Interview with KAZI WHISPERS, A&R for Aaliya, Timbaland & Magoo - Jul 16, 2007
"Heavy metal died and you have the people that are trying to revive it. Thatís what we should do with hip hop,"... states Kazi Whispers, spelling out the search for a new golden age for rap music.
Whispers, who has A&R credits for Aaliyah (No.1 US), and the collaboration between Timbaland (Top 10 US) and Magoo, is now focusing his experience and skills in his own label Contraband Records where he grooms some new promising acts.
He talks passionately to HitQuarters about the need to think outside the box (and, for example, combining hip hop with other styles), and about creating a business family with the power to shake up the industry.
What were your first steps in the music business?
I went to the Institute of Audio Research in NYC. After that they sent me to some internships, but that wasnít working. I did some networking by myself.
I met up with some people that told me I knew a lot about the music business. They gave me a try and I started working for Blackground Records.
First I did promotions and marketing. Within a year I got promoted to the A&R department under Jimmy ĎHenchmaní Rosemond, whos The Gameís manager right now. Then I did something for Rick Ross.
When did you found Contraband Records?
I found Contraband Records with my partner Mike Mills about two and a half years ago. He was doing production for my cousin, who was rapping. And he made me listen to some rock stuff. He was producing for rock and hip hop. I decided to merge.
There are not a lot of indie labels doing that. Merging good hip hop and rock. They understand both sides of the world. Both genres. We decided to create something thatís as beautiful.
Mike has a band called California Kings that is creating a bit of noise. Thereís another rock group thatís going to be coming out called Bulletproof Youth. Itís more of rap over rock in the vein of Rage Against The Machine.
How do you work between A&R-ing and performing yourself?
I have a good surrounding. I have people that help me anytime I have to do shows. They help me on the office level.
I just have to wear a lot of hats. Either after or before the show I have to make calls and make sure everything is done right.
Itís more hands-on. Itís a small label. I love the business aspect and the artistic aspect of it.
What artists are you currently working with?
Other than myself I have California Kings.
Unfortunately, O.G. Kali from Firestarter went to jail. As soon as he comes out we will hopefully start recording again.
And I have ,b>E.P.N.S. Records also, which is affiliated with Contreband Records. I also manage producers. I manage Xero Motion Music promotions, which is coming out of Canada. And Mike Mills himself is also another producer.
What is important for an aspiring rap artist?
Not to follow whatís going on right now. I donít want to point fingers, but you have to follow your guts. You have to understand where hip hop was at one point, which was the golden years.
You got to take that route. If youíre not going that route, then you donít understand what hip hop is.
Of course, some sounds sound good, but you can tell by the record sales that itís only the single that sounds good. When it comes to buying the album, there is no depth into the whole record.
You have to listen. Itís about feeling. If you listen to somebody and you want to buy the album, you want to read everything thatís in the booklet.
You want to feel the person. Itís not just about listening to a record and saying that itís hot and thatís it.
As an artist you should understand that if you talk to somebody and you say something and if he agrees to listen, then heís feeling what youíre saying.
What needs to be in place before signing a record deal?
Basically, your buzz has to be there. Itís unfortunate that a lot of good artists are not generating the buzz because there are a lot of investments involved.
Whatís usually discussed in the first meetings with a new artist?
I discuss what we can do together. What plans I have with the artist. If youíre an artist, at first you have to be a businessman.
Iím not a label that wants to make money off of you. I have a label thatís trying to move something. I hate the word Ďmovementí because everybody uses it.
But weíre trying to shake this whole industry. And if I canít do it by myself, we can do it together.
Everybody merges. So why not have your company affiliated with mine and affiliated with his, and create this whole force and try to move it, try to shake it, and do something.
What is it that makes you want to work with the artist?
Itís not like every record label. Itís not just the buzz itself. I see the hunger in a person. I see if s/he really wants to work. I see if s/he has a lot of knowledge.
Time is money. I canít explain and teach them. I have to feel that theyíre really into it. That theyíre willing to do their task. Iím doing my job and theyíre doing theirs, and we do stuff together.
How important is it for you to work long term with an artist?
Depending on how good he is. Usually, I rather work long term, because I would know what kind of relationship we could have. If it doesnít work on the first try then we can work out something else.
Do you produce songs and music videos on your own or commission it to others?
Because of the fact that a lot of people from the industry close doors on us, we decided to deal with the in-house production.
They would say that they love us and then not providing any feedback or any follow-ups.
We decided to really deal with ourselves. Thatís why we have so many producers in our team.
What guidelines do you give artists in the studio?
I try to tell them to be as original as possible. At the same time to be able to crossover, because we know thatís the business.
I try to tell them to try to blend everything together. Try to find that break-even point, and just go for that. Itís not about this kind of style or that kind of style.
If itís a single then I try to listen if itís really working. I donít try to force them to change a style.
The reason why I chose to work with someone is because s/he has that certain style in the first place. Why would I tell him/her to change it?
Do you look for outside songs?
We all write our own material. If anything we help each other out, but we donít look outside. We try not to, because we rather keep money in the family and then grow as a family.
How do you find new talent?
MySpace is a great tool. But I like the word-of-mouth. A lot of great artists werenít found by a buzz. They were probably found in shows or stuff like that. Or just on the block where people told me: ĎOh, this guy is nice!í.
How valuable are the unsigned artist music showcases?
I donít think a lot of showcases help a lot of these unsigned artists. I donít want to generalise, but I think a lot of them are just dealing with the fact that they just want to create shows and make money.
There are not a lot of artists that really made it with showcases. That should be the proof of that.
What is a good demo?
A good demo is something that has a package deal. Something that has a bio that is well written. Nice pictures.
And of course, access to a webpage. We need visuals on a webpage, a MySpace page etc. And good quality music, so I could know that you are professional!
Do you receive a lot of unsolicited material?
Yes, I do. Because of my history with Blackground, I try to listen to most unsolicited material. I know that a lot of majors donít.
What advice would you give unsigned artists on how to build a career?
Everybody thinks theyíre rappers. You have to understand that there are millions like you, and probably thousands better than you.
Therefore you have to work like your chances of being in the NBA. Try to stand out, and at the same time, still be appealing to the crowd.
How can they think outside the box and stay original nowadays?
Itís up to them. I canít tell you how you can do it. If you manage to do it then it means youíre thinking outside the box. If you werenít thinking outside the box you will follow somebody that is outside the box.
You have to understand that you canít be stuck in the past. You have to understand the past to know the future. Therefore you should use what you understand and then move on with it.
What is currently going on with your own music?
I wrote a single thatís supposed to be coming out on DVD. Weíre trying to go with these DVDs that are going on now, like Cocaine City Trap Star. I have a video thatís probably coming out in the next volume. Weíre still in negotiations about that.
The reason why I had to rewrite the whole album is that Iím a perfectionist. I had to rewrite it to make sure that it was according to my taste.
Some of my work is on my MySpace page. You can tell Iím outside the box.
What are the most important marketing tools for you?
MySpace. Record pools and mix shows, which are quite expensive, but you have to go that route for you to get noticed.
How do you view the current music business climate?
Itís sad. You could tell that nobody is looking for talent. Theyíre either looking for the next hit or theyíre looking to put on the next friend, anybody that theyíre close with.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would change the standards of lyricism in hip hop.
In the Ď90s people like Biggy or Pac or Nas or Jay-Z were so good, you had to top those.
Nowadays, itís so easy to compete with people lyrically. But at the same time, they know how to make more radio friendly music.
What kinds of artists would you like too see gain more popularity?
I would like to see Nas gain more popularity, even though he has a certain popularity already.
This female artist named Jean Grae. Sheís incredible lyrically. Sheís on Blacksmith/Warner.
And of course, California Kings and myself, Kazi Whispers! I almost signed to MCA Records myself.
Whatís the future for hip hop?
Everybody is waiting for the next person to really make a change. We just had a phase where people are looking outside of hip hop a lot. There might not be any future with hip hop if it maintains on that route.
But usually thereís always a 360 degree thing. What goes around comes around. Therefore hopefully weíll see something going on.
Right now, itís just like heavy metal. Heavy metal died and you have the people that are trying to revive it. Thatís what we should do with hip hop.
What are your future plans?
Iím really focusing on California Kings, because I see the growth on the number of fans. Thatís mostly rock and soul. Bulletproof Youth, you will see and hear that soon as well.
Myself, Kazi Whispers, I might even get into a band, a hip hop band like The Roots but more street music.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
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