With a resumé boasting records with Cardi B, YBN Cordae, Seven Streeter and more, Atlantic Records’ Vice President of A&R, Yaasiel “Success” Davis is an accomplished veteran of the music industry, with a plethora of knowledge and accolades to show for it.
Having been in the business since the early 2000’s, the Chicago native has seen all sides of the recording industry develop and change over the years. HipHopDX spoke with Davis to discuss what A&R entails, his own start in the business, what he looks for when signing talent and more.
HipHopDX: So walk me through your early days and how you ended up in the music industry.
Success: I grew up in Southside of Chicago. I used to breakdance, do graffiti, throw Hip Hop parties — you know, just Hip Hop culture. I went to Florida A&M in Tallahassee where I was in a rap group for a few years. There I realized that while I was good as a performer, I preferred the managerial stuff more. After college I moved to New York City where I had some good connections.
Kanye West brought me to Baseline Studios one day, which is where JAY-Z, Beyoncé, Just Blaze, Memphis Bleek, Beanie Segel, Dipset, and the whole Roc-A-Fella was recording. I met everyone and built a relationship with Just Blaze and Memphis Bleek — This is early 2000’s. After that, I kept coming up to the studios as much as I could. The other important thing was that I was a sneakerhead and that became part of my hustle. The rappers and I connected on that vibe, that I happened to know where to get the shoes.
HipHopDX: Was there an advantage to being from Chicago, while Kanye, a fellow Chicago artist, was blowing up?
Success: Definitely. Kanye first blew up as a producer after him and Just Blaze did The Blueprint album. That Chicago sound — the soul samples in the Hip Hop beat — became really popular. Being from the same hometown, I eventually became a liaison of all the Chicago producers who were delivering that coveted sound. Guys like Fabolous, Jadakiss, DJ Clue would call me to the studio since I had beat tapes and I had the sneakers.
HipHopDX: What was your first label opportunity? How did the Atlantic situation come about?
Success: I eventually started managing producers and songwriters. Fast forward around 2010, my partner Shawn Barron and I found Amir Obè and all the labels wanted to sign him, but Mike Caren at Atlantic was the first to put the deal in motion. A year later, Craig Kallman [Chairman of Atlantic Records] called me to the office and said that all his A&Rs were playing stuff I gave them. He heard that I had a dope ear, and essentially offered me an A&R position under Mike Caren. I took it, and from then was doing two studio sessions a day, just grinding.
HipHopDX: Since you were new to the label yet experienced with talent scouting, did they let you bring in artists, or did they have you develop the artists they already had signed?
Success: They had me putting together records, trying to get a hit for the artists they had already signed. At first, I was just learning how to work the studio, how to make a winning songwriter/producer combination.
HipHopDX: And then you came back to New York. How do you think the two cities differ in terms of their approach to the record making process?
Success: New York is a different style — the labels are here, checks are usually cut from here, everyone comes through New York to do promo once the music is there. But, all the hitmakers, creatives tend to be in Atlanta and L.A. Both the writers and the producers. A&R is a competitive sport — if all the other A&Rs are in L.A., and I’m in New York, I’m missing out. So you find yourself on a plane to L.A. very often or else you’re “losing.” And, all the artists want to come out to L.A. to record. It’s both the creative stuff, and because of the recreational, fun stuff, the weather. New York is more for the office meetings, less of the studio stuff.
HipHopDX: But, when you’re looking to sign artists, there’s no geographical limit?
Success: None. An artist can come out of any state. But when it’s time to work, we go to L.A.
HipHopDX: Who was the first artist you signed?
Success: Spenzo, this kid from Chicago. He had a hit called “Wife Er.” He’s no longer there. That’s part of the process though — he was poppin’ at the time. It was a competitive deal, too. After him, Victoria Monet. Then I worked on Sevyn Streeter. Call Me Crazy was the third project I worked on. But really I worked on many projects, many teams. Mike Caren taught me how to make hits, how to make records. So even if it isn’t my artist that I signed, I’m a studio guy who’s going to be out there delivering hits for other artists on the label.
HipHopDX: What was the first hit you got? How did it change things for you?
Success: “It Won’t Stop” by Sevyn and Chris Brown. It went number one for nine weeks in a row. Once you get that taste of a hit, it makes you go harder, makes you more competitive.
HipHopDX: What do you think separates the artists from succeed, and the ones who flop?
Success: A good team behind them, focus/ work ethic, and connecting with their fans.
HipHopDX: What advice would you give to aspiring artists? What do you recommend they do to “get on?”
Success: The best way to get on is to start with some dope music, roll it out with a dope marketing plan and use different influencer marketing to promote it on all the platforms such as IG, TikTok, Triller, etc. Shoot captivating visuals and work your product. Eventually, you will build a fan base if the music is good.
HipHopDX: You started this type of role before social media, at least before Instagram. How was A&R scouting different now to then?
Success: The biggest difference is research. There are so many algorithms, technology now to get data on who’s poppin’. The labels call this research. Back then, it was about calling around, building relationships in each city, calling the DJs, friends in Atlanta, Detroit, in big cities, asking them who’s popular, who we should look out for, what’s moving around on radio out there. Now, I have a team of people in my office who just run and print reports.
HipHopDX: Would you say it’s a numbers game in that way?
Success: Numbers matter, but not in the way people think. I tell artists don’t buy fake followers, views, we can see through that. Numbers count, but it’s not a certain number we look for before we cut a deal. We look for artists that people connect with. You could have 1,000 followers on Instagram, but your song is going crazy on TikTok. The song could be bigger than you, but the people are into the music.
HipHopDX: How about if an artist is smaller, but part of an emerging movement? Say, a Drill rapper from Brooklyn?
Success: Right, that’s definitely an advantage — like Pop Smoke, Fivio Foreign. The artist himself might not be big at first, but it’s tangible, I can see the movement in front of my eyes, especially living in New York, so I see the potential for them. On the flip side, if there’s a song doing numbers on TikTok and the kid is from a small town in Wyoming, I’m still getting on that plane to Wyoming to sit with that artist.
HipHopDX: Got it. Engagement, not just numbers.
HipHopDX: How often do you think A&Rs get it wrong? How often does a coveted artist flop, or do well after they were initially passed on?
Success: I think artists used to get passed on way more. Nowadays, it’s more a matter of if the artist makes sense for the label; does the deal make sense financially for the artist, is the deal mutually enticing. So it depends on what the artist wants and what the label is looking for. For instance, an artist can come say he wants to own his masters. So, if a label isn’t willing to do that — that’s just not a good fit. Five, six years ago, it would be that a kid comes through the building and someone could say “Nah I don’t think he can really sing, I don’t like his look” and that would be that — a matter of talent. Now, it’s a matter of if the deal makes sense, business-wise. Atlantic’s been number one the last three, four years, so, we’re not as ready to jump on something that isn’t 100 percent a fit.
HipHopDX: Atlantic has Lil Uzi Vert, Cardi B, Roddy Ricch, so many wins right now. Why do you think the label does so well?
Success: I think Craig and [Julie Greenwald] understand the business and where it’s heading. In the streaming climate, we figured out how to sign the right talent, and then, make the right marketing moves at the right time. When we signed Cardi, other labels had been passing on her. Same with Lizzo. We took those chances. Also, the team is very strong. Everything from Marketing to Promo to A&R to Digital.
HipHopDX: Now, you’re best known for your work with the YBN gang. Oow did that situation come about?
Success: So YBN Nahmir went viral for “Rubbin’ Off the Paint.” Every label was trying to sign him. It was a huge video, Chris Brown posted it, all these rappers posted it. When he released that track, a friend of mine, Gunz, who’s from Birmingham (like Nahmir), hit me up and said, “Yo, I’ma sign him, manage him”. He calls me back a week later and said “I got the deal done, let’s go,” So basically Gunz and Art@War collectively signed him, and I did a deal with them and brought him to Atlantic. Through that came YBN Almighty Jay, and a year later came Cordae. Those kids all knew each other from playing video games. They’re all from different parts of the U.S. They started this rap collective online without ever meeting in person. I met Cordae at SXSW after signing Nahmir.
HipHopDX: YBN Cordae is now Grammy-nominated. What do you think makes Cordae the current standout of the group?
Success: That’s what’s dope about them — they’re like an A$AP Mob or Wu-Tang, everyone brings something different. YBN Cordae is special because he bridges the gap between my generation, and the kids. He’s young, but he’s so lyrical. Guys that came up on JAY-Z, Nas, Common, even J. Cole, can appreciate Cordae. The style of lyricism, telling stories. A lot of the kids his age are not giving you what J. Cole, JAY-Z gave us. But then the YBN association and him being friends with the Juice Wrlds of the world, he’s also good for that audience. So he bridges that gap.
HipHopDX: Since you’ve been in music for decades and worked with the “old heads,” what’s it like working with what many call “the new generation of Hip Hop?”
Success: They’re kids. They keep me young. They’re fun.
HipHopDX: What else are you working on?
Success: I signed Teejayx6. He’s exciting as he’s the leader of this new “Scam Rap” genre. Him and Guapdad 4000 are the leaders of that. I signed Jucee Froot from Memphis. She’s hard; a lot of people are digging her. Also, Ravyn Lenae, she’s a singer from Chicago. Lots of exciting stuff coming up.