Behind The Music: Darcus Beese OBE (Island Records)
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Photo credit: Steven Wiggins

Darcus Beese OBE is the President of Island Records, a company he’s dedicated a large portion of his working life to. Starting as a tea boy in the promotions department before earning his stripes as an A&R, signing the likes of Amy Winehouse and Florence & The Machine, he is cast-iron proof that hard work pays off.

Our Behind The Music series was born out of the passion for getting as close as possible to the stories of some of the industry’s most intriguing figures. After coming across so many interviews with people I respected, only for them to be asked the same cliche questions and deliver the same predictable answers, I felt like we deserved more. So, with that in mind, I wrote down a list of people I admired and, somehow (I’m still not quite sure how we did it), managed to sit down with them to talk at length about their lives; their early beginnings, regrets, triumphs, and so on.

Following on from our first piece with BBC Radio 1Xtra’s Austin Daboh, the second instalment looks to offer another in-depth look at the journey of one of the music industry’s most compelling and seasoned executives. After sitting down with Darcus for a lengthy discussion, the below was transcribed and pieced together to provide you with an intimate insight in to both his personal life and professional career.

Early beginnings…

“I was a Fulham boy, South West London; SW6. The music in my household growing up was definitely a mixture of reggae, soul and calypso. My father was from Trinidad and my mother was of mixed heritage. So, yeah, my upbringing musically ranged from soca to reggae. I always remember looking at the artwork for a lot of the reggae artists because Greensleeves’ sleeves were cartoon drawings of all of the artists. I always remember the Scientist ‘Dub’ albums because of the artwork.

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Scientist’s 1981 album, ‘Scientific Dub’, complete with cartoon artwork.

I was on the wrong side of the bridge growing up. I was on the Fulham side of Wandsworth bridge and, if anything, it was very white working class, with pockets of middle class. At that time, a lot of black culture was rooted in west London, in places like Ladbroke Grove. A lot of Jamaicans and Trinidadians were up there and that’s where my dad used to hang out; that’s where I got most of my musical influence. I remember during the 80s the two-tone movement happened and, to be part of that scene, I had to go over to Ladbroke Grove. But at that time I was too young to travel as I was only around eleven so I could only get over there when there was something happening with carnival or my mum and dad were going to black radical meetings, but that’s another conversation. Anyway, when I would go over there they would have these Ska nights in these old freight containers and, yeah, that was the only time I was able to immerse myself in it.”

Leaving education and getting in to the workplace…

“My first job was at a salon on Kensington Church Street that was very white middle to upper class. I remember the phone ringing and I went to answer it and they wouldn’t let me. I was like, ‘Why won’t you let me answer the phone?’, and they said, ‘Because you can’t speak properly’, and I was baffled. You know when you have to pick up a phone at a business for the first time and have to speak properly and use all of the vowels? I’d never spoken like that in my life. So, after that, the mission then wasn’t to learn how to cut hair, it was ‘How am I going to answer this phone?!’ All I wanted to do was to be able to answer the phone and be able to meet clients at the door, because all I was able to do at the time was just wash and sweep up the hair. I was on a mission. The penny dropped a few years later about what I learnt from that experience: the ability to communicate outside of my own social circle. That process went a long way in how I saw myself, or how people saw me, or maybe just how I wanted people to see me.”

Breaking in to a very white-centric industry and the art of making good tea…

“It’s all about seeing people who are from the world you’re from. Going in to what I saw the music industry at that time was that it was very white. There was no one that reflected my take on the world or that had walked the path I had until I started bumping in to a couple of people, and Lincoln Elias [former CBS/Sony Records A&R] was one of them. Paying my dues in the early days enabled me to make the best tea. Even to this day I’m able to make the most amazing tea. For me, that says I paid my dues. I wish I lived in today’s age where you can be a master of your own destiny because back then there was no internet, everything was a closed door, it was about who you knew. I remember going to a record shop and buying a record and wondering what the process was behind making this thing. Nowadays people can just film or record something and upload it and it’s there; but back then it was a process.”

The ‘mediocr-icisation’ of talent and the role of an A&R…

“For me, the internet hasn’t democratised talent, it’s mediocr-icised [sic] it. I’m not even sure that’s a word [laughs], but what I’m saying is that, for me, now, it’s great that people can get access to a lot of people without going through corporations or having a lot of [money], but it’s opened it up to a sea of mediocrity and, for the most part, there’s a lot of s**t out there. Don’t get me wrong, there is also a lot of good stuff out there, too, and there’s a lot of very good stuff out there. But, in A&R, it’s your job to find the exceptional stuff.

Unfortunately that stuff’s harder to find because there’s a lot of very good stuff on top of all of that, with a load of great stuff piled on top of that, and then there’s a lot of s**t in the way of all of that. So, if you’re lucky, you finally get to the good stuff – but is that where you stop going? That’s when you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Do I stop going when I get here? Or do I keep going and try to get to the exceptional stuff?’ Some people stop at different levels, but I like to drill all the way down and get to the exceptional stuff. It’s harder to find, and few and far between, but I think you’ve always got to shoot for what’s exceptional. The world wants good stuff, though, and people are alright with that; there’s a business for it.

Ultimately, it depends on what your take on A&R is. Some people just want a hit, some people want to change the world. Then other people want to have hits and change the world. I want to have hits… I don’t want to change the world… but I want to have an effect. I don’t want to pass through life and not have an effect. If someone picks up the next chapter of the Island Records book, I want there to be a chapter in there for the era that I lead Island in, and that means – as much as I gave you some microwave food – I gave you some good, good food, too. Some people want to be Simon Cowell, and others want to be Chris Blackwell – I want to be Chris Blackwell.”

Sustaining a career and working towards long-term goals…

“In its entirety, I’ve been at Island for 23 years. If you really want a career… it’s like [he turns to face Jamal in his chair], if he’s sitting here and he’s ten years in, that is halfway to a career – and ten years is a long time — but a career should be twenty, thirty years. And, if that’s the case, you need to take the long route, you don’t take the easy route or the quick handout and you stand for something. If that’s the case, then no matter what twists and turns you take, you’ll have longevity because you’re always planning for the long-term. So you verbalise that and that’s the shape that the whole thing takes on.

Everybody’s an A&R person. If you can hear a good tune and you think it’s dope, you’re an A&R. All you need is the skills of refinement. You know, if you like that song, how can you vocalise what you like about it? Then, what is the process of getting the right people in a room to get that song written? Then produced and mixed and so on. Then you have to get that repetition right for years but, initially, it comes from just saying, ‘I like that.’ The real question is, throughout that process, when do you say you’re an A&R person? I’d say it’s at the point that you did everything on purpose. It’s at the point that you did everything on purpose to get the hit ie. You put two people together because you knew they could write it, you went and got the right producer, you went and mixed the record, you got the right remixes, you sat down the marketer and then you got the visuals and then a couple of months later your record’s number one; that’s an A&R person – other than that, you’re a scout that got lucky.

I’ve never signed someone and said, “We’re going to have a hit!” I’ve never signed someone and said, “We’re going to make you famous!” I’ve never signed someone and said, “We’re going to sell millions of records!” It goes back to what you stand for. If you’re going to deal with organic discovery then you’ve got to actually do that, and the acts you sign have to reflect that. That way, you’ll have to wait a while longer for the hits when they’re taking their time but, on the flip side, you’ve got to have some business that balances that off. While that is slow roasting in the AGA, you’ve got to have something popping off in the microwave. To get that process right can take a few years, but I’ve always thought of my career and my actions are always based on the long-term, and that’s looked after me. The stuff that I’ve tried to do on purpose has never worked, so I’ve learnt to just sign people off of good music, being good people and having a good work ethic.”

Balancing creativity and business…

“You’ve basically got to gamble on yourself and gamble on the people around you and what kind of record label you are. If you’re safe in the knowledge of what label you are, and the kind of acts you should be signing, then that all crystallises and shows itself. You’ve got to know what your mission objective is e.g. We’re an artist-driven label, that is all about breaking new acts that aren’t easy to break and that are always left of centre; that is Island, all day every day.”

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On the notion that artist development isn’t currently a major label priority…

“It’s the way it should be. A lot of people sometimes get caught up in thinking that the record companies should be doing the artist development. Back when I started in ’88 – and you’ve got to think preceding that what it was like – I remember going out with an Island A&R to see gigs and stuff, and they would not sign an act if they hadn’t put a record out. If they’d gone to see them in their hometown and they had sold out a 2,000 capacity venue, they would go, “Yeah? But they’ve done that in their hometown, I would expect them to do that. What happens when they play Manchester? Let’s go and see that.” Then we’d go and see them in Manchester and they wouldn’t sell out so we knew that they wouldn’t sell out outside of their hometown so we wouldn’t sign them. People were actually going out and doing stuff before getting signed. Somewhere along the line people blurred what they thought artist development was and what they thought the responsibility of a label was.

Now, of course, labels should have artist development but, in my view, that is taking them from album one, two, three, four and five. If I’ve got an artist to album five, my artist development is working. It’s not about getting them from the street in to the label, it’s about getting them from the street, to the label, to album one, two, three; that’s artist development. PJ Harvey’s on her ninth studio record, I think we’ve done some really amazing artist development there. So, I think people negate themselves from their responsibilities in terms of what artist development should be ie. Artists, managers, and what they should be doing before the labels come along and they blur what they should be doing. If I have ten acts and they all sign cold [meaning they have no tangible presence or online buzz], I’d go bankrupt. I don’t mind signing a couple of them because the rest of them are going to have their socials on point and, you know, they’re all going to be at different stages. One might have a little white label out with a buzz about it, the other act’s going to have a couple of tunes out and selling some tickets and another one is having a hit white label dance record. So, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other.”

Social media vs. talent… 

“I put more value on whether someone’s going to buy a ticket, than the socials. Because I’ve seen people with 100,000 followers and I don’t know who the f**k they are. I’ve seen people with healthy YouTube views and they’ll go and do a gig and then no one turns up. It’s not tangible, YouTube views used to be tangible, they’re not any more. Shazam figures, who cares? Okay, so you’ve got a tune, dope. But do people really give a f**k? Holding up a phone and Shazam-ing doesn’t say that someone gives a f**k. Someone saying, ‘Why don’t you go and watch this video on YouTube?’ and you doing it, doesn’t show that they care. It’s all about how people measure success. I’m not saying I’m right but, for me, when someone goes and buys a ticket, that’s much stronger than any kind of social media engagement. Someone will run and tell me, ‘Look! We’re number 65 in Shazam!’ Tell me when it’s number five in the charts. That’s just step minus ten on the route to a purchase, then you’ve got to get all the way to plus one and then on from there. People start off in the minus twenties and think they’re starting off at one. When you get to one, call me. When you get to plus two, I’ll turn up.”

The significance of radio and the rise of streaming services…

“I just hope that all of these things are successful. I want scale of business. I want there to be competition. I want Spotify to grow as much as I want Apple Music to grow. People are moaning about the Apple Music experience, but they did the same about Spotify in the beginning. All I know is that I don’t build these platforms, I just sign acts and I’ll continue to do that and hopefully these platforms will come and stay rather than come and go.

Radio drives everything, but people are obviously going other places to discover and enjoy new music. The traditional way of doing things hasn’t gone away, and the future’s getting closer, but it’s still not here yet. People still love to buy a CD, but young people like to stream. There’s more value in someone buying a CD, but I still want people to stream because that is the future and I want that scale of business to grow.”

The importance of family…

“My dad was a radical. My mum and dad were in the Black Panthers and I grew up with them fighting social injustices and I was always at demonstrations. My dad then became quite famous for his political dealings and my sister became successful in TV, so I was never not going to be driven to succeed. Now, I have done sport, I have danced, I’ve done hairdressing and now I run a record company, but all of those things have contributed to where I am now. The fact that I was hairdressing; the fact that I was tap-dancing; the fact that my dad made TV programmes; the fact that my mum was a teacher; the fact that my brother’s a good DJ; those are all reasons that why I, as an individual, was not going to fail, and us as a family had this knock on effect on each other. So, for me, I was never not going to succeed at what I was going to do – and it might not have been music.”

On receiving an OBE…

“You’ve got to remember, my mum and dad were completely against the establishment. I grew up being quite a radical as well but, as you get older and you start to become successful and then start being recognised for it, it’s a weird one. I grew up seeing people holding this medal and they had saved lives or they were athletes or they were actors, and you never think that’s going to happen to you. Why would you ever think that’s going to happen? I remember getting the letter from the prime minister… I remember going through the mail and it looked like a bill and, you know what it’s like whenever you get a bill, you kind of warily open it up to double-check and then you just bin it. But I saw it mentioned the prime minister so I opened it a bit more and then I carried on reading it and it said:

‘Dear Mr. Beese,

The prime minister’s office would like to put your name forward for the New Year’s Honours list and would like to award you with an OBE.’

I was like, ‘What? The prime minister would like to put my name forward for what?!’ And then – as it was kind of printed on s**t paper – you go, ‘Is someone taking the piss here?!’ I said to my colleague, ‘Read this!’ and as she’s reading it you can kind of see her eyebrows going up and she’s like, ‘What? They’re offering you the OBE?!’ and I’m reading it and basically they’re saying the prime minister’s office wants to put your name forward as it gives you the opportunity to say yes or no. So… then I phoned my mum and told her the news and she was like, ‘Ahh! I can’t believe it!’ and then she said ‘Have you spoken to your dad?’ I was like, ‘Ahh, no! My dad’s just going to tell me to tell them no and rip it up!’ So, before I call him, I responded saying yes, licked the envelope shut and sent it. Then I phoned him and said, ‘Dad, I’ve just got a letter from the prime minister’s office’ and he said, ‘Why?’ So I say, ‘Well, they want to offer me the OBE’ and he says, ‘Son’ – and I’m thinking ‘Oh no, here we go’ – he said, ‘Son, most people who get the OBE are c**k suckers… but you’re not. You go and get your OBE’ [laughs]. I said, ‘Thanks Dad!’ and put the phone down. Little did he know I’d already posted it. But, on the day, he was in tears. That’s when I knew it meant a lot. It didn’t matter that he was anti-establishment, as he saw it like, of all of the s**t that he fought for, and there is his son; a black man, running a multi-million pound record company receiving an OBE in Buckingham Palace. At that moment everything else fell away and he was just a proud dad. That, for me, was the icing on the cake.

Anything’s possible now, and that’s not a cliché thing. As I was coming up, not only were the doors locked, they had the foot on the door and they had it bolted. Now, if you have an entrepreneurial spirit and you have the work ethic, no one can tell you jack. They really can’t and you can end up being one of the most powerful people in the world. Again, it’s not a cliché. Facebook started in a f*****g dorm. Def Jam started in a dorm. It all comes back to, you know, can you make it to a decade? Can you make it to 15 years and 20 years? When you get to that, that’s making it. Because everything’s a flash in a pan these days, you know? Three or five years, that’s just one or two cycles of things – that’s a football player’s contract. The real challenge is making it to a decade and beyond. I have seen people come and go and I’ve seen artists come and go. I’ve seen artists have the biggest success and I’m like, ‘Cool. Trust me, I won’t see you again’ and it always happens. The hardest thing is just to make a career out of it.”

On signing a deal with Wiley earlier this year…

“I f*****g love Wiley but [that deal is] not still in place, no. Not at all. And that’s a case of once bitten, twice shy. He’s entrepreneurial. He’s a maverick. I remember sitting with him when I was just a scout A&R talking to him and Roll Deep with Danny Weed and all of them man – all sitting in a room back in the old Island, and all of them are still around — they’re all doing different things — but they’re all here. Wiley’s still making music; that’s called a career. Target and Danny are doing great things. I love Wiley to bits but I would never do another deal with him.”

Grime’s commercial viability…

Stormzy’s the future. But, at the end of the day, I know what it is: you’ve got to sell records. You’ve got to sell records. The artist’s live [revenue] is exponentially bigger than what they’re selling on records. So, with the live experience, people are making some serious money. Stormzy, for me, could be the one to crack it. But, you’ve got to make your ‘Boy In Da Corner’ ie. You’ve got to make a culturally sound record. That record has given Dizzee a career and solid foundations to build his world off of. To a smaller extent, when we had Tinchy [Stryder], he had the ‘Star In The Hood’ grime record before we even got to put out pop records with him. When we signed him, he’d already recorded his grime album. So, moves have got to be made before you pop it off. Dizzee did what he did with the ‘Boy In Da Corner’ album, but no-one’s done it since. You had So Solid originally, but they were tunes more than a cultural moment. If Stormzy can crystallise what he’s doing now in a tune or a body of work, that never ever feels like you’ve got someone singing on the chorus or you’re trying too hard, then he can nail it for me.”

Offering advice to his younger self…

“The only thing I would tell myself is to keep your mouth shut and listen sooner than you did. I have patience now but my mouth could get me in to trouble and, the first time I walked out of Island, I almost never made it back in to the music industry – so I always tell people to hold your tongue. I don’t have to now so it’s all good but you have to understand that, when you’re not around, you can’t affect things. Hold your counsel for the right moments and the right times. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learnt.”

Interview by Ash Houghton

Find Darcus on Twitter – @Darcus