Middle of May came around and I took a rare glimpse inside the upper echelon of a major record label. I sat there for no more than a tenth of second and said, “I’m ready”. I’d have to ask myself and all those around, “How can I turn that down?” The man I spoke to was none other than former Sr. V.P. at Interscope Records and presently the owner of U Can Fly Holdings, Kevin Black. This was new ground for me to cover, but I took it on like a global conquest. Prior to this encounter I had no idea him and I have a commonality in that we share a background in promotions. In hindsight, this made it easier to a degree for us to relate. Mr. Black’s U Can Fly Holdings is a company specializing in marketing and promotions on a global scale; one built off integrity and a non-stop eagerness to exceed any expectations. Mountains are nothing but speed bumps to this entrepreneur. They don’t call him Kevin “All Bets On” Black for nothing!
My initial conversation was an encouraging exchange of dialogue. I tried to be personable because I know I’m from Chicago and I don’t want anyone from outside my hometown to get the impression that Chicago lacks professionalism. I asked Kevin, who’s from N.Y.C. and currently residing in L.A., how he was doing. I heard an up-beat tone in Mr. Black’s voice letting me know he wanted to get his thoughts and life out there to the people. So, in response Kevin said, “I’m good. I’m trying to be you!” Here I was, perplexed on why he’d want to be me, so I had to ask him, “Why do you say that Sir?” Without hesitation Kevin replied, “Because you’re a winner!” I answered by saying, “Yes, I’d like to think of myself as a winner.” A few days later, the interview took place and Mr. Black gave the inside scoop on many aspects of his professional life, also what exactly a top ranked major record executive is looking for in the next great talent. After making it from being a roadie for Run-DMC to being a DJ, also having the drive, charisma and business savvy to achieve his present label status, this is what Kevin had to say.Where did you grow up?
K.B. - New York City. The Bronx.
How did your childhood experiences mold the man you’ve become?K.B. - My mother told me, “Anything in life you want, just go for it.” People don’t plan to fail. They fail to plan. If you concentrate on a solid plan you can get anywhere you want to go.
Things change for people and the direction they take in life, so what was your initial plan growing up?
K.B. - Just to be successful. Whatever I got into I would live it, want it, create it and make it happen. I didn’t have a dream like I was going to be in the music business. It fell into my lap and I took advantage of it. I started working it, but did I have a plan that I would be this successful in the music business? No, but I use my 4-F Theory. That is, you must treat people in a Friendly way and what I mean is, treat people the way you want to be treated. Secondly, you must be Firm. When you talk to somebody, have an opinion. Say Yes. Say No. Say I don’t know. Say I’ll think about it. The third F stands for being Focused. Know what your plan is. Know how to get there. Know what you have to do to get there and know how to prepare for all it takes to make it. Be focused, but don’t get so focused that you can’t see all the obstacles coming towards you, or sneaking up on you. Keep your eyes open and always be ready to re-forecast / re-focus. Sometimes you have to take 2 steps back to take 4 steps forward. The fourth F, well I’ll keep it clean and say you have to know when to say Forget It! So it’s Friendly, Firm, Focused and know when to say Forget It! Those are my 4 F’s. I live my life by that and if you live your life by that too, I guarantee that you will be successful.
You’ve defined how to become successful and laid down a mental strategy on how to get there, but what exactly is success in your book?K.B. - There’s no set idea for what success is. I mean, you could have success by being rich in spirit, rich in money and rich in knowledge. Success is not a design. Right now, success for me is peace of mind.
To get where you are professionally today, what’s the person or moment that pushed the button inside of you and had you convinced this was your path in life?K.B. - It was a combination of both things you said. I’d have to bring up a couple guys who helped guide me and my career. (Mr. Black paused not wanting to forget anyone) One was Steve Berman. Another was Jimmy Iovine. Also Suge Knight, Tom Walley and last but not least, Doug Johnson. Those 5 people helped my career a great deal. (Kevin sat in a state of deep thought pondering what events have stood out) A good executive, or just a good person, either one possessing staying power, they all go through adversity and overcome it. So it’s like when you can go from the bottom and to the top repeatedly, you become a well-rounded executive and person. One moment that let me know I was true to this business is when I took Eminem who was one of my hardest projects and made him into one of the most popular rappers of today’s time.
How did you go about that? Meaning, what role did you play in his development?K.B. - I had to break the record first. There are many people that helped Eminem’s career. I was just part of the front team in the beginning that had to break it. Try breaking the rapper that’s White in a predominantly Black field and telling them this rapper is the best when nobody really knew him. It came to be a tough job. Where are you from? Milwaukee?
“I’m from Chicago.”
(Kevin continued describing the struggle he faced years earlier.)
K.B. - Try going to Cabrini Green before they started putting up condos. Try to go there and say, “Hey! We’ve got this new rapper Eminem that no one’s heard a record on and he’s Hot!” Try to sell it to the hood. It’s a tough sale. Now everybody loves him because he is what I said he was in the beginning. One of the greats.
What type of music do you listen to in your free time?K.B. - I listen to everything because being a Promotions guy, you want to always keep your knives sharp. You always want to keep your wits about you. I listen to Rock, Oldies but Goodies, Jazz, R&B or what they refer to as ‘baby making music’. It’s a matter of finding the people who do listen to it and those that don’t.
(Kevin comes across as a quick study when it comes to demographics)
What do you see as the most notable road block in your career to date?K.B. - Looking for the next hit.
How do you go about stepping away from your profession? Do you have any hobbies?
K.B. - I go to the gym and try to keep my weight down. I love to look at boxing and basketball. I think that the rap game of today is switching guards and it’s about to jump back up in the next 3 years.
(I had to ask what exactly he meant by jumping “back up”)
What do you mean by jumping “back up”? Are you talking about the quality of lyric?K.B. - No, I’m not talking about the quality. The reason why everybody thinks rap went downhill, or that it’s stagnate is because it’s changing the guard. The 10 Hot rappers back then were names like Puffy, Jay-Z, Nelly, Eminem, Snoop, Dr. Dre, DMX, Ja Rule, ect… Those were some of the big dogs back then. Now, the game in a way is going full circle. Those guys are going to be legends and now we have the newcomers coming in. Once they get in, then things will move to the next level.
How do you feel the World Wide Web has benefited and/or hampered artists in the music business and record sales across the board?K.B. - I don’t think the Web has affected it (as in sales). I think it made the record companies get a little smarter because the Web knows that the consumer is lazy. The consumer wants things Right Now and that’s what the Web provides. If you want something, you can go right to it, get it and make it happen.
Do you like the direction the music is moving in?K.B. - Some of the stuff I like and some I don’t like.
What don’t you like? What can be changed to make the music better?K.B. - All these records with ALL these dances??? I mean, HotDamn, how many dances can we have? The Jerk, the Reject, the Push Down, the Snap Your Fingers, the Pop Your… (Kevin stopped himself briefly) I like people such as J-Cole, Chris Brown, ect… There are a couple of artists out there with some new stuff that might be something to talk about, but that’s what the rap game is about.
What is it you would be doing if you didn’t find a home, or niche in the music industry?
K.B. - Marketing and promotions for one of these Fortune 500 companies because I have a marketing degree as a 1986 graduate of Domingus Hills University in California. Also, something dealing with educating people because I believe knowledge is king.
For all the artists out there claiming a reputation in the underground indie music scene, what’s the best word of advice you can give them?K.B. - Use my 4-F Theory that I discussed earlier. Keep good consulting. Don’t just jump into the business and think that even though you haven’t been in the business that you’ll try things your way. Go to people who have been in the business and ask for advice and then take it home and absorb it. Then do what you need to do to make it work for you. You MUST and I repeat you MUST not take the record you made and just play it for your friends. Play it for everybody and don’t tell them that it’s you. You’ll get a better and more truthful opinion. Like if I told you now, “Bill, I spent 6 months on this single. This single is Hot! Wait til’ you hear it! It’s called “I’ll Take You There”. Bill, I wrote this with my life on it. I was going through something. This song is Hot! I want you to listen to it Bill. I want your honest opinion Bill. Listen to right now! It’s the shit!” Here I am standing right there. Are you really going to be able to tell me, “It sucks,” or will you say, “I’ll have to hear it a second time later”? Because people sometimes let their passions stop them from accepting the truth.
Who do you consider to be the most inspiring people in your life?K.B. - My biggest inspirations would have to be both of my children; my daughter and my son.
How can you as an executive make sure the next #1 hit has substance in it, instead of the “cookie cutter” music we hear on the radio?
K.B. - That’s a question with a double edged sword. The public decides that. You cannot dictate what the public wants and opens their eyes to it. Nobody can do that, because if someone else could do that, then please, I’d give that person anything they need for that knowledge. The public is what decides what’s Hot and what’s not. Whether it’s cookie-cutter music, or not. Some of these singers start off singing Opera, but if Opera doesn’t work then some of them start singing R&B, and if R&B doesn’t work then they might go to Rock. People don’t know this, but when Pink first came out, she was an R&B singer.
You mentioned that you were a roadie for Run-DMC when you first started in the mid-late 80’s. What was that experience like?
K.B. - If you’re the luggage man, you’re at the lowest spot on the totem pole. The janitor could fire you, but you pay your dues. As I worked my way up I started to meet new people. I thank the members of Run-DMC for giving me a shot because it really opened up my life and let me know this is a business where everybody needs a chance.
Rest in Peace to JMJ! Did you have any type of personal rapport with him?
K.B. - Jam Master Jay was a fun dude. He was a Hot DJ! A trendsetter. He was cool people to talk to. I can remember him and I drinking a little Jack Daniels one time. All of them were fun guys to be around when you’re on the road with them!
How was it living on the West Coast and being one of the most popular DJ’s in the late 80’s?K.B. - It was good. You know, every DJ wants to say they’re the Hottest DJ, but I always wanted to be the first DJ to break a new record. I always wanted to feel like I was that dude. Music was everything. I come from New York City and music was in the streets, in the parks and stores too. It was everywhere. Being a DJ, I was only doing what I was raised around.
Since you’ve assisted in marketing for Rap-A-Lot Records, describe J-Prince and your rapport?K.B. - J-Prince is in my top 5 entrepreneurs. He’s the type of guy that can turn nothing into something and make something work that the next man failed with.
How do you benefit most from your profession?
K.B. - I benefit because I’ve had the chance to travel the world, see different lifestyles and cultures. From what my eyes and ears have seen and heard, I gained the ability to be a better marketing and promotions exec. That alone taught me a lot. Being in the entertainment business, you see everything from A to Z and Z to A. I’m not the person to say that I’ve seen it all, but hey, if I haven’t seen it yet, I want to. Styles change, but the fight game never changes.
Other than joining the staff at Interscope, what’s been your best moment as a professional?K.B. - That would be opening my own professional marketing and promotions company called, U Can Fly Co. It’s nothing like being an entrepreneur and owning your own company. It’s a feeling that every man and woman should experience. If you start your own company, you can use your creative juices. You learn how to turn a piece of ground beef into a steak, also how to turn a steak into a feast and make that feast feed millions.
Are there any moments you wish you had back when you could’ve done things differently?K.B. - There have been moments, but the worst moments come when I have to tell an artist what they NEED to hear when they don’t want to hear it.
The brutal truth?
K.B. - Yes. You have some artists who can take it and others who can’t. Then you have some artists that run into a wall and when they hit the wall because of their own intuition, they’re good. It can get bad when I have to sit down and do a 1 on 1 with an artist and let them know why I’m doing things this way, or what they can do for themselves. Sometimes artists can’t take the truth.
Say I know someone who’s a reputable indie artist and looking for a record deal, distribution and marketing, the whole 9. What exactly do you look for?K.B. - First of all, I’m looking for a Hit record. A Hit record will solve everything. I look at the artist to see if they are different. Then I look for the track to see if it’s Hot! After that, I look at what the artist is doing and who they’ll be compared to. Then I look and assess how I’ll be able to market the person/artist. If you’re a rapper and you’re 55 years old, I think it’s time we say “No.” I take a sharp look at all the tools you possess that are placed in front of me and make an analysis.
What are some of the newest, hottest artists presently signed to Interscope?
K.B. - At this time, there are a lot of artists we’ve signed, old and new. If you notice, you don’t have to be new to make a hit. Like some of these new rappers like 2-Chainz, a hot rapper and he’s new, but you have a veteran like Angie Stone who made the best album of hers I’ve ever heard since she’s been in the game. Then you have Mary J. Blige, a huge star, making a cross-over that is incredible. When you think you’ve seen it all, something new is coming. Music is always evolving. It’ll always get better, whether it comes from a veteran, or a rookie. That’s what I love about this game!
(Kevin paused before he spoke about the highly regarded Mary J. Blige)
I think Mary J. Blige is going to another level in her career and her fans are moving with her. No matter what anyone says, Mary will always be, in my book the Queen of Hip Hop and the woman that makes records everyone can touch on and feel.
If you could plan your future, where will you be in 10 years?
K.B. - If I could, I just want to be a hot entrepreneur and be able to say that when I was in the game, “Wow! Things were really happening!” Honestly, I don’t want to be the billionaire and the top dog just to walk around and shake people’s hands. I just want to be a person that can say, “When I was in the music business, I had FUN!” I did a lot of things and I’ll always thank God, because it’s through Him that all of this has been possible.
Are there any other gems of advice you’d like to leave behind for all the readers to take with them in life?K.B. - I think everybody should help one another. I’ll end the interview on this note. I believe the person you help today may be the person who helps you tomorrow.
Article written by: Bill Oxford
Courtesy of: U Can Fly Holdings