Interview with ELI DAVIS, manager for Anthony Hamilton and Kelvin Wooten - Dec 22, 2008
"Many artists want you to do everything for them. Anthony Hamilton and Kelvin Wooten aren't lazy."
Completing our series looking behind the scenes of contemporary American urban music (following the interviews with producers Kelvin Wooten and Andreao Heard) is Eli Davis.
Other than producer Kelvin Wooten, Davis dedicates all his time and resources to managing Anthony Hamilton (Top 20 US). According to him, he will take on another artist only when he feels he is facing someone destined for legendary status.
Davis is also adamant and optimistic about the increasing potential of the music industry, and is more than happy to remind us several basic values like dedicated songwriting and hunger for hard work.
What were your first steps into management?
I started out in 1987 with three producers: Andreao ‘Fanatic’ Heard, Ski beatz and Mark Sparks. We were all partners in Greensboro, North Carolina.
I took on the role of handling all of the business aspects as a partner because they were all the creative forces, which sharpened my management skills to where I am now. Before then I never wanted to be a manager. I just was their business partner.
What was your vision for Special Assignment Operations, Inc. founded in 1998?
My vision was to represent special talent. Talent that I feel would make history, be legendary.
Does your line of business involve more than music industry related aspects?
I represent artists, producers, bands, orchestras, actors, and other entertainers and entertainment groups. My line of business is entertainer/entertainment group, real estate and agent/manager.
It’s a thin line because Anthony Hamilton as an artist will also act in films. He will also produce, write, score and compose music for films. And he will collaborate with Kelvin Wooten.
What artists are you currently working with?
Anthony Hamilton is the only artist that I manage right now. And Kelvin Wooten as a producer.
How big can your roster be?
It can be as big as I would like for it to be. But I also want to concentrate on one artist if I feel they can be legendary and make history.
Do you only focus on urban and R&B?
I focus on people who make a difference in the music business. That just doesn’t stop at R&B music or soul music.
How do you choose your projects?
Very carefully. I run across people that need representation, but they just don’t meet the criteria, which is having a certain level of work ethic. Anthony Hamilton and Kelvin Wooten are not lazy people, they work.
A lot of other artists want you to do everything for them. And if you don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.
What package needs to be ready in order for you to start working with them?
Artists need to take it as far as they can go before they bring on management. So that management helps and takes them to the next level. As opposed to develop them from the ground up.
As a manager, what you don’t want to do is work harder than your artist. If they’re out getting shows, live performances around town, you know that they are hungry.
Where do you find new talent?
All over the place. We tour all over the US and international. People approach us at every single concert.
What is usually discussed in first meetings with new acts?
Sometimes artists tell you: “I haven’t been able to get into the studio to record any music. I need help with that.” That right there is already a red light.
You don’t have to go into the studio to cut a demo. You can take someone else’s existing song and sing over it or take an instrumental and write your own thing. You can make do with what you have.
Once you start selling, what strategy do you use to help develop their careers?
You figure out who their core market is or what their demographic is. Who do you want to target. And once you target that audience you cater to them.
How can artists distinct themselves nowadays and remain individualistic and original?
Originality is something that you’re born with. You could try to be something that you’re not, but originality is the god-given talent.
What does unsolicited material need to possess in order to grab your interest?
It needs to have a distinctive voice. It needs to have some great production and songwriting. It needs to be a complete song.
Why did Anthony Hamilton go for SoSoDef/Zomba?
SoSoDef is Jermaine Dupri’s label. Anthony performed at the 2003 pre-Grammy brunch. Jermaine Dupri’s father, Michael Maulden was in attendance. He saw Anthony perform ‘Comin' From Where I'm From’.
He came right up to us after the show and said: “My son just signed a new deal with Arista Records, and I think he would definitely be interested in taking a meeting with you.”
We took a meeting with Jermaine Dupri the day after the Grammy’s on a Monday, and on Tuesday he put a deal on the table. In the meantime, we were also talking with Jimmy Iovine from Interscope Records, who was very interested in signing Anthony along with Eminem’s manager, Paul Rosenberg.
We owe a great deal to Jimmy Iovine. For Anthony’s first commercial release, ‘Comin' From Where I'm From’, Jimmy paid for studio time, because he believed in his talent so much. And four out of the six songs that were recorded made the album, thanks to Jimmy.
He said to Anthony: “You’re just so talented, you’re so great. I don’t know what to do with you.” So eventually we signed to SoSoDef.
When did you first meet with Anthony Hamilton?
I met Anthony in 1992. I was working with the guy who discovered him, Mark Sparks. They were working in Charlotte, North Carolina and Mark discovered him through Dizzy.
Anthony was a barber stylist. Dizzy told Mark Sparks about him. Mark went to meet him, heard his voice and said: “I’ve got to bring you to New York. You have to get a record deal.”
At the time, I was working with Mark Sparks. I was the person calling the barbershop every day trying to track Anthony Hamilton down. I’ve known him and been in the same musical camp with him since 1992. And I’ve been his manager since 2000.
What happened in the time prior to his aforementioned breakthrough platinum-selling second studio album ‘Comin' From Where I'm From’ (2003)?
He got signed to Uptown Records in 1993. Their distributor was MCA Records, which is owned by Universal. He recorded a full album entitled ‘XTC’ that was planned to be released in 1995/1996.
At the point of his album release, Uptown Records got sold to MCA and his album was put on the back burner. So it was never released.
He started developing his writing skills. Started writing for different artists. Then, his breakthrough part as a featured artist was on a Nappy Roots song titled ‘Po’ Folks’. At that year he was nominated for a Grammy with the Nappy Roots.
The 2008 single ‘Cool’ features David Banner. How did this collaboration come about?
Jive Records wanted Anthony to have some mainstream radio success. They thought that we needed a famous known rapper on his record. This is the first time we’ve had a rapper featured on an Anthony Hamilton record. It’s usually the other way around..
We thought about who we wanted on the record and David Banner was one of the options, and he came through and delivered.
Anthony did the main title song for the Soul Men film and soundtrack starring the late Bernie Mac and Samuel L. Jackson. How did this placement come about?
Frank Fitzpatrick wrote that song, contacted me and said: “I have this magnificent song that I want Anthony Hamilton to sing. There’s no other artist out there that could deliver this song the way Anthony can.”
I replied: “Fine. Send it over. We’ll give it a listen.” We listened to it and he was absolutely right. It was a perfect song for Anthony. There has been a lot of dialogue going back and forth leading to the day we recorded it. It took some time to make it happen, but the chemistry was there.
What was the dialogue about?
About the pitch or key in which Anthony sings. Trying to figure out the politics with the record, that is to say, finding out whether it could be released as a single. Just label politics.
What is important to keep in mind with placements for film and TV?
There are a few components. In that particular instant, since Anthony didn’t write the record, we didn’t have the politics of the publisher being involved. But the record label had to give clearance for the artist to appear on these records.
That’s a process, because they want to know what the record sounds like with Anthony on it. And if Anthony hasn’t recorded it yet, they’re not going to know what it sounds like with him on it.
Then they’re going to request certain amounts of money for Anthony to appear on a record. Then that’s a whole other negotiation process. Then Anthony also placed a fee for a recording, and that’s a process again.
Sometimes the label may request a higher fee than the film company and/or the record company that the soundtrack is been released through, and they may be willing to pay.
And then that’s a whole other process. To get the label to realize that this is worth more than the fee that you’re asking for.
Anthony had a cameo appearance as a soul singer in the Universal Pictures film, American Gangster. Will he be acting some more?
He will be. For that reason I live in Hollywood. So that we can expand the Anthony Hamilton brand into acting and to more music placement in film, commercials and television.
Did you hook him up with songwriters/producers Mark Batson and James Poyser?
Anthony had a relationship with both of them. When he sang background for D’Angelo at the Voodoo world tour in 2000, James Poyser was one of the musicians.
How did your collaboration with Kelvin Wooten start?
Anthony recorded the title song of the last album ‘Ain't Nobody Worryin' with Raphael Saadiq. And Kelvin Wooten was in the studio, because he was part of the Raphael Saadiq camp.
When Anthony went to record his album, Kelvin was the one who created it from the ground up. And when we left the session, we were both like: “Who is that guy? Playing this and that, creating the song!”
And then just by chance, about six months later, we ran into Kelvin through a mutual friend in his hometown of Huntsville, Alabama. Glenda Beard, who’s son Daniel Beard is a producer and engineer working with Kelvin on different projects, put us in contact with Kelvin when Anthony had a concert there in 2004.
From then on we started working with him. We hired him to work with Anthony on an album called ‘Soullife’. We read the credits on that album and a lot of those songs existed when Anthony was signed to Soul Life as a record label, but Kelvin went in and replayed and reproduced the majority of those songs.
He pointed out that you’re the most important person in his network and on a personal level as well. You’re responsible for an artist/producer career. How much pressure does this involve?
It involves a lot of pressure because it directly affects both of their incomes. As a manager, if I don’t source work, they don’t necessarily get paid.
But that goes back also to when I said that these guys aren’t lazy. You’re not just sitting around waiting for me to go to work. They’re out networking and meeting people as well. But essentially, all of the business channels through me. And if I don’t produce any work for them, I’m useless.
How big are your financial risks nowadays?
We partner with the label to pay for a lot of the marketing and promotion. And also through Anthony being featured on other rappers’ records, we get some of their marketing dollars.
Anthony’s name gets to be on a sticker on an album or mentioned in interviews. We still do a lot of grassroots marketing and promotion. That is very effective.
As the returns are not as great as they once were, are the demands for success forcing you to sell your artists worldwide?
Yes, we have to break them more in an international market so that it allows the artist to tour. Because in Amsterdam they love soul music, in London they love soul music, all throughout Europe they love it.
We have to find avenues through which to get them over to those other territories and break them. And sometimes we have to come out of our own pocket to get them there.
What advice would you give up and coming managers?
Just pay attention to your artists’ needs. Figure out how to get them in front of the right people in order to advance their career and expose them to new mediums. Just be hungry all the time, to always want the best for your artist.
As a manager, you built a team that’s an extension of management for the artist. You have the business managers, you have your agents, you have the attorneys. You built a team that is instrumental in helping take your artist to the next level.
Who are the most important people within your network?
My wife. We have been together for eight years, but I’m newly married since August 30th. My family, Anthony and Kelvin, they’re all extremely important. But my wife is #1 in my network. She’s also my partner. We work together.
What was your most successful music industry moment?
One of the most successful moments to me was when Kelvin produced Anthony’s single ‘Cool’ that featured David Banner, and my wife who’s an actress is the leading lady in Anthony’s new video. She plays Anthony’s girlfriend in the new video.
So you have the artist Anthony Hamilton, you have my wife and you have Kelvin Wooten, all on one song. And that’s a personal achievement.
Did you attend Austin, Texas’ SXSW Festival?
Yes, I’ve been to SXSW. Back in the day, they used to have this thing in New York called The New Music Seminar. There were other conferences I used to attend like Impact Super Summit, Jack The Rapper Music Convention.
How significant are these music conferences for you and your artists as most deals are done by handshakes?
They used to be very significant back in the days. Not anymore. SXSW seems to be probably the most grounded of the seminars for me now. It’s still organic in the way it used to be.
It’s very significant when you have a lot of people in one place, in one city for one common cause - music. When you have those people that are looking and that are hungry for the newest and the latest music, there’s always great exposure for your artist.
How do you view the current music business climate?
It’s challenging, I think it’s one of the best times for music. Music is bigger now than it has ever been. The selling of music is what’s shaky, but the actual music business is great. The exposure and the outlets for music are better than ever.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would go back to artist development. I would go back to record companies really putting money into development and artists, and developing their touring careers.
And making sure that we don’t have the fly-by-night artists. Artists that you just record an album with, put it out there and see if it sticks.
What’s in store for SAO?
Special Assignment Operations will get into film and TV production. We will get into finding another special artist to develop. We will get more into marketing and PR. We will become an all-in-one company.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* Interview with Andreao 'Fanatic' Heard, producer for Michael Jackson, Beyonce, Will Smith, Lil' Kim, Anthony Hamilton
* Mary J Blige and Al Green producer Kevin Wooten on being discovered over the phone