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BREEDING GROUND Part 1: What Do A&R’s Look For In An Artist?

AllHipHop.com has become notorious as the one stop for Hip-Hop heads to overdose on all things Hip-Hop; Music, News, Alternative interviews and the best rumors in the industry, here we have it all. Yet, one section of the site is geared to help both artists looking to get on and the label executives who are trying to find that next HOT artist, that place is here in The Breeding Ground.

Showcasing unsigned and independent talent, The Breeding Ground has promoted numerous artists who have gone on to secure major label deals for themselves. Many of who say their exposure on The Breeding Ground gave them that extra push in garnering attention from A&Rs. Here at AllHipHop.com we thought we would call on some of the best and most recognized A&Rs in the industry to give us their insight into just what they look for when go on that glorious hunt to find new talent.

We have Lenny S, Vice President of A&R at Rocafella/Def Jam who has been a staple of the Roc since its inception in 1996. Having worked on every album the Roc has put out; there is just no denying Lenny’s appreciation and dedication for the culture in which he is submersed.

Riggs Morales, another industry heavyweight. Having uncovered some serious names while at The Source scouting for the “Unsigned Hype,” Riggs is now situated at Shady Records where he is Senior Director of A&R. His highlights have been his involvement on the whole 50 Cent deal going through and signing the Atlanta rapper Bobby Creekwater.

Jason Mazur, A&R Coordinator/Scout at TVT Records who has made a name for himself at the label famed for artists such as Lil Jon, The Ying Yang Twins and Pitbull.

Conrad Dimanche is famed for breaking and signing bands such as Danity Kane, Yung Joc and Boyz N Da Hood in his role as Senior Director of A&R of Bad Boy Worldwide. Conrad has a staggering 30 albums to his credit and all but two have entered the charts in the top ten.

Next we have Sickamore, the new kid on the block who plays the part of Director of A&R at Atlantic Records. He is famed for his introducing Saigon to Just Blaze and for his work with Tru Life.

Kenny Scalido, AKA Tick, is the Director of A&R at Warner Brothers Records adds his take to the mix. Having played a major role in bringing Snoop Dogg’s producer, Terrace Martin to the fold and securing a deal for Breeding Ground Alumni Young Dre at the label it is all go for ‘The Tick.’

Pay attention people as what these guys have to say is crucial as at the end of the day, they seek talent, they know talent and they sign talent.

AllHipHop.com: What exactly does your job entail, being that you are higher up the chain of command?

Lenny S: Basically, first and foremost just the regular basics of A&R, you know the artists rep, which completes albums, the whole production of the album, from studio recording to handling studio budgets to negotiating producer prices, side artists prices, song deals, writers. Being a VP I am able to negotiate and sometimes I get to co-executive produce the album. Like I said you can negotiate and hook everything up, whereas just as an A&R you hook up the producers but the managers normally do the negotiating or the record company. With all that being said I work on the direction of the album. Being at Rocafella takes it in a different direction too with it being a separate entity; there I oversee all the projects. I might not be working with Memphis Bleek but I oversee his project and make sure he is in the loop, listen to the record and see what direction he is going in and just guide him in the right direction and make sure the focus stays where it needs to be, with the whole camp and individuals as well.

AllHipHop.com: So is it like babysitting an artist?

Lenny S: I don’t want to say that [laughs] but I mean that word when it is read on paper and when it is read online it seems a little harsh. You know what I call it? I call it micro managing. I do use that term sometimes, but I don’t use it with disrespect towards my artist as literally it doesn’t stop at the studio. I have personal relationships with my artists and when we aren’t in the studio, we are going to get something to eat or we are going to a club. I am helping them to go to the dentists to get their tooth pulled. Artists have two people at the label that they count on hands on for everything. The A&R and their product manager, who obviously handles the marketing side; these are the people you have to count on and A&R if it is an artist, the one thing they are about is their music. So the creative side will always, even when the label is not working on their album and they are working on the album or are in between albums, these guys are calling my phone asking me to listen to this or telling me they wrote something new, to start ahead of time.

AllHipHop.com: Would you rather devote your time to working with one outstanding artist as opposed to a few mediocre?

Lenny S: Personally I would say yes, I would rather work with one, two or three key artists and they don’t have to be amazing as far as selling millions of records, but if they have a career or an astounding overall package that makes them unique and makes them relevant in Hip-Hop, you know I work with Ghostface. He hasn’t sold nearly the amount of records that Jay-Z does but, he has a claim in Hip-Hop that is never going to go away. He is just that guy, the guy from Wu–Tang who is still so relevant and still has critically acclaimed albums. Those things I choose to do, I wish he could sell more records, he deserves to and he has a set fan base. I just have to be passionate about it. Before I went back to Def Jam I was working at another company for a little while and as soon as I got back, Jay knows how I feel about Ghostface, I was already friends with him and I am the biggest Ghostface fan in the world and that is how things go; when I came back in I am sure some of the A&Rs were not aspiring to do that project but there was no question. As soon as I came in, Ghostface has an A&R and a perfect relationship and we did the Fishscale album and it was critically acclaimed and it was the best album since Supreme Clientele. So passion is what I am about.

AllHipHop.com: What factors do you incorporate into looking for the next big thing?

Lenny S: Lenny S looks for two things; how much you believe that artist and how much you want to be that artist. When I say believe and be them, that is two different things. An artist has their music that they put out to the world and music fans have to be able to believe what the artist is saying; if they don’t, then they are not going to buy it as no one is going to buy something they don’t believe in. If they do do it, they are the ones that are called one hit wonders and I am not in the business of one hit wonders, I am in the business of getting into artists like Beanie Segal and Jay-Z and Jeezy who I am using as an example; these are all guys that people believe. When Jeezy says he was hustling here and there and doing what he had to do, people believe it because the way he speaks it, with the conviction and the passion in his voice and what he is talking about. They believe these guys and that is why people follow them and why they sell millions of records. So when people want to be these artists, every artist should have a quality about them where they have an aura that makes them glow. So when they walk into a room, like when Jay walks into a room and he is at the bar, everyone wants to see what he is drinking as they want to be down with him and drinking what he is drinking. Like with Juelz Santana, when he is on 106 and Park with his red bandanna tied a certain way, you will go to the Hood and every little kid will have their bandanna tied the same way as they want to be like that. People want to be like these guys and that is what sells records, people buying into the culture.

Riggs Morales: At this point I look for something different. I mean as interesting as it may seem being normal is the new different. Now I am not saying that I am looking for something normal but people are so wrapped up in trying to do what everyone else is doing that when someone calms down for a second and then it comes across as different, when in reality it isn’t. I am looking for just something prospective right now, I am very big on prospective. If a main dude on the streets getting wild and selling their drugs it is about how they do it and how they say it. There is a difference between a Young Jeezy saying he sells drugs and say a Raekwon saying he sells drugs in this day and age.

Jason Mazur: There are a variety of things; it depends ideally on how you meet up with an artist. So if you get a CD, you want to hear if they have good songs first and foremost and then you go onto other aspects of it. But if I see someone at a show I want to see not only if they have good songs, but I want to know if they have a good stage presence, what their image is like and that doesn’t necessarily mean are they pretty or handsome, as stage presence doesn’t always involve their looks per say. The look can evolve, it is how they dress, it is how they handle the stage, it is how they captivate their audience and that is on top of the songs. There are other things to look at in 2007. You know a lot of stats and figures come in to play, meaning right now we are heavy on research, where labels to go and spend money and look at BDS and look at how many hits people have on their YySpace, they are secondary sometimes and then they can be primary. You know if you find out someone has 300 spins this week, you go, you find out who they are, you get their music and take it from there. It is not as cut and dry as everyone thinks.

Conrad Dimanche: Today I am looking for the total package, great talent, great work ethic, a great personality and someone who just shines. It is about more than making records today. You have to have people buy into the artist and wanting to be like the artist as that is what sells records. I definitely look for quality in production. When I say the total package, I mean something that doesn’t need too much work and that includes the quality of the music being up to par. It is not like it was six years ago when it was about having a three song demo or rapping over someone else’s beat, you sound hot and you get a deal. I think that is one of the biggest problems that artists have, not having the quality of production and music to stand up to what is on the radio.

Sickamore: Well to me, as I focus on Hip-Hop and R&B and there are two things that I look for. With Hip-Hop it is like boxing, they come up in the ring in their neighborhood, they may have a buzz in a 20 block radius and then their borough or their town or county. You know you can’t come up to the office as a rapper as you need momentum when you sign a deal. When it comes to singers, it is a little different as you cultivate the talent a little differently, the way you break R&B talent is by putting them on the radio, get them on TV. One is like coaching a boxer and the other is like creating a baby. When it comes to the rappers, they have to work hard. Some think you need BDS and Soundscan but the thing is you really don’t, you just need a buzz. If you don’t have any momentum coming into the project what is the point.

Tick: When it comes to artists I look for a star and a grind quality. A person with talent who wants to win no matter what. Integrity and being true to oneself…the integrity of the music is everything.

AllHipHop.com: How can an artist grab the attention of an A&R nowadays?

Lenny S: I think just by drive and proving to everyone that they have the drive and the talent to do it, be a part of this business and be a part of this culture. You have plenty of guys who plenty of people turned their faces from, Jae Millz, Uncle Murda, Papoose, Joell Ortiz, all these guys were doing their things for years, A&R’s didn’t pick up on it and their drive made people listen. I think drive to me is what gets guys so far. It gets the Papoose there, it gets the Jim Jones there, and it gets the Papoose there. I don’t care if people don’t think they are good, they think they are incredible and that drive and passion makes them supersede everyone else who is around whom probably think they are more talented but don’t work as hard.

Sickamore: We have to see that they can work before they get there. It’s like any job, if you are asking a label to give you a half a million dollars or three quarters of a million dollars, yet you haven’t not put out one CD for the club, no vinyl and no networking it doesn’t work like that. You have to understand that you have to work. As long as you have a game plan, and you keep to that plan, you shouldn’t give up. Someone like Rick Ross was pushing for years. He had his first vinyl out in 1986 and he just dropped his first major release solo in 2006 and he is the biggest artist now 20 years after he first dropped, so you can never tell someone to give up. But you have to have a plan and a vision for your project, because if you don’t have a vision or a project and you just want to get signed and you are doing something wrong, you are going to be doing something wrong for a long time.

AllHipHop.com: Do you think there is an over abundance of artists out there today trying to get a deal; does this make your job easier?

Lenny S: Absolutely. I think everyone is focusing on, artists have artists, producers have artists, there are just too many. I think that people are starting to see, somewhat how easy it is to get it popping. You know it is either entertainment or sports and I don’t think there are enough entrepreneurs, I don’t think there are enough sites like AllHipHop.com and I don’t think there are enough people setting up seminars on music and fashion, I don’t think there are enough people like Steve Stoute setting up companies like his Brand Marketing Company. How come he is the only one guy that is doing that? There is nobody doing the hundreds and thousands of things out there, you know I have gone by a motto all my life and that is ‘ideas are free and they are worth million.’ And I don’t think people take the time, people say they have all these ideas but they say they don’t have the money or they don’t have the capital or no backers; but these are free. For you to type on a piece of paper and put down your ideas and come up with a proposal, that is free. All you have to do then is execute. Eventually you will get to the proper people and then it will crack. I think everybody is just ‘I want to rap,’ as that is free to, only you have to go to the studio. Just too many artists.

AllHipHop.com: So does that make your job harder?

Lenny S: Absolutely as then you have everybody from the guy in the grocery store to the family member to the guy at Home Depot who wants to give you a demo, just ‘cause. It’s like ‘you don’t really want to do this, you think it is hot, you think it is fun.’ But the people who are rapping, it is their passion; it is what they have done, not to say all their lives but as far back as they can remember. Do you know how many rappers Mel that I meet, and producers, that started two years ago and they are like 28. People who rap when they are 28 they rapped when they heard DMC or if they are 20, they rapped when they heard Biggie at ten years or Wu-Tang in ’91 or Snoop Dogg and Raekwon. They knew it was what they wanted to do and they had some talent for it and then everyone in their crew or their neighborhood backed them up because they were so good and the word started to spread. Those guys can rap. These guys who are loners and have one friend or cousin who helps them out, they don’t have a crew backing them up, no, no they think they can rap.

Conrad Dimanche: It has always been a saturated business; it hasn’t got any harder than it used to be. It is just as saturated as it was years ago. Although maybe it is a little more as people see all the success stories and the late nineties had the boom which had everyone wanting to do it. There is a lot to comb through to find the true talent.

Jason Mazur: It is terribly saturated. I sat in my office for about three days, some time around Christmas, three days straight. I listened to about 225 demos and I found about three songs that I liked. And you know what, just because I liked them doesn’t even mean that they are great. You know when you have gone through so many demos you get to the point that those three may just be the best of what I have listened to, they are not necessarily the best. I mean I go through this all the time, I do showcases in Maryland, in Florida, St. Louis, New York obviously and for each 250 there may just be one and that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a signing.

Sickamore: No it is real easy to leave people out. Let’s say in New York there are so many people rapping and a lot of times the rappers excuse is the labels don’t know who is hot, well now they have someone like me up there that does. I am younger than 90% of the rappers that come up for the job and I am more in tune to what is going on out there so they cant lie to me. I know when someone has a buzz.

AllHipHop.com: What is making people think they can rap though? Is it because it is seen as a way out of the hood, is it people telling them that they are good?

Jason Mazur: It is two fold. There is a dishonesty with themselves first of all meaning that if you listen to yourself and say ‘my idols are Biggie, Pac, Jay and 50 Cent,’ they go and they want to be that. Now they have to be honest with themselves when they pop in their CD and compare it to a song by someone that they idolize, they have to know that that is up to par and if they don’t realize that then they are lying to themselves. That is part of it and not to forget what you were saying, their friends and surrounding themselves with family, that is great as you are the only rapper out of them and maybe the only person in your neighborhood who is trying to put it down so you are going to get that support. They want you to come up, because you are better than them. The other reason for the saturation is, like I said the artist thing is semi out of the window, people look at it like this, ‘I can get rich doing this, I can have my name in lights, I can have my face everywhere, I can get endorsements, I can take myself out of the hood, I can take myself anywhere.’ So people now aren’t in it for the good times as when Hip-Hop started people weren’t in it to get rich, they weren’t getting paid like that. They were doing it because that was how they rocked the jam. Now people just want the glam and the glitter and they think that this is the way to o it. Some think it is a lot easier, not saying that it is a lot easier, but they think that it is easier than going to school and getting a job. You can spend ten years of your life trying to achieve a dream and once you do do it, you spend the rest of your career on the road, in the studio, in interviews, writing, traveling, hardy sleeping and people think that it is easy and this is another misconception as it isn’t easy.

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