The unofficial recipe for success in the music industry is one part talent, five parts tenacity, and 10 parts chutzpah.
Just ask 28-year-old record producer Supah Mario (born DeMario Priester), who began his producing career in his high school library, where he would download the demo version of FruityLoops onto the school computer. While the other kids were chilling at lunch, Mario was making beats.
Fast forward ten years, Mario is working as a janitor. Even still, his passion for music does not subside.
“I was working at a mental hospital,” he shares over the phone. “I was 23 or 24 at the time. I was definitely producing, but I wasn’t in ‘the industry.’”
For Mario, everything changed once he landed beat placements with Young Thug ("2 Cups Stuffed") and Jeezy ("Sweet Life" from Church in These Streets). Once those checks arrived, Mario explains, he realized that he had a chance to make a real living as a producer. Soon thereafter, he found the guts to quit his job at the hospital and began a life of grinding in order to follow his dreams.
Backed by a tight support system comprised of his family and damn near everyone in his hometown of Columbia, South Carolina, Mario began taking biweekly trips to Atlanta to drop off beats and get his career rolling. While he had no intention of ever returning to a regular 9-to-5, the fear of failure still haunts him to this day.
“You gotta have such a passion for the music in general, to the point where nothing else is a distraction and you don’t see any other options besides doing this,” Mario says, addressing the overwhelming anxiety that comes with being a professional producer.
Fear and frustration don’t slow Supah Mario down, they embolden him—along with his four-year-old daughter. In an industry filled with label politics and at a time where every day a new producer comes forward with a story of how they were screwed by the business, Mario chooses to keep his energy on the positive.
“I just work with the people who do care,” he stresses. “I work with the people who believe in my talent.”
Mario spoke with DJBooth about taking the leap from janitor to producer, his biggest motivators, business successes and missteps, and his advice for younger acts who also want to quit their jobs to follow their dreams.
Our interview, which was lightly edited for content and clarity, follows.
DJBooth: Let’s start with your journey to full-time producing. What were you doing before producing?
Supah Mario: Before this, I was a janitor and I was working at a mental hospital. I was 23 or 24 at the time. I was definitely producing, but I wasn’t in “the industry.” I always been making music, though. I started making beats at 14. I was actually making beats in class. I would download the demo version of FruityLoops on library computers, and I’d be in the library at lunch, making beats, while everybody else was chilling.
When did you officially enter “the industry”?
I came in the game with Young Thug. “2 Cups Stuffed” was my first industry record. I think that started the wave for my future placements.
Would you say that one placement single-handedly changed your career?
When did you decide to make the leap full-time into production?
It was after my first album placement [“Sweet Life”], which was on Jeezy’s Church in These Streets album. Once I got paid off that, and I got paid from “2 Cups Stuffed” shortly after, I thought I might as well make this a living. I didn’t know where my next check was coming from, but I quit my job and I was traveling to Atlanta like every other week. I would rent a car or get somebody to take me down there. I’d drop off beats and I’d come back home.
Were you fearful you made the wrong decision?
There was definitely fear there! I was confident enough in my connections and the people that I’ve met, and my work! I was confident enough to know that something was gonna happen. I had enough support around me, even my mom and dad were like, "Yo, you can really do this, you just gotta be smart about it." A lot of my ambition came from knowing that I had help. My girl’s mom was renting me cars to go to Atlanta just to get this stuff done.
Did you ever have to take a second job outside of music while you were still getting your legs?
Nope. I literally put myself in a position to not be able to work [a day job] again, if that makes any sense. I didn’t have to go back. I made it a point to not go back, but I could’ve gone back and gotten any one of my old jobs at any time if I felt like it. Because my boss actually was a rapper at one time, and he knew everything I was going through. Where I’m from, it’s not a big place. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone agreed: "You gon’ go far bro, don’t even worry about it. If you need a job, you have a job when you come back home."
Have you ever had a rock-bottom moment that almost pushed you to walk away from producing and toward the security of a regular 9-to-5?
Man, I have one of those at least once a month [laughs].
That’s very real.
Honestly, you gotta remember why you do this. You gotta have such a passion for the music in general, to the point where nothing else is a distraction and you don’t see any other options besides doing this. That’s the case for me. I grew up doing music and my whole family does music. It’s pretty much the only thing that I know. Even if I get a little disturbed and I wanna quit, I always come back to it because I know this is the best thing I can do. I’m actually good at this, this is my skill. When I’m in my worst moments, that’s when I’ll get a call or somebody will hit me up like, "Yo, bro, you got a placement on this project." Some work that I put in previously will come back.
Is anxiety just part of the process?
Yeah! I consider it all a process. There’s ups and downs in anything you do. Nothing that we want in life comes easily. We get tested. It’s like, "How bad do you want this? Do you want it bad enough that you will go without having money or food for a while?" We’ve all been there, I know I’ve been there. I always end up bouncing back. I have faith in the process. I know that when I hit a rock-bottom point that it can only last for so long before something else pops up. I think a lot of it is being able to have faith.
Where do you find your faith?
I’m a very spiritual person. I’m not gon’ say I’m religious, but I’m very spiritual and I believe in myself. My faith comes from the fact that there’s still good people out here, there’s people that want to see you win. There’s people who will go the extra mile to try to help you win. Obviously, everybody wants to eat off this, but just having encouragement from other people around me gives me the faith I need to keep moving.
How has being a father shaped your career?
Absolutely, it’s one of my biggest motivators. Obviously, if I don’t work she doesn’t eat. For example, right now I have her for a week. I’m not able to make any music right now because 99.99% of my attention has to go to her. She’s only four years old, so I have to make sure she is good to go throughout the whole day. Once she is back with her mom, I got a whole ‘nother week to just go in and work, work, work. I don’t really go out, I don’t really hang out. It’s either I’m with my family, or I’m working. It’s about knowing that if I don’t perform, then she won’t eat.
Is that time away from making music helpful?
Most definitely. Getting rest, being healthy, taking a break from music… You know, being a producer is a thinking game. It takes a toll on your mental if you spend all your time in that same zone. Of course, it’s good practice to be as creative as you can, but we definitely need to take breaks.
Walk me through that mental space.
Oh man, for me it’s a process. It might take me two or three hours to develop some ideas to lay down. First of all, I work from home, because your environment has to be conducive to being creative. Working from home, for me, is that conducive environment. When I go to the studio, nine times out of time, I’m just dropping off beats that I already worked on at home. Lately, I’ve noticed that when I hear new albums or if I hear what’s popping right now, it kind of juices me up, like, "Dang, I don’t wanna miss another project. Let me get in here and grind." Even if you have writer’s block, it’s cool to try and exercise creativity even if you’re not feeling it.
Lil Wayne said something like, "You gotta work, even when you don’t feel like working." Like I said, breaks are important, but when you know it’s crunch time, you can still develop a creative palette if you just stick to it.
How do you get past the frustration of a creative blockage?
I don’t think I get over it, I just work through it. I think the frustration is a motivator for me. Me getting angry or me getting frustrated makes me want to go harder. I use my frustration.
Is that the secret to a long career?
Absolutely! Look at people like Timbaland. Everybody’s had some point where they wanna get up and think maybe this isn’t for them. But when you go back and look at the success, and you look at some of the other things that you’ve overcome it’s like, "Why can’t I do it with this?" So, for me, it’s just like quitting is not an option.
How is life as a producer different from what you imagined?
I imagined being in the studio at three, four in the morning. You know, always having to travel. Some of that has happened, just not as often as I expected it to. That’s the main part: traveling and being in the studio with just about every artist that you wanna be with, that just doesn’t happen. People think that you get one good placement or your name gets hot and everybody’s gon’ start reaching out to you, and that’s just not the case.
Did that initial disappointment hurt your pride?
Absolutely, I still go through that to this day. There’s people I wanna get in with and that’s just not a priority, or some people just wanna work on their own. There’s a lot of times I send beats out and I won’t even get feedback on them. They won’t even tell me that the beat sucks, or that they want a different type of beat. I just won’t ever hear back.
How do you get over that?
What I do is, I just work with the people who do care. I work with the people who believe in my talent. And it’s not hard to tell who really values what you do, versus the ones who really just don’t care.
In that same breath, which placement has personally meant the most?
I got two of ‘em. I would have to say, the song [“Fela Kuti”] that I did for Wyclef Jean on his last album [Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee] and, of course, Big K.R.I.T. [“Mixed Messages,” “Higher Calling”]. Big K.R.I.T. is like my brother. Both of them will call me to check up on me, they’ll always shout me out. They’re always impressed with the work I present to them so that definitely feeds my spirit.
Best business decision?
Definitely keeping a small team.
Worst business decision?
Signing a publishing deal that has an option that’s in favor of the publisher. When it comes to pub deals, the basic information is these people advance you a bunch of money that you are projected to make over a course of time, and they collect a percentage of your publishing money until you recoup that money. It’s basically a loan on your own money. The option part of it is, if you meet the quota that they expect you to meet, then they have the option to sign you again for the same period or a lesser period. It just depends on what the contract reads. There’s probably another advance involved, it might be the same or a little bit more.
Some people don’t consider that a bad thing. As a producer, the main source of our income comes from our advances. So it’s not just a terrible thing, sometimes they pay you before labels pay you your advance.
Best advice for aspiring producers who want to quit their jobs and do music full-time?
If you’re gonna quit your job, if you’re gonna take music very seriously, know where the people you wanna be around exist. Have your connections lined up before you decide to quit your job. Make sure you have a plan in case things don’t work out. Also, try to have at least two or three records lined up that you know for sure are going to be coming out. Stuff that you have already done paperwork on. I quit my job before some of these songs came out, but the paperwork was already lined up. Also, you gotta know that you’re the shit before you even hit the fan.