Words: Lyssa Quallio
We follow artists such as Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Akon, Chris Brown and many others, but what we don’t hear enough about are the people behind the scenes making all of this happen. Bu Thiam is the string behind the hits we know and love such as Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne collaboration as well as Akon’s widely known Konvict Music. IMC sits down with the youngest ever Vice President of A&R at Def Jam Records during the production of his featured episode on Africa Magic Entertainment’s docu-series, “Making Of A Mogul.”
Born in Senegal and raised in New Jersey, he is the son of legendary drummer and percussionist, Mor Thiam. Bu spent a lot of his childhood traveling the world with his father while learning about different types of music. People often talk about Bu having an ear for music, but he was insistent on giving the credit where it was due, “It has to do with my father, at a young age I was exposed to music from all over,” Bu tells us. Thiam has an amazing knack for finding unquestionable talent, he emphasized to us that every artist he signs is a fight because not a lot of people can see the vision.
For T-Pain, a kid with dreads and gold teeth from Tallahassee, it just wasn’t the norm so it took a lot of time but I didn’t stop fighting for it
Bu is responsible for the discovery and signing of GRAMMY award-winning artist, T-Pain, but his successful exploration wasn’t as easy as you would think. He stated that T-Pain didn’t fit the “pretty boy” stereotype that most artists in that category have, but that didn’t stop Bu from pushing what he knew would be a chart-buster. “For T-Pain, a kid with dreads and gold teeth from Tallahassee, it just wasn’t the norm so it took a lot of time but I didn’t stop fighting for it,” he says.
Music as a whole is something to embrace and be valued, many people in the industry tend to relish in one specific genre of music but Thiam sustains his right to understand and appreciate all genres. “There are no limits for what the music is or how it is, there is no certain color that it needs to be,” he tells us. A lot of time, being in an A&R position comes with a lot of responsibility along with a steaming hot cup of stress, but for Bu it’s just another Monday. He discusses his conscious effort in making it possible for artists to trust him, he is the backbone for the whole operation and without a doubt he doesn’t let it get to him. You have to wonder what people in this position listen to in their spare time to relieve stress. Bu surprised us in saying he doesn’t choose to listen to rap music, windows down, music up, he chooses to play R&B music from the `90s, and respected artists such as Tracy Chapman and Bob Marley. “I look for the music that makes me feel a certain type of way. It’s usually always the old music from back in the day,” he says.
Working with Chris Brown, someone who is so talented, you have to be happy that you’re a part of some history
Along with the many responsibilities of a Def Jam executive, Bu has also taken on the vigorous job of managing world renowned pop star, Chris Brown. We asked Bu what it’s like to manage Chris as well as what it’s like to know him personally. He tells us that it is incredible because he relates to Chris on a lot of levels due to their age group. Bu can empathize with Chris about the fact that people need to allow him to grow at his own pace, as opposed to the pace people expect. “Working with Chris Brown, someone who is so talented, you have to be happy that you’re a part of some history,” he confides.
Lately Bu is most excited about his current project involving Chris and a top `90s R&B artist. We’ve got an exclusive insider scoop on the top-secret project not yet announced. “NOBODY knows, I mean NOBODY. This is the first, IMC is the first to hear it,” explains Bu. Indeed we are, but you’ll have to check back with us in a few weeks for all those details.
For the rest of this interview with Bu, Check out the full conversation below…
IMC: How important is seeing a band play live in deciding whether to sign them?
Bu: It just depends on the band, you know obviously if it’s a rap group or artist then I don’t need to see them live so much. If it were a singer then I would want to see them live to see how hard they can go. It just depends on what it is; there are certain things you have to see in order to make your evaluation on it.
IMC: In your opinion, which is more important for a musician’s success: talent or marketability?
Bu: I think talent; once you have talent it kind of overrides everything. You could be marketable in those things but if you don’t have the talent to go along with it then it doesn’t really mean anything. Talent always outweighs marketing and marketability.
IMC: How do A&Rs search for new talent these days? Essentially, where should a new act focus on: MySpace, YouTube, other websites, more traditional methods?
Bu: Obviously you have the Internet now and there are a lot of ways to find new talent, but for me it’s through association. A friend of mine will say they have a kid that got talent, or a lot of times I have a lot of traffic that comes through the studio so I’m able to hear things every day and that’s always an avenue to have to find talent. I have never found an artist on social media. For me it’s always been someone telling me about the artist or them knowing somebody.
IMC: It’s all about who you know right?
Bu: DEFINTILEY. It’s never been about me seeing that they are on YouTube with 5 million hits, I don’t care about stuff like that it doesn’t work for me that way.
IMC: Did you always know you wanted to work in the music industry?
Bu: You know what, I didn’t, I always wanted to play sports.
IMC: What sports did you play?
Bu: Basketball and Football were my two sports of choice, but as I got older I realized I wasn’t going to get that tall. I’ve always been musically driven because my father always played drums and traveled so music was always in my blood since day one. So for me making that transition wasn’t hard, it was actually very easy. To be honest, people always talk about me having a good ear for music but you know a lot of has to do with my Father, at a young age I was around so many different genres of music. So you know me being in Africa and being around different types of African music then coming to America, I was able to hear everything at a young age. So when I got older I wasn’t in a small box of certain music, I wasn’t a hip-hop kid, I liked everything because that’s how I grew up. I’ll sign someone like Lady Gaga then someone like T-Pain, for us it’s just music. There are no limits for what the music is or how it is, there is no certain color that it needs to be.
IMC: I realize that it’s important to make sure you sign someone with true talent, but do you make a conscious effort to observe the artist’s personality traits in order to determine if they have what it takes to handle the industry?
Bu: Yeah I really do, I think you always want to put yourself in a position where you are aligned with superstars, a superstar is a person who has the edge factor. It’s where they walk in and you instantly think, that dude is a star. If a person can write songs but when you see them they don’t make you feel any type of way, then 9 times out of 10 you don’t want to invest in them as an artist.
IMC: They say being an A&R means you have to have a high tolerance for stress, do you agree or disagree with this? What do you do to relieve stress? Do you have any examples?
Bu: You know, for one it’s hard when you are trying to deliver an album on a superstar. For example, Rihanna and I get into discussions about songs and I’m over here saying “this song is the shit” and she’s over there saying, “I don’t mess with this shit.” So I think you’re going to always have that until the artist trusts you. They actually say things like I trust Bu’s word, he knows what he’s talking about and I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt. So I think that once you get to that space you’re good, but it’s always back and forth in the beginning especially when you’re dealing with artists that big.
IMC: Right, so you’re basically the backbone of it all?
Bu: Exactly, that’s exactly what I am.
IMC: Do you listen to a lot of radio stations for scouting purposes?
Bu: Nothing specific, a lot of times if I’m in a car and I hear something I like to know who it is, but I’m just an old school dude you know when it comes to finding artists. Obviously you have companies like Universal Republic, 80% of their acts come off the radio, they have a system for that. They monitor who is unsigned and getting a whole bunch of radio spins, but for me that’s not my thing. I don’t care about how many spins an artist is getting on the radio or how many YouTube hits that you have, I could care less. If it’s good it’s good, if it’s not it’s not, I don’t judge an artist by those stats.
IMC: Talk about the significance of mixtapes; are they an efficient way to break rising artists?
Bu: Yeah for sure, I think nowadays there are different generations of consumers; people want to make sure that you’re the real deal. Sometimes it takes them hearing multiple records to think that the artist is actually really good. You have to give them that for free to get them to believe in you.
IMC: Which most recent artist signing do you wish you had signed? Was there someone you had your eye on and that ended up signing with someone else?
Bu: Yeah, Kendrick Lamar, they actually called me to sign him. The way it happened, it was a thing where I was supposed to be in New York that next week after they were already there the previous week and we just didn’t end up getting to meet. Obviously, I wish we would have, that kid is very talented and I think he’s going to be here for a long time. The thing about that though, it happens all the time in this industry, some things you get some things you don’t. You can’t get everything, that’s just how it goes. You just have to hope you get the next one.
IMC: What’s it like managing Chris Brown?
Bu: It’s incredible, for me I’m a younger guy so I see things differently. I see what he can be and what he is, and I appreciate it. When you’re around so many artists in your life, and you come around someone like Chris Brown who is so talented, you have to be happy that you’re apart of some history. I just want to get him to a certain space musically. I know he’s already there but it’s mine and his experience coming together that I think will make it great. As far as personally, I think he is a 23 year-old kid and it’s important for people to allow him to grow at his own pace and not the pace they want him to grow on.
IMC: Good A&R are good trend spotters, what predictions would you make about the record business in a good 5-10 years?
Bu: I think the game is going to shrink a little bit; it’s going to get smaller. You know obviously we’re not seeing records like we used to. If we’re not selling records we lose jobs, I think it’s going to get a lot smaller. I think that records are going to be a promo item and people are going to make money off touring. It’s just so hard to compete with the Internet and the media. It’s especially hard when you have a kid that can download an album off of his laptop for free, why would he buy it? I don’t care how good it is.
IMC: What do you think of the music scene in Africa?
Bu: That’s so crazy you say that because I was at an African club this last Saturday, I caught myself actually dancing and I don’t dance in clubs. It was so dope, the music is so good. You know when I was 16 the music in Africa was good but it was very traditional and now you have guys like Wiz Kid, these kids that are so talented, like incredibly talented. So now the music is crossing over to America. America loves it and I love it. It makes me proud to go into a club in America and have the crowd be so into it, and I’m also so into it. It’s incredible, and luckily we had the opportunity to sign Wiz kid earlier in his career. I am just so happy to be apart of it and see it continue to grow.
IMC: What’s special about Whiz Kid?
Bu: Wiz Kid, I think that he embodies everything from the swag of America to the swag of the music. He just has everything all the way, he has the “it factor” I was talking about.