Put Kiesza on a rooftop with a rifle and she could probably shoot you down from a block away — not that she’s planning to. Prior to her amazing one-take video for her debut single, “Hideaway,” going viral (to the tune of 132 million-plus views since February), the dance-pop singer-songwriter from Canada chased her teen obsession with boats all the way to the Royal Canadian Navy, where she excelled on the shooting range. “They put you in a war scenario, and you have to test your accuracy,” says Kiesza, forking a grilled salmon fillet in Manhattan restaurant HK Hell’s Kitchen. The thought, however, of training a weapon on a human being torpedoed her naval dreams. “It’s fun when you’re a kid to try to shoot a target, but then reality sets in and it’s not a pretty business.”
Now, the 25-year-old (born Kiesa Rae Ellestad) has her sights set on dancefloors, using the joy and subsequent demise of her first (and only) relationship to fuel her debut full-length, Sound of a Woman (Oct. 21, Island/Lokal Legend). Kiesza’s timing couldn’t be better: “Hideaway” surfs the house-music nostalgia wave that’s dominating the British charts and beginning to make an impact here, mining ’90s musical touchstones that recall the streaking synths and club-sized power hooks of Crystal Waters and CeCe Peniston. After topping the U.K. Official Singles chart in April, the song followed in the retro-flavored footsteps of British dance acts Clean Bandit and Disclosureand cracked the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 51 on the chart dated Sept. 20. It has sold 394,000 downloads through Oct. 5, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and peaked at No. 7 on the Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart.Sound of a Woman expands on its single’s vintage house sound while dipping a few promising toes in soul, pop and even hip-hop, with guest appearances from rappers Joey Badass and Mick Jenkins. “I could do the cheesiest pop music you’ve ever heard, then it’s an Irish drinking tune, and then it’s hip-hop,” says Kiesza. “I don’t think I’m going to be stuck to one thing.”
Her talents are as multi-pronged as her sound. Kiesza’s adolescent stint as a ballerina, which ended at age 15 thanks to knee injuries, laid the groundwork for the invigorated choreography she hits during star-making live shows. Piano lessons as a kid gave way to the guitar, which she taught herself while sailing on tall ships prior to the Navy. And a few years at the prestigious Berklee College of Music informed her songwriting skills: She recently penned two cuts forRihanna‘s upcoming album, has written for Kylie Minogue and also wrote and sang on “Take U There,” the debut single from Skrillex and Diplo‘s Jack U collaboration. Berklee also led her to classmate Rami Samir Afuni, the 27-year-old Kuwait-born producer with whom she conceptualizes her music and videos. “We have similar sounds and styles, but we have polar-opposite personalities,” says Kiesza.
“We’re never on the same page, which is why it ends up sounding as it does. We don’t even necessarily get along per se, but when we get in the studio, it creates this tension [that] brings out things in each other.”
Afuni, the calm, laid-back inverse to Kiesza’s intense focus, developed the singer through his Lokal Legend imprint under Island Records, where he also is an A&R rep. They used the free rein that Island gave them to create “Hideaway,” its video (personally funded by Afuni for around $4,000) and July’s Hideaway EP, which featured a melancholy piano-ballad take on Haddaway‘s 1993 house anthem “What Is Love.”
“There was this tiny revival of house music happening in the U.K.,” says Afuni. “We were like, ‘Why don’t we put a face behind it?’”
Island president David Massey witnessed the same potential: “I already see her as the first artist to emerge from the area that touches on dance, a bit like back in the day in Madonna. She’s emerging as a fully formed artist. I think the world was ready for her.”
And she’s making it look effortless. When Kiesza filmed the highly choreographed video for “Hideaway,” she danced through the pain of an undiagnosed hairline fracture in her rib, a determination she traces back to her childhood. Raised in Calgary, Alberta, she managed to get A’s and B’s in spite of a lifelong struggle with dyslexia. Even today, she keeps saying “Charlie Blossom” when trying to recall The Killers frontman Brandon Flowers, with whom she recently collaborated. “This is how my dyslexic brain works,” she explains. “But it actually makes you more creative, apparently. I found out Einstein and da Vinci were dyslexic and was like, ‘Awesome!’ There’s just so much going on in my mind that I have to get out. If I don’t, I won’t sleep.”
That relentless drive to create led her to end the relationship that inspired Sound of a Woman. Though she’s mum about the details of who and when, she does admit that music got in the way. “I’d be selfish to be with a person when I’m so focused on something else; I didn’t want to torture them. The person I’m with has to be as important as everything else I do, or else it’s not fair to them. When I meet that person, I’ll know, because I’ll have that same passion for them.”
After finishing her salmon and signing some posters for fan giveaways, Kiesza, who now lives in New York, walks over to a nearby dance studio, where she’ll spend the next six hours tirelessly practicing moves for the video for her U.K. single, “No Escapesz.” In addition to upcoming gigs on Good Morning Americaand Conan, she’s already thinking about her sophomore album, writing songs for it during a recent tour stop in Italy. All she needs now is a second relationship to inspire her, just like on Woman. “I got a whole album out of it!” she says. “I’ll get into another crazy situation and rant again: ‘I have to end this because my album is done.’ ”
Posted: October 30th, 2014
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Shawn Mendes has no idea what he’s in for. It’s just shy of noon in the sweatbox of New York City when clumps of teen girls start to arrive at the corner of 58th Street and Fifth Avenue, in response to a brief tweet that the 15-year-old singer-songwriter issued the night prior. “Tomorrow! Central Park NYC @ 4:30 PM,” he’d tweeted to the 1.24 million followers he had at the time on June 30 (the tally now stands at 1.36 million and counting). “Come hang!”
By 3:30 p.m., the crowd at the fountain just in front of the Plaza Hotel is teeming with teens and spilling out into the streets. The air is tense. Some in the crowd, chaperoned by very understanding parents, are scanning Vine—the video social networking app where many of them first discovered Mendes—in the hopes of capturing a six-second clip of their idol. Several have been there since 8 o’clock that morning; others traveled from Boston, Connecticut and Long Island. The impatience grows: “Did he go back to Canada?” “Can we touch him?” “Will he take a selfie with me?” But the suspense ends before it can climax, when cops show up to sniff out the public safety hazard and demand that the crowd disperse. “What are you, crazy? This kid’s the next Justin Bieber?” says the gruff peacekeeper, who’s never even heard of Mendes.
Mendes regroups after catching wind of the melee and settles on a location where large crowds are more welcome. About an hour later, he hops out of a black car with tinted windows and right into the heart of Manhattan. Roughly 200 girls are there clutching their phones in their hands, having already gotten the intel about his new coordinates—they’re that good—and the shrieks begin, as if the ghosts of TRL past are back for one last haunt. Armed with a guitar, Mendes ascends the staircase at the forehead of Times Square to perform his first-ever studio single, “Life of the Party.” He almost gets to the end of the track, which just a few days ago debuted atop the iTunes singles chart (ahead of Sam Smith, Ariana Grande and MAGIC!), when another public official barrels through the sardine-tight audience.
“Ready? Let’s [do] one more chorus a cappella,” Mendes commands the crowd, sensing the tension. “This is a very dangerous situation,” the man warns Mendes, who holds his focus on his fans: “Yeah, one last chorus.” The sound of hundreds of in-tandem voices bounce off the abutting buildings for one more minute before Mendes pushes his way down the stairs and slides back into the waiting car. It quickly becomes clear that the authorities were right: it’s dangerous. Moving eerily as one, dozens of fans swarm the street in the middle of rush hour, surrounding the vehicle and chasing it into the distance as trucks and SUVs whip past. Mendes escapes unscathed, as do his fans, thankfully. And to think: this is only the beginning for America’s next pop titan.
“I had no idea,” Mendes says the next day, hunched over a Margherita pizza at Pizza Arte in Midtown Manhattan, reflecting on the mayhem that ensued. “It’s just so crazy to think: my fans are like an army and literally came out like an army yesterday. I always forget how many people I have on the social media platforms. Like, it’s just a number, so it doesn’t look like a lot.”
Numbers don’t lie for the Pickering, Ontario native, who’s spent the past year ascending from Vine micro-celebrity to major label artist with a record-breaking debut single. Now the third most-followed musician on Vine, which has become a go-to platform for the look-at-me generation, Mendes has 2.8 million subscribers to his page where he posts six-second snippets of song covers. On the more traditionally used YouTube, where he uploads full-length covers (some of which he recently deleted—”they were terrible,” he says), he’s at a healthy 670,000 subscribers and a staggering 15 million views since January 2011.
If this all reeks of early-stage Bieber, it’s because the comparisons draw themselves. They’re both Canadian musicians who got their start as teens on the Internet by posting covers, albeit on different platforms. Their virality built ironclad fanbases and attracted label deals, and they’re now label mates on Island Records. “It’s a compliment in a way, because he is one of the biggest—he is the biggest superstar in the world,” Mendes says. (Just don’t tell that to his legion of devotees, who often state that he’s not the next Justin Bieber, but rather the next Shawn Mendes, whatever that means.)
It’s ironic, then, that the Vine post that turned Mendes’ hobby from fun to fame was a cover of Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me.” He posted his first Vine—an uneventful snapshot of teenager bored in his bedroom—last April, but it wasn’t until his Bieber cover last August that he took hold. Overnight, the falsetto snippet racked up 10,000 views, then 20,000, then 50,000, with his follower count concurrently climbing. “[I thought], no one’s a singer on this thing. And it’s such a huge thing; why don’t I try it?” he says. “It was just like a spontaneous Vine and it turned into something a lot more.”
That he saw an opportunity to capitalize on something so simple, so early, is a testament to Mendes savvy and maturity. In Times Square, he’d shown no sign of panic or frayed nerves, instructing the hundreds of teens to remain silent on his command; today, he’s soldiering through our interview with a calm veneer, despite the fact that he’s got a flight back to Canada in a few hours and the staff at his hotel can’t find the missing passport he forgot in his room. “This is my first trip [to New York] without my parents, actually, that I’ve been allowed to come alone,” he says with a smirk. “They’re worried.”
They shouldn’t be. Mendes adapts and adjusts to challenging situations quickly—musically, you can trace that back to when he was just 14. For his birthday, he spontaneously asked his parents to buy him a guitar, and since then, he’s practiced four hours a day. It shows: shaky covers of Hunter Hayes’ “Wanted” and Rihanna’s “Stay” have given way to competent renditions of Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness” in just a year’s time. To say he’s skilled beyond his fluttering, forceful tenor would be to debase him to just a Vine celebrity.
Mendes’ recent foray into original music justifies his potential to be so much more than that. Many have taken the leap before and failed, but so far he’s bucking the odds. After signing to Island in June, Mendes released “Life of the Party,” an anthemic piano ballad, later that month, selling 148,000 copies in its first week and entering the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 24. That makes him the youngest artist to ever enter the top 25. Of course, covering artists is one thing, but stepping out on your own only enhances the sort of vulnerability that most teenagers—and musicians—find crippling.
“I was nervous that people were going to judge the type of artist I was,” he says. “You can’t get away from that. And I’m getting a very good response, which is good. Every time I get up onstage, I’m nervous until I can try and speak and there’s cheering, and I’m so nervous, and then as soon as the sound’s stopped and everything goes quiet and it’s my turn to say something, all the nerves fly away.”
Though he doesn’t have a writing credit on “Life of the Party” (it was penned by collaborators Ido Zmishlany and Scott Harris, who have respectively worked with Ryan Star and Krewella), Mendes wrote the other three songs on his upcoming self-titled EP, due July 28 via Island Records. If the success of “Party” is any indication, anticipation is on red alert for the project, which is already hovering in the top five albums thanks to pre-orders on iTunes. Recorded in Brooklyn, the tracks are gentle and lightly diverse, from the jangly bounce of “One of the Nights” to the spidery “The Weight,” an exercise in storytelling where Mendes sings from the perspective of a man whose wife cheated on him.
“Right now is a great time for me [to be] writing, but if I can’t find anything, I can make something up,” he says. “It’s like story writing, almost. Through elementary school, I was really, really big on writing stories. Like, I love doing it, and do it at home. [With songwriting], it was like every opinion I had and sort of feeling I have, I could bring out in music. So when I have like a very strong opinion, it’s so easy for me just to bring it out in a song. It’s just unlimited possibilities of what you can do.”
It’s obvious that his biggest influence, Ed Sheeran, inspired the EP—just take the rapid-fire, half-rapped lyrical breakdown on “Show You,” a whistle-powered island groove. Mendes has consistently shown love to Sheeran, tweeting numerous times about him over the past few years and covering songs like “Don’t” and “All of the Stars.” His praise was eventually heard: After an Atlantic Records publicist introduced the British singer to his music, Sheeran flew Mendes out to L.A. to meet him. They’ve kept in touch, and Mendes even got a congratulations from Sheeran after “Party” exploded.
“He’s so down to earth, and so not famous when you’re with him,” says Mendes, who also counts Adele and Justin Timberlake as vocal inspirations. “That’s why I idolize him so much. He’s so good at performing live, which is so hard, and it’s very difficult and you rarely find someone who’s that good at that. I just love that about him. He’s just so awesome, he’s a really great idol.”
What Mendes doesn’t seem to realize yet is that he could very well reach similar heights, if all goes according to plan. He’s slated to open for Austin Mahone on tour starting July 25 and ending on September 10, making stops at arenas and theaters across the country. He had to drop out of high school and will be tutored on the road, where his parents, younger sister and friend will accompany him for various parts of the trek. (“I’m going to miss a lot of things about it,” he says.) He’s already begun writing songs for his debut album, which is currently untitled, and plans to pen more during the tour. After that? A headlining tour of his own, though nothing’s yet set in stone.
But first, he’s got to get back to Toronto. As Mendes works his way through the pizza, his manager Andrew Gertler talks with the hotel staff to locate the passport, which a housekeeper found and brought back to their office for safekeeping.
“They said there were a hundred girls outside the hotel,” Gertler tells Mendes.
“A hundred girls?” he replies, mouth agape, perplexed as to how they found out where he’s staying. It’s still sinking in, but there’s no question: Mendes Mania has officially begun.
Posted: October 30th, 2014
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Asa Akira only recently started putting anti-wrinkle cream on her asshole. It’s a necessary precaution that the 28-year-old porn goddess, whose mantelpiece is lined with trophies for AVN’s Best Anal Scene and Best Double-Penetration Scene, has to take to keep her backdoor camera-ready. Six years deep into a career that she initially set out to be a mere two, it’s clear that Akira will go any length to protect one of her most prized assets.
But it signals a sea change for the native New Yorker, who’s sitting on top of an industry that values youth and looks over intellect and wit. “I was really confident with my body before I got into porn, and now I’m not—and I don’t think I ever will be again,” says Akira, who’s in Manhattan for a press run for her upcoming memoir Insatiable: Porn – A Love Story, out May 6 via Grove Press. “I think everyone in porn has a little bit of body dysmorphic disorder. Like, how can you not? And also, you see yourself naked so much from all these different angles, and a lot of them aren’t flattering.”
It’s one of the topics she sardonically explores in Insatiable, a collection of comedic vignettes spanning her addiction to Oxycontin and an abortion to her most embarrassing moment during an anal scene, when a beet salad she ate the day prior made an unexpected return. Today, she’s careful with her order at Todd English, a food hall situated in the basement of the Plaza Hotel in Midtown. She’s bubbly and frank, her coal black hair tucked behind a gray hoodie and eyelashes curving in wave of Cs. Her order is precise: dressing on the side, no bread if her meal comes with it. There’s a brief moment of deliberation: “What do you think is better, the kale salad, or the beet salad?” she asks the waitress. Kale salad, it is.
The last stop on her Big Apple press run, Akira’s making the rounds as writer first, porn star second. It’s a leap into supplement media that mega-porn actors Ron Jeremy, Sasha Grey and James Deen have all previously made, with mixed results. For Akira, it was the next logical step. With almost 400 adult films on her résumé including her Asa Akira Is Insatiable series and 2009′s Pure, she quickly became one of the industry’s hottest commodities. Over the past half-decade, she’s kept viewers coming—and coming back—again and again, winning dozens of awards including the coveted Female Performer of the Year at last year’s AVN Awards.
But it was her waggish persona that separated her from the pack. Over on Twitter, where she has almost 500,000 followers, she’s become something of a comedic phenomenon, quipping on the absurdities of sex and tearing away any remaining filter that a porn star could actually have. “Trying to buy something off of craigslist but what if rape,” she wrote last week. “If you bled out of your dickhole once a month, you’d tweet about it, too,” last October. Etcetera.
It’s a side to the porn industry that viewers don’t often see. Few are the actors who are as captivating on screen as they are off. Insatiable, which Akira wrote in roughly eight months, is a book-length spurn to the stereotype that porn stars are all body, no brains. Insightful, starkly confessional and almost eerily self-aware, it might rewire perceptions for anyone who’s pulled pud to one of her films.
“I’m scared that the people who are my fans and like jerk off to me every night are going to read it, and be like, I don’t want to jerk off to her anymore,” she says, combing her fork through the cylinder of lettuce set before her. “I hope not. But not even like turned off, but just like, oh, she’s a friend now, you know?”
It’s easy to identify with the themes laced through Insatiable, which microscopes various situations throughout her life, from losing her virginity to binging on pizza with her husband, fellow porn actor Toni Ribas. An avid reader of Chuck Palahniuk, David Sedaris and Augusten Borroughs, Akira waxes poetic—the book is dotted with spicy haikus—and literal. She smokes crack, shoplifts and pens imaginary letters about her profession to her unborn son and her mother.
“When I got into porn I knew [my parents] were going to find out, because of the Internet. Someone’s bound to see it and tell them,” says Akira, who stayed with her parents during her NYC trip. They found out about her career within a few months, and the reaction was expected. “I think it definitely strained the relationship for a while. And it took some time. I mean, my parents never cut me off or like stopped talking with me. I’m an only child so I don’t think they would have ever done that. But it definitely really hurt them. My mom was like, what did I do? You know, that thing. And now everything is cool. It was a really gradual process. I would say like, it was a year of mending time.”
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise—Akira was always intrigued by sex. She openly writes about her mother catching her masturbating as a kid, and she discusses how she was the first in her grade to fool around with other guys. Born in New York, she moved to Tokyo before coming back to the City at 13, attending the United Nations School, followed by Washington Irving School. In Insatiable, she recalls her first experiences as a sex worker: dancing at the Hustler Club, dominatrixing and hooking a pair of times before throwing in the towel. Her dreams drove her to Florida as a young adult, where she appeared on the Bubba the Love Sponge radio show as the “show whore.”
But porn was calling, and she soon flew to Los Angeles to kick-start a career in the multi-billion dollar industry. The Japanese-American actress established herself as an upstart who was willing to go to great lengths to stand out. Anal was off-limits at first, but soon, she was filming double penetration scenes. (Her first on-camera DP was with Ribas.) These days, her scenes are just a few keystrokes away. She is far from fazed.
“I think you also have to be a certain amount of heartless to do porn, ’cause you’re putting yourself in a situation that you know you’re going to be outcast,” she says. “And kind of shunned. But when you knowingly do that and you know it’s going to hurt your family and you know you’re going to have to sacrifice certain things, there’s something a little cold about it.”
The sacrifices she’s made have yielded strong returns. As an entrepreneur, she’s expanded her brand, releasing a Fleshlight, recording a podcast, operating a successful website and signing with Wicked Pictures in October ’13. In addition to her book, she’s written for numerous publications, including this one. Around these here Internets, it’s rumored that she’s worth $1.5 million. As the meal winds to a close, her salad roughed up and lightly consumed, she’s off to a meeting with her publisher. The foundation is set, and the Asa empire is being built, stack by stack.
“Ideally, [my career] would build everything around porn, just because I don’t really see myself ever leaving the business,” she says. “But who knows. Maybe next year I’ll be like, I don’t want to do porn anymore. I don’t know. But porn has brought good things into my life and I’ve only had like three bad days at work ever. I’d say that’s good for six years.”
Posted: October 30th, 2014
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Ginuwine had always been weary of the sophomore slump. It wasn’t long after the singer bumped and grinded his way onto the radar with his breakout debut Ginuwine…the Bachelor (550 Music/Epic) in 1996 that the pressure was on to top its explosive success. He was 25 years old when the LP impacted, introducing a marriage of the creative minds with an upstart producer named Timbaland. Together, they crafted wheezy, slinking anthems that musically pointed towards the future in ways that had only been grazed with releases prior. (The pair was part of Swing Mob, a loose collective of artists including Magoo, Missy Elliott andAaliyah, the latter of which tapped into the year 3000 with her August 1996 debut One in a Million.)
The Bachelor set a baseline for the singer (né Elgin Lumpkin). Though it only peaked at No. 26 on the Billboard Hot 100, its breakthrough single“Pony” cracked the glass ceiling on contemporary lothario R&B, topping at No. 6 on the Hot 100 and crowning the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Tim’s bassline slithered beneath huffing synthesizers while Ginuwine slung an extended metaphor about sex that would forever taint the innocence of equestrianism. In music, it became a sexual cornerstone, later sampled for Rihanna’s “Jump,” purposed for Channing Tatum’s striptease in Magic Mike and dubbed onto a skating routine-gone-viral. (“I was so happy about that,” he says.)
So when it came time to record his second LP, 100% Ginuwine (550 Music/Epic), Ginuwine knew that stakes were high. He saddled back up with Timbaland and enlisted a heavier hand from the pen-gifted Stephen Garrett, better known as Static Major, who co-wrote “Pony.” The resulting project, which took roughly two-and-a-half months to record, proffered four charting singles, the most of any album of his career: “Same Ol G,” initially included on the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack; the Godzilla-sampling “What’s So Different”; the toothsome “So Anxious,” where he banners being a “sexaholic”; and the kiss-but-don’t-tell “None of Ur Friends Business.”
But 100% flagged a subtle sea change in the two-plus years since The Bachelor. The Ginuwine that flatly rhymed “the dance floor is jumping, the music is pumping” on “Tell Me Do U Wanna” was supplanted by a door-opening, check-paying, chivalrous gent. “I used to be the main one clubbin’, but now I choose to stay at home,” he sings on “Same Ol G.” The musical bar may have been elevated, but it was the grown ‘n’ sexy ringleader that pumped the career accelerator. To this day, 100% is his highest-selling album, crossing the double-platinum threshold a year after its release.
Now with seven solo albums on his résumé plus the 2013 collaborative LP Three Kings with his supergroup TGT (also featuring Tank and Tyrese), the 43-year-old is 15 years out from the March 16, 1999 release of 100% Ginuwine. Reflecting on the LP, which he considers his “best CD in my opinion,” Ginuwine recalls how Timbaland pushed him to write some of his best material, why Aaliyah is the sole feature on the LP and how 100%marked a turning point in his then-burgeoning career.
All the blood, sweat and tears that I shed over [100% Ginuwine], it’s good to know that that’s getting honored and all the hard work I’m putting into it is being noted and appreciated. Because as artists and writers, we do go in there where everyone else is sleeping and we work real hard. We definitely get the benefit if it’s successful, but no one really understands how much hard work goes into that. They only see the end result, and it’s just great to acknowledge a great body of work. I must always give respect and appreciation to Timbaland, because if it wasn’t for him, really doing that CD, which happens to be the best CD in my opinion that I’ve done, I don’t know where I would be. So I want to give thanks to him for that as well.
With the second album, I really had to wait for Timbaland because I always felt like if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And we gelled so well together once we were in the studio and once we started getting to work. I sought out to get Timbaland again and we locked in on the studio. We really didn’t have a direction, and I truly believe that when people have direction, sometimes it limits them to being creative, because they already have a mindset of where they want to go. Which is cool, in some aspects, but with me, I like to go in there and just create, period. And usually, halfway through, the picture starts to come alive. So I don’t ever go into the studio saying I want to do these kind of songs, I want to do slow kind of songs. I go in there and say I want to do some hits and have some feel-good music. So we allowed any and everyone to come in and to write and give their opinions while they’re working. And then we kind of create the picture and direction from there. Going into it, it was really me saying let’s get it in and get some feel-good music and some hits.
With [The Bachelor], I just wanted to solidify myself as an artist. I would always hear the second album is going to be sophomore jinx or whatever. I just went in there of the mindset doing great, great music. I wouldn’t let anyone push me in a direction where I wasn’t comfortable. Lyrically, it was just me trying to allow the people that supported me in the beginning to grow with me, because with age comes wisdom. So of course you change as you get older, or you do change, a little bit. [Laughs] I think that the people who supported me when 100% came out, those were the same supporters that I had. And they grew with me. I think that’s very important, because as an artist, you don’t want to go left too quickly or alienate what puts you there as an artist. You always want to make sure that you take care of your base. That’s what I tried to do with that CD. I really tried to explore other options so I definitely wanted to take care of my home base, and that was real, true, heartfelt soul R&B.
I always told Timbaland that he was one of the best CD openers to do it as well. I look up to that guy a lot. I just think he’s so talented, and I always told him that for every album, you gotta open up with something. We were one of the first ones to constantly do that. We pretty much learned it from Jodeci, because we were all under the Jodeci umbrella. You don’t have to just have records on a CD. You can make it a movement. You can make it a movie, and make it interesting for the listeners and have them love everything about your record and make sure you can put it in and have fun and listen to it from the beginning to the end. And that’s what we tried to accomplish with that, and all our CDs. We wanted to make sure it was fun, first of all. And like I said, he was one of the best to do it when it came to opening a CD and keeping your attention. It was way ahead of its time.
Timbaland really gets all the praise for [the sound]. With him being as talented as he is now, to see him grow into that when we were younger was amazing. He would give me ideas for hooks and everything, but I would put the words to the melodies that he gave me. Because if a person is producing records, they’re the ones who can hear all kinds of other stuff that you pretty much can’t hear. And that’s where his talent lies. If the music is already there, he’s very great at hearing melodies that enhance the beat. So that’s what he did and we just put the lyrics to the melodies that he created and we formed a song.
The process took two months, I believe. Two-and-a-half months. As I said before, as you’re creating and working, a lot of ideas start to flow and then that’s when the puzzle starts to come together. I always liken it to those [magic eye] pictures you see on the wall and have to stare at for a long time, and then you actually see the picture come into view. When you focus your eyes, you start to see the picture. And it usually just starts with one song and you say, that’s the one that we should start with, or that’s the one that’s going to get the crowd hype, or that’s a show song. And then you start creating from there. You start really putting the puzzle together from that point, because with me, it takes me a week or two to even get comfortable in the studio. Because I’m not a studio head. I just don’t like to go to the studio. So it takes me a little while to get used to my voice and get a little confident and then start to roll. It takes about a two-and-a-half months to actually finish a record, as long as you’re going in there every day and working.
Static Major, rest in peace, was truly amazing when it came to putting lyrics to songs. His wording was just crazy and went so well with the music. With the stuff that he did for me, with the stuff that he did for Aaliyah, he’s done so many things. The process with him was to allow him to go in there and create and not bother him. I’m the same way. When I go in there to write, I don’t want too many opinions. I don’t even allow no one in there while I’m writing, because as an artist, you really want to get everything out of your head first. And then if you’re missing something, you allow others to complete it. But that’s why Timbaland was, and is, one of the best that has ever done it. He definitely knows how to complete a song and finish it. A lot of times, you listen to the music or songs and even though it’s hot or whatever, you just feel like something is missing. With Timbaland songs, you don’t say that. He completes a song. That’s what the process was when it came to Static Major and myself and with Missy [Elliott].
I never really was a fan of records that’s yours with a whole bunch of other artists on there. Even to this day. I know sometimes it’s needed now, more so than it was back in the day, but I never was a fan of that. I always felt if you’re going to get my CD, you’re getting the CD from me and not anyone else. But because we were under the same family tree at the time and we were helping each other, especially when it came to the [road] and everything, we always felt like hey, I’ll get on a song with you if you get on a song with me or you write a song for me and I’ll get on a song for you. However it was, we wanted to make sure that it was the best piece of work that we could possibly do. We wanted to showcase any and everyone who was under that umbrella, and it just so happened to be at the time me, Magoo, Timbaland, Missy and Aaliyah.
[For "Final Warning,"] we told Static that we wanted to do something together, and of course, we wanted to do something different that would catch people by surprise. Just something that was just different. That song was truly different, so when he went in there, Static went into the studio and created it and we allowed him to do that. Once he let us hear it, we was like, we’re sold, let’s go do it. And it was a fun process as well, because me and Aaliyah were very close at the time. The song within itself maybe only took an hour to do, but we were in there pretty much all day, because we were joking and all that kind of stuff. So that was one of the fondest memories I have of her.
When Timbaland made ”What’s So Different,” I was like, how the hell am I going to write something to this, Tim? He was like, I just want you to go in there and just think. Talk about something that’s near and dear to your heart or talk about something that you really feel that needs to be said. Once I completed it, he looked at me and was like, I can’t believe you wrote something to that, man. You’re really coming into your own. And I just thank him for pushing me to the limit when it came to that song. Because I was like, “A dragon? Godzilla? What’s he doing?” That was one that he didn’t give me the melody to. He told me to go in there and do it yourself, man. He would give me the melodies to a lot of the songs on the first CD, but the second one, he really was pushing me to be a writer and write a whole bunch of songs for myself. That was one that was really challenging for me. To this day, I listen to it and I’m like, where did that come from and how did I even come up with the melody?
I wanted to pay homage to the two people who are the reasons why I’m doing what I do to this day, which is Michael Jackson and Prince. “When Doves Cry” and “She’s Out of My Life” are just the songs I always liked. [Ed: The Bachelor featured a cover of the former, while the latter was included on 100%.] You can’t redo “Billy Jean.” You just can’t do that. You can’t redo his mega songs unless you’re going to do it better, and there’s no way I could possibly do “Billy Jean” or “Beat It” or “Thriller” or none of that better. So I did a song that was meaningful. I really went in there with that mindset of look, if you listen to it and it’s not at least as good [as the original], then you can’t keep it. That’s Michael. So when I listened to it, I was impressed. I was like hey, I did it. I let a few other people hear it and they were like, hell yeah! You gotta keep it. So for me to do the two songs that were really inspirational in my life, and motivating as well, I just wanted to do the songs that people would definitely know but wouldn’t feel like I would do it no justice. I wanted to make sure that I at least did it as good or better, and I believe I accomplished that.
When you do a record, you always hope for the best. When it happens, you really are overwhelmed, but you’re appreciative at the same time, because when you’re in there working hard, wracking your brain for something to say and do, other people are asleep. You appreciate it so much when they appreciate you as an artist and as a writer and the songs you create. I’ve always said that when I look out in the audience and actually see the people seeing the lyrics that I sat down and wrote all by myself, that’s not only a humbling experience, but it’s also an experience that you’ll never forget. It’s just a situation where you feel relieved and you’re just overwhelmed at the same time, because you’re like all the work that you put in, now all these people from around the world know these lyrics. And it’s just remarkable. It’s something that you never forget. And I always thank God for allowing me to continue to write and do all these sort of things and have people enjoy my music.
The legacy of 100% Ginuwine is that it’s one of those CDs you can put in and play from beginning to end. You always hear about CDs now and how there are only one or two songs on the CD. I think 100% Ginuwine was one of my best bodies of work, and it’s one of those CDs that’s a blueprint for people who really take their craft seriously and want to be in the business for as long as I have and be respected and be appreciated for a record that’s 15 years old. I think the legacy it leaves is just that—longevity.
Posted: October 30th, 2014
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Naughty Boy wasn’t always proud of his employment past. In just a few short years, the 28-year-old’s production career hit a steroid-juiced growth spurt, landing him in the liner notes of Emeli Sandé’s cross-continental debut, Our Version of Events, and Rihanna’s Unapologetic, a gas pedal crunch that’s swerved him towards solo stardom. But there he was, just a few years back, a college dropout serving door-to-door hot pies in a blue-and-red Domino’s uniform, blazing the day away in his parents’ shed that he converted into a low-budget studio.
The gap in years between his current reign as one of music’s most on-fire producers and his pepperoni slice past is thin, and yet factory line pizza is a ghost. It’s a shivering November afternoon and Naughty Boy, born Shahid Khan (and addressed as Shah), glazes over the one-page menu at Mario Batali’s Otto situated on the cusp of Manhattan’s West Village. He’s draped in a black hoodie and sports a pomade-crested hairdo. His mom-unapproved Rolex swishes as he takes sips from a tall lemonade. He vacillates—the Margherita pizza or the Quattro Stagioni?—to befit his looming vegetarianism.
He settles on the former, requesting chili oil and flakes on the side for some added “oomph.” Minutes later, the steaming pie is set before him. He bathes the dish in hot sauce. He’s an ocean away from his native land, where he’s become the apple of Britpop’s eye. A Domino’s is just down the block, and yet the steam from his double-digit meal could chump the dollar-99 pie on sight. Dominos, this surely isn’t.
If birthdays was the worst days, Naughty Boy is no longer blowing out the candles in vain. Over the past two years, he’s gone from studio fetch-boy to one of music’s most in-demand producers. His chart-crushing UK debut, Hotel Cabana, which impacted overseas in August 2013, cracked the shell on his mysterious skin. Prior to its release, he was an accessory to the stars he propped. He sat behind the boards for the majority of Sandé’s Our Version of Events, which spent 66 consecutive weeks in the U.K. top 10 and was certified six times platinum. Their joint success scored him a publishing deal at Sony ATV and railroaded a shot at solo stardom. Months later, he mounted the pop pile with “La La La,” featuring Sam Smith, which hit the top five in 24 countries and began its U.S. invasion on December 3, when it impacted radio. It’s a game-late approach to attempted international crossover, considering that the Internet already warmed to the falsetto-pilfered track. Over on YouTube, it has 197 million views and counting.
It’s top digital currency for the Watford, England native, who is still clearly uncomfortable with the spotlight. Not even the video for Lorde’s“Royals,” which has topped the Billboard Hot 100 for nine straight weeks, can outpace “La La La,” which squanders the capitalist critique by almost 100 million views. And yet he revels in the anonymity afforded by Otto’s environed atmosphere, shrouding his face when a camera phone appears to snap pictures of the spread set before him.
“All this is happening and I’m achieving this success really quickly and I’m scared of it honestly, you know?” he says. “I’ve only just been on the sides so I get scared of the big. My mum always says, you’re just working hard. And now is when to do it. Everyone in the economy thinks I’m mad sometimes, that I should milk it. But, you know, I’m not milking it. That cow, that’s already fucking dead.”
It’s fitting that Hotel Cabana situates him as a bellboy, a concierge, a valet at a tinted window resort. But he isn’t the help; he’s the conductor. He’s the maid service and pool skimmer, the invisible hand that creates the illusion of luxury for the guests who buy into it and grow its reputation outside the palace walls. They’re the grease to his machine, and they’re co-dependent.
At the helm, Naughty Boy invites U.K.’s brightest to rent some space at his 20-track deluxe resort. They come and go, but his string-soaked, crispy-drummed compositions remain. It’s a surprisingly untapped concept in the land of producer albums. This year, the U.K. produced debuts from Disclosure and Rudimental, two contemporaries unevenly lumped into the same category as Naughty Boy. But their electro leanings have played opposite on the spectrum to his cinema pop stylings. For one, Hotel Cabana reads like a who’s who of getting-there stars including Ella Eyre, Bastille, Tanika and Gabrielle. Then there’s the A-team of Sandé, Wiz Khalifa, Ed Sheeran and Wiley. Few mingle, but there’s a consistent thread.
“Concepts are the best way for me to produce anything and be at the core of it. I am still the artist. I’m controlling this ship,” he says. “And then I’m bringing these artists and I’m going to tell my story. So I did it in a way where I maintained that integrity. It’s not just a bunch of songs, and a few hit songs together. This is this guy’s album. This is how he thinks.”
Naughty Boy didn’t always have a master plan. Dial back a few years and he was the first of his Pakistani family to attend Uni, only to drop out shortly after. To avoid falling into an arranged marriage, he asked his parents for a month’s buffer to grasp at professional straws. In 2009, an application to the Prince’s Trust scored him £5,000, but it was the £44,000 that he won on Deal or No Deal that slowed the ticking clock. He cut his family a check for £20,000 and funneled £15,000 into converting his parents’ shed into a barebones studio, living off the rest for the next few years.
His hustlers’ spirit thrived. Solo trips to London forged some connections in the industry, and he built his studio prowess with a part-time apprenticeship at Townhouse Studios, where Elton John, Coldplay andMuse have recorded. But it was a chance visit to an open mic where he met his muse, Emeli Sandé, who co-wrote and featured on their first top 10 single, Chipmunk’s “Diamond Rings.” Their collaborations kickstarted, and by 2010, they’d landed another top 10 hit with Wiley’s “Never Be Your Woman” featuring Sandé, as well as tracks with Devlin, Tinie Tempah and Professor Green.
But it was with Sandé’s Our Version of Events that the duo settled into a warm groove. On “Daddy” featuring Naughty Boy, the Scottish singer’s whole milk vocals slingshot against the pitter-pat arrangements, while one of their first collaborations, “Clown,” plays down the pace for one of the LP’s most naked moments from an inside-looks-out vantage. “We had all these people running us like record labels, publishers, managers…,” he says. “And they wanted to give us money but we had to speak to lawyers and all that crap was going on. That gave birth to that song because for once you’re happy being a clown just so that you can get there, you know? One of my favorite lines is in that song. ‘I’ll be patient if I had the time.’ That sums up everything we were experiencing at that moment.”
Naughty Boy touched three of the five released singles from Our Version of Events, and the solo ball quickly rolled into motion. Hotel Cabanareleased on August 23 in his native U.K. and bowed at No. 2. It’s already spawned three top 10 singles including “La La La,” which crowned the U.K. singles chart, and the fourth single “Think About It,” featuring Wiz Khalifa and Ella Eyre, is sliding up the totem pole. He put in studio time for Katy Perry’s PRISM and turned down work with Mariah Carey. In October, he scored Best Song and Best Video at the 2013 MOBO Awards. Up next is album number two with Sandé, for which they’ve already coddled ideas.
“We don’t sit down and make a song,” he says. “You sit down and have a conversation like we’re talking right now. We’re having a conversation will become a sentence or word and we’ll be just like, Yeah, that would work. It has to come from a real place. We call that place the source. We don’t have some thing that’s in the room with us or just with us or we only know the source is giving us the song.” He pauses, a smirk broadening across his face. “And weed obviously. Weed is probably the source.”
Outside of Otto, Naughty Boy braces the bitter New York chill, huddling outside of the restaurant’s revolving door, smoking a cigarette. For once, he’s got time to kill before a radio run in the afternoon, but he’s looking towards his one free night in the city before jetting back to the U.K. for a five-date headlining tour.
He’ll be back in January, a full month after “La La La” has time to gestate at top 40, to perform his first U.S. shows. Hotel Cabana is slated for U.S. release in April 2014. “I do want to take over the fucking world. I do. I’m not sorry to say that,” he says. “I would like to come here and be successful not for me, [but] more for the sake of just doing something different and making people think a bit more than just about the soul. To think about your life as well.”
He stops, applying his ethos to himself. Has it all been worth it? “I’m looking to be fulfilled like… What’s the word I want to use? I’m looking for wholeness,” he says. “Because a wholeness includes everything: happiness, pain and a whole different process. And I’m happy with wholeness. I don’t really look for happiness. But I think there are some misconceptions. I’m doing what’s making me successful; that’s doing it. You know, that makes me happy. You know what I mean? It’s somewhere in there.”
Posted: October 30th, 2014
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It’s a brisk afternoon in downtown Manhattan and a tinted SUV pulls curbside at Peels, an American food restaurant on a corner of Bowery Street. Out hops the 20-year-old Tori Kelly, her golden tussle of hair curling down her neck, her beaming smile revealing perfect rows of Chiclet-white teeth. She’s in town for a blink, and will be performing just a few hours later at SoHo House for an intimate crowd of in-the-knows before jetting back to her native Canyon Lake, Calif., where she still lives with her parents.
There are no stray nerves in sight. It’s probably because she’s flanked by her publicist and her mother, Laura Kelly. Tori, who’s been on the industry hotplate since a preteen, cozies into a corner booth next to her mom. The phrase “no carbs” is floated, and the two split a couple dishes: the Farmers Breakfast, a vessel of fried eggs, smoked bacon, hash browns and toast, and a Roasted Rib Eye sandwich topped with charred onion mayonnaise (on the side) and iceberg lettuce on two thick slabs of Texas toast (a plate of spicy hand-sliced potato chips will remain mostly untouched). Tori delicately picks at her smorgasbord. It’s no power brunch—call it a break from the day’s events.
Tori is fresh out of her teens, but her career is far past infancy. For one, her talents have been on display for almost a decade. Since signing to Geffen at 12 years old and subsequently parting ways on creative differences, Tori has been a reality TV hustler, competing on Star Searchand America’s Most Talented Kids at the age of 14. Two years later, she was standing before Simon Cowell and Victoria Beckham on the ninth season of American Idol, shredding an a cappella cover of John Mayer’s “Gravity.” Simon found her voice “almost annoying,” and after teetering on the reality competition precipice, she was cut before making the Top 24.
But there were no needle scratches. “I didn’t wanna go through life like what if, what if, what if,” she says, poking her sunny-side eggs. Tori is unabashedly upbeat, as if everything has always been for a reason. “That’s probably the best thing that could have happened for me, not making it on that show, ’cause it just gave me more fuel to kind of figure things out on my own.”
Tori, who built her career on viral YouTube hits clocking in the millions, is a product of her environment. Home-schooled and brought up in the church, she absorbed the musical nature of her makers—her mother was a pianist, her father a bassist in a few bands, most notably 24/8—and parlayed early onset drumming into guitar, the basis of her current compositions.
She left private school after sixth grade, when she signed to Geffen, and studied at home, taking electives in recording and engineering. She’d flirted with online stardom, posting live covers of India.Arie and Christmas classics to her YouTube page as far back as 2007. Her originals, where she floated butterscotch tones over self-plucked acoustic guitar arpeggios, showed a bit more of her hand.
It was in January 2012, however, when she mined bandwidth gold. She posted a barebones cover of Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin’ Bout You,” accompanied by nylon strums and beatboxing care of Angie Girl, that has netted more than 17 million views to date. That same month, she played a solo show at Room 5 Lounge in Los Angeles, and the margin between Internet and stage suddenly shrunk.
“That was kind of the turning point of like, what do I wanna be known for?” she says. “Do I wanna be keep doing covers on YouTube? For me, my dream was just to write my own music and share it with people. So I knew that I had to like put some music out.”
Her Handmade Songs EP followed in May 2012, positing her as a singer-songwriter that could function outside of the YouTube cover bubble. But industry bigwigs already saw the potential. Power manager Scooter Braun, who has fostered the careers of Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen,The Wanted and Ariana Grande, was an early believer, anonymously watching her first show at Room 5. He requested a meeting shortly after, but even then, she wasn’t ready to take the step from screen to stardom.
“In my head I was like, Bieber, that’s what everyone thinks of with Scooter Braun, so how is that gonna work with me?” she says. Still, she took the meeting and was pleasantly surprised. “He said to me, ‘I don’t wanna change anything you’re doing.’ He had the EP, he was a fan. And he was like, ‘I just wanna be there for the ride and help you and mentor you.’” The partnership has left her creative spirit untouched while pulling her out of the YouTube trenches. She’s since signed to Capitol Music Group and, most recently, scored the opening slot on Ed Sheeran’s three sold-out performances at Madison Square Garden in November. Her headlining tour runs through the same month.
Fans have clamored, and her YouTube channel now has almost 55 million views and more than 660,000 subscribers. Her mother never had a doubt. “I’m not ever surprised,” she says. “But you still just take everything a day at a time and just kind of value and assess as the day goes on. There’s highs and lows. She’s experienced both. People that don’t like it, I’m like, haters gotta hate.”
But it isn’t about digital currency or high wattage gigs: Tori is strictly about the music. On October 22, she released her new EP Foreword, five heart-swelling acoustic numbers. For one, hers is a voice uncorrupted by late Hollywood nights and partying. She sounds pure, pining for a Prince Charming that’s yet to come. But there’s a second layer to her unblemished confections, double entendres that encapsulate her professional mind state.
“I like being independent, not so much of an investment / No one to tell me what to do / I like being by myself, don’t gotta entertain nobody else,” she sings on “Dear No One.” “But sometimes, I just want somebody to hold, someone to give me the jacket when I’m cold / Got that young love even when we’re old.”
The clock is ticking towards Tori’s performance at the SoHo House, and after an hour of slowly making her way through her meal, Tori leaves behind a mess of white bread and fried potatoes. The shaved homemade fries sit in the middle of the table next to Laura’s teetering brioche stack. The carbs, as planned, were successfully avoided.
Tori’s got her sights set on meatier matters. At the top of the year, she’s headed back to the studio to resume work on her debut full-length. She’s already collaborated with Ed Sheeran and Pharrell Williams (“I was really nervous for that session”) and hopes to work with Hunter Hayes, Amber Riley and Ariana Grande. The creative world is at her fingertips—Scooter is just a phone call away—but it’s more about keeping that familial mentality at the forefront. She mentions her 2012 single “Confetti,” where she soulfully bemoans, “I’m living for right now, ’cause what if tomorrow never comes? / I’m not waiting, I’m not waiting for the confetti to fall.”
“I think it’s important to dream big and set goals for yourself,” she says. “But at the same time, for my life and my situation, I find that just living in the moment and taking each step really slow and just appreciating every cool thing that happens is the way that I stay excited.”
The check settled, Tori slides out of the booth with her mother a few steps ahead. They step out of the restaurant, back into the day. The jet black SUV’s engine is purring. “I’ll be back to play Irving Plaza in November,” she says. “I’ll see you there.”
Posted: October 30th, 2014
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Don’t think that Ariana Grande hasn’t worked for her success. The 20-year-old’s rise to pop stardom seemed almost effortless, coasting onto radio earlier this year with her breakout hit “The Way” featuring Mac Miller. Her cotton candy vocals glided across a flip of Brenda Russell’s “A Little Bit of Love,” the same sample used for Big Pun’s classic “Still Not a Player.” It was the perfect mix: a dash of something old and familiar pushed through a contemporary pop filter.
That theme powers Grande’s debut Yours Truly (Republic), which hit stores on September 3. Working with a tight production crew consisting of Babyface, The Rascals, Harmony Samuels and more, the Boca Raton, Fla. native paired hip-hop-kissed anthems (“Right There” featuring Big Sean and “Lovin’ It”) with a more personal penchant for doo-wop fare (“Daydreamin’” and “Tattooed Heart”). The result is a sprightly, full-toothed smile of an LP that leans on the doe-eyed innocence of romance at its extremes.
But her ascent wasn’t rocket-launched. Grande got her start five years ago with a role on Broadway in 13, transitioning to TV in 2010 as Cat Valentine on Nickelodeon’s Victorious, iCarly and Sam & Cat. Through it all, she just wanted to sing. Three years in the making, Yours Truly is the result of scrapped ideas, leaked songs and dissatisfaction with where her sound was heading—even if the album’s firm pop sheen suggests otherwise.
A few days after Yours Truly landed at retail, Grande was teeming with energy at the W Times Square EWOW Suite, pattering away on her iPhone between a string of interviews. In the days prior, she performed for The Today Show and Live! With Kelly and Michael and the Style Awards, and hadn’t slept more than six hours per night. But exhaustion was nowhere to be found—even fatigue couldn’t break her chipper veneer. Clad in a gripping A-line dress and her long hair in bouncy curls, Grande spoke on her first full-length album, breaking down nine of its influences.
1. TEXTS WITH FRIENDS
I didn’t know what to call the album for the longest time. I wanted to call itDaydreamin’ but I changed my mind. I just felt like it wasn’t right. I didn’t like any of the other titles of the songs for it. I didn’t think they encompassed the album as a whole. I really felt this album is a love letter. I feel like the whole thing is just a big love letter that just took the course of three years, basically. I kind of was like, let’s sign it as a love letter. I had a mass text with like five of my best friends and we were all talking about the title, and they were all firing off ideas and my friend Mischa came up with the concept and was like, “Sign it like a love letter.” I was like, “Oh my god, Yours Truly. What about that?” And they were all like, “Yes. Done, done, done.” So yeah, that’s how that came about.
2. MEMORIES OF THE DAYS AND NIGHTS
The character I play [on Victorious], Cat Valentine, has a very demanding voice. It’s incredibly strenuous. When I play Kat, I have to speak in a really weird way and say all these weird things. It’s really strenuous on my vocal chords. So by the end of the day, I would have a day from 5:45 in the morning, film until six or seven at night and I would go straight to the studio. I would grab a snack and in the car, I’d eat, and go straight to the studio and stay there until two or three in the morning. It was hard. Obviously, not every day was like that, but some of the hardest days were like that. So for me, listening to the album, I love it so much, but I remember how exhausted I was vocally when I pushed through and recorded those songs. So it’s memories for me.
3. THE SICKNESS
I recorded “Tattooed Heart” and “Honeymoon Avenue” when I was deathly ill. It turns out, they’re two of my favorite songs. But I literally had a skull and lung infection. I had an untreated sinus infection that I flew back and forth with for weeks because I was working and I didn’t have a chance to get it treated or anything. It spread and I went to the doctor and he was like, “You need to not be doing anything.” I was like, “I need to finish an album.” He was like, “You’re going to get rushed to a hospital.” I was like, “Give me every medicine you’ve got. I’ve gotta go.” So that’s how that happened.
Even though I was so exhausted and so brutally tired, it was still the most fun I’ve ever had, just because at the end of the filming day, I was like, “Yes. Time to go.” Because music is my everything. So it was still my most enjoyable work ever. It didn’t feel like work, still, even though I was sleeping. It was amazing. So much fun. And the people I worked with too made it feel very comfortable.
4. SIPPIN’ ON SOME REMEDIES
What do I take for my voice? I do lots of throat-coat tea with… I had like 14 million cups this morning because I’ve been singing all week and I’m starting to get exhausted vocally. So I had a bunch of cups this morning and I usually do it without anything in it. And then I usually suck on Grether’s Pastilles, which are these blackcurrant gummies. When I tell you, they’re so good, you don’t understand. They’re incredibly moisturizing for the vocal chords. It’s really good. But nobody knows about them, because it’s literally only singers that use it. People are like, “Oh, what are those?” and I’m like, “Try one.” And they’re like, “Oh my God.”
There’s a spray called Entertainer’s Secret, which is the cheesiest title ever, but when I was on Broadway, I was doing eight shows a week and that helped me get through the show week. But when you’re singing that often, usually the first week is really hard and then your voice just gets so accustomed to it. So I wish I was recording my second album right now, because I’m just finishing my tour. I was singing every single day, and my voice felt so strong and worked out and ready to go. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m starting the recording process for a while. But I’ve been writing. So that’s exciting.
5. HEARTBREAK AVENUE
It’s funny, because the beginning of the writing process was the end of a relationship. The songs that were from that are “Daydreamin’,” “Tattooed Heart” and “Honeymoon Avenue.” Those are about one thing. And then that ended and I wrote a bunch of pop songs that didn’t really need anything and didn’t make it to the record. And then I was in a relationship with somebody else and that blossomed and the rest of the album fell into place. “You’ll Never Know” was just about some jerk. [Laughs.]
6. BABYFACE AND THE CREW
The thing I love most about being involved with Babyface and his writing camp and all those amazing people was his two vocal producers, Leon Thomas and Khris Riddick. Their production [team] is called The Rascals, and Leon and I did a television show [Victorious] together for five years. So it felt like I was working with some of my best friends through Babyface’s camp. I felt like I was with family, and especially with Harmony Samuels as well. The thing I like most about the album is that there aren’t too many producers involved. It was a close-knit, intimate group of people that we just hit it off with and made something great and that feels right to me. It was very special. They were all super dedicated and I think they were equally as passionate about the music and the project as I was. So that’s great. I think that’s important.
7. CONVENIENTLY LOCATED
I recorded most of the vocals at Harmony’s studio, which is literally I think a mile away from my house. So I would drive right there and I would drive right back really early in the morning and that was it. At… I forget what it was called. But there was a studio. It’s the one that The Rascals use, and I don’t know what the name of the studio is. But we did a lot of it there and we cut a lot of the vocals in a two-day span. We’d do the demos and then polish them and then I’d come in and re-sing things, but all of the re-singing slash recording of songs we needed to do that we didn’t get to was done in two days when I had this chest and lung infection. I’m not even kidding. Just like, the plague on my album. Yikes. Literally, I was singing, singing, singing and then I’d pass out on the couch for like an hour, and then they’d be like, “Get back in.” That was the whole 48 hours. But it was amazing. It was so much fun. I was like, “I can’t eat.” They were like, “Eat. Get in the booth.” I was like, “I’m going to die today!”
8. WHITNEY HOUSTON, MARIAH CAREY, BRANDY, IMOGEN HEAP AND INDIA.ARIE
To be honest, I think that the comparison is a massive compliment because she’s Mariah Carey and she’s the greatest singer of all time, so I’m kind of blown away by the comparison, obviously. I know her big hits. I know “Emotions,” because I did the “Emotions” cover, and I love her Christmas music so much. I think that was my favorite Mimi stuff. But the biggest influence on my sound? The biggest influences are Whitney Houston, Brandy, Imogen Heap, India.Arie and obviously Mariah. The cool thing about the album is that when you listen to it, it’s like its own thing. “The Way,” obviously, you make the comparison, and “Baby I,” I can understand. But I don’t do the whistle notes on barely any of my songs. They really don’t recur that much on my album. I don’t do them that much. It just happened with them with those first two singles. But the rest of its album is its own cool creation. It’s very special.
Here’s the thing. I love that sound. I just love it, and it feels good. I don’t know. It just felt right. Harmony Samuels came up with the sample ideas and whenever they would play me a new sample, I would hear it and be like, “I’m going to have a heart attack.” He just knew what I wanted to hear and would help me with that, and it was great. It’s funny because the hip-hop stuff, Harmony is kind of responsible for, but I just fell in love with it right away. But the doo-wop era stuff is what I wrote and was in charge of. So it was a cool collaboration that I think made for a great first album that captures what I love.
Posted: October 30th, 2014
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It’s hard not to notice Gita. Seated in NYC’s Thompson Square Park, the 22-year-old MC could be mistaken for an extra from an old school Aaliyah video: Day-Glo magenta hair with thick black roots, a bun on top and another in the back; a cheetah print starter jacket over a white shirt embossed with a glittering picture of an astronaut; and dark jeans that snake down to a pair of classic Adidas. Rewind 20 years and she would have fit right in.
Shane, a scraggly passerby accompanied by his dog Soco and a newly acquired pet mouse Jamie, doesn’t think so. “Where you’re sitting, I’ve shot heroin,” he says, jumping into conversation as if it were an open-ended continuum. Gita pauses eating her vegetarian bahn mi sandwich and guava soda, purchased a block away from East Village’s Banh Mi Zon, and blankly stares back. “This used to be the junkie capital of the East Coast,” Shane continues. “Now, everybody sits here and eats sandwiches. I grew up in it, I saw it. I can’t tell you how different it is, man.”
Gita lets out her patented babygirl giggle and reluctantly heeds his request to slap him five. Shane walks away, but Gita isn’t amused.
“Oh my god, I need hand sanitizer!”
To some extent, Shane’s right. Gita is an outsider, only three years fresh into life in the big city after chucking the deuces to her native Oakland, Calif. in 2010. But she’s slowly settling in. Since dropping her sweet-and-sour breakout single “Hood Rich” and its comically thuggified video early last year, Gita has architected a buzzy career without really trying to make noise. She booked her first gig opening for Gangsta Boo and A$AP Ferg in October 2011 and landed a swaggier-than-thou placement on Fool’s Gold’s 2012 compilation Loosies with “Let That,” a dark, early Timbaland-inspired track produced by DJ Two $tacks, who also laced “Hood Rich.” She’s graced the pages of Wonderland and Clash magazines, rocked stages in Shanghai and gotten blog daps from Fader and Noisey. There’s no mixtape on DatPiff and you can count the number of songs she has in the wild on two hands. Not bad for an unsigned, unmanaged spitfire who was borderline homeless just a few years back.
For Gita, moving across the country was standard dollar-and-a-dream fare. Born in Oakland, she spent her adolescent days split between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, where her dad moved after her parents’ divorce in 1995. As she tells it, she got the best of both worlds, taking in the mean streets of the Bay when the city was still going through its crack era phase and navigating the “artificial” yoga heads and wheatgrass allegiants of L.A. But the double life bore fruit. In Oakland, she worked her lyrical muscle with her twin brother and friends, spitting cyphers and studying artists like Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim and TLC.
“My teacher would do the Soul Train line in class,” she says, fidgeting with a cucumber slice jutting from her sandwich.
Her inspirations shine. In the “Hood Rich” video, for instance, she goes full tomboy, rocking loose army fatigues and Da Brat braids. “That’s where I get my influence, too, just from confident, secure, crazy, creative women who do shit,” she says. “For myself, I’m not trying to be a particular person. I’m just being me. You listen to the music I’m about to put out or that is out? This is how I feel. These are things I’m going through. These are my struggles, what I am as a young woman coming of age, it’s my attitude. I got an attitude.”
That conviction, present in her razorblade delivery, can be traced to her days spent in L.A. Gita took notes while hanging around her pops, a record executive and A&R who served as road manager, manager and producer for Digital Underground in the late ’80s and worked with Bay Area artists including E-40, Richie Rich and Lulu. It rubbed off. “Rap is very addicting, I understand, but for me, I grew up around it, I can’t help it,” she says. “It’s what I’ve seen. It’s like what most kids do, like look at fuckin’ Jaden Smith and Will Smith. But my dad wasn’t an artist. So I’m not entirely following in his footsteps.”
At that, she slips off her jacket, almost defiantly, revealing a tee that shrinks her already petite frame. Like clockwork, a woman walks by, screeching on her heels. “That is a fuckin’ awesome shirt,” she says. Gita cracks a smile, a giggle erupting, accepting the compliment. “Have a great day!”
Gita always knew she was better both seen and heard. As a kid, she entertained the idea of becoming a model or actress, practicing lines with an uncle who starred on Broadway, but she knew music was the next chapter. In 2010, she took the dive, moving to New York with two longtime homegirls and settling in Harlem. Her dad disapproved, citing industry politics, and her mom told her to “read lots of books” in case she decided to fall back on college. As they suspected, things quickly soured after three weeks. One of her roommates smoked the rent money away, got them evicted and hit the dusty trail back to Cali, leaving her behind.
But Gita stuck it out. It was then that she became “a real ghost,” keeping to herself and holding only one brief job at a boutique shop in SoHo. She came close to netting a writing gig for a Disney Channel-bound girl group that fell through due to an overbearing momager. Above all, her pen kept busy. Producer friends from the Bay would ship her beats, and she amassed a handful of tracks that are yet to see the light of day.
It was one chance encounter that juiced the battery in her back. In 2010, Gita hit the XXL Freshman Class Gala at Highline Ballroom starring Nipsey Hussle, Jay Rock and Big Sean. She made her way into the VIP section and sat next to then up-and-comer Kendrick Lamar, wearing one of her standard out-there ensembles (“I always dress silly, ridiculous”). After giving him a pound, K. Dot turned and said, “You’re a rapper.” The brief exchange hit home. “He just heard it,” she says. “I thought, I gotta readjust and just figure out what the fuck I’m gonna do, because this is too much.”
Following the release of the video for “Hood Rich” in early 2012, Gita’s career started to grow legs. It helped that Azealia Banks, coasting on the success of her career-launching single “212,” tweeted a link to the clip, and later featured her in the lineup to the L.A. edition of her “Mermaid’s Ball” show. With the nails-tough visuals for her earlier “Lights Out” also making waves, Gita upped the production ante for “Let That,” ripping out a few pages from the Hype Williams manual a la fish-eye lenses and slick FX. The video premiered on Karmaloop TV.
In a sea of Barbie MCs, Gita sticks out. Her raps are fiercely aggressive, cut with the softness of intermittent theater kid laughs and fluctuating tones. You can tell that she’s a rock on the outside, but that there’s a vulnerability underneath the oversized clothes. The allure can partly be attributed to her less-is-more approach, giving listeners just a taste of what’s to come with a few toss-outs and teasing her debut EP Escaping the Dream World (due by month’s end) so that she could properly “grow and evolve.” Once the EP drops, she plans to satiate heads with a summer mixtape, and is already conceptualizing her debut full-length.
But before she gets there, she’s here, spinning the promotional wheel with last month’s release of the video for “Mardi Gras,” a tinkering rap-attack produced by Darq E Freaker, the man behind Danny Brown’s “Blueberry (Pills & Cocaine).” The track was made available on digital retail through ASL Records, but the currently unsigned Gita wouldn’t mind inking a deal with a major—that is, if the timing is right. “People tend to say labels are shit,” she says. “No. Labels are shit if you’re not making your situation work out for you. It’s all in the fucking contract, you know? But for me, there’s no rush. Last year, there was no rush. Now that I’m dropping musical content and stuff like that, I wouldn’t mind preparing the idea of cementing that sometime soon.”
Gita’s got the blueprint laid out, hoping the chips fall into place. “You see me right now out on the chess board chillin’, but then it’ll be like, ‘Dun dun dun!’” she says. She counts Venus X and A$AP Ferg as associates. “You’ll see the bishop, the rooks and the knights come. That’s how I roll, when the time is ready. I don’t really like bullshit.”
Today, she’s headed back to where she rests at, an apartment situated near Yankee Stadium. She stopped at the halfway mark on her bahn mi sandwich after making acquaintances with the lurking Shane. With the rest of her lunch tucked under one arm and her animal-print jacket slung over the other, she makes her way out of the park, stopping short before hitting the crosswalk. A woman, slinking at the entrance, calls after her. “I love your hair!” the woman shouts. Gita throws her head to the side, lets out a giggle, and scrunches her nose as she replies, “Aw, thanks!”
Posted: October 30th, 2014
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Macklemore and his producer partner Ryan Lewis call their own shots. During the past year, the Seattle-based hip-hop duo independently skyrocketed to fame on the strength of rigorous touring, social-media savvy and word-of-mouth marketing, all without major-label aid. Upon releasing their debut, “The Heist,” in October, the album entered the Billboard 200 at No. 2 with 78,000 copies sold and has moved 213,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Following a sold-out 50-date tour through December, the duo is now applying its independent ethos to radio to build lead single “Thrift Shop,” a horn-festooned anthem celebrating fashionable frugality, to unexpected heights. The self-directed video for the track hit YouTube on Aug. 29 and has since racked up almost 42 million views. Backed by radio-promotion muscle from Alternative Distribution Alliance and Warner Bros., the song sits at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Now in its ninth week, it bullets at No. 17 on Alternative, No. 18 on Rhythmic and No. 27 on Mainstream Top 40, which helped propel the unlikely hit to 1.1 million downloads.
Macklemore (born Ben Haggerty) initially met with ADA, an independent distribution arm of Warner Bros., last summer after associates at respected indie labels Sub Pop and Rhymesayers tipped the company to his momentum. Both parties agreed to a one-album deal for the company to handle distribution of The Heist on physical and digital platforms. For Macklemore and Lewis, who run their self-titled limited liability company, keeping complete control over their properties and maintaining artistic integrity were key benefits in partnering with ADA.
“They really let us mold our own deal and they’re very open to different ideas and ways of working together,” says Macklemore, who first met Lewis through Myspace roughly five years ago. “This is the first time that we’d gone with a distribution company and brought in anybody else. They’ve turned into family, and you hope that when you open the doors and embrace the idea of working with new people that they turn into individuals who are friends.”
Days after the video for “Thrift Shop” debuted, alternative radio organically began picking up the track, with WBRU Providence, R.I., serving as the first Alternative chart reporter to give it a spin on Sept. 2. After the clip clocked more than 4 million YouTube views in less than a month and the album’s impressive Billboard 200 debut, Macklemore agreed to a one-off deal with ADA for at least three months to service the song in the alternative market. ADA sent the song to key tastemakers, and the response was so overwhelming that it expanded its servicing across stations within the format-an unusual approach for the company, according to ADA president David Orleans.
“While that hasn’t been our history, it’s our present and future,” Orleans says, noting that typical single campaigns span between 10 and 12 weeks ahead of an album’s street date. “We didn’t do the deal because we thought we had a radio hit; we thought we had an album, a touring band, a band that was synced up with a huge social network, and that in itself was interesting enough for us to be very enthusiastic about the project. Then we got into it and were like, ‘Holy shit! Maybe we’ve got a radio record.’”
As the song gained traction at alternative, pop and rhythmic formats independently turned to “Thrift Shop” without heeding to a campaign. Roughly one month ago, Macklemore and his manager, Zach Quillen (formerly of the Agency Group), saw an opening to amplify the track’s success and connected with Warner Bros. to sign a similar one-off deal to service the other two formats.
Macklemore explains that their groundwork afforded them leverage in negotiating with Warner. Playing to sold-out venues across the country, he has built his success both offline and on, touting 267,000 Twitter followers, 476,000 Facebook likes and 169,000 YouTube subscribers. “Warner had never done this,” Macklemore says. “That’s the interesting thing about where the music industry is right now: You have major labels that are willing to take unconventional approaches because the old model is crumbling in front of us. They’re open to it.”
Quillen echoes Macklemore, advising upstart artists to avoid signing to majors and instead hire them for their services and reap the benefits. “Our business is set up exactly how it was when we released the album, but we have access to a great radio department at a major label that we essentially pay for out of our own pocket,” says Quillen, who previously booked Macklemore’s tours but became manager shortly after. “It’s obvious that we’ve built a certain amount of leverage in these negotiations, in that we own our own business, masters, publishing and merch company. Everything that we’ve done, we’ve retained ownership over. We’ve got a lot here that’s appealing to companies like Warner, and I think they’re talking long term.”
For some stations, adding the song to rotation went from taking a chance to meeting demand. Rhythmic KEZE Spokane, Wash., PD Zachary “Mayhem” Wellsandt played “Thrift Shop” on Oct. 16 after noticing Macklemore’s online presence and his sold-out show at the local Knitting Factory. Now, the station leads in spins with 638 plays through Dec. 27-a reactionary response to listeners dialing in.
“I rarely get feedback on records from listeners, just because I think it’s a different time and age and activity, but whenever those phone lines were open, people were calling for it. It was bananas,” says Mayhem, whose station reaches 65,000 tune-ins. “It was already buzzing, and then once we started playing it, it was [an] immediate reaction.”
Mainstream top 40 KEGY San Diego PD Chris Patyk says that “Thrift Shop” still has room to grow. “It’s going to be on people’s playlists for a long time,” he says. KEGY, which gave the track 483 spins through Dec. 27, has an audience of 500,000. “It’s hard to capture lightning in a bottle like that-I don’t even think we’re at the peak yet.”
Macklemore agrees. He plans to let the success of “Thrift Shop” ride out, but since he doesn’t have any concrete plans to follow with another single, he’s instead aiming to bank on touring through the year to expand his presence. He and Lewis have a college trek from March through May and have already sold out Denver’s 9,450-capacity Red Rocks Amphitheatre for Feb. 1, one of their biggest solo shows to date. Following a wider U.S. tour and gigs in Australia and New Zealand, where “Thrift Shop” has been No. 1 for six weeks, the two will either release an EP by year’s end or a full-length LP in early 2014. Additional music videos are on the way, as are collaborations with other artists, but Macklemore hopes that his success serves more as a lesson on how to make the industry work for you.
“It all comes down to leverage,” he says. “We didn’t have it six months ago but [we] have it now. But for other artists, you’ve got to want to still have creative control in order for a deal like this to be intriguing to you. It’s figuring out how to maintain your connection to your core fan base that has ridden with you from the jump and remembering them as you continue to grow. I’m looking forward to that in 2013.”
Posted: January 8th, 2013
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Omarion doesn’t want to be seen as a teen pop star anymore. The 28-year-old singer, who stepped onto the scene as frontman for B2K in the early 2000s, began his solo career with 2005′s “O” (Epic), which debuted atop the Billboard 200 with 182,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Sophomore set “21″ (Epic) garnered similar success in 2006, crowning the chart with 119,000 units, but just four years later, “Ollusion,” released through Omarion’s imprint StarrWorld Entertainment and EMI, fell short, entering the Billboard 200 at No. 19 with only 21,000 sold.
After signing with Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group earlier this year, the R&B star is ready to step into his adult shoes and release music that diverges from his previous teen-geared fare. On Nov. 29, Omarion will deliver his “Care Package” EP (Maybach Music Group/Warner Bros. Records) for free through file-sharing sites. The project features contributions from Problem, Tank and Wale, who appears on its first offering, “M.I.A.,” which is also included on MMG’s ” Self Made Vol. 2.”
For Omarion, the EP signifies a shift in his public perception and musical content, ushering his themes into a more mature strata. “A lot of my fans are adults and have children and lives. It’s really interesting because they still come out and support, the fans that used to chase my car. I think they ready,” he says. “This is the real grown-up me. This is that age when Beyoncé had ‘Crazy in Love’ and Michael Jackson had ‘Thriller,’ when Justin Timberlake had ‘FutureSex/LoveSounds.’ I feel like I’m at that age. I can’t wait to display this new me.”
His evolution from boy to man has been calculated. Prior to the release of “Ollusion,” Omarion was briefly signed to Young Money Entertainment but parted ways with the label after a few months. With his manager, Ketrina Askew, the former teen heartthrob planned to ditch the underage pandering and take control of his career. He planned on signing a deal with E1 Music, but happened to bump into Rick Ross at a strip club, putting the wheels into motion in getting a fresh start.
“We look at it as starting over from scratch. That’s where our approach is-that we don’t get complacent,” says Askew, who started working with Omarion after “Ollusion”‘s release. “This is the reintroduction and reinvention of Omarion. It was important that people see the real him, for people to know who he truly is. He’s not a teen-pop boy band singer anymore. He’s a grown man.”
To bolster the EP’s impact, Omarion shot a video for “M.I.A.,” which logged 250,000-plus YouTube views in its first three days of release. Warner plans to bank on Omarion’s social networks (@1Omarion, 737,000 followers) and saturate the online market with music videos.
“Omarion coming into the game, of course he was a singer and dancer but he had great visuals, which are going to be a big part of the EP as well as his album,” Warner urban A&R director Alaska Gedeon says. “This is a platform that allows him to get back to where he left off and then some, and then he can evolve into being more of a creative.”
Gedeon says the label plans to service “M.I.A.” to radio but is treating the EP as a “precursor” to his fourth solo album, for which Omarion has recorded 50 songs and hopes to release in the spring. He also plans to dabble in acting and open up a dance studio franchise in Los Angeles. Once fans hear the EP, he just wants his presence to be felt.
“I hope that they hear the emotion and take away one thing, and that’s that I’m coming,” Omarion says. “I’m going to continue to create music. I’m here, and that’s what it is.”
Posted: November 27th, 2012
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Posted: September 27th, 2012
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After almost two decades in rap, Three 6 Mafia’s Juicy J is making a grand entrance as a solo artist. With a handful of solo mixtapes and a pair of independent albums, the Memphis native took off from his longtime crew to sign a joint deal with Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe Records and Columbia, putting his major-label debut into motion.
The signing comes in the wake of Juicy J’s breakout hit, “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” featuring 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne. The solo version of the song was released in May, and the 37-year-old rapper tweeted a link to download the remix version of the Mike WiLL Made It-produced anthem in June. The track exploded on the club circuit and soon became a hit at R&B/hip-hop radio. This week the track is No. 14 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and No. 11 on Rap Songs. It has sold 39,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
The song caught Dr. Luke’s attention in the months that followed its debut. The producer had worked with Three 6 Mafia four years ago and reconnected with Juicy J to sign him to Kemosabe, which he brought to Sony in November 2011. Juicy J, already signed to Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang imprint and Columbia under his Three 6 Mafia deal, seized the opportunity to go into business with Luke by forming a mutually beneficial partnership.
“I call us ‘the Powerhouse 3,’ and we’re going to get in the studio and make hits,” Juicy J says, referring to Taylor Gang, Kemosabe and Columbia. He’s recording his first album as part of the deal and has already banked roughly 60 songs for the untitled project. Though Luke’s official involvement with the album is currently undetermined, Juicy J hopes to knock out an additional 15-20 songs with him. “I’ve been in the game for a while, and I do my shows now and sell out venues — 3,000, 4,000 people at a time,” he says. “It’s going to be something big.”
Luke, whose recent credits include Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been,” Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R” and B.o.B’s “Strange Clouds,” notes that Juicy J’s relationships in the industry prove his ability as a businessman and praises his drive.
“Juicy was already signed to Columbia, and they were gracious enough to say, ‘Hey, let’s do this together,’” says Luke, who executed the deal in less than two weeks. “I don’t look at it as just this record. I look at it as a long-term relationship with an artist that I have a ton of respect for and believe in. I’d love to be involved.”
With the record now a top 20 hit, Columbia sees Juicy J’s success as “traditional,” yet bolstered by his passionate work ethic. “It’s a great story of an artist who’s found his own renaissance,” Columbia senior VP of marketing Scott Greer says. Senior director of A&R JR Lindsey adds, “He’s got something that separates him from other artists. He’s definitely focused on making this one of the best albums he’s ever made, and that’s one of the most inspiring things, especially as an A&R.”
Juicy J is finishing up his Kemosabe debut and will hit the road as part of Khalifa’s 2050 tour through the fall. Another Three 6 Mafia album is up to Columbia, but he’s focused on keeping his solo buzz sustained. “I’m not going to go out without a fight,” Juicy J says. “I’m the guy who’s always going to hustle to the end. It was unexpected to me — I didn’t expect to be a solo artist. I was just promoting and it happened to come back to me. You can’t argue with that.”
Posted: September 24th, 2012
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Posted: September 11th, 2012
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Rap supergroup Slaughterhouse doesn’t quantify success in numbers. Following its self-titled debut on E1 Records in 2009, the quartet started work on its sophomore album, “Welcome to Our House.” Consisting of Royce Da 5’9″, Joe Budden, Crooked I and Joell Ortiz, the group-signed to Eminem’s Shady Records in January 2011-believes mainstream acclaim is secondary to what it has already accomplished.
“Eminem is arguably one of the most successful artists in the whole fucking world,” Crooked I says. “And he signed Slaughterhouse. You can’t get much more successful than being signed to that guy. Wherever the project goes, that’s where it goes. Hopefully people will feel the music. I know we put our best foot forward.”
On “Welcome to Our House,” due Aug. 28 through Shady/Interscope, the foursome builds on its prior projects-including last year’s Slaughterhouse EP-with marquee production from No I.D. and AraabMuzik, as well as guest slots from Cee Lo Green, Busta Rhymes, Swizz Beatz and Eminem, the lattermost also producing and mixing the majority of the LP. For Shady Records president Paul Rosenberg, signing the group aligned with the label’s respect for rappers who care more about lyricism than scoring a hit.
“The goal is to make a great album and, obviously, if we can get some wider acceptance in the process, we want to do that,” Rosenberg says. “I really believe that the [members are] in a group because they are the type of artists they are and make this type of core lyrical hip-hop that not everybody else is making these days.”
Under E1, the group had six days to knock out the debut LP, which has sold 77,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and debuted at No. 25 on the Billboard 200. Shady allowed the members to take their time in laying down tracks for the album and have a hand in determining a release date. The four artists scheduled breaks from their solo careers to record “Welcome to Our House” together in a studio, as opposed to shipping verses through the Internet. The benefits of signing with Shady became immediately evident.
“We were just allotted everything with a much greater scale this time,” Budden says. “There was much more support and a bigger budget, more brains, more ideas, more people invested.” Royce Da 5’9″ adds, “This is the first project that I was involved in that I didn’t feel was rushed. We made time to get together to record the album together. The fans will actually hear the cohesiveness of that.”
Following Yelawolf’s 2011 debut, “Radioactive,” Slaughterhouse is the first in a line of Shady acts with albums in the queue. In conjunction with Aftermath/Interscope, the imprint has already put out 50 Cent’s “New Day,” featuring Alicia Keys and Dr. Dre, which precedes the November release of 50′s next album, “Street King Immortal.” Eminem has begun work on the follow-up to 2010′s “Recovery” and last year’s “Hell: The Sequel,” a collaboration with Royce Da 5’9″ under the name Bad Meets Evil. There’s a deal in place with Casio and G-Shock in connection with Slaughterhouse and Eminem (both acts kicked off G-Shock’s 30th anniversary with a special show in New York in early August), and the label is considering the possibility of a Shady 2.0 tour for next year as long as it makes “financial sense,” Rosenberg says.
The label’s resurgence is part of a rebranding effort known as Shady 2.0, signaling the imprint’s return following a prior incarnation that featured acts including D12, Ca$his and Obie Trice. Mike “Heron” Herard, who co-manages Slaughterhouse with Crystal Leslie, acknowledges Shady’s efforts to promote the album through an online video series (the group’s YouTube channel has more than 1.7 million views) and international touring.
“It’s not about spending a lot of money,” Herard says. “They’re not expensive. But people are caring to put effort into making things happen. You get on these conference calls and endless shit with things never happening. But someone will follow up with you. It’s pretty amazing stuff.”
Prior to its Shady debut, Slaughterhouse released a comic book to iTunes on Aug. 14, as well as the single “Throw That” featuring Eminem on Aug. 21. The group also released its DJ Drama-hosted “On the House” mixtape featuring all original music. The penchant for releasing free songs speaks to the respect that the group holds for fans’ patience. “If we do something today, we feel like it’s old. So we want this mixtape to be fresh, and we’re getting it done,” Ortiz says. “We want this to be the pregame to the Super Bowl.”
While members of the group tease focus on solo careers post-album release, the quartet stays unified-but is willing to cut loose along the way. “As soon as the album comes out, you can find me at the local strip club, hanging off of the Hollywood sign,” Crooked I says. “We’ll probably do some shows, go out there and have fun with the fans. No doubt.”
Posted: August 29th, 2012
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For rapper Killer Mike, independence is key. The Atlanta native born Michael Render launched his career with 2003′s “Monster” (Columbia Records), but label issues delayed the highly anticipated follow-up. Three years later, in November 2006, his second album, “I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind,” was released through his own Grind Time Official imprint.
For his sixth album, “R.A.P. Music,” the 37-year-old took a different route. With four indie releases to his name, Killer Mike parlayed voice-over appearances on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block into a record deal with the company’s Williams Street Records, which will release “R.A.P. Music” on May 15. The partnership proved unusual but fruitful: In addition to pairing Mike with a pitch-perfect producer in underground rap legend El-P (a relationship forged by Williams Street’s Jason DeMarco, who handled A&R for the album), the label also gave him creative freedom.
“For me, independence is what has given me a 10-year career,” Killer Mike says. ” Ice Cube’s success for a few years was going gold independently. For Odd Future, staying independent has worked. If a label wants to change your life and give you a million dollars, I’m not going to tell you, ‘Don’t do it.’ But, for me, independence has worked.”
Killer Mike’s relationship with Adult Swim goes back five years, during which time he’s performed voices for the show “Frisky Dingo” and provided the song “Blam Blam” to the soundtrack to “Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters.” The soundtrack experience led Mike to approach DeMarco about doing an entire album. With producers Flying Lotus and Clams Casino in mind for the project, DeMarco paired Mike with El-P eight months ago for a test run in Atlanta. The session yielded three demos and a “bromance” that led to a full-length collaborative effort.
According to DeMarco, the chemistry was immediate. “El’s and Mike’s aesthetics are so defined that the songs almost came into being fully formed,” he says. Williams Street, which also has released albums by Cerebral Ballzy and Cheeseburger, plans to integrate tracks from “R.A.P. Music” into Adult Swim shows and hopes to work the album through the rest of the year. “When a record like this is really good,” DeMarco says, “it has a longer life span than one with just a couple of great songs.”
Killer Mike’s manager Joe Baker explains that working with Williams Street opens opportunities to tour through the rest of the year and gain new fans from El-P’s “backpacker” fan base. Baker says Mike and El-P will co-headline a tour this summer with opening acts Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire and Despot.
Given his experience so far with Williams Street, Killer Mike hopes to release more solo albums in 2013, and intends to record all future solo sets with El-P. In addition, he confirms plans for a group album with Big Boi and Pill, references recent studio sessions with T.I. and Grand Hustle signee Iggy Azalea and is looking to compile a sequel to 2009′s “Underground Atlanta.” He and El-P have already begun picking beats for the successor to R.A.P. Music.
“I hope it does whatever they need it to do so they’ll cut us a check to do another album,” Killer Mike says. “I want this record to go gold, I want it to come out of nowhere and shock the shit out of everybody. Hopefully word-of-mouth and smart use of money will help that happen. I want Adult Swim to say, ‘We’ve got to do this again.’”
Posted: May 18th, 2012
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A version of T.I.’s single “I’m Flexin’” has sold 2,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The song, which features Def Jam artist Rick Ross, has been available in the iTunes store since Jan. 24 as part of the DJ Cortez and DJ Ransom Dollars mixtape “Fuck the Competition Vol. 3.” But something isn’t right: T.I.’s Grand Hustle camp has never licensed this version of the song for retail, and hasn’t seen any revenue from these sales.
It’s an issue that’s plagued rappers who often use mixtapes as promotional items, rather than product for sale. Grand Hustle CEO Jason Geter speculates that DJs partner with distribution companies to mutually profit from major mixtape releases. “Fuck the Competition Vol. 3,” distributed by Green Light Records through SongCast, is also up on Amazon and Rhapsody, where the “Flexin’” remix is available for purchase.
“No one should be seeing money off of a T.I. record if we’re not seeing money off of that, period,” says Geter, who co-founded Grand Hustle with T.I. “With Amazon or iTunes or any major distributor, they should be held accountable.”
Both iTunes and Amazon have copyright infringement policies that allow anyone to lodge complaints. (ITunes vows to “terminate the accounts of users who violate others’ intellectual property rights” in its copyright policy.) Rights-holders must specifically request that a song be taken down, yet despite this safeguard, tracks often reappear in the digital stores shortly after their removal, requiring artists and management to constantly track the use of their music. Neither iTunes nor Amazon responded to repeated requests for comment.
T.I. isn’t the only rapper who has found his songs for sale without consent. New Def Jam Recordings signee 2 Chainz has struggled to keep his mixtape material off digital sites. In November 2011, he released his breakout mixtape, “T.R.U. REALigion,” hosted by DJ Drama. Then unsigned, the Atlanta native put up the non-DJ version for sale on digital platforms to profit from the project, which comprised original content. After signing his deal, 2 Chainz’ team removed the tape from iTunes as he transferred the masters to the label, but tracks continue to appear on the digital retailer on other compilations. “T.R.U. REALigion” wasn’t taken down from Amazon, where it’s still available for purchase.
One of the tape’s standout tracks, “Riot,” can be found on iTunes in remixed form on the compilation “We Turnt Up Vol. 6,” released through AMB Digital, a label affiliated with the Independent Online Distribution Alliance/the Orchard. According to SoundScan, the anthem featuring Warner Bros. artist Gucci Mane has sold 1,200 copies since first appearing in the store on Feb. 1. “We Turnt Up” credits the song to “2Chainz & Gucci” — a slight name variation that doesn’t register through any basic search on retail sites. The tactic frequently helps deter artists and management from finding unauthorized tracks. On “We Turnt Up,” other names are also modified, such as Rick Ross (“Rozay”), Alley Boy (“Allley Boy”) and Jim Jones (“Jimmy Jones”).
For 2 Chainz’ manager Teknikz, battling mixtape profiteers in the digital realm has become routine. “We constantly have to go after them,” says Teknikz, who also manages Travis Porter and Jose Guapo under Street Execs Management. Teknikz physically sifts through online retail sites and makes a list of who illegally distributes their content. “It comes down to doing research and seeing who’s putting your stuff up,” he says, adding that repeat offenders are a constant hassle. “I was just doing this a month ago, and now I have to go back and do it again.”
Mixtapes have appeared at retail for years, legally or not. Throughout the ’90s, they were often labeled as “for promotional use only” while bootlegged and sold out of car trunks and on street corners. DJs and rappers often earned profits from those sales. With the rise of the Internet, mixtapes were sold on websites and some even appeared at physical retail as label-sanctioned releases.
Some labels have stepped in to regulate the unauthorized sales. Bad Boy Worldwide VP of marketing Jason Wiley says the imprint monitors mixtapes from artists like Machine Gun Kelly and French Montana since it’s beneficial in the long term to promote free material. “It’s a constant battle,” Wiley says. “We’re always tracking our sales, tracking our numbers, seeing how it relates to fans and tour dates. So, in doing all of that, we’re looking at this person buying and selling a song illegally.”
It’s still unclear if distributors are aware that they’re perpetuating copyright infringement. The Orchard, for one, declined to comment. Either way, Grand Hustle’s Geter sees the major labels as the answer.
“When you say [a T.I.] record sold 1,700 copies, on a big scale, that’s nothing,” he says. “But [those sales] add up at the end of the day. It’s going to be a problem if major labels don’t address it and make these companies accountable for their actions.”
Posted: April 30th, 2012
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For his sophomore album, “Strange Clouds,” B.o.B hopes to take his corporate connections sky high.
Following the success of his 2010 gold-certified debut, “B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray,” the Decatur, Ga., native looked for ways to boost his image, striking deals with Target and Coca-Cola in addition to a pre-existing Adidas sponsorship and an appearance in an Electronic Arts Sports videogame. The singer/songwriter, who cracked both pop and R&B markets with the singles “Nothin’ on You” and “Airplanes” (peaking at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, on the Billboard Hot 100), wanted to expand his business portfolio with his second album and use those ties to introduce his music to a wider audience.
“I definitely see the benefit behind building a brand for whatever venture you catapult yourself into,” B.o.B says. “But for me, the driving force has always been the music-it’s just a way to get my music heard by more people and [potentially] more fans.”
With “Strange Clouds,” arriving May 1 on Rebel Rock/Grand Hustle/Atlantic, the 23-year-old signed a deal with Target to promote the album through TV and online campaigns. His conversations with the big-box chain date back to “The Adventures of Bobby Ray,” but the partnership was solidified after he played them several cuts from his new project. TV spots and online ads begin April 29, and culminate with a New York event on the album’s release date. Target will also sell an exclusive version of the set with five bonus tracks.
Target doesn’t typically work with rap artists, but the company has previously signed exclusive deals with several rock and pop acts including Pearl Jam, Lady Gaga and Ricky Martin. Marsha St. Hubert, director of marketing at Atlantic Records and product manager for “Strange Clouds,” says, “B.o.B isn’t just a hip-hop artist, although he raps and makes hip-hop music. He also has the ability to do more. He sings, he plays instruments, he has a broader and more universal appeal. That’s probably what makes the partnership with Target so unique.”
That diversity is evident on “Strange Clouds,” which teeters between the grittier rap sound of his mixtape fare and the pop sheen of “The Adventures of Bobby Ray,” which has sold 597,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (“Nothin’ on You” and “Airplanes” have sold a combined 7.5 million copies.) The album is led by the platinum title track (1.2 million copies), featuring Lil Wayne, touting a buzzy, Southern-influenced beat and such radio-unfriendly lyrics as, “Stay on the greenest greens, call us vegetarians.”
While B.o.B plays to hip-hop audiences with guest appearances from Grand Hustle label head T.I., as well as Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown and Trey Songz, he balances the urban angle with pop and even country artists making contributions. Taylor Swift duets with him on “Both of Us,” while OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder croons on “Never Let You Go” and R&B songstress Lauriana Mae contributes to “Chandelier.” As with his debut, production comes courtesy of pop masterminds Dr. Luke, Cirkut, Benny Blanco and Alex Da Kid. The album’s pop-geared single, “So Good,” is also approaching platinum (869,000 copies).
B.o.B dates his musical flexibility back to his adolescent years. “I had always had that approach and could talk to everybody-from the jocks and cheerleaders to outcasts, nerds and gangsters,” he says, describing himself as “a drifter.” Later on, he says, “I developed a wide range, and it grew with my music career. I feel like I can speak different languages when it comes to music.”
The artist plans to perform on the European festival circuit beginning in July, returning to the United States in August for a headlining tour he claims will continue for two years. He’s already at work on an upcoming mixtape and has been recording songs with T.I. for a collaborative album titled The Man and the Martian, which will be released after “Strange Clouds” and T.I.’s forthcoming “Trouble Man.”
“The last album was about the songs. The songs were bigger than Bob,” B.o.B’s manager Brian “B-Rich” Richardson says. “This album is about B.o.B the brand, and letting people know who he is.” Richardson notes that partnerships were in place for the first album with Nintendo, Adidas and EA Sports. “Each album cycle, you have to get bigger,” he says.
Beyond his touring and recording, however, becoming an entrepreneur is a top priority. ” Will Smith, T.I., André 3000 and Cee Lo Green are artists who have longevity in entertainment and the business world and even beyond music,” B.o.B says. “No matter what road you’re on, it’s going to keep moving regardless of what happens, good or bad, high or low. You’ve got to keep moving on that road and make the best situation out of whatever is thrown your way.”
Posted: April 30th, 2012
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When newly signed Roc Nation artist Rita Ora visited Clear Channel with label boss Jay-Z on Feb. 23, it was simply to present music and videos from her untitled debut. But in a rare move for rotation-based radio, executives were so moved by what they heard that they walked the Runners-produced single “How We Do (Party)” to New York’s top hit music station WHTZ (Z100) to premiere the cut on DJ JJ’s afternoon show, which is syndicated nationally through iHeartRadio and SiriusXM. Shortly after, it was moved into rotation on the station without a campaign for radio adds.
The premiere was unorthodox for Clear Channel and Roc Nation, whose roster includes J. Cole, Bridget Kelly and Willow Smith. Shortly after the single’s debut, the label revved its marketing strategy, pushing up the single’s rollout and capitalizing on the sudden attention surrounding the British singer.
“Z100 definitely raised the exposure level tenfold, which puts everything into the fast lane. We were in go mode before; now, we’re speeding,” Roc Nation publicist Jana Fleishman says. “I think Jay just knew it was the right time and how strong the music is, how it’s such a perfect fit for the station.”
Jay-Z is known for remaining at arm’s length from artists signed to the label, making his presence highly unusual and possibly influential on radio execs. His appearance with Ora follows a similar experience in 2005 with then-unknown Rihanna. He introduced her and her debut single, “Pon De Replay,” to Clear Channel personnel, who physically drove the single to Z100′s studio to break the Caribbean-inspired jam.
“We’re kind of seeing a similar pattern to what we saw in 2005,” says Z100 PD Sharon Dastur, who estimates that JJ’s show reaches 2 million listeners in New York. “[Jay] putting his seal of approval on something has meant a lot over the years. But we heard other songs in addition to that where we were like, ‘This girl is going to be a superstar. There’s actually something there and we want to be in on it from the ground floor.’”
Columbia Records senior VP of promotion Lee Leipsner credits Clear Channel for taking a chance. He says the company’s artist integration program into radio and online properties was a driving factor for launching “How We Do (Party),” and that Columbia was prepared to shuffle marketing strategies to accommodate the publicity. “You want it to be radio’s idea. Sometimes, when it comes from them, it makes it that much more credible,” he says. “It hasn’t happened in a while. It got so homogenized and so passive and safe that nobody was taking chances anymore. Now, they [are].”
For Tom Poleman, president of national programming platforms for Clear Channel Radio, Ora’s music and presentation were convincing enough to break the radio mold. “It doesn’t always need to be planned out perfectly, and spontaneity and the emotions is what makes our medium special,” he says. “The planets aligned really nicely in this one because we had someone who was mentoring a new artist, and the mentor happens to be one of the biggest stars we put on the radio station. That was an opportunity for a great radio moment.”
Whether the massive debut of “How We Do (Party)” guarantees future success, both Roc Nation and Clear Channel view the exposure that came from breaking the single on mainstream radio as capturing lightning in a bottle. (A Roc Nation rep confirms that Ora’s “How We Do (Party)” was “loosely inspired” by the Notorious B.I.G.’s 1993 song of the same name; he doesn’t receive a credit on the song.) “No one can predict the future,” Dastur says, “but for the song to be world-premiered on Z100 in New York City, the No. 1 market in the country, it got a lot of attention from all sorts of media outlets.”
Posted: March 6th, 2012
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For Karmin, it took 36 cover-song videos to go viral.
The Boston-based pop duo set up its YouTube account, karmincovers, on Aug. 11, 2010, and for the next eight months posted amateur cover versions of hits by Katy Perry, Bruno Mars and Rihanna. But it was when Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan uploaded their rendition of Chris Brown’s BET Award-winning, Grammy-nominated “Look at Me Now,” on April 12, 2011, that Karmin’s account went into hyper-drive.
Today, karmincovers has more than 765,000 subscribers. And Karmin’s version of “Look at Me Now” has logged 54 million-plus views alone.
Last summer, that online success led to a deal with Epic Records — the first act signed to the label by new chairman/CEO Antonio “L.A.” Reid. Karmin’s major-label debut album, “Hello,” is due in April and expected to feature contributions from such marquee hitmakers as Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, Dr. Luke and Claude Kelly. All songs will be originals. On Feb. 11, Karmin will perform on “Saturday Night Live,” becoming only the second act — behind Lana Del Rey, who appeared on the Jan. 14 episode — to perform on the show before the release of its debut since Natalie Imbruglia in 1998.
Cover songs are nothing new on YouTube. With 60 hours of footage uploaded to the service every minute, amateur musicians have saturated the site with self-helmed clips, most of which log handfuls of views. But YouTube has also become a launching pad for unsigned talent. Justin Bieber (RBMG/Island), Greyson Chance (eleveneleven/Interscope) and Dondria (So So Def/Island Def Jam) all landed label deals after first attracting attention by covering top 40 hits.
“Imagine you have the best idea in the world, but you don’t have the finances or the connections or the wherewithal to bring that all to life,” Karmin’s Heidemann says. “That’s what we can do now.” Noonan adds, “YouTube is kind of the platform of the future.”
But have labels warmed up to amateurs profiting from covers? Although most covers posted to YouTube don’t generate revenue, users can sell these tracks legally by obtaining mechanical rights from services run by RightsFlow and the Harry Fox Agency. Last May, Karmin released a 15-track collection — “Karmin Covers Vol. 1″ — to iTunes after securing the proper licenses from rights-holders to songs including “Grenade,” “Jar of Hearts” and “Teenage Dream.” According to the U.S. Copyright Act, the group would’ve paid 9.1 cents on the dollar to the rights-holders for every unit sold. The set has sold 13,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and peaked at No. 27 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums chart. But for Karmin the release wasn’t about sales: It was about marketing.
“At the end of the day, we did not monetize these cover videos,” says Nils Gums, Karmin’s manager and president/CEO of the Complex Group, an artist management group that assists acts in driving monetization through new-media specialization. “It was strictly a promotional tool for us, so it was sort of in a gray area. But I think it worked out, because it became so popular.”
Online synch rights have improved in recent years thanks to YouTube’s Content ID system that identifies uploaded songs and its settlement with music publishers on synch royalties. In December, the streaming service acquired RightsFlow to assist with licensing music tracked by the system by taking a song’s digital fingerprint and allocating a slice of ad revenue to copyright holders.
According to Harry Fox senior VP of licensing, collections and business affairs Maurice Russell, it’s not always easy for amateur artists to track down copyright holders for mechanical rights, which can impede protocol. “It would be difficult for a common title to sometimes determine which one you need to clear if you don’t know the writer,” he says. “And then let’s say you did know what you needed, but for whatever reason you can’t find the publisher, you might not be able to get through.”
Some songwriters don’t mind the amateurs and instead consider the clips to be added promotion. Dutch producer Afrojack, who co-wrote and co-produced Brown’s “Look at Me Now,” welcomes such renditions. He believes it encourages listeners to track down source material and strengthens the original marketing momentum.
“It’s always promotion. I don’t know how it was 10 years ago, but I know I don’t care if there’s cover stuff. It’s better [to have] promotion than loss of money,” says Afrojack, who’s working on a solo album and executive-producing Paris Hilton’s sophomore LP. “These kinds of spoofs and covers, they never get played on the radio, as far as I know. So it’s just a fun online promotion.”
But it doesn’t always go so smoothly.
Released by Samples ‘N’ Seconds/Fairfax/Universal Republic (except in the United States), Australian singer/songwriter Gotye’s summer 2011 hit “Somebody That I Used to Know” peaked at No. 1 in Germany, Belgium, Australia and New Zealand, but didn’t appear on any of Billboard’s charts until late last year. The song features New Zealand singer Kimbra and a sample from the Police’s 1983 No. 3 Billboard Hot 100 hit “King of Pain.”
On Jan. 6, Canadian quintet Walk Off the Earth posted a quirky rendition of Gotye’s song to its YouTube channel, walkofftheearth, featuring the quintet playing different parts of the track on just one guitar. WOTE had been posting videos to YouTube since June 2009 to the tune of 4.8 million total views. But the cover video immediately went viral, averaging 3 million hits per day, and at press time, the WOTE clip had registered more than 49.5 million views.
Although WOTE cleared the mechanical rights to sell its cover on iTunes, the group has been engaged in a battle to keep the song up for sale. Since releasing the cover to iTunes through its own SlapDash Records on Jan. 6, the track was pulled several times and reinstated, only after the group disputed the takedown. The band is unsure of whether Universal Music Group or iTunes orchestrated the removal, but some speculate that UMG considers WOTE’s cover a wrench in the marketing plan for Gotye’s version, which entered the Hot 100 after WOTE’s video went viral. At press time, a representative from UMG hadn’t responded to requests for comment.
“That has nothing to do with anything that was done on our part. That’s pretty much all I can say,” WOTE singer Sarah Blackwood says. Since going viral, the still-unsigned group says it has been vetting major-label deals and booked a spot on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” “We’re not really sure if it is someone else’s camp who’s doing that, or if it’s iTunes or what. Unfortunately, it’s been taken down a few times. And we keep getting it back up. So we’re doing something right.”
Some label executives have faith that audiences are curious enough to connect the dots between a cover and its original. “I don’t particularly see a downside to it,” says a top marketing executive who asked to remain anonymous. “I don’t know why anyone would. It’s not the artist out there doing the song. It’s a different version of karaoke.
“If the Gotye cover takes off, people will track it back to Gotye,” the exec continues. “There’s nothing wrong with that. I’d understand what the issue would be in the short term, but in the long term, it could help the whole thing.”
Who knows? Sometimes the charts do. On this week’s charts, Gotye’s version is No. 27 on the Hot 100, up from No. 31 the week before. It jumps 18-13 (89,000 units, up 24%) on the Hot Digital Songs chart. And Gotye tweeted his approval (“genius and clever,” he said) of WOTE’s YouTube cover. As for Kimbra, “Settle Down” (Warner Bros.), her debut EP, is No. 26 on the Heatseekers Albums chart.
The other side of the coin: In 2006, 23-year-old Dutch singer Esmée Denters became a YouTube smash after posting videos of covers of hits by Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and Christina Aguilera. Less than a year later, Denters signed to Justin Timberlake’s Interscope imprint Tennman and began working with Mike Elizondo, Stargate and Ryan Tedder for her debut, “Outta Here.” But as the LP’s release date staggered to 2009 in her native Netherlands and to 2010 in the United States and United Kingdom, her steady stream of cover clips slowed to a trickle, a byproduct, according to former Tennman GM Navin Watumull, of Tennman/Interscope’s fear of a YouTube account shutdown following a temporary suspension in 2009 due to suspected copyright infringement. Even with more than 166 million views on her personal YouTube account and 19.5 million views on her Vevo page, Denters couldn’t cross over. Since its 2010 release, “Outta Here” (which was only released digitally) has sold approximately 1,000 copies, according to SoundScan.
“She was somewhere in the most-subscribed people on YouTube,” says Watumull, who exited Tennman in January but still manages label signee Brenda Radney, who also signed to the imprint after posting covers to YouTube. She hasn’t yet released her debut. “If you start off doing covers and you get famous for singing covers, and you start singing original music, at that point, the audience is going to question what you’re doing.”
For Karmin, the challenge of crossing over to the mainstream with original material was daunting. Heidemann and Noonan, who are engaged, developed artistically while attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. Describing their initial recordings as “super hippie,” the pair built a following before trying its hand at cover songs. Audiences have warmed up to new tracks, including buzz single “Crash Your Party,” with fans tweeting their original lyrics at them instead of praising their covers.
“That was definitely a concern, [but] the transition so far could not be smoother,” Noonan says of breaking out of the cover mold. “Before, our Twitter account was all, ‘Check out this cover video.’ Now, it’s all quotes from ‘Crash Your Party’ or from video links of [cover] videos. We tried to do the covers creatively so that people saw that there was a little more than the karaoke thing going.”
The pair recently released the Dr. Luke/Cirkut-produced single “Broken Hearted,” co-written with Claude Kelly. Like many artists who ditched their cover strategy upon signing to a major label, Karmin doesn’t have any immediate plans to continue building its career on the backs of others’ songs.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re past it. We just haven’t had a lot of time to do that because we’ve been focused on these other things,” Heidemann says of posting more covers. “It’s a natural progression to focus on building up your Vevo channel, which is where all these official music videos live. We’re working with YouTube to transition a lot of our stuff. It’s where artists are discovered these days. It’s incredible. But we’re definitely not abandoning it.”
Posted: February 14th, 2012
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On Feb. 13, 2009, the mixtape paradigm shifted.
Aligned with Lil Wayne, the then-unsigned Drake, who’d spent the few years before releasing buzzy mixtapes (rapping over hits), unleashed his almost entirely original mixtape “So Far Gone.” He did so on his website, October’s Very Own, which quickly went into bandwidth overdrive. Reportedly, to date, there have been millions of downloads.
Drake — whose platinum debut, “Thank Me Later” (Young Money/Cash Money/Universal Republic), bowed atop the Billboard 200 the following year (July 3, 2010) — had redefined the mixtape model for the digital era. (He released three free songs through October’s Very Own as recently as last week, with second album “Take Care” due Oct. 24.) Far from its adolescent iteration, the mixtape-a compilation of music generally distributed outside of label purview-had evolved from a mere display of DJ skills to a promotional tool packed with exclusive freestyles to an actual album-before-the-album, one that could spawn chart-topping singles like “Best I Ever Had,” without labels at the helm.
In hip-hop today, free, original mixtapes have become standard. They’re offered on websites like DatPiff.com and LiveMixtapes.com, which have erased CD-peddling bootleggers from city street corners. DJs — like Doo Wop and DJ Clue — who once shouted over tracks on popular tapes like ’95 Live and Springtime Stickup, have been almost entirely weeded from the equation. And where MCs once hijacked beats from others to serve as the sonic quilt for their release, mixtapes have become a creative survival of the fittest. Rappers who dropped freestyle mixtapes can no longer show-and-prove through lyrics alone-original beat selection, artwork and overall artistry determine worthiness.
The original mixtape approach has also crossed genre lines. Artists in the R&B realm have likewise adopted the format, most recently The Weeknd and The-Dream with “Thursday” and “1977,” presented as a “free album.” Pop singers have even dabbled in mixtape releases. JoJo, whose label disputes have been made public over the past few years, dropped her debut mixtape “Can’t Take That Away From Me” in September 2010, while dance diva La Roux teamed with Major Lazer for May 2010′s “Lazerproof,” a collection of artist-approved original remixes.
“The game favors people that can produce quality music and then turn right around and produce more quality music-which is not a given,” Atlantic Records VP of A&R Zvi Edelman says. His signee, Wiz Khalifa, leveraged free, original mixtapes like 2010′s “Kush & OJ” and 2011′s “Cabin Fever” into the building of a dedicated fan base that helped, along with an intensive touring strategy, make his Atlantic/Rostrum Records debut, “Rolling Papers,” one of the few hip-hop debuts to sell more than 500,000 copies (it’s now at 570,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan) in 2011.
A batch of newcomers — such as J. Cole, Big Sean, Dom Kennedy, Mac Miller and Smoke DZA — has adapted to the consumer demand for free, original rap music. The philosophy is often described this way: As a reward for artists remaining loyal to them (by giving away original music), fans return the favor by buying concert tickets, merchandise and “real” albums from record labels. The result is a give-and-take relationship that keeps rappers in control of their brand and marketing, and iTunes playlists full of free albums disguised as “mixtapes.” The payoff is an active fan base, which labels and management hope stimulates retail purchases.
“Active consumers will support [you] and go out and buy your album, buy your concert tickets and your merch. The passive consumer will download it for free, talk about it and that’s it,” says Al Branch, GM of Hip-Hop Since 1978, which manages Drake, Nicki Minaj and others. “The active consumer is very reactionary, and you can get that consumer to respond quite quickly.”
What exactly distinguishes an album from a mixtape? “These days, mixtapes are really albums,” Rostrum Records founder/president Benjy Grinberg says. “The difference, is that you don’t make any direct money off of it. But the benefits of building the reputation of the artists are pretty amazing.”
From many artists’ standpoint, the freedom of creating an original mixtape is limitless. Big K.R.I.T., who was scheduled to release studio debut “Live From the Underground” (Def Jam) on Sept. 27 (it’s now due early 2012), built his career with free mixtapes including “K.R.I.T. Wuz Here” (2010), “Return of 4eva” and “Last King 2 (God’s Machine),” the latter two released this year. All of the self-produced tapes employ samples and audioclips from films-two major hoops to jump through, as far as clearances, with a retail release.
“When you’re talking about an album, some samples you can’t clear. And it causes you to get more creative,” the Meridian, Miss.-born K.R.I.T. (real name: Justin Scott) says, noting also the pleasures of working within the system “Drawing deep in myself and coming up with content and subject matter-and as far as writing lyrics, really taking out more time to piece together a story, making hooks more melodic. It’s a growing experience.”
Some established acts lean on mixtapes as marketing tools for pending retail albums. Lil Wayne is an example. He dropped freebie “Sorry 4 the Wait” through WeezyThanxYou.com six weeks before “Tha Carter IV” as an apology for the latter’s delay. Wale, whose second set “Ambition” (Maybach Music Group/Warner Music Group) is scheduled for release Nov. 1, offered his most recent mixtape, “11-1-11,” through Hulkshare.com, a file-sharing site that immediately buckled under the weight of posting the link to his million-plus Twitter followers. The tactic of crashing servers by releasing tapes on low-capacity sites-a growing trend among artists like J. Cole and the Weeknd-appears to only ramp up demand.
“It’s like a never-ending commercial,” Wale says. He estimates that 1.2 million people downloaded 11-1-11 in the first three days-a feat flaunted in label press releases, and retweeted all over. But he’s realistic about the residual effects. “I’m definitely not going to get 1.2 million album sales in the first week. That’s just the reality of it,” he says. “I just hope that the majority of the people who love the mixtape go out and support ‘Ambition.’”
Even on smaller scales, the model can shine. New Orleans’ Curren$y released his third studio album, “Pilot Talk” (Roc-a-Fella/DD172/Def Jam) in 2010, avoiding the sample clearance issues of his mixtapes by employing live instrumentation and production from Ski Beatz. The now Warner Bros. Records signee utilized online mediums like Ustream and Twitter to build a relationship with fans and deliver free mixtapes such as 2008′s “Fast Times at Ridgemont Fly” and 2009′s “How High with Wiz Khalifa,” helping the non-mixtape “Pilot Talk” sell 52,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
McKenzie Eddy, a singer/songwriter and president of BluRoc Records who handled A&R for Curren$y’s album and its sequel (“Pilot Talk II”), says, “Free records and selling records-it’s all about having something to drive the building of your brand. Giving away albums is equally as important as selling them.”
Some major labels have begun to embrace the format by repackaging the giveaways as retail EPs. Universal and Young Money/Cash Money pared down “So Far Gone” to a seven-track EP with two new cuts. It was released in September 2009 and has sold 608,000 units, according to SoundScan. Last year, Def Jam monetized its first mixtape with Fabolous’ “There Is No Competition 2: The Grieving Music EP,” an adaptation of its free companion.
Def Jam senior VP of A&R Sha Money XL, says that major labels’ adjusted attitude toward mixtapes isn’t only rooted in compensatory motives, but also in the emphasizing of talent-to build careers with longevity. “We’re doing this because rappers want their artistic abilities to be displayed,” he says. As president of G-Unit Records, Sha helped 50 Cent craft his career through steal-your-hit-style mixtapes in the early ’00s. And Sha signed Big K.R.I.T. to Def Jam. “You can rap over someone else’s beats, but it’s not as impactful as giving them a song you created.”
The mixtape revolution began as a presentation of turntable skills by such DJs as Lovebug Starski, DJ Hollywood, Brucie B and Kid Capri. By the mid-’90s, it became the battle of the strongest Rolodex, with turntablists like DJ Clue and Funkmaster Flex netting exclusives for their own street and retail releases.
But around the turn of the millennium, artists had begun to assimilate the mixtape model. Instead of offering new tracks and freestyles for DJ-administered mixtapes, prolific groups like G-Unit and Dipset strategized on how they could use the model as a full-length promotional vehicle for studio albums. DJs were elbowed into secondary roles, and became known more for facilitating underground distribution to bootleggers and corner stores.
Flex, a DJ at WQHT (Hot 97) New York and host of MTV’s Funk Flex Full Throttle who released four gold-certified retail mixtapes between 1995 and 2000, put his career as a mixtape DJ on ice when he noticed the shift. “The artist started to want better control,” says Flex, who has refocused his non-Hot 97 energies on his InFlexWeTrust.com. “Some DJs were only as big as the exclusives they got.”
Mixtape culture reached critical mass in January 2007 when DJ Drama, one of the few DJs to persevere with his Gangsta Grillz brand, was arrested along with DJ Don Cannon and 17 others in a police raid on their Aphilliates Music Group headquarters in Atlanta-a part of the RIAA’s quest to put an end to mixtape profiteering. “A lot of us, including myself, had to find other avenues,” DJ Drama says. “After that raid, it got a little scary and nerve-racking.” He has since abandoned mixtapes as a revenue stream, instead releasing them for free in a tastemaker role.
Indeed, for artists who have constructed careers on a mixtape foundation, signing with a major may not always be the end-goal. Acts like Odd Future and Tech N9ne have sidestepped major labels, releasing albums on their own imprints and distributing through companies like RED or Fontana. “You don’t have to put out a commercial album to build your fan base,” Grinberg says. “You could have an artist who’s on a major and an artist who doesn’t have a label or a manager-they can both get a mixtape out there and compete. It really levels the playing field.”
Posted: January 1st, 2012
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Posted: January 1st, 2012
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Once a foul-mouthed tough chick with a chip on her shoulder, Nicki Minaj has blossomed into one of rap’s most arresting emcees. Now, she’s ready to prove herself with the release of her highly anticipated debut, Pink Friday.
Three years ago, Nicki Minaj sat hunched on a cramped staircase in her native Queens, her crispy black hair tucked behind a pair of chunky gold doorknockers. “Y’all bitches better sharpen ya mothafuckin’ No. 2 pencil – ‘cause I stay on point!” she shouts, waving a brick of Benjamins on reserve for a manicure. The tirade, capped by a pointy acapella freestyle, landed on 2007’s The Come Up DVD, introducing a hardened urbanite with raw, unmined talent.
Today, Nicki clicks her black stiletto heels into a bright studio in Manhattan’s Garment District. She dismisses an egg white breakfast that isn’t to her liking and sifts through a rack of couture, giving the green light to select designs. A personal handler – one of the many on her team – clears the set to make her comfortable as she ducks behind a curtain for makeup and pampering.
Ever since her mentor Lil Wayne welcomed her to his testosterone-fueled Young Money gang on the strength of her DVD appearance, the 25-year-old has sped down the hip-hop highway to become the new decade’s first rap diva. Over the past year, Nicki became the first solo female emcee to top the Rap Songs chart since 2002 with the saccharine “Your Love,” effectively ending rap’s estrogen drought. In October, she shattered a Billboard record by becoming the first rapstress to simultaneously land seven songs (a combination of both solo and featured tracks) in the Hot 100 chart and sell a combined 4.29 million copies.
The numbers are on her side, but Judgment Day arrives on November 22, the day her hyped debut Pink Friday hits stores. Earlier this year, her Cash Money cohorts nudged her into the studio to begin cold recording the LP, attempting to capitalize on the buzz from animated verses on Ludacris’ platinum-certified “My Chick Bad” and Young Money’s “BedRock.” Initially, Nicki balked at the demand, worried that her talents were better suited for 16-bar guest contributions.
“I was so afraid to put out an album for fear of failure,” she later admits, stretched across a dressing room couch in a yellow Harajuku Lovers tee and flowing sweatpants. “I wanted to put my album out on Valentine’s Day of 2011. And my label was like, are you fucking crazy?”
With a fan base that’s expanded from hip-hop to mainstream pop (even Regis Philbin branded her “the next Lady Gaga” following a performance on his show), Nicki isn’t ditching her aggressive hood past. Pink Friday carefully straddles the line between boisterous hip-hop and glistening pop, boasting an eclectic roster of guests including Rihanna, will.i.am, Drake, Kanye West and Natasha Bedingfield (who appears on “Last Chance”).
Pop has a heavy hand in the full-length, but Nicki panders to the hip-hop sect with the harsh “Roman’s Revenge.” The track, which sports a wobbly electronic beat and saucy lyrics, pairs her gay alter ego Roman Zolanski with Eminem, who also used the beginning stage of his career to rap from the perspective of a character.
“We both have our own world, and we’re just colliding. I feel like we’re on a freaking collision course or something. But it’s very equal,” she explains. “I want a piece of that Slim Shady world because I feel like it may have subconsciously influenced me.”
Fans who have been lured into the Minaj matrix by her mystique will also see a more introspective side of the Harajuku Barbie on the album. Typically on wax, Nicki can flip from pointy and aggressive to British and ditzy over a span of two bars, leaving listeners in the dark about the girl behind the mic. One minute, she’s a squeaky British valley girl like on Mariah Carey’s “Up Out My Face (Remix),” and the next, she’s back to being Roman on Trey Songz’s “Bottoms Up.”
But where she used the bulk of her 2010 recordings to take listeners to metaphor heaven, she strips away the gloss and allows herself to become vulnerable for the first time since her stark 2008 track “The Autobiography.” On “Dear Old Nicki,” for example, she addresses why she changed from the feisty around the way rap chick to female emcees’ saving grace.
“I’m going to talk about my family and a little bit of dysfunction – or I should say, lots of dysfunction. And I’m just going to talk about me and self-searching and why I made the choices [I did],” she says, differentiating between her aliases and Onika Tonya Maraj – her birth name. “Onika is not Nicki is not Roman. People will never be able to figure me out. I can tell you my whole life story from beginning to end, and then tomorrow, I’ll be just a different person.”
Her identity is as shape-shifting as her rainbow collection of wigs, but her history is written in stone. Growing up in Queens, New York, a young Onika attended the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (of which Fame was based), slinging her first rhyme to impress her next-door neighbor, Jennifer. “I started saying it to everybody,” she says with a giggle. “I thought that they were laughing with me, but they were really laughing at me.”
Reared on a healthy diet of Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh, Nicki spent her adolescence studying hip-hop and developing a taste for couture from admiring her supportive mother’s fashion expertise (“She was wearing only the flyest shoes and dresses”). But where she spent countless hours locked in her room penning rhymes, hip-hop became a necessary escape from life’s harsh realities. On “The Autobiography,” Nicki details a traumatic episode where her substance-abusing father tried to burn the house down with her mother inside. It was one of the many situations that molded her into the hotheaded firecracker barking on The Come Up DVD.
It wasn’t until she met Wayne that she finally found a strong male figure capable of nurturing her love of rhyme. His oversight on her 2008 Sucka Free mixtape and her breakout 2009 tape not only cultivated her eccentricities, but also stamped her with a co-sign from a member of the hip-hop elite. Under the Young Money skein, the two joined forces with the rest of the squad to release We Are Young Money in December 2009, later earning gold certification for the album and a platinum plaque for “BedRock” in June.
But Nicki quickly learned a harsh lesson. Wayne could only take her so far as a solo artist, and his incarceration this past March left her and the YM camp to their own devices. His absence jolted her, not just on a personal level, but also taught her that making it to the top of the game doesn’t reward with automatic bulletproofing.
“At any given moment, you can experience your last day, whether it’s going to come back, as in his case, or whether it’s gone forever,” she slowly states, citing Remy Ma as another incarcerated emcee who often crosses her mind. “I can’t stop, I don’t know when this is going to end. I don’t know if this is going to end. I don’t know how long I’m going to have.”
The sobering reality put her into beast mode. Her buzz not only grew in the wake of Weezy’s imprisonment, but her willingness to experiment turned her saltiest haters into believers. According to Nicki, her pivotal 2010 moment wasn’t when “Your Love” hit the top of the charts – it was with a show-stopping guest appearance on Kanye West’s “Monster,” a giveaway track where she eclipses Jay-Z, ‘Ye and Rick Ross during a blackout verse.
“That has to be the breakout Nicki Minaj moment. That was my moment,” she says. Nicki laid down the verse after ‘Ye reached out to her through his former arm candy Amber Rose, hopping on a flight to Hawaii where she met up with West and laid down the track’s first vocals. “People paid attention because of who was on it and because I held my own and I stayed true to my crazy animation, and it’s like I didn’t have to take my fun stuff out. I was able to incorporate Nicki Minaj on a record with Jay-Z and Kanye West. And I think people know that’s a difficult task in itself.”
Her success as an emcee has also jostled hip-hop’s gender lines, uncorking the forgotten female rappers of yesteryear. It’s no coincidence that Lauryn Hill returned from self-imposed exile or Rah Digga followed up her 1999 debut with her sophomore album this year. Some female emcees forgoing comebacks, like Foxy Brown, have co-signed Nicki and praised her consistent wins, but artists like Lil’ Kim have blasted Nicki for forgetting to pay homage to past femcees.
“These girls aren’t mad at me. They’re mad at themselves,” she states, shooting down questions on why she never took Kim’s bait. “[It’s] jealousy, insecurity and being broke. When you haven’t capitalized and you see I’m about to capitalize on this shit like it’s never been done before, then you’re mad at yourself.”
Nicki gets the last laugh. Plotting an international tour for 2011, the baddest bitch in the building is climbing the charts with her singles “Right Thru Me” and the will.i.am-assisted “Check It Out.” Wayne will rejoin the Young Money fam upon his release from prison. All eyes are on the year’s highest achieving female rapper, whose debut album could position her as one of the year’s most successful musicians.
“I know that is a classic album. I have never been this proud of anything in my life,” she says. “I just think that it’s such a dynamic body of work. I’m no longer afraid to drop it. Now, I know it’s time.”
Posted: January 1st, 2012
Comments: 1 Comment
Posted: January 1st, 2012
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