Interview with LEROY BENROS, CEO of Noizy Cricket!!, manager for Angel Haze, Das Rascist - Mar 27, 2013
“I gravitate towards artists that use music as therapy. An artist has to make music because they need to, not because they woke up one morning and decided, ‘I want to be an artist.’”
The raw ambition and passion that fired Le’Roy Benros’ own career climb from Virgin Megastore assistant to sought after music manager and artist developer has helped turn US artist Angel Haze into one of the hottest young rappers of 2013, lusted after by the majors and now signed to Island/Republic.
The Noizy Cricket!! CEO talks to HitQuarters about the internships that launched his career, his role in developing new talent with the backing of Turn First Artists’ Sarah Stennett and UMG, and how to create an artist that labels are queuing up to sign.
What is your background in music?
I always had a love for the music scene since my early college days as campus radio/events DJ for Lynn University and Manhattan College. When I transferred back to New York in 2006, my journey into the music business started when I got a part time job at Times Square's Virgin Megastore.
I always wanted to work in music and felt that being around like-minded people would lead to some kind of opportunity. A friend at the store who had interned at Sony Records helped me get an interview for an internship at the label.
It was Damien Alexander, an A&R for Sony Urban, that gave me my first opportunity to work in the business as part of the A&R admin department. The experience made me realize that it isn’t much of a glamorous thing but rather a job that has to become part of your life. I stayed long nights taking notes and worked on some really cool projects such as John Legend's Once Again and Beyonce's B’Day, and that led to other opportunities.
How did you get to work with Kanye West?
As G.O.O.D. Music was on the verge of leaving Sony Urban at the time, I wrote Eddie Blackmon a Myspace message saying: “I am a big fan of G.O.O.D. Music, I see you in the building but I want an opportunity to meet with you and discuss anything I can do to help the team.” He gave me a shot. I worked in the radio promotion department for the management team, calling up DJs and sending out Kanye’s and the rest of the G.O.O.D Music roster’s records. I never got to work with Kanye personally but the fact that I played any kind of roll was a big accomplishment for me at the time.
The experience from Sony Urban and G.O.O.D led to doing another internship with TVT Music publishing. So at this time my life consisted of school full-time, Virgin Megastore part time, Sony Urban, GOOD and TVT Publishing interns at the same time – music was my life.
How was the experience of interning for TVT Publishing?
Interning for Leotis Clyburn at TVT was probably the most challenging for me because I had responsibilities and expectations to fulfil. I was recommended by my old boss so I couldn't disappoint.
The experience was more hands on because I had to filter all of the music submissions and talk about why I chose or declined records. I had to go to events, meet people and really show what I was about. As I started getting comfortable and enjoying the internship, I was only told it was due to end on my last week! So I had to scramble and think of ways to prove that I was an asset because there was no way I wanted to or was going to leave.
Throughout my internship at TVT, I was able to build relationships with all of the staff. I presented a really cool video for Keke Wyatt's single at the time, Ghetto Rose. Totally on my own, I hired a graphic animator and made a video for the song and played it for the staff. The label loved it, but as there weren’t any real positions available, they could only offer me a job as the receptionist. I took it without thinking twice. I got so caught up in chasing my dreams that I then decided to drop out of college. This is when my life changed.
Whenever I wasn’t answering phones I was either on the computer looking up music or wandering through the building. An artist by the name of Charles Hamilton reached out to me via Facebook saying he wanted to help out with an event he saw I was organising. I told him that I was pretty much all set with this event but perhaps the next one. A week later I revisited that same message and decided to listen to his music. I was completely blown away and immediately set up a meeting at his high school studio in Harlem.
What did you end up doing for Charles?
The more passionate I became about his music, the more time I spent thinking about how to spread his music out to the world. Whether it was putting him on showcases, spending hours burning CDs, emailing music ¬– big shout out to LowKey of UHTN who gave me my first blog placement – word of mouth promo etc.
Charles was homeless so I had to convince my mom to let him stay at the house [laughs]. Eventually he said: "LeRoy, you should just be my manager". At the time I didn't know what that meant, but I knew I was doing something right because word was getting around.
I introduced him to everyone I worked with at TVT and they were impressed with what was happening. Keke Wyatt’s A&R did me the favour of introducing me to the man who eventually became Charles’s lawyer, Theo Sedlmayr. He is one of the biggest entertainment lawyers in the industry – he’s repped Eminem, 50 Cent to name just a few. But I had no idea who he was, I just turned up at his office, played him some music and suddenly I was going from working as a receptionist to flying out to meet Eminem, Pharrell [Williams] and Jimmy Iovine. Things were heating up. We met with the presidents of every major label. I thought, I need to act like I know what I’m doing and that I can hang with the big fish.
Why did you decide to partner up with Chris Lighty of Violater Management and how did that come about?
He gave me a call and said: “I've been watching your moves and you guys are really creating an impressive amount of attention with digital and non-traditional marketing." He was interested in meeting with me to see how we could work together. Everything happened so fast, I didn’t really have the experience to know what I was doing. I have good instincts but at the end of the day I didn’t know about certain basics like budgets and so it made sense for me to partner up with Chris and become a better manager by watching and learning from him.
While Chris and I were discussing a partnership, Jimmy Iovine came to the table with an undeniable offer to sign with Interscope. The day that we signed the deal was the day that TVT Records folded, so it was safe to say my days as a receptionist were over!
Shortly after the Interscope deal, I signed a co-management imprint deal with Violator, which I named Noizy Cricket!! This allowed me to learn from him while utilizing his entire team.
Where did the name come from?
I used to have a habit of briefing Charles before every meeting to the point where it became redundant and that’s when he said "Alright Le’Roy, I get it … you're like a damn noisy cricket!
Despite the very promising start, Charles Hamilton’s career stalled before he could make a real impression. What went wrong?
Looking back, I think things happened too fast. I don't think we were well prepared for what was given to us – even with the bulletproof team I’d assembled. Just wasn't meant to be at the time.
I took some time off after that situation, went completely independent with Noizy Cricket!! And then from there I discovered a new group called Das Racist that I was super excited about.
How did you find Das Racist?
A friend played me the song Combination Pizza Hut Taco Bell and I was like, this might sound like a joke to most but I think it’s genius.
I sat down with them and asked them what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go and they said they just want to make music, make money and have fun.
So we created a plan to help establish themselves as a credible hip-hop group that would be respected in both the hip-hop and the alternative indie communities. We did that by recruiting some great producers/collabs such as Diplo, Scoop DeVille, Dame Grease, Boi-1DA, EL-P and a slew of others. We partnered with Mad Decent and Mishka clothing to deliver an exciting project Sit Down, Man to follow up their debut of Shut up, Dude.
How were you able to finance it?
I put together a strategy sheet that included a budget. I had a few meetings with investors and we were able to secure some funding. The tour itself took me about eight months to put together with no funding. I reached out to a ton of Asian/Euro promoters who were big fans of the music. They all chipped in to cover travel/hotel accommodation once we had created the appropriate amount of interest. From there we just routed it to where it economically made sense.
We hit South Korea, China, and most of Europe during a span of two weeks. Once we arrived from tour, I met with Larry Gold (owner of SOB’s in Manhattan) and took on the challenge of becoming the next Director of Booking at the legendary venue.
The very same week of my new gig, I discovered Angel Haze online.
What appealed to you about her?
I read an interview about her and loved the way she answered questions – her thought process intrigued me. I listened to some music that was online. I reached out instantly. I set up a meeting and she came up to New York from Virginia. I said to her: “I believe in your music and I feel like I’m in a position where I can help you.”
I invited her to S.O.B.’s and after seeing the excitement and the energy at the shows, she said she felt like doing a little rap. I said: “Are you sure?!” She’d never hit a stage before in her life. I put her up on stage at a sold out show, put on a beat and let her freestyle. She stuttered a little bit at first [laughs] – but then she killed it.”
What were the important steps in building Angel Haze’s career?
The thing I’ve learned throughout years of working with artists is that you want to identify goals first of all. You want to know how serious the artist is. You don’t want to make the mistake of having a different vision than the artist.
Angel told me she wanted to be an icon. She wanted to be a star. So I said: “The music you are doing right now is OK, but you have a long way to go. You have to work on your look, your presentation, you have to make incredible original music and you have to be conscious of everything that you do. We have to work hard. We have to put together our own solid team around you.
So after a year of developing and some tough love, she eventually came to me with some amazing music. That’s when I started reaching out to people who I felt were the right members to join the team. I recruited two publicity teams – Biz 3 from the US and Anorak from the UK.
Did you start approaching labels?
We never wanted to approach labels. We wanted to generate enough interest and attention that the labels wanted to approach us. And that’s what we did by rolling out an incredible project called Reservation.
You say you got two publicists involved but publicists are costly. How were you able to finance that?
Initially there was no money behind this. So I went to both teams and said: “Hey, I have something really special, that if we were all to join forces, together we could do something really incredible". I rarely, if at all, make these kind of calls. Your reputation is probably the most important thing you have in this industry. They simply believed in what I was doing and what Angel was doing.
So we worked out a plan that made sense for everyone involved. When it was time to sign the deal, I included the team that got us there and kept them on board ship.
How much plan did you put behind launching her?
Coming up with a strategy is what I love the most. When I approached the PR teams I came equipped with a detailed five-month step-by-step plan; how and when we were going to release something; who we were going to give it to etc. I made it as easy as possible for them. As we couldn’t pay them right away I wanted to utilize their resources but hassle free.
So what were the first steps of your launch plan?
I wanted to appeal to as many people globally as possible. That meant: (1) making the right music (2) putting it in the right vehicles to reach these audiences (3) cultivating the fan base.
I recruited a friend of mine who runs an indie label called True Panther and who was a fan of Angel already, to co-sign the project the way that a hip hop DJ would co-sign a mixtape. Being a big fan of what he's done with his label and the music he's worked with, I thought it would be a cool and interesting way to present the project rather than the conventional DJ way.
Once the music was done, we put together a release schedule, press release, trailer video, single, then project and release party. The important step on my end is how I presented my excitement to make it contagious to those that felt it. Once that happens, you have the right people supporting.
So from your point of view what broke her? What had the biggest impact?
Angel had done a great job of creating a cult like following prior to me getting involved so that made things easy to build on. The chemistry that we had during that time frame was undeniable. We had the right records, the right people involved and the right timing. Everything fell in to place.
But to get to that point, I spent a whole year telling Angel that she wasn’t ready, that the songs weren’t good enough. No artist wants to hear that but fortunately Angel is the type of person that loves a challenge. She took the constructive criticism and delivered.
How did you find the right producer for her?
I met this producer/engineer named The 83rd and told him I needed some beats for the project. The initial stuff he played for me didn't really fit so I played him some of the records she had recorded already and he said: “Give me a few weeks”.
So, two weeks later he called and said: “I have a beat for you.” He played me New York and I said: “That’s the one!” I played it for Angel and she fell in love with it.
When she first appeared it coincided with a wave of female rappers – was that a help or a hindrance?
I wasn't really a fan of the current female rap scene. The subject matter was either over sexualized or it was them trying too hard to be taken seriously.
But when I heard Angel I felt like this was different. To me, gender was irrelevant when it came to her. Her music was special and I felt the world needed to hear it. I never pinned her up against the other female rappers that were out.
When the first buzz happened was that when Island and Republic became interested?
We dropped New York as a single, shot a video for it and released it around the time we had our label meetings. We didn’t stop for anybody – we moved as if we were the label. It’s always enticing to a label when they see self-sufficiency with great results.
The single New York got picked up by MistaJam on BBC radio and Radio 1 was playing it. When we went to London, we talked to every label you can imagine. I told Angel that every label was going to tell her the same thing: “We are the best, we can do this and we can do that blah blah …” So we had to identify who was the most passionate about the music, got the vision and who was the best team for the job.
Why did you opt for that deal?
We wanted two teams invest in the artist equally. We wanted global priority within the label. Both counterparts needed to be fully on board from the gate, especially since the hard work had already been done, and that was to create national and international awareness.
Did you have a lawyer involved that was brokering the deal?
When Reservation dropped and New York started getting some serious radio play I began getting interest emails from labels, lawyers, agents. I prefer to work with people who catch on early, who can see the vision before the rest of the world does. That’s when Laurence Abrahams, who works with Sarah Stennett (HQ interview) at S.S.B., reached out to me.
He was forever calling and emailing me saying: “What are you going to do? You need a lawyer”. I said to him: “Look, we have a release party next week. If you’re that serious then you need to fly out.” He said: “I’ll fly out next week.”
When we finally met, it was really interesting how much we were on the same page with the vision. I felt confident that he could deliver what he said he could, so we rolled with it.
How did Laurence demonstrate his dedication?
He was just immediately strategic with his outreach to the labels and got things lined up, which showed that he was really serious about the project. We were able to secure the situation that we wanted.
How important was it that you were working for S.O.B.’s as a booker? How did that affect the deal with Angel?
The timing couldn’t have been better. My job there is to break talent in the New York market by booking live shows. I get to deal with every manager and every artist. It’s a prominent title to have – you are the guy that introduces New York to new sounds. The relationship benefited certain things I did for Angel.
Did you sign a contract with her early on?
No, there was always a trust. The way I see it is like this: you can have all the contracts in the world but if an artist doesn’t want to work with you, they are not going to work with you. Contracts are great, don’t get me wrong, but at the end of the day there needs to be a relationship and a trust between artist and manager for it to work out. Most artists don't sign contracts until you prove that you are the best person for them.
What was the significance of achieving third place at the Sound of 2013 poll with Angel Haze?
When we got signed everyone was like: “You need to get the Sound poll…” At the time I wasn't familiar with it but the more people that told me about it the more I realized it was significant. So in the last three months I was like: “Let’s go for that Sound poll!”
Once the full list came out I really understood the weight it held. And then when the shortlist came out and she was still on it, I said: “Whether we win or not, the fact we made this list in such a short time with a mixtape, I consider it a victory!” It created significant amount of attention for her.
What is the plan for her in 2013?
Finish her debut album Dirty Gold while maintaining the momentum that we created in 2012. Keep growing the fan base and embark on a tour in the middle of the year then hopefully have a debut album out for the world to love.
What other projects are you working on?
I’m very excited with where my roster is at right now. Bishop Nehru is a 16-year-old producer/artist/director from New York who will make some noise this year. We just released his debut project Nehruvia. I’m also working with a rap group trio called T.I.S from Atlantic City, New Jersey. They are bringing back the fun, party vibe to hip hop that Beastie Boys had back in the day
How was the joint venture between you and Turnfirst Artists/Sarah Stennett set up?
When I met with Sarah, I was very passionate and driven about finding and developing new artists. I told her that up until this point I’d done it all without any budget. This is me waking up every morning and just creating opportunities with the resources that I have. Now imagine if I had a little bit of a budget to put behind something I believe in.
She understood and said: “I like what you are doing. We also develop talent. Have you ever thought of starting a label?” I said: “I’ve always wanted to put out the music I believe in”. She secured a label deal through Turnfirst with Universal for me. I’m very grateful for her belief in me.
She respects my ear and believes that whatever I bring to the table is quality. So it's a development deal – I can find an artist from scratch, sign them to Noizy Cricket, put some capital behind the project, get them to where they need to be and then upstream it to Universal. It's really the perfect situation for any artist. A lot of artists have a manager and material early on but don't have the resources to put it out there the way they need to.
What does the deal look like?
The deal is looking real sexy [laughs]. It’s a two-part deal. Instead of just investing my time in an artist, I’m also able to monetarily invest as well. Since I am backed by UMG, the intent is to get an artist hot enough to eventually bring them to one of their branches worldwide. We do everything in house – management, marketing, PR etc. We provide the resources to a new artist that they wouldn't have on their own and prep them for major label life.
Think of it like baseball where a player gets signed to a team but they have to go through the farm system before making it to the big leagues.
What makes a good artist nowadays? What gets you interested?
Special gets me interested. Passion, creativity, honesty, being able to connect … I can hear an aura in the music. I tend to gravitate towards artists that use music as a form of therapy.
An artist has to make music because they need to, not because they woke up one morning and decided: "I want to be an artist."
Following your success with Angel Haze, have you now worked out a battle plan of how to develop a new artist?
Yes, I pretty much have a blueprint. Even though every artist deserves a unique plan and a different approach, there are certain things that seem to always work.
I like going global from the gate. The world is such a huge place, but the internet makes it so small. At the end of the day, it’s as simple as knowing how to spread great music and utilizing all of the resources that are in front of you. Having a budget make my life a whole lot easier.
For future releases are you planning on working on an album or would you say let's just get four or five tracks and make an EP? What’s more important for launching an artist?
I feel free music is the best marketing tool. Just because it’s free doesn't mean the quality diminishes. It should all be album quality music. So to answer the question, it can either be an EP or a free album depending on the artist. What’s most important is that the music makes an impact and cultivates the fan base.
For new releases, what your opinion on iTunes versus free download?
Free is always better. A lot of people don't understand what that means. Just because people are not paying for a download doesn't mean you are not making money. Every fan that you create is a potential dollar. Even if you put a whole mixtape out for free. Guess what, you’ve now created demand to perform.
You can download music for free but you cannot download an experience of a show. If you like the music you will probably go down to a show pay $15 and buy a T-shirt. The music is just there to engage you, and then after that you pay for everything else.
What would you advise up-and-coming artists to put out their music?
To put out consistent quality content but also make sure you have a follow up plan.
Once the music is out, support it with interesting visuals. All the tools an artist needs are at their fingertips. You just have to understand how people consume music and where they consume music. They just need to keep pushing the project and always remember that there’s billions of people out there that need to hear you.
Interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Read On ...
* Turn First's Sarah Stennett on signing a deal with Le'Roy to develop artists