Darcus Beese spent nearly his entire career at Island Records U.K., where he began as a promotions intern in 1989 and later served as A&R director, signing acts like Taio Cruz, Florence + The Machine and the late Amy Winehouse. He masterminded the lattermost’s U.S. breakthrough with her 2006 album, Back to Black, which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in March 2008 following Winehouse’s five wins at that year’s Grammy Awards.
Newly based in New York as he leads the label’s global output, Beese was honored in May at the Music Week Awards, where he received the coveted Strat Award recognizing outstanding contributions to the music business. UMG chief Sir Lucian Grainge, U2‘s Bono and producer Mark Ronson were on hand to pay tribute to the industry titan, while his “G” — actor-turned-DJ Idris Elba — praised him on Instagram as “one of the hardest working” in the biz: “Congratulations on your Strat Award, man, you know you deserve it.”
During his acceptance speech, Beese touched on recently suffering from imposter syndrome in his new role. “Mind blown. You turn up to these things, and you see people that win The Strat and [you think] there’s no way you’re going to be on the list, no fucking way,” he told the crowd, before thanking his family as well as his mother — in attendance — as well as his late father. “I wish you could be here, but thank you for the DNA. My children, thank me for your DNA. [Laughs].”
The OBE-designated maestro reflects on the moment he first met Winehouse in 2002. “I’ve got a lot to attribute to Amy in my trajectory,” he says. “It goes hand in hand. It’s funny, I’ve had other successes, but the one thing that gets attributed to me is Amy and that’s fine. I don’t mind it, she was that important.”
I had heard some tracks that U.K. producers the Lewinson brothers [Steve and Pete] had done, and all of a sudden, out came this voice. It reminded me of Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington. I went on this mission to find her. I found out her manager was Nick Shymansky at 19 Entertainment and called Nick like 10 times a day, but he wouldn’t call me back. So I made an appointment with another manager at 19 who pointed me down the corridor to Nick’s office. There was this 19-year-old girl seated on the floor with long, dark hair, pre-beehive. I knew it was Amy immediately. I said I was from the record company, and she looked at me and said, “So?” We hit it off, and two months later she signed to Island.
For the Grammys in 2008, Amy was nominated but unable to enter the country [due to her visa request being denied], so they did a satellite broadcast performance from the U.K. Because of the time difference, we were sitting in a London TV studio at 3 a.m. for our own kind of Grammy night. I think it was nice for the ego, but I’m very much as quickly as something comes and then goes, I’m over it. At the time, I don’t think I was sitting there weeping and high fiving, put it that way. I don’t crave success, I’m scared of failure. I don’t do this for chart positions. It’s an after effect of doing good shit.
I remember going to see Amy backstage after her Grammy performance and I wasn’t speaking to a person who had just won five Grammy’s. I was speaking to a person who was more matter of fact about it. I don’t think at that time that she was a very happy person, but I think she knew how important it was.
Like any artist that comes along once in a generation, her impact is felt down the ages. Greatness only comes around once in a blue moon, and I don’t expect it from everyone. Adele tips her hat to Amy. I [see] it in Island’s Jessie Reyez and Bishop Briggs, that ability to be brutally honest about your talent and what you’re trying to say. Anyone who came after Amy was given permission to tell their story how they wanted to tell it. — AS TOLD TO NICK WILLIAMS
A version of this article originally appeared in the May 25 issue of Billboard.