"If you’re not really about getting to the money, then you could go back to doing covers with a guitar... If you’re trying to get to the bag, come fuck with me."
Brooklyn Johnny has the swagger of a rapper. When he walks inside the Billboard artist lounge, he's oozing with confidence as if he just inked a lucrative shoe deal with your favorite sneaker brand. His bulky chain and New York bravado even catches the attention of the security downstairs, as he's darted with questions about his rap affiliations.
"I felt like I always looked like an artist," he says after plopping himself on the couch inside the artist lounge. "That always made them gravitate towards me. [If] you look like them and you speak the language, they’re going to trust you more. That always made it so much easier to communicate with them."
Though Johnny isn't laying down vocals, he's more than familiar with the ins and outs of a recording studio. After being in a motorcycle accident 10 years ago, the burgeoning executive shifted his focus towards music and built a studio in Brooklyn for upcoming artists and producers to work out of. There, DJ Clark Kent would become a frequent visitor and watched a precocious Johnny woo producers with his gift of gab in hopes of becoming their manager. Eventually, he cajoled Johnny into switching over to the corporate side of things, where he would reap bigger rewards.
"People ask me, 'How do you have such great relationships with artists?'" he says. "I’m like, 'Shit, I be on the same shit that they be on.' I turn it on and off. Growing up black in Brooklyn, you got to learn how to turn off street shit. You gotta know when to be extra black, you gotta know when to be light black. You learn how to do that."
Johnny's wit and savvy allowed him to not only help Kodak Black get a deal with Atlantic Records in 2015, but also Cardi B a year later. Atlantic Records' chairman, Craig Kallman, has effusive praise for Johnny and his ability to help reel in both artists to his label. "I met Brooklyn Johnny in the studio and hired him soon after," he relates to Billboard. "He has great A&R instincts with a potent ability to identify talent early. He was instrumental in bringing me Kodak and Cardi."
Earlier this year, Johnny's swift delivery caught the eye of RCA Records. On Tuesday (Nov. 13) they announced Johnny's joint venture deal with RCA, which includes his label District 18 Entertainment serving as his new home.
"Brooklyn Johnny has established himself as a major force in hip-hop by elevating the careers of many artists with his creative vision, passion and ambition," says RCA Records chairman & CEO, Peter Edge in the press release. "His past accomplishments and unique approach to finding and developing young talent is what makes him distinctly standout from others. He will bring fresh ideas and talent to the RCA family through District 18 Entertainment and we’re looking forward to a successful partnership.”
With a sharp eye for budding prospects, Johnny hopes to find more superstars and mold them into perennial Grammy winners through his latest venture. Billboard speaks below with Brooklyn Johnny about playing an instrumental role in the careers of Cardi and Kodak, his new label District 18 Entertainment, what he looks for when signing an artist, and more.
Talk about when you first really got heavily involved with music.
I opened a studio in Brooklyn on Dean Street. This is like 10 years ago, while they were still building the Barclays [Center]. I’m 33 now. This is before a lot of the gentrification happened. So they had this warehouse. The dude was like, “Yo, there’s this space up here and you could do whatever you want.” I had a whole floor. Imagine having a whole floor to build what you wanted. That shit was life. We had a basketball court indoors, shit was crazy. People would be in there for like three days.
Who did you have pull up?
One of the first people in the music business that came to the studio, outside of DJ Clark Kent, I’m talking executives, is [BMI's director of creative] Omar Grant. He used to come over there a lot because he was living in Brooklyn at the time. It really got me to take music a bit more seriously. I was managing some producers and I was trying to transition away from doing bullshit and kind of focus on something that could be fruitful.
I got into a motorcycle accident. When I got into the accident, I started taking music more seriously because I was just like, “What the fuck am I doing?” I’m casted up. I started taking it seriously. I like to compare music business to basketball. I was street balling and I was spending time with the other street ballers. It’s fun, it’s cool, but I’m looking at it like, "I’m trying to get rich off this shit. I’m trying to change people’s lives. I want people to thank me when they get on that Grammys stage like, 'Thank you for helping me change my life.'"
Sometimes, when you’re in a comfortable situation and you have everything you need at the time, you find yourself losing sight of those things. You want to do something greater. I had to step this shit up. DJ Clark Kent, that’s my brother for real, he said I need to start taking shit more seriously. So we started moving shit around.
Have you had to deal with artists that didn’t understand the business and you’ve had to help them?
None of these kids understand the business, really. When I started working with Kodak Black, I felt like he didn’t really understand the business. The thing people don’t realize about Kodak is, he’s super smart. He bumped his head a lot of times, but he’s super smart. He reads a lot of books. If you ever have a conversation with him, you’d be like, “He’s 40 years old. How do you know this stuff?”
A lot of times, I’ve had to help him deal with certain stuff. When Kodak first came up to New York, I felt like he was uncomfortable. Where he’s from, they don’t really have a lot of interactions with Caucasian people. They’re usually authority figures. He’s not a racist at all, but he was just getting accustomed to something new.
He was sheltered down there.
I wouldn’t say sheltered, but I’d say confined in a sense. It’s not just Florida, there’s other places like that. I’m from Brooklyn. Some people that I’ve grown up with have never been to Times Square. Do you understand how crazy that sounds? With Kodak, the thing about social media, what happens is you’re watching them grow up. He’s not a Kardashian, so you didn’t see it on E!, but you saw it on social media. You’re watching them grow up and you’re taking somebody who’s coming from a place and giving him a million dollars. They’re trying to adjust.
How did you know he really had something?
I saw a video that he had done. In the video, he had a broken gun -- like a gun that had tape on it. In the video, he climbed through a window, went to a corner store and somebody pulled up and left their car running, and he went outside and left with the car. When I saw that, I was like, “Man, this is a kid just doing mischievous things.” I could relate to it. To me, it was authentic. He rapped like a Hot Boy. That’s my shit. This was straight off of YouTube. At the time, he was signed to somebody and I reached out. They said, "He’s locked up right now, but let’s start figuring shit out."
With any artist, you’d like to try to blow them up independently. But there’s a fine line because artists have a way of sometimes wanting to blame people who’ve helped them. With a record label, you have more people to blame. That’s a lot for one person to take on. Everything that goes great is their idea, and everything that goes wrong, it’s your fault. Management is a thankless job. It’s a lot for someone to take on.
A lot of the time, if someone has an opportunity to get with a major, it’s usually a good idea. I would say, anyone who’s getting with a major, just make sure whoever you’re doing it with is really invested and wants to do what they’re doing with you. Don’t have them doing it just because it’s hot. Thinking it’s hot is not going to work, because you may not be hot in a few weeks. That’s why you have to get with someone who knows all your music and believes in what you’re doing. The long way.
How do you go into dealing with a new artist knowing that you may not be there for the rest of the ride?
It’s hard to prepare for that because -- I’ll go back to basketball -- you’ll get on that pro court, and yeah you can bring up the ball, but there’s motherfuckers that bring up the ball better than you that have been doing this shit longer than you. You might get smacked two, three games and the artist has to reassess real quick. They’re playing at a high level out here. When an artist asks me, I tell them personally and I advise them, don’t get rid of your manager. Keep them close to you. Bring somebody else on and have them split the percentages or something like that. Don’t bring on another motherfucker that can’t bring the ball up. Bring in somebody who has more experience.
You’re someone who can see it from the artist’s side more. Some look at it from the management side only about how much they’re helping the person. But that person’s like, “I’m dealing with so much” but the manager can’t see it from that perspective. How do you plan on expanding your executive platform?
The first thing I did was manage producers. I opened up a studio and I used it for all our shit. Shit was dope. I feel like there was no place for people to go like that. I learned how to engineer, make beats, write music. Spending time with them taught me so much about music that as an executive, I’d be in the studio with other seasoned executives -- I’m talking people that got 15-20 years in the game -- and I’ll say something, and they’ll be like, “How the fuck do you know what that is?” But what I didn’t realize is, I think in the music industry, I’ve done almost every single job you could think of.
With this joint venture, what immediate goals are you setting out for yourself?
I just want to make more successful artists. I want more millionaires. I want to feed more families. When you help an artist become a millionaire, you’re not just making one millionaire. You’re making a few millionaires, because the people around them are making millions of dollars. They invest in businesses with people that help make them millionaires. It’s like a trickle down. That’s really what we want to do.
How did you get involved working with Cardi?
With Cardi, I used to see her clips and stuff. It wasn’t so much that I thought she was funny, I just always felt like she was special. When you can get people to listen to you, no matter what it is that you’re talking about, you’re special. As much as we hate to say it, Donald Trump is special. That man became the president of the United states. We may not like him, but he’s still special. It’s the craziest thing ever. He tweets his feelings. All the news is fake news. He’ll be like, “Oh, you guys have been calling the sun the sun? The moon is actually the sun.” There’s a certain way a president is supposed to carry himself and he’s like, “Nah, fuck that. I ain’t doing that shit.”
With Cardi, I just thought that she was special. I worked with a lot of artist that were talented, but not special. What makes an artist special is a thing they have with people just wanting to be around them. People want to see them and want to speak to them. That is something that you can’t give to someone. You just can’t.
I mean, shit. You see where she’s at now. Did you foresee that?
One thousand percent. She’ll tell you out of her own mouth. The first meeting I had with Cardi B, with other executives, I said in the meeting, “This is going to be Nicki Minaj’s competition here.” I remember the conversation. Everyone was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, buddy.” Other executives were saying I’m tripping. I remember when I met her and the only thing she wanted was her song on the radio. She was like, “I just want my song on the radio.” That’s why I posted something the other day that said, “You said you just wanted your song on the radio, and it’s safe to say we got a lot more than that.”
What about the artists that you have under your belt that you currently manage? Are you bringing them over with the deal you have?
If they poke their head out, absolutely. You can’t give a person a deal before they’re ready. When you get into a record deal, a timer starts on you. With some artists, I don’t want to put that timer on them. I want them the have the opportunity to be great, to be creative, to not have that pressure. When I’m on your head like, “We have to put out an album,” that’s a different kind of pressure. You have to perform and blow these people away. I want people to be excited about what you’re doing. You have to have somebody who’s ready for that shit, because that shit comes with a lot of responsibility.
What’s the criteria for you as far as bringing along an artist? What are you looking for?
Work ethic. And you got to be doing something that’s making people pay attention to you. I’m not a publicist, so I can tell people that I think you’re hot, but my skill set is not in publicity. You got to come with something. Somebody other than me has to believe in you.
So do the number of followers and fans trump the talent for you? There are some people out there who are uber-talented but they don’t have the numbers to back them. Which one do you lean more towards?
At the time we’re in now, it takes a lot out of an executive or manager or a label owner to develop talent that has no fans. There’s a lot of head bumping that’s going on. You find yourself taking time away from things that are actually on the path to being successful or making you money, to something that could be a passion project.
It’s tricky because you have to decide for yourself -- are you doing this because you love music or because you’re running a for-profit business? In theory, you do it because you love the music, but if you’re fucking with me, we’re getting to the money. If you’re signing with me at District 18, it’s because you want to get to the money. Straight up. If you’re not really about getting to the money, then you could go back to doing covers with a guitar. Sing somebody else’s songs. If you’re trying to get to the bag, come fuck with me.
Sometimes, that work, though. Look at Ella Mai.
God bless them. That’s beautiful for her. Great. Not for me. I’m not saying I’d never sign somebody like her, I’m saying people have to love you. People did love her covers, so that’s not even the same thing. If you want to work with me -- you ask around and people say, “He knows what he’s doing.” Don’t show up empty-handed like, “What’s up? What are we doing?” With the Cardi situation, you’ll see her whole entire progression.
With the Cardi and Kodak situation, do you feel the pressure of having to break another artist of that magnitude?
They do come with a lot of expectations, but I tell them you just have to put one foot in front of the other. You may not be as big as those artists but you’ll make money. You’re making the right steps. What we’re doing is planting the seeds and watering them. I can’t tell you if you’ll be Jack and the Beanstalk, but at least you’ll be a sycamore tree. Something’s gonna happen.
Kanye’s going through a lot of things right now, but he said something recently -- and he says a lot of wacky shit, but this shit right here? -- he said something like, "I gotta do things the way I want to do them, because it takes too much time to convince people to do the things you want to do [them]," some shit like that. What I took from that is: When you have a plan in your mind for an artist, you may not be the boss on paper, or they may not think you’re the boss -- but once you have in your mind a boss mentality, you’re implementing a boss strategy.
You have tunnel vision.
You’re like, "I’m going to do this, and I’m going to help the artist be successful." I feel like the Cardi story is going to be a movie. How she recorded her album carrying a whole child.
What’s the best memory you’ve had during the recording process?
I think the whole process was just a dope memory. She was pregnant, and she’d have to take naps, and she’d be cold sometimes. Sometimes she’s just tired, or she’d be like, “Man, the baby kicking crazy right now.” Most people would have been like, “I’m going home.” She was like, “I’m not going home. I got this kid depending on me.” You’re talking about months in the studio with a whole child rolling around in her belly. She’s just in there. She was damn near in the studio until maybe two days before giving birth. Even after the album came out, she was still working.
I read Offset used to wake her up during the middle of the night, and if she was sleeping, he’d pull the covers off her and tell her to get into the studio.
He used to drop her off all the time. They got a good synergy. If you don’t know them, you won’t be able to understand. They got a good synergy. When you’re looking at a boyfriend and girlfriend or a husband and wife, the woman will be like, “Baby, I don’t feel like doing that” or throw a little move, and he’s like, “No, you gotta go do this.” Fuckin’ 12 out of 13 records on the album are certified [by the RIAA]. One’s 6x Platinum, one’s 4x Platinum, two of them are 2x platinum. She’s easy to work with. She tries her hardest to be as transparent as she can with people. She’s a star.
The joint venture is through RCA. What was it about RCA that trumped any other deal you had on the table?
That’s a good question. I had been doing business with Atlantic for about eight years. That’s family, and I still have artists over there, but I felt it was time to try something different. I felt like when I met with them, it just seemed like they were giving me the runway to do what I needed to do. They trusted my judgment. Mark Pitts, I had known him for a long time. Mark was just like, “come over here and rock and do your thing.” They gave me very favorable terms to go over there and do my thing.
My lawyer knew them very well and I felt as if I’ve seen people who I identify to be like myself have successful ventures there. Mark Pitts, Bryan Leach, they’ve had very successful ventures. When I walk around that building, nobody’s whispering. Everybody’s happy. I don’t know if it’s something going on with the plumbing with the water, but everybody’s in great spirits. It’s an incredible thing to see. I’m not saying everybody everywhere else is on some mad shit but there’s something over there that’s just different.
With Mark and Bryan, what advice have they given you as far as stepping up with this venture and attacking it?
Mark’s attitude to me is just to go in, just flex. I do that anyway so--
It's like you're telling Kobe to shoot.
Say less. [Laughs.] I put two artists in there already and I haven’t announced it yet because I want the artist to be great. I want them to be great to the public on their own. I don’t want them to be looked at like, “Oh, that’s only happening because of [their management].” I don’t want people to feel that way. I want them to shine. When you’re shining nice and bright, you’ve grown into something that people can respect.