Interview - Nov 14, 2003
“As an independent label, you can’t take an artist of Sean Paul’s calibre all the way.”Murray Elias is Senior Director of A&R for Sean Paul (US platinum), Tanto Metro & Devonte, and Sasha, at VP Records in New York. Other artists on the label include Elephant Man, Wayne Wonder and Buju Banton.
In the HitQuarters interview, he defines dancehall and explains the reasons for its recent acceptance by a mainstream audience; he describes the process of breaking Sean Paul and reflects on why it is harder for new artists to break in the current industry environment, in which they typically get just one chance.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I came to New York in the late seventies and worked here as a club DJ; this was at the end of the disco era and the beginning of the punk rock and new wave movements. I worked as a DJ for several years and, at the same time, I had a number of other jobs at record companies to make ends meet and broaden my experience a little. I worked at labels like Island and Mango, and at a large variety of what turned into hip-hop labels over the course of the nineties: Profile, Tommy Boy, Priority. I was there in an A&R capacity working on the reggae component of the labels. I also did a lot of dance remixes in the eighties.
When did you get your first A&R opportunity?
In the mid-eighties, I was working for Sleeping Bag Records and I proposed doing an album of the reggae music that was then popular with the club crowds I played for, which we did, and that was my first road into A&R. “Sleeping Bag Reggae Dance Hall Classics” came out in 1985-86. I stayed on that path and did Volume Two and both records were pretty successful.
It was the first time a record had been promoted as dancehall music, as opposed to reggae music, and we set it off as a vibe that was different to the traditional style of reggae. It was also the first time that reggae was marketed by a hip-hop label; up to that point, it had always been rock and dance labels that dabbled in reggae. A friend of mine, who was working at Profile Records, saw what I was doing, gave me a call, and they hired me as a full-time A&R; that was my first real A&R job. They wanted somebody to get them into the reggae game and I was the guy for them.
What experiences have contributed most to your A&R skills?
DJ gigs certainly gave me a sensibility for the types of records that work in clubs, and all the time I spent being a dance and hip hop producer and remixer gave me a sense of what it’s like in the studio. A lot of A&R people sit in their offices and don’t spend enough time in the studio. I’m able to listen to records and know what I’m looking for, and when I don’t hear it I can go straight into the studio with the producer and try things out.
Working at record companies has given me an insight into the record label’s side of things: how to get your project through the record company systems and how to make sure that your artist or project doesn’t get lost and instead gets the attention that it needs once it leaves the A&R department and goes to promotion and marketing.
What makes up the larger portion of your work?
Keeping up to date on Jamaican producers, because they drive dancehall and reggae music, which are both in turn very focused on rhythm. Jamaica produces a very large output of rhythms, usually five or more a week, and each of those rhythms will have twenty songs based on them. I work to keep up to date, and I try to ensure that the artists I work with, like Sean Paul (click on artist or song names to listen to Real Audio files – Ed.), Sasha or Tanto Metro, are all working with those producers and, although they are sometimes ahead of the curve and know even before we do, that they know what’s going on.
What is the history of VP Records?
VP Records is probably the largest reggae label in the world; it is the world’s largest distributor of reggae and dancehall and the purveyor of most of the dancehall and reggae that has been released in America. We work with everything from traditional reggae artists like Beres Hammond, Lee Perry and Gregory Isaacs, to dancehall artists like Sean Paul and Elephant Man. Our former dancehall artists include Yellow Man, Shabba Ranks, Cutty Ranks and Super Cat.
We are owned by the Chin Family; it was started twenty-five years ago by Pat and Vincent Chin, Jamaican immigrants who came over from Kingston to Queens, New York. They had a company in Kingston and just opened up an outlet in America; a family-run, independently owned company.
We did a joint-venture deal with Atlantic Records a year ago. It’s not for all our artists nor for all our products, but for a few. We’re in the process of signing more artists over to Atlantic, but between 80 and 85% of what we do is still distributed independently. We have good independent distribution, certainly in the UK, France, Canada, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, and definitely throughout the Caribbean and the West Indies.
For the last five to seven years, we’ve had a tremendous run of crossover records, basically Jamaican reggae records that have crossed over to the American industry and radio. There were a few records in the mid-nineties that led to reggae being on everyone’s agenda. Right now, we are crossing over to radio very successfully with our dancehall artists. At the same time, we serve what we call the core market, the Jamaican market that buys reggae whether it’s on commercial radio or not.
For high-profile crossover acts like Sean Paul, Wayne Wonder and Elephant Man, we work through Atlantic Records. Atlantic showed interest a year ago, when Sean Paul’s record became successful and crossed over into pop. Every major label was excited about what was going on and, as an independent label, you can’t take an artist of Sean Paul’s calibre all the way; there are so many aspects to an international artist. In Atlantic, we found a partner who is committed to making reggae music without watering it down, who recognised our vision of keeping the Sean Paul vibe pure and having Americans dig that sound.
Do you work with all styles of reggae and Caribbean music?
We deal with all different types, but as a record label we are pretty much a reggae and soca label. Soca is a modern cousin of calypso music, just as dancehall is a modern form of reggae music. We deal exclusively with West Indian music, and that includes all types of reggae music.
The predominant style of reggae now is dancehall. Dancehall is Jamaican club music and it was a mid-eighties offshoot of traditional reggae. It was defined by its computerised sound, which we now take for granted because everything is computerised, but in those days it was a brand new sound.
Within dancehall, there are three main styles: DJ music, singers, and conscious dancehall. A DJ is the equivalent of what we call an MC in rap music. Sean Paul, Elephant Man, and Beenie Man are among the leading DJs in Jamaica. The leading singers include Wayne Wonder and Wayne Marshall. Conscious dancehall is a religious Rasta movement that has been propelled by artists like Capleton, Sizzla, Anthony B. and Buju Banton.
There are other styles of reggae: roots reggae, which could be anything from Burning Spear and Culture, who both have been making music for thirty years, to more modern proponents like Morgan Heritage. Then there’s lovers rock, with artists like Sanchez and Beres Hammond, which is very popular in the UK and in Jamaica but hasn’t really caught on in America. Lee Perry is the figurehead of dub reggae, which is instrumental reggae music that’s dubbed up. These are the biggest categories as far as mainstream audiences are concerned.
What lies behind dancehall’s rising popularity in the US and worldwide?
The main reason for the explosion of dancehall in the US is its connection to the hip-hop audience, which was crying out for a new sound. Hip-hop is constantly reinventing its sound, whether it’s from the West Coast one minute, to St.Louis with Nelly, to the dirty south in Atlanta, etc. There’s always another sound, but hip-hop became stagnant for a while and the sound became very radio-driven, very formulaic, and reggae sounded very fresh to a lot of club kids and mix-show DJs, who are the ones that in fact break hip-hop records in America. People were open to something new and dancehall fulfilled that potential.
Is reggae, led by Sean Paul, now breaking out from a niche market into the mainstream?
I think it already has, absolutely. Sean Paul opened the doors for everyone else to follow; he was the right guy, with the right records and the right image. Having said that, not every artist is going to have such an opportunity; it’s always going to be select records and artists.
Right now, we’re being very successful with Elephant Man’s “Pon De River, Pon De Bank”, Wayne Wonder’s “No Letting Go”, and Sean Paul has had three, maybe four records that have crossed over and now he’s showing us a whole new style with “I’m Still In Love With You” with Sasha, which has more of a traditional old-school reggae sound. If Sean can crossover with that track, then who knows what’s next? It may open a door for a style of reggae that hasn’t crossed over yet. Sean is a unique artist who can lead the audience to different styles of reggae, and that’s why we’re pushing that track so hard right now.
I compare Sean to Michael Jordan in the NBA in the late eighties. When Michael Jordan came along, he elevated the game to another level in terms of how much attention was being paid to basketball and how they used basketball to market other products. Michael Jordan was bigger than basketball itself.
That’s what has happened with Sean and I think that all good music has the ability to do that. Everybody loved hip-hop in the early eighties, for example, but it wasn’t until Run DMC came along and everyone had a superstar to focus on that it really blew up.
How did you come to work with Sean Paul?
I started at VP Records in 1999, just as they were in the final stages of getting his first album done. Prior to coming to VP, I had worked at a small hip-hop distribution label that also distributed reggae and I had become a big Sean Paul fan. Consequently, when I came to VP, the first thing I said was that I really wanted to work with Sean Paul because I thought he was the next big thing.
Sean Paul wasn’t a big artist in Jamaica at that time, but I thought he was the one that really had everything it took to become a major crossover artist in America and worldwide. Shortly after joining VP, I met Sean Paul for the first time, at the very first show he did in New York, at the California Club. I told him that I really wanted to work with him and that I wanted to take over his projects. We established a connection and he understood where I was coming from. We developed a certain trust and have worked together ever since.
People thought I was a little crazy, because everyone in Jamaica was listening to other artists and Sean Paul wasn’t even in the Top 10, but I recognised certain qualities in his music and looks that would enable him to connect to a hip-hop audience. I was involved in overseeing the finishing-off of “Stage One”, Sean Paul’s first album. We went for “Hot Gal Today” as the first single and we had some decent crossover success in New York and Miami. The second single, “Deport Them”, was also successful in New York and Miami, although nowhere else.
As a result of the two singles getting significant crossover airplay in those two markets, we sold over a hundred thousand units of “Stage One”, which was a pretty big signal to VP Records. For a small label like VP to push a hundred thousand units on a first album was really something, and that enabled me to rally the whole company around Sean Paul.
We started to make the album that ultimately became “Dutty Rock”, and continued to build Sean Paul’s vibe with the street DJs, mix show DJs, and the hip-hop DJs in New York, Miami, and up and down the East coast. Although there were bigger artists in Jamaica, we had a very specific vision for Sean Paul and whom we wanted to sell his records to. We knew that, while we wanted to make very authentic Jamaican dancehall music, the US hip-hop market would like him more than the traditional dancehall market.
That was the formula that worked for us. We made “Dutty Rock” with that focus. We knew that Sean was never going to run Jamaica, but we knew that we had a special link to the hip-hop market in America that some bigger Jamaican artists weren’t able to establish. All the hip-hop DJs with major mix shows in America believe that Sean Paul is the best Jamaican DJ, whereas Jamaicans have a different opinion.
Aside from Sean Paul’s connection with the US hip-hop market, were other factors important?
The most important thing, something that I had never seen in my twenty-five years of working with Jamaican reggae artists, was a team around Sean Paul with experience and an international vision. Especially his manager, Jeremy Harding (interview here), who had also produced a fair amount of tracks for Sean Paul. I really had the best in Jamaica all working on Sean and that team, which also included Steve Wilson and Jerome Hamilton, gave me confidence right away and made me believe that it was going to work in America.
We also realised that Sean had tremendous potential as a video artist. Reggae had not yet produced many successful videos: Shaggy had his one or two hit videos, as did Beenie man, but there was no indication at the time that MTV, BET, MuchMusic, or any of the major outlets for video were embracing reggae or dancehall. We met the director Little X., who felt that Sean Paul could break on that level. Little X. is from Trinidad and he understood the vibe and was as committed as we were to making it authentic and taking those roots to a hip-hop audience.
Involving Little X, one of the world’s biggest video directors, was a crucial component. When we did the video for “Gimme The Light”, just his name on the video sparked interest at MTV, BET and MuchMusic.
How do you find new artists?
I go to Jamaica periodically to keep in touch with the vibe there. I keep my network of contacts alive, which means calling producers, artists, managers, radio people, club DJs, and so on. I just talk to my people continuously and keep my contacts fresh. Being a former DJ, I’m always buying records, listening to stuff and trying to stay up to date.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
I receive unsolicited material, but how much time I can devote to it in a day is another matter. I get a lot more songs in an average week since Sean Paul’s success. I used to get around ten a week, and I now get twenty to thirty. Because Sean Paul has crossed over into the r&b, hip-hop and pop charts, people don’t understand that VP is a reggae label, so they flood us with all sorts of music, although most of the demos we get are still reggae.
What do you look for in an artist?
It depends on what I want the artist to do; it depends on whether I’m looking for a crossover artist or an artist to sell to the core reggae market in Jamaica. In the latter case, I just look for good records. As a fan of Jamaican music and somebody who’s been involved with it for thirty years, I understand what makes records Jamaican. I’ve also produced various hits in Jamaica over the years, and I produced Sean Paul’s “I’m Still In Love With You”. Several of the happiest moments in my career have been the result of records that I have produced going to No.1 on the Jamaican charts, without ever crossing over. Jamaica is kind of a crazy country, which is why it’s so interesting musically; so many different types of artists are popular. You just know when you listen to an album whether it’s possible to create a career for that artist in Jamaica.
You also know whether the album will make sense to an American audience. Artists need to have what it takes both musically and visually, and have a team around them that is ready to take them to the next level. Artists have to be visually interesting and video friendly because, unfortunately, that’s the name of the game we play these days. It’s not just about the music anymore: it’s about the whole package. We were looking for somebody who would be a phenomenon in visual terms, like Busta Rhymes and Ludacris.
As an A&R, you have to have a vision for the artist even before they understand the vision themselves. You have to think about the video, radio, music, production, management, whether he or she is a career-minded person, where he or she might be in a year, where he or she might be in three years, and so on. You have to understand all of those things and sell it to the record company. You have to see what’s going to happen before it does, and get the rest of the people at your company to become part of the process before there’s even a hit record out.
Back in the days, it was about making good records, but creating a successful artist involves so much more now. When you decide to cross over, it’s a multi-million-dollar investment and you have to make sure that your artist has all the skills he or she needs to be successful, and not just a hot record. There are lots of hot records, but not every hot record is by a great artist with a great future.
When it comes to producing, what is your level of involvement?
It depends on the artist. Most reggae artists live in Jamaica and they’re down there voicing records all of the time, whether me or my fellow A&Rs from VP are down there or not. I could go into the studio and get very involved, but I also know when to let artists and producers get on with it. That’s what an A&R needs to know: when to get involved and when to let the creative process take its own course and not interfere with the vibes. The creative process is a mysterious thing and sometimes the best thing an A&R can do is to stay out of the way.
How much does it cost to record an album in Jamaica?
If I revealed that figure, your readers would probably double over with laughter! Getting records made by Jamaican producers is relatively inexpensive compared to working with the Dr. Dres and Timbalands of the world; it’s a wholly different economy.
Has the music industry in Jamaica changed recently?
Everybody is looking at what happened to Sean, so on one level it’s in a state of transition in which people are trying to step up the game so that they can interact with the international record industry in ways they have never done in Jamaica. At the same time, it’s still business as usual: producers do what producers have always done, they build rhythms, voice them, put them out on 45” and promote them. The artists still run around every weekend doing shows for the core audience. On that level, it’s still the same game, which is a good thing because you don’t want to loose the vibe.
On a business level, there’s been a freestyle attitude to reggae music for years, but the game has now changed considerably. Artists are being signed to long-term deals, and contracts are being honoured, which wasn’t the case five years ago. It was really the wild west then: nobody had contracts and, if they did, they were meaningless. It was all cash-and-carry: “Here’s X amount of dollars, come and voice a rhythm for me.” People are in the process of re-examining the ways in which they do business.
If artists share the costs of making the album and videos, because these costs are recoupable from their royalties, do you think they should also share ownership of the masters?
That depends on the stature of the artists and their ability to negotiate. It’s not the same for an artist who is just starting out as it is for an artist who has sold millions of records. When artists reach that point, they are in a position to negotiate a better deal, which they are probably entitled to. But should every artist own the master of their first album? Probably not, because the record industry has to make a profit somewhere in order to survive. The successful cases are the ones like Dr. Dre and Eminem, who have their own label deals. Artists have to run their careers so that they can get into that position.
Are any aspects of the music industry in need of drastic change?
The trend over the last decade has been to move away from A&R: the A&R component has been pushed aside by the accounting, marketing and promotion people. Everything has to be frontloaded and it’s about what you soundscan in your first or second week. If those numbers aren’t there, your artist is suddenly unimportant. The industry has swerved too far off course looking for immediate and unprecedented success, and now anything that doesn’t shine on that level is considered a failure.
The music, the artist, the artist’s long-term development and the A&R work is relegated to the backseat, unless you soundscan two hundred thousand units in your first week. We need different ways of breaking artists, as opposed to just getting the video heavy rotation on MTV from the start.
A few years ago, if someone asked me what I did for a living, I told them that I worked in reggae music. They would then say, “Oh, you’re in the music business?” and I would insist, “No—I’m in the reggae business.” There’s a big difference. Nevertheless, I feel that reggae music is now part of the music business and on a par with the rest of the genres in the business. We play by the same rules and, now that we’re there, we also have to deal with the shortcomings.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Without a doubt, the greatest experience has been my involvement with Sean Paul and Jeremy Harding, or the ride that took the reggae business to the music business. We’ve taken something that was once considered marginal and validated it as the great form of music that we always said it was. It has taken years for the rest of the world to see it and agree with it, but you now see artists like Beyoncé making dancehall tracks. Being one of the players on that ride is definitely the most exciting thing that has happened to me.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?
The same thing as I’m doing now. It may get cold again, but I’ve been here for thirty years and some of those years were cold years. If it gets cold again, I’ll still be here. It’s one of those things you just have to do because you love it.
Interviewed by Jean-François Méan