Interview with JEREMY HARDING, manager and producer for Sean Paul - Sep 4, 2003
“You've got to find the kids that go to the clubs, know of all the hot DJs, and cool record stores, first.”
Based in Kingston, Jamaica, Jeremy Harding manages Sean Paul (US platinum) and has produced artists including Sean Paul, Beenie Man, Bounty Killer and Tanto Metro & Devonte. In this interview, he describes, among other things, the early days of Sean Paul’s career; he also explains why dancehall artists do not initially sign to record labels and gives us an overview of the obstacles that Jamaican artists have to overcome in order to cross over into other territories.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a producer?
I started playing guitar at the age of 9 or 10 at a music school called the Jamaica School of Music; prior to that, I was in the choir. I left high school at 16 and went to study at the McGill University in Montreal for about a year. Montreal had a very vibrant club culture at the time and I started clubbing a lot. House music was big and UK soul was also becoming popular, through acts like Massive Attack and Soul II Soul. I developed an interest in deejaying and basically forgot about the guitar and started working as a club DJ. I had a college radio show as well, where I played the club hits and also some dancehall.
In 1990, I started a management company for club artists with a friend. At that point, I wasn’t doing very well at university, because I spent all my nights in nightclubs and didn’t wake up in time to make it to class. After two years of that, I attended a two-year music production course at the Trebas Institute in Montreal. As I was interested in deejaying, I thought that the course would enable me to work with samplers and computers in sound engineering and recording, and that eventually led me into producing.
I bought some gear, which I took back with me to Jamaica, where I set up a studio in my apartment. I did jingles for radio and television commercials for a couple of years, and didn’t seriously thinking about producing. My younger brother Zachary started to play in a sound system here in Jamaica and as I had a studio, we were able to record some dub plates. He brought in many of the local sound systems, such as Renaissance, Stone Love and Travellers, so I met all the dancehall artists.
Zachary and I began to think that we should start a record label and make a dancehall record, and that’s how 2 Hard Records started. So I did that one rhythm track which was called Fearless, and Sean Paul was one of the artists who performed over it with “Baby Girl” (clickable track or artist names open Real Audio files – Ed.). He wanted a shot and he did well, so that was all right. I continued to do jingles and, about a year later, I decided to try another rhythm, which was to become known as the Playground rhythm. Sean performed “Infiltrate” over it and Mr.Vegas “Nike Air”, but most notably it spawned the Beenie Man hit, "Who Am I?", and the whole thing blew up.
How did you initially get your records played at clubs and radio?
My brother played the tracks with his sound system and he knew guys who played for other sound systems, so when they played at parties we got them to play the records. We also got a lot of help from the artists who were on the rhythm: they gave it to people who played it on the radio, and I also had a few friends who worked at radio, who also had shows in night clubs, and so on.
Did you have distribution?
Yes, we were distributed by Sonic Sounds, because I had a friend who knew Jason Lee whose family owns Sonic Sounds. Distribution was important. I had learnt how to produce music, which has nothing to do with how to release records. Then when I got back to Jamaica, I discovered that here each producer is a record label as well, so I learnt all those aspects of the business. But to distribute the records too would be a lot to take on.
Do you mainly do dancehall?
I produced hip-hop when I was in Canada, I deejayed club and dance music, and I played guitar in a rock/reggae band. I have a wide range of musical influences, but the reality of the situation is that I live in Jamaica and I’ve been most successful with dancehall/reggae music; therefore, I tend to concentrate on that type of music. I have worked with other types of groups, though: last year, I worked with a rock band in Barbados called Desire and I also did a soca song for an artist called Kevin Little.
Do you sign artists to your label?
In Jamaica, all the producers have record labels and artists record songs with various producers, so there isn’t any point in signing artists to labels. Dancehall artists have as many songs as possible on the road, because that means a higher chance of a hit. Because of the time it takes to put together a really good rhythm, employ all the different artists to perform on it, and promote the record, most producers carry up to three rhythms a year, and even that’s a lot. Artists couldn't survive on that alone, so they sign to managements but not to labels.
Who are some of the other artists you have produced?
The bigger artists I have produced are Elephant Man, Beenie Man, Tanto Metro & Devonte, Bounty Killer, Mr.Vegas, Frisco Kid and Sean Paul, of course, but I’ve also produced Red Rat, Buccaneer, Hawkeye, Red Fox, Kiprich, General Degree and Merciless.
Will you continue to produce as well as manage?
It's difficult, because managing Sean is very time-consuming and, as opposed to producing, it’s not very creative. My intention is to continue to produce.
How did you become Sean Paul’s manager?
My brother heard Sean perform at a small local spot here in Kingston, an open mic event where kids DJ and rap. My brother told me he had heard this kid who sounded like Super Cat, the toaster. Sean came by the studio and wanted some advice, and so he wrote “Baby Girl” on top of my rhythm track and I recorded him on it. After that he started hanging out at the studio every day, because it was the only real studio he knew. We recorded several tracks, and by the time we did "Infiltrate" it was time to get some radioplay.
When we got it, the press and promoters got curious about who Sean Paul was and the only way to find out more about him was to call the telephone number, mine, which was listed on the record. If they wanted an interview, I handed the telephone over to him, and when they wanted him to perform at a show, we said, "OK, 500 bucks, that's cool". I went along as the DJ, manager, road manager and security guard! I just thought I'd be a little supportive and then eventually I started dealing with so much business on behalf of Sean that I ended up managing him.
How were Sean’s first records received by the public?
Many people were confused because when they heard them on the radio they thought he was Super Cat. People generally liked them, but they weren't too sure about who he was, unless they bought a record with the name “Sean Paul” on it, but then most people heard them on the radio. Sean always had a unique voice, which differed considerably from what most DJs knew.
At the time, you had Buju Banton, Bounty Killer and a lot of DJs with deep voices, aggressive stuff basically. Sean on the other hand was very singsongy and melodic. True, he sounded like Super Cat, but there hadn't been a Super Cat record in the stores for a long time and Sean didn’t sound like anybody else who was happening at the time, so he really stood out on radio.
When did you sign with VP Records in New York?
We did the first album, “Stage One”, with VP Records in 2000. Basically, we had a lot of material and Sean wanted to do an album. By that time, I had a relationship with VP Records so I set it up, and because he already had a couple of songs out there they were happy for us to record an album. VP already knew Sean because he was also recording with other producers, and they had several of his tracks on their compilation series, “Reggae Gold” and ”Strictly the Best”.
Did VP Records act as the platform from which you launched Sean Paul into other territories, particularly the US?
I think so, because VP has the biggest reach in the dancehall community. They sell to all the record stores in Jamaica and the West Indies, New York, Miami, New Orleans, etc., and all the reggae radio stations get records from VP. It’s a good move to start there, because once you are established in the West Indian community, it’s a lot easier to make the transition to a wider community. You've got to find the kids that go to the clubs, know of all the hot DJs and remixers, cool record stores, and who gets that new imported record. That scene has to know you before the pop audience is made aware of you.
What were the important factors in the breaking of Sean Paul in the US?
Radio. Hip-hop radio in New York and Miami embraced Sean. It crossed over from the West Indian market into the hip-hop market.
How did the deal with EMI Publishing come about?
Both Sean and I have deals with EMI Publishing in the UK. I got my deal first, after I'd done "Who Am I?" with Beenie Man. It did well, particularly in the UK where it went Top 10, so everybody began to get curious, including EMI. They knew who Beenie Man was because he had been in the business for a while, although he had never been as successful before, but they didn’t know me before that record. The guy who eventually signed me, Guy Moot, watched my work and, when Sean blew up, he signed him too.
How does that deal benefit you?
Their first function is to chase the money. It’s good to have somebody who looks out for all the songs you have released on all the various labels. Sean also has songs in films and on television and the publisher chases all that money too and makes sure it’s all straight.
Secondly, they provide connections to other people in the industry, because they tend to know a wide range of producers, artists, record label people, lawyers, etc. If there is someone you really want to work with, publishers can usually help.
Are you currently looking for other artists to manage?
To be honest, I’m looking to get back into production. It’s very difficult to manage more than one artist at the time, unless you put together an entire management team. If not, you run the danger of spreading yourself too thinly with so much stuff going on. In Canada, at the small management company where we managed five artists, I learnt that it’s a very delicate balance, because the artists get jealous. One artist wants it like the other and thinks you're not putting enough work into his or her career, although you do. It's better to concentrate on one guy and sell a lot of records than to attempt to manage five people and not get there.
As a producer, I'm looking more at singers right now. A producer is musical and wants to work with a lot of different artists in different styles, r&b, rap, rock, etc. As for me, I love working with rock bands. It's really about talent and whether you are able to contribute something to it. I do it for the love of it and, at the end of the day, it's nice to be successful and to be able to make a living from doing what you love.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
No, because I already get too much stuff every day.
What equipment do you have in your studio?
Steinberg Nuendo, Akai MPC4000, Yamaha 02R, Korg Triton, Roland Fantom, Nord Lead modules, and a couple of guitars.
What pieces of equipment are most important in terms of achieving your own particular sound?
Some people buy gear because everybody else has that gear. When I go into a music store, I play the keyboard and, if I like how it sounds, I buy it. It doesn't matter if it’s intended for a particular kind of music. Sure, I use gear that a lot of people use, such as the Akai drum machine, Korg Triton, etc., but then I have things like the Nord Lead, which is something dancehall and hip-hop producers don't use, but a lot of dance music producers do, to get a good trance, techno and garage sound. To me, it’s just about whatever sounds good.
What do you think of today’s dancehall scene?
Right now, the scene has a lot of hope, because of the success of Sean Paul, Wayne Wonder and Elephant Man. For years, people said that it wouldn’t work outside of Jamaica, nobody would understand the lyrics or like the beats, but we’ve now brought it across. The kids like the music and American radio is finally embracing it. It has become a new sound for them, a whole new energy. Hip-hop is not that exciting anymore, because it’s kind of pop now, so dancehall is the new underground music.
An important thing to remember, however, is that there will always be two industries: the underground dancehall industry and the people who do it on a bigger scale. Not everybody from Jamaica will get this great opportunity, and you’re still going to have guys who will continue to work in the underground scene.
Are dub plates still a good way for artists to get their music played at clubs, parties and on radio?
The whole dancehall culture is based on the dub plates game. There's always going to be rivalry between the different sound systems and selectors and there’s always going to be dub plates. Young artists definitely need it, unless they have a producer who is just going to take care of them and break them. I tell all young artists who come to me to get some dub plates on the road and get the sound systems to play them in order to create a buzz and build a following. That’s how , Elephant Man, Vybz Kartel and all those guys did it. In fact, it's hard to name anybody who didn’t start with dub plates, although there are a few acts, such as Red Rat and T.O.K., who were just formed as producer projects.
The normal route for dancehall artists starts with dub plates and live performances. Once they’ve got a couple of singles out there, they usually end up putting an album together with one of the reggae distributors like Greensleeves or Jet Star Records in the UK, or VP Records in New York. They do a few albums and tours, and usually end up working with one or a few producers with whom they click well, and it’s with those producers that they make the monster hits. For Red Rat, Buccaneer and Goofy, it was Danny Browne; for Baby Cham, it was Dave Kelly. Artists usually have to find that one producer.
What is the state of the music industry in Jamaica?
We need more business-minded people who can handle the growth of our business. As people realise more and more that our music can do well internationally, they try to learn more about deals, but there isn’t enough management and representation around for the artists. There isn’t a shortage of talent, though; we have tons of studios and artists, and the records are always well made, but we need to get the business in order.
What barriers do Jamaican artists have to overcome in order to break in other territories?
There are two barriers: language and content. Even though the lyrics are in English, it's still very hard for non-Jamaicans to understand them because of the accent and the slang. As for content, reggae artists often talk about specifically Jamaican issues and if you’ve never been here, you don’t understand what they’re referring to. Those two things make it difficult to cross over. There’s a whole culture that you need to understand.
What do you think of the radio situation in Jamaica?
Radio is the best it’s ever been. In the past few years, several new dancehall radio stations have popped up, including ZIP FM and Megajamz. Radio is vibrant, because there is so much choice. You have always had Irie FM, which plays reggae; Fame FM, which plays American r&b, hip-hop and dance music; easy listening stations like Radio 2; several talk radio stations; and even a gospel station.
We used to have only one station that played dancehall continuously, one that played hip-hop, etc., but now we have more stations and more variety, which is also good for the market, because radio stations need to search for new music and break more records, which keeps it competitive and fresh. For the dancehall producers and artists, it's fantastic, because there's not just one radio station that determines the future of their music, as it used to be—there’s now five stations they can take it to.
What aspects of the industry are in need of drastic change?
Firstly, I’d balance the scales in favour of the creative people in music as far as their compensation from records, how they get paid, their rights and the control they have over their music is concerned.
Secondly, record companies have too much power and that makes it difficult to create a process that flourishes, because the producer and the artist get stuck in trying to make the record that the record company wants them to make. That doesn't keep the music fresh and vibrant. We all understand that you have to sell records, but what happens is that there is hardly any phenomenal new music or great new artists anymore.
We're not creating any Princes, Michael Jacksons, Nat King Coles, Bob Marleys or Beatles anymore. It's very hard to produce these kind of acts when everything is so formatted and corporate, which applies to radio as well. Big corporations in the US buy and control so many radio stations that radio sounds the same all over and this leads to stagnation.
The labels argue that they are just trying to sell records, but what happens is that music consumers revolt against it and start downloading stuff instead. Basically, consumers are saying that they’re tired of going to the record store to buy albums by all these supposedly new groups who just sound like the groups they already have. Therefore, they decide that they’re not going to buy any more CDs; instead, they’re just going to download the songs they like for free. That’s what happens: people don't feel there's an immediate reason to purchase new music, because the new music isn’t fresh, it's just recycled.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
The first great moment was when I got a call from David Rodigan, a legendary radio DJ at Radio One in London. He called me at my house, and I’d never met the man but I knew who he was, and he said, "Hi, I'm David Rodigan. Do you know where you're standing? You’re in the Top10 of the UK Chart." That was phenomenal! It was with Beenie Man and "Who Am I?", in 1997.
Sean's album selling gold in the US was also a fantastic moment. It was our target: we had said that we'd be happy if Sean sold gold. And then he went double platinum, so we were ecstatic! And now Sean has just sold one million copies outside of the US too.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years' time?
Producing more records, expanding the studio, and trying to keep dancehall and reggae music healthy, basically. Maybe managing another artist. Passing on all the knowledge I’ve gained from working with major labels and being a manager and a producer. I’ve had a good degree of success on all fronts and I’d like to help train more managers and producers and educate more artists, so that the whole scene can grow. It’s my responsibility to do that.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman