Interview with JESSICA RIVERA, VP of creative at Universal Music Publishing (Alex Da Kid, DJ Khalil, B.o.B) - Jun 22, 2011
“It's interesting when up-and-coming producers focus on what they are hearing on the radio, when a lot of artists you hear on the radio are interested in doing something you’ve never heard before.”
When Jessica Rivera was recently promoted to Vice President of Creative at Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG), and hailed as “one of the most consistent, hit-driven creative executives in our industry”, such recognition was no doubt prompted by Rivera’s sterling work in signing and developing such talents as B.o.B, DJ Khalil and Patrick ‘Plain Pat’ Reynolds, but the knock out blow would have been her crucial role in the extraordinary rise of production whizz Alex da Kid.
Signed at the beginning of 2009 as an unknown British producer, Rivera’s nurturing and networking expertise has since led Alex towards the big league of such major hit parade smashes as B.o.B’s ‘Airplanes’ (US No.2, UK No.1), Eminem’s ‘Love The Way You Lie’ (US No.1, UK No.2), Dr. Dre’s ‘I Need A Doctor’ (US Top 5, UK Top 10) and Diddy-Dirty Money’s ‘Coming Home’ (UK Top 10).
In this exclusive interview Rivera talks to HitQuarters about finding and developing Alex da Kid, explains how such a unknown talent found favour with Eminem and Dr. Dre, and highlights what up-and-coming producers can learn from the Brit producer’s big breakthrough.
How did you first enter the music industry?
I was a receptionist at a recording studio, and while working there I met A Tribe Called Quest, and Q-Tip hired me to be his assistant. While still working in the recording studio, I was then doing his day-to-day, and at night I worked with him in the recording studio. It was round-the-clock work but from that point I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the industry. I’d met so many people through dealing with Q-Tip’s management, the label Jive, and then through working at the recording studio.
From there I went interning at Roc-A-Fella Records where I was ultimately hired to be Damon Dash's assistant.
The real starting point to where I am now was when I then went to Bad Boy and as an assistant in A&R administration and started working my way up. Puffy (Sean Combs) hired me out of the admin world to do A&R and publishing, and from there I went to Def Jam.
How did you end up at Universal Publishing?
I got here through the acquisition because I was originally at Zomba (BMG) when they announced that Universal had acquired BMG. I made it through the transition. Before that I was at EMI Publishing and left the label side to pursue publishing full time as a creative executive.
Moving onto your current role with UMPG, where you were recently promoted to Vice President of Creative, how did you first come across Alex Da Kid?
His attorney [Scott Felcher] told me about him. I reached out to Alex and we talked and had a good first conversation. I hadn't heard any music at that point but I was loving his energy. He ended up sending me some music and it hit me right away that this dude had got something different to bring to the table.
At what stage of his career was he at that point?
He didn’t have any placements, but he is a go-getter, a hustler, and he already had relationships with people here in the States. He was getting in the right rooms, but at that point nothing had happened yet.
There are thousands of producers that make beats and produce songs, what made him stand out?
He wasn't just straight up hip-hop - his sound was very different and transcended genres. It made me feel, I can do this with him but I can also do that with him as well. Since day one I felt like he could do great things for both worlds, and that's exactly how he was introduced to everyone when I started working with him.
Is having a different and new sound something that attracts you to up-and-coming producers?
It's interesting when some of the up-and-coming producers focus on what they’re hearing on the radio when actually a lot of the artists you hear on the radio are interested in doing something you’ve never heard before. At the moment I feel like the industry and the market is so open to something new and something different.
Wouldn't you love to be the one to break a new sound? Wouldn't you love to be the one about whom everyone is saying, ‘Oh my goodness, how did you get that sound?’ The "Oh my goodness" factor is so important and I feel like producers should really embrace their creativity deep down inside what it is that they are striving to do.
If I'm an up-and-coming producer and I think I have something really amazing, how do I get in contact with you?
It's easy to get in contact with me, and people are sending me stuff. I strive to listen to as much as I can because you never know where that fresh new talent is going to come from. A lot of the times I’d listen to a song and pinpoint something, "Wow, who did the music?" and then track that person down - I'm good at stalking. [laughs]
As Alex da Kid was still an unknown property when you signed him, how did you then start introducing him to significant people?
When he was still living in the UK and people would come by the office, I’d let them know, ‘I'm excited about this new producer I’ve just signed. His name is Alex Da Kid and he is in the UK right now’. I’d then play them some of the music I had. Some of them got it and others were like, ‘Okaaay ..."
It’s grass roots. It’s about expressing the passion I feel about his music and what he can potentially bring to the table. I am striving to convince people to meet him, get him with other writers, start to build the catalogue, and allow him to keep on working to cultivate his sound. When I sign someone it's through a genuine passion for the music. People can feel that and that makes it so much easier.
Once he was signed how much development work did he need to get to that point where he could start working on projects?
He had it, he just needed that extra oomph, and so we just kept pushing. When he finally came out to the States, he camped out in a studio we have and would crank out tracks 24/7. He’d keep sending me music, calling me in the middle of the night … I then put the tracks with a lot of songwriters to try to develop his song catalogue. The focus was always on getting full songs.
His sound kept growing - everything he was turning in was better than the last. That made it so easy for me to be able to go out there and talk about him and push people to believe in him. True talent ignites your passion. You don't want to go out there and sell something you don't believe in.
Was there a particular moment when you realised he’d made a creative breakthrough?
When we closed the deal and I heard the ‘Airplanes’ track. I knew that would catch people's attention.
If your producers are constantly creating tracks to develop their art and find that breakthrough song you must have a vast catalogue of songs that you can dip into any point in the future?
Yeah. Alex, for example, recorded a lot of records before he got to the point where he is at now.
How involved were you with him on the creative side?
We were really close creatively because when he’d started making something he would come over to play it to me right away and we’d start talking about it and go over ideas.
Through the relationships and the passion about what he was doing, I did everything to help him to get to the point where he is at now. And right now Alex is on autopilot. “Since day one [Alex da Kid] always knew what he wanted, how he wanted to get it and what he wanted to do when he got it. It's a publisher's dream to have someone like that, who is so self-motivated and wants to win on every level. That work ethic is so important. I cannot want it more than you.
Now it's just a matter of organisation. We are definitely still close creatively but now so many people want to work with him, we are looking more for the bigger picture.
You hooked Alex up with people like Eminem and Dr. Dre, people that have their own circle of collaborators. What convinced them to work with such an untested talent?
I introduced Alex to the A&R at Shady Records, Riggs Morales (HQ interview), and Rick fell in love with his sound and knew that he could nail something for Eminem.
Eminem had heard some music but we had yet to hit the nail on the head. At the same time as we were working on ‘Airplanes’, Eminem performed on a different version with B.o.B (’Airplanes, Part II’), and so the same kid he had just heard about is producing the record that he's on. That definitely opened Eminem's attention to Alex. From there Alex just kept going at it in terms of creating until he got the record. No lie ‘Love The Way You Lie’ was written in the 12th hour. It was the last record Eminem recorded before the album was done. [laughs]
How about with Dr. Dre?
The collaboration came to place because of the close association of Dre with Eminem. After Alex worked a couple of times with Eminem they became really close. People just love his music and they wanna work with him.
How did it happen that ‘Airplanes’ took the unusual step of featuring Paramore rock singer Hayley Williams alongside B.o.B?
The A&R guy from Atlantic and Alex had a conversation. The hook was already there and Alex created the track for Atlantic. Once the record was done they decided to put B.o.B. on the record. To have Hayley on the record was a record label decision to give it another push.
How do you normally link up your writers to the artists?
Most of the times it will be through management - I would have conversations with artists directly, but I’d still always show respect to their point person. It's so important to maintain relationships in this industry. That's how people are going to trust you and look forward to working with you.
I like to connect the manager directly with the writer so they can start building their own relationships and have access to the music exchange first hand. I love to be hands-on but also love for my guys to build their own relationships. When people like you they want to work with you. They will give you the chance.
How does that actually happen - do you send them tracks or set up meetings, for instance?
I don't like to send out music. I set up meetings. I mean, there are people I don't have a choice with because they are moving around so much, but I like to get in people's faces, and whether the music works for the project or not, I want to at least give them an idea of what the writers are doing and be able to make the connection.
And then, if I get the opportunity, I like to get my writers in the room with the artists. That’s better than just flooding the management with music.
Do you have an example where one of your producers has done a co-write with an artist and how that came about?
The collaboration between Skylar Grey and Alex came to place when her product manager here was telling her about Alex. Skylar and I then started talking about it and I told Alex about her. I played her the ‘Airplanes’ record and she was like, "Oh wow, I want to work with him".
But they still hadn't met each other and you need to find out if they get a creative vibe when they get in the room together. So I said to Skylar, "Are you interested in writing hooks?" She said, "Yes I'm totally open to that!” and Alex was open to see what she could do. The first hook she delivered to Alex was ‘Love The Way You Lie’.
How did you first come across DJ Khalil?
I knew about DJ Khalil (HQ interview) back in my Def Jam A&R days in 2003. I always felt that Khalil represented that classic hip-hop sound. He was so amazing with his beats and can do the hip-hop stuff with his eyes closed. And it's just amazing how he’s progressed since. He is a producer’s producer. There are so many producers out there that love Khalil.
But we’d never actually met each other at that point - I’d only heard his music. I eventually met him about a year before I signed him.
What is it that makes you want get involved with a particular producer?
When I hear music that makes me feel like my head is going to roll off my shoulders because I'm rocking so hard.
Khalil brought me to that place. I was sitting with him before the Eminem album was happening, listening to all the projects he was working on and it was just amazing to me.
He's also a talent that can cross genres, and so I felt creatively excited and had a vision of what I wanted to do with him as a writer. In my head it was like, ‘We can do this and we can do that and we can put him with this alternative group …’
As you have so many different writers and producers, how do you choose which writer is good for what?
I work with many talented writers and I strive to give everyone an equal opportunity. It's a balance between being strategic and giving everyone an opportunity to get the placement.
Can you give me an example of music that you pitched that became a single?
There is a record called ‘Words I Never Said’ from Lupe Fiasco. That record I walked over to Atlantic to see Lupe's A&R Darrale Jones and he loved it.
I read that you are involved in being a product manager for Lupe Fiasco. What does that involve exactly?
If there are for example ideas for features, or any other opportunities outside of what he does on the recording side, then I’m basically a creative filter through to his camp. I didn’t sign Lupe though, he was a BMG signing.
If you want to sign something do you have to discuss it with someone else or do you have the power to say, "I like this, let's run with it!"?
With signing someone comes spending money, and at any company there's always a committee that you bring potential new signings to.
But with any creative person who has success there begins a trust factor. When you get to that point I feel like people are definitely more supportive to your vision. You don't have to do the whole song and dance, standing on tables and kicking papers off the desk, to get something done.
You’ve obviously built up a lot of trust over the years as you’ve signed of individuals who’ve gone onto great things ...
I came in this industry unafraid of taking chances. I've always been passionate about music and I listen to my guts. It can go both ways - I can look like absolute genius if it breaks or I can look really whack if it fails - but I'm willing to take that chance.
I'm not in this game to be a cookie-cutter - I'm not in this to follow what everyone else is doing. I have always said to myself that I am here because I want to make a difference creatively in music.
Interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
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