Our protagonist is Michael J. Payton – an artist, social entrepreneur and filmmaker from Oakland, California. Our hero is Irv Gotti. Our plot is centered around a passion project-turned-major-music-documentary-deal. In 2018 Payton released an unauthorized self-made mini documentary chronicling the fascinating story of Gotti and his rise from nothing into founding the multi-million dollar record label Murder Inc. (producing legends like Ashanti and Ja Rule). And then an insane twist of fate – while Payton is rushing to California to bury his beloved mother his phone blows up hours after the funeral with an influx of texts and calls from friends saying, “Irv saw your documentary – he’s looking for you.”
The story is so remarkable, we invite you to imagine it fully. Imagine yourself putting something proudly into the world just as something is taken away from your world. Then imagine soon after that devastation of unimaginable proportions, the hero you’ve just made a story about calls you and says: “I saw what you made about me and I want you to work with me.” Can you imagine a day where the ship of your life simultaneously crashes and sinks only to be pulled out of the wreckage and cast into the most unexpected heights of enviable success?
It’s the kind of story that makes you shake your head in wonder at the highs and lows that are thrown into the unsuspecting lives of humans. It’s also the kind of story that Payton himself likes to tell. CSUITEMUSIC, the digital media agency and production company Payton founded, focuses on telling stories that look to empower the Black community and specifically at how “hip-hop culture has transcended beyond the community and leveraged from cultural power into corporate power,” as Payton himself clarifies.
One particular story that always struck Payton was of the record executive Irv Gotti. Payton was enamored by the rags-to-riches story of Gotti: “He started with nothing and turned passion into an almost billion-dollar business that shifted the way the music industry looks at hip-hop”, Payton tells us, the respect evident in his voice.
“I was fascinated by how they took the street aesthetic and made it into a corporate multi-million-dollar business. One of my dreams was to do the actual official documentary of this story.”
But Payton doesn’t subscribe to the notion of waiting for dreams to happen. With nothing but an intense interest and public resources, he read every book and watched every interview of Irv Gotti and Murder Inc. Piece by piece he started threading a story together, and after three years he released the documentary on his company’s YouTube channel in 2018.
He was at the time completing his graduate studies at NYU and working on numerous other projects. Yet, once something is dropped into the digital ocean of the internet, it’s potential reach becomes immeasurable. You never know whose story will wash up on the right shore of just the right person at the right time. As Payton had to drop everything mid-semester to fly home in order to be with his family at the time of his mother’s passing, his documentary had found its way into the hands of Gotti who was struck by this articulate and beautiful expression of his life’s work by an unknown filmmaker. Gotti was sold – “Whoever knows Michael Payton. Let him know to reach out to me. Cause I am gonna let him be part of the Big Official Documentary,” Gotti announces to the world on an Instagram post after watching the documentary. This is the announcement that changed everything for Payton in a second.
“What is it about this documentary that you think struck Gotti?” we ask Payton.
“I’m a pretty positive guy, I go off things that inspire me,” Payton muses. “I think he was touched by the fact that someone he didn’t know, who is also a fan – would care so much to tell the story in a careful way.”
Murder Inc. and Gotti have had their fair share of bad press with rumors of money laundering that ended up in a full-scale IRS investigation. However Payton wasn’t looking to dwell on the negativity that usually descends into ‘shockumentaries’ as they’re accurately described.
“I’m not inspired by negativity or gossip,” Payton says. “I’m like, how can we pull out the goodness of a story. I just wanted to tell this amazing story about these Black kids from the hood in New York. They had nothing, they literally just had their raw talent that turned into a multimillion dollar thing and literally shifted our culture as we know it.”
Soon after Gotti’s Instagram post, Payton found himself strolling the halls of Atlantic Records with the label’s president and Gotti himself – the kind of company young creators can only dream of. Gotti handed full creative control over to Payton, who is currently now the director, executive producer and writer for the official Murder Inc documentary pending release.
Payton’s talent for crafting stories about the intersection between music, society and politics is undeniable but more than that – he is a sincerely hopeful human. The genuine positivity that seems to run through his veins is nothing short of inspiring, and so your Tonemamas finished the interview by asking what his secret was for sustaining that positivity in a world that seems to prefer speaking the language of pessimists.
“You literally have a choice,” Payton laughs. “You can choose how to look at things and that’s storytelling – we give things significance in how we choose to tell the story.”
Your Tonemamas have heard some astonishing stories in their lifetime but this is one we would truly like to buy the film rights of (Michael, hit us up when you’re ready to make a documentary about your life, we’re ready for you! #tonemamasgointofilm)