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Interview with KEVIN LAW, A&R at Universal for Nelly - Aug 28, 2000

“The Internet is not really a source that works for me. It sounds like it would be too time-consuming.”

picture A&R at Universal, New York, Kevin Law is responsible for signing and developing the American rap star Nelly, the most successful debut artist worldwide in 2000, with a No.1 on the Billboard Album Chart and sales exceeding 2 million (double-platinum). For this, Kevin has been awarded No.3 on the "World Top 20 A&R Chart" at HitQuarters.

He is also working as an A&R for the rock band Isle of Q and for the female hip-hop artist Miss Toi, whose debut album will be released next year, featuring Dr.Dre and Nelly as guests. He is also engaged in Uncommon Management, which he founded together with Bruce Moran, Phil Ernst and John Germinario.

How did you first get into A&R?

I've always had a passion for music and that's why I wanted to be involved in making records. In 1995 I started working in the sales and marketing department at Island Records. Later on I was appointed A&R Consultant at Private/BMG but changed in 1997 to become head of A&R at N2K, the label of Phil Ramone (producer of Billy Joel, Chicago, Barbara Streisand etc.). After 2 years, in 1999, I was offered this A&R position at Universal.

How do you find new talent?

I find talent in a wide variety of ways, through lawyers, managers, by listening to demos, going to showcases. I don't prefer one way over the other because I don't think there is just one way.

What made you sign Nelly and how did you go about choosing his repertoire?

He has the most unique lyrical style, very melodic. Plus that his music appeals to a very broad audience. Nelly was in a group called the Saint Lunatics to begin with, but Country from Fo'Reel Ent. and I decided to pull Nelly out of the group to do a solo record first. We didn't keep any tracks from his early material, but he is still with Saint Lunatics and we will release them next year.

What was the procedure after you signed him in terms of talking to other A&R's, MD, promotion?

At Universal they just let me do what I do. I don't really need anyone's creative input with regards to making records. I work on my own because I find it too distracting to have more people involved. But of course I will try to make people within the company enthusiastic about the project. For instance, what I did with Nelly in the early stages of the album recordings, was to make him a surprise guest at our marketing meeting. That turned out to be a great move, because the company got very excited.

In the release of Nelly's records and the building up of his career, what aspects were you most proud of?

I am most proud of the team at Universal. Proud of the fact that people didn't let their egos stand in the way - it was real teamwork! I would like to thank some people on the team by name: Doug Morris, Mel Lewinter, Monte Lipman, Jean Riggins, Jocelyn Cooper, Jackie Rhinehart, Michael Horton, Pat Monaco, Wayne Chernin, Wendy Washington, Jeff Panzer, Val DeLong, Charlie Foster and the entire staff at Universal is second to none. Also big thanks to Country at Fo'Reel and Tony Davis and Courtney Benson @ T-Luv Management.

Also, I’m proud of the promotional strategy, as we put some snippets from the album on the single. Then, we deliberately shipped only 250.000 singles. After that we started to sell the album but didn't release anymore singles, though the single was still going strong. We made people interested in the album because of the snippets.

What are you working on at the moment?

At the moment I'm working on a rock band called Isle of Q. Later this year there is a release scheduled for the album of Miss Toi. She's excellent. She's got a strong personality and a strong message in her music. She's the female 2Pac. She's by far the best female hip-hop artist there is.

What is the difference between your A&Ring and the work at the management company?

It is not much different, to be honest. We are four people running the management company and I am responsible for the creative side. The only real difference with managing is that you are not actually making the records.

Do you use the Internet for work purposes?

No, I don't really use the Internet, some MP3s occasionally, but that's it. Internet is not really a source that works for me. It sounds like it would be too time-consuming.

Can you point out sources close to you that accept unsolicited material and could get unsigned acts closer to working with you?

I think it's a little too far-fetched to spend your time finding out who is close to the A&R and contact them, and then wait for an opportunity to get your material listened to by the A&R you wanted to contact in the first place. That sounds very confusing to me. The only thing I could recommend to unsigned artists is to become resourceful and find a lawyer or a manager that knows the business. There is really no set strategy.

How do you relate differently to different genres as an A&R?

The A&R procedures are more or less the same whether you are dealing with rock or with hip-hop, it doesn't really matter. The only real difference is people's attitude. Rock bands find it very hard to deal with criticism. Plus you run the risk of the guitarist having a bad day, because it's all live instruments. I find hip-hop artists easier to work with because they’re very open towards other people's ideas.

Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned artists with regards to submitting their material?

Keep it short! Send in your best 3 songs, the best one first. You shouldn't put your ten best songs on there. An A&R can judge from 3 songs whether he's interested in hearing more material. You have to keep people wanting. There are acts that spend loads of time designing artwork for their demo and biography. But in my opinion it doesn't really matter what the package looks like, as long as you've got good songs and an OK sound, that's all that matters.

What is your attitude towards Napster, MP3s and the future of digital downloads?

I'm very against Napster. It's simply stealing! The people like the producer and the artist really get affected a great deal by sites such as Napster. They spend so much time creating their record and then people expect to get that for free? Of course that's not OK!

What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years from now?

Well, I wrote a movie, we're just in the middle of talking deals with two major film companies. So I definitely would like to continue writing movies in the future. I would also like to be running a record label, possibly my own. But one thing is for sure, I will continue the creative process. Creating is like breathing for me.

What was your favourite album of last year?

Finley Quaye's "Maverick A Strike", or maybe that's already two years ago. Anyway, I really like that record. He's got a unique style.

Interviewed by Marlene Smits

Next week: Colin Barlow, A&R at Polydor UK (No.1 in UK - Ronan Keating)

Read On ...

* Kevin Law returns two years later to talk about his successes with Nelly