Interview with CHARLIE RAPINO, A&R for Morrissey, Tony Christie, Hayley Westenra - Aug 25, 2008
"Head of MCA said 'either I take you to court, or we make a deal'"Italian-born Charlie Rapino had an astounding career in the music industry. Starting off as one half of dance act Rapino Brothers, he was part of the house music revolution of the late '80s.
As a producer and after moving to London, he found himself involved with mainstream pop, producing Top 10 hits to stars like Kylie Minogue, Take That, Cher and Primal Scream.
Nowadays he is a top A&R at Decca, signing and handling acts like Morrissey, Tony Christie, Hayley Westenra (all Top 10 UK).
He talks to HitQuarters about casting Iggy Pop to a video game, about serving as Executive Producer for Oscar lifetime achievement winner Ennio Morricone, and about comparing pop stars to Italian automobile brands...
Could you talk a little about your route into the music industry?
Do you want to hear about the legal part, or the illegal part? I started in the business a long time ago now, about 25 years ago, in Italy.
I was a lawyer, doing various bits and pieces, and I began mainly with touring, believe it or not, before moving slowly into record companies working as a producer. My big break came when I formed the Rapino Brothers with my brother, Marco Rapino. We started producing what became known as house music.
How did you develop your production skills?
From listening to a lot of music. I was the classic geeky guy at high school, and it was the classic scenario where the only way to pick up chicks was music. Music was what they knew, so that was the excuse. But I’d been into music since I was 5 - I bought my first record in 1966 - it was ‘Pet Sounds’.
I started doing house music with Marco and in 1987 there was a record called ‘Tingo Tango’ which I rapped over. It was a Joe Dolce meets LL Cool J type of record, which I didn’t actually produce, but it basically had my voice on it mentioning John Coltrane and stuff like that.
It ended up on the radio in England, and Jon Moss of Culture Club, who I met while I was working at Virgin Records in Italy, told me, ‘you guys should move over here if you’re doing all this interesting stuff…’
So Marco and I ended up in London in 1988/89, launching our careers off the back of someone else’s record, which was a little funny. But we really took over. We were producing one record a day then, and most of them clandestine.
In what sense were the records you were producing clandestine?
In the sense that those were the days of sampling, so I was getting all of these acapellas and just making tracks out of them. One day we came across a multi-track of Kym Mazelle which we ripped off for our first big hit, ‘Love Me the Right Way’, which went #22 on the UK charts.
I remember Nick Phillips was running MCA at the time, and he called me and said, ‘there are basically two ways out of this; I take you to court, or we make a deal…’ We made a deal and it became a massive club hit, which sort of championed us, because it was with RCA.
After that we basically single-handedly re-designed Take That’s career with one record, ‘Could It Be Magic’ which peaked at #3. That was originally a very average musical production which we managed to turn into a very exciting record.
How were you getting involved in projects like that? Were you looking out for new acts, or did everything come to you?
We masterminded it in our own way. Few A&R or record companies even knew us then, personally. We were represented by a guy called Stephen Bart, and he was our only contact with the industry.
I knew about that old marketing law, and it’s the same in the record industry too, which is, if something is available, then you don’t want it, but if you can’t have something, then you’ll always want it.
That was the trick. One of the few A&Rs who we did know was Steven Allen, who we did ‘Rhythm of the Night’ with. Another fundamental guy in our career was Keith Blackhurst at Deconstruction.
Were you mostly working out of your own studio?
Yes, I always had my own studio, which was basically a Tascam 2524, a Mackintosh Classic and a Fostex cassette recorder.
That was it?! Are you kidding?
No, all of our records were made very cheaply. The English A&Rs used to freak out when they saw the setup. But I’ve always believed in guerrilla methods, technologically speaking. I really like working like that.
Was there much legal trouble when it came to putting tracks together?
I never really had many problems because we were just making records, and house music was about having loads of fun, about giving people what they wanted. It was a funny time in the late ‘80s because we were all a little lost, really. There were no real big stars, and no real talent.
Dance music was the last revolution that happened in a way, because the music was pretty far out and it didn’t really matter if there were stars behind it or not. There weren’t legal problems because I was always ready to make a deal. When a record was hot with the DJs I would call the artist and say, ‘hey, let’s make a deal, let’s make some money together’.
You seem to attribute much of your success at the time to the ease and speed with which you preferred to work.
Yes, we were doing things very quickly, literally turning out two to three records a week, both productions and remixes. I think that the more time you spend doing a record, the more you screw it up, because you tend to oversee it.
It’s a flaw that English people develop. We had a very different approach. I would compare what Marco and I were doing to pret a porter, you know, ready-to-wear fashion. We knew that these records could offer a short period of pure enjoyment and that to do that they had to hit the floor immediately.
So the more we thought about them, the less they would work. We never worked on a record for more than 12 hours, including the Take That hit, which we recorded and mixed in four hours.
But RCA decided that they couldn’t mix it in my studio because it was too guerrilla, so they took it to one of those horrible SSL desks that makes things sound worse than when they’re on a little mixing desk.
You had a lot of mainstream pop hits with the Rapino Brothers in the ‘90s.
Yes, we moved from dance into mainstream pop, and we were basically fixing and mixing every piece of pop around. We did Kylie Minogue, Haddaway, Corona, Cher, all of that stuff. The last Rapino Brothers record was ‘Chico Latino’ with Geri Halliwell, which came out in 1999 and was a massive number one. We were poised to produce the Spice Girls at one point, eventually it didn’t happen.
What happened in 1999? Why was that the last record?
Marco wanted to do more serious work. He came from a classical background which he wanted to go back to, so he moved back to Europe, and I had an offer from David Massey at Sony. He was an old friend of mine and a big fan of my work.
We had a hit with Sony at the time with an Italian duo called Paula & Chiara, a track called ‘Vamos a Bailar’. David called me and hired me, on a whim, really, to be his A&R in London. At the beginning I thought he was completely nuts.
But my lawyer told me, ‘you know, you’re going to be Ok doing that job’, because it was essentially going back to my entrepreneurial roots, if I might call them that. So I thought, ‘you know what, I’ll give it try’. And I spent four fantastic years with David Massey, who taught me a lot. I learnt a lot from working for him and for Paul Burger.
What exactly was your remit within Sony?
Mostly A&R, coming out with new acts. The idea at Sony was to spot the artists who were falling through the cracks, and to develop new acts that would be interesting on a global scale. It was a working mentality that sparkled later on with Shakira.
The idea was that audiences were moving on, the market wasn’t so Anglo-American-centric anymore. David’s main act at the time was Anastasia. He put together a funny A&R department with myself, Nick Feldman, and a guy who will probably be a president of a big record company one day, called Ricardo Fernandez, who now works for Martin Dodd.
Did you find it useful coming into A&R from a production background?
Being a producer really helped me. But you know I was never really a producer-arranger, I was a thorough producer, in that I knew what a good record really needed to have. I think I’m still a good song connoisseur. To me it’s all about the package.
It doesn’t really come down to any one thing in particular, it’s more about how the whole thing, the whole product works. In a few words, you can have the biggest song in the whole world, but if it’s sung by a bad artist, you’re screwed, and vice versa. It’s an attitude very much inspired by Italian Renaissance and Italian industrialism.
Interesting areas to draw inspiration from, and non-musical…
Yes, I didn’t study as a musician, and my main influences weren’t really musicians. In Italy my main heroes weren’t really music industry guys, or musicians or rock stars, but people like Giorgio Armani, Luca de Montezemolo, Giovanni Agnelli…
They’ve basically been the three biggest industrialists of the last 100 years, and they were the guys I was very inspired by when I was 12 years old. Agnelli is an icon, not just a business professional, but an icon, style-wise, and the same goes for Luca, who I think even today is the prime minister my country, or any other country in Europe, should have.
So you would consider your approach to music to be more concerned with overall style?
Yes, to me it’s about the whole style, and that’s what I brought to Sony. In a way, I didn’t really know what A&R was at the time, beyond standing for ‘artist and repertoire’.
Luckily, David was very style and design-obsessed too, and he’s probably the most intelligent person I’ve met in the whole industry as well, which helps. He gave me a broad space to work in, and I had carte blanche to do whatever I wanted at the time. Which is how I was able to become involved in things like the Driver 3 soundtrack, with Iggy Pop.
An inspired piece of casting. How did that project happen?
Well I was looking into video games all the time. Of course, the real Sony treasure is the Playstation. I was just wandering around floors at Sony’s offices one day taking in everything that was going on, and they were looking for people to put together that soundtrack, so I said ‘yeah, I’ll do it, I’ll get Iggy Pop to do the voiceovers…’
What made you think of Iggy Pop?
I don’t sleep much at night! Seriously, I sleep for maybe three hours. I always write a lot at night and think about new things to do, think about where the new talent is. And I spend a lot of time listening to new music. I’m very obsessed with what I do.
Do you listen out for all kinds of music, or are there genres you’re not so interested in?
Not really. There’s lots of music with no style, of course, which is completely untalented music for completely untalented audiences. But there’s no type of language or communication-orientated product that I don’t like, so long as it is well-designed.
At what point did you come into contact with Ennio Morricone?
I left Sony at the time of the merger, around 2003/4, which was sad in a way, because I really liked that company. And then I received a call from Ennio Morricone’s manager, Luigi Cariola, asking if I would go and work for Ennio as a sort of counsellor, to help develop the Morricone product. Morricone as an artist.
Was it a challenge becoming more involved with the film industry?
It was beyond that. We decided to bring Morricone out live at the time, because no-one had ever seen him live, and we were thinking about how to make new Morricone records. To literally develop Morricone as an artist in his own right, and not just as a soundtrack composer.
It was about setting up calls every day and working beyond the boundaries of any one corporation. They will always have boundaries, otherwise they wouldn’t be corporations, but in this case I pretty much had a lot of freedom to work the way that I wanted to.
We did a duet record with Sony, with acts like Metallica, Bruce Springsteen and Quincy Jones on it. Of course it was a fantastic experience. To me Ennio is one of the biggest geniuses of the century, if not actually the biggest.
How did you set about assembling such a diverse group of artists for that project?
Morricone is like a Ferarri; everybody wants to drive a Ferrari. It was much more difficult to turn down people than to find them, because everybody wants to work with him. He is very well respected amongst his peers.
And one of my skills is that I now know most of the international market, which is something I learned while at Sony. I know how different people work, how the English work in a completely different way to the Italians, say, or to the Germans, etc.
Being a London resident for the last 20 years I’ve sort of known each modus operandi of most people. So everything went well, and we ended up finally winning an Oscar for lifetime achievement in 2006.
Where did you go from there? How do you follow winning an Oscar?
About a year ago I was really thinking about what my next move would be when a friend of mine called Nick Mander, an ex-A&R who now manages Sophie Solomon and a few other bands - suggested my name to the new MD at Decca, Bogdan Roscic, who comes from a classical background.
So we just started having dinners together and talking, and Bogdan asked me if I wanted to join Decca as head of A&R, or whatever it is that I am now. You know, I would really prefer it if the title was art director. The job titles are frustrating - we should have art directors or creative directors, like in advertising.
I hate those letters, ‘A&R’. If we really want to be an industry, let’s be serious about it, because what our work involves is art direction. It’s down to the creative director to develop the product and control the assets. Let’s not forget that it’s all about the assets - any banker will tell you that. Giovani Agnelli would tell you that the asset is the product in itself.
What did you talk about when you were discussing that position with Bogdan Roscic?
When he hired me, he asked me what do I think of Decca. And to me, Decca isn’t really about this classical crossover stuff, to me Decca is about the Rolling Stones and early Bowie. No matter what the label has tried to transform into, or what the market has transformed the label into.
The closest example to Decca today is Alfa Romeo, or Maserati: classic, stylish brands who I would say over time have moved towards trying to be more common, more populist, even though they have always had a very precise and a very strong core catalogue.
Yet at the same time in the pop classical crossover genre Decca has probably one of the best artists in the world, which is Andrea Bocelli, who is very important for the brand.
How did you put into practice your ideas regarding the Decca brand?
We moved forward by signing Morrissey, who was out of a deal at the time. To me, he is a very important and iconic artist who has never been supported enough. Morrissey is very close to what Pier Paulo Pasolini was, you know? A major artist.
From there we signed a tremendous new artist called Gary Go, who is probably close to what Elton John might be if he was 23 today. A very interesting, crafty singer songwriter. Elton is one of my favourite artists of all time, by the way.
How did you discover Gary Go?
I had tried to manage him while I was still working with Ennio, when he was in an early development stage. I stayed in touch, and he came back after two years with this very complex LP full of quirky material. I said, you know what, I don’t know if Decca is ready for this yet, but I want to give you a shot.
At the beginning the guy didn’t have any management or anything, but I thought it was the sort of thing that should be on the Decca label, and Christopher Roberts and Bogdan supported me. We started working on the album, which Polydor has ended up marketing for us, and the quality of the material is just outstanding.
He’s going to be one of the most important artists of the next ten years, if everything works out. Very intelligent pop. We tried other artists too. Sometimes the label can get stuck inside the machinery of Universal, for reasons that are beyond me, and sadly I have to give up on acts.
What other acts are you currently working on?
I’ve recently been working with Tony Christie. We’ve done a fantastic album with him called ‘Made in Sheffield’. I think it’s probably the best record I’ve ever done. We got Richard Hawley to produce it.
It’s all about Sheffield, and the closest thing I can compare it to is the stuff Johnny Cash did with Rick Rubin. In fact, it’s even better. If the Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin stuff was a Corvette, the Christie record is a Jaguar E, it’s that good! It’s got real flair.
What do you think is the best aspect of the job that you do?
As I said, for me it’s not a real job. I was talking to somebody last night, and it struck me how depressed people are these days. Everybody moans about this industry all the time, and I really don’t understand what they have to moan about.
I think it was Luca de Montezemelo who said, ‘if you like what you do, you don’t have to wake up every morning and go to work’. I’m very happy to be doing what I do, I always wake up with a smile on my face. And I think the record industry is in very good shape, though that seems a little absurd these days.
So you’re positive about the future of the industry?
I’m very happy, because I think that the industry has really turned around lately. There’s a fantastic array of new artists around - there’s never been so much good music around. I’m not one of those old guys who longs for Led Zeppelin.
There’s also an exciting new generation of chairmen who have replaced the old farts - and I consider myself an old fart, because I’m 47 - and there’s a tremendous amount of executive talent around, people like David Joseph at Universal.
These people grew up in a different environment to the old generation of bosses, they understand the market and they’re used to the laws that have developed after Thatcherism. I’m a big fan of the young people running the companies at the moment. I’m not scared of them at all. I think I can help them. They need an old scumbag like me!
I think we’ll really start to see the fruits of this new direction. I agree with Elton John when he said that the internet has cheapened the industry in a way. It’s not about the fact that the music can be obtained for free, but the fact that the music itself has been cheapened.
These new head guys all grew up with the internet, they understand the market, and they can change things, radically. So I’m very optimistic about the industry and about recorded music.
How do you think the music market will adapt to the increasing accessibility of its products?
What the digital world has brought with it is the realisation that most companies didn’t really have any idea about how people were consuming entertainment. A guy over 40 can’t really know (unless he’s me, obviously!) about how young people are consuming entertainment.
For example, you might have a latest hit video on youtube, with 19 million people downloading some clip of a guy wiping his ass or something, but that doesn’t mean that if you put that product out on the market then people are going to buy it.
That’s where the real confusion is now. Which is why I think we’re heading back towards more basic ideas, to the actual quality of the product. Kid Rock made a brilliant album recently, and he didn’t even make it available it on iTunes.
He said, ‘screw all of that’. And people went out and bought it instead. So it’s about going back to the essential quality of the product. When the product has real quality, it’s bingo.
It comes back to quality and style?
Yes, modern consumption is about quality of product. People are getting very tired of listening to something which is made up or manufactured. They want more substance. Kids are coming back around to the star concept, to how good the ideas of a real artist are, which is beyond our marketing plans, beyond our 360 degrees.
I always try to think: what does the audience today want? And then how can I surprise them? It’s ideas-based. It’s about going back to the drawing board. Very Giorgio Armani.
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Interview by Denny Hilton
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