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Head of the Class 

Schoolteacher Conya Doss is a new label's prize pupil.

Clevelander Conya Doss is heating up the urban - airwaves.
  • Clevelander Conya Doss is heating up the urban airwaves.

The surly look on the fire marshal's face said as much about Conya Doss's rising status as mop-haired soul ingenue as her growing number of spins on powerhouse urban radio stations. It was early last Thursday night, and Club 75 had reached its capacity of 250 people for a showcase performance featuring Doss, Ruff Endz, Jaheim, and Montell Jordan. Even though Doss wouldn't be hitting the stage for some time, there was a line out the door, stopped cold by the glare of the marshal, who wouldn't budge even for hugely important music editor types.

But after one listen to Doss's debut single, "Coffee," it becomes clear why the Cleveland songbird has become such a hot item. Spry and instantly infectious, the luminous cut has gained steady airplay on major stations from Miami to New Orleans to Chicago.

"I think it's good, man. It's a real refreshing kind of song," says Ron Atkins, program director for WAMO-FM/106.7 in Pittsburgh, which added the track two weeks ago. "It sounds a little bit like Alicia Keys, Maxwell, D'Angelo. I think you're going to start to see more of that influence in mainstream music. It fit a hole we had at the station."

Adds Fred Williams, former vice president of radio and promotions at EMI and A&M: "I've worked with D'Angelo, Janet, Hammer, Vanilla Ice, and I haven't seen a record in quite some time where no one will say anything bad about it. People love her image, they love her look. She'll become a household name."

All this hot talk has startled the twentysomething Doss, who still holds down a day job as a teacher for the Cleveland public schools.

"It's moving faster than I had anticipated," she says with a nervous laugh during rehearsals before Thursday's show. "I'm still living a dual life here. [Students] tell me that they heard my record on the radio, and they're excited. The question is 'Are you gonna leave?'"

This appears imminent, as Doss and the new Cleveland label that discovered her, Nu Mecca Records, gain momentum. Founded by big-time R&B producer Edwin "Tony" Nicholas, who has written or produced 17 No. 1 hits for such artists as Joe, the Backstreet Boys, and New Edition, Nu Mecca also boasts Williams as its GM. The label is putting the finishing touches on a major distribution deal and is getting a steady stream of offers from various majors for Doss, who recently landed a spot on the soundtrack to the Dark Angel television series. Sitting in Nicholas's posh Earpaint studios, nestled in a large estate in Bratenahl, Williams and Nicholas are visibly excited about their prospects. Their timing couldn't be better, after the banner year that soul had in 2001, when a slew of new artists in a similar vein as Doss -- Musique Soulchild, India.Arie, Jill Scott -- all hit gold.

"If you're a major label, you have to almost sell gold to break even," Williams says. "At a major, there's so many vice presidents and staff, and the cost of doing business is so high that to turn the lights on costs money. With us, we can make money on as little as 25,000 records; we've just got to budget. We plan on being lean, but very profitable."

In addition to fat bank, Nu Mecca is looking to generate a more familial relationship between artist and label. This is particularly lacking in urban music, where acts like TLC and Hammer have been subject to contracts that make the swapping of beads for Manhattan seem like a fair deal.

"I'm interested in creating situations where artists can make careers, instead of having their face on BET and VH1 for an album or two, and then, as soon as they fall off, they go back to selling shoes in the men's department at Dillard's," Nicholas says. "With Conya, we've tried to set up a retirement plan with her, and she's already got an accountant, so that she knows that her money's going to have to be handled a certain way. I forced her to write half her record, because that's the real money: the writer's royalties. I've made mistakes because there was no one for me to learn from."

All this has helped Doss take her first steps toward a full-fledged career in music, though she's still a bit anxious.

"I love music, but I know teaching is secure," Doss says. "I figure I owe it to myself to give it a chance."

Clearly, as last Thursday's show proves, she already has her foot in the door. We only wish we could have said the same.

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