How Tim Gent and Bryant Taylorr, a rapper and singer respectively, began cultivating their talents and strategizing how to open the door to the insular world of professional songwriting. This is part of a series on Nashville hip-hop.
For so many who chase Nashville music careers, an obvious first step, or last resort, is to focus on commercial songwriting and to try and land a publishing deal. But it was hardly a given that former roommates and frequent co-writers Gent, a charismatically ruminative, singing rapper, and Bryant Taylorr, an alt-R&B singer with a distinctive, gauzy timbre, would have the option of securing such arrangements for themselves.
Taylorr grew up in Antioch, a racially and ethnically diverse suburb on the southeast edge of Nashville. His mom once held a DJ gig at 92Q, an urban adult contemporary station, and later worked as a publicist for gospel performers, while his dad stockpiled studio gear with a never-quite-realized goal of operating a small studio. But their endeavors were largely independent from the Nashville system, and Taylorr didn’t at all relate to the image of Music City as a world-famous destination for dreamers, a land of big-time musical opportunity. “It was weird to me when I met somebody that came here for music,” he reflects.After switching from drumming to singing at Nashville School of the Arts, he jumped at the chance to audition for a pop-centric boy band named Contagious that seemed bound for somewhere. He recalls, “It was like, ‘That’s my ticket out.’ ”
Taylorr signed on for a couple of years of memorizing dance choreography, touring all over and flirting with fans, but when the group failed to take off, he decided that his new, solo ambition was “to rise out of Nashville and be an artist that is considered somebody’s home hero.” He asked an old schoolmate, A.B. Eastwood, to produce tracks for him, and recorded floating, incantatory vocals over them, layering his voice like a string arranger. Taylorr paid the bills with restaurant shifts while he researched ways to draw an income from music. When he learned that a co-worker was quitting the restaurant for a country songwriting deal, he pumped the guy for details.
For a months-long stretch, Taylorr rented a vacant room to Tim Gent, who’d grown up an hour away in Clarksville, a town dominated by an Army base, before moving to Nashville for a warehouse job. Gent’s parents hadn’t let him listen to secular music until late in high school, when he hungrily absorbed the albums of serious-minded rappers like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, started writing verses and found a likeminded local crew whose members, including Case Arnold, were already releasing mixtapes. Gent eventually started earning regional respect with his own projects, which were as meditative and melodic as they were muscular, and buoyantly astute in their accounts of bearing up beneath the weight of personal responsibilities, economic pressures and oppressive realities. He was welcomed warmly by native Nashville rappers whose profundity he admired, like Petty and the BlackSon, and his live performances built buzz.
Cobb, who began managing Gent in partnership with Holt, was determined to help their client leverage his songwriting strengths. In Cobb’s way of thinking, Gent getting his songs recorded by others would send a message to the industry: “‘If you don’t want to see me as an artist, if you don’t want to come to my shows and see the live performance and see what I’m capable of, well, how about I creep into the back and show you through somebody else how talented I really am?’ ”
It was, in fact, after seeing what Gent was capable of onstage that Chris Martignago, an Atlantic Records exec who manages the alt-R&B act R.LUM.R, offered to help arrange meetings with music publishers, including Katie Fagan, who handles A&R at the Nashville outpost of the pop-focused Prescription Songs, owned by the producer Dr. Luke. Gent purposefully pitched tracks that showcased some of his close collaborators from the local scene, including Taylorr, Arnold and R&B-pop singer-songwriter Jamiah Hudson.
Gent hadn’t even left the property yet when Taylorr called, flipping out about the message he’d already received from Prescription. Taylorr walked into his own meeting with a targeted strategy for selling his skills. “I was playing some things that I thought that they wanted to hear,” he says.”I was trying to play pop and whatever country music I had. I was trying to play my retro, whatever. And they were like, ‘No, we want to hear what you got.’ They wanted to hear, like, my literal music, my R&B, my style, my hip-hop.”
After a several-month trial period in 2019, during which Taylorr and Gent were paired up with various co-writers and producers, both were offered publishing deals, and Prescription began bringing Hudson and Arnold in for writing sessions, too.
There are rituals that go with the signing of contracts in Nashville. Week after week, the trade publication Music Row runs obviously posed photos of people who’ve come up through the system, internalizing contemporary country’s rules and trends and, finally, securing publishing or record deals. Gent is so intent on rooting for his hip-hop peers and rising with them that he was hesitant to participate in one of these announcements, until he talked to his mother: “She said, ‘Son, you’ve been working at this for a decade, and this is an accomplishment. You have stepped into another area of your career where you can have stability, where you don’t have to worry about making it to work and making it to a session or having to call out of work to make it to a session. You should share it and you should be proud of it.’ ”
Gent saw her point, and let Music Row run his photo. “This is a milestone not just for me, but for the independent artists that are in Nashville that are moreso in the hip-hop, R&B alternative vein,” he says. “This is a lane for us to have some foundation and help build ourselves up financially and career-wise.”
It’s hard to overstate the significance of Nashville’s hustling hip-hop and R&B music-makers gaining entry to broader networks and securing more stable livelihoods. Neither Gent nor Taylorr have to clock in and work for an hourly wage anymore, and before his clients quit their jobs, Holt says he saw how close another rapper in the scene, Jung Youth, got to quitting music, until a songwriting deal with a different company “pretty much flipped his entire life over.” Hudson, who’s classically trained, harbored her own doubts about where she fit in Nashville, until she got the chance to put her skill set and stylistically broad background to use singing backup for live productions and demo sessions and writing songs in several different genres. “My priority is I’m really just doing everything simultaneously,” she says. “I’m all about breaking those boxes and the stereotypes and the boundaries.”
But it’s not like the Nashville establishment is ready to throw open its doors to writers best known for hip-hop or R&B. Fagan, who started her career in the Los Angeles pop world, came to town with a different mindset. “I want to help amplify the voices in Nashville that aren’t being amplified,” she says. She can circumvent Nashville’s strong association with country on the behalf of the pop and hip-hop talent on her roster thanks to her reputation for understanding the inner workings of the Top 40. “When I’m pitching songs out there,” she explains, “people know that it’s Katie from Prescription and she lived in L.A. and she knows our market.” Fagan is trying to loosen Music City mindsets through the Other Nashville Society, which she started with a handful of other young professionals who share her belief in the commercial potential of the city’s stylistic outliers.
So far, Gent and Taylorr have been plugged into projects that have originated outside of Nashville. They might be handed specifications — the vibe of an advertisement, storyline of a movie scene or stylistic sweet spot of a recording artist — and asked to come up with something, and they say they’ve experienced such assignments not as confining, but as loosing their creativity and strengthening their chops. Taylorr has written for the K-pop star Kai and has a song on a Netflix movie soundtrack. Two cuts from Gent’s 2018 album, Life Away From Home, were chosen for the film The Violent Heart, and he and Hudson helped shape an effervescent tune for the global pop group Now United. Together, Gent and Taylorr have also worked on TV sports themes.
They tell their friends in the scene what they’re up to not to brag, but to share knowledge. “Anybody that wants to learn anything or wants to come around, I’m down to just be around and help and record and just show you what I do,” says Taylorr. His managers, Holt and Cobb, are mapping out a more formal mentoring program. Holt explains, “The main thing for our community, for me, is to educate not just the guys that I work with, but the entire scene. Zack and I are actually in the process of collecting a lot of different music industry professionals that are into this movement and getting them to help educate some of the other entities that are trying to take this approach.”
Holt insists he wouldn’t have the professional perspective he does if not for the mentorship of another leader in the scene, Shannon Sanders, who Holt says, “showed me and many others the possibilities beyond our immediate Nashville circles. He has personally lifted me up to positions that provided a larger view of the music industry.”