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Remembering music mogul Seymour Stein, dead at 80

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Seymour Stein will be remembered for the talent he spotted. Stein was a music company executive. He died Sunday at the age of 80. He signed Madonna, the Ramones and Talking Heads to his label. The recording industry followed his lead. Here's NPR's Phil Harrell.

PHIL HARRELL, BYLINE: When Seymour Stein was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, one of the artists he discovered, Ice-T, spoke on his behalf.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ICE-T: My friend said, Seymour Stein likes your record. I'm like, who is Seymour Stein? They're like, he signed Madonna. I'm like, oh, that's who Seymour Stein is, right?

HARRELL: In 1987, no major label was taking a chance on what would later become known as gangsta rap. But Sire Records released this Ice-T track that would define the genre.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "6 'N THE MORNIN'")

ICE-T: (Rapping) Six in the morning, police at my door. Fresh Adidas squeak across my bathroom floor.

HARRELL: Ice-T insisted the label never pushed back, no matter how challenging the content.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ICE-T: I could turn in a record that just was - I don't know - burn down the city. Seymour was like, great.

(LAUGHTER)

ICE-T: Go for it, Ice, because see; right now we're in a world where artists are taught and trained to say nothing. Seymour was looking for somebody who was - had something to say.

HARRELL: Stein had a knack for being ahead of the curve on multiple music trends.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLITZKRIEG BOP")

RAMONES: (Singing) Hey, ho. Let's go. Hey, ho. Let's go.

HARRELL: When New York City was the incubator for punk and new wave, Sire Records signed the Ramones and Talking Heads to their first record deals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PSYCHO KILLER")

TALKING HEADS: (Singing) Psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est? (Vocalizing). Better...

HARRELL: Stein was born in Brooklyn and started his label when he was still in his 20s. After years of importing British bands to the U.S. market with little fanfare, Sire hit its stride in the late '70s and dominated the '80s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRASS IN POCKET")

THE PRETENDERS: (Singing) Going to make you, make you, make you notice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW SOON IS NOW?")

THE SMITHS: (Singing) I am human, and I need to be loved.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIPS LIKE SUGAR")

ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN: (Singing) Lips like sugar, sugar kisses.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE")

DEPECHE MODE: (Singing) People are people, so why should it be you and I should get along so awfully?

HARRELL: Stephen Thompson of NPR Music says Sire introduced bands through underground college radio before turning to pop radio.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: When I was in college radio and I was kind of learning how to be a music nerd, there was such a stark line. Like, you could be underground and cool, or you could be mainstream and terrible. Sire Records and Seymour Stein found ways to kind of fuse those together.

HARRELL: And that describes his greatest claim to fame, when he signed an unknown who emerged from the underground dance scene in New York. Stein was in the hospital awaiting open-heart surgery when Madonna came to his bedside to demand a contract. He told that story to Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

SEYMOUR STEIN: Here I was, you know, a mess. I probably hadn't taken a shower in a few days, and I freaked out. I had somebody come and shave me and cut my hair and look the best I could before she got there. She wanted a shot more than anything, and I wanted to give her that shot 'cause I totally believed in her.

HARRELL: Within a couple years, the whole industry was trying to mimic all things Madonna.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUCKY STAR")

MADONNA: (Singing) You must be my lucky star 'cause you shine on me wherever you are.

HARRELL: After learning of Seymour Stein's passing, Madonna posted, he was one of the most influential men in my life. He changed and shaped my world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUCKY STAR")

MADONNA: (Singing) Star light, star bright.

HARRELL: Phil Harrell, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUCKY STAR")

MADONNA: (Singing) Star light, star bright, make everything all right. Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight - star light, star bright, yeah. You must be my lucky star 'cause you make the darkness seem so far. And when I'm lost, you'll be my guide. I just turn around, and you're by my side. Star light, star bright. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.