Interview with CHRIS LORENZO, A&R at Murder Inc. for Ashanti, Ja Rule - June 12, 2002
“Rappers have to bring something on top of the beat, and not just let the beat carry it in.”Chris Lorenzo, aka Chris Gotti, runs the New York-based label, Murder Inc., with his brother, music producer Irv Lorenzo, aka Irv Gotti. Artists signed to Murder Inc. include rapper Ja Rule and r&b singer Ashanti, both with US multi-platinum albums under their belts. Artists produced by Irv include Ashanti, Ja Rule, DMX, Jay-Z, Foxy Brown, Jennifer Lopez, and Ol' Dirty Bastard, to mention a few.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
It's all down to my brother, Irv Gotti. He's a genius, and by far one of the best producers around. He has amazing insight on how to market and break new artists, and being with him just enhances my skills. The two of us started out together about 16 years ago. He was deejaying and I managed him. Then I managed a group he was in, and tried to get them a deal. We ended up separating ourselves from the group and kept pressing on.
We did a record for rapper Mike Geronimo, and I paid for it to get pressed. We shot a video, put it out, and I spent thousands of dollars on Box TV, the music video channel! All I did was call so that they would play it constantly. We sold thousands of records on our own. We would go up to Flex, who's a hot 97 DJ here in New York, and ask him to play the record. He'd say that he'd heard the record, and that he liked it, but he still never played it. We'd be there every night asking him when he was going to play it, and then finally, one night, he did. The next thing you know it was playing and playing, and we got a deal. We had TVT, RCA and MCA to choose between, and we ended up going with TVT. That's how we got into the game.
What's the story behind Murder Inc.?
Irv was doing A&R at Def Jam and brought in DMX, Jay-Z, and Ja Rule. Sony Records offered him a label deal, but we ended up not taking it. Instead we stayed with Def Jam and started Murder Inc. I was on board before the label started, helping Irv run his production company and helping him do A&R at Def Jam.
I run all of the operations at Murder Inc., and I try to just let him be creative while I take care of the business and A&R work. If he can keep being creative, just making new music, and I can take care of business, we'll be very successful. There are no "yes men" at Murder Inc. From the lowest to the highest person, we're honest. That's how I built the company.
What experiences have helped develop your skills as an A&R?
I'm very observant and I'm a student of this music business game. When I say student, I mean I try to understand what makes something hot and successful, why did this one sell, why didn't that one, and I just try to find the right formula.
Working with Irv, and Lyor Cohen (President Island/Def Jam – Ed.), has helped me sharpen my skills, as well as the day-to-day operations, like dealing with all the artists on Def Jam, and seeing how all the A&Rs are handling their projects.
What do you think of today's rap scene?
It's weak! There aren't enough quality rappers out there, in fact there's only a handful, and that's why there's a lot of mediocre music being made. When I listen to the songs, the content and the way the records are put together, I just know we're going to kill them, because we know how to make real records that people will understand and feel.
A lot of rappers lack creativity. If you listen to the words, they don't mean anything. Their song may be catchy, but there's no substance to their music.
What would you say about the business around the music?
It's dirty! It's a dirty, cutthroat business. At Murder Inc., we feel we're self-contained, so I never really have to reach out and ask for a favour from anybody, so they can't expect one in return. This enables me to do pretty much everything I want to, because I don't have to deal with the dirtiness of the business. Once you ask for favours, you're leaving yourself open to someone else's demand. If you look at our albums, Irv produces all the artists on our label.
What's good about the rap scene?
It's changing a lot of people's lives, people who were not doing as well as they're doing now. We're making a lot of black-minority people rich, and that is a beautiful thing.
What acts are you currently working with and how did you find them?
Charli Baltimore, who has an amazing album soon to be released, came to us just because she wanted to work with Murder Inc. My brother put her in the studio and found out that she's really talented, and that we could make some nice music with her. She used to be with Untertainment, but it just never worked out, because they were making the wrong kind of records for her.
Ja Rule grew up with us. Most people don't realise that Ja came from a group called Cash Money Click, made up by O-1, Chris Black and Jody Mack. We're now doing an album with them that's coming out in November.
Ashanti came to us through a mutual friend who just wanted us to make records for her. She had other deals with Jive and Noontime, but got dropped. Obviously they couldn't see her talent, and we would like to thank them for being blind! What's going to shock people is that on her album she didn't even touch on any of her vocal talents, but that's by design. We didn't want her to sing ballads where you'd be able to appreciate her vocal talents just yet, because we had a different direction we wanted to take her in first, which leaves the door open to a whole new market.
How do you find new talent?
Talent comes to you. Here's our position on that: everybody raps or sings. You can't go anywhere without someone telling you that they rap or sing, which is all-good. The hardest thing is to differentiate between who is hot and who is not. Usually what we do is that if we hear something in someone that we like, we'll get him or her into the studio, because that's where the money's at. Rappers have to bring something on top of the beat, and not just let the beat carry it in - that's the difference between the ones who are going to survive and those who are not!
That's what I tell all the new rappers when they come here. You can get twenty guys that sound just as good or better than you, but guess what? When you put them in the booth, they can't rap. They're still on the corner and they don't know how to make a record. This is a business and I try to explain that to these guys: it's a business, you have to be able to make money, and if you don't know how to make a record, then I can't make money.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
I listen to every beat tape and every demo sent to me, maybe not the second I get it, but when I'm in the office until two or three in the morning, and no one in the game can say that at my level. But I won't call you back unless it's hot. We get tons of songs from everywhere, from all over the country and from abroad too.
What do you think of the quality?
When we started out we didn't know how to make records, but we grew! So really, I can't judge you on what you send me, because that wouldn't be a fair assessment. But if you rap well, or if you have a nice voice, I'm going to hear it. If you know how to put stories together and tell them, I'm going to hear it. I don't care what the beat sounds like; I'm going to find out if I can help you make that hit!
What do you look for in an artist?
Charisma. It's something that stands true for everyone: if you're a star, you're a star, and you're going to be a star whether you're rapping or not. When you walk into a room, even if you've never made a record, you're going to carry that room.
Delivery. With rap, the delivery and the way words are put together are both very important. You're telling a story, and if it's a boring one, then it's a boring rap. You have to learn how to cause excitement and keep someone's imagination and attention on you.
We're from Queens, New York, so we already have many New York rappers. We try to stay away from New York, because how many New York stories can you tell? We want to find the hottest rapper from another city and then come back to New York.
Do you think unsigned artists are knowledgeable about the music industry, or is it something they need to learn more about in order to stand a better chance?
The majority don't understand how hard it is, how hard I worked just to get here, and how I work even harder just to maintain. They just see the videos and the good life, and think that that's all it is. They don't realise how many hours a Ja Rule or an Ashanti work, that they give up nearly their whole life just to do what they're doing and maintain the level of success that they've achieved.
It's something that they definitely need to learn more about, because over here, if you don't work, don't even think about it! Everyone is willing to put in the overtime.
Do you give any importance to who the manager, attorney and team behind an act are, when considering signing them?
Never! And let me tell you something, we probably never will, because we're like dictators over here! Me and my brother are going to tell a new artist everything he or she must do. We're managing them even if we don't have a contract. We're so rare, because with every artist we've had, we've worked on their albums before they've even signed their contracts to Murder Inc., which means that they could have got up and walked at any time.
If we tell you that we're dealing with you as an artist, and you say yes, we feel that's all we need. We'll deal with the business later. Let's get to work first!
How would you advise unsigned acts to approach people in the music business, once they have material?
It's funny, because you really don't know that answer until you're here on the inside. When I was first grinding and my brother was playing, we were banging on doors and if people were busy, we'd go "C'mon!" And that's what's happening to us right now. But the reality of it is that they just might have been busy.
So, number one: do not get discouraged. If someone says they're busy, hopefully he or she is a truthful person. If someone's lying about how busy they are, then you're knocking on the wrong door anyway! Just don't give up - you've got to keep on grinding.
Would you work with acts from outside the US?
I would say yes, but it's kind of hard to relate to if you don't understand what they're saying. But I like to think that we could work with someone from the outside.
What do you think about the radio situation in the US?
It's a nightmare! There are so many stations in competition, and there's a lot of politics involved. If you do something for one station, another station gets mad and stops playing your record. You really have to know how to work all the stations. Radio is a full-time job.
Has the amount of time labels give new acts before they break decreased in recent decades? If so, why, and do you think it is a problem?
Yes, and the reason for that is the bootlegging, and because the money has changed now. Record companies are losing money because of pirating and all these expensive videos. With record sales dropping, and more money being spent, they're not going to devote their time and energy to a new artist. But they're missing out. We have a saying: “New slays old”, meaning that a new artist that comes out and is hot will kill the artist that's been hot before.
Why do artists pay for promotional costs like videos, for example?
Because that's what it's cost the label to make you who you've become. You came in my door as a nobody. I changed you into a multi-platinum superstar, now your face is something of value. I did that for you and I need my money back.
Do you think the royalties recording artists receive from record sales are adequate?
With royalties, you get paid accordingly. Once you come into the game, you're a new artist and you have pretty much a basic deal. OK, you take it short, but guess what? There's something called renegotiation, and we're all for that. We're going to go back in and do a new deal. Every person in this business has to get jerked at the beginning, it always happens. But once you learn, it's time to redo the deal and raise the royalties according to the level of success you've achieved.
At Murder Inc. we like to say that we overpay our artists, which we do! Because we feel the company is artist-driven. The business side of Def Jam hates us for that, because they're our partners, which means if they tell me I only have a hundred thousand, I'll say no, I need two hundred thousand! I'm going to spend it on my artist because in the long run, if I make my artist a star, it's going to pay for itself twenty or even a hundred times over.
We have another thing: spend accordingly. Which means that if you're not selling records, I can't spend all this money. But when you're new, we'll spend more on you than on someone who has a deal. Established artists are often stuck in their lane, they know their speed, they know their limit, but when you're new and in your own lane, the sky's the limit!
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would it be?
I would eliminate the racism at work in the industry. People treat us differently and sometimes it's a factor when it shouldn't be.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
The first and foremost is the kingpin Ja Rule. His and my brother's success is a blessing. Also knowing that my brother is the best by far at what he does, that there's no level that he can't reach. Ja, Ashanti and my brother have all been successful and that's special to me.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
If my brother is still doing it, I'm still working. If we've stopped, it means that we're sitting on so much money that we're on an island with our families.
Interviewed by Jean-Francois Méan
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