- The Washington Times - Friday, August 21, 2009

ATLANTA | It’s tough to pinpoint what Devyne Stephens does to take an artist’s promising career to the next level.

That’s because he doesn’t specialize in just one thing. He can negotiate record deals, teach trendy dance routines, see if a song is hot or not, determine whether a certain career is heading down the right path and run two record labels.

Top hit-maker Akon says he wouldn’t have reached his full potential if it weren’t for Mr. Stephens.

“Devyne taught me how the [music] game actually works,” says the multiplatinum singer, songwriter and producer.

“I would just be around Devyne, watch him, and that’s how I developed,” he adds. “I got in because of Devyne.”

In almost two decades, Mr. Stephens has gathered a long list of high-profile clients. He’s worked with Usher since the Grammy-winning singer was 12, choreographed for Diddy and helped Mary J. Blige transform her street-fashion style into a sleeker and more glamorous look. From wannabe superstars to the real thing, artists rely on Mr. Stephens’ personal hand to help guide their careers.

“It’s all about seeing the process of change and making ideas come into fruition,” the 39-year-old Mr. Stephens says as he sits upstairs at the Complex — a development facility he started five years ago. It’s a one-stop shop where novice acts can go through a 30-to-60-day program that includes media training, work with a vocal coach, choreography, a fitness program and an overall evaluation before being shopped to a label for a record deal.

R&B singer Ciara trained at Mr. Stephens’ facility before she became a one-name sensation in 2004 with “Goodies”; some pro athletes also work out there. In addition, Mr. Stephens owns Dreamland — a sprawling 18,000-square-foot mansion on 19 acres in suburban Atlanta that is a hot spot for exclusive and upscale events.

The Atlanta native has spent most of his career behind the spotlight, but when he started out, he was the one seeking fame. He was signed in the early 1990s by LaFace Records with his own group, Devyne featuring 90 Miles Per Hour. They broke up before releasing an album, and he started working in artist development for the label.

With LaFace, Mr. Stephens groomed Pebbles and the Grammy Award-winning group TLC as a choreographer.

“Michael Jackson is the best dancer I’ve ever seen, and Devyne is my second-favorite in the world,” says T-Boz of TLC, who went to high school with Mr. Stephens. “So many, like Ciara, Diddy, Mariah Carey, all want something from him. He pulled stuff out of me I didn’t even know I had inside me.”

While Mr. Stephens was helping acts reach their peak, he learned more about negotiating record deals and teaching artists how to interact with the media. He decided to retire from choreography five years ago to concentrate more on the Complex and guide the career of Akon, who was a struggling musician when they met 10 years ago.

Mr. Stephens started working with Akon, taking almost five years to help the then-rapper grow as a songwriter and producer. He also told Akon he would capture more listeners if he sang about his tribulations as a convict rather than rap about then.

But what took Mr. Stephens to another level was his ability to negotiate Akon’s record deal with SRC Records.

“This guy has a vision like no else out there,” says Steve Rifkind, founder of SRC Records. “He really sees something from someone who has the possibility of being great. He can execute his vision. He’ll produce.”

Now, Mr. Stephens has a roster ranging from Akon to T-Pain to the up-and-coming group Rock City, whose members all can write and produce songs. With a slumping economy and lackluster record sales, he says he thinks having more than one talent can help artists survive.

“You have to be very versatile in this climate of music,” Mr. Stephens says. “I’m always trying to find something different in the marketplace. To be a writer and/or producer is an extra extension of talent.”

That’s why Mr. Stephens’ various talents have kept him around for so long, and he doesn’t expect to go away anytime soon.

Next up, he’s looking to franchise the Complex in the United Kingdom, New York, Los Angeles and Dallas. He’s also managing UpFront Megatainment and Konvict Muzik, both of which he owns with Akon. In addition, he’s executive vice president of Akon’s Kon Live Distribution, a record label that has Lady Gaga on the roster.

“It never stops,” he says. “Hip-hop is growing so much overseas, so the U.K. is where we definitely need to be. It’s all about reinventing yourself. You always have to look to repackage yourself. I call it ‘repackage, resell.’”

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