Kawan "KP" Prather: Executive VP, A&R Sony Music Urban

Interviewed by Cathy Genovese

Sony Music A&R
Where are you from originally?

I'm originally from Atlanta. I started out as a DJ in high school, doing parties and dances.

How did you get into A&R?

I was the DJ in a group called Parental Advisory and we ended up meeting Pat Wolf through TLC. She's a friend of ours, and she asked us to come down and audition for Pebbles. After we met Pebbles, she signed us and our production company, Savvy Records. At the time, it was distributed through LaFace [L.A. Reid's record company]. We were signed to LaFace for about six months.

In that time we got a chance to play for L.A. a lot—either he'd come out to see us, or we'd be recording at their house. They [Reid and Pebbles, who were married at the time] had a home studio and he used to come down to the studio and watch us record. In the meantime, we'd talk a lot, and, since I was a DJ in a group and in a club sometimes, he asked my opinion about which records I thought were hot. After that, we started talking more; our rapport was really good. [And he said,] "The stuff that you're doing in the studio is actually stuff that people at record companies do. You really could be an A&R person."

At that time, I was bringing him stuff like OutKast, because we were all a part of the Dungeon family. I was always hounding him to sign OutKast. That was my camp. So after we did a bunch of showcases, he signed them.

In the middle of recording my second album, MPA, he offered me a job at LaFace. And I figured if it was going to help my group out, it was cool. So I was working on Usher and Usher's second album from the road, coming home, making records, going back on tour, coming back, making records—just kind of scatterbrain with it. At the end of making the Usher album, realizing it was really a good album, he gave me the kind of ultimatum thing. Like, "You've gotta focus on one of them."

Do you miss performing?

Not really, because I feel like I get the vicarious performances through the artists I deal with.

How was it working with Usher?

It was incredible because he was still a kid and just always eager to learn. And there's no ego in it as a kid. It was like, "What do I need to do? What do you think I should do?" And it was me, him and Jermaine Dupri. Jermaine and I grew up together. We used to spend the night at each other's houses when we were kids. So it was like we were hangin' out, really. It didn't feel like work.

Did you still get to work with OutKast after you brought them to L.A. Reid?

Yeah. I ended up A&Ring every album except—or ended up getting credited as A&R on every album other than Southernplayalistic. At the Dungeon, that was my role—getting people to the studio, making sure the mixes were done—just the technical stuff.

Why did you leave LaFace? What brought you to Sony?

When L.A. Reid sold LaFace and went to work for Arista, I came up to Arista with him. When we first got to Arista, I was doing the 8701 album for Usher, the Stankonia album for OutKast, and Missundaztood for Pink. After I finished those records and we started on the new albums, it kind of felt like I was doing the same thing over and over. These artists were now like really my friends, and I wanted to grow a little bit. So, where else to go than the most corporate [of the record companies]? Arista was like a fun free-for-all because it still had the LaFace ethic. So it was really just fun and ended up making really good records. But I wanted to grow as an executive. I was getting older, and I know the lifespan of most A&R people is very short. I'm very conscious of reality. You know, I watch Behind the Music. And knowing it, I'm going to always make sure that creatively I am where I'm supposed to be. I needed to know the business and I needed to understand why certain things went and certain things didn't.

So how is it different at Sony from Arista?

The difference is, I actually get the information that goes on behind the things. At LaFace and Arista, it was more just make the record, and I was protected—L.A. protected us from the ugly business stuff. But now I'm thrown in the middle of it.

I work with Omarion, Killer Mike—who I found [through] a label deal with OutKast. I also worked on the Destiny's Child stuff, and Beyoncé. And, basically, now, I'm executive vice president of A&R, so I work on everything, or I have input on everything.

You were the A&R person for John Legend. Are you pleased with the reaction that his project is receiving?

Ecstatic. Because that was one of the things that people said wouldn't work in Sony because there was no gimmick.

Do you think there's room in the music industry for more surprises like John Legend?

I think the music has to be great. At the end of the day, it has to be above and beyond what people are used to.

Do you find any similarities between Hip-Hop and Rock in terms of artists getting signed? Do Hip-Hop artists need to create their own story and fan base in order to get signed? What makes you sign a new artist?

With new artists, I think Hip-Hop particularly is the closest thing to Rock. Rock and Hip-Hop are the same kind of music because it's based on youth and aggressiveness and rebellion—the really good Hip-Hop. It has a point of view. So they don't necessarily have to have a buzz, but they do have to have a personality. It always helps if you've gone out and done some groundwork because you can always check the steps of where you've been and what it affected. Personally, I kinda just sign people I like.

Do you think it's more difficult for Hip-Hop artists to get signed if they're not affiliated with a camp of other artists that are already established?

I think with most labels, absolutely. Most labels are trying to find out—even most A&R people—are looking for the easy way in. And the easy way in is somebody who's already on a record with somebody who's sold five million records because they have that name and recognition or they've been on TV with that person. It's like they're known by association.

Do you have any artists that you're working with who you didn't find the traditional way?

Ray Cash, a new artist who's coming out now. He did have some demos, but I didn't hear them. The Youngbloodz, when I found them, they had never been in the studio. That was to my own label. And Ray Cash is actually signed to my label through Sony. I did a Ghetto Vision deal with Sony before... Like, I left Sony at one point, and one of the conditions of me leaving was that I had to do a production deal with them because I wanted to leave, but they didn't necessarily want me to leave. So they gave me a production deal, and I signed Ray Cash during that time I was away from Sony. Then, after they made some changes, they brought me back in. The only thing I asked was that I could keep that one artist.

What is the best way for an unknown artist to go about establishing contacts?

Honestly, I would say the best way is being in places where you know creative people are. However, if you can get into a studio, that is probably the best place to be.

What if you just happen to be a rapper in Midland, Texas, somewhere away from the creative people in the industry?

Then you have to make Midland, Texas, important enough for people to come there. You have to build up a following in that place to where people are saying, "OK, there's nothing in Midland, Texas, but this guy."

Ray Cash is from Cleveland. It was the rarest occurrence. I was in Office Depot one day, and his manager came in and said, "Are you KP? I got a guy in Cleveland, and I've got a CD on me. Do you have time to listen?" So we went out to my car and listened to it, and the next day I flew him up to New York. I met him, liked him, and I signed him.

So you're pretty accessible?

Oh yeah. Because I feel like at the end of the day, you never know who you're turning away. It's one thing to listen and say you don't like it. I have no problem doing that. But I'll listen first.

What are the two main ingredients that get your attention in a new artist?

Passion and creativity.

Do you necessarily go for the formulaic hit?

Nah. Because usually it never works. I've tried it thinking maybe I need to do this too, but it has never worked for me.

Do you look for more innovative artists?

Yeah. If it's different and it comes on in the middle of... If Puffy's the hottest thing going and you have something like OutKast, it makes you pay attention because it's not the same. Like, if everybody's trying to be Jay-Z, the only thing it does is make people love Jay-Z more and appreciate him more.

In this era, Hip-Hop is dominating the charts. What do you attribute that to?

In most cases, if it's about young people—young people want stuff that their parents don't like. It's human nature. You want your own thing. Even like me, I grew up Hip-Hop, so I still want things that are kind of renegade, in a sense.

Rock used to dominate the charts, how did Hip-Hop take over?

Rock got soft. It got really, really soft. It got to a point where it maxed out on drugs and girls, and it went through its whole lifespan. Which is why Hip-Hop kind of made its way into Rock. It made it a little different. It made it a little more aggressive, and a little more foreign to the older generation of Rock people.

Where do you think the trends in Hip-Hop are going?

You know, I have no idea. I've never known. I've just always looked for where there's somebody in their own little world not paying attention to what's going on the in the world, and go over there where they are.

It seems like there's such a broad diversity in terms of styles of artists from John Legend to OutKast to Jay-Z.

Yeah. At the end of the day, those few things are the few things that catch on. They do really well; they sell really well; people go out and see 'em. Because most people are just attracted to somebody who had the nerve to do their own thing. So, to ask where the trends are going, I don't know musically. I just know there's going to be something different.

Do you think there's longevity for Hip-Hop artists? And what do you think creates it?

There is when the artist can appreciate the things that they're learning on the business side, but can apply their intuition and their common sense. It's almost like if you apply whatever your street sense or your common sense is to this business, yeah, you can make it long. Like Jay-Z, he did it perfectly because he always remained credible, his integrity was intact. He never sold out. He may have sold a little bit of himself, but it was enough that he could buy back at the end of the day.

And what do you think about somebody like Will Smith, who has completely crossed over to other areas in entertainment?

I think he's an incredible actor. It's one of those things where I think his heart misses Hip-Hop by performing, and he's no longer young enough to relate to the young kids because he left them for a minute. The Hip-Hop community is very unforgiving. Once you do something that is not considered Hip-Hop, it's hard to impossible to come back to it and get the same kind of respect or the same kind of success you had.

At TAXI we get a lot of calls from people who only produce beats. Do you have tips on how these undiscovered producers can get a signed artist to use their beats?

Make them different. Make them extremely special. When people only do beats, the only ones who really win are the ones who have beats that don't sound like other people's. It's hard to do an imitation because people will know the difference most times.

What would you suggest to Hip-Hop artists that are trying to get independent distribution?

It all comes down to quality of your product. If you can find an independent distributor who actually likes what you do, it's easy. The problem is right now it's the worst time in Hip-Hop because everybody raps in some way or another—whether it's good or bad, everybody raps. Everybody is an artist. It's almost like this is the new football or the new basketball. I was lucky enough to meet L.A. Reid and meet other people to see that there were other things in the business and actually find out that I was actually good at those other things. Sorry, I got off the subject.

You just have to get your name out there. I think the mix-tape thing is a little overdone, so that really doesn't mean as much anymore because it's not hard to make a song over a song that's already cut. It doesn't mean that you're hot; it just means that you recognize that this is a good song.

What do you think of the whole iPod culture and digital music scene?

I love my iPod. I have all my music with me all the time. I think it's a great thing. It's derivative, and I can accept it as that. You can't fight it. I still DJ, so I still love my records, but I can't carry them everywhere I go. It's a convenience for me as a listener. As a fan, it's incredible. As a DJ, it's whatever. I can't use it to do a party.

Where do you think the industry's going?

I think the digital world has kind of taken over, and we've got to find a way to fit into it or else we'll become obsolete. If you don't find a way to make yourself important and a product that's important to your iPods and to the Internet and ringtones... It's almost like making music has to be like drive-through service; it's like fast food, because you have to get people's attention really fast now. It's like people don't mind paying $3 for 30 seconds of song, but they won't pay 99 cents for the whole song. It's the craziest sh*t I've ever seen. But knowing that, you have to give them something that will fit into their 30-second attention span, and if it's really that good, they'll listen for another three minutes.

Does that make your job that much harder?

Absolutely, because sometimes you need a body of work to get the full point. But I don't think it will affect extremely creative artists. It won't change anything because people will still buy the whole album if they think the whole album sounds good. Most times it's one single.

What are you most proud of so far in what you've achieved in business?

Two weeks ago I got an award from the John Whitehead Foundation for "Rising Star Executive." To me that's great because I told my mom what it was and she actually knew—because she grew up on Motown. To her that name means so much, and that might have been one of the first things that I have been able to identify with my whole family—my mom, my grandfather, my grandmother. They're like, "Oh, OK. If they respect you, this must be a real job." Because all they knew was that I just hang out and go to parties all the time. They knew I made money, but they didn't understand what it was. They didn't understand why anybody was paying me to do this.

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