A Conversation With Brooklyn Johnny On New Label, A&R Work & The Rise Of Cardi B

The District 18 Entertainment CEO explains why engagement is an important currency in the modern music industry.

(AllHipHop Features) What’s the next step for the person that played a vital role in Cardi B becoming a multi-platinum, Grammy-nominated musician? For Brooklyn Johnny, it’s starting his own imprint under the RCA Records umbrella.

RCA partnered with Johnny to launch the joint venture label District 18 Entertainment. As the company's CEO, the former A&R consultant for Atlantic Records will work to bolster the next generation of artists looking to dominate the charts.

Brooklyn Johnny‘s track record goes beyond just helping Cardi shape the sound of her #1 albumInvasion of Privacy. The native New Yorker opened his own recording studio in his hometown, and he spent time around some of the best minds in the entertainment industry.

“The music business today is a game for the younger generation and Johnny is playing it well, as he has proven he possesses all the elements it takes to be successful,” said Mark Pitts, RCA Records President of Urban Music. “His passion, hustle, and creative instincts for identifying talent is paramount to his success and I look forward to working with and ushering him into the future.”

In the latest edition of the Conversation interview series, Brooklyn Johnny broke down his vision for District 18 Entertainment. We also spoke about social media celebrity, radio success, and other topics related to achieving an A-list career in modern showbiz.

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AllHipHop: What can we expect from District 18 Entertainment?

Brooklyn Johnny: You can really expect to see something different, expect to see artists getting broken in different ways. You can expect to see artists, who I feel are misunderstood, getting an opportunity.

AHH: What was that transition like going from being an A&R to being the head of your own company?

BJ: I’ve always been the head of my own company. It’s just now everybody else knows that. Everybody's like, “Oh my God, you got this new, big deal.” I always did business as such. The first day I even thought about being in the music business, I ran my own company. I managed artists from the beginning. I felt I was running it like an independent label.

Now it feels as if I can focus on the artists I want to focus on. But it was like that even when I was doing business as an A&R consultant with Atlantic because being a consultant you got the freedom to do whatever it is you please. I’ve never been in a situation where I’m forced to work on something I don’t want to work on.

AHH: Is District 18 going to be a full-service company where you combine all of your experiences in those different fields into one business?

BJ: Yeah, for the most part. When an artist signs with District 18, what they’re getting is me. You’re getting everything I can provide, along with my staff. You’re getting a very hands-on experience versus signing other places where you’re just another one of many.

AHH: Are there any particular executives that you've studied as you were coming up the ranks?

BJ: I would say Andre Harrell. He’s been around me for a long time. He always speaks very highly of me whether it’s to me or other people. He’s definitely been a dope energy to be around. Who else? Definitely [Kyambo “Hip-Hop” Joshua].

Hip-Hop’s been around me for a long time. He’s always giving me advice. When my studio was on Broadway in Soho, Hop used to come over every single night. We would eat a bunch of junk food, talk a bunch of sh*t, and listen to a bunch of music. Even to this day, me and him are always on the phone together. He’s definitely an A&R influence.

One of my business partners, Darrell Jones, is definitely an A&R influence. What I learned from watching him was label politics. Darrell understands label politics because he’s been a part of it for so long in so many different positions. He’s grown through the ranks. By watching and communicating with him, I’ve learned a lot about label politics. The inside is very different as far as A&R goes.

Hip Hop Since 1978 is a company that Gee Roberson and Hip-Hop started. Jean Nelson was part of that and has been an A&R for a long time. He’s definitely somebody that’s been around me for a long time. I was able to witness how he did his thing. These are people I was able to watch on a grand scale and pick up the proper way to do this. They embraced the hell out of me.

AHH: Can you expound on the difference between seeing things from the inside versus what the public sees on the outside?

BJ: On the outside, the public just sees you running around with the artist or being in the studio. They just think it’s all fun and games. They don’t see you trying to get producers to work with up-and-coming artists. They don't see you trying to talk to bigger artists to do features. They don’t see you having to deal with whatever is going on in the artist’s personal life just to help them through that in order to get them to the studio.

When you’re trying to get a record or album done, you have to succumb to whatever’s going on around that artist’s life. Like if the artist is in a shootout, you got to wait to the shootout is over. Or you got to keep them away from that sh*t. Or the artist is going through baby mama drama, you got to try to remedy that sh*t. Even if you got to call the baby mama and be like, “Listen, y’all ain’t gonna make no money if I can’t get this guy to record this album.”

You become like a mediator. You’re like a counselor, a psychologist. You become the person that tries to keep the artist in a good state of mind so that you can get the work done. So it has its challenges.

AHH: As you’re breaking out with your new company and you’re looking for new talent, I was curious to know how you felt about the conversation around the idea that some people feel like a lot of modern artists are being signed more for their celebrity than their talent. How would you respond to that?

BJ: I would say like 75% of the time that’s really what it is, because when you have somebody that’s already “gaining celebrity status” it makes that much easier to put good music on them because people are already gravitating toward this person. So as an A&R, executive, or label head, the way you make money is by capturing an audience. The way you’re able to get streams and touring opportunities is by engagement. So if people are already engaging with the artist prior to you even putting your touch on it, it’s a no-brainer.

When it comes to working with artists who don’t have any fans, it’s challenging. When they don’t have fans, there are a few things you have to be on alert for. One, this person is talented, but they don’t have any fans. Two, if you’re going to help them get fans, chances are they’re going to change how they deal with you. Sometimes people say fame can go to your head. When you’re developing new talent, you always run that risk. You don’t know what’s going to happen once people start loving their sound and what you’re creating together.

Then you’re faced with the problem of artists telling you, “You don’t want to put this song on my album, but I put it up on my SoundCloud and all my fans said that they love it.” Don’t nobody want to deal with that sh*t. That sh*t is very challenging. It makes it very hard to execute the vision that you have for the artists and the vision the artists have for themselves.

When a new artist gets an advance check it becomes challenging for them to make adjustments, just to their regular life. So it’s a lot of nuances that you deal with with new artists. Then live shows. Teaching them how to do that is its own animal. It’s a lot. To the defense of most of these A&Rs out here, you can get an artist with some celebrity status and have to deal with the same new artist nuances. So which would you rather have?

(Mark Pitts, Brooklyn Johnny + RCA Records Chairman & CEO Peter Edge)

AHH: Do you feel like artist development has become a lost art?

BJ: Nah, because I developed every artist I ever worked with. A person may not say, “That was artist development.” Having conversations with an artist every night is artist development. When you’re working with a new artist going through a record label system, they have thousands of questions. Being that they know you’ve done this before and that you have an affiliation with the record label on a grander scale, they inundate you with questions because they know you have better knowledge. That’s artist development. You’re helping develop the artist because most artists don’t know.

AHH: You’ve worked with Cardi. You had an inside view of her rise to super-stardom. What do you think was the main factor in her being successful?

BJ: I think the ability to get people to look at her, to engage with her. That above all. She had people’s engagement, so then it was just a matter of her team then and her team now exploiting it to get people to pay attention to something other than just her making jokes or having an opinion about something. They directed it toward music, toward great records. They were already tuning into her, so now it was a matter of her selling something. Whether Cardi was selling music or selling clothing, it didn’t matter what it was she was going to sell, it was going to sell because people paid attention to her.

AHH: In business, people like to copy success. Do you think her model can be redone for other artists?

BJ: The same way? No. It would have to start with the engagement. She’s just special. There’s no other way to really put it. She’s just special.

AHH: I saw that she gave you a shout-out on Instagram. It seems like she appreciates the work you put in for her.

BJ: One thousand percent. Our relationship is A-one. Her, Offset, all of them, they really embrace me. Even the team before. I try my best to offer advice, an experienced opinion. I try to give her as much direction as I can without stepping on anybody’s toes. When you work as a team, you still got to respect the opinion of other people involved. I don’t think anybody was in the studio with her more hours than myself or her engineer Evan [LaRay]. We spent countless hours together working on this masterpiece of an album [Invasion of Privacy]. It’s a testament of what the relationship is.

AHH: People that follow Hip Hop saw Cardi rise up. We were the outlet that actuallyannounced her [Gangsta B*tch Music: Volume 1] mixtape. Back then we got a lot of flack like, “Why are you promoting her?” But it was clear that she was a star. When “Bodak Yellow” hit was when other people started to recognize. Did you know when you heard that song it would be such a huge hit?

BJ: We knew it was a good song, but nobody could predict what it was going to do. Out the gate, it had a really good response, but it’s very challenging to predict something like that. “I Like It” - that record, the second you hear it, you know it’s a hit. Why? Because it’s a sample that was big. In that case, it was a lot easier. At the end of the day, we didn’t need to predict what ["Bodak Yellow"] was going to do. If it didn’t work, we were going to come again with something else that was fire.

AHH: I think the thing that shocked a lot of people with “Bodak Yellow” was that it wasn’t what you were hearing on the radio at the time. There wasn’t a melodic hook. It was just her rapping.

BJ: That’s always what makes artists cut through. When you have something that just sounded so different from what everybody was playing at the time, those always become big records. A perfect example is Ella Mai. She did “Boo’d Up.” My homegirl Joelle [James] penned and worked on the record. That is something that was very left of what was playing on the radio. Hence, they had some great success from it.

AHH: Is District 18 going to be Hip Hop centered? Or are you looking to expand to all different types of music?

BJ: I’m going to do anything that I think is hot. I’m Hip Hop, but I’ve worked with Pop artists and R&B artists. There’s no limitation to what it could become. I feel like Hip Hop influences all other music. Country might be one of the only music genres that Hip Hop is not directly influencing. But outside of that, I feel like Hip Hop influences all music.

AHH: Do you have any advice you would give to a young person that’s looking to enter into the music industry on the executive side?

BJ: It’s tricky because I never went through the executive ranks like [being] an intern then an assistant. I came straight in with the chairman, so it was different. But I would say, for an executive, especially on the A&R side, it’s good to understand music as a whole. I was lucky to have managed producers in the beginning that taught me how to engineer, so I understand a lot of elements about recording and being able to articulate what it is I’m trying to hear.

It’s good - before you put yourself into that executive space on a professional level - to try your best to sharpen your skills on the process of actually working with the artist and building an artist up, meaning, be in the studio, learn the live element. I can soundcheck an artist. I can hook up all the equipment. I can mic everything. These are not things you need to know how to do, but it helps. When you’re working with an artist, they all run into little problems or roadblocks, and you’re an asset to your team when you can fix any problem that comes up while you're moving.

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Follow Brooklyn Johnny on Twitter @BrooklynJohnny and Instagram @brooklyn.johnny.