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Interview with KEVIN LEE, urban A&R at Hendu Ent. - December 25, 2000

"Rap has become a gimmick. Rap has become about money."

Kevin Lee is Senior Director of A&R at Hendu Entertainment in Atlanta, USA and works mainly with rap music.

HitQ: How did you become an A&R?

I always wanted to be in the music business, I had a little studio with my brother called the Beats Kitchen. I'm always on the streets, checking out what's going on, I’m a natural talent scout. Later on I worked in promotion, and I helped found Hendu - I’ve been here from the start.

HitQ: How do you find new talent?

I go out a lot. There is a real underground scene here in Atlanta, and every night there's a show. People know me, they know what I do, so people who own venues approach me with acts sometimes. But mostly I just go to shows. That's where I find acts. In addition to that, I listen to demos and we have a web site where people can download their songs onto our site.

HitQ: What are you currently working on?

We just did a project which went very well in the Billboard R&B/Hip Hop album chart, Pastor Troy and the Congregation ( album "Book I", ed. ). We are working on the follow-up right now. Then we've got an artist called D.C. Santana that I've been developing for a year and a half now. The album will be released first quarter next year. And then there's a girl called Verdia, and Kid 11/29. Our artists also do a lot of featuring on albums for majors.

HitQ: What is your average day as an A&R like?

I get in around ten in the morning and when I arrive I reply to e-mails. Then twice a week we'll have a company meeting. On Monday we'll discuss the targets for the week and on Wednesday I'll play my new material to everybody. We’re like a real family, everybody can share their opinion about the music. Then later in the afternoon I'll have meetings with artists and producers. In the evenings I go out to check out shows.

HitQ: Do you work with finished productions or are you involved in the music creatively?

I work with both, though I have a lot of creative input. I work together with the artists and producers, and although I don't really know that much about all the technical things, I know about sounds. What I’m really involved in is the artists’ development and, for this, I work hand in hand with the managers. One could say that I keep an overview of all the different aspects that come into play, like the songs, productions, artwork, collaborations, and promotions.

HitQ: Do you need approval to sign an act?

I do need to discuss with our financial department whether we have the budget to sign an act, but apart from that they just let me do what I do. They trust my judgement. And we're such a small company; it's not like working for a major. We’re like a family, so things aren't that bureaucratic around here.

HitQ: How many demos do you receive per week?

I receive about 20 to 30 demos per week and I listen to all of them. To me it doesn't matter what it looks like, whether it's CD or tape. I even sometimes think when I get a nice little package with great artwork, that those people have too much time on their hands. So no selection, I listen to everything. There might be a hit there and if there is, then I'm the one to find it!

HitQ: Do you consider unsigned bands to have proper knowledge on how to approach the business?

Some do, others don't. I had a kid in my office last week that studied the business. And I really mean studied. I'm thinking about making him an apprentice at Hendu. You'll find that some people know about the business side but others get involved with people that don't know anything about the business. Like artists who have their friend, who doesn't know anything, as their manager, you see that a lot. The sad thing is that even though they are friends, the fact that you have incompetent people handling your business can have a very negative effect. I experienced it with one of my artists once. In the end he got rid of his manager, and I promised that I would help him out with management.

HitQ: Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned artists, with regards to submitting material?

Most unsigned artists just want to have a record deal, so sometimes you have to hold them back. So don't try to rush things, that's very important. From one day to the other a football player decides he can rap better than Mos Def, so they want a record deal. They think everything comes easy, but the truth is, it's hard work. You need to be focused, work hard, keep up with the new sounds, try to be on to the next sound. Most importantly, don't be a copycat! That's the most common mistake. People see an artist they like, and they want to be like them, it's terrible. They are not being creative at all! And as an artist you have to be patient. Success doesn't come overnight. DC Santana was very discouraged at one point because it takes hard work and it takes time. But I helped him over it. People tend to give up too easily when success doesn't come quick enough.

HitQ: What qualities are needed to be a successful A&R and in what aspect do you think this applies to you?

You need people skills and patience. You need to be assertive and you need to know music. I have all that, plus I have the talent to deal with music creatively. People trust me. That's important.

HitQ: Do you have a special way of working with your acts which differs from other A&Rs or does it entirely depend on what kind of music they make and who they are?

I give people freedom to create but I also try to guide them. It's not a one way street. I like to have a lot of input, and I prefer hip hop over R&B. There is a real difference in how you work with people in different genres, although I can't really put my finger on it what it is that makes that difference.

HitQ: If you could change something dramatically within the music business, what would that be?

Rap has become a gimmick. Rap has become about money. I wish there would be more creativity and more love for the music. All these majors just throw big budgets around so that the artists sell, they have got big promotion machines pumping out that stuff. Look at Jay-Z, that's a gimmick. It has nothing to do with rap. The people that throw all this money around mostly don't know the first thing about music but because they have the big budgets, they can even sell their acts. We need more creativity!

HitQ: What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?

I'm setting up my own production company at the moment, so I'll be doing that. It's going to be called Beats Kitchen after the studio I had with my brother.

HitQ: What has been the greatest moment in your career?

No 1 in Billboard ( Heatseeker albums and New Artists albums South Atlantic, August 8. ed. ). I couldn't believe it when it happened. There were different people that called to congratulate, it took weeks to sink in.

HitQ: What was your favourite album of last year?

Very difficult, but if I'm really allowed to pick only one, it has to be Mos Def.

HitQ: Which act would you have liked to be involved in?

Mystical, because it's very creative. It's the next sound.

Marlene Smits

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