You manage Wale, who has an album coming out in September through Mark Ronson’s Allido Records and Interscope. Is everything working out for Wale the way you pictured it happening when you started managing him three years ago?
Everything worked exactly how I sort of imagined it to work because, you know, so often in life you have the best laid plans that don’t exactly pan out and it’s just one of those things. So often in life you get sidetracked by life itself and to actually go and do something, to have a clear idea of where you want to bring it and then to have pretty much everything connect and fall in line the way that you imagined it to, it’s just really, it’s kind of a beautiful thing and if you can sort of model your life and everything that comes after that, to me it seems like you can have a pretty happy life.
When you and Wale were starting out together, what’s the most effective thing you guys did to make people take you seriously?
I think trying to elevate him against the rest of the pack. This was three years ago so we’re not even talking about Kid Cudi or Drake. I’m talking about the people that were popping when I first started managing Wale, like Huey and Jibbs and that sort of stream of artists who I like and Unk and that kind of stuff. I like those kind of people but when Wale came out, he was doing something so completely different that it was hard for people to wrap their head around it because he started out really as a regional artist and then we kind of took it away from there and kind of tried to bring an international angle to it and his association with Mark Ronson definitely helped. I think it helped that we were doing the opposite of what everyone else was doing at the time helped us gain some attention and him being in D.C. and me being in L.A., I had a completely different perspective on everything that he was doing and I could tell him if he did this, that would happen. People in D.C. might not appreciate the magnitude of it right of the bat but it would benefit him long term. If you listen to what was popping back then, you don’t even remember some of those people now and look at Wale. He’s being anticipated as one of the best new hip-hop artists out and I think his album is a classic. It’s been a steady rise over the past three years. It hasn’t been a meteoric rise and then a fall from grace and to me, that’s a lot better because he definitely has a career ahead of him.
At any point did you feel you made a mistake signing to Mark Ronson’s Allido Records?
With the Ronson situation, Wale and I were brought to New York to meet with Epic and on the same day we met with Mark’s partner and they wanted to sign us. This was after Mark asked Wale to go on tour. Mark’s name was growing with Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen and he was more in a position to actually do something to help Wale. When we met up with Epic, it wasn’t really the deal we were looking for. I went to D.C. for that weekend and I sat with Wale and Alize, who had been Wale’s mentor. I was in Alize’s basement and they were saying they didn’t know who Mark Ronson was. I told them I thought he was going to win a Grammy next year and that it was going to be an association that was going to benefit Wale on a larger scale. And it wasn’t a rapper cosign. If you look at the history of rapper cosigns, more often than not they don’t turn out the way you want them too.
Kanye cosigned Kid Cudi and Wayne cosigned Drake and they were so comfortable in their own lane that it wasn’t nothing for them to cosign another artist. When artists cosign, they often cosign artists that are blatantly not as good as them and they know that because they don’t want them to be competition. But with Wayne and Kanye, they were in such a different stratosphere that it wasn’t a big deal. Wale’s cosign was of a little bit different nature and a lot of people in the hip-hop world don’t know who Mark Ronson is, but to those who know, it worked and it’s having the trickle-down effect and it’s about connecting the dots with records like the one with Gaga and “Pretty Girls.”
It’s almost like a reverse sort of audience penetration. He started to pop with the tastemakers and Lady Gaga is the biggest star in the world now and Gucci Mane is one of the biggest rap stars right now and he also has that sort of angle where people in the ‘hood to college kids like him. To me, everything makes sense and maybe from the outside people don’t see it like that but when you hear Wale’s album you’ll hear everything that’s been going on.
Wale’s album Attention Deficit drops in September. What’s the most effective way to market a project today?
I think the marketing an artist is the way. I don’t think marketing a single or an album is the way to do it. If you look at somebody like Kanye, Graduation was an era of his career. It centered around his album but the Glow in the Dark Tour was there and the announcement of his clothing line and the era of stunner shades. To me, it’s just like an era. And he kicked off 808’s and Heartbreak with “Love Lockdown” and he changed his style and all that. To me, we’re still in that era and once a new track drops from his new project, I think that’s going to kick off the next era. The era of Wale’s Attention Deficit started when he went on his solo tour in the spring and hopefully he’ll perform a song at the Grammy’s and then it’s on to the next thing. But instead of pushing one song or one album, if you push the artist then along comes the sales from t-shirts and merchandise like limited edition jackets. It’s not about just taking your $10 on an album. Maybe you’d want to spend $25 on a concert ticket and $30 on merchandise. Wale has given away so much music for free and he wants you to invest in him as an artist, whether it’s buying his album or buying his t-shirt.
How important is touring and selling merch today?
The thing is is that I’m 27. Wale’s 24. Me, especially, I’ve been not necessarily paying for all my music for quite some time and I never really factored album sales into his business model. His biggest earnings have come from shows and licensing. We haven’t gotten our merch to where it’s a huge market for him but it’s definitely an aspect. But we’ve been licensing songs to video games and movies and endorsement deals with Nike to Levi’s to Microsoft Zune to Remy Martin. Wale’s endorsement deals have far exceeded any money he’s gotten from a record company. The endorsement deals that we’ve been able to put together for Wale have been tremendous.
Were those deals hard to get since Wale didn’t have any actual albums out?
It’s really just a lot of networking. I think that up until the XXL cover with all the freshman on it, I think in terms of a new crop of artists, there’s a very limited selection of new artists that people felt safe to choose from and I think that I was able to get Wale’s name and image and brand out there enough so that when people talked about the new guys, he was one of the first names that was brought up. When we did this Remy Martin thing two years ago, it was more regional and they wanted somebody from D.C. and Wale was the only one doing something on a larger scale from D.C.
And then if you look at something like the Levi’s campaign, they did Estelle and they were looking for a hip-hop artist but there’s a very limited amount of hip-hop artists that are safe. That’s not to say that artists like Young Jeezy and Rick Ross have their lane, but when it comes to a big corporation like Levi’s, the oldest denim brand in America, they’re not gonna go and ask Rick Ross to do that because he doesn’t embody what they’re looking for. But you have a young up-and-comer who wears Levi’s and has a wide lane. They feel okay about that and I just think that getting on the radar with tastemaker-type made Wale cool to associate with. And he made a song called “Nike Boots” and it’s super-regional and it’s going to be hard to not get the attention of the brand. They’re so on top of that and they had no choice but to pay attention.
What are your goals for Wale’s debut album Attention Deficit?
It’s hard to say, man. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to sell a lot the first week and get nominated for Grammy’s, but I really think he has a great album on his hands and I’m gonna be really surprised if other people don’t agree. The album is a success to me. I don’t know. It’s just a really great album and diverse and it’s interesting. And I think it showcases him. I think it’s just a perfect showcase.
You also manage singer and producer Mike Posner. What made you want to work with him?
I just saw versatility. My friend sent me his music last September and he’s a senior at Duke now. He’s obviously very smart and it’s not hip-hop, which is great, because I was really looking to move into another space. He knows how to make songs and accessible songs and pop songs that you don’t have to feel guilty about. I started coaching him a little bit and some other people came hollering and those situations kind of played themselves out and I told him if we were going to work together, we were going to work together and everything came to that point and everything that I had suspected about him had come true and we put together a very interesting live show for an artist that doesn’t involve a DJ and he’s not at the point where he can afford a band but it’s going to come. He’s basically a maestro of his own music and I think there’s very few live performers that can do it and do it on the level that he’s doing it at. I truly believe that the sky’s the limit for him. A year from now I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s one of the biggest pop artists in the world.
What do you bring to the table for helping a pop artist like Mike Posner break out?
I think 10 years ago the skill set to execute on somebody like Mike was very different than it is now. I think back then you had to have strong relationships with people at labels and be able to move the building, so to speak, because pop stars 10 years ago could be easily manufactured. That’s not to say that doesn’t still exist, but Lady Gaga, the biggest pop star in the world right now, she was built. She was dropped from Def Jam and did the gay circuit around the country and built up her gay fanbase, which a lot of people don’t talk about but if you go to her concerts it’s impossible to ignore. 10 years ago Lady Gaga would be dumped into the avenues that were well-controlled by media companies. Now with magazines dying out and with physical music suffering and digital music growing, it’s kind of like a Catch 22.
Brand-building is the most important thing for an artist. If the music sucks, the brand is only going to take you so far. But if the music is great, building the brand is the next most important step and doing it better than anyone else does it is the next step. I’ve proven that I could build a brand and I think that’s what Mike needed. He’s young and most college kids don’t know themselves and one do the biggest compliments that Mike has given me is that I know him better than he does and I think just introducing him to the right people that make sense and putting him in the right rooms and having an intuition about what makes sense is important.
It sounds really basic but a lot of people can’t rap their head around it and to have a symbiosis with somebody and to have an understanding of what their goals are, to me, it can’t really be taught. I don’t know. It’s something that I just developed over the years and everything that we’ve done so far has just made sense and he agrees and just feels the same way. There were a lot of people that were more powerful or had more experience than me but this is a new era and just like music, the marketing and management have to reflect that. The guys who were around when money was being literally printed in the music business, they don’t really have much to offer except for some amazing stories on how they were killing it back in the day.
Are having relationships with websites and blogs more important than labels today?
Well, the thing is, there’s only four labels left, really. Anyone that can cut a check at a label, if you have a hot artist, you need that person and you will get to know them. You might not have the luxury of releasing 10 albums with them, but it’s like making money with somebody in the past, it can only do so much in the future. There’s a lot of people who have sold a lot of records, like Nelly. He’s sold a lot of records and made a lot of money. The thing is, Nelly’s last album didn’t sell many records. How many people are willing to jeopardize their jobs on a relationship that hasn’t been profitable in seven years? That’s not to say that Nelly can’t do that again, but it gets to a certain point where you gotta move on and you gotta see who the next guy is. He’s probably not going to make me as much money as Nelly has, but nobody’s going to make me as much money as Nelly has because the climate’s changed.
Building those relationships builds success, like people with PR companies and people who want to link artists with brands. That’s down and dirty in the trenches and networking, where with the record companies, when you’re meant to meet Jay-Z or Diddy or Jimmy Iovine, you meet them, where with some of these other people, if somebody at a branding company wants to cut a check for a Nike campaign, those people don’t have a hierarchy and a folklore associated with them and they’re always trying to meet the next thing. They’re not as guarded. That’s the same with the blogs. Getting to know somebody like Eskay or you can have just as much of an impact as knowing somebody like Jimmy Iovine.
Can there ever be too many chefs in the kitchen, especially with Wale when he has you, Mark Ronson, Interscope and now Roc Nation management?
We work pretty well together. It’s macro versus micro. That’s not to say that I don’t look at the bigger picture either, but one of Wale’s things is just dressing a certain way and wearing certain sneakers and guys who are in their 40s don’t care about stuff the way guys in their 20s care about stuff. Hooking Wale up with the right people at Nike, it’s that minutiae that makes the difference like that. The people at Roc Nation and Allido, they have a tremendous amount of experience and they’ve been in situations that I haven’t been in, but it works.
You also manage the southern group Paper Route Gangstaz. What drew you to them?
The thing about Paper Route is that I was put onto them when I was working for a management company and I was really just looking for other stuff to work on besides Wale because I just didn’t want to have all my eggs in one basket. I heard their music and it was jaw-dropping. We’re not talking about the next Eminem here, but sonically-speaking, their raps and voices mix so well with the production. It’s not that it doesn’t matter what they’re saying, but it just works. I reached out to them and they’ve never had anyone from the outside helping them and we grinded and we put together this mixtape with Diplo and for some reason it just hasn’t caught on. I can’t figure out why. I’m hoping it’s one of those things people come back to once they have some success. I got them a deal at Koch, which is E1 now. I think Koch is a great place for them because on the surface they’re a southern rap group and I think Koch has been very successful with that and I think that deep down, they’re like a Dungeon Family. It’s left field and it’s from the deep south and it’s sonically unique. To me, there’s nothing out there that sounds like them and it sucks that people write them off.
The name Paper Route Gangstaz, I don’t blame people for writing them off. I told people we should change the name but it is what it is. I think they have the potential to be the next great southern rap group. Nappy Roots is the last group I can think of that had an impact but they came and went so quickly. They’re live show can be like the southern Roots. There’s nobody doing live southern rap music right now and I just think that could be a really cool angle.
Do you feel like the alternative rap subgenre is growing bigger than ever today?
I just think Black music in general is going through a weird phase right now. I don’t think just simply rapping over a track, it just doesn’t hold any water anymore. And I kind of predicted this a couple of years ago. I told Wale that he had to make it more interesting that just rapping because people are really going to stop caring about that and I think that movement generated from the South. If you look at a lot of southern rappers, and you could go back to Outkast and Andre with the signing or with Cee-Lo or Ludacris, who has a really powerful voice that he sort of uses as an instrument or Unk or T.I. These guys are kind of experimenting because rapping over a beat gets boring and I think that’s why people are having a very hard time connecting with Jay-Z because he’s been the king of that and between the time American Gangster dropped and now, hip-hop has gone through a tremendous amount of change and I think he sees that and I don’t think he wants to go with that change. He’s a legend. Why does he have to go and now start melodically rapping? But everyone else, if you really want people to pay attention, the whole spitting thing doesn’t really cut it anymore and I think Eminem’s new album is also a perfect example of how that doesn’t work.
What do you think of that shift?
It’s hard to wrap your head around because you can go and listen to a record off of Canibus’ first album, like “Second Round Knockout,” and it will have such an impact on you but it’s hard to tell if that impact comes from the nostalgia around it or the quality of it. Or listening to 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me. If that record came out now, would people care? I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m mad at it because it’s pushing the boundaries and genre lines are boring. To me, the only genre that’s really in its own box that hasn’t been touched is country but Kid Cudi and Drake are working with country artists. Same with Wale. All these genre lines are boring and I don’t think it matters. To me, it’s just creating more creativity and ingenuity. It’s sort of like the people that are just doing one note don’t really have a chance anymore. It sucks but it’s a natural selection type thing.
Where do you see the music game going in the next few years and with that, where do you want to take your management company?
I think the gap between the mainstream and the underground is shrinking every day. The philosophies have proven that this is a little flawed but it’s said that people only strive for mainstream success, but if you look at a group like Justice, the electronic group, they only sold 90,000 records on their first album but they’re probably getting $100,000 a show to tour all around the world. Even someone who goes and sells a million records, they might not have the same reach as Justice. Personally, I would rather have my artists have longevity and major touring careers and playing in front of people year-round than have someone who can sell a million singles. To me, I would much rather be touring around the world and having my songs licensed in commercials and movies, rather than having commercial success.
But if you’re a good artist like Santogold, she didn’t sell a ton of records but her song is licensed in the new Bud Light Lime ad campaign and I’m sure she got paid more for that than most artists get for royalties off their album. It’s about being well-rounded and touring and selling merch is way more interesting than just selling a bunch of records. My company is called Elitaste for a reason. I have a good ear and I had the opportunity to manage one artist in particular who had some overnight success with a very gimmicky hit record and I said no. Do I regret it? Yeah, it would have been nice to have that little extra paycheck, but all you have in this business are your taste and your relationships and to sacrifice either one of those for short-term success I think is ultimately not the best thing to do.