Reed tells Billboard exclusively about his new business venture, the meaning behind the roster's "Nice Life" name and how he plans to wear multiple hats.
How long have you been visualizing your own label?
I honestly can’t say that I had been visualizing it for much time at all. In fact, when Craig Kallman from Atlantic [Records] initially approached me with the idea, I was like, ‘Am I that guy? Can I function in that environment?’ I had never thought, ‘I can’t wait to grow up and own a record label or a business.’ I just think of myself as a musician -- somebody who likes meeting people and being creative and coming up with ideas so to be honest, I was initially caught off-guard by the whole prospect.
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How long ago was this meeting with Craig?
I want to say about two years ago in March 2014. The first time he reached out to me, he was on his way from somewhere to somewhere else. [Laughs] One of his right-hand guys, Brandon Davis, from Atlantic, said, ‘Hey, Craig wants to meet you. I’ve been telling him about you. Come meet us.’ We met him on his way out of the Atlantic Records building in New York, jumped in the car with him and over the course of a 10, 15-minute, cross-town car ride, he just said, ‘All my guys are saying you’re next. I want to talk about doing some work with you here in the building.'
I think that he brought up a lot of producers that have worked hand-in-hand with the label. I want to say [Jerry] Wexler worked with Atlantic in the ‘70s. Guys like Quincy [Jones] and this and that. We want you to help craft the sound of the next wave of our artists and what we do here at Atlantic Records. I was mortified. [Laughs] I got out of the car, ran immediately into a Barnes & Noble near Times Squares and just called my parents and my then-girlfriend [now-wife] and paced around furiously in the magazine section and tried to explain what had just happened and what it could mean for my life.
So you didn’t sign on immediately? It seems like there were several talks before you finally said yes.
Yes, exactly. It was a long process of me figuring out what I can bring to a situation like that and what my goals even are. This might sound strange but I’ve never really been a person who has goals of any sort. I tend to just work in the moment, day-to-day, try to make things and make decisions that feel good and it tends to guide me where I want to go in the long-term. I really had to sit down and be like, ‘Why would anybody want to hear my ideas as a curator and a label guy? It was a lot of long conversations like ‘Do I lose all my cred doing this? Do I hang up the band world? Or does this actually give me more of an opportunity to shape the way things work in the music industry? Can I have a greater impact on the way people think about not just popular music, but punk music and subversive music and music culture?' Maybe, in fact, this is my opportunity to really shake things up in a way that I have been dreaming about when I was a kid.
What is your mission for Nice Life and what are some of the things you’d like to accomplish?
In one sense, it’s really simple -- I want to put out great music, and bring and use that music to bring people together. I think that when it gets past that you can start losing sight of what makes this job so special but I’d also like to think of us as a local business of sorts. We set up shop in the Elysian Heights neighborhood of Echo Park.
There’s a coffee shop down the street from us called The Fix and we send an engineer or assistant down there once, twice a day. We’re buying coffees, teas, salads, sandwiches, etcetera and I remember after a month of being there, I bumped into one of the owners and she said, ‘Okay, I see that you guys like these salads more than these and we tend to run out so do you want us to have an extra stock of this kind of salad?' And I was like, yeah, thank you so much. It felt like one of the bigger accomplishments early on in the label’s history because we were one local business, affecting another local business in a positive way and starting to become part of the community in a micro sense. That is something that is really important to our, I guess it’s a cheesy word, mantra -- to sort of always be rooted as a local business in Echo Park and to do events and affect other businesses and people positively that are immediately around us.
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How many people do you have onboard for Nice Life?
We’re a really, really small organization. We have a small crew of about five or six people that do various things. Nice Life is both a record label and a publishing company, and we’ve also just begun to dabble in a little bit of stuff directly outside of the music entertainment, things that sort of affect more of the culture on L.A.’s East side.
Where did the name Nice Life come from?
The name comes from my late manager, Steve Brodsky. He managed me as I was getting started with Wallpaper and he contracted acute myeloid leukemia. It was pretty wild and terribly tragic. He passed away on March 22nd, 2013, a matter of about four months after he was diagnosed on Christmas Eve 2012. He was young, in his early 30s. Brodsky had this funny phrase. When someone was doing really well for themselves or if somebody was humblebragging or complaining about luxury problems, he would always be like, ‘Nice life, bro.’ That was his little catchphrase and when he ended up passing away, all of his friends and circle of colleagues threw a handful of events that were always called "Nice Life" or [had] some connection to that. It was the only thing I could have named the label.
Being from Oakland, how has the Bay Area/ East Side culture influenced your work?
My career has been one long love letter to California as a whole, top to bottom. I was born and raised in the Bay Area, specifically in the East Bay. When I started to slowly move my business down South -- ‘cause I sort of hit a ceiling with my work in the Bay, I was really skeptical and scared to be honest. [My roommates and I were] living in a big, dilapidated stoner house in Echo Park and a room that’s literally built like a sauna -- wood paneling on the walls, ceiling and floor -- and it was really hard. I didn’t have a car, was riding my bike to sessions, taking the bus a lot, pulling up to sessions with a camping backpack, sweaty. I started in Echo Park because it was cheap. I had a few friends there and two of the guys I had lived in that house with are now employees of Nice Life [Bradley Haering, A&R and Ethan Shumaker, sound engineer]. I found this community of people and eventually a culture between the music and also the art that feels like home to me. Los Angeles is a huge, great diverse place but I had to find the version that worked for me. I am lucky I did because I probably wouldn’t be where I am had I not.
As far as the Nice Life signees, describe what Lizzo and Imad Royal bring to the table.
Imad Royal is an incredible lightning rod of a person. His parents I believe fled Lebanon and eloped and settled in Quebec, Canada then came down to Washington D.C. His family story is pretty amazing and he was a musician from a young age. His dad taught him to play and as soon as I stumbled upon him, he already had the heart and soul of a great musician but also a bit of an empire-builder himself. He surrounds himself with great people and just makes incredible soulful electronic music. He lights up a room.
Lizzo, a lightning rod in a completely different sense, is this amazing Mineapolis by way of Houston singer/rapper/political activist/protestor. She came on my radar as a rapper -- we have the same booking agent at CAA -- and everybody was like you should do some biz with her in the studio. We got in the studio and I was like, ‘Can you sing?’ She’s like ‘Yeah I can hold a pitch. I sang a little in church.’ And she opened her mouth and sang and I was completely caught off-guard for how brilliant of a vocalist she is. She has the tone of Aretha Franklin or when Lauryn Hill opens up in Sister Act. She really has one of the biggest voices I’ve ever heard but also has the heart, the conviction and creativity that really make her, I believe, a living legend and a diva in the making.
You were able to bring Will Smith back to music with Bomba Estereo’s “Fiesta.” Any chance you could collaborate with him on Nice Life in the future.
Ooooh, I hadn’t thought about that. That’s a really cool idea. Technically, the thing that’s interesting is that I wear three hats -- me as a record producer, songwriter and the head of this tiny company -- and I guess the perks of having my hands in multiple things is that I can potentially bring somebody over to not only feature on stuff but there’s really great opportunities to take things from the local culture here, be it like an East L.A. punk band or Bomba Estereo, with things you wouldn’t necessarily expect to cross and juxtapose together. I think there’s a lot of opportunity. I’m in the room with big pop singers and artists all the time. I’ve been in with Meghan Trainor a bunch the last two months wrapping up her album and I play her stuff like Bomba and she freaks out. I play her all kinds of random, strange interesting music and she’s like, 'I love this, I love that.' I think there’s opportunity for those artists with a podium to support local art, independent art or [even] a cumbia band from Bogota.
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What does your new gig mean for Wallpaper?
It’s really exciting. I kind of feel like all bases are loaded. Most Wallpaper records were made when I was hungry, angry, having to hit up my parents for a 75 dollar bump so I could make rent and this is the first time where everything feels really good and I am in the clear so I can talk about some things that are a lot more bigger and important than myself.