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Interview with JAHA JOHNSON, A&R at Geffen for K-Ci & JoJo - February 13, 2004

"Radio mustn’t be the dominant factor when you sign a new artist."

picture Based in Los Angeles, Jaha Johnson is an A&R at Geffen/Interscope. The artists he represents include K-Ci & JoJo (US multi-platinum), The Roots (US gold), Common Sense (US gold) and Talib Kweli. He has previously worked with Sisqo (US multi-platinum), Dru Hill (US multi-platinum) and Kelly Price (US platinum), among others, at Def Jam in New York.

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

When I was at college in Atlanta, I interned at Rowdy Records. After that, I started my own company that promoted parties, and then I joined a production company called Noontime Music, which represented artists and producers. We had producers like J-Dubb, Dent and Jazzy Pha, whom we shopped songs for, and Absoulute was the first act we signed to a record deal, with Def Jam.

At that point, I worked at Windswept Publishing in New York for a year and then, through my previous relationship with Def Jam, I was hired by the head of A&R, Tina Davis, and the president, Kevin Liles, to do A&R for them. I was at Def Jam for four years, during which I A&Red Sisqo’s “Unleash the Dragon”, Kelly Price’s “Mirror Mirror”, among other albums, and Dru Hill. And I’m now at Geffen/Interscope.

What experiences have contributed significantly to the development of your A&R skills?

Representing producers was important, because it taught me how to put songs together with no budget, and how to take new producers nobody knows about and polish up their talent. This included helping them to improve their writing skills, finding ideal songwriters for them to work with, and finding the artists who would best represent their songs.

To shop records, we would just go everywhere. We called everybody to see who was looking, whether it was Bad Boy back in the day or anybody else; wherever we had to go to shop songs, we went there. When you learn from the outside in, you always have a different kind of hunger. I never looked at it like a 9-to-5 job, because I was always working. Basically, if I didn’t sell songs, I wasn’t going to eat. And I’ve continued to think like that, that if I’m not productive today, I won’t get paid tomorrow.

Being a publisher was also important, because I had to learn about the essence of a song, how to break a song down, the importance of the bridge, the importance of the lyrical content, how to deal with samples, and so on. All this also helps me as an A&R, because an A&R who makes an album has to know what goes into the songs, what it’s about generally, and how you put together the body of an album that makes sense.

On a great album, all the songs fit together. U2’s “War”, Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life”, Mary J. Blige’s “My Life”, Jay-Z’s “Reasonable Doubt” are all examples of albums that are great bodies of work. They read like a book and they take you on a journey.

What motivated your decision to move from Def Jam to Geffen?

I just wanted a change. I spent four years at Def Jam and it was like being at school, because it was my first real A&R job. I learnt a lot there, especially how to work within a major-label system, but I wanted to do something different, I wanted to sign artists who weren’t yet established. At Def Jam, I inherited a lot of the acts, and that involves a different mindset. I wanted to be somewhere where the roster wasn’t as top-heavy.

At Def Jam, we were fortunate to have many great artists, including Jay-Z, Ludacris, Musiq, 112, Dru Hill, and so on, but Geffen is an entirely new company since the mergers (Geffen recently merged with MCA and Rawkus – Ed.). We don’t have many urban artists, so there’s still room to build something new, which is exciting.

What are the plans for Geffen after the mergers?

Geffen has taken great strides in the rock world, and we are now building up the urban side and also building loyalty to the brand by signing artists who will have long-term careers. We have many cool artists who are culturally of great significance, whether it’s Puddle of Mudd, Talib Kweli, etc. Mary J. Blige is one of the greatest r&b artists and we want to work with more of the Marys, the Jodecis, and the Mos Defs of this world.

You were at Def Jam in London for a while. What experiences did you gain from that?

Yes, I was in London for a year. It was a great experience, seeing the similarities and the differences, and the reaction your music elicits in the rest of the world. It’s a completely different culture in the UK: there’s an underground scene that loves US urban music, but the mainstream is very much a pop culture, so you have to approach things in a completely different way.

How much input do you usually have on the production?

It’s about “marriages” to me, meaning that I link artists with producers whom they may not have thought of, and I inspire them to go to the next level. I want to push the artists to really excel and push their craft. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with very talented artists, but there are artists who are so talented that they go unchallenged. As an A&R, it is your job to challenge artists and to help them to keep their direction. It’s about communication: if you can’t talk to your artist and say constructive things, then there’s no point.

Last night I had DJ Quik in with Common Sense. Common wants to go back to hip-hop on his new album, he wants to go back to where he came from. For this reason, I thought Quik would be a producer who could bring Common something else. And last night we got a great track out of him that’s very much hip-hop, very much in the clubs.

What acts are you currently working on?

Common Sense, The Roots, Mos Def, Talib Kweli and K-Ci & JoJo.

How do you find new talent?

I talk to producers and to a lot of different people, such as DJs and radio people in different cities. I also have firm ties to Atlanta. Keeping my producers tied is important, because producers get it first; it’s often the artists that approach producers to make a record. I always find out what new producers are working on. Basically, I find new talent by staying out in the streets and hearing the demos that are being played on the radio, and dealing with people who are actively looking for fresh new talent.

Do you accept unsolicited material?

No. It would be too much, I wouldn’t get around to listening to it all, which would be unfair to the artists.

What figures make you sit up and take note when you’re looking at independent artist sales?

I use SoundScan and it’s helpful, but not everything that’s hot shows up on SoundScan. I might take note of a rap artist who’s moving 30,000 units on his own, although those numbers can be misleading; someone might be selling a huge number of units but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s hot. Perhaps one out of every ten of these shooting stars actually has substance.

What traits must artists have for you to sign them?

Obviously, I want them to be talented, but that aside there are no specific traits. I want them to be the best at whatever it is they claim they can do.

Is it important that the artists you work with also write songs?

It depends on the type of artist. If it’s an r&b artist, I can find songwriters, but rap artists should be able to write their own material.

What does the process of developing a new artist often involve?

I like to sit down and talk about what that artist has been through, what their story is going to be about, what their image is, and what audience they want to appeal to.

How much do you take radio into account when considering a new artist?

You have to take radio into account to a certain extent, but it mustn’t be the dominant factor when you sign a new artist. I like to think that I’m signing something that radio may not have done before, but that they will find their way to. It’s a 50/50 process; if something is buzzing enough on the street, radio will eventually pick up on it. Being an A&R involves taking chances.

Is urban music too driven by producers and not sufficiently driven by artists?

Producers have always been important, and obviously they’re a lot more visible now than they were ten or fifteen years ago. It’s not their fault; producers are making great songs, so people want to know whom they are. It’s our job to sign artists who shine, and we just need more stars, so the artists don’t get lost among the producers.

Will online sales in digital formats boost the music industry?

Jimmy Iovine, chairman at Interscope, is very aware of and understands the importance of that issue, as Universal does as a whole. There are more and more computers in people’s households and kids can get music at the click of a button, so you have to make sure that you don’t lose out on that medium.

Do you agree with the fact at the RIAA (Recording Industry of America) they are tracking and suing certain file-sharing individuals?

Yes, I agree with that. People work hard and put their hearts and souls into their music and people shouldn’t be able to take it for free.

In what way would you change the music industry?

Release less but better music. Less quantity, more quality.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career?

Being able to do something that I love and getting paid for it. There hasn’t been one specific moment; every day since I started has been a great moment.

What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?

I will be breaking artists through my own label.

Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman

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