James McMillan has come a long way since his drug-dealing days at an HBCU.
Now the Cleveland native, a top-rated Entertainment and Sports Attorneys in New York City, started his own label and signed one of the biggest breakout success stories of 2019, YBN Cordae.
The 22-year-old Raleigh, N.C., native is up for two of his own Grammy Awards this weekend, and also contributed to the success of two other acclaimed projects—H.E.R.’s I Used to Know Her for Album of the Year, and Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media nominee Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse Soundtrack.
But McMillan, a self-proclaimed “child of the 90s,” had a few bumps in the road along the way to the hip-hop heights.
While an undergraduate student at Virginia’s Hampton University, McMillan said he was immature, and void of the patience and perseverance needed to live a purposeful life. Going the easy route to get the money he craved, the low-level drug dealer moved thirty pounds of marijuana every month both on and off-campus.
Though he obtained a marketing degree from Hampton University’s School of Business, the Shaker Heights-raised aspiring business lawyer continued in the drug trade and flunked out of Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law.
After failing out of law school, McMillan was arrested after tossing a pound of weed out of his car while driving down the highway and being pulled over for having illegally tinted windows.
“From this I learned to never let fear dictate a move unaligned with my intelligence,” McMillan tells The Root. “I never gave myself a chance to escape the situation unscathed.”
After being arrested, he had the gumption to hire a lawyer who was able to buy him some time so he could reapply to law school.
“Law school applications ask applicants whether or not they’ve been convicted of a crime,” he revealed. “I wouldn’t be convicted until the following year, so my application was accepted.”
He received three years of supervised probation, which was pretty much the amount of time it took him to graduate from the law school with a Juris Doctorate degree.
“I returned to law school with only $300 to last my entire first semester,” McMillan shared. “My commitment to my purpose was deeper than ever before. I began to see that when I showed uninterrupted dedication, doors began opening for me. I learned to listen to my inner voice, which I believe is God.”
After graduating law school, he took the New York Bar Exam and while awaiting the results, he started a job at New York City’s Osse & Woods, the first entertainment law firm to specialize in hip-hop with clientele including Jay-Z, Kanye West, Kelly Price, DJ Clark Kent, and the Hitmen production team.
The two lead partners of the firm, Ed Woods and Reggie “Combat Jack” Osse, became his mentors and life-long friends up until their deaths in 2017.
“While working with them, I was fully aware that I wasn’t allowed to practice law as a convicted felon. This is where God took control.”
McMillan became heavily involved in BESLA (Black Entertainment & Sports Lawyers Association) where he says he learned the fine art of networking amongst his peers and building a solid relationship as an inspirational innovator and persistent dealmaker.
He later petitioned the bar committee to regain his license to practice law.
“During my bar interview, the interviewer changed my life. He said that my transparency spoke highly of my character. ‘I think you’ll be an excellent addition to the New York Bar,’ he began. He then went on to implore that I share my story with others.”
“‘Welcome to the New York Bar’ are words that will never escape my memory.”
Since then, McMillan has helped shape numerous careers through his roles as visionary, attorney, marketer and artist manager—identifying, working and building a varied range of clients including Rap-A-Lot Records, Justice League, Circuit 13, Gospel Musician Allan Houston, Paul Wall, Mike Jones, Too Short, Nelly, 8 Ball & MG and a partnership with Machine Gun Kelly.
He is now founder and CEO of his own record label, ART@WAR which is a joint venture with Atlantic Records.
“The label’s name was inspired by Sun Tzu’s similarly named military treatise, The Art Of War and that is deliberate,” he explained. “It’s called ART@WAR because Art is at war now and we’re ready and willing to go to war for our artists...to get their messages out there.”
With a vision to build a culturally relevant roster, invest in artists and collaboratively build them into multi-tiered brands, McMillan is off to a great start with the 22-year-old YBN Cordae, who was among XXL’s highly anticipated and much-coveted “Freshman Class” of 2019.
“Although I fell into many of the trappings which snatch young black and brown futures on a daily basis—illegal money, ego, toxic masculinity, fear—it was my faith, my purpose and eventual consistency that conceived my childhood goals,” he shared.
“What many don’t realize is that achieving one’s goals takes great discomfort. Big dreams often come with big pain,” McMillan continued. “The greater your goals, the larger the mistakes you might commit along the journey. My mistakes were almost deadly.”
“So, my advice, especially to young people, is to listen to your inner voice and remain committed to your purpose and path,” he added.
“It’s a scenic route, but the only way towards your greatness, deepest desires and wildest dreams. A route that just might take you to the Grammys.”