Grammy-winning producer Che Pope launches new record label in Detroit backed by Dan Gilbert

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Take note, aspiring Detroit musicians. Grammy-winning producer Che Pope is on the lookout for the next Eminem or Big Sean. 

Pope, a longtime friend of billionaire entrepreneur Dan Gilbert, on Wednesday launched WRKSHP, a music-based lifestyle company headquartered in downtown Detroit. The company will work with aspiring musicians and other artists on talent development, management, marketing and more.

"It's much more than a record label," said Pope.

Pope, who has worked with everyone from Kanye West and Lauryn Hill to Eminem and The Weeknd, said it was Gilbert who really talked to him about setting up shop in Detroit. A Boston native, Pope has visited the city several times over the last five years and has been amazed at its progress over the last 15 years. He was really drawn to Detroit and the "story" it would provide aspiring artists.

Che Pope, center, an award-winning music producer and songwriter, checks out records with Kanye West, right. Pope is the former chief operating officer of Kanye West's GOOD Music record label.

"Everything we do — whether it's a song, or building an artist, or putting out content — it's always still about the story of it, right?" said Pope. "The story of WRKSHP is so much better a story coming from Detroit than it is being in L.A. or one of the places that's already sort of established because Detroit was the mecca."

WRKSHP's launch falls on the 63rd anniversary of when Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown.

"This literally was the mecca of culture and art," said Pope. "To not be a company that's leaving the city but a company coming back and setting up shop is much more of an amazing story that I'd want to be a part of."

WRKSHP will share space with Woodward Original, an independent film company, in the same building as the Detroit Institute of Music Education at Griswold and Grand River. Pope said eventually the firm will get its own space but that will take time to build out.

Gilbert's Detroit Venture Partners is one of several initial investors into WKRSHP. Others include Stellation Capital’s Peter Boyce and KKFarm, the Taiwanese music technology firm.

“Music is the compass that connects people toward a collective path. Detroit, more than any city, validates that bond across many generations. Arts and culture are the catalysts that ignite renaissance cities,” said Gilbert in a press release Wednesday. “Che is a renaissance man whose life’s work culminates through WRKSHP’s bold vision.”

Pope, who plans to split his time between Los Angeles and Detroit, found music after realizing his first love, basketball, wasn't a career option. A finance major at Virginia's Hampton University, he always focused on music. While he was there, Virginia became a hotbed for future stars such as Pharrell Williams and producer Teddy Riley.

"All of this was happening right around this time, so I got to meet everybody," said Pope. "It was very serendipitous. I didn't know how to get into the music industry. I had no idea how to become a music producer. I kind of really fell into it."

Music Producer and songwriter Che Pope.

Over the last two and a half decades, Pope has worked with Mary J. Blige, The Game, Eminem, The Weeknd and A$AP Rocky. At one point, he was the chief operating officer of Kanye West’s GOOD Music record label. Red Bull Academy has described him as "one of the most influential figures in contemporary U.S. rap and hip-hop culture."

It was while Pope was working with West in the 2010s that Gilbert, who he'd met through StockX, an online marketplace primarily for sneakers that Gilbert co-founded with one of Pope's friends, asked if he considered going out on his own. 

"He said 'Do you want to stay here? Is that your intention? Or would you want to do your own thing?'" said Pope, who will serve as WRKSHP's CEO. "I said it's funny that you asked me that, because I told him I'm working on something and he (Gilbert) loved the idea."

Rocket Companies founder Dan Gilbert, pictured with his wife Jennifer, approached Che Pope about setting up an office for his new music lifestyle company in Detroit.

One big way WRKSHP will be different from other record labels is in how it approaches contracts with new artists. Pope calls the music industry contract "one of the most obsolete pieces of paperwork to exist in the business world," one that's "far overdue" for a revamp.

He said WRKSHP's contracts will be more succinct and "transparent," less based on royalties and more on splitting profits. Many artists, 90-95%, are still signed to royalty-based contracts and don't participate in ownership of their masters and intellectual property.

"The idea is let's move the contract up to 2022," he said. "...What I've realized in my 25 years in this business is you'd be surprised how many artists really don't know their business. You'd be shocked."

Pope already has five music artists he's working with, at least two of whom are Detroit-based. He declined to give their names. And he's looking for more.

Pope also wants to do away with the term "signed" for artists who work with record labels and instead use the term partnerships.

"Our business agreements will reflect a partnership," he said. "...We're taking a different approach to a music company. And I think that's the difference (to other record labels). I don't think there's ever been anything like this in Detroit."

Eventually, Pope sees the company, which is why it's a lifestyle brand and not only a record label, putting out documentaries, community workshops, even working with schools. And the company hopes to work with artists of all kinds, such as fashion designers. 

"We'll have fashion, other products," said Pope. "There's not really a limit."