How Discovering & Nurturing the “Special” Made Kawan Prather a Legendary A&R & DJ

By | Posted November 10, 2017

“If you believe in yourself enough to get six cars, why wouldn’t you have a 12-car garage?” Kawan Prather sincerely contemplated while discussing one of his favorite new rappers, 21 Savage, and the viral question attached to Post Malone’s latest chart-conquering single

“They like, 'Savage, why you got a 12-car garage and you only got six cars?'” Kawan―better known as K.P.―has a very simple answer: “He plans on growing. Everybody who wants to be great is thinking 12 cars from their first car. One time for 21 Savage,” he said with a smirk.

K.P. has spent 44 years on this planet, 25 of them in the record business, but the wear and tear of the industry has yet to engrave itself in his physical form. He appears many years younger, far too young to have slept on floors with André 3000 and Big Boi during their early ‘90s tenure at Rico Wade’s mother’s home, better known as The Dungeon.

Kawan―alongside Mellow and Big Reese―made up the trio P.A. (Parental Advisory), the first group from the same Dungeon to get a major record deal. Their debut album Ghetto Street Funk―with Organized Noize production―predated OutKast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik by five months.

When he speaks, regardless of the topic, there’s a sense of sureness that only comes after long hours of study and experience. Every thought is quick, clear, and concise, filtered through a mind with almost three decades worth of knowledge from observing and assimilating as a DJ and A&R. DJing for P.A. and being around the rise of the Dungeon Family led to a great relationship with L.A. Reid, which transitioned into an A&R position at LaFace Records.

Newly-signed acts like Usher, TLC, and OutKast were all blooming as promising LaFace signees and K.P. was working behind the scenes with them all. His name can be found in the liner notes of LaFace’s biggest acts. K.P. continued to A&R throughout the years, overseeing lone release through AristaI’m Serious, and John Legend’s Get Lifted (he also produced the André 3000-feature "Green Light"). Pink, Bow Wow, Omarion, YoungBloodZ, Yelawolf—the list of artists K.P. has worked with is long as it is impressive. In 2017, he currently holds the position as head of music for i am OTHER, Pharrell’s modern-day Star Trek record label and creative collective.  

K.P. understands artists and artist relations from both sides of the spectrum—from being a signed act to signing acts himself. When asked about the transition from one role to another, K.P. likened the two jobs to serving as a purveyor of what’s next. A&Rs are looking for the next hot act or the next big record; the DJ is the pacesetter, controlling the room’s energy one song at a time. Practically the same skillset but practiced in a different space.

When it comes to discovering new artists, for K.P., it boils down to being the "special":

"What I want my contribution to be at i am OTHER is introducing interesting people like a Kap G to the same audience a Pharrell can get, something that can be looked at as odd in some other place, but that odd thing now looks special because it’s in a special light. You listen and accept it differently, you don’t measure it the same…

"Special things shouldn’t necessarily make sense if you judge them by the average rule. You just got to put people by other people like them. i am OTHER is kinda like—T.I. says it too—the X-Men stuff; you gotta be around special people to feel comfortable about feeling special. So you can go out to aspire other special people to be special. If we can do that at i am OTHER, that would be the win."

Elaborating on this theme, K.P. offered a reminder that the industry considered Pharrell cold during the pre-”Happy” period of his career. The hits weren’t coming like they did during his Neptunes' peak, and judgment was being placed despite his resume and level of expertise.

Dr. Dre, Teddy Riley, Dallas Austin, Organized Noize, and Metro Boomin were all named by K.P. as examples of the "special," those who shouldn’t be judged by some industry heat meter. It’s much deeper than your last hit when you're capable of moving the culture and influencing the next wave. When referring to special artists, K.P. emphasized his A&R role as one of a protector―especially scared money.

“If you want someone fearless you can’t bring fearful people in [and] if you have artists who want to be fearless, you have to let them see what fearless artists look like,” K.P. told me before pivoting to deliver an anecdote on how he made sure that T.I. was around Usher during the 8701 creative process. Similarly, he made sure XXL Freshmen and i am OTHER signee Kap G watched Pharrell, not just as a famous celebrity but as an artist and the struggles that come with producing an album. To watch someone of that stature experience both through the highs and lows of the industry allows for an understanding of the system and how it's a gradual process for everyone. For K.P., connecting special veterans and special new artists is his favorite part of being an A&R.

Despite his transition from DJ to A&R, K.P. never lost his love for DJing. After records were cut, he would sit in his office, listening to see if they made sense to him as a DJ. At the behest of a close friend who urged him to start doing gigs again, K.P. was thrown back into the ring, but this time he was operating with an entirely different perspective:

"I want to DJ like I A&R. I don’t want to A&R like I DJ. I want to always be introducing things that deserve to be in the space of other quality music. It's more honest. It’s less politics. Well not even politics. That’s absolutely not the word. It’s less persuasion. It is what it is if you play music for people. They either like it or not. There’s no alternative motive, it’s not who is signed to who, there's nothing attached to if they feel it. I’ve also seen where somebody really big will try to introduce someone they want people to like, and if they don’t like 'em they don’t. As a DJ, I just play the record and people react to the thing they like. If I bring a person on stage they react to the person they see. Your energy is what it is. That’s where all the blame comes out. That’s when you see who is that person. You see who stands up."

K.P. considers DJing a service job; he is there to entertain. Any negative reaction is based on disappointment, not malice. It’s easy to see why an A&R would want to find the most honest reactions to music in an era where everyone has an opinion. The internet, with all its algorithms and analytics, isn't displaying the same natural reaction that’s received when a new song comes flooding out of club speakers. There are no trolls on the dancefloor, no one searching for that viral RT.

“I think there has to be a separation of church and state," K.P. said in response to my question about streaming services and the role of modern A&Rs. “There were no analytics on a T.I. before T.I. happens or an OutKast before OutKast happens. Someone has to be fearless enough to say, 'There’s something to it, let's put energy behind this.'”

This has always been true, there's something natural about a star that makes you believe in what they offer. For K.P., it’s been searching for the most talented, the most driven, the most inspiring—someone who brings realness and originality to the table. It’s seeing something deeper than a following in an artist, something more.

"As an A&R,  my job is based on taste and now everybody's taste kinda counts. But realistically, most people don’t care as much about that thing they’re talking about. I do A&R because I care about music. I want to have quality music to hear. I really enjoy music that much. When I’m criticizing something it’s based on how much I want it to be the best it can be. I want it to be great. DJing probably helps me on the A&R side because I don’t have to hear all the voices or the characters or the emojis. I know what I like and I can test it without the trolls. I’m dealing with the people who want to be here."

Much later in our conversation, when Russ and the difference between confidence and arrogance became the topic at hand, K.P. once again returned to 21’s expanding garage as an example of the audacious conviction rappers must have. “You know how crazy it is to walk out in front of 100,000 people night after night and think that they should be there and that you should be there? Regular doesn’t do that. You need some extra sauce,” he asserted. You need the "special."

T.I., for example, declared himself King of the South―a crown self-proclaimed, not bestowed. A rapper of less esteem would’ve faced massive scrutiny, beheaded for stepping outside of the established hierarchy. Making declarations that are more than talk can put a knife to an artist's throat, their back up against a closing wall, and will cause he or she to stand tall or be trampled by their own ego. This is the kind of arrogance that Kawan respects, the actions that go beyond the talk.

"You ask to be King of the South and now you deal with the things that come with it. That’s what people want to see. Only if you say a bunch of stuff and don’t do it, if you say King of the South and you show no signs… If you say something like that you must recognize this is going to be an everyday job. Heavy is the head."

K.P. has been in the industry since before OutKast and has continued to be an influential force in front of and behind the scenes, a friendly reminder than longevity isn’t easily acquired—it's achieved. 

By Yoh, aka I Am Yoh, aka @Yoh31

Posted November 10, 2017 by
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