Ben Scarrs – The Story of an A&R

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My name is Ben Scarrs, I work at Island Records A&R.

Grew up most of my teenage years in Eling. I went North Eling for my primary years and whatnot and then I’d been – I went college in Hackney, music college, Cool Point Blank. That was like – I really didn’t like school but I went to college and I was studying music because I really kind of started to focus.

And I remember, like one of my mum’s friends – my mum’s friend, his name is Vernon, he gave me a copy of Reason when I was about 15. It was just like a little record book to make beats.

And I just used to watch how they used to make beats and like run the little Mackey, the Little Mackey 32 Channel Disc, and I mean, I just used to think, “Right,” that is, I just thought it was sick. I thought it was crazy that you can come in a room one day and have nothing and leave it a tune. To me the sound of my professional one, I was so fascinated because I didn’t understand how to do it.

And I just wanted to understand how to do it so I just choose to go down there and do this long mission on the train to get down to like and just watch them. Like – and obviously like at that time, you know, Sticky as doing his thing. He was kind of – he was really established, to me, I mean, he was kind of famous and my cousin was making a lot of ill-tunes as well doing a lot of tunes with Jimmy Foxx and whatnot.

Yeah, I was inspired by that, so that was like, to be honest with you like the first time that I really felt like, “Wow,” like “This is something that I really want to do. I want to be able to make beats like that. I want to be able to go into a studio and put out records, stuff like that.” And it was just trying to understand how I would do that, you know, so….

You know, I also said I didn’t use to venture out always learning too much but I just thought you know, “I’m going to go down to see what’s happening.” So I just went down one night on my own one day, stayed to the end and I just spoke – I spoke to the guys that run it, Harry and Aron, I just said to them, “I want to get involved.”

So obviously I started off handing out flyers on the street team and you know, eventually moved up to like running my own street team for the jump-off and recruit in people, and like looking after them and getting them to go and do the flyering.

And then I started booking the talent, started booking the talent for the show which was like  that was kind of a major thing at that time. I met a lot of people through that because you know, even though it would we – that was probably like six years ago now, and you know, we were booking people like Professor Green, Mr. Hudson, Labyrinth, you know, a whole bunch of artists that are kind of relevant now and have come to like they’ve – like they’ve come to the peak of their career now or whatever, well, I’ve known a lot of those guys from back then so you know.

That was kind of the next step for me to kind of progress through the jump-offs through the rags there. As I said, Aron, Harry, they just gave me the opportunity and I was just there. I was just hungry, ready to take it.

In the days off I would go to the Derry Studio in Brickston and just – I was a runner. I was just making tea down there. I just like – just reset the desks and copy tapes and all that kind of stuff.

So I was kind of juggling the jump-off, and college, and that work at the Derry all at the same time. You know, there was that three different aspects of the industry because I was learning production at college. I was doing the live stuff at the jump-off. And I was meeting a lot of people down at the Derry and kind of meeting people that way in the industry and getting to sit with engineers and met a few artists.

I remember that’s the first place I met Dreddie down at the Derry and you know obviously, So Solid Crew was like a real big deal back then. So I met Dreddie down there, Lisa Mafia. I used to see all of them like down there all of the time.

I read a book when I first started at Island. It was a book on Kevin Liles. Kevin Liles was like Russel’s right-hand man on Def Jam and the book was called, “Intern to President in Nine Years.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s impossible. No one can ever do that.” But you know what? Like again, then you have to stop thinking to yourself, “You know what, it’s one day at a time, one month a time, one year at a time. You’ve just got to set your own little goals, your own little targets.”

So the way that it’s happened for me, you know, I started doing work experience in 2006 just making tea, booking acts, and whatnot.

You know, I think all of the stuff that I’ve done before; people I’ve met at the Derry, the work that I’ve done through the jump-off, connections that I’ve met there that really helped me a lot because I would see a lot of people in the building in the University that I’d seen around in the industry for a while.

I might not have known them but I just knew who they were. I mean, I don’t really forget faces. If someone told me who someone is I’d normally remember them. So people would say, “Oh, didn’t you use to work…” or “Have I seen you before?” And I would say, “Yeah, this is what I used to do and this is what I used to do,” and “This is where I used to work.” The people at Universal would notice that and say, “How come you know so many people?” So I used to just tell them what I’ve been up to.

You know, just working hard, coming in early, staying late, and just making sure that even though the job that I was doing was basic, just make sure that I was killing it. I mean, because I know there’s one thing in there that when I was working at jump off it was really hustling. It was really getting stuff done with no money and pull your stuff off that made it look like we had enough money or that, you know, the event was turning over crazy dough or whatever.

But the reality was kind of different but you come into a place like Universal, you’ve got them seeing my ideas but the difference is there’s money to do it and that was something I hadn’t really experience before so I thought, I had to stay now, I can’t let this opportunity pass me by.

I was working like a – I was like Dawkes, he is my boss now. He’s like the president. I became his assistant directly so I was like doing his diary and going to meetings with him. That was in A&R, that was my first like step into A&R but I was still in an assistant so I started to do like, I’d be like copying all the CDs for him, all of his music, looking after all of his music, making sure that was all in order and whatever, and yeah, just scheduling meetings for him.

And the best thing about that was that he used to take me around him and just let me sit in on the meetings and I wouldn’t say nothing. I’d just be quiet. I’d just be watching and just taking in the way he would conduct himself and the way that he would like just deal with people.

Even just going to the studio, I used to go to the studio with him and go to like banner houses, and wherever I go to gigs with him and just you know, slowly start to learn what it was that he was looking for in artists and slowly start to understand where it is to kind of find music for the masses not just music that I like.

Then I juggle that with being a scout. A scout is like you’re just out and about, like every evening. He would send me to gigs. Instead of him going he would say, “You go to the gig and you tell me if it was good or not.” You know, so you have to build all that trust. You have to trust your ear at that time. So I just used to go and do that.

And then yeah, like long story short, I found an act and became an A&R with the first act I signed up at that time which was Tinchy Stryder.

When I was working at the label, at that time I was Dawkes’ like assistant I was a DJ-ing on a Friday on Desha. I used to play on Desha. I used to play like yeah, Star in the Hood album, at that time and I just used to love that album. You had a tune you can rely on and I used to just spin that every Friday. I used to love that tune. I used to have some serious lines in that and yeah, just banged that tune.

And then just coincidentally, like his management rang the office phone one day and I used to pick up the phone – it was one of my jobs. So they’ve rung, I picked up and he was talking like, “Oh, you know, I’ve got this grime act Tinchy Stryder and he’s from Bow and obviously, they wasn’t expecting for me to pick up the phone. I knew what it is already. I said, “You know what, I like Tinchy,” so I just basically tried to hustle them into a meeting with Dawkes, my boss.

We got into a meeting, they come in and they played us “Star in a Hood” album and Dawkes gave them good feedback but it was like it wasn’t quite ready yet so me and them just kept in touch.

They went on tour with KNol. KNol I think introduce Tinchy to a producer called D-Smith and they went to the studio and made a track called Strata Man and obviously these times we were still in touch. They sent me the tune, I played it to my boss, and you know we just kept going back to the tune – just kept playing it every week.

And things were happening outside, they shot their own video, they got it on the radio, you know, it just kind of made sense and my boss he said, he just gave me the opportunity, “You know what? You want to sign it? You want to sign that single that’ll be your first step in A&R, first step proper.” And I was like, “Yeah. I want to take the risk. I ain’t got nothing to lose,” so that was it. That was how I found Tinchy and that was how the deal happened.

The success with Strata, like honestly, that was life-changing. Life-changing, I could never in words describe to you how much that year, 2009, how much my life changed like – because it was crazy and I will never forget that. I will never forget that.

Thank the Lord he had a lot of success that year. It was like a groundbreaking time. It was like a real shift at music on radio, they really started shifting towards, you know, the more urban sound, the more – previously there was more bands that was getting supported but, you know, timing is everything. Timing was just it couldn’t have been better on the timing that I signed Tinchy. That’s really something that I wasn’t in control of, you know.

But timing was good. We put a record out and it had done well. Like I said, it changed my life, changed his life, changed management’s life, you know, it was a blessing.

Whether it was consciously or sub-consciously, I think when all of that stuff was happening with Tinchy like obviously that was like a whirlwind for me and I thought yeah, that was an incredible time, incredible period. And I would say that was probably the time when I was most like – you know, I was just, yeah, as I said, I was just in a whirlwind at that time but you can come back down into earth very quickly and I will always say that.

My boss used to always say to me, he says, “You know what? I never saw it start like this but it doesn’t always go like this so just remember that because A&R is more heartbreak than good times.” S

o the second album with Tinchy was like that reality check, if you know what I’m saying, really difficult album. We came back off the back of being the hottest thing, and you know, it was really difficult. People are excited about things that are new and it was like Tinchy wasn’t a new thing anymore. It was real hard, and I think we were all a little complacent. I think we all made some bad decisions. And I definitely put my hands up to that and say that I learned the biggest lesson from the hard times and the failures than I did from 2009 when everything was going great.

It’s difficult to sell music. You’ve got to really make people buy into you as a brand and a lifestyle, not just like your one song. So yes, it’s really important for an artist to make sure that they’re focus on everything not just making music but also doing shows, including interviews, you’ve got to be a likable character as well.

If that’s really overlooked, you know, the talent is not enough. You’ve got to be more than just talent. You’ve got to outsmart people around you as well and make sure you’re consistent. That’s another thing; people make one song and think I made one good song, why that’s going to do? But it’s not about one good song. It’s about consistency.

Relationships are more important in business, especially in this business than anything – anything else, I really think that. There’s some really talented people that never make it because they don’t have the right relationships. And there’s some people that are not so talented that make it all the way to the top because they have the right relationships. Whether that’s right or wrong, that’s just life. That’s just true; yeah, relationships are like second-to-none, very important.

There’s a lot of people that I hear in this day and age, I speak to a lot of kids that say, “Yeah, I want to do what you do,” and when I tell them how I’ve got there then they say, “Oh, I can’t do that. I need money because I’ve got rent to pay. I’ve got to do this and I’ve got to do that.”

But you’re just making them – you’re just defeating yourself, and that is not what a hustle would do. A hustle would just think, “You know what, all right, this is the problem, let me find the solution.”

That’s what hustling is about to me, you know, just making it happen with whatever you’ve got around you and I fully believe that a 100%.

At the end of the day, I’m just a big fan, you know, I’m just a big fan of all of these artists. It’s not like I’ve gone anywhere and studied or anything to say that I’m particularly qualified, I’m just a fan like everybody else. I just hope that what I like, 300,000 other people might like it as well, that’s it.

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