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Interview with SEAN FOOTE, producer of Mary J. Blige (US No.1), Twista, Trick Daddy, Mase - Feb 1, 2005

“Rappers need to be able to rap, obviously, but even more importantly than that, they need to have a voice that draws people’s attention to them. They have to demand attention with their voice regardless of what they’re saying.”

picture Sean Foote, aka Face, and his partner Majid Hasan, aka Chi, make up the production team The Horsemen, who are based in Atlanta. The artists they have worked with include Mary J. Blige, Trick Daddy, Mase, Twista and more.

How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a producer?

A partner of mine in New York and I were managing a rap group back in the early ’90s, and it became very expensive to rent studio time and acquire the services of producers to make tracks that could then be shopped. We decided to invest our money in equipment so we could do it on our own, and I picked things up from there and never looked back.

What important events have led you forward?

In 1999, I had a studio session with Jennifer Lopez for her album “On the 6”. Being recognised by a major artist made me realise how far I had come in the business.

Why did you move to Atlanta?

I used to come down to Atlanta to meet people and shop my music as I had a couple of contacts here, and I just fell in love with the vibe and thought it was an open market.

What is The Horsemen Entertainment?

The Horsemen Entertainment is an entertainment company that specialises in musical production, which includes scoring for film and TV, artist development, and other aspects of multimedia services. Technically speaking, it started in 1996, although Majid and I formally became a team in 2000.

Did you have your own studio from the start or did you work at other studios initially?

We set up our own studio, but we only had a beat machine and the sound quality that we were working with wasn’t what we needed. It wasn’t industry standard and it wasn’t going to be respected, so we got an Akai MPC 2000, a Korg Karma, a Yamaha Motif and some computers. We have slowly added more equipment and we’ve now got a fully-fledged pre-production studio.

What pieces of studio equipment are most important in your work?

Majid and I both have individual favourites, but I like to roll with Reason 2.5, which is made by Propellerhead Software. To me it’s a fully-fledged studio in terms of software, and I can always upgrade my sounds and add additional patches and things like that. There are so many different pieces of equipment that you can add to that particular software. It’s a virtual studio and I love that.

Majid uses the MPC 2000 for all his drums and, as far as chords and additional sounds are concerned, we sometimes use samples, although we mostly run with the Korg Triton and the Yamaha Motif.

How did you finance your studio and your company?

You’ve got to have money in Atlanta; it’s not a city for poor people. The main thing was that we got a credit line at Sam Ash, the music store, and we pretty much just bought our equipment like that.

Once you get industry-standard equipment, that bridges a lot of gaps between you and other producers in the industry. Many people in the industry can’t make tight beats because they don’t have right equipment and resources to make them. We knew from the beginning that that was crucial if we were to keep up with the industry, have the right sound and be up to date.

How did you get your first production job?

The first production job on a professional basis was a Mase track I did in 1998, “Make Me Cry”, which was on Bad Boy Records. I developed a relationship with the Bad Boy staff and worked on lots of projects with them.

What styles of music do you focus on?

We pretty much let the music come to us; we start by laying down the drums and things like that and then we see what direction the track takes us. We don’t sit down and decide to make an r&b track; we really just let it come to us and then we specifically work on it in detail to make sure it stays in that area. Basically, we let the music lead itself.

What does your work with artists entail?

We primarily focus on the artist’s needs and, as everyone’s needs are different, we provide them with either complete songs, tracks with lyrics and melody in the choruses but not in the verses, or just the stand-alone tracks with no lyrics or melody.

There is a huge difference between a beat-maker and a producer. As producers, it is our job to bring out the best in the artist in order to have a successful project. This process involves mapping the needs and direction of the project with our unique creativity.

What artists have you produced?

We’ve worked with Mase, Shyne, G. Dep, Jennifer Lopez, Mary J. Blige, Trick Daddy and many others.

What are you currently working on?

We’ve just finished working with Usher on his new project. Apart from that, we’ve recently submitted songs for Ginuwine, Foxy Brown, Trina, Jadakiss and Young Jeezy.

How much input do A&Rs and managers have on the productions?

The only influence they have on the production is when they tell us that they need a ballad or an up-tempo track. What we don’t allow is them telling us that they need a track that sounds like this or that.

We don’t make tracks on demand, we make them according to how they grow on us. That’s not to say that we won’t make tracks on demand in the future, but right now we call the shots on the kinds of tracks that we’re going to make and how we’re going to make them. Most of the time, the A&Rs tend to give us acapellas and we build the track around the vocals.

Do you also sign artists to your production company?

Yes, we’re currently working with a few artists: Ron Garmon, an r&b singer, and a street rap duo named ENKOG, whose members are Lugga and Burnz.

What makes you take on a production?

We want to grow and get as much exposure for our music as possible, but we’re open to working with various artists and making them grow and developing them, regardless of the particular flavour.

How much do you charge for a production?

That’s dependent on the project, the artist and the budget, but we typically let our manager, Tracy Randall, negotiate the fee for a track.

Do you have a publishing deal or are you self-published?

We’re self-published, but we’re currently negotiating a couple of publishing deals. The reason why we’re self-published is because at the time we didn’t want to be locked down and obliged to do what other people wanted us to do before we got our own goals in line with the direction in which we wanted to take our company.

Once you start to build up your experience and reputation, it gives you more flexibility and the power to negotiate deals in your favour.

What are the pros and cons of a publishing deal?

Being self-published demands a lot of your time and it’s pretty difficult to collect royalties, whether mechanical, performance, domestic or international royalties. You have to expend a lot of resources to collect them and the advantage of someone else doing it for you is that you can be pretty confident that all your royalties are being collected.

The drawback is that there is of course a fee involved, that is, they take a percentage, so you don’t get as much money as you would if you collected them yourself.

Do you accept unsolicited material from unsigned artists?

Yes, always. We’re definitely looking for that next artist who is going to revolutionise the industry. We’re also negotiating a production deal with a major label right now, so we’re actively looking for artists to develop.

What styles of music and types of artists are you looking for?

The one thing that makes us different is the fact that we don’t have a particular style of music. We’re unique in the fact that we’re not biased. You won’t ever hear a track from us and think that it sounds like another of our tracks; it’s always something different. Because of our versatility, our ability to adapt to lots of different genres, the doors are wide open for us.

Our ambition is not only to focus on hip-hop and r&b music but also to explore different options, particularly in terms of jazz, rock and country. Whatever the case may be, we want to tackle all genres of music and never to be classified as hip-hop producers.

What qualities do you expect in an aspiring rapper?

Rappers need to be able to rap, obviously, but even more importantly than that, they need to have a voice that draws people’s attention to them. They have to demand attention with their voice regardless of what they’re saying. If they can demand the audience’s attention, it really doesn’t matter what they’re saying, but if they can’t get the listeners’ attention that way, then they really need to focus on the lyrical content.

Other essential qualities are drive and ambition, and a strong work ethic. I’m really heavy on work ethic. You often deal with artists who really want to come out and be that next artist, but they are unwilling to put in the effort to get there. You have to have that drive and determination and be willing to put in hours at the studio and be willing to do what you need to do to market yourself and develop a reputation in the industry.

What do you think of the state that the music industry is currently in?

Outside of hip-hop, it’s really hurting right now, creatively and financially. There is so much bootlegging and things like that that many people who make records aren’t really getting back the money they invested.

It’s interesting to see, however, that lots of independent artists and companies are developing more power than the majors, because they can work on and release music themselves.

What direction do you see rap taking in the future?

I think hip-hop will continue to grow, because it’s a culture and it’s a proven success. I see it crossing over more in the future, maybe not towards the Jay-Z/Linkin Park type of collaborations, but I think we’ll see artists getting more and more creative in terms of genre-crossing.

Up until last year, when OutKast’s album “Speakerboxx/The Love Below” struck, hip-hop was pretty much one thing, but since that album came out and sold ten million records, you really can’t tell where hip-hop is going anymore. It’s not going to spiral out of control, but it’s going to get bigger, better and more creative.

Is Atlanta still a hotbed of urban music?

Absolutely. OutKast had a huge year in 2003. Artists like Lil’ Jon are taking over the airwaves right now and 2004 was Usher’s year. Of course, you also have Ludacris, Ciara, T.I. and up-and-comers like Boyz in the Hood and Young Jeezy. Atlanta is definitely the hotspot for urban music right now.

What aspect of the music industry would you change?

There are lots of talented producers and artists out there who aren’t necessarily being heard and the music industry itself is not necessarily receptive to up-and-coming producers and artists. That’s definitely something that needs to be changed, because the veterans are retiring and there has to be room for the rookies to come up.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career so far?

I don’t think we have had our greatest moment at The Horsemen yet—there’s still a lot of work for us to do.

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

I see us having our own label, having our own artists coming up and being the executive producers of our own projects. We’ll be on our way to being music moguls.

Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman

Next week: Thomas Kowollik, A&R at Universal and No.2 on the World Top 20 A&R Chart.

Read On ...