Interview with JAY BROWN, A&R for Jay-Z, LL Cool J, Rihanna - Mar 5, 2007
"I donít want people to make things for me. I want people to make things for what they feel they are true to"
... is Jay Brown's vote of confidence for artistic integrity.
This firm belief in the virtue and ability of true creativity, not PR stunts, to gain success should be somewhat encouraging to any upcoming artist, especially as the words come from the mouth of a man who broke and A&Rd No.1 and Top 10 US acts as Jay-Z, Ne-Yo, LL Cool J and Rihanna.
In this exclusive interview Brown talks to HitQuarters about how he sees the role of an A&R as making the way for good music to reach the public as smooth as possible.
How did you get started in the music business and what has helped in developing your skills?
I was at Qwest, Quincy Jonesí label, for five years. Prior to that I was at another company called Avatar. Then at Elektra Records. On and over for the last fourteen years. I started at Def Jam two years ago.
I basically concentrated making the best music one can, but also to know that there still is a business. You have to be able to go ahead and relay what youíre trying to put out towards the artist, like who the artist is and what the artist is about.
You canít go ahead and make an album and then not let everybody walk into the company and expect everyone to get who he is and what he is because they havenít been in the studio with that person.
So you have to be able to go ahead and paint the painting for them so they understand and know what to promote and what the video treatment should look like and how to market this person. Thatís the job A&R is. The machine is the company and youíre the engine.
What artists are you currently working with?
Iím finishing up Ne-Yoís second album. Rihannaís third album, which is coming out this second quarter. Iím finishing up another Nas album. Ludacris is going in again, as well as LL Cool J.
What do you think is important for an artist in this kind of genre?
Stay true to who they are. Make real records.
What was it that made you want to work with them?
Some of these artists were already names before I got a chance to work with them. They already had a career. LL is an icon. Nas is an icon. Jay Z is an icon. Working with those types of people is like itís a part of your life, you grew up in these different parts of this music.
Also as a fan and music person, that is something that you love to do. You will love to work on certain projects. Those are projects I always wanted to work on. I just got lucky. I got a chance to work on them.
How did you work with them?
Put everything together. Writers, producers, studio.
What would you like to sign next?
I would like to sign a rock group. I havenít heard nothing yet that I found that interesting. But Iím sure Iíll be led to the right place. I worked on everything else; gospel, R&B, hip hop, pop. But next Iíd like to sign a rock group.
How do you find new talent?
A lot of stuff is brought to you. If youíre in the music business for so long, people are sending you stuff. Sending it through the Internet etc. People donít want to get to a major, they want to find out who the person is and send it to him.
I find stuff through lawyers, through their representation, through their managers. Youíll hear stuff in Ďmom and pop storesí, the local retail stores that are not majors. People bring their demos or try to sell their albums through there.
How should unsigned acts present their material nowadays?
I donít want people to make things for me. I want people to make things for what they feel they are true to. If you start making things to go ahead and just satisfy that one person then youíre not being true to your artistry.
Rihanna didnít come and make something for Jay Brown. She came in and said: I will be me. Ne-Yo did the same. And if we didnít love it then we werenít the right place for them. Maybe somebody else was. You want to make sure people are pure and stay true to their art.
How did you get Rihannaís demo with ĎPon De Replayí on it at the time?
Scott Solter, her attorney, brought it to me.
Whatís usually discussed in the first meetings with a new artist?
Where do they want to go? What do they want to do? How do they see themselves? What do they see themselves as? On what type of music do they plan on doing it?
Sometimes people want to go further to the left or further to the right or straight down the middle, and they just want to be able to reach those types of people who are capable of doing it.
You want to find out what theyíre thinking. And then you add what you feel about the music. And of course, the reason why theyíre coming to you is for your hindsight. And hopefully both your hindsights can come together and youíre going to make a smash.
What is the time schedule to show some success for a new act that has signed to your label?
I never stop recording. Radio and the fans are going to dictate how successful something is. You can think itís successful but when youíre going to sell some records and you donít sell nothing, then you know where youíre at. If in two weeks your record has a spin, and then you get ready, it doesnít work.
How important is it for you to work long term with an act?
If youíre in the business youíll work long term. With the first album you develop and then youíre setting them up and you want it to blow big, which is everyoneís plan. When youíre coming to the second album itís getting bigger and bigger.
Do you look for outside songs for your artists?
I always look for outside songs on any project, even if they write and produce their own stuff. Theyíre very scared to take a hit.
What advice would you give unsigned artists on how to build a career?
I would tell them to stay true to their artistry. Sooner or later thereís a door open for them. As long as they stay true I canít really see anything closing on them because they did what they wanted to do and they always know, no matter how far it goes or how big they become, wherever their life takes them, they always stay true being that type of artist.
How can they stay true nowadays with all these influences?
That might be true. They might have been influenced but still be who they are. You might come up with something different for them, which actually might be them. And they might think thereís a craft.
Iím not telling them to go out there and go straight to the left or to the right. I tell them they should go out and do what they feel is right, what they love to do. Have fun with your music. Enjoy it.
When they smell success they could change their mentality.
A good team around you keeps you grounded. Everybody goes to success and fluctuates, whether theyíre being grounded or not.
Can you facilitate a good team at Def Jam?
My team is on the label side. Thatís the A&R team. And on the label side, we work to supply a foundation to go ahead and help artists put their records out and get the best exposure as possible. And the artist has his own management team in effect to go ahead and help them.
How do you view the current music business climate?
Before there was digital, they had albums and they came to 8-Tracks, and then 8-Tracks went to tapes, and then tapes went to CDs. And now we go on to digital. The formats are changing. Youíve got to change with the formats. Youíve got to be ahead of the curve and you can survive.
If you would turn into an artist and were offered a record deal, by what means would you go about evaluating the A&R and the label?
Dedication. Drive. And how much they cared about my success as much as their success, because we succeed together. Itís not just one person succeeding. If I went, s/he went.
What kinds of artists would you like too see gain more popularity?
I keep that to myself. I like all music. Thatís why Iím in the business. I listen to nothing Iím not into. Iím on the musicís side.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
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