Steve Stoute left the music industry at the right time. The former Sony and Interscope executive made his name guiding Nas to superstardom, but when he saw how Men In Black boosted the sales of Ray-Ban Predator II sunglasses, which were featured in the film, and Motorola Two Ways popped off after he got Jay-Z to namecheck the device on “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me),” the 41-year-old New York native decided to try advertising full-time.
Since founding Translation Consultation & Brand Imaging in 2004, Stoute has spearheaded memorable campaigns with Jay-Z (Reebok), Justin Timberlake (McDonald’s), Chris Brown (Wrigley’s), and more recently LeBron James (State Farm).
With his first book, The Tanning of America, which explores the globalization of hip-hop culture, in stores now, Stoute sat down with Complex at his Midtown Manhattan office to talk the art of celebrity-driven campaigns, damage control, and working with Nas and Jay-Z.
Interview by Toshitaka Kondo (@ToshitakaKondo)
An abridged version of this feature appears in Complex's October/November 2011 issue.
For those that don’t know, maybe you could just give a brief history about how you started working with Nas in the ’90s?
I was so inspired by Illmatic. Nas had gotten nominated at the Source Awards for Best Lyricist or something like that after Illmatic. He’d gotten in some trouble and he showed up to the event and he wanted the record company to acknowledge his nomination and get him to the event, get him to perform, and support his whole shit.
I had to go to the Queensbridge projects and ask around for Nas. I had a beige Lexus and I was just driving around just cold asking people. Some other projects had beef with Nas or his guys so when I pulled up on Jungle [and his boys], they pulled out guns on me!
But they didn’t do it. They didn’t recognize the award or the nomination. He actually showed up to the awards show with no shirt on. He went with no shirt on, like, “Fuck that.” It was his way of expressing “fuck the record company.”
No one could get into contact with him. Nas has always been uncomfortable with being famous and accessible. Nas makes music because he loves music, not because he wants the trappings of music, such as fame. I had to go find him. I had to go to the Queensbridge projects and ask around for him.
I had a beige Lexus and I was just driving around just cold asking people. That’s me, I’m that guy. Some other projects had beef with Nas or his guys so when I pulled up on Jungle [and his boys], they pulled out guns on me!
They pulled out, thinking, “Why are you running around looking for Nas?” But Jungle had enough sense to be like, ‘I have heard this guy’s name before.” And then it turned into, “Let’s get son, let’s introduce them.” And I met Nas.
Where was your first meeting?
Well he wasn’t in the projects at the time. He lived somewhere else, I just thought he lived in the projects. He lived in another location in Queens, I met him there.
So, just off that, he was like, “I want you to help me get to the next level”?
I had a vision for him. I felt like it was my job to make him the biggest guy in the world. I wanted the world to hear his music. I didn’t want him to become a great lyricist but end up like Kool G Rap, a lyricist the world doesn’t get to hear.
I felt like I could take the responsibility and make the Nas movement bigger and not keep it confined to the Tri-State area, so to speak. He allowed me to do that. When we were together, we made a lot of noise and I made him an international star.
A lot of people love It Was Written today, but at the time of its release did the backlash bother you when people were like, “Why is he working with Trackmasters”?
When I say that Nas is running a different race from 50, I mean, he’s clearly a better artist than 50, so that has nothing to do with it. He just doesn’t want to do the other stuff. Had he chosen to do the other stuff, he could have made a lot more money. He doesn’t even talk about business like that.
The backlash didn’t bother me. I didn’t want it to bother him. I had known that everybody, that most of the artists at the time, wanted him to be the unknown.
It’s really weird. A lot of artists, they were haters. They didn’t want him to ever see the light of day, not at all. They wanted him to be their best-kept secret while they went on tour and they went on to do other things.
It was when “If I Ruled The World” and It Was Written came out that I didn’t want the noise of what they were saying to bother him, I just wanted him to focus on what we talked about him doing, which was making sure the world hear what he had to say.
Nas still speaks very highly of you. But at the time of on “Last Real Nigga Alive” on God’s Son he spoke about losing trust for you. Did that bother you when he spoke about that situation?
No. Nas is an artist who writes from his heart. And relationships in this music business, if having a relationship and a friendship with somebody for 16 years, if you go through a period of a year in which that relationship is rocky, that’s the result of it? That’s a fantastic relationship and I think people should know that.
16 years of friendship, 16 years of coming up together and we had a brief period of time where he thought he should have been doing this and I thought he should have been doing that, and we fell out because of that. We’re still friends to this day, as grown-ass men.
Did it bother me at the time? You’re sensitive to it because you don’t know what went wrong, like in any relationship. It’s not about harping on that, it’s about looking at what went wrong and building off that. If you talk to Nas today, he’ll tell you.
You had the interview where you said that there’s a race that a Jay or a 50 runs, that Nas doesn’t run. Did it ever create a conflict with Nas being an artist and you being a businessman?
Well, it caused friction. Nas is a good businessman, he wants to do what he wants to do. Just because you achieve the top of what everybody deems financial success or the glorifications of money, or a spotlight on Forbes magazine, or whatever everybody deems as successful.
When I say that he’s running a different race from 50, I mean, he’s clearly a better artist than 50, so that has nothing to do with it. He just doesn’t want to do the other stuff. Had he chosen to do the other stuff, he could have made a lot more money. He doesn’t even talk about business like that.
What’s successful is when you are good at what you aim to do. And I don’t think that Nas has aimed to do anything that he hasn’t done. So he is a good businessman.
He buys real estate, he puts his name next to certain things that he believes in, and he makes great music, but that’s it. That’s who he is. He’ll be making music and touring for 20, 30 years. He’s one of those guys.
You’ve got to look at somebody’s career at like, 60, 70. And then go backwards and start making these determinations. Running sprints and then saying they’re great businessmen, that doesn’t make any sense.