interviews

A-List Management's John Woolf on managing Wiley's wild ride to the top

What do you call it, garage? What do you call it, urban? What do you call it, two-step?” So goes the chorus to Wot Do U Call It?, the third track on Wiley’s 2004 debut album Treddin’ On Thin Ice. ...

The Big Interview: J Hus

What’s the craic, what’s the story?” Seven tracks into J Hus’ debut album, on the loose, danceable Like Your Style, he repeats that question in his best attempt at an Irish accent. It’s funny, and matches playful production from his long-time collaborator JAE5. Why say it? Hus heard the phrase on a trip to Dublin and it tickled him, so he nicked it. It comes to mind when Music Week meets Momodou Jallow, whose stage name abbreviates hustle (owing to his days peddling supermarket doughnuts in the school playground) in the plush confines of the Langham Hotel in central London. He’s just navigated a series of red carpet interviews at the Hyundai Mercury Prize launch event. Common Sense, released in May, joins records by Stormzy, Ed Sheeran and Alt-J as one of 12 shortlisted titles, representing the latest in a series of landmark achievements for the 21-year-old. So, J Hus, what’s the craic? “I’ve been feeling like a real pop star,” he says, flashing a big smile and fiddling with the zip on his velour tracksuit top. “I’m just getting bigger and bigger, it’s an amazing feeling, this is what I’ve always wanted. I’m happy, the music is just doing its job, taking me where I want to go.” Common Sense - which has sold 72,946 copies to date, according to the Official Charts Company and was one of eight 2017 UK debuts in the Top 200 for the first half of the year - is full of Hus’ idiosyncratic touches. It casts him as both magpie and inventor, pinching and restyling sounds from around the world to create a diaspora of the grime he grew up on, rap, his Gambian heritage, bashment, dancehall, hip-hop and more. It’s connecting, too: lead single Did You See has soundtracked the summer, from Snapchat videos, to traffic jams, house parties, clubs and festivals. It currently sits on 623,692 sales. Artists such as Skepta - who Hus idolised in his teens and played with in Lagos last year - and Stormzy have stolen more headlines so far, but no one sounds like this. Bunda, bouff, clartin’ and bunsah are just some of the words in the record’s vernacular, while it’s jammed with candid stories of his Stratford neighbourhood, relationships and sometimes troubled past. How does it feel to gain recognition for an album that’s pure, unadulterated J Hus? “I always want to be me,” he says. “I’d rather be recognised for being me than being something that’s not me. It means way more that I’ve been able to be myself on my album and maybe have a chance to pick up a Mercury Prize, so yeah, I’m really excited.” Of the record’s genre-blending character, he adds: “It’s very mixed. That’s how I identify, that’s how I feel myself because I’m always mixing sounds. That’s what people know J Hus for, always being so diverse.” It’s true - Hus has been mashing genres since his first SoundCloud freestyles in 2014, through to videos for Link Up TV and SBTV, 2015 debut mixtape The 15th Day, signing to Sony imprint Black Butter for breakout Lean & Bop (140,969 sales to date) and now Common Sense. Another key constant has been his obvious talent, which lies both in the ability to identify and ram home a killer verse or hook, and to move nimbly between hard rapping, softer intonation and singing. Hus’ team have built a no-frills campaign around keeping his talent and personality front and centre. The first serious analysis of his gifts took place in a car with Moe Bah, Hus’ old friend from primary school. Together with his brother Kilo Jalloh, Bah now manages the rapper. “We were sitting there talking about what we were going to do in life,” says Bah. “I knew he was talented so I just said, You need to do music and take it seriously.” None of the three knew the first thing about the music business, Bah says, and initially it was a case of “helping a friend who wanted to change his life - he’d just come out of jail”. While the brothers set about contacting platforms like GRM Daily and SBTV, Hus moved down to their Portsmouth University digs to stay away from “trouble” in Stratford. They used their student loans to pay for £20-a-pop sessions with West London-based producer JAE5, who was seduced by Hus’ talent and willingness to work. Meanwhile, under the name 2K Management, the brothers met up with “everyone - labels, publishers, booking agents, lawyers… It was learning on the go, gauging things on character”. Jalloh remembers “a lot of nice people in the game” and credits Black Butter president Joe Gossa, SBTV’s Isaac Densu, Polydor A&R consultant and Renowned Management founder Zeon Richards and XL A&R Caroline Simionescu-Marin with “really helping us out”. Primary Talent Internation’s Craig D’Souza, now Hus’ agent, was key too, helping set up his mailing list and in turn building the fanbase that still forms a foundation for his success. “It was a big selling point when it came to talking to labels,” remembers Jalloh. Simionescu-Marin, who was editing GRM Daily at the time, was the very first person the pair met in the industry. “J Hus is one of the most important artists to come out of the UK this decade,” she says. “I remember seeing the first draft of his GRM Daily #Rated freestyle and I knew he was special and completely different to anyone I had ever heard. The way his melodies and lyrics connect with people is like nothing I’ve ever seen.” Richards, whose management clients include Wretch 32, says Hus’ “unique personality” puts him “at the forefront of a new generation”, while he calls Bah and Jalloh “two of the smartest people in the business”. They certainly seem two of the most driven. “We always had belief in Hus and were willing to learn, to be the best,” says Jalloh. “People said, You might have to get a co-manager, but it was like, No, we’ll prove we can do it.” DJ Semtex, director of artist development at Sony, certainly believes they have. “It’s been great to see them rise,” he says. “They’re the next generation of management companies, they’re the future.” He adds, excitedly, that artists such as J Hus, Skepta, Stormzy and Giggs - who took to Instagram to praise Hus - have built “a new industry with new models. There are better alternatives now”. Grime legend Semtex, who has worked closely with Dizzee Rascal, discovered Hus through former Reprezent Radio head of music Gavin Douglas and recalls a eureka moment after seeing the video for Lean & Bop. “It was like, He’s got it - he can rap, he’s got humour, he knows how to make club records, party records, music that appeals to everybody. You could see from one video that he was going to be a great artist.” After meeting Bah and Jalloh at Wireless Festival and initiating Hus’ signing to Black Butter, Semtex’s belief only grew stronger. As the campaign unfolded, he realised something massive. “I feel he’s the most significant MC since Dizzee Rascal,” he says. “I worked in the studio with Dizzee and saw what he did. There are degrees of talent that set people apart, and I think Hus’ approach to writing, singing, lyricism, and his ability to create his own slang, his effect on popular culture... It’s like it’s déjà vu sometimes, but it’s also his way of doing things. He’s taking it somewhere no one’s ever taken it before. I think he’s got the opportunity to take it worldwide. He’s a very, very special artist, I don’t think there’s anyone near or like him.” Gossa backs him up emphatically. “We’re all in the music business and there are all levels of artists,” he says. “But this is one where you have someone special, who’s completely relevant and innovative. If you’ve got all that and you’re having hits too… Well, that’s game over.” The president can barely conceal his excitement, and that passion has driven the campaign from the outset. “We just wanted Hus,” he explains. “We wanted his vision at its best and the managers and Hus felt they could trust us because Semtex and I come from the same indie vibe. It’s important when you get something from a certain place that it reaches its pinnacle while staying true to what it is.” Jalloh describes Gossa as “like a mentor, friend or big brother”, while Bah notes the importance of presenting Hus exactly as he is. “We all want Hus to win, he needs an organic fanbase, people need to love him as a person first. We haven’t once changed Hus or his music.” The closeness between label and management is palpable, and Bah and Jalloh warmly recount Gossa’s support after Hus recovered from five stab wounds in September 2015 and served five months in prison last year. “He’s the first person I’d pick up the phone to if I needed anything,” says Jalloh. Hus puts just as much value on the closeness of his team, although he points out, with another smile, that “artists have the power now.” “It’s about speaking, connecting, bonding and being honest, innit,” he continues. “They know what I like and don’t like, what I’m about. They push me in the right direction and let me steer it how I want. I wouldn’t be in a situation if I didn’t have creative control.” Once he’d signed, Hus’ team wanted one thing: to ensure he reached as many people as possible in a natural way. “It’s been about being respectful of the culture and his origins, what he contributes to what happens at street level. The artist community he’s from can smell a fraud,” says Semtex. “Every decision has been about that, never doing something for the sake of it or because it might sell more records.” “It just needed facilitating,” adds Gossa, who believes UK rap is experiencing a “golden age” in 2017. Hus agrees, revealing he’s discussed just how big it’s getting with Stormzy and Krept & Konan. Gossa picks up the campaign thread again. “We didn’t go at it in a traditional pop marketing way, we fed the scene. It was an anticipated album from an anticipated artist. Our job was just to make sure radio played the tracks, 1Xtra and Capital Xtra were already behind us, it was more the major stations, and [helping them] understand the fanbase and how much this music means to a lot of people in this country right now.” A big part of that was Did You See, released in March, a track that the whole team knew would fly. Gossa calls it “Hus at his best”, emphasising that it captured the zeitgeist, while Semtex says it was “everywhere before it had even crossed over”. “It sounds international without even trying,” he says. “People outside the UK see it as region-less, which is a problem UK rap has had for years up to this point.” Dotted around that single were four key features: a remix of MoStack’s Liar Liar with Krept & Konan, High Roller with Nines and Samantha with Dave. The fourth was Bad Boys, which featured Ghetts and was included on Stormzy’s No.1 album Gang Signs & Prayer. “As long as people heard those songs, we’d be cool,” says Bah. “We had to make sure people knew the debut was coming, that there was a lot more to come.” The audience was ready: 17,973 week one sales (11,210 from streams) meant Common Sense entered and peaked at No.6 after its release on May 12. The same week, Did You See climbed the chart for the eighth consecutive week, reaching a peak of No.9 with 30,537 sales. Four more Common Sense cuts made the singles Top 75 that week: Fisherman (feat. Mo Stack and Mist) hitting No.47 (11,388 sales), Common Sense at No.55 (8,824 sales), Bouff Daddy at No.65 (7,733 sales) and Spirit at No.68 (7,373 sales). Gossa highlights the impact of Fisherman especially: “It leaked ahead of the album and created hype that’s still going, with MoStack and Mist, it has three superstars of the scene.” Spirit has since been officially released and is now poised to go Top 40. Semtex stresses that going with this upbeat, positive track - written after Hus’ prison stint - represents “a very brave move, many labels wouldn’t have done it. It’s the opposite of everything else going on and is innovative and culturally significant because it takes on UK rap, hip-hop and African music”. The campaign rolled on with a regional UK tour in May (various legal issues mean Hus will make his London headline debut at a long-sold out O2 Academy Brixton in November) and a series of festivals. He plays The O2 as part of Boy Better Know’s Takeover this weekend. Looking ahead, Hus simply says, “Everyone’s listening, like we always wanted”. His team are more forthcoming: paying all due respect to his peers, they say Hus’ campaign is one of a kind. “We knew we had something very different and very special,” says Semtex. “He’s unique, we didn’t look at other campaigns, just focused on our music.” For Bah and Jalloh, “always thinking outside the box” paid dividends. “At no stage did we look at another campaign and think, We need something like this,” Jalloh explains. “Ours wasn’t the biggest, but it worked. All we had was Did You See, those features and some good looks with PR. Hus is not the most sociable, so putting him up for something like Soccer AM - which was offered - might have killed his image more than do something good for it. We worked with who he is. We know there will be more hits, so we haven’t done everything in one go. Hus is different.” Standing opposite him in the Langham, it’s clear that J Hus is indeed different, a fresh proposition. Like Skepta and Stormzy, he’s changing the face of not just grime and UK rap, but British music itself, uniting genres and cultures in ways never before seen. His is a new way of thinking, and is helping to push the UK scene further beyond the boundaries set by grime’s urgent, metallic sound. In a few minutes, Hus will be whisked back onto London’s streets, but not before he’s made one final point. “Even though grime has been around for a long time, to a lot of people I’m something new, and people love new and fresh things,” he says, shoulders dipping so he’s practically swaggering on the spot. “It’s a new sound that people aren’t necessarily used to, but they really like it…” With that, he pops the collar on his tracksuit top, and disappears.

ReBalancing Act: Inside Festival Republic and PRS Foundation's groundbreaking new initiative

In 2017, the spectre of gender imbalance, inequality and sexism in workforces around the UK has been laid bare. The exposition of the gender pay gap at the BBC was but the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, PRS Foundation’s Women Make Music Evaluation asserts that women represent just 16% of UK songwriters and composers, while also highlighting a lack of women in other roles across the industry – with engineering being cited as a male-dominated arena. Likewise, and as with previous years, 2017’s festival line-ups have been critiqued for the lack of female acts filling enough slots, let alone the coveted ones.   It is against this backdrop that Festival Republic and PRS Foundation have united to launch ReBalance, an innovative Leeds-based, three-year programme which will provide one week’s studio recording time at Old Chapel Music Studio (plus accommodation and travel) to a core female band, female musician or female solo artist each month in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Recipients will be decided by a panel including Melvin Benn (Festival Republic, MD), Vanessa Reed (PRS Foundation, CEO), and Lucy Wood (Festival Republic, talent booker) alongside a rotating pool of experts from different areas of the industry. Yet that is only part of what ReBalance aims to do. Part of the initiative’s agenda is to reinforce the notion that the gender imbalance is not confined solely to festival stages. As such, it will also encourage female applicants to apply for two available studio engineering apprenticeships. Music Week caught up with Benn and Reed to take us further inside ReBalance and find out how the industry can get involved… Firstly, what’s the goal behind the ReBalance initiative? Melvin Benn: Well, I’ve had 40 years of political activism, and among the things I’ve always been very clear about is gender equality – I’ve spent forever talking to my staff about it, literally all of my working life, being aware of those things and generally feeling that I’ve never had a sexist or negative attitude at all. Then, the last two or three years, there’s been this quite significant criticism, appropriate in some respects – I’m not saying that it’s inappropriate – that the line-ups for a lot of festivals are very heavily weighted with men performing. For some reason, I don’t know why, I seem to get a lot of the stick about it – Reading & Leeds in particular – that there should be more female performers, female headliners etc. For me, as a promoter, we’re effectively a conduit between the band and the fan. The reality is the majority of music that plays within a festival environment – what the fans are listening to on the radio, on Spotify, on YouTube, on SoundCloud – tend to be bands that are male-dominated. I felt a little bit helpless because ultimately what we want to do is provide acts that people are listening to to perform at the festival. It got me thinking that focusing on what’s appearing at the festival is a sticky plaster, really, it’s not the real issue – the real issue is that not enough women are coming through with recording contracts to be getting the airplay on the radio stations, on the streaming sites. That begs the question: Is it because women aren’t picking up guitars or writing songs or anything like that? It’s utter bollocks and can’t be true. It’s impossible to be true, I have women riggers, women forklift drivers, women fencers, women in every aspect of the live industry. You can see the change. It was very clear that there was no resistance to change but there was definitely inertia. I started to think of how I could deal with it and ultimately I went back to the root of it, which is recording. I worked with the Old Chapel Studio in Leeds. It was always facing hard times and with some support from the council it became a trust and I already fund a fundraiser for them. So, I started concocting the idea about six months ago. Vanessa Reed: The reason we are so happy to be involved in ReBalance is that we know how much impact targeted initiatives have. Because we’ve been running our Women Make Music fund for over five years we can see the difference that that has made and with ReBalance, again, it’s about a very specific call out to female artists and young engineers who want to spend some time in the studio, and also young women who want to develop their skills in sound engineering and production. It’s something that I think will give women the confidence to put themselves forward and also, as was the case with our Women Make Music fund, an important way of raising awareness of the ongoing challenges. Before, when we launched Women Make Music, we highlighted the low percentage of female songwriters and composers in the UK, which comes right from the starting point of the fund and it was simply that the membership of PRSF at the time was only 13% female and now that’s gone up to 16%. In this instance, with Festival Republic, we were acknowledging the problem of the male-dominated workforce behind the scenes. We’re also drawing attention to the statistic that only 5% of producers are female, so it’s looking at the gender gap from a number of different perspectives. For me, working with a high-profile man who is using his position to help influence change is a really important step forward in the debate around women in music. Obviously, I’m a woman, I head up PRS foundation, we launched Women Make Music and I’m very proud of that but I also feel like we can’t do it on our own. We need industry leaders to get involved, put themselves on the line and, as Melvin said, take the responsibility and help in the effort that many of us have been involved with for a number of years.What has the reaction to the launch been so far? VR: It’s been incredibly positive. Unlike five or six years ago when we launched Women Make Music when there was a little bit of resistance to the idea of creating something that was for women only, we’ve really moved forward with most people realising that nothing is going to change unless there is targeted action or positive action, whether it’s the government ensuring that large companies reveal the gender pay gap or whether it’s organisations like Festival Republic launching schemes like this, or ourselves building partnerships with six other European festivals. I think there is an acceptance that we can’t just sit back and watch history keep repeating itself.  The other thing that’s really crucial is that people have been inspired by the fact that a man is heading this up alongside PRS Foundation, so Melvin’s role is important. I also think we started to realise with things like the McKinsey report that’s demonstrated how organisations and businesses are simply more effective if they have balanced boards and diverse teams working in them, I think more and more people believe that our music industry will be more successful if it’s more balanced. For example, in our evaluation of Women In Music, many interviewees pointed out that the male-dominated workforce is a bit of a barrier for female artists. It puts them off, they don’t always want to be working in a situation where they’re surrounded by men which has been the case in the studio. There’s a general recognition that it’s going to help both the creative and the artistic side of the industry as well as the business results that we generate off the back of that. In terms of the timeline for the positive outcome of this initiative, when do you hope to see the results? MB: It could be some years before we see the fruits of it but I think we will see the fruits of it. In fact, I’m certain we will see the fruits of it. VR: I’m really, really pleased Festival Republic has committed to doing this for three years because, as a funder and development agency, we always like to say that you need to work on something for a minimum of three years before you start seeing any results and before you can ensure that the whole model is working effectively. In terms of when we hope to see results, I think purely the buzz and excitement around this is going to inspire other people to start thinking about what they can do and I think then it starts to become an industry-wide impact that the scheme might have. Of course, the other thing that’s great about the initiative is that Festival Republic has committed to giving each of the selected artists a slot on one of the festival bills. If you think about the numbers, we’re going to have 36 solo acts/bands going through the studios in the next three years. They will all make it onto the festival bills, as a result they might be picked up by other festivals. I imagine, as has happened with our Women Make Music fund, they’ll be seeing an increase in the income they’re able to generate, the size of their live audience and also the size of their fan base online. The return on investment with this initiative, I think, will be huge.How did you arrive at the definition of ‘core’ female when considering who would be eligible to apply? MB: I spent some time thinking about this because there’s plenty of bands out there that effectively draft in a woman as the front person, as a singer or whatever and it’s like, How do you avoid that? Because you see that as tokenistic? MB: Yeah… that’s tokenism and I don’t want to give the studio time to tokenism. I thought, they need to be core and actually the only way that women are core is if they are part of the writing team. That’s the working definition. It could be a grime act, and if it is it’s likely she’ll be writing her own songs, but if it is a band, the women in the band need to represent at least 50% of the songwriting. Importantly, the definition of female here also encompasses all those identifying as female, too... MB: We’re beginning to enter a world where people can be who they want to be as opposed to who society wants them to be and that can only be for the better. I’m very clear about what I want to do, that this is about women in terms of it being open to people that are transgender [as well].Aside from the opportunity to perform at a Festival Republic event, what kind of opportunities do you envision coming from this? MB: My real hope is that they get an opportunity or some sort of recording contract, some sort of label activity and that’s the bit I don’t know anything about. I haven’t spoken to the majors about it, but that doesn’t mean that opportunity isn’t there, it’s just time that’s meant I haven’t. I would hope that the majors would come on board, actually. I’ve sort of spoken to a couple that I know better – Moshi Moshi was one of the first ones and they were like, This is great! The only thing that I want is that, after a week’s studio time, a band will have a number of songs that they’ve recorded well. What I’ve got is a commitment from Moshi Moshi and Transgressive that they will give a very good listen to everything that comes out of this project and if they can find a fit that works, they’ll take them on.Going forward, what do you need from the industry in terms of support? VR: I think there are two angles here. One is that there are a lot of incredibly talented women out there already and I think we need, as an industry and also across the media, to be finding much more effective ways of promoting the role models who already exist. I think that’s something that the major labels can get behind and I think that applies not only when it comes to the artist but also within the workforce. We all know from the survey that women make up 30% of senior roles in the industry workforce. Well, I think the men who are in charge of the major companies need to be finding ways to highlight the successes of the women who are closest to the top of their organisations and encouraging other women to follow suit, ensuring that they have the right kind of mentoring schemes and progression routes that are in place for all the women who are already there. One of the challenges is actually keeping women in the industry. We all know there’s a challenge when it comes to who’s responsible when it comes to childcare I think one side of it is promoting role models and I think that broadcasters and the media have also got a role to play there. On the other hand, Melvin’s absolutely right, we need to invest in the grassroots of the current pipeline and broaden the pool from which we can actually recruit talent from, and initiatives like ReBalance are really important. So is our Women Make Music fund which we’re continuing for the next five years, so are things like BBC Introducing and ensuring that there’s a really diverse range of artists coming through. This is a great example of where a big player from within the commercial side of the industry is showing that it doesn’t take so much to do something that will have a really meaningful impact and inspire women and people of other backgrounds [to see] that the industry is a place that they want to be part of, is a workplace that they can be a part of. I would welcome any other major companies to approach us about how they can get involved.Regarding the potential ripple effect would you rather it be all united under the ReBalance umbrella? VR: I’m sure that different companies from across the industry might have a slightly different take on what’s needed in relation to their specific diversity challenge, and I think that there’s no harm in there being a plethora of different initiatives that all share the same goal. If people are excited by the impact that the ReBalance brand has had then I’m sure we would be happy to talk about how others can collaborate with us. Ultimately, I hope we all want to achieve the same thing, so it’s just making sure we find the right way to do that. As a foundation and a development agency, one of our most important goals is to make sure that everything we do is completely user-friendly and artist-friendly because we want composers and songwriters to be brilliant at what they’re best at, which is writing music, and we don’t want them to be confused by any complicated ways of applying for things. The one advantage of trying to unite together on certain initiatives is that if they are really very similar then it just kind of simplifies things for artists if they know there’s one place to go to apply. Are there any other objectives that you haven’t been able to incorporate into this first step that you’re excited about tackling in the future? VR: The first thing is the UK-wide roll-out, that would be the dream in the future but the other thing I’m really passionate about is also shining a light on the female producers and sound engineers that do exist, who are, perhaps, beyond the level of the apprenticeships that we’ll be supporting through this first pilot, who could benefit from getting more recognition within the industry and having opportunities to develop their craft and build a network with the right kind of artists and labels as well. I think there’s definitely more to be done on the producer/engineering side of things and I’d love to see if we can work on that. I also think, as a foundation, like many of us in the industry there’s been a lot of talk about the gender gap and I think that’s really crucial but we need to make sure that we don’t forget that the industry has another challenge which is the fact that – if you make a very broad, sweeping generalisation – there’s a fear that it’s a white, middle class and ‘male’ environment so I’d be really keen to ensure that with this project, ReBalance, and with any other project that is focusing primarily on gender that we are also aware of the other kinds of diversity that we want to encourage in the industry.    The good news on that front is that, based on our experience at the foundation when we launched Women Make Music – because it was a very inclusive and targeted approach – is that it actually encouraged all kinds of female creators to come forward and we had a really high proportion of women applying from a BAME background. We need to be making sure that we don’t become tunnel-visioned and think about only one kind of diversity, we need to think about all the talent that’s out there. That’s something I want to be making sure is part of the DNA of these kind of programmes.And it sounds like you see ReBalance as something that could become much, much bigger and broader… MB: I hope so. What I really think it can do, what I really hope it can do, is force the industry to look at itself. There’s nobody who will tell me that there are not women out there that would like to go into a studio and record. But when you go into those environments, I can imagine it would be intimidating if the only woman who is there is you. My hope is that somebody who will come through ReBalance will become a festival headliner. But, you know, the reality is, for me, if they get some sort of recording contract, some sort of association with a label because we’ve been able to give them studio time as well as a festival performance then I’ve done the bit I can do. They’ve got to do the next bit. They’ve got to develop their audience, craft, skills when they’re on stage, they’ve got to do that.

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