Interview - Jan 12, 2005
"Everyone has the same story, ďIím from the street, shit is real, bla-di-bla, bla-di-blaĒ, but nobody has a unique perspective.".Riggs Morales is director of A&R at Shady Records in New York. The artists he works with include Eminem, 50 Cent and Obie Trice.
Here he tells us how Shady Records operates, what types of artists they look for, what he listens for in rappersí demos, and more.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I started in the music business as a music editor at the Source magazine. I started from an internship in 1995, then worked my way up and ended up writing the unsigned hype column. I had wanted to be an A&R ever since I found out exactly what it is that they do.
When I got to the Source I made sure that I got hold of the unsigned hype column, because itís the one column in the magazine where you get to really tell people, ďThis guy is unsigned, and you should sign him.Ē Iíve always had this thing for finding new artists.
I came across some exceptional artists whom since have established themselves in a major way, including Jewels Santana from Dip Set, David Banner, who has done really well both as a producer and an artist, and Eminem, who was my unsigned hype in 1997.
Then I worked at Goliath Artist Management, which is Eminemís manager Paul Rosenbergís company. Goliath basically became Shady Records and all of us who work here now handled managerial duties at that stage. I represented the producers Alchemist, Fred Wreck, Lord Finesse, Domingo, DJ Shok and Dame Grease.
What experiences have helped develop your skills as an A&R?
Working with producers definitely gave me an idea of how important the beat is to a song. When youíre trying to sell the beat, youíve got to go by what the industry is looking for. I remember when the Neptunes started flourishing and people started asking whether I had any tracks with vocal hooks in them.
I had to step it up on that, because youíve got to go with the times. You need to stay in tune with whatís going on, but not do exactly what everyone else is doing. Try to stay a step ahead or go the other way. Thatís one of the things that has made Shady successful.
Is Shady Records an independent label?
Itís owned by Eminem and itís an independent label in the independent sense, although Interscope is its mother label.
How many people work there?
About seven people work here. Itís pretty much the same people who work at Goliath too. Everyone is an expert at what they do and we have a tremendous work ethic, which is definitely part of the secret of how we manage to remain successful.
Are there any differences between Shady and major labels in how you work and the types of artists that you sign?
Thereís definitely a difference; we donít do what everybody else does, which means that we donít sign something thatís going to be of the moment. Iíve seen lots of artists come up doing the independent ride and working a buzz for themselves, then getting signed to a major label and the label just throwing the record out in two months all based on one hit record, instead of taking the time to develop them.
We develop our artists for at least a year. We keep them in the dungeon, as I call it, and we feed them music, we see what they sound good with and what producers they work best with. We donít chase after the latest hot producer: weíre looking for the new, the young, the unknown. Todayís unknowns are tomorrowís superstars.
What acts are you currently working on?
Right now, weíre working on Obie Triceís sophomore album and we just wrapped up 50 Centís follow-up, Stat Quoís debut album, as well as Green Lanternís album. Eminem just dropped ďEncoreĒ, and thatís basically it right now.
Which of your artists are you currently looking for songs for?
Iím always looking for beats for everyone I work with. I want something thatís left of centre, yet doesnít go over peopleís heads too much but really represents what an artist is about. Iím a big fan of aggressive beats.
How do you find new talent?
I find talent in many ways, but I mainly prefer to go out and look for it. I rely more on my street contacts than I do on some of the industry cats. I found one of the kids Iím working with now by word of mouth on the street. A friend of mine told me about him and the kid didnít have any music, so I went directly to his block at three in the morning.
If I have to go to someoneís block to hear the kid spin, then so be it. Being in the position that Iím in, I have the liberty to do so. I also have the advantage of people throwing stuff at me, but nine times out of ten itís not very good.
You have to go out and look for it. If youíve heard people say that a particular neighbourhood in Minnesota is the worst neighbourhood in the world, thereís bound to be talent coming out of there, based on the fact that hardship breeds talent, in my personal opinion. Especially with hip-hop.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
I listen to every demo that comes through here and believe me, I get a lot of them. I listen quickly though; the first few seconds have to hit me. But I havenít yet found anything from an unsolicited demo.
Do you find out about new artists via BDS and SoundScan?
No. Other labels do that, but we donít. My BDS is the crack head that lives in that artistís neighbourhood.
When listening to a rap artistís demo, does the production matter at all or is it just about the rhyming skills?
Iíve got to hear what the dude sounds like first, I have to hear the guyís perspective, whether he sounds unique and what it is thatís going to differentiate him from everyone else. Itís not a beat thing for me; itís definitely a skills thing. At the end of the day, that MC, no matter how nice he is, has to know how to make records. Itís all about making a hit record, period.
Would you sign a rapper with no producer connections and no fan base purely on the basis of his or herís rapping skills?
Yes. In fact, I prefer to.
What is generally lacking in the artists that you come across but do not sign?
Personality and perspective. Everyone has the same story, ďIím from the street, shit is real, bla-di-bla, bla-di-blaĒ, but nobody has a unique perspective, a different way of seeing and saying things. I know youíre on the block and shit is hard, you got to hustle and do all this crazy shit, but give me another story about what happened on that corner.
Tell me about the stick-up that went wrong or the shoot-out where the wrong kid got hit. Give me something else, because having grown up where I grew up, Iíve seen it all. If youíre going to be a street rapper, I know thereís much more to say besides, ďYo, shit is real, Iíve hustled, bla-bla-bla.Ē Everybodyís told that story already. Hip-hop is thirty years deep into this shit already and we need new perspectives.
Should rap artists first make it big in their region by releasing independent records and then let the bigger labels find them?
That usually works with Southern artists. New York, on the other hand, is so small that, when you hear about a buzz, every label here that is in tune with the streets is going to know about it. With cities like Houston and New Orleans, itís best for artists to go the independent route, because thatís how they pop up on the radar.
If you were an artist and were offered a record deal, by what means would you judge the A&R and the label offering you the deal?
Nowadays nobody really judges the A&R. Artists just look at the A&R and think that this is the guy whoís going to get them their deal, so whatever he wants theyíre going to give it to him.
Most artists donít take the time to study the label, and thatís a mistake. OK, you got a deal, but how do you know that the label is going to market you the way that you need to be marketed? How do you know that theyíre going to try their best to get in tune with your audience? And who is your audience?
Many artists donít ask questions like, does this label know what theyíre doing? Do they have too many people on their roster? Are they going to put me on the back burner? At Shady we donít pile them up; we probably sign one artist a year. We donít have lots of artists waiting to come out.
As an A&R rep, how involved are you when it comes to negotiating the record contract with an artist whom you want to sign?
As far as negotiating contracts is concerned, the A&Rís and the attorneys in the legal department usually deal with that, but how involved I am depends on how big the deal is.
What input do you have on the repertoire and the productions?
From A to Z. I have to be there every session to make sure that the beat that has been picked works well for the artist. If my artist sounds bad, Iím not going to sit back and try to be cool just because itís a hot producer. Ití has to sound good to the ear.
Sometimes I prefer to do some research, to play some stuff for people and ask them what they think, but I donít play it for executives, I play it for street people. To get an opinion, I would rather play it at the barbershop than for some VP at some label.
Why do you think political rappers arenít that successful at the moment?
There should definitely be more of them, for the sake of perspective. One of the reasons Kanye worked so well this year is because he presented a different perspective on hip-hop. People are growing up, not everything is about 24s and platinum chains. We need different perspectives.
Now, if youíre going to be conscious, you still have to make records that are going to appeal to todayís audience, who have quite a short attention span and just want to hear something hot. Therefore, if youíre going to preach, do it with a good song. If youíre a conscious rapper, make hot records that have politically or socially conscious undertones and youíll be good.
Thatís what NAS is doing now and thatís why he can honestly sit back and do that, because thereís an audience out there growing up along with hip-hop. The 30+ audience that listened to 3rd Bass and A Tribe Called Quest have grown up, theyíve got kids and they donít want to hear about the throwbacks and the fittest and the ice and the 24s.
Hip-hopís demographic is growing more and more. Itís beyond just the ballers and the drug dealers; now you have 9-to-5 working class people who need to be catered to. What you need are artists who can represent those people. A Tribe Called Quest left a void that hasnít been filled yet. Iím just waiting and hoping to find the artist who represents that demographic and can therefore sell millions of records.
How much do you take radio into account when you are deciding whether or not to sign a new artist?
You have to take radio into account, because you have to be able to make the kinds of records that are going to get spins all day long. The tricky part is making sure that artists stay true to what theyíre about and yet make radio records without feeling like they are selling themselves out, which can be difficult for some artists, but I think thatís possible.
How does the pressure to break with the first album affect the work of an A&R?
I used to have meetings with A&Rs who are no longer in those positions. Everyoneís gone. Nowadays, that pressure definitely affects your work, especially with the big labels. If the artist isnít selling, that reflects on you and youíre likely to be looked at like you didnít do your job.
Is urban music too driven by producers and not sufficiently by artists?
The beauty of it is that itís driven by both producers and artists. Overall, the game is very producer-driven, because it has to be about the beat. Itís no longer about the lyricist; itís a beat-driven game. You have to strike a 50-50 balance between hot beats and artists who can really be themselves over those beats.
If artists share the costs of making albums with record labels when these costs are recouped from their royalties, do you think they should also have joint ownership of the masters?
Iíve rarely heard of artists who own their masters, and certainly not rap artists. If you are at an advantage and you can actually negotiate the rights to your masters, then by all means try your best, but thatís only going to happen if you can cover all the costs and you only need distribution.
What kinds of artists and genres would you like to see gain more popularity?
Iíd like to see lyricists come to the forefront. Nobody is lyrical anymore and nobody is an MC anymore; people just rap. I would like to see MCs move to the forefront and for that to happen they have to make big records. Thatís why Eminem works so well, because Eminem is an MC who makes big records. The same goes for Jay-Z, who is, at the end of the day, an MC.
Politically or socially conscious rap is also something that hip-hop needs right now, although it does depend on how itís done. Youíve got to make social consciousness cool. Thatís why I wish Lauryn Hill would make a hip-hop record, because sheís one of the few artist who could pull that off and still put any MC out on his ass.
Hip-hop could use a sense of humour. Everybody is so serious and no one has ever taken the time to see that thereís a market out there for a sense of humour. But it has to be done properly, and I donít see every label running after comical rap artists. Humour is entertainment and you have to be able to entertain people, because entertainment is the cornerstone of this whole business.
How do you view the current music business climate?
It still needs work. Itís slowly getting back to what it used to be in terms of sales, but people are definitely holding on to their pocketbooks a lot more tightly. No one takes chances. Most labels want to see that itís a proven product before they do anything with it, that is, they want a foolproof plan before they invest any money.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
The greatest moment of my music career has yet to happen. Iím still young, and Iíd like to find more 50 Cents and another Eminem.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten yearsí time?
I would still like to be in the music business, involved with releasing authentic hip-hop product that goes beyond music.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman