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The A&R Report had a great pleasure of connecting with one of the most respected names in the music business, Dion ‘No I.D’ Wilson. Wilson currently serves as the Executive Vice President for Def Jam Recordings and subsequently has launched his own record label imprint, ARTium Recordings. No I.D. is perhaps best known for his early work with Chicago-based rapper Common and has also served as a musical mentor and producer for several artists, such as Kanye West, Drake, Nas & J.Cole. No I.D. is considered ‘The Godfather’ of Chicago hip hop.
In this latest A&R Talk we gain some insight on No I.D.’s history as a DJ and producer, his goals as an executive, his thoughts on artist development and his opinion on the digital music industry.
Describe your time growing up in Chicago. What inspired you to get into the music industry?
I used to DJ A lot. Actually, I was a house DJ. That’s what got me into the music industry. I used to make music and just play it. I grew up with Common. We met each other when I was 9 years old playing basketball. Growing up in Chicago you had to do some things to help you stay out of trouble. Common and I went to grammar and highschool together and at some point we started a rap group together. We needed music so one of us had to learn how to do music. We had a DJ who ended up doing music as well, Twilite Tone. Me and Tone ended up doing the Common Sense – Can I Borrow A Dollar? (album) I really never envisioned being a producer. It’s just something that I needed for myself because I needed music to rap to.
You’ve worked with some legendary artists, and executives. Who have been some mentors of yours coming up?
I’d have to say Sean “Rhythm” Ross who helped me learn how to use music equipment and make a beat. He was my very first introduction to attempting to do hip hop production. As an executive, I’d say Jay Brown who has been one of my mentors as far as being a business man.
You’re currently Executive Vice President of Def Jam. Explain your role at the record label. There’s been a lot of changes in the past decade. What are your goals as the company looks to embark on more history for the coming years?
Instead of telling you the job description of what it is I’ll explain my purpose in having this role. As a creative I always felt restricted in how my music got to the marketplace. I wanted to come in and make a change. Hearing Run DMC, the emergence of Def Jam that was an inspiration to making this anything other than a hobby. Since I had a decent career, I looked at certain guys I could look at as inspiration. For example, Rick Rubin. He’s had a long lasting career and hasn’t always been in the spotlight. Also, LA Reid being close to Babyface and then turning himself into an executive icon. Even myself, being close to Kanye then becoming an executive. These are the models I looked at to take me to the next level and help me stay focused.
Back then it was always about creating an artist and making them good enough to be recognized. There wasn’t huge budgets when Tribe Called Quest and Eric B and Rakim were around. That’s the era I came up in. It changed as I came up in the industry and then I had to adjust. It’s had its ups and downs and I’ve humbled myself as I’ve gotten through the ‘dark’ period.
One thing I love about your career is that you’ve had the ability to stay relevant without being too much in the spotlight. What tips do you have for up and coming producers looking to come up while remaining humble?
I think one of my secrets is that I never considered anything that I did in the present moment. Meaning, whatever I did doesn’t matter today. That gives me competitive hunger, which makes me want to continue to learn and be better. The minute you look back you’re not looking forward. Also, I think that you have to be careful how you peak and when you peak. You don’t want to peak too early because history shows that when you peak early you’re more than likely to have a fast rise and a fast decline. Sometimes the people turn on you when you’re too successful. The people turn on you when you become the household name. Sometimes you just need to just make a plan, do what’s good for yourself and family and marvel over what you did when you’re done.
A lot of new artists are getting signed off their social media numbers. What do you look for in an artist when you see one online. What elements do you look for that makes you want to make a call and sign them right away?
My motto is if I ‘love an artist, I love an artist’. It doesn’t matter if they have a hit or not. I believe our business needs true artists and real personalities. I believe hits come and go. Special individuals is what I look for. I don’t know what it is, but I just feel it. I look at the internet world as the matrix. I want to know what’s happening in the real world. The computer can trick you sometimes.
Explain your joint venture with Def Jam, Artium Recordings – what projects is the label currently working on ?
The purpose of Artium is that it’s a lifestyle company/brand. The record company is a part of it. I named it Artium because it’s a latin word. It has all the meaning in the world for me. It means ‘the Arts’ in Latin. It’s about honing a lot of creative people together and doing some business and making beautiful art. It’s all about creating artist driven content and product from a creative standpoint with the intention of being as ‘popular’ as possible without compromising creativity.
One thing I loved about checking worldofartium.com is that instead of listing your roster of artists, you listed them as brands. When it comes to the music industry do you feel that fans are more interested in the major label brand? Or artists and their brands?
I’m going to say that I don’t believe that the kids growing up respect major labels as a whole. I think it’s because historically the major labels were accused of watering down the intention of artists and stealing money. The truth is that now, most of the major labels artists are making more money from the labels than the labels are generating. On top of that, we’ve overlooked that the tech industry has robbed the record labels and the artists. They get all the Ad Money and music for free. I’m not just talking about streaming companies. I’m talking more so about companies who do file sharing as well. The major labels are seen as the enemy, but I feel like the major labels are the only companies making real superstars. My goal is to go within Def Jam and change things around. That might mean less artists, but quality control is everything.
What’s your thoughts on the digital music industry? Do you prefer the old record business model or the new one?
As much as I spoke down about tech companies, I believe that they pose the best and the brightest potential future on developing the music industry. It’s just about getting it to the point where artists can be more compensated for what they do as well as record companies. Everybody plays a part. This is the first time in history where you can hear everything you want to hear for a little bit of money. The Beatles never heard everything. They heard whatever they heard from someone’s record collection. Every time technology has changed, it’s also changed the music and has always changed the business. I prefer records back in the day because it was a product and piece of art. It was physical, it was reality; you could get it signed. I feel like the digital music industry isn’t 100% reality. It’s not tangible. I believe the physical product experience is a part of life.
I feel like the great artists lost faith in the companies. Every now and then you’ll get a great new artist but for the most part a lot of them now are now becoming independent.
Has the evolution of the music industry, changed or altered what you look for in an artist? What are 3 attributes you look for in an artist?
I’ve always believed in talent. Your mindset and discipline is just as important as having talent. I start to balance what I’m looking for. I’m always looking for talent but I’m also looking for people who want to be great. You can always teach people things. Sometimes the people with the most talent don’t want to be great.
You’ve worked with many legendary artists such as Nas, Kanye West, Common – to name a few. From an artist standpoint what common trait do you feel they had to make them successful in their art?
Perspective. What I mean by perspective is, if I was a newscaster and there was a fire in a building the main thing I would do is interview people who were there and get their story. One thing about those artists is that they all have a different perspective on something that we all understood. I think that they all have a very good reference and perspective in life which makes them all very different in which they all tell the same kind of story with a different and creative point of view.
What was the inspiration behind Cocaine 80s? You’ve released some amazing music. What do you have coming up for the band?
I signed them to Def Jam. We have a project coming – a triple album. Our intention is to break every rule. We have a really specific view of music on what’s possible and what’s not possible. We don’t like how our artistic expression is valued, treated and used. This project is about being totally carefree and having no genre, no rules – we put those projects online as an experiment.
You are most known for mentoring Kanye West as he came up. How important do you feel artist development is now in 2015?
It’s everything. It’s what’s missing. It’s the reason why we don’t think there are many great artists out there. They are there, but they are just not being developed. People now are skipping a lot of steps. Michael Jackson had to meet Quincy (Jones) who had many years of experience. You don’t get those relationships nowadays because we don’t need them now. We have less people working together and because of that we have underdeveloped talent.
Your longevity in the music industry is astonishing, how do you stay ahead of the curve creatively?
Never getting full of myself and thinking I’m ahead of the curve. It’s just about thinking like you’re a new artist or producer. Sometimes people get caught up on who they were. You have to think forward regardless of what you’ve done in the past. You have to be innovative with whats going on in the time being. I stay current, I’m learning all the programs and making music with the kids. I’m applying everything I’m learning to what I do.
One of your artists on ARTrium, Snoh Aalegra is originally from Sweden. Can you tell me how you discovered her and what you saw in her at the time?
I met her through my wife who is my business partner at ARTium. I fell in love with her voice. She has a classic tone. Special…
Outside of the U.S. What international markets are you excited about and why?
I love the UK. I love what’s going on there. The goal is to make music that can hit every market. I try to focus on music outside of the U.S. I want to make music that reaches all of humanity without knowing the words to it. It’s an intriguing thing.
Toronto has been an emerging scene for the past few years especially in Urban music. What are your thoughts on this? What scene do you think is next to emerge?
I love Toronto. We signed a girl named Alessia Cara to Def Jam. She’s doing her thing. I talk to a lot of the guys from the OVO Camp like Boi1da, Nineteen85, Frank Dukes. I love what they are doing. They are definitely making top notch music. As far as other scenes; I don’t know. There’s always someone that takes the face of a culture and brings it to the forefront. Drake has been able to do that for Toronto.
As an entrepreneur it is important to have many traits to assist in a career in the music industry. What tips do you have for someone aspiring to get into the music business in 2015?
Product and experience is underrated. The internet is cool. I kind of look at it as the matrix. You can do anything in the matrix, you can be anybody. But if you really want a real career and an impact then you have to be something in the real world. You have to be able to have a product. Everything can’t just be on the screen. Build a real business if you want to make it. Build something to give you leverage and they will come to you. It may take some time to build, but the payoff will be even better.
What does it mean to be an ARTium artist?
You’re a creator. You are a fighter for what you believe in artistically. A tastemaker. There’s no restrictions because it’s all relative. We all believe in something and all have our independent belief structures. We all have our own missions and we are building a community to co-exist with each other and fight for each other. There’s a level of respect we have for each other and I don’t want to change it.
Connect to No I.D.