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Interview with JESSICA HARLEY, A&R at Booga Basement and YClef Records US for City High (US Gold) - Feb 25, 2002

ďAs a musician, you have to be honest and true to yourself, and assess whether youíve really got what it takes.Ē

picture Jessica Harley is Head of A&R at Booga Basement and at YClef Records, two labels respectively owned by Jerry Duplessis (aka Jerry Wonder) and Wyclef Jean, both of them well-known artists, producers and songwriters. Acts on the labels include City High and The Product G&B, amongst others.

How did you get started in the music biz and how did you become an A&R?

I started when I was sixteen years old, working at a commercial radio station. I started doing a Jazz shift, a Sunday morning shift and I also ran the Monday night metal show. Thatís actually where my roots are, in rockíníroll. I was a radio DJ and an assistant music director for a long time. Then I got into the field of promotion, which I did for years, working for Megaforce, Elektra, Island, and also as an independent. The money was good, but thereís not a lot of creativity in promotion and I needed a more creative outlet. Ultimately that led me into the world of management, hooking up with David Sonenberg at DAS Communications, who had managed artists from Meat Loaf to the Fugees. As a manager, youíre part of the record-making process. My creative input was needed and I loved it! At DAS, I met Wyclef and Jerry. I started working closely with them and was eventually asked to play an integral role in their respective joint ventures.

What experiences have been important to you in developing your A&R skills?

Everything I did being an on-air jock: playing the currents, getting the requests, watching the research, and realizing just how difficult it is when you have a hundred and fifty different records that people are promoting on a daily basis, and you have thirty five slots. I quickly learnt what separated the hits from the pack of releases that record companies serviced every single day.

Management was incredibly valuable after years in promotion, because I went from working within an office structure convincing programmers to play my record, to actually being part of the creative process of record making.

But above all, the most important thing is my love of music. Sometimes itís hard to differentiate music and business because music becomes your job. I still have such a lust and passion, and that has been my greatest gift. I have a lot of idealism left and that makes music continue to sound fresh, new and exciting.

What are the goals that motivate you as an A&R?

I want to be in a position where I can enable talented and creative people to reach their ultimate dreams. To have the power and the ability to create stars, to be ahead of the trends and bring tomorrowís stars into today. I would like to sign and break an artist that lasts over generations and decades. I donít entertain aspirations of becoming a huge executive. I would just like to continue to develop and cultivate talent.

Could you tell us a bit about how YClef Records and Booga Basement work?

Booga Basement is a joint venture with Interscope Records and Yclef Records is a joint venture with J Records. Clef and Jerry produce a certain number of tracks for each release. We also go to outside producers to finish off the records. We have been very selective in our signings; we want everything we put out to succeed. Clef and Jerry are musically very diverse. They could be working with Tom Jones one day, be in the studio with Mick Jagger or Sinead Oí Connor the next, and the very next day work on Clefís new record with five of hottest street MCs on the planet. Weíre not cornering the market in any particular genre. The goal for the two companies is to sign successful, quality artists. We want to make our mark, whatever genre weíre working in. It goes hand in hand with the nature of who Wyclef and Jerry Wonder are - they are very special, uniquely-talented individuals.

Our latest, and greatest, endeavour is our new studio. Itís called Platinum Sound Studios and itís located in Midtown Manhattan. And that has probably been the happiest Iíve ever seen Clef and Jerry! Having a place to create 24/7. Itís been wonderful.

What are your roles?

I oversee the operations for both record labels. And not just purely from an A&R perspective, but the whole big picture. Wyclef and Jerry own the companies. Their role is to produce the artists we have signed and to be the CEOs. Theyíre pretty hands-on. Clef is involved in every aspect of it, as is Jerry. Their brothers, Sam Jean and Renel Duplessis, also play a large role in the operation of the labels; itís a family affair! Theyíre very passionate about their music, their labels, and the artists we have.

How do you decide to which of the two companies you will sign any of your new artists?

At this point, I would want to sign the artists who really have crossover potential, those with a pop sensibility, to Booga Basement, just because of Interscopeís marketing team and promotion staff. Theyíre an incredible group of people! I really canít say enough good things about them. J Records is brand new, and theyíve had tremendous success with Alicia Keys. They have great staff too, and working with Clive has been both interesting and educational. There really isnít an equation of what goes where; itís more of a feeling.

What are you currently working on?

Iím going to start work on the new City High record, and Iím finishing off the The Product G&B record. We released a couple of singles with The Product G&B, after the Santana release "Maria Maria" (written & produced by Jerry & Wyclef , with vocals by The Product G&B ≠ Ed.), but we havenít had as much success as we would have hoped. We are looking for a couple more street, urban tracks to round off the record. Weíve just started with an artist called Aisha, and weíre in the process of signing Governor, who Iím very excited about. Heís a soul and r&b singer with a definite pop sensibility. And Iím out there, as we all are, looking for the next thing.
Recently, itís been a privilege and a pleasure to work on Clefís new record. Clef is signed to Columbia, and the bonus for me is that I get to be involved in the creative, A&R side of that project as well. Itís by far the best work heís done to date. Itís raw, emotional, personal and gritty, full of street monsters and big powerful crossover tracks. Itís a fantastic record. I listen to it over and over again and itís as fresh and powerful as the first time I heard it.

How were you approached by your current artists?

In the case of City High, we had signed Robby Pardlo first and then it grew into a group. When we had Refugee Camp Records, Pras from the Fugees introduced us to The Product G&B. Governor made some guest appearances on Clefís records, and we thought we canít live without this kid, we need to make him a part of our label. Clef discovered Aisha.

For the full story of City High, click here

How do you find new talent?

Traditional means: listening to tapes, word-of-mouth, meeting people. Word-of-mouth is more important than it is perhaps given credit for.

Do you accept unsolicited material?

I get it whether I accept it or not! You can say no, but youíre still going to get it. It goes with the territory. Iíve set up a new PO box, so that I donít have as much mail on my desk every day, and then I can actually set aside days to really focus and listen. I try to listen to everything, but there are times when thatís not where my focus is. I pretty much have the four groups that I want to work on right now. Weíre two small record labels, so weíre not signing a lot of acts. If I sign two acts this year, then that would be it.

What do you look for in an artist or an act?

Chops live are crucial. Knowing that they can corner the market when it comes to performance. All our groups are incredible live. Weíve seen all of them live, and showcased all of them prior to getting involved. When we hear something, the next step is to see a performance.

I definitely want our artists to be writers, not only good vocalists. Itís a package. Obviously, the aesthetics are important, but the key is the true raw talent that makes an artist a star.

Do you give any importance to who the manager, attorney and team behind a new act are, when considering signing them?

No. Iím dealing with a lot of young managers right now and it can be frustrating. But we all start somewhere; we all have to grow. Itís not important who manages the group. If the groupís got it, then youíre all going to work together for the greater good of the project. Great management is appreciated, though. When you have the package, youíre unstoppable. But itís not essential.

How sure do you need to be about the market space available to an act, before signing and releasing them?

The market is everchanging. I think you have to be committed and take a shot. Before I left to do A&R, I signed a female artist called Laura Dawn to management. She was a singer/songwriter, a rock artist. Breaking a female rock artist in todayís market is difficult. Rock stations just donít play female artists, and you can hardly even get alternative stations to play women. But I loved her as an artist; she was a prolific writer and I took a shot. You canít think things over too much. If you feel it, love it, and believe in it, then youíve got to go with your gut: thatís half the battle. You might have to start with touring or with a format that is more acceptable to the type of artist, but, in the end, perseverance is the key. Think about Moby for a second, what a career! He never neatly fell into any niche because he was ahead of his time. In the end the world caught up, and now heís unstoppable. He eventually made the market demand him, without ever fitting into what the available market space was.

What advice would you give unsigned acts on how to approach the music biz?

As I said, perseverance is the key. You have to be committed and try different approaches. Thereís not one foolproof way to approach an A&R exec. You have to be resourceful. Sometimes you have to not take a no for an answer. If itís not something that theyíre feeling now, then go back to the drawing board and try again. But the bottom line is you have to have real talent and drive. As a musician, you have to be honest and true to yourself. You must be able to assess whether youíve really got what it takes.

Sending unsolicited material usually gets you nowhere but in the garbage can. Telling people that youíre the best thing since sliced bread is pushing it! You have to be confident, forceful, but at the same time you need to remember that youíre dealing with people. You have to get them to the point where they want to open that CD and listen to it. You have to stand out from the pack. Itís not an easy question. There is so much competition, and no matter how big the company is, its resources are still limited.

Would you work with acts from outside the US?

I donít currently, although I have been approached by artists who have had some success abroad and are looking to break into the American market. I did work with an artist from Sweden management-wise, but I havenít signed anything.

If something hit me on the head and I couldnít live without it, it wouldnít matter where youíre from. However, I am very much in tune with the American market, more so than the international. I have a better grip of whatís going on here, and whatís going to work. But itís not outside my realm of possibility.

What do you think about the current urban scene?

I love it! There have been so many great releases recently. NASís record is second to none: one of the greatest rap records in a long time. Heís making history with one of the greatest lyrical battles between him and Jay Z. NAS proves he deserves to wear the crown in NYC. He has something to say and nothing left to prove. All he needs is a mic - and thank God heís got it!
Then youíve got new artists like Alicia Keys and City High, and incredible records from Mary J. Blige, who is teaming the R&B diva with the likes of the King of the West, Dr. Dre. "Family Affair" has people who never knew Mary prior to this release singing every single word. Urban music has made itís mark and proven that it will stand the test of time.

Why do you think there are so few women in the business?

When I went to your website, the headline read "Fifth Woman in the World Top 20 A&R Chart". It seems unfortunate to me that there have only ever are only five women in the Top 100 at this time. Itís a male-dominated business, and we still have a long way to go. Although the music business is incredibly liberal, there are years of conditioning keeping us back. We still have to evolve as a society and find a place thatís closer to equality. I like to think that I am paving the way for other women in this business.

I believe there will be more women producers. Itís not that there arenít women out there who are talented or driven enough. Itís just not the norm, not accepted. Itís hard to infiltrate an existing system and thrive. It will happen, without any doubt, but it just takes time. Itís still 70 cents on every dollar that a man makes. Times are changing, but it just doesnít happen overnight!

Has the amount of time labels give new acts before they break decreased in the last decades? If so, why, and do you think it is a problem?

I donít think weíre developing career artists. Weíre creating artists that are of the moment. I donít think itís the record companies fault as much as it is the publicís. Supply meets demand. This is the kind of music that is making an impact. As trends change, our approach changes. Youíre not sending a group on tour for the first record; you are going straight to radio and if doesnít connect, you either go back to the lab or you cut your losses and move on to the next. Career artists like Led Zeppelin, Metallica, AC/DC, U2, the Stones, Michael Jackson and Madonna have stood the test of time. I canít imagine íNSync or Britney Spears 20 years from today. Please note that Iím not saying these artist arenít great. Itís just a different time and place; there are so many media outlets, and a consumer who wants it all and wants it yesterday. We have had to modify our approach in order to survive in the current environment.

Imagine recording artists being in a similar situation to that of actors, being able to record for different labels without being contractually obliged to stick with one. Do you think this might be desirable, and do you think it would work?

No, that system would only work for artists who are in demand. A free agent who doesnít have a hit would be better off signing to a label and making a first record, which maybe doesnít do well, and then come out with a second one that really succeeds. There is something to be said for playing with a team behind you. Only a small group of people would benefit from this kind of system, and it would bring about the demise of record companies, who would spend ridiculous amounts of money trying to get a piece of the ťlite.

If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?

I would love to see more women like Sylvia Rhones (CEO Elektra Records ≠ Ed.), Polly Anthony and Brenda Ramono in this business, not to mention more female executives and certainly producers. I would like to be part of the success of women in music. I think itís what Iím most passionate about and what is obviously most personal to me.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career?

Honestly, meeting Wyclef and Jerry. I met not only two incredible executives and artists, but also great people. In this business of idle chat and superficial relationships, I met two people who have not only become my friends, but are now truly my family as well!

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

Iím going to be riding horses, and hopefully still riding street and motorcross bikes. Those are my hobbies now, and my dream is to be doing that every day, whilst of course listening to the great music thatís out there. There is something to be said for just being a fan. The power of music is so incredible.

Interviewed by Jean-Francois Mean

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