Interview - Mar 10, 2004
"Industry people aren’t listening to demos anymore."Scott Johnson is based in Atlanta, Mississippi and he manages the rap artist and producer David Banner (US Top 10). Banner started out in the rap duo Crooked Lettaz, who released one album on Penalty Records in 1999, and went on to develop a solo career: in 2000, he released “Them Firewater Boyz, Vol. 1”, an independent album that attracted the attention of major labels.
In 2003, he signed to SRC/Universal and released the Top 10 “Mississippi: The Album”, followed that same year by his second album, “MTA2: Baptized in Dirty Water”.
How did you get started in the music business?
I started doing street promotion in New York for a company called the Gas Station and the first record I worked on was “Party & Bullshit ” by Biggie Smalls (click on artist or song names to listen to Real Audio files – Ed.), later known as the Notorious B.I.G., who had not yet signed to Bad Boy at that point. I’ve worked in retail stores, I’ve spent seven years at Tommy Boy and I’ve run my own marketing company, Untamed International, in Atlanta. This is the first time I’ve managed an artist.
How did you come across David Banner?
I met David Banner when I worked at Tommy Boy. He was then part of the rap group Crooked Lettaz, who were signed to Penalty Records. We connected really well and when I moved to Atlanta we stayed close and periodically I would help market his independent projects. It got to the point where “Like a Pimp” was so big that it seemed natural to take our relationship to the next level, so marketing turned into management, which isn't really that different.
You now co-manage David Banner with Chaka Zulu?
I've known Chaka Zulu for a long time, probably since before I met Banner, and we’ve got to the point where Banner needs to get taken a little bit further, so we brought Chaka in to take care of the corporate side while I take care of the day-to-day business.
What type of reaction greeted the Crooked Lettaz album “Grey Skies” when it was released in 1999?
In the South it was big, but it really didn't get the chance to go beyond that. Radio wasn't playing it, so the group took things into their own hands. Their kind of lyrics weren’t expected to come from the South and they didn’t have big names on the album, so critics didn't really like it, but it had a great street buzz.
Was David Banner’s hailing from Mississippi an obstacle?
It definitely was an obstacle. When Crooked Lettaz were signed to Penalty, not many Southern acts were signed to major labels. Southern acts had hit records in the South but record companies didn’t understand it; they didn’t have the staff that would have enabled them to understand how powerful the South was. This was around the time when OutKast were jumping and they were the only act that labels were really looking at.
How did you market “Them Firewater Boyz, Vol. 1”, which was an independent release?
We were working with a small budget, so we didn't get to the video stage, although we did do a lot of street marketing. We went from city to city to get people to know about the album, we sold records and put the money right back into promoting the album. As more albums were pressed, we worked with the independent stores to get the album in on assignment or sometimes worked through a distribution company.
What recognition did David Banner gain with that release?
People knew who he was. When we later signed to SRC/Universal, it wasn't that people didn’t know him, because he had gained recognition from the independent release in the South and in the places where we really worked it hard, but when the time came to take it to the next level, they were ready for it. We’ve actually re-worked a single from that album, “Lil’ Jones” featuring Bone Crusher, and we’ve put it on the new album, “Baptized in Dirty Water”.
What is b.i.G.f.a.c.e. Entertainment?
b.i.G.f.a.c.e. stands for “believe in God for all comes eventually” and it is the label that Banner created between the time of “Grey Skies” and “Them Firewater Boyz, Vol. 1”. He was getting fed up with the industry and knew he had the talent and connections needed to put together a good album., so he thought, “If you don't want to deal with me and I don't really want to deal with you, I'll release an album myself to show you that I can make records.”
We have one artist, Marcus, signed to the label. He's actually featured on all three albums, on the independent release “Them Firewater Boyz, Vol. 1”, and on both the Mississippi albums.
Do you have partnerships with other labels?
No, not at this time. We’re still in the process of building that aspect of our business. What we're focusing on now is building Banner as an artist and, as soon as we have him where we need him to be, we're going to start working with b.i.G.f.a.c.e. more and concentrate on putting Marcus out into the mainstream market. Eventually, we will put b.i.G.f.a.c.e. out there as a commodity.
Why did David Banner sign to SRC, Steve Rifkind’s new label?
The single, “Like a Pimp”, was getting up to 500 spins per week on radio and pretty much everybody was after us. We had a couple of labels to choose from, but we knew Steve Rifkind’s history with Loud Records and his connections, so we felt that it was best to go with him. They contacted us and everything seemed right; he was starting something new, we were starting something new, so we were both trying to bring something new to the industry.
Which other labels did you consider?
Elektra, Def Jam, Atlantic and Epic. At the end of the day, it came down to who was putting forward the best working deal. Rifkind was the best, because we knew that, with him, Banner would get the attention that he needed to become the artist and star that he is.
What was instrumental in breaking David Banner?
Before we signed the deal, the key was keeping focused. After that, once there was a significant visual aspect, as in the video for “Like a Pimp”, and we received backing from a major and that took us to the next level. We had a good album in “Them Firewater Boyz, Vol. 1”, but nowadays people don't take you seriously unless they see you on BET or MTV.
What artists has David produced?
He has produced many artists, from T.I. and Lil' Flip to Trick Daddy. The list goes on and on and they're all coming for him now. Right now, we're rolling in the studio. We have a studio in our tour bus, so he can keep up with the production side of it. That’s just as important for him as performing as an artist.
How important is it for new artists to first release their own records regionally and in this way create a stir?
I don’t think they’d get anywhere without doing that. I couldn't even tell you the last time I heard that someone was signed on the basis of a demo. Industry people aren’t listening to demos anymore, so if you're really serious about what you do and you have something that people want, it is in your interest to go ahead and release it, because someone will notice it, someone will play it and then the labels will find you.
What artists do you manage?
David is the only one right now; he takes up all my time. He’s the hardest-working man in show business.
How do you look for new talent?
We ride our bus from city to city and come across many artists who give us demos. I sit down and go through it, and even if I find that it isn’t something that we can deal with, I might call them to offer some constructive criticism. Everybody wants to be in the music industry in one form or another, but some people don’t understand that investing in themselves is more important than going to the club that night or buying fifty pairs of sneakers a month. If you’re investing in yourself, it proves to people that you’re serious.
I’m always looking for new talent. If we come across something that we feel we can work with and which fits our mindset, and if the artist is willing to put in the amount of work that we put in, then nothing is outside the realm of possibility.
What do you think of the quality of demos?
Demos range from people freestyling over other artists’ beats to people who produce themselves or work with good producers. To be honest, they're not all that good in general, but whether they're good or not, if the band have put their hearts into it they deserve a listen, although in truth, I don't think they're going to get that from anyone but smaller industry people.
What traits do artists need to have for you to sign them?
They have to be willing to work. This is a job like any other, but people don't take this fact seriously. They see the flash and the glitter and they think that it’s going to come to them naturally. “I got rhymin' skills, so I'm going to be a superstar before I even put a record out” or “I'm going to be a superstar two months after recording my first song.” It takes a whole lot more than that.
For example, we run into the Texan rapper Paul Wall in every other city we go to, he’s working that hard. You have to build it up like he is doing, to the point where you have a record that makes people take notice of you. He's someone who is selling a whole bunch of units and he puts his money back into himself.
How involved are you with repertoire and production?
I leave that to Banner. I offer constructive criticism but his music is his music. I'm not going to hamper anything that he feels he needs to do, because he is a visionary and as such he does things that most producers and most artists wouldn't do.
How heavily does radio weigh in the balance when you are considering a new artist?
You always have to take radio on board, but if it's good, radio will come to you. If I have a good club record, I'll take it to the streets first to find out whether it's viable. If it’s not huge in the clubs, it’s not really going to be a hit unless you put a whole lot of money into it. The guys spinning records in the clubs are the guys playing tracks on the radio, so a favourable reaction from the crowd is usually an encouragement to start playing it on the radio.
Is urban music too producer-driven and not sufficiently artist-driven?
No, because the beat is just as important as the music. You can't take away what the producers do. Producers are now becoming artists themselves, but that’s part of hip-hop.
Considering record labels are less and less concerned with developing new artists and instead want a ready-to-go package, including well-produced songs, do you think it will be managers who are primarily responsible for the development of new artists in the future?
Good managers will be. If you have an artist, and I don't care how talented he or she is, who can't do an interview, then they're not useful to you. If they can't sit down and have an intelligent conversation, they're not useful to you, and if they're walking around getting high or drunk, then they're not useful to you either. Artists have to take it seriously; you wouldn't go to work high or drunk, and if you’re inarticulate, it's just going to make you look bad in the long run.
Artists have to take it upon themselves to watch real interviews, to learn. I even watch interviews on CNN to see how they do it, to learn what and what not to say, how to say it and how to hold the mic.
Artists must learn everything that being a performer involves, including how to perform in videos, and good managers will help them to do that. Labels, on the other hand, won’t be of any help in this respect—I can’t remember the last time I met somebody at a label who did artist development.
If artists share the costs of making the album with record labels, the artists’ share of the costs being deducted from their royalties, do you think they should also share ownership of the masters?
Yes, they should, although the artists have to be willing to work to earn that. If you want ownership that badly, you should establish yourself first and then get a master-type deal where labels basically come in and just help you out. That’s how Banner did it and so we were able to get a deal that allows us to say what we want to do. Banner delivers his album, and we don't need an A&R because he A&Rs himself. Label people come in and offer advice, but at the end of the day he has creative control over his album.
Do you agree with the fact the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) is tracking and suing certain file-sharing individuals?
I don't know if they should sue anyone, because the music is going to get out there anyhow. People have always bootlegged records. It's unfair to the artist, but it's the same as putting it on a mixtape, and if you're putting it on a mixtape, the music is getting out there. There are two sides to it though; yes, it's hurting the industry, but it's also marketing. If people really like the music, they're going to go and buy it.
What aspect of the music industry would you change dramatically?
I would make labels put more effort into the retail aspect of the album, because that has really suffered in recent years. You have big companies that will sell a record for $9.99 and then you have the smaller, independent stores who can't sell it that cheap, although they are actually the ones breaking new artists. Independent stores are being ignored by record labels, who probably won’t notice how important these stores are until they’re gone.
You learn every aspect of this business working in retail, because you have to know everything: you have to know about radio, about the streets, about the videos and how all that goes into selling a record. Independent stores are the ones that are going to stand by you, but bigger labels have never paid them any attention.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
I don't think I've had it yet. I've had good ones, but I don't think I've had my greatest moment yet. Two good ones: when people finally recognised how big a star Banner is, and when three of my best friends, Banner, Bone Crusher and Lil’ Jon had three of the biggest records in Atlanta, which turned out to be three of the biggest records of last year.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?
In ten years, I don't think I'll be doing music anymore. As much as people seem like this industry, it's not the nicest industry to be in. I've been doing it since 1992, and I've seen platinum artists and artists struggling to make ends meet whilst still staying true to their craft, their butts getting kicked all the way.
I also don't see myself working with people whom I'm not close to. I'm not working with Banner for a cheque per se; I'm working with him because I believe in him and what he's doing. I won’t work for a label, because I don't think they can pay me enough to do that, but I will work with people whom I care about and whose talent I believe in.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman