Interview with T. FARRIS, president and A&R at Swishahouse for Mike Jones, Paul Wall (US No.1) - Dec 5, 2005
ďPaul [Wall] started out by going to video shoots and things, meeting somebody who would introduce him to somebody else ... Heís a great networking guy. Paul knows more people than I do."Ö says T. Farris, President and A&R at Swishahouse, based in Houston, Texas, USA. He has been awarded Top 10 on the World Top 20 A&R Chart for signing and developing Paul Wall (US No.1) and Mike Jones, whom he worked with when still going to school.
Read about the importance of networking between artists and DJs, the spread of mix tapes and why he doesnít go to open mic sessions but listens to unsolicited material.
Who own Swishahouse and the studio, and what is your role in the company?
The owners are Michael Watts and G-Dash. I met Michael in high school. I used to sell tapes at school for one of the guys that belonged to the same group as him. Also in school I hit the roll with Mike Jones and we made some things happen. He had success really quickly, so I stopped school because he had a nice buzz out on the streets and was able to go out of town and do shows.
Recently I became A&R and president. I got the A&R title because I worked Mike Jones and Paul Wall. I had no title before, I was just working and going to school and paying for my books. But when we got Mike and Mike became successful they raised me up to president. But Iím still A&R of all our projects, so Iíve got 2 titles over here.
Were you an artist yourself?
No. I canít rap, but I know what sounds good.
Is it important for you to be located in Texas?
Yes, definitely. Everybody has his or her different style of music now. Letís take Lilí John, he was just doing his style of music, and then the world wanted to hear it. You donít want to hear another Lilí John. So itís very important that we represent where weíre from.
They like our style, our style is very easy for us to make, and itís different then the others. We have to speak with our cultural style of music down here because weíre doing an exposition to the world. You basically make everybody aware of whatís going on down here without them having to come down here or read a book. They can hear your music and say: "Ok, thatís what they do in Texas."
How did you meet Paul Wall and Mike Jones in the first place?
Paul used to work in the Swishahouse office with me. He was going to school as well, selling CDs. He started rapping and was signed to another label. But we always remained cool and close friends. He decided that he wanted to get out of the label that he was with and saw that I was doing a good job with Mike Jones.
I met Mike Jones in a strip club. I heard him on one of my partnerís mix tapes and I wanted to meet him and try to get him to rap on our mix tapes. We linked up, signed him and itís been going on since then.
How did you build up from an unknown artist to a big number?
The thing is you have to do development of the artist. You canít put a project out there if nobody knows who they are. When youíre an unknown artist youíve got to do so much more work than when youíre a known artist. But itís really easy, because once an artist is known he doesnít do the same things he used to do when he was unknown. Heís a lot hungrier when heís unknown.
With Mike, we just worked in the studio till we got the right song.
How many songs did you do?
We did a lot of songs. We did a bunch of mix tape stuff. We got on every mix tape we were able to get on, and it was the same with Paul Wall. Your music speaks for itself. If you do your job, people will notice you. They just have to hear you enough to see that youíre nice.
Thatís what I did with Mike Jones, I said: ďThat sounds pretty good, I would love to get you.Ē He came in and gave us his all. So itís a kind of development. Major labels are not into that. You canít get a major deal with: ďHereÖ new artist,Ē where they go: ďYeah, Iíll do something with him.Ē
What does development involve for you?
Basically what happens is when you do all these different big DJ mix tapes you create a fanbase. There is always somebody out there listening and before you know it youíre able to do a concert here and there. In the beginning itís only for a little amount of money, but youíre doing something to build a fanbase.
How long does it take from the first meeting to the finished product?
With Mike, it was maybe about 2 Ĺ years. With Paul Wall a lot of things were different, because he already had a relationship with everybody.
Do you have some new artists coming through?
Yeah, itís Archie Lee and Cootabang. And also I just signed a guy... he is a legend here in Houston. They call him ďLilí KekeĒ. He plays a big role in the whole style of rap music that we make down here. Heís like the creator of it. Here in Texas, ask for Lilí Keke and they will tell you.
He started with DJ Screw, doing the mix tape-stuff. That made a lot for us here in the south. Since then thatís been on the top, and everybody has been doing pretty much that kind of style of rap here. Thatís where the style comes from.
This is what happens; itís like a recipe thatís started and as years go by everybody puts more ingredients in it to make it better. Lilí Keke has his way of making his music and Paul Wall has his way of making his music. Itís almost 2 different styles, but itís still the same.
If an artist wants to make it out there the main thing is for him to have a good team. Lilí Keke was never in a situation where he had a good team representing him. Thatís why he didnít take off that fast. You can be a good rapper, but if you donít have a good management team working behind you, and good people around your label giving a 100%, then you wonít make it, no matter what. It's 90% business and 10% talent.
Whatís the thing about mix tapes?
Mix tapes spread. You might lay freestyle on one DJís CD, and then another DJ might put it on. Or you might call people up and say: ďI have a song for your mix tape here,Ē and it makes it easy to integrate. Mix tapes represent the streets. Theyíre like street radio. They spread! And thatís good for your artist because it makes the artist hot.
Have there been other special events that have led your artists forward?
Yeah, radio helps a lot, but without the street buzz you canít even get the radio. Radio can turn 50,000 records into a million records. But youíve got to get your name up there in the first place. A street buzz makes people start asking who you are. They hear of you and want to get some material. Then you eventually find a DJ who is going to break it.
Was there a special DJ involved with your artists?
Yeah, our CEO - Michael Watts, he works at a radio station and he has a lot of good relationships with a lot of DJís everywhere across the globe.
Was there one DJ who put it on the radio and created the greater buzz?
Yeah, the first person that ever played Mike Jones was a guy called DJ Casual out of Meredian Mississippi. His station is a non-BDS station - they donít report their spins. But this guy just loved what Mike Jones did. He started playing it and from there he turned it on to another DJ in Monroe, Louisiana by the name of Gravedigger. So we were getting little shows here and there. DJís just have relationships with each other and pass things on to one another.
Were there any sponsors in place?
No, it was just us. You donít get any sponsors when youíre not known. If you donít know me at all and I say to you, ďLook, can you hand me $20,000 for my new Ďunknown artist?Ē youíd look at me like I was crazy! I wouldnít give the money to me either! Thatís why I want to thank HitQuarters for considering me as one of the top A&Rís, because Iíve worked hard and I donít get a lot of recognition.
Once your name gets big, youíre getting deals with shoe companies and stuff. But Iím sure none of us needed a sponsor. Now, if we needed a sponsor we would get one. But itís like, once you start making money, why do you need a sponsor?
If you were starting a company from square one, you wouldn't borrow any money from anybody. Youíd just work strong. You donít have to split 50/50 with nobody. You donít have to make anybody your partner if you donít want to.
Does the record label have a deal with a major now?
Yeah, we have one with Atlantic for Paul Wall and one with Warner Bros for Mike Jones.
Is it just a distribution deal?
I donít want to go so far as telling what kind of situation that is.
How to you find new talent? Do you go out and watch shows or go to open mic sessionsÖ?
No, I donít do any of that. What I do is observe the music scene. I just listen. When I like something I will try to get it. I donít go out for this: ďHey man, I got a friend he raps and he sounds like this, you have to check him out.Ē No, I sit back on my own and try to listen if itís something that I figure I can work with.
So you listen to the stuff thatís sent to you and pick it up from there?
Yeah, I might listen to mix CDs or mix tapes and hear someone in there.
Are you looking for a certain kind of artist at the moment?
Not right now really. Weíre fine right now. My plate is kind of full because I want to make good with what I have. So I donít want to sign any more artists as it is, but if I found something hot I would. I just wouldnít go out looking for it right now.
Do you listen to unsolicited material?
Yeah, because Iíve been there before - I know how it feels not to have anybody listening to your music.
What advice would you give unsigned rappers? What do you think itís important for them to do?
My advice: just keep working. They will come looking for you. Once you get out there, the labels will find you. Just continue to do what you do everyday. Donít wait for them to come.
So what did a day for Paul Wall look like when he was unknown?
Writing all day, going to the studio. I didnít even have to be in the studio with him. If he is here in Houston, heís in the studio doing something. This guy is one of the most amazing guys I ever met in my whole life. He works on his own.
But what did he do to get the music out to the people?
He started out by going to video shoots and things, meeting somebody who would introduce him to somebody elseÖetc. Heís a great networking guy. Paul knows more people than I do. A&R people like me donít have the same opportunities he has of getting known and noticed. People down here donít have A&Rís for their projects.
Is it important that the artists you sign are from your area?
No, it doesnít matter, as long as I like the music.
Something from outside the US, too?
I work with anything I believe in.
When you listen to a rap demo, what is important for you, the rhyming skills or the production?
Itís the whole package. Get yourself a great track or beat with a wise, catchy hook that people can remember easily and everything else falls into place. In production matter youíre not really going to have no itches in the song. You donít want to be sitting there not to have any itches.
You might say: ďYeah, they can rap but the beat is whack.Ē Thatís not a good presentable demo. A good demo is a demo thatís hot. Something where the track is hot, the lyrics are hot, the hook is hot. Then when you bring it to the table people will jump on it because they like the song.
Are you involved in the music production, too?
Yeah I sit in the studio, and give input on whatever I feel the song needs. Like with the Mike Jonesí ďStill TippinĒ - I didnít like the first original version. It had a track on it that I wasnít happy with. So I went to another buddy of mine that makes tracks and I sat with him. He sent me a lot of beats. There was just something about it that made me grab it.
I put Paul Wall on the end of the song, and there we were. The song took off from there. I donít make the tracks, but Iíll go to the studio and change them with the producer 2 or 3 different times. Iíll basically let him play his keys and let him do his thing, but heíll ask me: ďDo you like this?Ē and Iíll tell him: ďOh, I donít like that sound, letís do thisÖĒ, and weíll go from there. I bring stuff to my artist to see if my artist can feel it.
Do you accept beats from producers that you donít know, too?
Do you like to get beats over the Internet or sent to you on CD?
Either are fine, it doesnít matter.
So what should a good beat have that you would like for your artist?
If you can move to it, man! You might not dance, but if you move in any kind of way than itís a hot beat.
Could you hear a good track over the telephone?
No, not over the telephone. But over a nice little radio. I get beats from all over. I had a track from a guy called ďAmadeusĒ in New York. He sent me some tracks and I got my people to rap over it. This track is such a wonderful track - Iím so glad I didnít sleep on it. I could have missed it because I had been so busy. Thereís a reason why I take time off in my day to listen to all these kinds of tracks, because you never know when the next big thing is coming.
After the success with Mike Jones was there big pressure on you to land the next big thing?
With me itís kind of easy-going, because I do it Ďcause I love it. I know that at any given time I can step up my game. Itís something that god blessed me with, the talent and the ear to hear good music.
How do you think the internet has changed things for unsigned hip hop artists during the last few years?
Iím not into that so much. All I know is that you can trade over the Internet or mp3 music to Djís. So the music is right on the spot to see if somebody likes it or not. I donít work with the internet a lot.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Basically itís just good to see that the guys I started with from scratch are on TV. I remember days when Paul was sitting in the office dreaming about it. That makes me feel good everyday that I have a guy that was first with another label and he came over to sign with us, had faith in me, knowing that I could take his music to the next level. And I didÖ
Interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Interview with Martin Heath, A&R at Lizard King for The Killers (US Top 10)
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