Fifteen-plus years in any industry would tire anyone out—almost. For veteran A&R and current VP of A&R at Atlantic Records, Yaasiel “Success” Davis, every day in the game still feels like a new adventure. Davis, who is based in New York and is best known for working with Cardi B and the YBN Crew, got his start in the music business in 2003, managing producers and setting up lucrative publishing deals. Making a name for himself year over year, Davis got his start at Atlantic in 2011, and the rest is history.
In the past few years alone, Davis has been responsible for Cardi B’s “Ring” off her 2018 debut Invasion of Privacy and signing YBN Cordae to Atlantic. For those keeping score at home: Cardi B goes on to win the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album, and currently, Cordae has two GRAMMY nominations under his belt for his stellar 2019 debut, The Lost Boy.
“Cordae was lyrical and witty, you know?” Davis explains of Cordae’s star power. “I came up on Nas, JAY-Z, Tupac. In today’s climate, being an A&R, it’s hard to go by what our tastes are. We have to go by the consumer. When I heard Cordae, I was like, ‘Wow, this is a breath of fresh air!’ It’s reminiscent of stuff I came up on. In this climate, that’s amazing.”
A&Rs are often the unsung heroes of the recording process, helping develop artists and saving them from themselves. In the social media era, however, anyone and everyone can fancy themselves an A&R. According to Davis, the key difference between an armchair A&R on Twitter and a professional A&R is appreciating the importance of the songwriter and producer.
“Songwriters are a big part of A&R,” Davis explains. “They may not be writing the lyrical content of the songs. I’m talking about putting creatives in a room—songwriters, producers—and looking at what comes out of it. Sometimes our job is trying different things. I might put a trap producer in a room with a pop songwriter, and they might come out with the biggest smash you ever heard! When you talk about actual A&R in 2020, there’s that side of it: Going in the studio and crafting songs, creating a sound, and changing the sound of radio. It’s not just being a talent scout.”
Salute to Davis and A&Rs everywhere. Our full conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: When did you realize you had a knack for being an A&R? Walk me through the career path.
Yaasiel “Success” Davis: Born and raised in Chicago, I went to college in Tallahassee, Florida. When I was in college, I was in a rap group. I was a performing artist for a while. Then I noticed a lot of the things I enjoyed most were behind the scenes: negotiating the fee, soliciting us to open up for artists performing at some of the colleges in town, and shopping our songs to get played on the radio stations in the area. Being on stage is cool, and I was an okay rapper, but I enjoyed more of the managerial stuff.
From there, I moved to New York after college, and I’ve been here since. When I got to New York, I started off managing producers. I was a musician growing up, so I was naturally attracted to sounds and different styles of production. Kanye [West] had just moved to New York, also. A lot of guys producing with him, I had relationships with. I took that side and started managing producers first. That was my first eye for talent. Saying, “Okay, I have producers. That’s a dope track. If I could put that track with this songwriter or this artist, that could be a dope song.” Did that for a few years, got some big placements, started building relationships.
There was no Instagram or Twitter at that time. It was meeting people hand-in-hand and trying to convince them, “I got some dope beats. Let me set up a meeting.” That 30-second elevator pitch turns into a meeting. That’s how I started in the industry. I was the guy with the producers. Then I started noticing it’s not always about artists picking tracks. There’s this thing called a songwriter. I started learning about making songs in the studio.
If I can get a songwriter to write a hook or a hot track and pitch that to the artist, then we may have something here. I started trying to meet and develop songwriters. That was phase two of my career, just meeting songwriters and up-and-coming rappers who may not necessarily be ready to be on the mainstream, but could make some songs in the studio. Once I started doing that, I was like, “I have something here.”
The first label that approached me was Atlantic. All the A&Rs here at Atlantic were playing my music in their meetings. It got to a point where every guy in there was playing something I had submitted to him. That was me developing on the producer manager side. Then, there was an artist… The first kid [my business partner and I] found was [Amir Obe]. We signed him to our company and then we started shopping him to the label. Long story short, we signed him to Atlantic, my partner Sean got the job at Atlantic, and a year later, I started at Atlantic.
That’s a hell of a journey.
I’m one of the only guys I know that wasn’t an intern prior to working with the label. I was a manager and worked my way up. I don’t take that for granted, because I had to pay my dues to get here. I wish I had been a young intern, fresh out of high school. Going to college gave me an additional level of experience, business savvy, and hustle overall.
You’ve been in the industry for 15-plus years. What’s been the biggest change in the past decade?
In the old days, there was no social media. It was identifying who is the keyholder or the guy who could change your life and then trying to sell them on a CD. Now, up-and-coming artists, creatives, and managers can go on social media and search for an A&R or Atlantic Records, Def Jam. All these guys like myself, we pop up. People try to spam the A&R. Not saying that’s effective. I am active on my Instagram, but nowadays, people think that’s it: If I spam this guy with my music, he’s gonna listen to it, and I’m gonna get signed. Work your social media, but you gotta get out [there]. You [need] to have a smart marketing plan and a great team.
You’ve signed or worked with some big names to Atlantic—Cardi B comes to mind. Most recently, you signed YBN Cordae. What did you first hear in Cordae, leading you to work with him?
Speaking of Cordae, let me start [by saying]: I signed YBN Nahmir two years ago. Nahmir was the viral kid from Alabama. [Editor's Note: YBN Cordae is signed to Art@War, a partnership between James McMillan and Rap-A-Lot CEO James Prince, which has a joint venture with Atlantic Records and also counts YBN Nahmir and YBN Almighty Jay on its roster.]
He blew up with a song and video called “Rubbin Off The Paint.” I signed him, and that turned out to be a great signing for myself and the label. Through signing Nahmir, who now has two Platinum plaques under his belt, he introduced me to YBN Cordae. The thing about Cordae was, we met in passing the first year Nahmir did SXSW. Cordae was hanging around the crew. There was something about him. I knew he was a smart kid.
Hanging around the guys more and more, I heard he was doing some recording. He did the record [“Old N****s”] responding to J. Cole [“1985”]. I was like, “Oh, man! This kid is something special.” Cordae was lyrical and witty, you know? He’s slightly older than the other guys. I came up on Nas, JAY-Z, Tupac. In today’s climate, being an A&R, it’s hard to go by what our tastes are. We have to go by the consumer. When I heard Cordae, I was like, “Wow, this is a breath of fresh air!” It’s reminiscent of stuff I came up on. In this climate, that’s amazing. We don’t get a lot of guys that can be tuned in with what the kids are doing now and then give that other side of the hip-hop purist and the soulful sample tracks.
I was refreshed when I heard the first few songs. I told my boss: We have to sign him. There’s no question. I played the Chairman a song or two, and he agreed. When I look at Atlantic’s roster, we don’t have anything like Cordae, so it was important we got that deal done.
How closely do you work with Cordae, and what does that work entail?
I live in New York, and he lives in LA. When we were working on The Lost Boy, I spent a lot of time in LA. We rented out a house-studio in the hills. We lived in there. It was me, him, [and] Kid Culture. We’d call up a bunch of producers to come by the house, press play, and catch a vibe. The entire month of December, we did that. January, I came back to New York. Then, all of February, we did the same thing again. We finished up the album between February and March. We were literally living in this house.
With social media making everyone feel like an A&R, what differentiates a professional A&R from an armchair A&R?
There’s gut versus research. Some influencers are out there who build up fanbases online, and they may have an eye for talent, so they call themselves A&Rs. Maybe they’re taking artists to the next level, but there’s a big part of A&R a lot of average people may not know exists. That’s the songwriter and producer side of things. When people think of an A&R, they automatically think: Talent scout. There’s this whole other side. Once we sign an artist, now we have to make records. A lot of people have no idea about that side of the business.
It’s now our job to make sure these artists continue to put out music at [a high] level. When people say, “Such and such doesn’t write their own music!” it’s not that they don’t write their own music; the stakes are higher now. If Drake has to keep a whole community of creative songwriters and producers around him, that’s because he’s Drake! Of course, he has to do that; the stakes are too high. We can’t afford to put out subpar music. It’s not that he’s not the creative behind it; it just has to be at a certain level. To do that, creative people have to be around.
Songwriters are a big part of A&R. They may not be writing the lyrical content of the songs. I’m talking about putting creatives in a room—songwriters, producers—and looking at what comes out of it. Sometimes our job is trying different things. I might put a trap producer in a room with a pop songwriter, and they might come out with the biggest smash you ever heard! When you talk about actual A&R in 2020, there’s that side of it: Going in the studio and crafting songs, creating a sound, and changing the sound of radio. It’s not just being a talent scout.