Interview with DINO DELVAILLE, A&R at Sony NY for Lil’ Flip (US plat), Xzibit (US plat) - Mar 1, 2004
“When I signed Cash Money to Universal Records I made certain they retained 100% ownership of their work. They deserve it.”
As Senior VP of A&R at Sony Urban Music in New York, Dino Delvaille represents artists including Lil' Flip (US platinum), Xzibit (US platinum) and Three 6 Mafia (US platinum).
Previously, he worked at Universal, where he was responsible for signing and working with the seminal New Orleans label Cash Money Records, whose artists include Juvenile (US multi-platinum), Hot Boys (US platinum) and Big Tymers (US platinum).
How did you get started in the music business and become an A&R?
I was a DJ on college radio and at parties. I had a passion for music. When I graduated, I went into college promotion and that gave me a knack for attracting talented artists, which helped me become an A&R.
What experiences have helped develop your A&R skills?
One of the most important things was that I travelled a lot - the East Coast, the South, the Midwest … I saw that in those areas people were crying out for artists who sounded and looked like them. That was a very important learning experience for me and led me to sign some of the first breakthrough Southern and Midwestern acts and to continue to look for and sign artists who are both unique and representative of people who lack a voice in popular hip-hop music today.
What motivated your decision to move from Universal to Sony?
I was a veteran at Universal, and there are not a lot of veterans at record companies. People tend to change companies every two to three years, but I had a great relationship with Universal and still do. I was there for nine years, from the beginning when there were ten people working there. Sony came to me with an opportunity that I would have been foolish not to take.
In some ways, it will be different for me here, because the politics of this company differ considerably from Universal's. I've taken a few months to adjust to their needs and demands but, in the end, Universal and Sony are the same type of beast—they want hit records.
What did your relationship with Cash Money involve?
I was responsible for signing the company and then moving it forward. My responsibilities were helping them to pick out singles and helping them to expand by making records with different artists.
When they first came into the business, they were very reluctant to make records with other people. They probably felt that people would steal their style or flavour, and I had to work hard to get them to open up to making records with Cam’ron, Puffy, and Clipse, among others.
What acts are you currently working on?
I'm currently working on ; we're just finishing his album now and his single, “Game Over”, which is inspired by video games such as Pac Man and others, in addition to Lil' Flip's love of sports, is exploding on radio. We're also laying down the foundations for Xzibit’s new album.
I'm also working with a clever and gifted rap artist named Grafh out of Queens, New York; the very lively Atlanta rapper Baby D, whom we are currently working on and accepting songs for; Hypnotize Minds; Three 6 Mafia; and I have just signed Holla Point, a new rap trio from Mississippi. They are the kings of really catchy hooks, very melodic and aggressive, and I love that about their music.
What kind of buzz makes you sit up and take note?
Word of mouth is best. If more than a few people are telling you that someone is hot, that's something worth pursuing. Also, just being on the road means that you can absorb the mood and desires of the people out there. About two months ago, we were in Nashville, and we pulled up to the University of Tennessee, in a nondescript economy car, and asked people who was the hottest rapper, artist and musician out there. Nine out of ten people said the same artist, and he's unsigned: Yo Gotti. Without question, he is heating up the rap game from his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
All the time. I get so much of it that I lose count, but I listen to virtually all of it. The quality varies though. Some of it is just terrible, and some people spend too much time on the packaging and not enough on the music. The music should be the focus as it's the music that comes before anything else, so the packaging means nothing if the music is terrible.
I have found a couple of things that I've liked, but nothing that I have really fallen in love with. That isn't to say that people don't get signed by mailing demos to executives' offices, because it does happen, but I'm speaking from my own experience.
Do you research new artists?
Yes, we do research here. We use SoundScan, although not as much as we did at Universal. If an artist is selling 1,000 copies a week in just one city in his or her market, I take note. If, however, I found an artist from Houston, for example, who was selling in Houston and in Cleveland, two totally different parts of the nation, I would have to give that person some serious attention.
What traits do artists need to have in order for you to sign them?
Hit records—that's it.
Does the quality of the production of a rap artist's demo matter, or is it just rhyming skills that you are interested in?
Production is a big part of things nowadays. The production and the hooks are what I listen for first, and then the vocal tone of the artist.
Do new artists have to make a big noise in their region for a major label to show interest?
Yes and no. Some artists just have magic about them; you hear them and fall in love, regardless of whether they have released independent records or created a buzz. When you encounter artists who have that quality, it's your duty to sign them.
What does the development of new artists often involve?
Putting them in the studio—that's what needs to be done to get them ready. Holla Point, for example, are always in the studio and to me that means continuous development. Once we get to the point where we're happy with all the twelve or fourteen songs that are going to be on the album, we invite them down to the marketing and publicity departments to work on what they want to get across when they're doing interviews, when they're on camera, performing, etc.
How much input do you have on the production?
A lot. I sit in the studio, although not every day, because artists' working hours are ridiculous, and often run from midnight till six in the morning. During the day, their manager will bring me what they have worked on the night before, which might be as much as five songs, and I'll pick one or two of the them that I might want to keep, and then send him back saying, “Keep giving me more!”
It's up to me to give the producers guidelines, but I don't want to stifle their creativity. Although I might tell them how to enhance things, I've signed them because of what they do, because of their sound, not my own idea of a sound.
What are the differences between underground and mainstream rap music?
The tracks are a lot more diverse and better constructed in the mainstream than they are underground. Overall, the production is better. I'm a fan of hip-hop: underground and mainstream. I like the political emphasis of some MCs and I like meaningful rap, whether mainstream or underground. It’s true that a lot of underground music puts me to sleep, but that’s only really because of the numbers, because there is far more underground rap than there is mainstream.
There aren't that many political and socially conscious rappers around who are successful ...
There's not a lot of them. Major labels and radio don't pick up on them because, once again, we return to issue of the production and also the hook element. That’s not to say that all good hip-hop should be constructed in the same way, but if you’re going to sell records, as a rapper, country singer, or folk artist, you have to know your audience well, and hip-hop's consumer base buys records with catchy choruses and tight melodies.
The last political group that really made a difference and sold records to a wide audience were Public Enemy, and why were they so dope? Their beats were incredible, and different and, as soon as those screeching sounds came on, it made you pay attention and you got into what they were saying. There is one group with a political bent that I am feeling right now though, and that's Dead Prez.
How heavily does radio weigh in the balance when you are considering a new artist?
I really don't think about that. When I make records I think about whether the hook is catchy, not whether radio will play it. It's a feeling you get when you're passionate about it, and you just go with it. It's that undeniable feeling.
What is your opinion of radio stations and playlists?
I think it's shitty. They need to give new artists a chance. Listening to the radio, I could tell you what they're going to play in the next two hours. This morning, I reviewed today's BDS report, which involves researching several of our Sony artists' songs and comparing them to the top competitors in our market. It’s part of my morning routine. BDS reports follow every registered, legal radio station in the country and the number of times they spin a particular record, on a daily basis.
We can then follow how fast a particular record grows, in which market it's getting the most spins, and so on and so forth. I realised this morning how monotonous radio playlists can be at times. One of the more popular records out there, for example, is getting spun sixteen times a day on one radio station.
Due to the streamlining of radio playlists by media corporations, don't you think it is very hard for new acts and virtually impossible for independent acts to break into the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart (which is based almost entirely on airplay)?
Yes, and that's why the internet is so important right now. You can get a shot at online radio shows. In fact, the most watched video show is the one on AOL.
How does that affect your work with new artists?
It's hard, because they expect us as majors to be able to get them on the radio. Unfortunately, it's not that easy. It's a constant grind that starts at the mix-show level. We have to keep pushing the DJs to give us a shot, to play a verse or even to play the instrumental while they're talking!
How long are newly signed artists given by a major label to become successful, before the label drops them?
I would say four months. You need to keep a record out there for four months to really see if you have something or not. If you have perhaps five spins in that period of time, then you need to put it away and go on to the next record. But if you're hovering around a hundred spins, you need to keep trudging along. Look at Clipse—they worked their record for about a year before it blew up.
How does the demand for artists to break with their first album affect the work of A&Rs?
It makes it more difficult. Record companies have to break at least one act a year to stay in business.
Are you increasingly looking for artists who are already locally successful so that less development is needed?
Absolutely. For example, Yo Gotti, the guy from Memphis, has put out three albums on his own, so he has established himself as a real artist, as the guy who can do two shows every weekend and get paid $3,500 a night. His last album sold 20,000 units, and he wasn't signed to a major company. He's done the groundwork, he's got a fan base, so I want to see whether I can take it from 20,000 to 2,000,000.
Does that mean that record labels will increasingly license the finished product from independent labels?
Absolutely. It might get to a point where there are more artists like Yo Gotti out there and record companies just buy the next album and put it out.
Is urban music too producer-driven and not sufficiently artist-driven?
No, I don't think so, except certain Timbaland projects, for example, which might be producer-driven.
Will online sales in digital formats boost the music industry?
If artists share the cost of making the album, do you think they should also share ownership of the masters?
Yes, I do, absolutely. When I signed Cash Money to Universal Records I made certain they retained 100% ownership of their work. They deserve it.
What aspect of the music industry would you change?
I would get rid of the politics and bureaucracy at record companies and leave it up to the creative people.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
In 1998-1999, seeing Juvenile sell five million copies of his first album, "400 Degreez", on Universal.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years' time?
I see myself starting my own label in about three years and then I want to get into the movie business with my little brother and protégé, Dre’ Mckenzie.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...