Interview with DARNELL 'JUICE' ROBINSON, artist and producer for Lil Wayne, Yung Joc - Apr 26, 2010
“Lil Wayne killed my record, so I’m happy!”
Born into hip-hop royalty as part of the Sugar Hill family, and later the object of teen wonder and envy as star of MTV’s My Super Sweet 16, Darnell ‘Juice’ Robinson is no stranger to the spotlight, but now instead of his celebrity cache the 19-year-old wants the focus directed towards his talents as an artist and producer. With both Lil Wayne (USA No.1) and Yung Joc (USA Top 3) featuring on his first song placement, ‘Drip’, the future is already tasting sugar sweet.
In this revealing interview, Darnell reveals himself to be very much a modern artist; astutely aware of artists as brands and music as business, and also the product of a new generation raised on the internet. Unashamedly ambitious, he harbours aims of being bigger than Sugar Hill itself.
You come from a legendary hip-hop family in the founders of Sugar Hill Records. How has that affected your music career so far?
Well, no matter where I go, everybody seems to know who my parents are. It’s funny because as I’m now in this industry as well as my parents, I’m going through the same people that they had to go through when they got to where they are at now. So I’m meeting a lot of the same people my father knew and my father’s telling me about, and sometimes he’s coming to me like, “Yo Darnell, I heard you met my friend!” And it works out beautiful. I mean, we’re family and we make money together.
Was it always accepted that you would follow a career in hip-hop?
I didn’t know I was gonna go into hip-hop. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. I just asked God to send me to the right place and let me be successful in whatever I do. And he placed me here to do producing and be an artist. So, I thank God for that.
Would you find inspiration by listening to the music that your family has been involved with or have you tried to break away from that influence?
I will never ever try to break away - my family own maybe 10,000 to 20,000 records.
Records are being recycled - we landed on Jay-Z’s album ‘The Blueprint’ (‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ takes a cue from ‘High Power Rap’ by Crash Crew), we landed ‘Empire State Of Mind’ (samples ‘Love On A Two-Way Street’ by The Moments) - that’s my family’s song - and also ‘A Star Is Born’, which is produced by Kanye West. What I’m saying is music is always being recycled. So in that sense, I’m just going to recycle my own music and make history with that. I’m a brand.
How have your family helped you in your career path so far?
Well, my father basically started my career. He gave me the opportunity to have a Sweet 16 on MTV, which got me 10 million viewers on the first night of airing. So I really owe my whole career to my father, because without doing that Sweet 16 to get all those millions of people, I couldn’t have done anything I want to do now.
So how did you first get involved with MTV?
It’s so funny how it happened. I was up late one night and I was bored. I was like, “I want to do something!” I sometimes get this impulse where I just want to do something big, I don’t know why. So I went onto the MTV website and was just looking at things I could vote for, cast or whatever, and I saw Sweet 16 and realised there wasn’t any black males on the show. So, I said, “You know what, that’ll be real dope if I was the first black male.”
L.A. Reid’s son, Aaron Reid, happened to sign up at the exact same time as me. So our show was at the same time. So big ups for Aaron Reid, but that’s basically what happened. Then MTV called my father and they went, “We hear you want to have a Sweet 16 for your son.” And he was like, “I have no idea about this. I don’t know what you all talking about.” So, he called me, and I said “Can you call them for me?” And he was like, “Lets do it!” And that’s how it all happened.
In the future, do you see yourself doing more things outside of music?
Of course. Right now, I’m actually working on a film project - we’re currently communicating about things. But you will hear a lot from me in future, I promise.
How have you dealt with having had so much attention at such a young age? Do you think the exposure you’ve received from a non-music area has been a totally positive thing for your music career or has the celebrity culture taken its toll?
I believe everything happens for a reason. I’ve been getting so much positive attention - I love it. No matter where I go I’m always ‘that dude’ - people always see me and they recognise me, and I show love. I love my life now.
So it’s not had any negative effects then?
Despite all this attention, are you still out there promoting yourself?
I promote myself on Twitter, YouTube, MySpace, BlogSpot, Facebook, Posterous … I love the internet. I’m always on the internet. That’s my way to connect with my fans and show them what I’m really like - let them hear what I’m saying, hear about my life and how I deal with things.
What would you advise other artists to do that are looking to establish themselves in the current hip-hop scene?
I know a lot of people that are also using the internet right now. They’re trying to do what Soulja Boy did and use it to promote themselves. I do think that Twitter, MySpace, Facebook … and all those things are great tools to get your name out to the world and connect and network with people.
How are you getting cuts?
Well, I’m working with Natural Disaster and [Antonio] Top Cat [Randolph], the producers of ‘Turn My Swag On’ by Soulja Boy. Right now, we’re in the lab maybe once or twice a week. So, I’m always doing records. Every week is a new record.
Last March you got a song placement with two of hip-hop’s new school leaders. How did ‘Drip’, the Yung Joc track featuring Lil Wayne come about?
Well, first and foremost that was my very first song placement. That was my record to get me into the industry.
I was in Yung Joc’s studio when he was recording another record. I’d asked him if I could come by and make some beats and he told me, “Yeah.” So, I came by the studio and I was just making it on my computer with my headphones, and he asked, “Can I take a listen to what you’re making?”
When he listened to it, right off the bat he came up with the hook. He was like, “Yo! This is called ‘Drip’.” So, then I was … I wasn’t starstruck, but I’m like, this might be my first song! So, I’m happy, but trying not to show it of course [laughs]. But he took the record from me and said, “Darnell, just give me a week with this record to see what I can do with it.” I said, “Alright.”
When I came back to the studio the following week, he played the record for me and said, “I got Lil Wayne on the track.” And right there I was just like, “Man, this is history in the making! My first song placement is Lil Wayne and Yung Joc!” It don’t get no bigger than that! So, I’m real excited. I loved it.
You’ve acknowledged Lil Wayne as a big influence so what was it like having him work on your beats?
Oh man, beautiful! I mean, Lil Wayne killed my record, so I’m happy! [laughs]
What was the inspiration behind the minimalist production?
My inspiration as far as production was Polow Da Don, Timbaland, Pharrell and Kanye West. They’re the ones who made me want to produce, because if it wasn’t for Polow … Actually, before I got my new situation that I’m in right now, I was messing with Polow Da Don. I was around Polow when he did ‘Turnin Me On’ by Keri Hilson and when he did ‘Love in This Club’ for Usher and Young Jeezy. So, just seeing all of that just made me like, “Alright, I want to do this!”
So when I started producing and I got my keyboard and my speakers, I was like, “I’m going to make every beat sound like Polow Da Don!” [laughs] It didn’t come out like that and so I found my own swag in music, my own style, my own sound. Once I found that, it was just over. Now every record is a Darnell record.
With your productions, you’ve said you want to take the artist somewhere they’ve never been before. How do you manage to do that?
As a producer, I feel like I have a different sound. My sound is very different from anything that you’ve probably heard, or probably anything you are hearing. I feel like when I give somebody a record they’re just automatically going to be out of the box with the writing on it - I feel I give people the leverage to be free in their artwork and their writing.
So, how would you define the Darnell Robinson method?
You got to come see Darnell Robinson! [laughs] You all got to go see Darnell!
What is happening with ‘Drip? Is there still a chance there will be an official release?
Actually, yes. The record got leaked on March 9th I believe. But I was with Yung Joc yesterday and he got the song mastered yesterday and gave it me. I guess it’s getting ready for the album now, so big up for that.
Are you happy for the track to be leaked and made available freely – is it all just good promo for you?
I was happy it got leaked because it showed the world what I could do, and it opened up a lot of doors for me. Without that record being leaked, I’m still working - I got film stuff, I got my own project - but knowing that I got this song placement with Yung Joc and Lil Wayne was big for me. And that’s the first song Joc has had out within almost two years.
That record got 500,000 downloads the second night it got leaked. That’s a lot of people hearing my record, so I’m very happy. Everything happens for a reason.
As hip-hop is a genre founded on a spirit of collaboration and community, would you say that it is as important for young artists need to get out and mix with other producers and rappers and work on each other’s music as it is to attract the attention of labels?
It is very, very important to network. I can’t stress that enough. It is very important to go out and meet and see people. Top Cat took me to New York with him to a BMI/EMI event where I knew half of the people, and I’m not even with them. It’s just the fact that they know me and now they get to relate me to producing - now they got that connection.
Those are all songwriters, producers, big people in this industry who mean a lot. So that definitely brought me a lot of connections. Now I’m in the studio working with other people like Yung Joc, Lil Jon …
You said earlier that Polow Da Don was a big inspiration for you in finding your own style. How did you first hook up with him?
I met Polow through Chubbie Baby here in Atlanta - he’s a producer/artist himself. He was managing me at the time and he brought me to Polow, and Polow was like, “Alright, I want to mess with you, I want to work with you.” So, he flew Jimmy Iovine’s nephew, DJ [Mormile], out here to see me and then I had Interscope looking at me, and I felt my life changing. It was a great feeling, and I got to witness a lot of the business side of things.
Between Polow Da Don and Natural Disaster I’ve learnt so much within my life.
So how did you first meet up with Natural Disaster?
I met Natural through a homie of mine that I knew from here in Atlanta when I first moved down here. My man Tutt introduced me to Natural Disaster and Top Cat.
The first record we ever cut was ‘Fresh’ featuring Young Money’s artist Lil’ Twist, which happens to be my single. Right there, it was just magic in the air, “Alright, we cut raw records the first day we meet each other!” And then after all the working we did, we all linked up and we got on the same page with each other business-wise.
‘Fresh’ is the record that has made a big impact on the world. That’s definitely a big record right now - we got up to maybe 200,000 downloads. And right now we’re just finishing up a little campaigning before we start to go to radio.
’Fresh’ is of course one of your own records as you’re also very active as an artist in your own right. Is that a path you’re more passionate about pursuing than producing?
Man, I could never answer that question [laughs]. I could never answer it. I love them both, I swear I do.
How is your album coming along – what can we expect?
Man, expect a whole bunch of big records. We got ‘Fresh’, we got ‘Go Ham’ coming soon. And with ‘Fresh’ we’re about to shoot this video, and right after we shoot this video and finish up these last weeks of campaigning on the internet and different interviews, we’re going straight to radio. So I’m excited, I can’t wait.
A lot of hip-hop artists find inspiration from a tough life on the streets, as someone that has had a very unusual childhood what kind of things are you drawing your inspiration from?
My biggest inspiration is my folks – that’s what I always go back to. I like that they are so successful because it makes me want to be where they are. It’s not competing, but I want to be bigger, and I want to have more album sales. So, that’s my main goal.
What’s in the pipeline for 2010?
Me being a brand, and not an ordinary artist. That’s my goal right there.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Our Beluga Heights special concludes with an interview with its business brain Zach Katz
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