felt like I was contributing.”

 

Gengo (who now lives in Atlanta) first discovered 19-year-old rapper 2KBABY in May on Instagram — he saw a video of the Louisville, Ky., native freestyling lyrics to his eventual breakthrough “Old Streets” a cappella. Gengo soon offered him a recording contract — no other labels had approached the artist at the time — and in August, 2KBABY signed to Masked and Warner. “We looked at 2KBABY as more than just a song or viral moment. It was clear that Roger had identified an artist,” says Sosnow. “That’s what we want.”

 

2KBABY released the official audio for “Old Streets” independently through UnitedMasters on his YouTube page in June. A month later, WorldStarHipHop shared the video on its YouTube page — and the clip immediately gained over 1 million views. Now, the track has 6.3 million streams, according to Nielsen Music, and there’s even an ­#oldstreetschallenge on social media. The rapper’s major-label debut EP will arrive this fall.

 

With an office space in Los Angeles, Gengo is focused on growing his staff and expanding his roster before 2020, signing mostly hip-hop artists. Gengo himself admits, “It’s hard in some cases to define what is what genre; that’s what SoundCloud rap was — nobody knew what to call it.” But regardless of whom he adds, Gengo assures that everyone on his roster will get all he has to offer. “We’re pursuing the same goal and fighting for the same thing,” he says. “We are in it together.”

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 12 issue of Billboard.



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