Interview with DANIEL ‘SKID’ MITCHELL, A&R at Bad Boy Records for Janelle Monáe, Cassie, Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs, Red Café - Oct 25. 2010
“[Janelle Monáe] is an artist that’s capable of creating her own movement.”
Diddy’s Bad Boy Records showed its talent spotting skills are as sharp as ever when it snapped up arguably 2010’s most exciting new star, the hair-raising phenomenon that is Janelle Monáe. A&R co-ordinator, Daniel Mitchell - aka Senator Skid - talks about discovering and marketing the soul-infused “sci-fi robo chick”, as well as his own rise from DJ to A&R, manager and all round man of many hats.
As Bad Boy gatekeeper and Diddy right-hand man, Skid also reveals how to get signed to the label and offers updates on Cassie’s long awaited second album and Diddy’s upcoming Dirty Money project.
You started out at Bad Boy as an A&R assistant. What were your responsibilities?
Any time we had sessions I was in charge of keeping track of those files. I also did all of the radio edits - like the clean versions - and when we had video edits where we would shorten it up or add certain parts of the video, I would do those. I just kept track of everything – all the paperwork we do for anything we’ve worked on – under Conrad Dimanche (HQ interview), who at the time was the Senior Director of A&R here.
What was it that first appealed to you about being involved with A&R?
I used to be a DJ when I was younger, and doing DJing made me want to make my own beats. So I started making beats and then from listening to beats, that made me want to have more of a role in certain records and make my own records. I felt the best way for me to do that was to try to get into A&Ring.
Also just being under Rad (Conrad) and Harve Pierre and seeing how these guys were always so busy - always on the phone, always doing something related to making a record - intrigued me and was something I wanted to do.
What were the first releases at Bad Boy that you had a significant input in?
I would say ‘Press Play’ - that was Puff’s album in 2006. I helped pick out the singles and just let him know I wanted to be a part of the album.
It was a learning experience for me to just be in his face more – to let him know that I wanted to find beats for it and find producers and writers. That was the time when he recognized that this was what I was trying to do for his company.
So with any new Bad Boy release, would you begin by discussing with the artist what producers to work with?
When we’re first starting an album, Puff brings everyone in and says, “Okay, this is what we’re trying to do. We need some futuristic producers.” Or some producers who haven’t been established yet. At the beginning of a project he’ll reach out to everyone - he will give everyone a shot.
I deal with producer relationships, and so I’ll say, “Okay, we’re working on the Dirty Money album and I need this kind of music.” I then get music from virtually everybody that I can reach. We just open the doors at the beginning of a project, and then once it starts getting closer to finding the things we need, we have to start closing the doors and just reaching out to the people who you specifically would like to get.
Sometimes I recommend a person that I feel has what he’s looking for, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Can you explain your role in developing one of your Bad Boy artists, taking Red Café as an example?
My role with Red Café is not as intricate because he’s a self-artist, and he knows what he’s doing. He came in knowing where he wanted to go.
What I do with Red Café is help him with any producers he may be trying to get in contact with that he might not have a relationship with. I submit music to him and we go over different ideas of what kind of songs he like to do that he feels he needs, and based upon what he says he needs.
When the masters are done I’m the one who keeps track of all of the masters for the singles that we put out. I’m the person who distributes it to radio personnel. Those are the types of things on the back-end that the A&R keeps track off - approving the masters, making sure they sound right, making sure that the money that needs to be spend is spend the right way. He has a broad team - it’s not just Bad Boy working with his project, it’s teamwork.
Do you have any creative input with the artists you work with?
Like I said, it’s teamwork, so there’s always creative input, they’re always open to ideas. With today’s artists you have to have teamwork because you have to work with what they want to do - it’s their vision.
They were initially attracted to the label because they got themselves to a certain position. So, it’s more, “Okay, what would you like to do, Red?” And then we go with that, and based on our experience we all work together and try to create good music.
Are you’re looking for new artists at the moment?
By what means are you trying to find them?
I go to conferences across the country. I go to showcases, seminars where people submit their music and do performances. I go to different talent shows even in a local community. I search through MySpace, I even go to Twitter. I have a lot of Twitter followers and I listen to their music. I listen to the people that are my friends on MySpace and YouTube. I go to blog sites. I go everywhere. Wherever is a possible opportunity for me to bring in something that is on the verge of being great.
So if you discover something that is “on the verge of being great” do you then pass it on to Diddy?
I can’t necessarily say whether Diddy is going to like it or not but, based on the things he tells me he’s looking for, if like it then I follow it. I’ll keep in touch with the people – the artist or their management, lawyer … - and let them know I’ve heard something I like.
If there’s something I like it but it’s not really ready, I keep in touch with it. Then over the next few months I give him something else from this person - give him an update - and with some people he asks me, “What’s happened to, you know, X, Y, Z? You got anything new from them?” Or, “How are they doing - what’s the progress?” Sometimes he’s looking for one or two things to make him believe it, and sometimes I have to fight to make him believe it.
What level of production do you want from submissions?
It can’t need a whole bunch of help. It has to be up to the level of what’s going on on current radio, on mix shows, Billboard … We’re looking for stuff that’s going to compete. We can’t really take something from point A and take it to point Z. We don’t really have the time.
The time and the budget to do those things in A&R has changed. Now we need things that are already moving on their own, and we come in and add a battery to it so that it can fly.
It also has to be competing with what’s going on right now in music. It can’t be out-dated.
You yourself have said, “If you aren’t paying attention to what’s hot in this game then don’t send me your beats”. So is the ambition and invention of an artist like Janelle Monáe a mark of what’s hot right now and what you are looking for?
Yeah. I think the thing with Janelle Monáe is that she’s an artist that’s capable of creating her own movement, and she has her own vibe.
I love her music. I think it’s different. Some of it I don’t understand, to be honest with you, and I think that’s the great part of it - I don’t need to understand it.
Who else is creating music of the future in the urban/R&B scenes do you think?
I think this Dirty Money project is creating a new genre - it’s like a futuristic soul type of vibe. Also Black Eyed Peas and Usher, who is recreating himself with his own futuristic music.
And there’s a lot of unsigned artists that haven’t broken yet - I really like what they’re doing.
Once you’ve found an artist and you really like their music what happens next – what else do you need to find out about them to see whether they’re the right match for Bad Boy?
After that point it’s about finding out if they are involved with management. Is there other people looking at them? Is there any interest from other labels? We also need to find out whether Bad Boy is somewhere they want to be.
Sometimes it’s a negotiation process - some artists might not necessarily want to come this way. You have to make a person comfortable because it’s such a big decision with their career. If Puff is interested in it then he’s going to make the effort to make a person comfortable with coming this way to do some work.
You said that Diddy first came across Janelle Monáe on MySpace. What were the events surrounding the signing?
He first took an interest in her around when we were doing ‘Press Play’. Puff is big friends with Big Boi, and Big Boi was telling him about the girl Janelle. He hadn’t heard of her before.
This was around when MySpace really just started getting popular, and he wasn’t really familiar with it, so we pulled it up for him and he heard the song ‘Many Moons’. He just loved it - loved her look, loved that you couldn’t see her body, loved the way she was dancing, and just loved the vibe. He felt like she has something that was different - something new and fresh.
Him and Big Boi worked it out, and he put some interest in her, and put her out just so she could be on a broader scale. She was already moving, she was already working, she already had her records - she had a self-contained movement.
Can you explain what was involved with marketing of Monáe?
It was more of a grassroots campaign, where she had a fanbase, as opposed to just bumping in a bunch of dollars.
What both of them were trying to do was build her up organically and not just put her everywhere so everyone sees her first and then hears the music. They wanted the music to grow and then put her face out. Puff’ll take his time with it. If it’s not a million sales off of the gate he’ll take his time and develop it.
They wanted her to be an authentic artist, not just someone that has a hot single which everyone jumps on, and then they fade because it’s just something of the moment.
That’s why her campaign was more about putting her on the road, putting her in the types of music venues that an artist like her needs to be in. She’s not a rapper, so you can’t just put her in a local club. You have to put her on a Lollapalooza or a MTV2 type of platform, or Vibe or a Vogue magazine spread. She’s that type of artist.
A striking aspect to Janelle Monáe is how she’s not afraid of moving across into different genres - is this cross-genre pollination something you’d like to see artists from a R&B and urban background do more?
Yes, it’s beautiful for music because it gives artists another ear for someone who might not have known who she was. It gives her another person to possibly become a fan.
It’s also great for music because music is crossing different lines now; it’s not just ‘R&B’. I like to say that that what is going on is hip-pop as opposed to hip-hop - it’s like a hip-pop and R&B-pop. It’s all messing together as opposed to being different genres. Music is now just music.
Cassie’s upcoming second album for Bad Boy looks like it’ll be moving beyond the confines of a particular genre. Can you reveal what the current status is with it?
She’s working on it. It’s in progress. She did about 50 records - she has a lot of songs - and she’s just still working on it, taking her time. She wants it to be something that people are going to respect, and she’s just really trying to have fun with her next album.
She has improved a lot vocally, and her sound is more of a custom sound for her. Her first album ( ‘Cassie’) was mostly Ryan Leslie produced and written, and with this next album she has different producers, different writers, some stuff she’s been co-writing, and so it’s more personal for her.
Why has it taken so long to come to light?
I don’t know if you’re familiar but Bad Boy used to be on Atlantic and we made a transition to Interscope Records, and so through that time there’s a lot of things you have to fine tune.
We’re happy to get this Dirty Money record (‘Last Train to Paris’) off the ground. It’s a timing process - you don’t want to just put something out and it’s not ready and the timing isn’t right, otherwise it hurts the artist’s career.
You set up a website devoted to explaining the role of A&R. What was the motivation behind it - do you think most young artists don’t really understand the significance of the A&R beyond acting as record label ‘gatekeepers’?
What I wanted to do [with the website] was explain to the people what it’s like for me to do my challenges and my triumphs so they can see on a first hand basis what it’s like as an A&R under someone like a Puff.
I think the role of an A&R has changed a lot from the time that I got into it - almost drastically. I deal with a lot of A&Rs from the different companies - who are all mostly friends - and we all talk about the changes and the trends … Even the money isn’t the same.
What significant differences have you noticed?
The role of that the A&R plays in the projects has changed. A lot of artists coming in now do a lot of the A&Ring themselves because they have a vision. So now the A&R is sometimes just there to help realise the artist’s vision as opposed to creating, moulding and executing it.
This is an aspect that has obviously helped fuel all the talk of A&R being under threat. With that in mind then how do you see it developing in the future?
I feel the role becoming more of A&R/management - or that you have to wear more hats now. You can’t just solicit talent, you can’t just look on BDS for artists - it’s more a multiple task role.
I think it’s going to become more viral than it’s ever been, and a lot more technical. You have to be more technically inclined going into the future. You can’t just go to showcases - you have to really know how to work all of the tools. There are so many artists now it’s hard to keep track of new songs that come out from new artists.
What’s in store for you in coming future?
I have two websites that I’m developing. One is in conjunction with a friend of mine named Antoine. It’s a site where people can specify what type of music they’re submitting as opposed to just sending mass emails to an email address where you don’t really know what you’re listening to.
If you want to listen to hip-hop tracks you can listen to just that. If you want to listen to R&B submissions you can just listen to that. So it’s going to cut down on the junk mail type of time wasting that happens a lot when you’re getting mass submissions. It’s called Songmovers.net.
Also I’m working on two management situations. One is with my partner here in the A&R department, TCMGMT INC. (TRI-CONNECT ENTERTAINMENT & MANAGEMENT, INC.) and we’re working on developing on some of our artists and on getting them signed to a label. I also work with Dream Big Hustle Hard Management.
What’s prompted the move into management?
Management is something I’m trying to get into. I’ve been studying different managers and asking a lot of questions, and trying to figure out how I can be a good manager and help an artist’s career. So with that I’ve been working with some producers, some writers, and we have this girl we’re working with named Glorie, and she’s close to getting a deal.
Our producers and writers have been getting a lot of placements in the past year through pop music, through hip-hop music.
Also I’m a PTA president for my son’s school. I’m trying to create a programme for education where I can tie in some of the people that I’ve been having relationships with, just to put some lighting on to the education system and the communities that I live in, and get some more awareness going on for what’s happening. The whole education system is important to me.
I’m just trying to diversify a little bit and do some more things. I don’t want people to just know me for working for Bad Boy. I want people to know that I’m a person that is interested in changing people’s lives, whether it be one person or ten people, and whether it be a child or an aspiring artist or a producer or a writer. I just want people to know that I care about people.
What direction is Bad Boy moving in?
Bad Boy is definitely moving in a good direction. We’re just really trying to establish this Dirty Money thing. Puff is looking for new artists, so I’m always on the hunt with him.
On Twitter you’ve offered to “tell it like it really is” to any music seminar or convention. Is there anything you’d like to reveal about what really goes on in the music industry that might benefit aspiring artists?
People need to understand that a lot of work goes into trying to be an artist, an aspiring artist or producer or writer or whatever you’re trying to be in this music business. You need to understand you might work for 5 to 10 years before you’re starting reaping the rewards of it. It’s a lot of sacrifice - you sacrifice your family life, your love life, but if it’s something that you’re trying to do then you just have to really push more than anything you probably ever had to do. Because it’s a lot of letdowns - it’s almost more letdowns and setbacks than reward. It’s like a whole other lifestyle, not 9-to-5, more 9-to-9.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Co-writer of this year's Eurovision Song Contest winner on how his song was chosen
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