When I began researching the book that would become The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, I returned to interview Cory Robbins, the co-founder of the legendary Profile Records, the man who signed Run-D.M.C… and the first person to give me a job doing A&R.
“Cory,” I began, “when you promoted me to A&R coordinator, you called me into your office and gave me some advice. You said, ‘You can’t know what’s going to be a hit. You can only know what you like.’”
“That’s true,” he said.
I then recounted my own mediocre career in A&R—first working for him and then for Rick Rubin at American Recordings.
“I liked everything I signed. So why did you have hits and I didn’t?”
“Well,” he said, thinking for a moment. “I like hits.”
Looking back, I have no ambivalence about the artists I worked with, but rather regret about other missed opportunities. You know, like not signing House of Pain because I told Rick I thought “Jump Around” was their only truly great record. I was right, but at the same time, oh, so wrong. (Maybe Cory was right. Maybe I didn’t really like hits.)
Still, I like to think I’ve made enough mistakes to have a real reverence for the A&R people in hip-hop who had the right instincts and really did it big. I’ve certainly thought a lot about why they were good at their job: an intuition about what makes music timeless coupled with a visceral sense of the moment. With that, I’d like to present to you The 25 Greatest A&Rs in Hip-Hop History.
A few important notes before we begin.
What the hell is “A&R” anyway? It’s actually an old-timey music business term meaning “Artists & Repertoire,” a relic of a time when artists didn’t write their own material and their “record men” at the label had to pair them with songs and session musicians. In the hip-hop context, the “Artists” part means finding and signing talent to a label; The “Repertoire” part means not only corralling producers and beats, but working with the act on musical and lyrical direction. Some A&R people excel at one of these aspects in particular. You can have great talent scouts who don’t give much input on the finished product; and you have in-house A&R specialists who may not have signed the act but give crucial and timely artistic direction in the creation of an album. This list skews a bit towards the former.
Rankings. For this list, we’ve selected folks based on a balance of the above-mentioned skills, and ranked them according to the quantity of successful artists they’ve signed, the quality of their signings, the longevity of their roster, and the endurance of their artist’s work. You will notice in this list a bias towards more established A&R people (a nice way of saying “older”). That’s because this is the “All Time” list. Here, longevity and consistency trumps several years of hotness. There are also some R&B acts included in these proceedings if those R&B acts were significantly influenced by hip-hop and influenced hip-hop in return (for example, Mary J. Blige and TLC).
Who qualifies? Not every A&R person on this list has actually worked for a record company. Some were primarily artist managers, others were producers and DJs. But the rule of thumb here is that if they didn’t hold an A&R title in some place at some time, or work on behalf of their own production company, then they have to manifest some useful service as a talent scout to people with signing power.
Teamwork. The real fact about most creative endeavors—including A&R—is that it's a team effort. Rick Rubin, who signed and produced Def Jam’s first generation of classic artists, had a bunch of folks around him who brought him demos, cajoled him, and reinforced his instincts. And for every star A&R staffer—like Kyambo "HipHop" Joshua at Roc-A-Fella—there's a guy who hipped him to the artist (No I.D., who brought him Kanye West’s demo) and the guy who bet a small fortune and his reputation on him (Damon Dash). So who gets the credit? In this list, I give more emphasis to the highest person in the chain of decision makers who had substantial involvement in judgements of quality. Success has many authors. So, in cases where work is generally shared, the members of the A&R team will either split the billing or receive a secondary mention.
If this list were a bit longer. There’s little difference between the folks who made it onto this list and the ones who are bubbling just below it. So if this list were, perhaps, 10 longer, we might include folks like: Patrick Moxey, founder of Payday Records; Sha Money XL, president of G Unit and the guy who signed 2 Chainz and Big K.R.I.T to Def Jam; Matt Dike and Mike Ross, founders of Delicious Vinyl; Lenny S, another longtime Roc-A-Fella and Def Jam A&R exec; Eddie O’Laughlin, founder of Next Plateau Records; Wendy Day, founder of the Rap Coalition, who never worked for a label but matched artists to labels in landmark deals; Fred Munao, founder of Select Records; Mark Pitts, longtime Bad Boy and Arista alum; Steve Rifkind, founder of Loud Records; and Bryan Leach of TVT Records and Polo Grounds.
Dan Charnas is the author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop (New American Library/Penguin) and the co-author of Def Jam: The First 25 Years of the Last Great record Label (Rizzoli). He worked for Profile Records and Rick Rubin’s American Recordings. He currently serves as Big Payback Officer at ooVoo.