Mr. President: A Conversation with LA Reid
We sit down to talk with the record executive who signed artists like TLC, Outkast, Usher, Justin Bieber, and Rihanna about his new book 'Sing To Me'
LA Reid / All photos courtesy of LA Reid
TLC, Toni Braxton, Outkast, Usher, Pink, Avril Lavigne, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Young Jeezy, Future: This is a partial list of acts that LA Reid has signed in his two-plus decades as a record label head. LA Reid is the guy who, as president of Arista Records, oversaw Mariah Carey’s comeback with The Emancipation of Mimi. He ran Def Jam (hiring Jay Z to work alongside him for a good portion of it) during the Kanye West run of College Dropout through My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Millions and millions of records have been sold under Reid’s watch—and that’s just part of his pedigree. In his various roles as musician, talent scout, and businessman, Reid has been one of the most important figures in shaping the last 30 years of popular music, whether you know it or not.
In his 20s, Reid met Kenny Edmonds, better known as Babyface, and the two of them became a hit songwriting and production duo, penning songs like The Whispers’ “Rock Steady,” Bobby Brown’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” and Whitney Houston’s “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” along with hits for Karyn White, Sheena Easton, and Johnny Gill. The pair helped define the sound of R&B throughout the late 80s and early 90s, particularly once they launched their label, LaFace. And, with that label, almost singlehandedly, they made Atlanta a key music industry center.
“There was no music business,” Reid writes of Atlanta upon LaFace’s arrival in town in his autobiography Sing To Me. “There was no place you could rent a luxury car. Hell, there weren’t even rehearsal studios or equipment rentals.” It was a far cry from the so-called Black Hollywood of today.
Sing To Me, co-written with Joel Selvin and released this week, does not, for the most part, have much in the way of salacious anecdotes about Reid’s long list of celebrity friends (although it does have a pretty funny story about Michael Jackson shit-talking Prince). But the book offers plenty of behind-the-scenes insights that illustrate the many ways the music industry has evolved since Reid entered it almost 40 years ago, drumming in bands in Cincinnati and Indianapolis and finally finding minor success as part of a group called The Deele.
LA Reid in the LaFace days, with T-Boz and Left Eye of TLC
That career was soon eclipsed by his songwriting and production success with Babyface (fun fact in Sing To Me: Bootsy Collins gave Babyface the nickname the first time Edmonds walked into write with him), which led the two to start LaFace, where they discovered TLC, Toni Braxton, and Outkast. While Babyface continued to focus on songwriting, eventually heading his own way professionally, Reid was more interested in signing and developing new talent, and he worked his way through the corporate side of the industry, eventually moving to New York to take over at LaFace’s parent company, Arista, and, then, when he was let go there, moving to Island Def Jam. He had a brief stint as a judge on the US import of X Factor, and currently he’s in charge of Epic Records, home to artists like Future, Meghan Trainor, and Travis Scott.
Reid’s CV speaks for itself, and the impact of Sing To Me is, in many ways, that it simply lists all these accomplishments out over 300 pages, making you consider exactly what it means to succeed and endure in the music industry. It’s a tale of a guy with great instincts feeling out ideas that end up working incredibly well: pushing Mariah to search for one more hit single, which became “We Belong Together”; encouraging Big Boi and Andre 3000 to release their solo albums instead as an Outkast double album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, with the two lead singles coming out simultaneously; listening to Beyoncé’s suggestion he sign Rihanna (he was certain singer Teairra Marie would be the bigger star). Although the book tends to rush over topics in superficial detail—it might have been more rewarding if there were more episodes like the epilogue that details Outkast’s reunion performance at Coachella—its overall arc is one that anyone who cares about modern pop and hip-hop should care about, serving as a sort of prequel to modern Atlanta music and the era in which Rihanna, Kanye, and Justin Bieber are the biggest stars in the world.
I met with the impeccably dressed Reid last week in his corner office on the executive floor of the Sony building in Midtown Manhattan. He was warm and funny and thrilled to just talk about music—as people came in to prep him for a TV appearance right after our talk, he pointed to the drum practice pad on his desk and described tracing the origins of a specific jazz drum fill the night before. That’s the appeal of Reid: He’s a music exec who comes from music and still has a deep faith in it no matter its place in the business realm.
LA Reid and Jay Z, Def Jam colleagues
Noisey: There's this part in the book where you go to meet Michael Jackson and you're like ‘we're gonna write for Michael Jackson,’ and you write the song and then nothing happens with it. I feel like that's how so many things in the music business are. It's yeah, here's this really great idea and it could be the big thing. And obviously it speaks to how well things did go, that you had so many where it did break the right way. But I found that really interesting.
LA Reid: By chance, by luck, we were able to eventually get the record out there that we did with Michael (“Slave to the Rhythm”). But the truth is, we were just too in awe of Michael. And still. We were just too in awe. We were in the room like [whispers] oh my God it's Michael! And he would stand there like he was regular. And I'd be ‘You're not fucking regular! Stop acting like you regular!’ But it was all just freaking us out. We just couldn't nail it. It was something else. And we spent a lot of time with Michael. And over the years I spent even more time, when we weren't doing music. But he would come up and just whisper in my ear: ‘you remember that song?’ And he used to call me Mr. President. Just because when I first met Michael he says ‘so, what do you want to be?’ And I said, ‘I want to be a president, the president of a major record label.’ And he says ‘Mr. President,’ and from that point forward, the entire time I knew him, he called me Mr. President. It would be in crazy places like the Angel Ball or Tommy Mottola's birthday party or something and he would come up to me: ‘ Mr. President.’
That's awesome. That's when you know you've made it, is Michael Jackson having a nickname for you.
Something, right? But my real issue is with Jermaine, The Jacksons, Michael, Janet—I never got a hit. I'm not going to say that hey, it's my life's goal is to get a hit with The Jacksons, but I'm very mindful of that. Although I've had relationships with all of them, I've never had a hit with any of them.
I can see that being the white whale.
That fucks with me if I can just tell you the truth!
Michael Jackson and "Mr. President"
Speaking of which, I feel like the other secret hidden characters in this book that you reference a lot are Prince and then Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who were almost like a rival writing duo.
Prince was the blueprint, really. The Deele, we were a lost band. And Prince was like the blueprint: OK, there it is. I think that artists in hip-hop, they're fortunate that hip-hop is such a pronounced culture and such a pronounced lifestyle that you can look at hip-hop culture and kind of know OK, I need to do this, I need to do that, I need to sound like this, dress like this, act like this. And you'll figure out quickly how to fit in. It doesn't guarantee success, but before hip-hop there was no blueprint. Because R&B was posed, looking into the camera with shiny clothes and stuff, right? And dance moves and dance steps. It was The Temptations; it was The Dramatics; it was The Four Tops. Jimi Hendrix was there, but Jimi Hendrix didn't really appeal to black people, honestly, at the time. Unless you were cutting edge or you were a musician or something or if you liked LSD. Otherwise you probably didn't know about Jimi Hendrix.
So Prince and Rick James were the first black rock stars that spoke to us and said OK, here's a path. And we were like aha! And we jumped all over it. We jumped all over it and said there we go. Everything we did was about Prince: What would Prince say? What would Prince do? Would he answer that question? Would Prince wear this? Would he wear that? Would he write that song? Would he think that song was cool enough to be on his album? And that became my bar.
Jimmy Jam and Terry, they weren't rivals because they were before us. We looked up to them, and they were so talented. To this day, Kenny and I, we both love Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Love the records that they made. We liked the idea that, because there was a Jimmy and Terry, that there could be an LA and Babyface. We liked that, again, someone provided a template.
There was two times when it could be considered rivalry with Jimmy Jam and Terry and us: One time was, they had the Mo' Money soundtrack and we had the Boomerang soundtrack at the same time. And this girl that worked in my marketing department, she says, “Well they've got more money, but we have more hits.” And then the only other time, it wasn't really a rivalry, but it just happened that they did New Edition and we did Bobby Brown. New Edition's first single was “If It Isn't Love,” and Bobby's was “Don't Be Cruel,” and they came out at the same time. I heard their record and it was like ‘ oh my God—they just killed us.’ And “Don't Be Cruel” became a smash.
Talking about Prince, too, you also say in the book that you consider Prince and Kanye to be the two true great creative visionaries. And I think it's interesting what you were saying about how hip-hop, there is this blueprint and Kanye is maybe a guy who has made it for the current generation.
He’s incredibly creative, and that probably doesn't even give it justice. And he has such a vision. Visually, how he sees things, he really sees the world through a different set of lenses. I don't know if that's good or bad, but I do know that it invokes imagination. And I like that he taps into the imagination with songs, with topics. And he's funny, you know?
People don't give him credit for that.
Whenever somebody says ‘OK, this is the next Kanye ,’ the first thing I look for is where's the wit and humor? Because if you don't catch that, you're not even catching what made us love him in the beginning. When he had that line that says ‘I got a light-skinned friend looks like Michael Jackson / Got a dark-skinned friend looks like Michael Jackson.’ The humor in that—if you don't catch that, then you don't even really know what Kanye is all about. But he's the greatest. To me, still, to this day. Because he's made five incredible albums in a row. You know there's not another artist that's done that. Five incredible—there are people that've made five—but he's the only one, five in a row. And every one of them was incredible-sounding, critically acclaimed, and sold millions. I knew I was in the presence of greatness. I always knew that.
Right from the beginning?
When you work in the music industry though, or in the entertainment industry, you're kind of always in the presence of greatness, right?
Kanye West throws up the Roc
Several times in the book you have those moments where you're like ‘I heard this, and God was in the room.’
Yeah, that's those moments. That chillbone moment when you're so clear. And you know. You don't even question it, you just know. I live for those, man. I really come to work every day hoping that that's that day. I leave the door open, leave the lights on and hope that it'll happen. Because I live for that. I really live for that. That matters to me. Would I like to make a whole bunch more money? Of course I would. I have children. But really what matters to me is I just want the Great One to walk in, man. So fucking badly I want the Great One to walk in. That's what I want. I'm jealous: I love that Adele is so successful, but she didn't walk in this office. I want someone like that to walk in. The Great One. And I do believe that that's possible.
It is interesting to me that you still have such a strong belief in the audition. That's the way that you've always found talent. And particularly now—
—because you don't have to.
Yeah. So much talent is developed on its own. You get a hit song on the internet, and then you come to a record label. And it's very much been a shift, I think, in the industry at large.
I think that for most of the people, most of the executives in the business, I think that that's a great advantage and a great platform. They don't have to roll the dice. It doesn't have to be such a lottery. So I think it really helps the industry. Listen, my staff, we do it too. We comb the internet, we look at everything. We look at Soundcloud, we look at Shazam figures, we look at Wikipedia, we look at YouTube, we look at every possible thing so that we really get the information.
I just don't. But I don't recommend anybody else—don't try this at home. That's how I feel about it. Because it's my whole life. But if it's not your whole life then don't do it now. If your thing is following data, follow data. It'll get you there. It'll get you there more often that the way I do it. I started out in high school sitting in the choir class all day long, and I was the only one that didn't sing. I used to pay attention to those singers and they used to sing riffs to each other. I used to watch how they used to be like, ‘ listen to this riff that Ranch Allen did’; ‘no listen to this riff that Felipe Winn from The Spinners did’; ‘oh no, listen, Stevie Wonder, how he ad libs at the end.’ ‘No, no, Donny Hathaway's even better.’ All those debates through high school made me pay attention to everybody that opened their mouth. And so I developed the thing, a real love for it.
LA Reid and Mariah Carey
I wonder, though, when like an Usher or a Justin Bieber comes into your office, and they're 14 years old. I would imagine you can't even predict what they're going to sound like in a decade. How can you even really spot somebody at such a young age?
Well, I think about the right now in music. I don't really think ‘OK, what will it mean in ten years?’ I might say that, but it's just not what I'm thinking when I hear somebody or if I hear a song. I'm thinking about right now, what will it sound like right now on Hot 97? What will it sound like right now on Z100?
That's what I'm thinking about. So I don't even anticipate that Usher's voice is going to drop, Justin Bieber's voice is going to change. I don't think about that stuff. It happens, but it's not what I'm thinking about. I'm thinking about right now. And sometimes I'm right, and a lot of times I'm wrong. And I'm cool with that. I don't have to be right every time. It's expensive to be wrong, though. I do get in trouble for it. I don't want to kid anybody here.
So you signed Usher, and in that moment you’re not envisioning anything like a Confessions ten years later.
No idea. Nah. Because what I predicted didn't even happen. What I predicted was that Usher would make the next Off The Wall. I don't know if he did. I don't think so. I think he made Confessions , which is probably the most successful—or the last successful R&B album of that magnitude. So maybe he did. But the album I was aiming for with Usher I never was able to make with him. It's not too late. I hope I can make it with him one day.
But what do I mean when I say Off The Wall? What I really mean is that Usher wasn't only an incredible singer, he was an incredible dancer. So, I felt like he never made an album that matched his ability to dance. He had “Yeah,” and he had “OMG,” and they were great big dance records. But I never felt from top to bottom that the greatest dancer alive made the greatest dance album alive. That's just my vision. That might not be his vision. And since I don't sing it doesn't mean shit. But that's what I would've done.
It seemed like that was a theme in the book, too: You were very good at spotting when people like Pink or Avril Lavigne came to you after trying something new and going ‘yeah, you’re right, that’s your thing.’
We can do it all day long, imagining in our heads what we think someone will be. And I hate that. I honestly hate that. I hate it in creative executives when they think they've got to change somebody. I hate people that do that. They don't even know how much it bothers me. You really think that you're creative enough that you could tell Madonna how to be Madonna? You really think you could have told Michael to moonwalk and wear the glove and the high water pants and the penny loafers and slide across the stage at Motown 25? That's not record company shit; that's artists, that's artistry. That's artistry that tells Nirvana that we're just gonna be grunge, that we're gonna not give a fuck. We don't even wanna be famous. We're not making a video. We're just going to make great records and make history. That was no meeting! That wasn't a meeting at the label: ‘Nirvana, here's what you're gonna be.’ Or ‘Prince, you're going to be androgynous and you're going to make a song about controversy’: “Am I black or white / am I straight or gay.”
You can't do it. But people and record companies often think they can. Often. I see it all the time. And I don't want to put down record companies because I love record labels. I love the traditional record business. I don't give a damn about how everybody thinks it's changing and they don't need us anymore. OK, good luck, let me know how that works out. Let me know how it works out when there's no one to invest in and really help nurture the talent. But it isn't our jobs to tell people who to be; it's our jobs to recognize it.
But it takes artists to tell me, too. I owe my career to artists. For example it was T-Boz that said ‘ pay attention to Alecia Moore (Pink).’ Or Beyoncé that says ‘ this girl Rihanna, you might want to pay a little bit more attention to her.’ I could probably think of more examples of it, but it was always the artists. Jay Z told me about Young Jeezy. And I signed these people, right? I could sign the talent and I could have that initial thought, but the validation usually comes through the other artists.
Kyle Kramer is one broke boy without a Cadillac and an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.