"To me, signing is instinctive. The more I think, the worse it gets. I'm not signing people for who they are, but for their potential. I have to believe in the person." —Richard Russell
I. The Questionable Relevance of A&R
A&R, which stands for Artists and Repertoire, is a department of stature within the major label system. For most of recorded music history, A&R's were imperative to the discovery, signing, and development of new artists. They were the middlemen and women whose tireless work led to the introduction and development of the world’s favorite musicians and pop stars.
Due to the access granted to artistry by the internet and shifts in the industry, the role of A&R has, for most of this current decade, been considered by many to be on the verge of extinction. In 2011, The Guardian wrote: "Behind the music: Is the A&R era over?" a question that has been asked year after year.
2011 was also the year Arista, Jive, and J Records―all well-known subsidiary labels―folded and dissolved into one label underneath the RCA umbrella. The merger ended jobs as longtime employees who had worked for the company for more than 15 years weren’t included in the reset, but the consolidation also changed the life of Derrick Aroh, an intern for J Records, who was promoted to A&R assistant by Peter Edge, Chairman & CEO of RCA Records.
When Aroh called me, it was from his RCA office. Behind him were the days of being an assistant, a position he held for three years working under Trevor Jerideau, J Grand, Morgan "Mr. Morgan" Lieberthal, and Adonis Sutherlin. An A&R since 2015, Aroh has been a part of the team that secured the signings of London On The Track, GoldLink, Childish Gambino, and, most recently, Brockhampton. Cousin Stizz is also an RCA signee on his resume, a deal that was orchestrated alone. A strong starting five is what he calls them.
During our hour-long conversation, Aroh hinted at several unannounced signings but kept names and details tightly under wraps. However, when it came to his position, the seven years he spent interning and assisting before being promoted to full-time A&R, and why the role of an A&R is still important to an artist, he was a completely open book.
II. Don't Get in the Way
“I’m not going to tell them what kind of records to make, they know what the fuck they’re doing, they’ll get there on their own terms,” Aroh says when I asked about Brockhampton, the most exciting boy band in rap and a group he recently signed with Tunji Balogun, EVP, A&R, RCA Records.
“For a group like Brockhampton, my job is to facilitate the dreams they have, and Tunji feels the same way,” he continues, before delving further into the role of major label A&R:
"Don’t get in the way. You aren’t there to dick ride, you do have an opinion, and those opinions are important, but when an artist believes in something, you support them. That’s what your job is. The other job is when the artist doesn’t know they need something, you get them what they need. It’s artist and repertoire. That word repertoire is very powerful, that encompasses seeing the artist through; see them from when you get them to when they are stars."
The mission of dream facilitation was reiterated again when I asked Aroh about Childish Gambino, another seasoned newcomer to the RCA roster who was courted and signed by a team led by Edge, Balogun, Sutherlin, and Aroh. It was an Avenger-esque effort to secure the “Redbone” superstar after his contract with Glassnote Records had ended.
“We believe in these artists and their amazing teams. Fam [Udeorji] and Chad [Taylor] know what they’re doing. Our job is to emphasize what they want to do. Me, Tunji, and Adonis speak to them regularly and we talk about their passions and plans. You will see some very cool things in the near future. They know what they want, and we help emphasize on those wants.”
III. It Is the Belief in Roses That Makes Them Flourish
The role of an A&R isn’t the same with every artist, especially for a newcomer who is still in the stage of development. Yes, artist development still matters. In 2015, before the end of his first week as an A&R following his promotion, Aroh signed GoldLink with Balogun, who had just come over to RCA after spending nearly five years at Interscope.
Aroh's interest in GoldLink dated back to 2013, after coming across the DC native's single, “On & On.” There were no hit records and no cult fan base, but Aroh heard a ton of promise. He saw what the data didn’t show.
“There’s guys like GoldLink, who do what they want to do, but we know when we sign them they don't have a hit; we have to help navigate them through the process. There was a time period following And After That, We Didn't Talk when he put out records like “Fall In Love,” "Untitled" with Isaiah Rashad, “Rough Soul,” we were putting out all these records. Myself and Tunji just waving the flag to anyone who would listen that we had some shit."
Aroh will be the first to admit his three-year tenure as an assistant wasn't always glamorous, but acknowledging and introducing the office to acts like Chance The Rapper, Post Malone, and Travis Scott while they were still underneath the underground made his value inside the RCA offices undeniable. Being instinctively early on special and potential superstar artists is an essential skill that can’t be taught. “Data only emphasizes what I feel. I trust my gut and follow the artist,” he says.
The thread that connects all of the artists that Aroh has signed thus far is a belief in the pictures they paint and the certainty that each one will reach the highest plateau—but on their terms.
"The data doesn’t mean anything if you don’t understand what’s behind it, why people care about it in that context, and have the passion for that type of artist to begin with. When you believe in what they’re telling you, you then understand where it’s going and what you need to do for it to get there. If you don’t believe, it doesn’t matter. Every song will end. Every song will have it’s ending moment. If you don’t believe in the artist all you have is a half bin."
Hip-hop is a cultural force, but every rap act has their own unique cultural habitat. They all may be in the same genre, but signing Kendrick Lamar isn’t like signing 21 Savage, and signing Rich The Kid isn’t the same as signing Flatbush Zombies; understanding those critical and cultural differences are important. Aroh believes an A&R needs to know how to steer the ship when its flourishing and how to save it when it's sinking.
IV. First You Believe, Then Make Them Believe
Last September, GoldLink's “Crew” was certified Platinum by the RIAA and earlier this year, the record was nominated for a GRAMMY, but upon its initial release, the reception was lukewarm. Aroh and Balogun were believers, though, and watched the record closely for months. As soon as it started to hit a substantial groove, they went to the label.
“We explained to them what was happening and that it was a possible shot for this kid we believed in,” Aroh says. “When that happened, Shani Fuller Tillman, VP of Marketing, did an excellent job pushing it through the building and making it a priority.”
It’s important for an artist to have an A&R who feels strongly about their success. The A&R is your voice to the label, the person who will fight for you to be a priority. Aroh remembers while working under Trevor Jerideau―the SVP of A&R at RCA who signed Tinashe―how Drake’s remix of “2 On” was a big reason why the single elevated. The Drake remix stimulus package isn’t available on call, but after GoldLink met Gucci Mane at Coachella, the gears began to turn and Aroh started rallying for a remix of “Crew.”
Once the Gucci-assisted remix was released, RCA’s digital team immediately connected with Spotify, and once the record landed on RapCaviar, the most popular playlist on their platform, “Crew” began to quickly climb the charts. While there was also an organic groundswell around the single, its success began with Balogun and Aroh fighting to make the label aware that the record represented a can’t miss opportunity. "Crew," originally released in December of 2016, didn't peak on the Billboard Hot 100 (No. 45) until October 2017. A lesson in the importance of working a record you believe in but also in exercising patience.
Before landing his assistant A&R position at J Records, Aroh was an intern for the label, spending time in different departments to learn the trade. He interned for seven months in A&R, and a year a piece in both marketing and promotions. There was no pay, but he learned a lot and met people who worked with him through mistakes.
“Part of making people believe in your project is people believing in you,” Aroh explains. "It’s important to have a presence in the building, for people to know you, and know your clients. Everybody wants to be down with a good situation. It’s important to always give people the light that it’s a good situation. Who doesn’t want to play for a championship team?”
When asked about the collaborative signing process, Aroh credits Edge, Keith Naftaly, Head of A&R, RCA Records, and Mark Pitts, President of Urban Music at RCA, for creating an environment that encourages teamwork.
"We don’t fight. At the end of the day, do you want to be a superstar on a unremarkable lottery team or an all-star on a championship team? That’s how I look at it. Tunji and I did Goldlink because he was trying to sign him while at Interscope. Peter suggested we tag-team it once he came over to RCA. We have similar tastes in hip-hop, even though he’s more R&B than I am, when it comes to our hip-hop taste it’s very similar. Because of that we have a very good work relationship, and a great relationship in general, so we ended up doing Brockhampton together and Gambino with Adonis and Peter."
Even though Aroh signed Cousin Stizz by himself, it was an associate at the label who put him onto Stizz’s 2014 single, “Shoutout.” After the release of Suffolk County, Aroh was sold. Although Stizz has yet to break through, Aroh believes he's one record away, which is why the label is taking their time with his development.
V. Be an Intern of the Culture
After graduating high school in 2007, and knowing he wanted to work in the music business, a family friend recommended Aroh intern for a label like Diddy did at Uptown Records. After studying Diddy’s story, Aroh believed he found his calling.
During his very first semester in college, Aroh applied for an internship with every label―Def Jam, Tommy Boy, Interscope, Sony, and Atlantic. Ironically, the label that called him back was Bad Boy. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Aroh arrived at Puff’s office to help with the laundry, wash bags, and assist with any little task that made him feel like he was on an episode of MTV's Making The Band.
The internship only lasted for a semester but it was during a run to Jive Records that Aroh picked up a card from HR, leading to an interview with then J Records A&R assistant, John Ehmann. That's four years of interning, three years of assisting, and seven years of waiting, working, and not allowing the dream to waiver.
"I always knew I was going to get there. There was never one moment in my time as an intern when I felt I wouldn’t get to where I am," Aroh says.
"Be an intern of the culture. Be in the mix. Even if you aren’t getting paid, you are running around and being involved," he adds. "Pair artists with producers, songwriters, and blogs. Be visible, be vigilant, and the opportunity will come."
The role of an A&R has changed over the years, there are fewer of them inside the major label system, but the practice isn't dead. The best and brightest in the field are doing what Aroh calls "label management." They are the managers of the label who work their artists through the building, making sure the right people are interested and that everything is running smoothly every step of the way. Those are the A&R's who make careers. The kind of A&R Derrick Aroh plans to be remembered as.
Correction: "Crew" was released in December 2016, not December 2015 as was originally reported.