|The A&R Report had the pleasure of getting in touch with former Sr.VP of A&R at Island Def Jam, and now Founder of his new venture, Young Forever Inc, Chris Anokute. We talk about his past experiences, his thoughts on the current music business, Katy Perry, and his new artist priority, Bebe Rexha.
How was it for you being raised by West African parents and growing up in New Jersey?
My parents moved to America when they were in their mid twenties. They came here for higher education, and the opportunities the land of the free had to offer. Growing up in New Jersey was a blessing. We lived in a very diverse middle class neighborhood. This was key in the shaping of my personality. I was well rounded socially and culturally. My Dad was a professor, and my Mom was a Nurse, so education and hard work were instilled in us from an early age. My parents sacrificed it all to give us a fighting chance, and those sacrifices gave me the opportunity to dream big. My father ran a stern ship, so there was no room for error. I was always strong willed and spoke my mind, but I didn’t rock the boat too much. I was raised to respect myself and others. Seeing my parents work so hard (sometimes 16 hour days), gave me a sight for something more than that kind of grind. I just yearned to one day provide for them, as they did for me and my siblings. My sights were on showbiz!
If you didn’t start a career in the music industry, what else do you think you would do?
It’s my purpose. I know it! I don’t think there would be anything else I’d be doing. I once had a love for criminal law and forensic science. But from as long as I can remember, I had my eyes on the entertainment business.
Who are some additional influences that have helped shape your career?
To be honest, Sean Combs. I was a freshmen in HS in 1995, and this was the year Bad Boy was dominated pop culture. I would watch Sean “Puffy” Combs on TV, and just be amazed by his charisma and confidence. I loved the artists he had on the roster, so I started to really follow his career closely. I read interviews about him, and started taking the necessary steps to one day be a record executive like He. I never had eyes for the stage. Instead, I wanted to be the man behind the scenes. I promoted parties, developed acts, and even started my first “entertainment company” at 16 years young by the name of Christyle Entertainment. I’ll forever cherish those early days.
It is known that you approached John Houston to be of his management team to jumpstart your career. Tell us how that experience created the foundation to start your career in the music business?
I would camp out at Puffy’s restaurant every Tuesday. They would host a Tuesday Industry night, and the most influential people in the music business would frequent there on any given Tuesday. I was under 21, so I was never able to get in, but I knew I would run into someone outside of the restaurant. On one night, I saw a Lincoln Navigator with the license plate reading “NIPPY”. In doing my research over the years, I knew fellow Jersey native Whitney Houston’s nickname was “NIPPY”. I knocked on the door, and asked the driver if that was Whitney Houston’s car. To make a long story shorter, her father John Houston was sitting in the passenger seat. He just connected with my energy and gave me his assistant’s number to set up a meeting. A few weeks later, he invited me to his house in Jersey for dinner on a Sunday night. For about 2 months, I would go to his house for his weekly Sunday dinner, and he would just let me pick his brain. He really gave me the confidence that I can be in this business. It wasn’t an internship.. He was more like a mentor giving back. God rest his soul.
What’s a day in the life of Chris Anokute like?
I wake up at around 7 am each morning. I do the Santa Monica stairs for my workout, and then I get on the computer to catch up on the news. After that, every day varies. But for the most part, I work hard on learning more about new business strategies; researching new opportunities for growth; building/maintaining relationships; listening to music that I’m working on, as well as new music that is sent to me from artists, producers and songwriters; and most importantly, managing the career of Bebe Rexha. She’s my #1 artist priority.
You’re well known for discovering and working with worldwide megastar Katy Perry, tell us how that working relationship came about?
You know what, it’s all by the grace of God. I was able to meet Katy’s publicist that worked for her throughout her stint at Columbia Records. Her name is Angelica Cob, and she’s now one of my closest friends in life. I met her at the 2007 EMI Grammy party. I was introduced to her through my former boss, Jason Flom. At the time, he was in the process of hiring her to run publicity at Virgin/EMI. Jason introduced me to Angelica as his new “A&R star”, so that gave Angelica the confidence to talk to me about Katy Perry. She alerted me that she was getting released from Columbia, but that the girl was a total star and that we should really take a look at her, etc, etc. A few days later, Angelica sent me a promo video and 2 demos on Katy. That demo package included the songs, “Waking Up in Vegas and Thinking of You.” I got it immediately!! In fact, it was the music video for a song called “Simple” that really floored me. I just knew she was something special. I was very determined to get Katy Perry into the label, as I was keen to work on my own project at EMI. Weeks later, Jason and I flew to LA to see Katy showcase @ The Viper Room. After a month or so of going back n forth, we eventually signed her to the label in the spring of 2007. I A&R’d her first 2 albums – (One Of The Boys (2008), Teenage Dream (2010). Both albums were extremely successful. I’m so grateful for the time I spent working for Katy Perry. It is thee most fulfilling moment in my professional career thus far. I adore her, and we still hold a very close friendship.
What would you say was your first ‘big break’ in the music business?
My first big break was brokering the deal for Rihanna’s debut single, “Pon De Replay”, in 2005. It was a journey. My friend Alisha “Mjestie” Brooks, who is like a sister from another mother, was my first true business partner. We were two young 21 year olds trying to get into the business. She was a rapper/singer/songwriter focusing on the creative. I was her manager/business partner focusing on the business. I introduced her to my good friend Vada Nobles, who ended up becoming our first investor. Vada was my neighbor. He was an acclaimed producer known for his work on the “Miseducation of Lauryn HIll” at the time. He gave us the instrumental to “Pon De Replay”, which he produced, and offered a publishing deal partnership that gave us the finances to focus on music full time. Alisha later wrote the song. My lawyer at the time, Scott Felcher (has been my lawyer for over 10 years), was also representing Rihanna and her production team in STURKEN & ROGERS. Scott knew that I was a young hustler running around studios, and told me about this new girl he just started representing from Barbados. He informed me that she was working on demos, and asked me to send any songs through. The first song that came to mind was “Pon De Replay”. Mind you, I played the original demo of the song for many record executives. No one was biting. That convo led to a trip to Connecticut for my writer to work with Rihanna. Alisha cut 2 of her writing demos on Rihanna, including “Pon De Replay”.
Soon after, Scott Felcher started to shop her demo package to major labels. Rihanna was signed by Def Jam Records on the spot, and “Pon De Replay” was quickly identified as her debut single. That song broke her career worldwide, and went onto to become a huge success. We co published the song, and the success of that single gave me the financial freedom to focus on music business full time. I’ve never looked back since.
It is evident that you recently left your stint over at Island Def Jam, tell us about your time there? What projects were you a part of?
Working at Universal was the more frustrating creative years of my music business career, but it was necessary for my personal growth. The company was going through re structuring since the time I started. I left EMI in late 2010 to work for Sylvia Rhone at Universal Motown, who I have tons of respect for. It was my dream to work for her. 7 months into the job, she left the company. I was then moved to two labels in the group within a 2 year period, and left there with people I didn’t choose, and people who didn’t choose me. But I got to sign some great talents, including an incredible artist by the name of Christian TV, who is now blowing up under the moniker JMSN (no longer signed to Universal). I also got to work on one of my best A&R work projects in the incredible singer/songwriter by the name of Smokey Jones. She’s like church to me. One of the best voices I’ve ever got to be around. She still signed to Island/Universal, and I hope they do great things by her. Most importantly, I got the chance to meet thee most exceptional, talented and determined artist I’ve ever met in Bebe Rexha. I cut one of her songs on a developing artist we had at IDJ by the name of Nikki Williams. The single she co wrote for Nikki Williams went top 15 for the company. That success led to a closer relationship with Bebe Rexha, who I started to manage in the Fall of 2012, while still at Universal.
What does A&R mean to you ????
“Artist and relationships”. There is no job too small for a passionate A&R person. It’s my primary goal to use every skill in my body, while utilizing every contact I’ve built over the years, to assist in advancing that artist’s career forward. Most of the time it’s music driven, but I step out of the box and try to be a resource to them in every way possible. I’m obsessively loyal to the artists I work for.
Which new artists are you currently excited about in 2014?
Obviously Bebe Rexha. She’s the X Factor with a capital X. She has pure star power and the potential to be one of the biggest names in music. I have NEVER been so excited about an artist before, like I am about Bebe Rexha. She’s creating serious traction right now. She has the song TAKE ME HOME with Big Beat/Atlantic DJ act, Cash Cash, that is currently exploding at Top40 radio. The song is testing great every where, and the sales are up consistently week after week. It’s shaping into a real hit record, and an incredible set up for her major label debut. She also co wrote the Eminem single, “The Monster”, that sat at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 for 5 weeks straight. Her demo version leaked last week, and already has close to 100,000 plays. Everyone is starting to feel her buzz. We are gearing up for her debut release on Warner Bros. Records this year. I also love this new artist, Tinashe (RCA). I believe she’s going to have huge success. My close friends’ Mike and Ali Nazarro are her managers. I’m so happy for all of them. Other acts that I love are: Smokey Jones (Island Def Jam); Julian Perretta (Cherrytree/Universal); JMSN; Ferras (Capitol) – He’s this generations Elton John, and the best male singer I’ve ever met in my life. I also love Gilbere Forte on Epic, and this new artist Kiesza on Lokal Legend. My favorite new band is a band called BOBBY CHURCH, w/ R&B crooner Timothy Bloom as their front man. Oh, and I’m so happy to see Disclosure breaking through stateside. My fiancé’ turned me onto them almost 18 months ago, and I’ve always been a fan of their music.
How do you feel about powerful services like Spotify and Pandora and their affect on the current music business?
I don’t think much about them, outside of the fact that they are great portals to discover new music. Any new ways for the fan to access more music is a good thing, and will eventually be good for business.
What are your thoughts on the idea for ‘paying for what you like?’ Do you feel that there should be a limit to a consumer’s consumption to stream for free to leverage this idea?
The idea of “paying for what you like” isn’t going to fly in my humble opinion. Consumers will not pay for something just because they like it, when there are too many opportunities for them to get it for free. This new generation is getting used to the idea of music being free, or at least the “bang for your buck mentality” (Subscription services are not free, but the consumer feels like they are getting a bargain, and it softens the blow of the one off purchases). We just need to be ok with that.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the music industry? Business wise?
All I can say is that this is the best time to get into the music business, especially for young entrepreneurs. You can write your own rules. This is the only time in the history of the popular music business where any one can play in the sandbox. With the power of the internet and the evolving of technology, anyone with real talent, or marketing savvy, has the opportunity to make a living through in this business. I don’t like to think much about where we came from anymore.. The past is history. I’m just looking ahead, and with tunnel vision focus.
More and more executives are leaving their positions at major labels, and starting their own companies. What are your thoughts on this trend?
There’s a ceiling in those major corporations. The good ones know their worth, and decide to invest in themselves. At the end, the reward is greater. And the personal fulfillment of having success on your own is one in itself. Once upon a time, there was a formula for success in this business. Now, the strongest and smartest will survive. And the strong & wise are usually the ones who no longer want to be under someone else’s order. But it takes hard work and patience.
What benefits do you feel the major label poses in comparison to the independent route?
The big difference between the two scenarios is the financial investment. Major labels still have big checkbooks. The major label has the ability to invest in mainstream radio, which is still dominated by the major players. And mainstream radio still moves the needle when it comes to sales. The majors also have the ability to quickly cross over a record globally, because they have all their international systems working in sync.
But this only matters if your desire is to be a “MAINSTREAM” artist.
As an experienced music executive, what tips would you have for an aspiring A&R looking to make their presence in the industry?
You don’t need an A&R job title at a record company to do A&R. Start developing artists locally. There are so many cost efficient ways to make music now. Identify a talent that you love; Start developing their sound; Use the internet to expose their music, and don’t look back. You have to do the work, make mistakes, learn from your mistakes, get doors slammed in your face, invest your own money, and just try anything and everything that comes to mind to move your artist’s career forward. The right people will start to take notice, and the stars will align. They always do, as long as the intent and your will to succeed is honest and consistent. There is no right answer. Everyone has their own unique path. But there is one common denominator…. “DESIRE”. How much do you want this?
Explain your process when it comes to searching for new talent?
I’ll be honest, I never ever searched for talent in my entire career. I just keep my ears and heart open. The idea of “searching” for something brings me anxiety. I’m a strong believer in what is meant to be, shall be. I believe in God’s will, and I just wake up open to all the possibilities the universe has to offer me that day. And when I say the stars align, i mean it. “The STARS align”. The great creatives always find each other. I TRULY believe in destiny.
What are the best outlets an artist can use to get you music?
Twitter or Facebook. I listen to everything I’m sent. If I feel something, I respond. It’s that simple. It doesn’t take a long time to affect someone’s energy in a positive way. It can be the tone of voice, the lyrics, the song, or the overall “sound”. But I know what I like, and I go after what I believe in.
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisAnokute