Interview with JEROME FOSTER AKA. KNOBODY, producer and A&R at SRC USA for Akon (US Top 10) - Sep 27, 2005
“My vision was to break Akon in the streets first and work our way towards cross-over,“
… says Jerome Foster a.k.a. Knobody, producer and A&R at SRC USA for Akon (US Top 10). He has also produced Jay Z, Big Pun, Mya, Lil’Kim and R.E.M.
Read about his path through the music industry, his work with new artists and the story behind the name “Knobody”.
How did you first get started in the music business?
I grew up in New York, where my brother and I were part of a rap group. I was rapping and also producing tracks with my partner Sean C. At that time I was about 20 years old, and still at college. But I left after a couple of years so I could concentrate on music.
What kind of style of music was it?
We did what I would call hardcore hip-hop; it wasn’t exactly gangsta but it was pretty dark. At the same time it was conscious, like 2Pac´s stuff, with subliminal messages.
Did you have a record deal?
We got a call from Big Beat, a label that used to be under Atlantic Records. They offered us a singles deal, but we didn’t take it.
How did they hear about you?
We had a record out. We did it all by ourselves – we had the records printed and we distributed them to underground record stores and gave them to a lot of DJs. Then we got a call from Funkmaster Flex – he’s a DJ on New York´s Hot 97. When the radio station started playing our record it created a buzz for us.
Why did you decide to then switch to producing instead?
My brother didn’t want to continue with the rap group. But the last track that I’d produced for us I thought was really good. Sean and I took the track to Roc-A-Fella’s Damon Dash, who lived across the street. Dame took the track to Jay-Z, they all liked it, and I ended up producing “Can’t Knock The Hustle”, which became a hit record for Jay-Z on Roc-A-Fella.
So how did that song actually get recorded?
I did the music - the backing track – and gave that to Jay-Z, he wrote to it, then we recorded his vocals. There was a space for a chorus – then Mary J Blige came in, had the idea for the chorus, and we recorded her. I worked with an engineer named Carlos Bess who I already knew well and who went on to become a big engineer doing a lot of the Wu Tang records.
Do you remember how you felt at the time with all this happening so fast?
Of course I was excited. Everybody was so excited to get Mary on the song. The label had contacted her; she’d heard the track and immediately wanted to do it, despite Roc-A-Fella being an independent record label and Jay-Z being unknown at that time. “Can’t Knock The Hustle” was released in 1996 as a single, it became one of his first hits and is now considered a classic Jay-Z record.
In 1997 my production partner Sean became A&R at Loud and he played one of my tracks to Big Pun who was just getting in the game then. We recorded Pun’s first hit, “Still Not A Player” and that became huge – my biggest record! The album sold 5 million copies.
Where did you go from there?
My name was buzzing in the industry and I was working freelance as a producer. The record companies were reaching reach out to me, so I did lots of productions – some songs with Mya for Interscope (the title cut for her album, “Fear of Flying”), then Lil´ Kim, Noriega…
In quite a career left-turn you produced a couple of tracks for R.E.M. – how did that come about?
I was producing a track for Kool G Rap and I wanted to do something different. I wanted a rock group to perform the chorus, mixing rock and hip-hop together. So a production partner of mine, Dahoud, took that track over to Michael Stipe from R.E.M. He loved it and agreed to do it. He then became interested in my work. He thought it was weird and different and he ended up asking me to re-touch two of his songs, “The Lifting” and “I’ve Been High”. I did, and they are indeed very different.
How do you make money as a producer?
The record companies tend to bring in numerous producers for a hip-hop album. All of the songs get cut and then they decide which ones will go on the album. I get paid an advance for the production of a track. When the album is released, every time the record gets played I get royalties. I also get royalties for writing the music.
How come you moved on to being A&R?
I never would have thought I’d become an A&R. This actually goes back to the Big Pun record at Loud. The president of Loud, Steve Rifkind, became interested in me – simply because I produced his biggest record. We established a good relationship while I was doing productions for different artists and labels.
Steve had a lot of credibility in the industry, and in 2002 he wanted to start another label, so he called me in. At the time, I was producing my own groups. I played them for Steve and he wanted them as part of the launch of his new label, SRC. What really caught my attention was that he wanted me as a partner in the company.
Which rap acts did you start with?
There was David Banner from Mississippi, whose album went gold. Then there was Ric-A-Che from Detroit and Akon. We were working the Ric-a-Che and Akon records simultaneously. Both of their records were picking up, so we put them on the road together to carry each other.
How did you find Akon?
A guy by the name of Devyne Stephens had Akon signed to his production company. Akon produced his records there. We linked up with Devyne, listened to all his music, loved it, and said, “there´s a deal we need to do, there´s something different here.”
What caught my attention right away was “Lonely” and I said, “this kid is official; this is a huge record.” So right away we jumped on a private plane to Atlanta to meet him. Me and Akon hit it off right away. He knew of my work as a producer and there was this mutual respect for each other´s work.
Why did you start with “Locked Up” and not with “Lonely” as a first single?
My vision was to break Akon in the streets first and work our way towards cross-over, because his music ultimately appeals to a wide audience. "Locked Up" is a street record. I thought that was the place for us to start to get a fan-base, knowing that we had a record like "Lonely", which was more commercial, to follow it.
What was your involvement in the production of “Locked Up (Remix)”?
I thought "Locked up" was a huge record. Some people in the label agreed, some disagreed. Eventually, Steve and Akon gave me the go-ahead to make some changes. I got the rapper Styles P on the record and rearranged it a bit. I worked on what I call "drops" – points in the record where it feels different, to break the monotony and make it a little more interesting.
I hired Carlos to come in and mix this new version. My work was inspired by the original version of the song that Akon did. Without Akon’s original song, I would not have been able to do what I did.
Do you listen to unsolicited demos?
I have a huge pile of demos in my office and I try to listen to everything. You never know what you’re going to come across. And SRC is always looking for new artists. We started out with three, now we have nine.
Where will hip-hop be going in the future?
Rap is huge. Elements of rap now touch rock music and R&B. Hip-hop is in almost every bit of music. To me, rap has been unpredictable from day one and still is. If it wasn’t for rap/hip-hop I wouldn’t be in the music business. It touches people’s souls in a weird way. It gives people a vision, a direction, and an outlook on life.
You can hear Jay-Z’s opinions about life, Big Pun’s… that’s what touches people, because they identify with it. These are personal statements, and that’s what people need. We didn’t really have that before. Bob Dylan, Nirvana, The Doors – periodically there were groups that did that. But now rap is full of it – artists reaching out and touching people.
What about the stereotype rappers?
I don’t believe there is a stereotypical rapper. There is Kanye West who acknowledges god in his music, David Banner who blends a street perspective with his faith, Common Sense who touches you on a conscience level, and there’s the intelligence and depth of Jay-Z…
There are many people who are daring to do something different. Look at OutKast , for instance – that’s a rap group. To hear “Hey Ya!” and their album was relieving because it was different. Some rappers get caught by the feeling that they have to go one way, but luckily we have those people that push the envelope. Without them hip-hop would stay in one lane.
Can you still do productions for labels other than SRC?
Yes. Among my next productions are Kelis and Mario.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a producer?
One: stay focused. Two: work hard. Don’t just work. Work HARD. That’s what makes the difference.
What’s your own goal for the future?
To blend the concept of producing and running a record company. Like Babyface or Jimmy Iovine - to be a producer who deals with the politics of the music industry and masters that as well.
What’s the meaning of the name “Knobody”?
I went through a period when I did a lot of reading because I wanted to learn things on my own, not just what they taught you in school or what I learned in the street. I wanted to know who I am and what I am all about. “Knobody” means “knowing body”, “knowledge of self”. I wanted to know my strengths and conquer my weaknesses. This had a big influence on me and it’s what keeps me humble in this business.
Interviewed by Monica Rydell
Next week: Interview with Stephen Street, producer for Blur, Cranberries, Morrissey and The Smiths (UK No.1)
Read On ...