Clive Davis Praises Chance The Rapper, Loves Hip-Hop + Talks Criticizing His Artists [Interview]
To an avid music nerd or student of music history, there have been quite a few names that we know are synonymous with how the game has come-of-age and evolved. Names such as Tommy LiPuma (Warner Bros.), Ahmet Ertegun (Atlantic), Gil Friesen (A&M), Jimmy Iovine (Interscope) have pushed the industry forward in various ways, but all would tip their cap to the man we know as the “Father of the Modern Music Business,” Clive Davis.
There is only one Clive Davis and with only one opportunity to see and speak to the legendary record man, it was a chance that we could not afford to pass up. We were afforded access to see the 85-year-old executives documentary, Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives, which served as the opening film for this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Taking place at the world famous Radio City Music Hall, we were treated to not only an insightful look at a living icon, but also a concert featuring performances from a few of the special artists who have received Clive Davis’ sign of approval.
It was quite a night for this kid from Ohio, who grew up listening to the likes of Whitney Houston, Debbie Gibson, Dionne Warwick and Janis Joplin, very aware that Clive Davis was responsible with time stamping my life with every note, beat and lyric. For those not old enough to be familiar with the Brooklyn-born boss man, Clive Davis began his career as an attorney and was eventually hired by Columbia Records. In a short amount of time, he would be appointed the president of the label, venture to the Monterey Pop Festival (the 50th anniversary is next month in June), where he not only saw the future of music (rock ‘n roll, folk music), but he also saw its future stars: Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Earth, Wind and Fire, and Aerosmith to name a few.
He would go on to sign many other significant artists (Kenny G, Barry Manilow, Alicia Keys) and help usher rap and hip-hop to its next level by bankrolling the likes of Sean “Puffy” Combs (Bad Boy) and L.A. Reid and Babyface (LaFace Records). Implementing quality control measures, songwriting sessions and specifically picking out the right hit for an artist was such a strong suit for Clive Davis that he was dubbed “the Man with the Golden Ear” for his talents behind the scenes. Through all his ups (inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) and downs (payola allegations) — Clive Davis is a literal institution and a true titan in an industry that has an immensely short-term memory.
With the hype of Tribeca now turned down a bit, we here @Okayplayer are ecstatic to reveal our exclusive chat with Mr. Clive Davis, as he talks about his blessings as an executive, who was the toughest artist to accept his legendary criticism, how he feels about Chance The Rapper and Kanye West and shares his thoughts on hip-hop and urban mainstream music for today. Enjoy!
Okayplayer: It is a pleasure to speak with the “Father of the Modern Music Business,” Mr. Clive Davis. I know my time is limited, so I wanted to say of all the executives that you’ve worked with—like Larry Jackson—is there one that you’re most proud of?
Clive Davis: Oh, my God. It is like asking you to pick out from your kids who is your favorite. [Laughs] No, no, I’ve been blessed. I really have been blessed by so many wonderful, wonderful executives who began with me, who began at the beginning of their career with me and contributed so much really to the history of the companies that I have been involved with. Several of them have gone on to become presidents of competitors and have had wonderful careers for themselves. I am really proud of the traditio of you can’t do it alone. You know, there’s one thing to sign artists, develop, nurture them, whether it is the discoveries or the artists that went on, like Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin and Luther Vandross and Rod Stewart and [Carlos] Santana, but you can’t do it alone.
I have been blessed by really hiring the best team of players, and obviously some of them after many years do get offers to become heads of their own operation, so you reluctantly part, but the connection is still there. I tell you, a documentary of my life opened the Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall. It was a thrill that Tribeca had never had any of their films play Radio City, so we were a first for them when they decided to go with it, but to see so many of the executives there who at one time or another worked for me and to feel their response made it very moving and touching for me.
OKP: Yes, I was there at the screening. Even though I wasn’t sitting in the same row as you, I was up on the balcony watching it all unfold. Our CEO, Jayson Jackson, who actually worked with you when he was at Bad Boy Records. We were both remarking about how the longevity of your career and the things we learned from your documentary was insightful. We also talked about how you had a strong reputation for correcting artists with their songs. Who was the toughest artist to have those conversations with? Was there anyone who just wouldn’t listen to your advice?
CD: I think the premise is a mistaken one. The premise is that in offering advice that I expected it to be followed. It is really a wrong premise or you would not have seen all of those independently minded artists and executives be a part of my film. When I say that I mean a person like Puffy Combs, a L.A. Reid, a Babyface… when you have an Aretha, a Dionne, a Whitney Houston or Santana — you don’t sit there just saying listen to me and droning on like that. What they have depended upon me for was my expertise. I am always mindful that it is their career. I am always mindful that they have the right to make the final decision. It is not my way or the highway ever, or I never would have bonded in this manner where 30, 40 years later, they have all come to be a part of my story.
The artists that I had almost complete synergy with were Whitney and Aretha. They were artists who understood that I was their creative partner, not just the man who signed them. The feel for material in playing that role, because for so much of my career, I discovered artists who wrote all their own songs. I’m in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because of all the rock artists, the self-contained poet laureates, the artists whose genius is why I signed them in the first place. You have respect for them, and you let them go their own way, and that includes, as you know obviously from the beginning, Gil Scott-Heron to Alicia Keys. Then there were artist whose vocal talent is in their genius.
By the time I got to meet and work with Aretha, she was already a national treasure, so my goal with her, at that stage of the game, was not to come up with another “Natural Woman,” “Respect” or “Chain of Fools”. No, it was that she deserved, as the greatest singer of all time, to not only be recording, but also to have hits. To be up for Grammy nominations and awards, so that is what we, over the years, were able to accomplish for her. We showed that her career can live on, and that’s why she performed at Radio City during Tribeca’s opening and wowed the audience.