Jeanine McLean on Music, Mentorship, and Turning One’s Passions into a Career
Jeanine McLean on Music, Mentorship, and Turning One’s Passions into a Career

← All Articles

By Lisa Marie

March 11, 2024

What do artists like Alicia Keys, H.E.R., and Maeta all have in common? Each of them has worked directly with President of MBK Entertainment, Jeanine McLean. A storied artist manager, tour guru, film producer, and philanthropist, Jeanine’s lengthy career sprawls in many different directions, with the connecting theme being passion. Jeanine has made a name for herself doing the things that she loves, and has had a hand in building-up some of the most exceptional careers in music history. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Jeanine, where she shared with us what it was like to meet Alicia Keys for the very first time, how she launched her career in the music industry, and why mentorship is of vast importance to her. 


You grew up surrounded by music, with your grandfather being a professional stand up bass player and  your uncle being a concert promoter. When did you first know that you wanted to work in music? 

I was a teenager, maybe 17. I knew from just being able to be a part of music from a peripheral, seeing the movement and how it brought everybody that was involved a lot of joy. It seemed like a happy space – a space where you could have some creative freedom and freedom of expression. Music seemed like a place where you were able to build things from scratch and be a part of something that touches many people. I would say I knew from my teenage years for sure. I would go to all the NY dance clubs from an early age – places like Bentleys, The Paradise Garage, The Red Parrot, and Broadway International just to name a few. I was out in these streets!


Jeanin E02


How did you begin your career in the music industry? 

I would say my official start was when I was first approached to work on independent projects. I used to manage a house music artist, K Wyze, who had a hot record called “Stomp”. He actually came to me and said he liked my style. He already had his deal on Atlantic Records, but he told me he needed a manager. I had never managed anyone before, but learned a lot about marketing and promotions, radio, distribution, and how a label worked. Then different artists would come to me to work on different projects, like, “Hey, can you put together my tour?” So it kind of started from there. I would also help my concert promoter uncle by going to the local radio station and dropping off music or ad plans. In both scenarios, I started to meet more and more people in the industry and started to build relationships. 

Things really expanded when I was still working a corporate position, but these opportunities would come because my circle of friends were at different phases in entertainment. Lots of DJs, lots of producers, club owners, party promoters – that was my circle of friends. I kind of got pulled into projects. After doing things on a smaller scale, a business partner came along. Her name is Onie Rivers, and she was working for AV8 Records who put out all of the Fatman Scoop records and a number of indie Rap acts and European artists. 

She was approached by a team out in Europe that wanted to form an international touring company. We were like, “Cool, let's do it.” So we formed a company called Bottom Line Promotions. We had an office set up in Dusseldorf, Germany, and we would do a number of tours for American artists through Europe, Black music parties, et cetera. I actually took DJ Clue, world famous DJ Clue, to get his passport to become officially world famous, LOL. We would go out to Europe and tour and do a lot of events. That's when I really got into music full time. Around 1998.


Did you have a mentor throughout the early stages of your career? If so, who? 

Well, I wouldn't say I officially had somebody that I would consider a mentor. I'm a mentor and mentor a lot of folks now, so I wouldn't say in the same capacity. But I had a lot of peers that were mentoring each other as we were coming up together. Of course, I had my uncle and my mom at the time, who was just a brilliant businesswoman overall. My mom taught me communication, business strategy, and the art of negotiation. Also, probably most importantly, how to get along in all circles. She taught me humility and a lot of skills that really helped me to be able to fit in and work with so many people from all across the globe.

If I’m honest, I would really have to say my mom was the best mentor. I know everybody's got a mom, but not everybody's mom is mentoring. You know what I'm saying? Yeah, I have to give my mom her props.


Though you started in promotion, you’ve spent the majority of your career working in artist management. What goes into good artist management, and what do you prioritize when it comes to working with new talent? 

A good artist management team has to have a lot of honesty in what will work and what won't work when building up an artist’s career. Artists need to be a part of their business for sure, but they have to hyper-focus on building their craft and creating amazing records and bodies of work and allow the team around them to handle and field the business calls, meetings, and plan building from scratch. That’s why they have managers. Good managers have to be willing to stand firm and challenge their talent and say, “Nah, it's better to do this thing this way in order to have the desired effect.” Especially as artists grow in their fame and they're not like that bright-eyed little artist anymore, it’s even more important to not allow things to get off track. We’ve all seen artists take a drastic shift in their style or approach to music that just doesn’t work – leaving folks wondering “What? Why?” It’s usually a scenario where the team acquiesced and didn’t present a strong case for why this new thing wouldn’t work. You get caught up in trying to please versus trying to do what’s best.

When the artists become established and are becoming famous, it gets harder and harder to not become a yes person, because now you're looking to placate and just play nice and keep the peace – and that's hard to do as the level of fame starts to grow. But you have to stay persistent to keep things on track.


What’s your favorite thing about your job? 

My favorite thing is seeing brand new talent with that sparkle in their eye and saying, “Hey, I have this raw talent and I would love for the world to see it.” Actually being able to make their success happen and be a part of the team that makes that happen is amazing. It is truly amazing to be a part of the career making of true superstars. It's wild. It's so fulfilling.


Your first big artist was Alicia Keys, who you represented alongside Jeff Robinson for a period that spanned more than 14 years. When did you first meet Alicia, and what was it like working with such a legendary artist so early on in their career? 

Alicia is phenomenal. She was then, and she is now. I met Alicia when she was 19, and I don't know, I could just see her magnetism. She was just genuine. She was so New York. She was so sure of herself and confident and different. She was beautiful, but also edgy. She was so many things wrapped in one. Again, this is before all the fame, all the fortune – before everything really exploded with “Fallin’”. It was a great experience to be able to be there so early on. Working with Alicia was when Jeff Robinson got me to quit my corporate day job and be like, “Yo, come rock over here.” That's when I took the leap of faith. Working with Alicia was truly incredible. She's so smart, sensible and just an amazing person. I mean, outside of being uberly talented, just a super dope human being.


Jeanin E03


What do you value the most from your time working with Alicia Keys? 

I guess learning how to balance that growth from infancy to true superstardom. I'm literally looking on my wall right now. I got the diamond plaque. That’s 10 times platinum. Physical CDs, not streams! Now, at this point that project is probably 20 million at this point, or maybe more. But talk about a milestone, you know what I'm saying? That's just something that a lot of people can't really say that they were a part of. Being a part of that is something that feels really special. I don't take it for granted.

But again, that growth from career infancy to superstardom to being at the Nobel Peace Prize on the dais, seriously, how many folks have been to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo?? To arenas with Beyoncé, to being on the Super Bowl field, and just all the great experiences – that’s what I value the most. Plus, truly learning everything about the entertainment business and the implementation of my ideas on branding and touring, and seeing those ideas become successful parts of a campaign. 


For the last two plus decades, you’ve been working with Jeff Robinson at MBK Entertainment, where you now serve as President/Managing Partner. When did you two first meet, and what do you value the most about working alongside one another? 

I met Jeff when I was promoting events in New York City, and he would come to some of my events. They were pretty big, very well organized, and really popping. He was a friend of my friend and client at the time, Truck Turner, who was signed to Jive. He knew Jeff as they were neighborhood friends. Truck and I would hang out and work together, and Jeff would hang out with us at times. He was just quiet and always mean, and I'm like, “Yo, who's that guy over there? What's going on with the mean looking dude?” Turns out he's not mean at all. He's just real tense and thoughtful. 

He's from the Bronx, and Bronxites got that little hard edge. But I got to know him from being around and really got to see how that mean exterior covers up a smart, thoughtful, and truly gentle guy. That's how we're able to work together. The way that we have been able to foster this multi-decade relationship is because he thinks of the ideas and I come in and add to the ideas and execute. He’s the idea guy and I’m the business woman. We get to come together and execute flawlessly and put everything together – a dream team.

So we've been doing that for years – yin and yang, good cop/bad cop, whatever you want to call it. We just found a working synergy that is really dope. Now, sometimes we aren’t always on the same page, but that's the beauty of it as well. Even when we're challenging each other or we're not agreeing, it never gets nasty. We've had some loud arguments. We've had some moments where we're just not on the same page. But you work through it. That's what you do as adults. That's what you do as business partners. You figure it out, and you come to a good place. And we're both Gemini, so maybe I think we both really like to argue, so there's probably that as well. But he's a really dope dude, really smart. He knows how to pick hits, create hits. So he's a super dope business partner.


How do you go about building MBK’s management team and company? What specific traits do you look out for when it comes to expanding MBK? 

I definitely consider us the quiet giants. We've had a couple of really dope artists whose careers we've been able to foster from inception to superstardom, so we definitely got a nice little track record going. We are definitely doing something right. As far as the blueprint, every scenario is slightly different as to what works for each artist. As far as building out the team, it's kind of slow and steady. There's got to be a lot of trust there. We’ve got to have people that can truly complete a task. If you're having to double back and then do the same thing that you've assigned somebody to do, why give it to them in the first place? Especially when you run a boutique firm, there's not a lot of extra folks just hanging around. It's very detailed. It's very precise. Through mentorship, we’ve fostered individuals to become some of the leading executives in the business. They’ve come through Bootcamp MBK where they get to shadow us, learn how to build and create marketing and radio plans, manage tours, road manage, and learn the politics of the entertainment business. We encourage and foster growth and being just as successful, or even more successful, as us. We want them to earn their own diamond plaque to hang in their office.

We like to rock with people who have very specific skill sets. Not everybody needs to be in the studio. That doesn't have to be your thing. If your thing is marketing, then focus on marketing. Not that you can't do other things, but having people that are really great at certain things helps the company flourish. You don't need ten people doing the same thing. You need ten people that are really great at ten different things that can come together to make the whole thing work smoothly.

Most folks who are with us have been with us for many years, even from teenage years. It's really about trust. It's about having really smart people. It's about people that really want to do this. They have to have that passion for this. If they don't have passion, it's just not going to work. It's going to fall flat, and they'll be just unhappy. We’ll be unhappy. Their passion has got to match ours.


Some of MBK’s current roster includes Tiara Thomas, Tone Stith, Jourden Cox, and Maeta to name a few. Who are you excited about and why? 

I love Maeta. I love Tone. Tone Stith. He's not just a great songwriter because he's written a lot of hits for Chris Brown and others, but a great performer as well. Ose is a new signee to our deal at Sony. Though she's Nigerian born, her music isn’t really like Afrobeats, It’s Afro R&B. It's a combination of things. Jourden Cox is a female rapper with a unique vibe who is signed to our production deal with Sony. But yeah, that's the new squad, the youngins. They are all fire and ready to be unleashed.

With MBK, the vocals have got to be there. The mic has got to be able to be on with a big or unique voice, unique style, and a personality. The ability to perform and perfect their craft is what we build on, but the basics have to be there to build on. That's an absolute part of the blueprint and a requirement. Everything else is whatever, but the voice has got to be top tier.


You started working with H.E.R. from a young age, back when she performed as Gabi Wilson. What made you want to work with her so early on, and what’s the story behind her rebrand from Gabi Wilson to H.E.R.?

I want to say she was 12. Jeff was really excited about her and took the task on. There was a lot of artist development, which we're very big on – training the vocals, making sure the instrumentation is where it needs to be and just getting a look and an idea of what the music should sound like. 

In terms of her rebrand, she was still young. She started to write and produce more mature music and mature content. And then Carolyn Williams EVP at Sony Music was like, “Guys, I’ve got an idea. Let's just make the music and not say who it is.” That's when everyone was starting to identify with their pronouns. I have to give Carolyn Williams credit where credit is due. That’s how it went down. From there, we kept it going. We just wanted people to listen to the music, and it did what it needed to do. 


Aside from music, you’re extremely passionate about philanthropy. In your opinion, why is it so important to give back, and what sorts of philanthropic efforts are you currently working on? 

If you're a human being on this planet, how are you existing without doing something to help others? You know what I'm saying? I truly enjoy helping others along the way. Mentorship is really my space. I'm a governor for the Recording Academy, and a huge participant in the GRAMMY U mentorship program, the She's The Music mentorship program, the Femme It Forward  mentorship program, the Power to Inspire mentorship program, and the Determined to Educate mentorship program. I have active mentees in every single one of those programs. I embrace that I’m the OG now! As an OG, I have an obligation to share my wisdom with those who want to receive it. I can guide them past the potholes and pitfalls. I can’t guarantee success or happiness, but I can definitely offer priceless guidance and a great referral and reference. 


You recently announced that you’re the co-creator and executive producer of a documentary series centered around the 40 year history of SOBs NYC. Can you tell us more about this, and are you looking to work on more TV/Film projects in the future? 

Talk about passion and passion projects! I used to go to the Paradise Garage, which was down the street, and that’s how I got introduced to S.O.B.’s. I would go to S.O.B.’s early on and it was just good vibes. Then many years later, I ended up setting up shows there for my roster and other artists to perform. To have been a part of the building of its legacy and to now be working with Larry Gold, the owner, on a documentary telling the story of how much incredible talent has gotten their start is amazing.

There are so many artists whose first stage performance was at S.O.B.’s. So many artists from every genre. It's not just about R&B or Hip-Hop. S.O.B.’s is about all music. When nobody else was allowing Hip-Hop artists to perform, Larry was opening his doors. And to know that Drake, Cardi B, J. Cole, Lauryn Hill, Gil Scott Heron, Celia Cruz – and I can go on and on – graced that stage that’s still standing is mind-blowing. We are going to present a documentary that will tell the story of these 40 years of exciting experiences. The fact that Larry has created this musical space that has withstood the test of time is a story that deserves to be told by those who have experienced it firsthand. So we're putting together a great project. 

I have been a part of a couple of other film and TV projects. I have a couple of awards. One is for the film ‘Pariah’ that won at Sundance a number of years ago. I'm an executive producer on that project. I also executive produced a mini project with K Michelle, which was pretty awesome. 


What are some of your goals over the next decade? 

Obviously still be in the artist management space. During my career I’ve secured many really major branding and endorsement deals and will continue to work in that space. I've actually gotten back into the touring space. I've always been heavy on the touring planning with all of our MBK artists. That's always been my specialty. But I have a partnership now with a national promoter and have created a tour series called “New Faces, Big Voices” that launched with the most recent tour run with the October London tour, and there'll be others coming soon. So just getting back heavily into the touring space, which is really where I started. It’s a full circle moment, because everybody needs that opportunity to be able to get their craft in front of their fanbase if they're going to build and become a truly successful artist with a lucrative career. I enjoy that. 

I’ve also been consulting and doing speaking engagements. I'm thankfully in the position and at a time in my life where I pick and choose the projects I want to work on. I really kind of do whatever the hell I want to do, and when I’m on a project, I’m in hyper-drive delivering successful results always, LOL! Having freedom to do what I want is everything! 


What is one album that you’d take wherever you go?

Stevie Wonder - ‘Songs in the Key of Life’


Jeanin E05


What does the term “big ass kid” mean to you? 

Jeanine: Oh, my gosh. It's to feel excited about the little things in life. Do you know what I'm saying? Just to be excited about a great show that I’m going to see or a party that's coming up or a day at the beach. That's what I consider being a big ass kid – still enjoying those moments of hanging out with friends and family playing card games or having dance offs! Oh and I laugh a lot! I laugh out loud, loudly. Life is short, it’s precious. We should all enjoy all the fun moments everyday like a big ass kid!!


Jeanin E04