Julian Petty doesn’t seem like a lawyer. The Leimert Park resident comes off scholarly and patient, not slick and fast-talking. It’s as though he’s been sent by the California Bar Association to combat every sheisty lawyer joke ever told.
Then you start talking and quickly understand why he’s become a partner at Nixon Peabody LLP at just 38, building a client list that includes some of the best rappers in L.A. (Vince Staples, Earl Sweatshirt, Freddie Gibbs).
There’s savvy and a sense of long-term vision. He understands musicians in a way that could only come from having been steeped in hip-hop culture practically since birth.
“I really love this stuff,” Petty says in an Eastside coffee shop, a few miles from his downtown office. He wears professorial spectacles and a blue dress shirt. “The people I’ve worked with get that. They’re like, ‘He actually listens to my stuff?’”
His clients echo the self-appraisal.
“[Petty] completely understands the background of his artists,” Staples says. “There’s a deeper bond between him and the craft than most lawyers because he’s passionate about and understands the importance of quality and legacy.”
Earl Sweatshirt quips: “Julian is more invested in me than I am at times.”
Raised on Long Island, Petty’s early hip-hop interactions could fill up the first third of a memoir. Dave from De La Soul — an Amityville neighbor — used to cut his hair. Petty remembers Maseo from De La playing the “Plug Tunin’?” demo at his childhood home, and glimpses of Rakim riding around their ’hood in a pearl-white Mercedes-Benz.
Petty started rapping at 12 or 13, recording at the same studio where they cut the first two EPMD albums. Under the tutelage of Public Enemy’s Professor Griff, Petty made a demo under the name Educated Youth. Labels passed. A subsequent group, Squad 44D, auditioned for almost every New York imprint, but no deal surfaced. So Petty enrolled at Howard University and procured an internship at Def Jam.
“I learned how integral lawyers are in the music business and how poorly represented artists were in their contracts,” Petty says. “No one really explained anything to them. I was like, ‘Hey, if I can ever do anything about this, I will.’?”
Upon graduation, he worked four years at AOL. In the wake of Napster, Petty headed to Fordham Law, determined to make sense of the new industry alignment. Spotting an attorney named L. Londell McMillan on the cover of Black Enterprise, he cold-called, and eventually worked his way from intern to associate.
McMillan’s client roster included Michael Jackson, Prince and Mos Def. The first account Petty brought in was the estate of the late Big Punisher. Other marquee clients later included A Tribe Called Quest and the estate of the Notorious B.I.G. For the latter, Petty has han-dled everything from a recent Sprite campaign featuring Biggie lyrics on cans, to the Notorious film, to brokering deals to get Biggie-branded clothing in Forever 21 and Target.
Since moving to L.A. five years ago, Petty’s business has taken on a more pronounced left-coast tilt. For Earl Sweatshirt, he set up a separate publishing and merchandise deal with Sony, ensuring autonomy under the same corporate umbrella as Odd Future but guaranteeing Earl wasn’t locked into a pre-existing framework.
In an industry famous for Rule #4,080 (record company people are shady), Petty has built a reputation by trying to redress the bad contractual precedents of the past.
“My thing has always been advocacy for the little guy,” he says. “Whether it’s artists or an estate being taken advantage of, it’s really about just trying to help them win.”
An L.A. native, L.A. Weekly columnist Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com, follow him on Twitter and also check out his archives.