Interview: Steve Stoute Talks About Working With Jay-Z, Nas, and "The Tanning of America"

Interview: Steve Stoute Talks About Working With Jay-Z, Nas, and "The Tanning of America"Interview by Toshitaka Kondo. Photography by Tom Medvedich. Styling by Mike B.

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.

At one point, he said that he felt like you were spending too much time with Jay. Did that cause friction in your relationship?

I refer back to my previous answer, you go through a period of time in a relationship and he didn’t have to say that. Any aspect of the relationship in which we didn’t see eye to eye would bother me.

It didn’t make a difference whether it was hanging out with Jay too much or the fact that he didn’t like that his album came out in March when he felt like it should have came out in September. It don’t matter.

You don’t want to have any disagreements with a friend. You know? Not disagreements that become public record and that you still have to answer questions about 10 years later. [Laughs.]

You guys are legendary figures, that’s why you get questions about it 10 years later.

No, I understand.

Another thing that was interesting from your book was about when you were putting together the Will Smith song from Men In Black and SWV’s Coko didn’t want to be in the video even though Will Smith was a big movie star. Were artists afraid to be associated with him at that time?

It’s even worse than that. Nas wrote rhymes on “Gettin’ Jiggy With It” and stopped writing. Nobody wanted to get down with the whole Will Smith thing.

Well, Nas did get down with it.

Yeah, he could have got down with more of it. It was like dragging, kicking, and screaming. The artist was so compelled to be hardcore at the time that anything that felt commercially viable, was not adorned.

 

Nas wrote rhymes on “Gettin’ Jiggy With It” and stopped writing. Nobody wanted to get down with the whole Will Smith thing. It was like dragging, kicking, and screaming. The artist was so compelled to be hardcore at the time that anything that felt commercially viable, was not adorned.

 

So, an R&B group like SWV was like, “That’s too corny for me. I’ll sing with Wu-Tang, but I’m not singing with him.” So they didn’t show up at the video. I used that example in the book to show you the sign of the times. “Really? They would actually do that?” Yes. Big movie, international superstar and they wouldn’t stand next to him.

Cause now if that opportunity came up with the new Nick Cannon or whoever they—

They would do handstands. Kanye West raps with Katy Perry.

When you say “kicking and screaming” you meant you literally had to be like, “Dude, just do this. Trust me, it’ll be worth it.”

Yes.

And he only wrote the one record, right?

He may have written pieces of another song, I can’t remember the whole thing.

But he could have written a lot more of it.

Yes! And Will Smith was like, “Look, man. I am a great instrument to sell a lot of records. I want the dudes that are talented with the pen to come be a part of my team to help write those songs.” And he didn’t want to do it.

Did he get in the studio with him, once they were written?

I think they may have gotten in the studio a couple of times, but it wasn’t what it could have been.

There was an interview where Cormega was saying that you had a role in him being kicked out of The Firm.

He was never in The Firm, man. He should have never been in The Firm. Believe me, he wasn’t. He and Nas truly didn’t get along.

Even when Nas was shouting him out on “One Love” they weren’t cool?

That was cool. He’d just got out of jail. It took him a while to get acclimated to what was going on.

Like in a business sense?

 

I have arguments all the time with Jay and Puff, would The Firm album have been more successful than The Commission album? We know what The Firm album did and didn’t do, but we never knew what The Commission album was.

 

In a business sense, and his manger at the time, a lot of different things. He’s actually a really good guy, but he felt like Nas owed him too much and felt like he was too important. He wasn’t a guy that was really driven by a team, at that time, and that caused a problem.

So even when he was on “Affirmative Action,” he wasn’t actually a part of The Firm?

Well, he was at the time. The idea did surround him and he just bugged out. That project should have been fantastic. I have arguments all the time with Jay and Puff, would The Firm album have been more successful than The Commission album? We know what The Firm album did and didn’t do, but we never knew what The Commission album was.

Well, it would have been Jay and Big. So...

It would’ve been Jay, Big, and Kim. But at the time, Nas was much bigger than Jay.

Yeah, he was. But Big…

Nas was big. Foxy was huge.

Yeah, Kim was huge too

Not like Foxy. Foxy’s first album—Jay wrote the album—are you kidding me? Foxy’s first album was crazy. I mean, crazy. Foxy sold more records than Kim, Foxy was huge. Nas was huge. AZ was good. Nature came in and Nature was talented. We had Dr. Dre on the production and Trackmasters.

But we didn’t make the right album and we had people arguing. I want to make the argument from my heart but the reality is that I couldn’t get these guys working together.

You also worked with Jay-Z

Fuck, you’re like the journalist from, what’s the movie? The one with James Caan?

Misery?

Yeah.

In your book, you had a really interesting story about an encounter with NBA Commissioner David Stern. How did you know David Stern?

 

NBA licensed jerseys were selling like crazy, primarily because of hip-hop culture wearing NBA jerseys as fashion. The part that was funny was, David Stern was resistant to it, but then he finally got there. When Jay-Z came out with “Change Clothes” it was a dramatic drop in licensed apparel. David Stern asked me, “Could you ask Jay-Z to change clothes again?”

 

When I was working with Reebok, Paul Fineman sent me to see David Stern to try to explain to him, basically, the tanning of America: That all rappers wanted to be basketball players and basketball players wanted to be rappers.

NBA licensed jerseys were selling like crazy, primarily because of hip-hop culture wearing NBA jerseys as fashion. And that he should—in marketing the NBA and marketing NBA apparel, which Reebok had the license for—take that quotient into consideration.

David Stern was very open-minded to that and I think he went through a curve of like, I understand it now. The part that was funny was, he was resistant to it, but then he finally got there. And then when Jay-Z came out with “Change Clothes” it was a dramatic drop in licensed apparel.

After Paul Fineman sold the company, he threw a going away dinner and I saw David Stern again. David asked me, “Could you ask Jay-Z to change clothes again?” Cause he felt the effects of when it pulled back.

I think that’s the same thing with the guy from Cristal is saying, I think he’s biting his words right now, saying, “I wish I’d never said that.” Cause they’re seeing an overall decline in their business, again, as a result of not embracing the audience that is purchasing your product.

One thing that has been well-documented everywhere is about how you were very instrumental in Jay-Z dropping the Motorola Two Way reference. How did that come about?

That was a long time ago, there’s so many different iterations to that story. Two-way pagers were everywhere, before Blackberries and all that other kind of stuff. It was the first device that my generation were using to connect. We were actually using it before email.

Jay did it and I don’t remember the details but, I got two-way pagers to the set. But at the time just reaching out to a company like Motorola and saying, “Yo, he said this in a song, supply x amount for the video,” or whatever it was at the time, was a big deal! Nobody would do that.

So it wasn’t any sort of compensation or anything?

No. Early on you had to prove the model out, it had nothing to do with compensation.

Once the song dropped, did sales spike?

Yeah, the whole category. By the way, just in general, hip-hop was a very good place to provide aspiration to many products. When they provided the aspiration, whether it’s in lyrics or showcase product in music videos, it spikes sales and awareness.

In the book, Empire State of Mind, author Zack O'Malley Greenburg wrote about you and Jay-Z doing the Jay-Z Blue. At the time, it looked there were going to be a lot of products in Jay-Z Blue but it quieted down. What was the whole thing with Jay-Z Blue, the color?

 

Everything in Zach O'Malley Greenburg’s book, Empire State of Mind, is not accurate. I told him that. He got close on a lot of stuff, but it was not 100% accurate. Not at all.

 

Jay-Z Blue was a brilliant concept that we went through a lot of hurdles to get to be a Pantone color chip. And it was one of those things that we started that we didn’t finish when we should have, but we’re working on finishing now. That’s the answer.

Was there a reason why it got off track?

So many opportunities to capture, maybe? There were so many things going on at the time, that we couldn’t necessarily get it all done.

So that’s still in the works?

Yes sir.

And another thing that seemed to be in the works was the Jay-Z Jeep. What happened to the Jeep deal?

The Jay-Z Jeep deal was a part of the Jay-Z Blue deal. In fact, the story’s right over there if you want to look at it. If you want to read it, I had it framed. We showed the car at the Detroit auto show. Everything in Zach’s book is not accurate. I told him that, by the way. He got close on a lot of stuff, but it was not 100% accurate. Not at all.

In the book, MC Serch was saying that everything was supposed to be straight, Jay-Z was supposed to fly in, and at the last minute one of the upper management people got shaky and was kind of like, “I don’t know about his history. I don’t know if we should do this deal.”

I don’t know what they’re talking about. I think Serch is fantastic, but I don’t know what he’s talking about.

For your awareness, there’s this truck that you’re talking about that was rolled out, but they were talking about a different prototype that was a Jay-Z Jeep that was actually supposed to be—

There was supposed to be a Puff Jeep, a Jay-Z Jeep. A lot of those brands were saying those things to get affiliated, but they weren’t willing to spend any money.

Right, the way they said it the Jay-Z deal was done. They had already put the money behind it and it just took one executive.

I cannot comment on that. I don’t know that story.

There was an interview where Dame Dash talked about the breakup of Roc-A-Fella. He said one of the reasons why was because you and Jay had gotten real close and his influence waned.

 

If your relationship with somebody’s falling apart, don’t blame it on the third party cause we’ve gotten close. Jay-Z and Dame Dash obviously grew far apart. Dame felt like they grew apart because Jay and I grew closer as friends. The truth is that Jay is a loyal guy, so that wouldn’t have made a difference either way had their relationship been where it should’ve been.

 

I have this theory, don’t blame the bat, blame the player swinging the bat. I had nothing to do with it. If your relationship with somebody’s falling apart, don’t blame it on the third party cause we’ve gotten close. You’ve grown apart.

They obviously grew far apart and he felt like they grew apart because Jay and I grew closer as friends. The truth is that Jay is a loyal guy, so that wouldn’t have made a difference either way had their relationship been where it should’ve been. Because there had been a period where all three of us had been friends. So, my response to that is that’s not true.

I’m sure now if you were to ask him Dame would say that his and Jay’s relationship fell apart and it had nothing to do with me. They had all kinds of issues, who owns the Roc-A-Fella name, this, that, and the third. It was all over the place.

Have you seen Dame in a while?

No. Maybe you can find him.

You also worked with 50 Cent—

I signed 50.

Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. You were talking about executives spotting talent, and you spotted his talent before a lot of people. What was it about him that you saw? How did you even find him?

A producer that I was managing at the time brought him to me. He was signed, actually, to Jam Master Jay first. He was down with Onyx. And he was getting out of that deal and I signed him to Sony. The guy really is “get rich or die trying.” Period. End of story. And he is in your face and unapologetic about it.

He had that mentality, plus he’s not afraid to say what he says and honestly, after going through the issue where he got shot, he had gotten even better. His voice was more unique and then he got focused. So he was really, already good but that unfortunate event made him better. His attitude, his work ethic, and his talent, he had the whole package.

You were still at Sony when he got dropped, right?

 

I think Kobe was a better rapper than Shaq, he was more smooth with it and really cared about the lyrics and the flow. To this day I still speak with Kobe and he stays in tune with the lyrics and what they mean.

 

I had left Sony. One of the errors I had was having the opportunity to sign him again, at Interscope. He ended up signing through Aftermath but I had the opportunity to sign him on Interscope.

I was leaving the record company to go into advertising at the time, what I couldn’t explain to him was that I was moving on.

I didn’t want to sign people and not be there, I was going to the advertising business. But I was happy he ended up with Dr. Dre and he became tremendously successful. So it all worked out.

Another interesting thing in the book—you signed Kobe, right?

Yeah.

Why do you think Shaq worked as an artist, but Kobe never did.

Well Kobe was really loyal to a group of guys, he was part of a group. So what happened was he was really loyal to them and it took a long time for him to see that that concept wasn’t necessarily going to work.

A year and a half transpired between us getting started on the record to when he decided he could put out a solo record. And that year and a half was a window in which people would accept that, coming off with Shaq. And we blew it, we didn’t take advantage of it.

Times were changing fast. When Shaq came out, he rapped with the Fu-Schnickens and it worked out. It’s funny, I think Kobe was a better rapper, he was more smooth with it and really cared about the lyrics and the flow. To this day I still speak with Kobe and he stays in tune with the lyrics and what they mean. We never even completed a project, he obviously had other things on his mind.

Switching gears, what do you say is the most interesting part of your book?

 

There was a time where there was a white kid listening to hip-hop and he would wear his hat backwards and they would actually call him a wigger. And I’m always saying, “That’s not a wigger, that’s a kid who grew up on hip-hop.” And a black guy who didn’t necessarily involve himself in quote-unquote “black things,” cause he skateboarded or he was interested in other things that weren’t necessarily driven by black culture, didn’t make him an Uncle Tom.

 

There was a time where there was a white kid listening to hip-hop and he would wear his hat backwards and they would actually call him a wigger. And I’m always saying, “That’s not a wigger, that’s a kid who grew up on hip-hop.” And a black guy who didn’t necessarily involve himself in quote-unquote “black things,” cause he skateboarded or he was interested in other things that weren’t necessarily driven by black culture, didn’t make him an Uncle Tom.

Well the thing that I think is the most interesting part of the book is, those individual stories are great, but it really underscores this whole notion that hip-hop culture has done a lot to transform the general market consumer.

Hip-hop started as this niche moment, and the values of it, the cultures that it carried on its back; language, clothes, the way you wear your clothes, the items that you consume, all came with the music as an art form. And those things helped transform how people buy, shop, speak, engage.

There was a time where there was a white kid listening to hip-hop and he would wear his hat backwards and they would actually call him a wigger. And I’m always saying, “That’s not a wigger, that’s a kid who grew up on hip-hop.” And a black guy who didn’t necessarily involve himself in quote-unquote “black things,” cause he skateboarded or he was interested in other things that weren’t necessarily driven by black culture, didn’t make him an Uncle Tom.

It was this blending of cultures that started to come about and gave people a different understanding of ethnicity and cultural values. And I think that’s what this book really speaks about is how hip-hop helped bring that and help put that whole moment in the spotlight.

How do you see music fitting into advertising going forward and not getting played out?

I never want to predict the relationship between music and advertising. I think there’s natural occurrences where the artist’s art form or the artist physically themselves can play a role in making a brand popular. As long as they have those shared values where the consumer believes that that product is something that, “I’m a fan of that artist, and I believe that product is for me.”

I think when those two things come together, like Lady GaGa and Mac, then I think you have something that’s special. And unless you have something that’s special, I know I’m not going to be a part of it. But where I see it going is more money being spent, more brands trying to be cool, and more artists accepting money for that stuff.

But we know, in whatever business it is, the cream rises to the top. So you go through the ebb and flow of everything, and then ultimately you end with the truth.

You see a lot of the tech brands engaging with artists because they feel like the artist’s content is a main driver of those technology platforms. So they like to do business with them, they like to engage in those relationships more than others. Depending on what the product is, you see a deeper and richer engagement with artists and music.

Nowadays, you can advertise on the web and on social networking platforms like Twitter. How has that changed the way you put together campaigns?

 

The fact that advertising has now shifted to the Web and shifted to Twitter and Facebook, helps me, because you gotta remember the name of my company is Translation. The reason why I came up with that name is because I wanted to take big brands and make sure that I could translate the consumers’ messages to those brands and those brands’ messages to consumers in a very transparent way. I translate the message.

 

The fact that advertising has now shifted to the Web and shifted to Twitter and Facebook, helps me, because you gotta remember the name of my company is Translation. The reason why I came up with that name is because I wanted to take big brands and make sure that I could translate the consumers’ messages to those brands and those brands’ messages to consumers in a very transparent way. I translate the message.

The closer the brands get to the consumer, the more advantageous it is for me. All I want to do is market the truth. Why should you use this product? What is the product’s benefits for you? Let the brand know which consumer group they should be marketing their products to.

The fact that digital media now allows that breaks down a lot of walls. You get a chance to get closer to your group. It works in my favor because all I ever wanted to do was get to the truth.

Television and big advertising agencies, that filters the truth. A lot of times—this is something they notoriously do—there’s so many other things they’re involved in that are beneficial to them, selling products happens to be the last thing on the list.

I’ve always wanted to be in the business of moving product, that’s how I always wanted to be judged—as an agency. Will we be able to affect product sales or not?

Bigger agencies seem to have trouble adjusting to the new environment because it’s not just this big TV budget anymore...

Yeah. Well, TV still works. People still watch television. People watch television on set-top boxes or flat screens, they watch TV on computers, they watch TV on smartphones and tablet PCs. It’s not like television content is going anywhere—television, they make great content.

The issue is the big advertising agencies—and I’m not saying all of them—but they notoriously would not allow themselves to think outside of television in order to get to the core consumer.

As the consumer groups started to break up and they started to say, “You can’t target me for this program necessarily,” all of a sudden, what was on television did not necessarily reflect the consumer group that you thought you were watching.

Back in the days when it was ABC, CBS, and NBC, and later Fox—it was easy! You put enough messages on those four channels, and you pretty much got who you wanted to speak to. You wanted to speak to kids? Buy Saturday morning on NBC and you get kids watching cartoons.

Now, with the eruption of cable and digital media in the last 20 years you now have much more fragmented audiences so you have to be very specific on who you’re speaking to and why. You’ve gotta know how to message that consumer group via the medium and what message to put through that medium to the consumer. It adds another level of complexity for a big agency, who was used to just buying bulk and getting people through mass communications.

Is there any ad campaign that you saw and you were like, “Man, I wish I had come up with that”?

 

With the eruption of cable and digital media in the last 20 years you now have much more fragmented audiences so you have to be very specific on who you’re speaking to and why. You’ve gotta know how to message that consumer group via the medium and what message to put through that medium to the consumer.

 

There’s a Best Buy campaign that just came out that speaks about how technology is changing as soon as you bought the last thing. I thought that was funny because that’s a consumer truth. I think that was great.

Believe it or not, there’s some direct commercials that I think are funny, like Cialis and drug [ads that they air] at night. You ever see the Cialis one where it’s like, “Look at Jack, Jack’s acting different today”?

They have those, those are more of the formatted ones that stick to the script. Like, “At any given time, your wife might want to get down, so be ready.” Those are pretty cool but the real funny is the one that’s like, “Look at Jack, Jack has a different attitude today!”

It’s not even about taking the Cialis when your wife is ready. He hit the Cialis and his confidence his swag is crazy because he knows that at any given moment [his wife might be ready], it doesn’t even matter. So he’s hitting the golf ball crazy, he’s just doing everything. He’s outperforming his whole life because he’s just ready.

I watch direct TV because you learn a lot from direct TV. I’m not talking about DirecTV, the cable thing. Direct TV is an advertising term, it’s a commercial that has an immediate call to action like, “Call 1-800-da-da-da” or, “Go to whatever-whatever.com.” They measure those results quickly.

There’s an art form to saying ‘1-800-blah-blah-blah,’ showing an image, and getting people to respond to it quickly. Those guys are on the bottom level of consumer engagement because they buy this time at night and they want you to instantly dial that number and react. And if that phone number does not work and you don’t react, those spots don’t work.

They’re on the front line of engagement because if they don’t turn a consumer immediately, they find out in minutes. I like to watch those guys and that art form because I think that the art of selling that they have to do, they have less room for error. And I like watching how they do their craft, the good ones.

What aspects of companies teaming up with artists to sell products have changed since you started?

 

When I started in this business, it was very early on. I worked with a couple guys. I worked with Beyoncé, Jay, 50 Cent, Pharrell. Beyonce and Puffy. They’re very discerning. They don’t do anything that didn’t feel like it was the right thing to do and that was cool.

 

When I started in this business, it was very early on. I worked with a couple guys. I worked with Beyoncé, Jay, 50 Cent, Pharrell. Beyonce and Puffy. They’re very discerning. They don’t do anything that didn’t feel like it was the right thing to do and that was cool.

I think the music business has hit the reset button. I think now, for the first time ever, it’s hit rock bottom and you’re going to start seeing the business go up again—artists, managers, record companies, and even brands started saying, “You know what? I don’t have to get the best and the brightest to create an authentic relationship, I just want to be next to them so their cool rubs off on me, and I’m fine.”

Artists were just like, “What can I do to get some extra money to pay for my video? Who can I get to pay for a piece of my tour? How can I get extra income by being involved with a corporation that’s gonna put me on television and get people to know me more?”

And when that aspect of the business started to become popular in the last five years, I kind of pulled back from doing artist deals because they just started feeling wack. The last big artist deal I did that I’m proud of was Lady Gaga and Mac. That made sense. And that was three years ago and still feels perfect.

So you haven’t done an artist deal in three years?

Well, I did some sports stuff. I did some stuff with LeBron and State Farm and LeBron and McDonald’s. I did some of that kind of stuff. But I moved away from some of the artist deals because it just started becoming, “I’ll just take the money,” and brands was starting to do it with them. I’m not an agent, I’m a brand architect. Agents do deals that take money, get 10%, and go, The outcome is what the outcome is. I’ve never subscribed to that.

You don’t want your name on a wack commercial...

I don’t want my name involved with wack relationships. If the commercial doesn’t come out great, for whatever reasons, that’s fine. The art is not necessarily going to come out the way you want it to be all of the time. But when a relationship looks forced and it doesn’t capture the moment and isn’t honest, I don’t want to be associated with any of that. Ever.

Have you ever seen the Memphis Bleek shampoo commercial?

I heard about that. It came out years ago. I like Bleek, so I don’t want to get into that.

Are there any commercials you did where you’re like, “Damn, I wish that would’ve come out better.”

 

I kind of pulled back from doing artist deals because they just started feeling wack. The last big artist deal I did that I’m proud of was Lady Gaga and Mac. That made sense. And that was three years ago and still feels perfect.

 

I did some spots for Chevy. We did a spot where I put T.I. and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in a spot together. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was driving the Impala and T.I. was driving his race car but you didn’t know that until the end when they got out of the cars.

I felt like I could have done a better job on that spot of capturing Dale Earnhardt, Jr. driving through the area—he was driving through an area that didn’t feel like Atlanta.

It would’ve rocked more like T.I.’s pushing that Impala, so when he got out the car you would have been like, “Shit, Dale Earnhardt was driving through that area, doing that run?” But I didn’t capture the run right so it didn’t come across right. Little things like that.

Do companies ever come back and blame you when artists you’ve brought to them, such as T.I. and Chris Brown, have legal issues after a campaign?

The companies always come back to me. I’ve been involved in a couple big ones like that. Like Justin Timberlake, who’s a class act, and what he went through with Janet. It just doesn’t come back right. It could be perfect and it just doesn’t come back. T.I. with the guns, or Chris Brown with the shit with Rihanna when he did Wrigley’s.

I mean, when you are a brand architect­—how would you know? Human error or circumstances, you can’t predict those. You’ve just got to be responsible in the way you handle them.

What are some of the blogs that you visit?

I think YBF is great, I think Necole Bitchie is great. NahRight. I think, WorldStarHipHop is great. WorldStar is like the TMZ of the hood. But I’m not running around all day chasing sites, it’s just too much.

You mentioned that you feel the music industry has hit the reset button. Why do you feel it’s finally hit rock bottom?

 

The truth of the matter is that there was a lot of people in the business that weren’t talented that was getting paid a lot of money and just being around. I think it’s now hit the reset button, and you look at the people that are still in the business and surviving, those are the same people that were surviving anyway.

 

I feel like it’s hit the reset button because the business had swollen. After coming out of vinyl and then to CDs, people were buying inventory again, buying their catalogs on CDs and it had this big mushroom because it was just a bunch of money coming into the business of people buying CD players and buying to the new format.

As a result of that, music videos went up, executive salaries went up. So the business had this artificial business model that wasn’t necessarily real. When the digital download age came in, it started to erode that mushroom and the business suffered a big slide.

But the truth of the matter is that there was a lot of people in the business that weren’t talented at the time, that was getting paid a lot of money and just being around. I think it’s now hit the reset button, and you look at the people that are still in the business and surviving, those are the same people that were surviving anyway.

Doug Morris is still there, Jimmy Iovine is still there, Lyor Cohen is still there, Jay-Z is still there. The players are still the players. It just hit the reset button so that people who were talented stayed in their position and stayed with what was going on. The great executives still know how to spot real talent.

I think that now, you’re going to see digital downloads rise again, for the first time in years, after a seven-year slide. And I just think that the business has finally found the model that works to be financially successful.

Which is what? I thought you were going to talk about the cloud...

I mean, whatever it is. They have found the model to operate the business, to pay the talent, in order to make money. When the digital download era hit, there was so many people getting paid and so many people making money in long-term contracts that the erosion of CD sales affected the business model. I think that the business model now is in sync with the revenue that comes in.

People are always saying that music like Wu-Tang or Mobb Deep couldn’t be commercially successful today because music today is “soft” or it’s “hipster.” Do you think that something like that could work today?

I think that everything runs in cycles, and yes. I don’t think Jay did anything wrong in the last album, his last album is incredible. So that means what? You can write great songs, great lyrics, and still have the core ethics of hip-hop values while staying commercially viable.

The problem is that the talent is taking the easy way out and not putting the work in to do that. Cause it’s too easy to get onto radio not doing that. A lot of artists are tempted or coming up with the art form that way. Not understanding the art form via mixtapes, trying to get your record on late at night, trying to get it in the clubs first.

It’s a different era.

Tags: steve-stoute, jay-z, nas, kobe-bryant, 50-cent, t-i, justin-timberlake
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