Post 9 January 2017

GRM Exclusive: Alex Da Kid talks coming from Wood Green to the Grammy’s

9 January 2017

Alex Da Kid is the CEO/Founder of KIDinaKORNER, and an Emmy and Grammy-winning music producer. He has created numerous hits, including rapper Eminem’s “Love The Way You Lie”. Following the release of his “Not Easy”, his first song as an artist rather than a producer, we caught up with him exclusively to talk about his label KIDinaKORNER, moving to L.A., growing up in Wood Green and his views on the UK scene. All photography is by Eva Pentel.

Your video for new single”Not Easy” came out on the 1st of November. Was the reception for that as you expected, or were there any surprises?

“Yeah it was overwhelmingly positive. In America the media around [the song] started before England and Europe, where it’s starting now, so there were TV commercials and stuff in America. We’re getting so much radio support; we got added to 60 radio stations in the first week, it’s taking off in Canada and a couple other territories where the media hasn’t even started, so yeah it’s been amazing. When you do something like this, when it’s different and unknown, it’s good that people have been really embracing it. Yeah, it’s been great!”

I heard that even though the song came out on Columbia, the creative work was done by your own collective. Did you guide the direction and agenda of the video yourself, or was there a director or producer who you would say is responsible for making the video as moving as it is?

“Yeah so we came up with all the concepts ourselves; we just started signing directors, and we’ve signed a young french director who directed the video and the TV commercial. You have to understand the TV commercial to understand everything, as it works together, but yeah we came up with it all. Columbia helps us distribute the song and we have a partnership with IBM where we help to build out their market, but yeah we did everything, from soup to nuts.”

I’ve heard a lot about this collaboration into cognitive music with IBM Watson, that you used to inspire the song. How did that come about, and what were your experiences of working with such a groundbreaking technology?

“It came about because we have a creative agency, so we ended up doing creative work with them and stuff. Working with artificial intelligence and doing something creative like music, was super cool. I’m a big nerd, so I love tech and I’m a huge fan of artificial intelligence, and where it could potentially take humans.

“To be able to have a supercomputer that I could ask anything was amazing, like an elaborate version of a Google search. For example, I asked the AI, “analyse the last five years of hits, and tell me what they have in common musically,” or “is there a correlation between themes and what’s going on in society at the time? If there are dark things that happen in society and there are a lot of dark news stories, do people want to hear dark songs (to escape)?” Being able to ask those questions helped to inform my creative decisions and directions, so that was cool: I loved doing all of that. It’s just a new thing, and I always try to challenge myself to do new things, so it was really unique.”

The maths and music connection that people talk about, do you think working with the AI gave you the connection between those two things?

“Yeah, even beyond maths I’m a big fan of patterns (which is kind of maths too actually). I think everything creative or otherwise is always a series of patterns. To understand the patterns is interesting for me creatively, whatever I’m talking about. Whether I’m talking about a failed marriage in a song, or like if I’m literally talking about AI more; the principles of what it is and what it can do. All those things seem far apart, but I’m just always looking for how I can better understand those patterns.”

Photography by Eva Pentel

Do you think music production is becoming more or less difficult, with advances in software and technical aspects that you’re talking about?

“I think it’s easier to make a good sounding track, but it’s just as hard to make an outstanding song. No plugins can help you write amazing songs, and that’s what I want to do. When I first started I just used to make beats and that was it. That’s just like half, or even less than half of the equation. There has to be a lot more that goes into it. There has to be a compelling artist that is telling the truth, it has to have a melody that grabs people in 30 seconds; the hardest thing about song writing is writing a chorus that tells an entire story in eight bars. You have to be able to do all of those things, and there’s no plugins for that, haha. It’s easier to make good tracks, I’d say though.”

When you said that you have to have a compelling artist, is that a necessity? Have you ever tried to make a song with an artist that wasn’t compelling, which didn’t really work?

“I mean, you can have a hit song with a non-compelling artist; when people listen to music in general, they like what they like: it’s a very internal thing. If you’ve got a great melody, good lyrics and a good beat, people will probably listen to it no matter who the artist is. But if you want a career, and you want people to listen to beyond that one song, you have to have a compelling artist.”

Do you think changing genres have changed the appreciation for production value? Or do you think that throughout all genres you still have the same appreciation for a good producer.

“In every genre you need a good producer. You need someone with a vision, even if it’s the artist. You need someone that can have a vision for what the art is going to be. What music programs and technology and laptops and stuff have done, is allowed the producer to become the songwriter too, which never used to happen as much. In the 1970s and 1980s, when Quincy Jones was in his prime, he didn’t necessarily write the music, he would produce it. Those things have kind of become one know, which is cool as it elevates the producer and makes the producer more important. You see now a lot of producers who are artists in their own right – me being one of them – but you see like Calvin Harris, Diplo, or Mark Ronson: these people are artists who’ve become way more a part of the art. Even if I wasn’t an artist, I’m still writing the music, and the producers are really important for sure.”

What’s on the horizon, and what can we expect from KIDinaKORNER in 2017?

“I mean, there’s so many exciting things happening. I’m in the process of building like a creative compound where I’m starting to sign directors too; the whole goal of it is to have no barriers to your ideas. Once you have an idea, you can go shoot a video or make a song or come up with a creative program or whatever. I like the idea of all different kinds of disciplines coming together and just having ideas. That to me is really exciting. I’m also working on big music strategies for movie studios and big brands which is exciting. I’m signing artists and songwriters obviously, working with the people I’ve worked with in the past like the Eminems and Rihannas of this world and their albums, I’m working on the albums of the artists signed to me. So yeah, there’s a lot to do. Constantly trying to disrupt the music model and trying to figure out what the best business model for KIDinaKORNER is, and also disrupt the marketing model and creative agency type model. We’re doing a lot by trying to disrupt two models, and it’s exciting – I really feel like we’re at the beginning of an information revolution beyond just KIDinaKORNER, in the whole creative industries really.”

Many of your prominent collaborations are with artists quite closely associated to you, such as Skylar Grey or Imagine Dragons. Do you see yourself as a collective of artists, or do you see yourself in a mentoring capacity in any way?

“Yeah both. I feel like we definitely are a collective of people that have ideas. That’s definitely going to expand beyond just music, like for example if we think there’s a way that we can improve or innovate in any space, obviously with anything we do the foundation is music, but if there’s something we think we can do, we’d have the ideas to try to do that. Music is the tool and is used as the main conduit to do that, and it’s ultimately what I know though. So it’s exciting.”

Photography by Eva Pentel

With the broadening of this collective, it’s almost a stereotype that creative people don’t take criticism very well. Do you think you’re starting to see areas where you’d say, “you know what, that person knows better than me” – do you take criticism well?

“Yeah no absolutely. I hired the person who’s running my production company for example. He has 20 years’ experience and he’s worked with the biggest. These are people who’re experts in their field. I know what I want to see or feel when I’m watching or listening to something, but having these experts help you form from their perspective and experience. They make me better. I learn from them every day. So I’m super excited about that too. I love learning, and it’s one of my favourite things to do.

“As a producer, it’s also my job to curate. I’m very used to saying, “that idea is shit,” or “those ten ideas are terrible, let’s focus on idea eleven as that one’s half decent…” that’s basically my job as a producer; to tell people that their stuff is terrible. So like, I am used to that, and I’m comfortable doing that, and I have a very definite opinion on things – it’s instant. I’m doing that all the time as a CEO, saying, “that’s shit, why are we doing that?” At the same time, I’m learning so much, and the person who runs the creative agency for me, he ran one of the biggest creative agencies in the world and had over 1000 people working for him. Now he works here: these are experts, and people with great track records who come in, and I love it.”

Can you tell us a little more about Bleach your Brain, which as I understand is a social movement revolving around music?

“Yeah so it’s a social movement using music, which is all about empathy. Just seeing someone else’s perspective. We were looking at how we can get involved in like the social impact of doing things not just for money. Like looking at how we can specifically use music as a tool for those specific issues – I did a dinner at Davos (at the World Economic Forum) – and we were looking at how we fit into that. An issue that lies above all the issues like global warming, I felt like a thing that lives above all of that is empathy. The thing that divides us and that holds us back is looking at someone and dehumanising them and not understanding their perspective. If we can help with the empathy, and helping to make people understand each other, all the other issues become a little easier. So yeah, we’re doing our part to just help with that, you know. We want to bring people together, and show that you might have had 500 years of hating this set of people, but they aren’t much different from you. That’s important I think.”

Do you keep up to date with the UK scene at all, and if so, who would you say are your top 3 at the moment? Why?

“Not in any particular order: I love Skepta, because of his music, and because he grew up close to me (laughs). No but, what he represents, the fact that he’s independent is super important, and he’s really broken through on a global scale. Stormzy, he’s amazing, I feel like he’s one of the best MCs to come out of England ever.

I’ve always liked Ghetts, Kano, Wiley; I feel like Wiley’s the UK Kanye West actually. I’ve watched all of his interviews, which I really like doing as I love artists that just aren’t scared … he just isn’t scared, like you see him say, “I’ve done these songs and they were pop and they were shit, but I did it for the money…” and just the fact that I don’t agree, I actually thought some of them are dope, but yeah. Chipmunk I think is dope too, he’s come back and killed it.”

Are there any musical trends in the UK that you’re appreciating?

“Yeah, I mean, grime obviously! It’s funny when I see Americans talk about grime. I grew up on grime, so it’s funny, still a lot of times they don’t necessarily get it. People are starting to understand the foundations of the culture though, people like Skepta are definitely helping to push that. But you also have Complex and Noisy talking not necessarily about the music, but also about why it is the way it is. It’s going to grow so quickly with the internet now – I think a barrier before was that people weren’t exposed to it, but now they are so it’s going to go far.”

You mentioned that you grew up near Skepta: what would you say you’ve kept from your London upbringing? Do you think there’s a unique mentality, or have you experienced similar things elsewhere?

“Yeah obviously it’s still a massive part of who I am; I definitely took the hustle part. Coming from Wood Green, not many people were doing what I wanted to do. They wanted to do music, but at the same time they were scared to leave the local mentality. I don’t know where I got that from – probably my sister – but I wasn’t ever really that scared, and the hustle part of getting the most out of any situation, I definitely got that from growing up in Wood Green. When I was younger, I was just doing things that weren’t that constructive, but the part that I got out of that was the hustle part – getting the most out of any situation.”

For a number of musicians winning a Grammy is the ultimate dream. What’s that actually like, and did it change anything for you?

“It’s good – I don’t really think about it (laughs). I’ve thought about it more today than I have in the rest of my life, but it’s not something that I really think about on a day-to-day basis.”

Does it have an impact with other people more than it does with you?

“Yeah, it helps to give context, like “this guy’s won a Grammy, so he must be half decent…” I’m on the board of the Grammy Awards now, so I see how it works, and yeah, the mystique of it is not as there for me, as I see the inner workings of it now. Winning Grammies and winning awards is not why I do what I do though, I do what I do to try to be creative and innovative: I’m a maker and I love making things.

“Coming from where I do though, when I went to my first ever Grammies, my mum and dad came out from Wood Green, and I like hopefully if people look at my story, it helps them think things are possible. If I could do my part to let some kid in Tottenham or Wood Green or Hackney or whatever look at me and say “he’s won a Grammy, I can win ten Grammys,” then I’m happy.”

You say you’re on the board of the Grammy Awards, have your perceptions of the music industry changed since you’ve won a Grammy and moved to L.A.?

“No, I still love it. I think it’s what you make it – you can have negative feelings about the industry or you can have positive feelings about it. I’ve always been someone that feels like they can change anything if they don’t like it. I’m not a complainer – if I don’t like something enough, then I will change it. If it doesn’t bother me that much, then I won’t really think about it, you know. So I think it’s what you make it and what you make of it.

“I did get annoyed, and like Kanye said you spend 10 summers in a studio working out how to be good and spend that time making stuff, and then you play it to an A&R, and just because they broke up with their girl or had a bad day, they would tell you it’s shit. That would annoy me as you spend your life making something, and it wouldn’t get to the public because of the A&R having a bad day, not even for a valid reason. That’s why I started a label. I wasn’t going to sit there and complain about it, I thought I’m going to be the A&R and be the one who decides.”

What’re the most obvious cultural differences between living and working in the UK and in L.A.?

“I think it’s good to move out of where you come from, to get a global perspective, wherever you go to. I feel like I know a lot of really talented people in England, and I’ve been saying for years, you should just move to L.A. – if you don’t like it move back, but just understand that there’s more to life than the West End. There’s more out there, and there’s people that think bigger: why I liked America, was that I wanted to go where the big decisions were being made. Not only that, but people that think big are attracted to that, so they move there too. It’s like why I went to university, was because if you love music enough to spend 4 years on a degree, you must love it a lot. It wasn’t about getting the degree, but I wanted to be around those types of people. Same with America. I wanted to be around the people that either loved it enough to move there, or have an impact there, you have to be someone relatively passionate to make a difference there. Especially in L.A., because everyone moves there to do something, nobody is from there you know. I love the hustle thing, and it elevates your game: everyone is an amazing artist, and they’re really good at what they do, which makes it competitive and makes you better you know. I really am competitive and I want to be good at what I do, so yeah.”

L.A. is also a symbol of fame though, isn’t it. Is permanent critical acclaim and attention something which you think you’ll grow used to? Or are you trying to avoid it at all costs?

“(Laughs), I’m a producer – and an artist now, but up until now, I’ve been a producer. So I’m super famous if I go to like a nerd convention, or there’s a thing called the Pensado Awards, where a lot of young producers go. I’m like the Beatles there haha. But anywhere else it’s fine. I like it because I’m respected in my industry, but out of that, 99 percent of people don’t know who I am. That might change a little bit now, but I think there’s a middle-ground. There’s a long way from me becoming David Beckham haha. It’s good to have a platform and for people to know who you are, so that you can promote your artists and for people to know what you’re doing, but there’s a line. I know a lot of famous people who wherever they go, are papped or whatever. That would be really suffocating for my creativity, like I write a lot from asking questions and having conversations with people, and if I was famous, every time I asked a question they would think “hang on, this person’s famous”, and every time it would become involved. You can’t turn it off, so I wouldn’t want that. I’d want a reputation within my industry, but there’s a massive gap, and I think that I’ll be ok haha.”

Who would you say is your top personal inspiration, musician or otherwise?

“I’m really inspired by great thinkers like Albert Einstein. The things that he did to prove the general theory of relativity… the hustle that was involved in getting people to understand it at the beginnings of World War One. Steve Jobs, he’s a real design genius, David Geffen on the music side, who is an executive that did amazing things. Jimmy Iovine, who’s been a mentor to me, and in more recent times, Dr Dre. What Jay-Z’s done is amazing for creative people; he got turned down from every record label and because of that, has built an amazing entertainment company. I like people that impact a lot of people, and a lot of those people are not music. Although I do also like Biggie, and John Lennon, and a wide range.”

What would your one biggest piece of advice be to any aspiring producers out there?

“Number one, lose your social life. If you have a boyfriend, girlfriend, get rid of ‘em. The second step is obsession, which I think is more important than talent. It’s hard to become obsessed: you either are or you’re not, so something has to inspire you to that point, but if you are, don’t hide from it. Embrace it, go with it, and be obsessed with the process. The process itself is really important, you can’t think “I’m going to make a lot of money or have a lot of chicks,” but that’s not how you become successful. What you do every day – work and learn, that’s what gets you there. I’m a big believer in focus; make it the one thing you think about until you get great at it, and just focus on it.”

Our editor’s actually a Bristol City fan – is it true that you were in the academy until 19? What made you want a change of career?

“The fact that Bristol are shit (laughs)! Tell him I said that. With football I peaked at 14. That’s when I was at the top of my game, that’s when I was amazing; at 14. Then I was worse every year after that (laughs).  I fell out of love with it, fell in love with music, and that started taking over my life.”