Post 20 November 2015

Signing WSTRN’s hit “In2”, Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and way more; Twin B talks in depth for the first time #IndustryIcons

20 November 2015

It’s 8pm on a cold night in early November and we’re on the 5th floor of Warner Music’s London HQ, more specifically, Atlantic Records. Inside one of the glass offices stands a wall plastered with plaques addressed to a key individual in popular music, for work such as Rihanna’s six-time platinum selling “Umbrella”, Wretch’s “Traktor” and Wiley’s pop stab “Wearing My Rolex”. Whilst other plaques such as Ed Sheeran’s triple-platinum selling ‘+’ rest amongst the collection. In front of me today is Alec Boateng, otherwise known as Twin B.

Born and raised in East London during the height of grimes golden age, and from a family submersed in Black British music, it’s no surprise that Twin B is a music man first and foremost. So deeply focused in his work that if you do your research, virtually no interviews and little press can be found.

By morning you’ll find him on BBC 1Xtra’s Breakfast Show and by day he is the A&R Director at major label Atlantic Records. Boateng is responsible for signing a number of your favourite hit records artists; from Wretch 32 to emerging trio WSTRN and their debut single “In2” and much you’ll know inbetween, including Jess Glynne, the voice of 2015 who recently racked up her fifth number 1, in just 18 months. In addition, Twin B has signed many other huge singles, including Gyptian’s “Hold Yuh” and the legendary “Umbrella”, yes Rihanna’s Umbrella, building a reputation as one of the finest tastemakers within Britain’s popular culture.

The second in our #IndustryIcons interview series (following that with Virgin’s Glyn Aikins) we go indepth with Twin B; from signing Wretch 32, to his compilation ‘Split Mics’, his legendary debut tape which opened his first industry door…

You kicked off your career in 2004 with an Award Winning compilation tape entitled “Split Mic”…

“I got up one day and I just felt like, at the time, there was this really exciting resurgence of grime and it was more product orientated. It was moving from pirate radio into mixtapes, songs, vocalists and artists making albums. So there was as much studio activity as there was pirate radio. I loved getting that [award]. A lot of work went into it. But yeah, not just Grime. I had a love for RnB and Hip Hop and as a DJ that’s what I was playing at parties, clubs and on pirate radio. UK music as a whole at the time was super exciting. Lots of artists were emerging from these genre’s doing amazing things, the album I was listening to0 which I was obsessed with for like two years straight was Klashnekoff ‘The Saga of”, that album woke up an even deeper interest in killer UK Rap.”

It’s fair to say that ‘Split Mics’ was one of the first solid attempts to marry Grime and Hip Hop…

“In a way I guess, I remember I had like Lethal, Ozzie and Neeko on Hip Hop beats. Kano did a J Dilla beat and did a back to back thing with Demon. SAS did a freestyle on Eskimo by Wiley, even D Double done a wicked freestyle on a sick Mobb Deep beat. I was and still am a fan and it was fun switching things up a bit, it was weird, I didn’t realise that at the time what I was doing was actually one of the small parts of many aspects of A&R. I got funding from a local council scheme to do the mixtape and hired a studio to record loads of it and travelled around town to pick up freestyles off of people. It was me, Tim & Barry, DJ Wonder, my brother, Juice, DJ Crisis umm and yeah we just bounced ideas and arranged who should go on what. Chose the beats, got the artists down, arranged studio time… Looking back Doneao, Sincere, Estelle, Skeme, All In One, Breeze, TY, Tor, Durrty Goodz, Harry Shotta and so many more, around 35 different tracks and artists all together. That was so mad. We only did a really limited amount and gave most of them away and did a small run in record shops up and down the country that we went into ourselves. It wasn’t about money at all. It was a labour of love and we wanted the people who bought it to really want it and care…”

How the mixtape landed him a job at BBC’s 1xtra…

“I went to this event determined to meet Ras Kwame, who at the time with what he was doing, was exactly where I thought UK music was going. What Ras and 1Xtra as a whole were doing was putting Black British UK music (Grime, Garage, Hip Hop, Rnb and Soul) on a platform with other genres, US artists and saying this is all amazing music, this is all good, this all deserves the same attention. I saw him at this show and I gave him the mixtape and his producer, a guy called Sunil Singvi called me back first thing next day like, “this is really good, this is amazing. Are you free this Sunday, let’s talk about it.” I went on the show and we were just politicin’ about it for a hour, I did a mix on the show as well and his producers said I sounded good on the ear. Two weeks later I had a pilot on 1Xtra.”

Why he would never revisit the concept and release a sequel…

“You know what, I’ve always thought about it and to be honest the energy that went into that, cannot be replicated. There was this drive in me to drag black British music which was then “underground” into the mainstream some how and just get it heard more and show these artists off. Even though it wasn’t that long ago it really wasn’t as healthy as it is now in the mainstream for black British music. I’m sure if you looked at the line ups of your Reading and Leeds festivals in 2004 you definitely wouldn’t see the same amount of British black music you would see there today. That’s why myself, Ras Kwame and Jade Richardson started things like I Luv Live at the time. Even the music from the British black music scene wasn’t on the radio as much or in the charts as much as it is now.”

Why he dropped out of Uni and never looked back…

“As well as other really great bits of press, ‘Split Mics’ got a 7 page spread in I-D Magazine when it dropped. I remember I didn’t want any pictures I just preferred to stay behind the scenes… but we had SAS, J2K, Kano and a bunch of others do that particular shoot and I left an email address at the bottom, which I checked sometime later and there was an email from Ben Cook (the current President of Atlantic Records) who was at Ministry of Sound at the time. I met him and after some questions and conversations he just had a massive interest and fascination into the UK scene and asked me if I wanted a job. I was like “can I do it part time?” but he said if you want to do this you need to do it full time. I dropped out of uni (which my mum hated) and haven’t looked back. Honestly I had little to no clue what an A&R job actually really meant but that was my first job.”

How Lethal B shattered his dreams as a young A&R… 

“By chance I went studio one day having called Lethal because I didn’t get drops for him, Ozzie B, Neeko & Jamakabi for the Split Mic mixtape and they were all together recording this track, which turned out to be “Pow!”. It was a few months after this that I started at Minstry. So I phoned Lethal and asked him to come in to talk about the track, super early doors. And he told me his plan which was brilliant.

Couple months after the release and the song was blowing up, I remember phoning him and telling him he needs to come in and have a chat because we can definitely do something with the track. We shook hands and agreed an advance etc. But in the next two weeks it went absolutely mad. It got out we were talking and then Glyn (A&R Director – Virgin Records) or Shabz (who ran Relentess), not too sure, put in a offer. Basically I think their offer was much larger than mine at the time and they were probably more aggressive about getting the deal.

I remember walking back into the label the next day after we shook hands and everyone was just like “Ayyyy congrats, you got your first tune!” and thinking “rah, this is exciting, yeah mad. Safe”. Actually, I recall getting a phone call after the MOBO Awards and my mate saying “ahh it’s a shame what happened with that Lethal record init” and I was just like “yeah what happened? And then he told me, “Relentless are probably going to smash it with that record”, mate my heart sunk. Funny looking back at that actually. Me and Lethal are still mad cool, that’s my guy.”

On how hard it was to convince a major label to get behind an incredible Grime record…

“One of the weirdest experiences had to have been when the “Pow!” video came out and started popping off, showing that to the team at Ministry and them just going “oh wow, that’s pretty, pretty tough”. It was funny but communicating our culture outwardly and what we do is a big part of being an A&R and one of my first experiences of doing that was with one of the rawest and hardest black British records in history. Loved that, haha!”

On deciding when the right time to jump in and sign a record you know instinctively will become a hit…

“Firstly, NOTHING is more important than the music. Well my thing is… I always go off a “smell”. A smell can be a voice, a song, a verse, a lyric, a beat even a performance or just that something. There needs to be an element of that artist that makes me instinctively want to investigate more about their art and what they do as a fan, something beyond the hype coming from everyone else etc etc. I need to make sure I can add to the journey of the artist or record before anything, and for that reason every situation is approached differently. I wouldn’t say there’s a rule book or formula. Also, being a fan of music I’ve learned that I don’t need to be involved in everything I love… I can just enjoy from a distance.”

On understanding why people feel so strongly about the genre definition within Grime…

“I understand the frustration when things aren’t labelled properly, because it reflects on how it’s treated in different spaces. I know there are people who might be able to make careers in a purer sense of what they do, if it’s branded properly and respected. So within that there is an automatic fight to protect it, which is good. Passion in music is wicked, just not when it bites at people who are trying to like something but may not have the education or an understanding that you, at the core of something, might have.

Not everyone is a student of every genre, people like you and I live music whilst some, in fact most, people just want good music and stuff they like, they don’t necessarily need the story behind it. Which isn’t a disaster. You can’t expect people to know everything all the time. I guess it depends who it comes from and why as well…”

When asked to name drop his favourite projects and achievements…

“Wretch. He’s one person I always thought was an incredible MC from the moment I heard him, even just from his early mixtape’s you knew he was special. But then he made the incredible album ‘Wretchrospective’.

For me it had almost everything, it was hard, emotive and complex. And when you get to know him on a level, you know he understands the power and value of music as an MC and a songwriter. I always wanted to work with him. Me and Zeon [Wretch’s manager] ended up linking up after a few convos on Wretch and I said “I want to work with you, no idea how, but we will figure that out”. I was only working within management and publishing at the time, but it was even before the record label outlet I had with Richard Antwi [‘Levels’, which ran through Ministry of Sound] was set up.

We started making music… That music got out there, connected and Wretch took his deserved unexpected seat in mainstream music! It’s so heavy his wall is covered in plaques, doing what he does best and being him.

Jess Glynne though, I heard her voice in a meeting on what sounded like Danny Weed’s “Creeper” but it was “Home” by Bless Beats. Just the sonic of it was weird and fresh, but what slapped me in the face was this incredible voice which jumped out the speaker and I remember every lyric *recites lyrics out of tune*.

She had this one brilliant song “Home” and a few other good demos she did with Bless Beats and Jin. I met her and we really connected and I loved her! I could tell she was real and sincere about music, and wanting to be a great artist. We knew (Briony Turner and I, who A&R her) if you married her voice with great songs, people will connect with them. She’s a great writer, and great song after great song rolled out. And yeah that was it, but there have been loads man. So many different things I’ve been blessed to work on with great people and great artists.”

How he signed Gyptian’s “Hold Yuh”, and why chart positions don’t equate to record sales…

“We (Richard and I at Levels) just watched the record grow and grow, it got to a point where it just needed a place to be released and it was just a no brainer really. It didn’t actually chart super high at the time, well top 20. But it went on to sell nearly half a million copies because it just wouldn’t go away.”

On the fact he’s first publishing signing was Rihanna’s “Umbrella”…

I heard a demo on the internet and it was just after Britney spears apparently turned it down or didn’t end up cutting it. I remember I was working with Matt Chalk and he helped me search for records and I remember coming across “Umbrella”. Before Jay-Z was even on it. I remember hearing it and just thinking it was an incredible, catchy international pop record that was going to be huge. At the time the details went online for the record pretty early and I found the contact for the vocal producer and cowriter of “Umbrella” Kuk Harrell, called his manager Mark and he had came just out of a publishing deal, so we signed him via Sony ATV. He went on to write with Usher, Beyonce and the best of the best.”

Signing the latest urban success story, WSTRN early when many were cynical about the West London trio…

“I got sent the record and if I’m honest I didn’t reply to Morgan [WSTRN’s manager] for about a week because it was a maaaaaad busy time… Always is to be honest. I didn’t even open it (I always do my best to listen to everything I get sent as soon as I’m able), but as soon as I heard it I hit him back like this is amazing. More than anything I just wanted to play it on radio. I then went on holiday for a couple of weeks and whilst I was away I heard loads of people were after the record. I’ve never, like NEVER “competed” for a record. I don’t believe in that, I believe in connecting with an artist and moving forward with a vision and purpose. So was just overly keen to find out more. I’m desperate to build careers and that’s what Atlantic do amazingly well when everything falls into place… So hearing that one song got me super super excited.”

How he approached them without falling into the infamous label bidding war…

“I know Kassa [producer PRGRSHN, and Haile’s brother] and told him I need to see you tonight because I have to know YOUR vision behind this record and the project. I know him well and have worked with him before. He’s a G. So I get to the house and Morgan Keyz was there with all three of the boys. Then he was just like “boy, you may as well meet them now because it’s getting intense and they need to hear what you’re doing”.

So I just said let me hear the music and they just played great song after song after song, there and then I said let’s do an album forget a single deal, because it was obvious that these were guys that deserved to be developed, nurtured and heard by the world… I’ll add what I can and help make the “heard by the world” bit really work and help the “what is heard bit” be even better how and where I can. That’s my role!

It was funny and kinda sad when I saw conversations people were having about the guys, trying to come up with some form of industry conspiracy behind their successful speedy emergence. They’re just making good music and people really like it. It’s beautiful and it CAN be that simple… And it should be. I’m majorly encouraged by the fact that music can do the main bit of work. Nothing in this funny old thing called the music industry is ever more important than the music. Yes you can add expertise, experience, luck, strategy and a few genius moments. But nothing, nothing, nothing matters more than the music.

Interviewed/Words by: Vidal Holness