Interview with MIKO NIKO, producer for Passi, Orishas, Bisso na Bisso - Nov 21, 2001
ďEven if you as an artist have a manager, itís part of your job to have some knowledge about how the music business works.ĒParis based producer, Miko Niko, is a silent member of French collective Orishas and has been a pivotal part of the French hip-hop since it began creeping into the French music industry almost two decades ago. Artists and acts he has worked with include Passi, Bisso na Bisso and Beedjy et Bams. Here he tells us about the differences between the American and French hip-hop scene and share his experiences as a successful producer.
How did you get started in the music biz and how did you become a producer?
I had a little group and I used to be in a break dance group called the Paris City Breakers. We danced on a show called ďHip HopĒ that was broadcast on TV every Sunday. Plenty of people from the Paris City Breakers went on to do music. About seven years ago I bought some material and without taking any music classes just learned by doing. I bought, a sampler, a computer, a turntable and thatís how it started. When youíre an unknown itís pretty difficult to get out there. But, since I knew a lot of people from my dancing days I had a lot of contacts to which I gave some of my music. One day people started asking me for my music and I started my own projects like Orishas for example.
How did you meet Passi?
We knew each other from before when I was a dancer. He was in a group and he also danced a little. Before he made his album he was looking for some sounds and I gave him some. For Bisso na Bisso we worked on the first pieces in my living room. And weíre going to keep on working together because so far it has worked out well for both of us and thereís no reason to stop now.
Was it a similar experience with Orishas?
Well I knew people, and those people knew that I was producing sounds. They called me asking if I had anything for them and I would also call them telling them that I had some instrumentals that I would make them listen to over the phone. I often knew that some singer or another was looking and if I liked what they were doing I would invite them over to my home studio. With Orishas it was like: I want to do this project and I need to find a singer. So I went over to Cuba to find some rappers. So itís really a little of both. And once Iíve finished a project I go to the companies and see what they think.
Which have been the important events for you that have led you forward?
Well, being there on the hip-hop scene since it started in France was a key factor. I was part of a group that was big during those years and I got to know everybody on the scene and they got to know me. For example when Bambata came to Paris, he would stay with a member of the groupÖwe were thanked in all his albums. So thatís how I got to know a lot of people. Finally it was Passiís first album, which sold 500,000 albums here in France that really launched my career. Though you could say that was where it all started itís not entirely true because I had already started work on the Orishas project, which was followed by the Passi and Bisso na Bisso albums.
What influenceís your writing?
Its really mostly hip-hop. My influences come from a lot of different music because when youíre working with hip-hop you tend to listen to a lot of different kinds of music. Right now Iím working less and less with samples, because I like to compose. I work with a guitarist on lots of projects. But you really have to listen to a little of everything. My preferences are salsa, traditional Cuban music, rap, and 70ís soul.
Would you say that sampling tends to occur less in the French Rap scene?
A little because itís easier where rights are concerned. In France when you use a sample most of the time you donít have the authorization or if you do the publisher who has the rights asks for 70 to 90 per cent of the royalties. So in France we try to avoid using samples. Itís not like the U.S where some people come out with a record that has samples knowing that they will negotiate a pretty good deal with the publisher and get the rights. Because the publisher knows that if for example Puff Daddy uses a sample from Sting it will sell a few million and he will make a lot of money. A lot of French publishers donít really care. For me itís like this: the more I work, the more I want to create my own melodies even if I can do it with samples. Itís probably better to work with musicians when you have an idea, than to take a sample and end up not being able to put the music out. In terms of people using my music, it doesnít matter to me. Iíd be happy!
Do you have your own studio?
I have a studio at home. I have my catalogue at EMI Music Publishing and they have studios, one big one and one small one, both are well equipped. When I need to record vocals I donít do it at home, I go to that studio. Since Iím alone, and I know how to use all the equipment I can use their smaller studio, which is perfect for what I want to do, whenever I want to. I have a computer that has Qubase. I also use an MPC 3000, an AKAI 950, a Roland FC 760, a Proteus, a JV with cards, an MPC 60 which I donít use much because I have the 3000 and everything that goes with these things: a turntable, a few compressors, NF 10ís etcÖ
What do you think about the producersí situation in the music biz in France, what is good and what could be better?
What could probably improve is the relationship with the record labels. But it dependsÖfor me I get along with most people so itís not much of a problem for me. For me everythingís working right now so I canít really complain. What I like to do is start a project and then go to a record label instead of waiting for a record label to come to me with one of their projects. I like to work on things that havenít necessarily been signed, but that are interesting and challenging on a creative level. Itís more interesting for me than just producing a sound for somebody whoís already known. Now of course Passi is another thing since Iíve been with him since the beginning, and there are others of course. But I like to choose with whom I work. Iíd rather work with people who I believe in artistically than sending my stuff to record labels so that theyíll place them with a singer that doesnít really move me. Maybe I could make more money that way, but money isnít everything.
Do you think the producer in France could do more?
In the U.S when you say producer youíre talking about the guy whoís behind the music, whereas in when you say producer in France you mean the one who is paying, usually the record label. I prefer that the producer just limits himself to do what he does best which is to pay the studio than to barge on in on the production and tell us what we should or should not do.
How does the scene in France for Urban music look like?
I donít know if this is still the case, but Iíve been told that France is the second market after the U.S for rap. Whatís special about the French market though is that people buy more French rap than American rap, because not many people speak English here. Even some independent stuff here makes more than the big American acts that are sold here. R&B is slowly picking up and thereís a new wave of French acts that are making it too. But I think just like with rap: French R&B acts will be more successful here than American R&B acts.
What is the difference between the French Urban scene and the American, musically?
In the U.S, theyíve been listening to it since they were kids whereas in France itís only been since 1983. Though itís true now there are people here who have been listening to French rap since they were kids. The scene is just bigger in the U.S. There are much more people involved in it. Iíve mixed and mastered many albums in New York, and if you take the subway there youíll be sure to hear girls singing your tunes. In France the scene just isnít THAT big. The acts Iíve worked on like Bisso na Bisso, we took African music, music that I used to hear in clubs, when I was a kid. Clubs where they played African music along with hip-hop were common at that time. I donít know, but I donít think that was the case in the U.S. So we mixed hip-hop with African sounds something Iím not sure has been done in the U.S. With Orishas we really played with traditional Cuban music and that really worked out here.
What are you currently working on production-wise and how were you approached by these acts?
Iím currently working on the second Orishas album. Weíve already recorded 14 titles and now Iíve prepared a couple of instrumentals for the next songs. Iíve already done 5 or 6. Iím also working with a singer for whom I did 6 pieces and who is going to sign with EMI. His name is Singuila. Iím also working with another singer on an album that will come out next year that is being produced by Passi. I work a lot with Passi because weíre friends so whenever he has a project or anything we work together.
What makes you take on a production?
I usually pick an artist based on the following criteria: I need to like what theyíre doing, and need to be able to get along with them. If theyíre making something I like, but I canít get along with them: I donít do it. Iím not interested in just creating sounds just for the sake of creating sounds I want the whole production process to be a nice, enjoyable experience. So basically I need to feel that I can develop a good relationship with the artist and know that theyíre talented. For the most part though, itís always gone smoothly so I canít complain.
How much do you charge for a production?
It generally depends. Itís 20 000 French francs per song. Sometimes itís less; sometimes itís moreÖit depends. When youíre working with a guy whoís paying everything himself or whoís doing a compilation you canít ask more. Production budgets here are not what they are in the U.S. You can make a record here with 400 000 to 500 000 French francs
How much input generally do the A&Rs and managers have on the productions?
Well, normally, in most cases the manager is the artistís ally. Heís there to defend the artistís rights. Now, I have a manager but heís only there when I donít have time to take care of something. He deals with the contracts. Iíve known him for a while. Heís presently managing Orishas. I donít have a contract with him because for the most part I like to take care of business myself. A lot of artists, who donít really know the scene, have to take a manager. And itís not always easy to get a good one. Itís good to have a manager if heís a good one. But often I get the impression that a lot of people who donít know what to do in the music business become managers. There are plenty of acts that I know that have managers that arenít really managers in my opinion. As for the A&R wellÖitís not always artistic concerns that are on his agenda. What can I say? Youíve got your good and bad ones. Youíll be talking music with him, but sometimes youíll get the impression that music isnít really what interests him the most. In my work there has never been an A&R who has bothered me about my artistic decisions. Maybe itís because this is rap and people in rap donít like to have people interfere with their music. Iíve sometimes worked with people who had advice that I took or left depending on how good it was.
How important do you think it is for a new band/artist to have knowledge about the music business, apart from the creative side?
Well itís like I told you before: a manager, a real one. One who defends your interests is something you need. If you donít have that or even if you do itís part of your job as an artist to have some knowledge of how the music business works. Because if you donít, you might end up losing out on a lot of stuff that you could have negotiated if you only had known a few key facts. So itís always good to know as much as possible.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, and let me tell you in all honesty: Iíve rarely received anything good. I donít really like it having to call people and tell them that Iím not interested in their stuff. Donít get me wrong. Just because Iím not interested in it doesnít mean itís bad or anything. It doesnít hurt to try.
What characteristics do you think are important for a producer to have?
You need to work a lot. Since youíre working with a lot of different people you need to be able to understand what these people want and can do. If you go into a studio you should be familiar with the equipment thatís there. You need to be professional, especially if youíre working with people who are just starting out. If you donít know youíll be in for a hellish studio session. I try to always be on top of things. You need to understand that everybody has their own way of doing things and adapt to that. You can add your own touch but itís got to stick to the person youíre working with. You canít put a frantic hip-hop instrumental with a guy who wants to sing jazz. Now itís true that I work on instrumentals before even meeting with an artist. But now for example Iím working with a vocalist. I know what he wants and Iím going to try to make sounds that fit his personality. I donít know if heíll take all of them. But I make five or six and thatís plenty.
What are your strengths as producer?
My kindness, and patienceÖBut more than that I think itís my ability to adapt to people. On the other hand you always have to be careful who you work with, and take care of business early in the process so that thatís behind you and off your back. Iíve often negotiated my own contracts and later have had to call because companies were taking too much time to pay me.
Thereís not much difference for me between production and composing. I write something and I produce. Iíve consulted engineers to find out whatís possible, and whatís not. Because when youíre starting out you may know what you want but you donít know whatís possible. Your first time the engineer could bullshit you. And you wouldnít even know it! Once you get familiar with the studio itís much easier to direct the session.
What advice would you give an aspiring producer who wants to ďget intoĒ the music biz?
You need to hang on, be persistent, work, work, work and send out your sounds to people. Itís not easy so you have to keep the faith and never loose the passion that got you started in the first place.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career so far and what is your take on the future?
Lately, with Orishas the record came out in Spain and because I was rapping on three songs on the record, I was doing all the concerts with them. Last December we went to Havana to do a concert and I really loved being on stage. We were playing Cuban influenced music for Cuban people and they loved it so that concert was one of my greatest moments. Which is why perhaps in the future I will come out with a solo album, with plenty of guests of course.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
Well, in France itís 10 per cent for the artists and 90 per cent for the record labels. So I guess Iíd like to change that. Because Iím not sure that if there were no record labels that there wouldnít be any music anymore, but I do know that if there werenít any musicians aroundÖyou see what I mean.
Interviewed by Jean-Francois Mean
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