Interview – Shakir Stewart, A&R Island/Def Jam US - Nov 13, 2005
“Twenty-five years ago Detroit, Motown, had the market. In the early 90s Death Row had the sound with the success of Suge Knight and Dr.Dre. Right now the sound is in Atlanta,”… says Shakir Stewart, VP of A&R at Island/Def Jam USA for Young Jeezy, whose debut album entered at No.2. He has also been A&R for Teairra Mari and Christina Milian and has been awarded Top 10 in the World Top 20 A&R Chart.
He is frequently traveling between New York and Atlanta. Read about how he regards the differences between the cities, creatively and business-wise, and how he discovered and started working with some of the most successful debut artists of 2005.
What was your route to becoming an A&R?
I graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. I used to throw a lot of parties while I was in college. I took the money that I made from there, and with a couple of buddies of mine, we built our own small studio. We signed a bunch of hot young producers in the Atlanta area.
Antonio "L.A." Reid had a company that he was just starting, called Hitco Music Publishing. He acknowledged my skills as a young talent magnet and offered me my first position as an intern-level creative person.
"L.A." realized that I had my finger on the pulse of the next generation of hot producers in the Atlanta music scene, and he wanted me to be a part of his team. He was trying to get connected to a completely different market of producers and songwriters.
What artists are you currently working with?
I’m starting on a new Young Jeezy project. I’m finishing up Christina Milian. I’m starting on a new Teairra Marí album. We just finished a big remix with Mariah Carey featuring Jay-Z and Young Jeezy.
How did you first learn about Young Jeezy and Teairra Marí?
A buddy of mine named Henry ‘Noonie’ Lee, who’s Jazzy Phe’s manager, brought me a demo that they had put together and I fell in love with it the first time I heard him. This was in May of 2004. I took it to "L.A." and he recognized the talent as well. He gave me the green light to sign him, and the rest is history.
A buddy of ours named Daryl Simmons brought Teairra Marí to us.
Why did they choose for Island/Def Jam?
Young Jeezy was the hottest thing on the street. Everybody was after him. Warner Brothers, Interscope…, but he wanted to be in business with myself and "L.A.".
Teairra Marí worked with Jay-Z, in his first collaboration project since becoming president of Def Jam, to create "Make Her Feel Good", the hit single from her debut album on Def Jam's Roc-A-Fella Records label.
Why did you want to work with them?
I wanted to work with Jeezy because I believe that he has a very distinct voice and he has a message in his music. He writes excellent songs and way he describes his story is very clear and unique. And the people love him. That’s why he’s the new artist of the year.
Teairra was a star when she walked into the room. She captured the room when she did her audition. We fell in love with her from day one.
How did you work with Jeezy?
Jeezy recorded over sixty songs for the album. He deals with all the producers directly and picks all his own tracks. Though we all make a decision on which are the best songs to fit the album.
How did the collaboration with Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter on “Go Crazy” come about?
Jay-Z is the President of Def Jam. He understood how big he was and fell in love with the songs. He has a great relationship with Jeezy and wanted to support him and get on the record. Of course we wouldn’t turn that down for anything. The song created a buzz throughout the entire country, skyrocketing Young Jeezy's hip-hop status.
I wasn’t surprised at all. We worked hard and the anticipation was there. I was definitely happy though, but I wasn’t surprised since he did a lot of groundwork and laywork in the streets. His company, Corporate Thugz Entertainment, did everything. They had a well thought-out plan with regards to getting everything to where it was for that to happen.
How did Teairra Marí’s demo land on the desk of Island Def Jam Group Chairman, Antonio "L.A." Reid?
Producer Big Mike from Detroit’s K.I.S.S. Productions brought the then 16-year-old Teairra to some label executives. Candy Tookes, a friend of Big Mike, introduced the pair to industry veteran Daryl Simmons in Atlanta. L.A. had a relationship with him for over twenty years. Daryl then shared Marí's K.I.S.S. Productions-produced demo disc with L.A..
After hearing Teairra Marí perform live, he offered her a contract on the spot. At that particular meeting she sang songs that were never published. She recorded prior to her deal, but we never put those songs on her album.
L.A., Jay-Z and myself recruited hit-making songwriter Sean Garrett to help translate Teairra Marí’s innermost thoughts and emotions into lyrics, and that created the track “Make Her Feel Good”.
What were the most important factors in breaking her?
Connecting her to the public. Making sure we put out the right singles. We got to a very large audience with her first single. It was just a matter of breaking her into the marketplace.
How was she asked to guest hosting 106th and Park on the BET TV channel?
She was asked for that because of her great personality. The executives of BET TV fell in love with Teairra from the first time they met her. They contacted her to guest host the hottest urban music countdown show on TV.
What do you look for in an artist?
Somebody unique who gives me ‘chill-bones’. Somebody who I feel is different for the marketplace and has a very clear and distinct message.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
We receive hundreds per week. I try to listen to all of them but there’s not enough time in a day to listen to everything. I have an A&R staff that works with me that listens to whatever I don’t listen to.
How ready-to-go must artists be before you look at them seriously?
It depends on the package. Some people have it from day one. Some people need development. There’s no direct answer on that.
What kind of buzz makes you take note of something?
A huge buzz is going to make you take note of anything. But I won’t sign every artist with a buzz. I’m always looking for something, but there might be more... it’s just a buzz.
What input do you usually have on the productions?
It depends on the artist. Every project is different. Jeezy picks his own tracks. I make a suggestion here and there, but he knows what he wants to do. With Teairra, I was involved with every song. I’m a very hands-on A&R. I’m involved with all of my projects all the time.
You travel a lot between New York and Atlanta. Why is it important to be present at both places?
Our headquarters is in N.Y. I have to go there and make sure that headquarters is connected to every project. We have a staff of over a thousand people. I prefer to make records in Atlanta though, because that’s where the music is and where the majority of the music is created. But I have to make sure that I don’t give one city more attention than the other.
If you turned into an artist and were offered a record deal, how would you go about evaluating the A&R and the label?
I would look at their track record. I would also look at the leader, the Chairman of the company. Who’s making the final decision? I would base my opinion on whether they are a corporate person or whether they are a music person. Because if you’re the ultimate decision maker at a label and you don’t listen to music, then who makes the ultimate decision? If there’s no good music at a music company, there’s no money being made.
How strong is the Atlanta music scene right now?
Atlanta is one of the biggest urban music scenes in the world, if not the biggest. It provides a large percentage of the hits that you hear on the radio and on the charts, both on the pop, rap and R&B sides.
It’s all about the energy. Twenty-five years ago Detroit, Motown, had the market. In the early 90s Death Row had the sound with the success of Suge Knight and Dr.Dre. Right now the sound is in Atlanta.
What style of music would you like too see gain more popularity?
I would like to see gospel music getting more popularity.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would change some of the people. It’s just a lot of different egos. It should be more about the music. A lot of people are in a position or have a job because of who they know and who they’re related to. It should be more about their actual sense and opinion of music. Without music sense you have no business in the music business
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
I’ve been blessed to have a couple of them. I’m extremely excited about Young Jeezy. I also signed a triple platinum artist named Ciara on LaFace. I’m very pleased with her. I signed Beyonce Knowles when I was a music publisher. I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of a couple of different things that I can honestly hold my head up high and say that I’m proud of.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years’ time?
Five years from now I’ll be in the midst of running my own label. Ten years from now I’ll be in the process of selling my label.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Interview with Shabs Jobanputra, MD of Relentless Records UK and A&R for KT Tunstall (UK Top 5)