Legendary music executive Mo Ostin almost didn’t seal the deal with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Upon the release of their album Mother’s Milk in ’89, the Peppers went from being an L.A. club band to getting national radio airplay. That’s when the labels came knocking, Warner Bros. among them. Despite Ostin’s industry bona fides—he signed both the Kinks and Jimi Hendrix during his time at Reprise in the ’60s, no big deal—and a reputation for being a friend to artists, he and his label couldn’t compete with the obscene amount of money another label had offered the band.
“We were young and foolish and full of ourselves. We had everyone throwing money at us and promises at us, and we thought it was the greatest thing that had ever happened. We were poor up to that point,” frontman Anthony Kiedis recalls, adding, “We were greedy little youngsters and we went with the biggest check.”
But then Ostin picked up the phone and called the guys, not to lay on a guilt trip or issue empty threats about their future in the industry, but to congratulate them. Kiedis was impressed. To his recollection, bandmate Flea was too. And, as it turned out, Ostin was the only dude who could get them out of their existing contract with EMI. “Between his people skills and genuine Mo-ness we were able to shift gears,” Kiedis recalls. Illustrating that “Mo-ness,” Kiedis says, “He was comfortable breaking bread with royalty or punks from the gutters of Hollywood—it was kind of special.”
Blood Sugar Sex Magik was released on Warner Bros. Records in September 1991 (and turned out to be sort of a big deal). Twenty-seven years later, on September 29, Ostin is being honored for his philanthropy and contributions to music at the Silverlake Conservatory of Music’s annual fundraiser. Started by Flea in 2001, the Conservatory services upward of 800 lessons a week from its state-of-the-art, Barbara Bestor-designed space on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Feliz, not from from its longtime location at Sunset Junction. Students from lower income families are offered scholarships based on need, which is where the annual fundraiser comes in. Each year big names donate their time and art to raise money for the school. This year, k.d. lang, Lindsey Buckingham, and (as usual) the Red Hot Chili Peppers perform; Marc Maron emcees; and works by Cecily Brown, Charming Baker, Ed Ruscha, Shepard Fairey, Gus Van Sant, Urs Fischer, Wes Lang, and others will be auctioned off. (Other auction items include a chance to sit courtside with Flea at a Lakers game and a custom voicemail recording by Sarah Silverman.)
Besides being instrumental in the Chili Peppers’ first brush with breakout success—”He was extremely meaningful to our transition from unknown funkateers to internationally known guys,” Kiedis says—Ostin has been a fervent supporter of the school since it was founded. He’s also donated large sums of money to the music program at his alma mater, UCLA, which is now home to the Evelyn & Mo Ostin Music Center.
Kiedis is a silent member of the Conservatory’s board, but the school’s mission to foster human creativity resonates with him, particularly in what he calls this “Age of Mass Distraction.”
“It’s troubling and confounding but there’s also something about the human spirit that rises above all distractions and hardships—because I consider those distractions too—and make great music and great visual art and everything,” Kiedis says. “We’re still a force to be reckoned with. We send mad beauty into the world, despite our shortcomings. We have that weird thing inside of us, so the school is the perfect spot for someone who’s willing to discover that space. And it’s led by all of these people who’ve dedicated their lives to music rather than making money or being famous or being on Instagram. They want to pass their knowledge on to hungry little kids.”
Kiedis’s friends were his earliest musical mentors. He hadn’t set out to be in bands, but everyone around him was teaming up and making music together. His father, Blackie Dammett, was an actor, and Kiedis had formed an appreciation for obsessively practicing one’s craft. “From time time we were 15, I watched [my friends] make music,” Kiedis says. “I hung out with them and watched their commitment to practicing and rehearsing and all of the sacrifices that come along with that.”
Now the Conservatory—with the help of people like Ostin—is helping other young people grow the same sort of passion for developing their craft. “It’s amazing. The [Conservatory] has a life of its own,” Kiedis says. “Flea was there to start it, but the people who run it from day to day…it’s their mission to just be of service to the world and the community. All we have to do is just keep it going and keep it flowing.”
Silverlake Conservatory of Music’s Annual Benefit Honoring Mo Ostin takes place on Sept. 29; for more ticketing info email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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