Island Chief Darcus Beese on Chris Blackwell's Example and Leading His Own Team of 'Avengers'

Darcus Beese

When Darcus Beese joined Island Records’ U.K. office as a promotions intern in 1989, the only thing he knew about the label was “that Bob Marley existed.” Thirty years later, he has become a key figure in the company’s A&R tradition, having signed Amy Winehouse and worked with the likes of Florence Welch and PJ Harvey during his time in the label’s British operations.

Now, a little over a year into his tenure as Island’s U.S. president, the gregarious 49-year-old is focused on continuing the legacy that Chris Blackwell helped create by broadening the label’s roster, which in recent years has been more pop-leaning, and strengthening the next generation of Island talent. “Whether you were trying to sign an act or tell people how special it was, you would always tell the story of Chris,” he says. “How I run my business is literally how I think Chris would run his business.”

In your first year, you put a new executive team in place. Why was that important?

It was the equivalent of putting together The Avengers. I believe that success comes with a team of people. I knew that if we walked into a room, we had to be like the fucking Avengers -- there’s a presence when we’re about. And once you’ve got a full complement of people, you can do some amazing things. It just bodes well for the next couple years.

What are some of the toughest decisions you’ve had to make so far?

There’s no real tough decisions, they’re just decisions that need to be made. It was key for me to make sure that we nailed our short-term strategy, which then enables us to have a run at our long-term strategy. It was making sure that Shawn Mendes was at the top table. It was to make sure that Jessie Reyez’s trajectory was pointing in the right direction. And [that] we break Dean Lewis and level up on Bishop Briggs. If I nail all of those, then the long term becomes easier to achieve. So the decisions for me were just about what my strategies were going to be, for me and my team, to get through the first year so that we could still have a run in the third year, and still be here five years later.

What sets Island apart from other labels right now?

Sometimes it’s the ability to walk away from the madness of the deal, and sometimes it’s the ability to fuck the research and just go, “I love this. I’m going to do it.” Because chasing the deal and the research records just puts me in the room with all the other people. So how can I go in a different direction that sets Island apart? I want to find some dope hip-hop, but I’m not Def Jam. I’m making pop, but I’m not going to be Republic. I have some amazing bands, but I’m not going to be Glassnote. You just have to recalibrate every day. We’re not trying to push every same thing, same genre, through the eye of the same needle.

What’s your vision for the label’s future?

To not get fired. [Laughs.] If I’m not fired by year five, that means we’ve broken artists, and we’re doing the right thing. To tell you any more than that would be to say some bullshit and lie. Whether it’s putting out records, whether it’s cultural or whether it’s success, it’s just making sure we’re pointed in the right direction and on the right trajectory. What is the job of Island Records? Yes, it’s to sell records. Yes, it’s to have success. But it’s also to be able to tell stories, it’s also to be able to have a legacy, it’s also to be a place where we can give back. What’s our give back to the culture?

What have you ultimately learned from Blackwell?

I learned to have the courage of conviction, which is probably serving me well coming out to America. To see a global plan for acts that nobody else could see. That, to me, is what Island Records is about. That’s the legacy that I won’t veer from, and luckily I was able to be a part of Island when it was an independent and was able to kind of carry on what I think Chris wanted Island to be. I always touch base with him -- I was touching base with him about something last week, or yesterday, to ask him his opinion -- so for me, Island is his great legacy.  

A version of this article originally appeared in the Sept. 14 issue of Billboard.


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