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Interview: Akon Talks His Revamped Konvict Kartel Label, Why Today’s R&B Works & Plans For His 'Stadium' Project

Those who do great things often move in silence, and Akon is no exception to the rule with his Konvict Kartel label and forthcoming project, 'Stadium.'

Those who do great things often move in silence, and Akon is no exception to the rule.

Throughout his career, the multi-hyphenate artist has made music that has transcended into number ones in nearly every genre. As glow stick fiends jam his songs like “Play Hard,” with David Guetta and Neyo, he was also able to make hip-hop lovers pop bottles to “I’m So Paid” with Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne. Not only has Akon made massive hits for himself, but has also helped catapult some of best acts in music like Lady Gaga, T-Pain and unbeknownst to many, Young Thug. In addition to his multi-platinum career, he’s also helped bring light to millions in Africa with his philanthropic efforts. But the mogul isn’t one to keep the keys to success to himself.

With his newly revamped label Konvict Kartel, Akon is looking to bring forth new talent in hip-hop/R&B. After helping launching the careers of acts like Pain and Jeremih, the singer wants new acts to realize the path to success can be just as simple as a Soundcloud upload, but the business aspect is a long road traveled.

Instead of trying to force his formula on new talent, the “Heatwave” singer wants aspiring artists to vie for a career past a hit single. We talked to the Akon about Konvict Kartel, why viral musicians have short lifespans and his plans to release the five-album project, Stadium. Take out a notepad and grab all the gems you need for your aspiring music career.

 

VIBE: What inspired you to change your music label Konvict Muzik to Konvict Kartel?
Akon: It’s like the new generation Konvict music. Today is a new time, new sound, new artists, new thinking. These guys are a lot younger, more fun and the energy with the music is totally different. I think it was the perfect time to put a makeover on the label, especially the urban side of things, moving on the Konvict side and just recruit a lot of young artists, new thinkers, just people that think beyond artistry that want to take their brands to the next level.

Tell us about the acts on the label.
We have Young Greatness; he's out of Memphis. We have Tone-Tone out of Detroit and we have collaboration with QC (Quality Control) and Greatness, they have a single out now called "Moola."

What grabs your attention when you’re looking for an urban kind of artist?
When it comes to that side, I'm just looking for an amazing tone, a guy who works really hard and someone who is ready to understand the business. I think a lot of times artists come out and just put songs on YouTube, they blow up, get a lot of views, the label picks them up and they have no experience whatsoever on the game and how to stay there. Ultimately, what happens is the record comes out, the label takes it over, it does a little [bit of numbers] and you never hear from them again. I want artists who want to make a career out of this. They have to understand how this really works to the point of learning more about it and to listen. You have to gather all the notes pretty much of what I have acquired through my years and help take them to the next level.

I think today a lot of artists feel they still can do that on their own since you can promote on social media and you can even learn how to produce on YouTube. Do you think this can hold them back from the business aspect of their careers?
I think it can hold them back a lot. Especially to be a seasoned veteran that understands the business side of it. The creative side, you're absolutely right, they can definitely do it on their own. With today's technology you can make a song in an hour. You can make a music video in two-three hours. It does give you the opportunity to create the content.

You have the content, but what do you do with it? How do you saturate the content? How do you make it relevant? How does it correlate to a business? How does that content now make you money? These are things that you need people to help you realize. People who know the politics of the business and who does what. Now you can take your crew to the next level. Now there's a system. You can become a superstar, but you need a team around you that is going to help you make that long-term success.

And it helps that you're dealing with people that have had their own success, too.
Absolutely. There are a lot of things that you're going to go through that you don't know how to deal with. When that time comes you have someone that's been there and they can walk you through those steps before they even arise.

In the midst of all of this, are you still working on the Stadium album or working on other endeavors?
The Stadium album is done, it's now the matter of putting it out and what system I'll put it out through. I was dealing with a lot when it came to my deal with Universal and the changes they were making within their system. Currently I'm with Atlantic and we've put together a nice little plan as far as how we're going to put it out. So all of that is now being handled on Atlantic's side.

Congrats on that. New deals, new energy, new business.
Absolutely.

When you say, as a means of putting out Stadium, what do you think of the way music is being released today? You have people like Beyonce who reinvigorated the whole "surprise album" motif and Kanye West who dropped an album in real time while working on it. Do you think with the times, people are stepping outside of the box when it comes to releasing new music and how listeners digest it?
Personally, I think you have to think outside the box period, regardless of the times because you have to stand out. There has to be some kind of shock value that creates curiosity. When you're an artist like a Beyonce or a Kanye that already have a fan base, you know where your fans are. I can drop a project tomorrow as long as I have access to my fans and let them know the project is coming out tomorrow. By getting a hold of the data, which gives you the information of how to communicate with them. Once you have that, the sky is the limit on what you can do.

You have so many different sounds and I think that's something that's really amazing. You can make an R&B song, a pop song or music with Caribbean and African flavor. Do you think that your fans at the moment are expecting one thing from you or that they know they're going to get hit with so many different sounds?
I think they know they're going to get hit with a lot of different things. It's the reason why I'm deciding to put out the Stadium album the way I did. It's five different sounds, five different territories, and five different types of music because every genre has fans of mine. I've made records in every genre and have had number ones in every genre. So it actually worked out to my benefit because I have a worldwide audience and if one genre that doesn't attract at one point, then another one will. More than anything, I love music that's why I did it. I won't let one particular genre hold me back from what I want do it. I think the fans are pretty much know I'm hitting them from every angle for sure [laughs].

I think that says a lot about your talent and your longevity. For Konvict Kartel, are these are just urban artists?
Yes, Konvict Kartel is just for the urban market, hip-hop, raunchy and grimy R&B. Something that really speaks to the underground.

So for R&B, what do you think the genre today? Do you think the traditional R&B of yesteryear can ever come back as strongly as the airy mid-tempo sounds that are dominating the genre today?
I think it's a decision that the artist would have to make. Every time there's a new generation, they're into something else. My mom and dad were into disco, then you had Marvin Gaye, then the Isley Brothers so you know you even had different types of R&B back then. Then my generation had acts like Jodeci. This generation is totally different. You've got Trey Songz and those guys are totally hip-hop now. Chris Brown, it's really hip-hop with melody. It's really based on the generation that grew up under than genre so you can't really predict what R&B is going to sound like in the next five years. You just have to be in tune with the time and adjust according to the generation because that's what you really do this for, the people. So if the people are requesting one particular thing, then that's what you give them. It's not ever going to be what you personally like. Otherwise, you don't need a record deal you can just make music for yourself in your basement.

Do you plan on expanding your label to include other acts?
Absolutely, we currently do that now. For the last few years, I've been in Africa doing my main Konvict movement there so with there we have artists such as Wizkid, P-Square who's signed to us as well. Those are the top acts that have come out of Africa that are huge in the Afrobeat market in the UK. A lot of people here don't know that. They think music domestically is what really matters but when you travel across the waters you see they're acts in those areas that may not have crossed over yet. Ultimately, my end game is to bridge all that sound, all that music into one so people can open up and listen to music from around the world and not just focus on here in the United States.

Why do you think the artists from overseas have trouble finding success in the States?
I think people don't travel. When you don't travel, you close your mind to what's around you everyday and you really don't open your mind outside of your reach. I'd say three out of ten people I know personally have passports. Some of my friends didn't even know what a passport was. That's just the culture of the U.S. has always been that way. You have some people that are from certain corners who have never left that corner. We've never had a culture of travelers. Sure people go to Cancun or to Hawaii, but you're still in the United States. I think that's why the fear is so heavy here. It holds people down mentally and stagnates them from opening their mind to something bigger. You have to want to explore and taste different foods and interact with different cultures of people. There's so much fear and propaganda that pushes people from not even wanting to leave the United States. I think that holds us down as a people.

There's that notion of generalization. So if you think it's one way here then you assume it's like that somewhere else. I wish it was generally known, but there is growth in traveling when it comes to young African-Americans.
It only makes the confirmation a lot stronger from a mental standpoint. When you go out, you come back with things that stay with you for a long time.

You've been able to travel and give back with your lighting initiative in Africa. How do you feel about other artists like Big Sean who have given back to their cites in light of the Flint Water Crisis?
I applaud them to the fullest because ultimately with your artistry you can spread that wealth and spread that extra blessing to someone to who can possibly need it. Some musicians, athletes and high profile people really care about the people and the environment, and really want to do something powerful. Those are always the ones who stick around for a long time and the blessing always come right back to them. Sometimes it's not hard to question someone's morale or integrity. Just by being around them for a minute but you can also see what they do other than what they're known for and that right there is their legacy.

Phife Dawg of a Tribe Called Quest passed away recently. He's one of the recent black men in the hip-hop community that passed at a fairly young age. The bigger conversation coming from this is the idea of health in the black community. Do you think this is a problem that is left largely unsaid?
I think there's over 40 people that have died in the hip-hop community that I know personally. It's all been from health issues. Cancer, heart attack, unknown diseases. The health issue is serious. We have to start taking it serious or none of us will live past 50. People are now just eating to live and not living to eat. We have to be in the position to know that after a certain age, your body doesn't function the way it normally would. Whether it's fighting a disease or burning off fat as fast. It's just habits you have when you’re younger that you have to switch out when you get older. It's so important, especially if you want a longer life. We have to have more nutritional type of diets even in the workplace because a lot of these people are eating the same foods at work, the bodegas, the restaurants, these things are the same foods that affect your body.

Speaking of being woke, what do you think about Donald Trump’s winning spree during the primaries?
It's a scary feeling. You would think that people were a lot smarter. Trump is like another Hitler with his agenda. I know that he is a very smart businessman and everything, but I just think there are certain parts that he's lacking that he doesn't even know he has. I think he's more into the cameras and the popularity of the celebrity. He knows there are certain things that people want to hear that more than everything; the people have to know how is he going to go through with all of this? He can tell you everything but how is he going to package it? If all fails, he was going to get publicity out if it. Now it's hitting him. He's probably thinking, "Oh, I'm actually starting to win," to "Wow I'm winning" so know it's starting to switch up. I don't even think he himself would get this fair. Before when he ran no one cared. Now they care.

What’s the most important thing you want people to know about Konvict Kartel?
This is a movement and I just want to be in position to offer that platform to artists who understand who they are and where they want to be in the next ten years. That's what we want. We're trying to build careers here.

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Music Sermon: The Evolution And Extinction Of Male R&B Groups

Male vocal groups were a mainstay in black music for decades. Whether it’s gospel harmonizers, the lockstep, perfectly blended Motown, or Stax and Philadelphia International sounds; the synth, glossy, dance and pop-infused ‘80s; or the last great decade for R&B groups in the ‘90s, there had always been two or more gathered in the name of multi-part soul harmony. And then – there weren’t.

Music fans were in heavy debate a couple of months ago about the current state of R&B – male R&B artists, specifically - and whether real R&B music exists anymore. (Puffy chimed in with a pretty definitive answer.) The decline of R&B artists has been noted, but R&B groups have been damn near extinct since the early 2000s. Girl groups (do we still call them that in the woke era?) are still on the endangered list and tagged for monitoring by music conservationists whenever a new group emerges, but the guys are feared gone for good. The last year male R&B groups had a presence at the top of Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs chart – not even a crossover chart, the R&B chart - was 2001, during 112 and Jagged Edge’s last strong album runs (“Where the Party At” peaked at No. 1 on September 15, 2001).

King of R&B pic.twitter.com/DCUCDFjCOY

— Diddy (@Diddy) December 11, 2018

How did such a staple in black music just go away? How did we go from your granddaddy and ‘nem doing doo-wop on the street corner in the ‘60s, to your uncles and ‘nem doing talent shows in the ‘70s and ‘80s, to your cousins and ‘nem singing in school cafeterias and bum-rushing established artists at shows to audition in the ‘90s…to nothing?

To talk about what went wrong, let’s explore R&B groups over time.

THE FOUNDATIONAL GROUPS

I don’t have scientific evidence to support this, but you can trace all R&B back to a handful of artists/acts. Every vocal style, performance aesthetic, production technique, and sound evolved from someone and something that came before. This is especially obvious with groups, because R&B groups are a formula. They’re a musical equation of members, style, presentation and song. You couldn’t just pull four random people off the street – even singing-ass people – and put them in a group. The chemistry had to be right. The voices had to blend well. And there had to be at least one star. This formula was, of course, perfected at Motown – Berry patterned the label after an assembly plant, duh - but ‘60s acts laid blueprints and instructional guides. And ‘60s groups had the best names; The Temptations, The Impressions, The Platters, The Spinners. How did they come up with those joints?

The Temps are the male vocal group template. They’re one of the defining acts of the Motown sound, one of the best-selling male vocal groups of all time, and subjects of the best TV miniseries ever (“Ain’t nobody comin’ to see you, Otis”). The Temptations were tight and precise, with effortless vocals and footwork.

The Miracles championed the smooth, sensitive front-man style. They were the first Motown group to land a No. 1 hit, and the first to start the trend of changing the group’s name to highlight the star. I can name everybody in the Temptations, I can’t name anybody but Smokey Robinson from the Miracles. Smokey was also a quintessential music man, wearing multiple executive and creative hats. He was not only one of Motown’s first artists and first stars, he was also the company vice president and one of its key writers during the formative years.

Sam and Dave may the greatest soul duo of all time, powered by Stax Record’s legendary session band, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, with Black Moses himself, Isaac Hayes, writing and producing. They brought all of the black church into their vocal performances.

THE BANDS

With the emergence of funk in the ‘70s, bands moved to the forefront. A strong frontman was still necessary, but the band was the star. Complex choreography was replaced with high energy production and performance. It was about the jam. By the mid-‘80s, however, the black band was already dwindling. Advances in production were slashing recording costs, time and effort. It’s much easier to throw a producer and an engineer in a couple of studio sessions than travel musicians in, pay for rehearsals and schedule multiple days to record live in the studio. Sadly, this created a cycle. As music production continued to advance, lessening the need for session musicians, fewer new musicians were coming up anyway.

Tuskegee natives The Commodores started as a jazz band (musicianship!), but made their name with the funk. Several members played multiple instruments - for example, Lionel Richie also plays the sax. Shout out to my actual, real-life uncle on drums in this video.

The Isleys get the Male Vocal Group MVP award as the longest running group that managed to stay relevant and chart hits from the ‘60s through the ‘00s (do you know how hard that is?!). I’m going to back up a little: most music fans know the Isleys first as a funk and soul group, but they started as a doo-wop group, and even had a stint on Motown.

Also, there will be no Ernie Isley slander in my earshot, ever. Not never.

The prototype for all young black male groups of four or more members to follow. I don’t even need to say anything else.

First thing’s first, James “J.T.” Taylor is not “Kool.” With that out of that way, Kool & The Gang also started as a jazz band and evolved into funk, then disco, and eventually contemporary R&B. A lesson here is that if you know musical foundations and theory, you can adapt to almost any genre - ask all the producers who grew up playing in the church. Their evolution of sound over the years was such that a lot of folks under 40 still don’t realize that the group behind “Summer Madness” is also behind “Ladies Night” and “Celebration.”

CONTEMPORARY R&B

The biggest problem with the group/band structure since the history of recording groups of any genre is, someone is inevitably identified as the star. Then the balance shifts, and eventually it falls apart. It happened routinely at Motown, and the ‘80s was maybe the most successful era for breakout frontmen. Michael and Jermaine from the Jacksons, Lionel from the Commodores, Smokey from the Miracles (although it took a while), Jeffrey Osborne from LTD, Teddy from The Bluenotes, Babyface from The Deele.

Bands that survived the funk and disco era (like Kool & the Gang and the Isley Brothers), and the new groups on the scene, adapted to the new quiet storm sound taking over R&B in the beginning of the decade.

In the mid-late ‘80s, a new crop of young groups emerged, mixing contemporary R&B sound with classic four and five-man group style and harmony.

The new jack swing sound emerged in the late ‘80s, and tempo, rhythm and 808s make R&B party-ready again.

THE GREATEST DECADE

The ‘90s was the saturation point for Male R&B groups. There were fifty’lem groups. That’s an actual number. You can find lists of the 20 greatest Male R&B groups of the ‘90s. I don’t think I could put together a list of 20 R&B singers. The ’90s was also a massive decade for the expansion and evolution of the R&B genre. New jack swing, hip-hop soul, neo-soul, gospel-infused inspirational R&B. Whatever flavor you wanted was available.

There were classic groups with doo-wop inspired style.

Young, high energy new jacks with choreography for days.

I always say that Troop is the physical embodiment of new jack swing.

There were also groups that were a little more mature in content, what the old heads used to call mannish. (We had no business singing along to "Come Inside" so hard!)

The ‘90s also introduced R&B artists that moved like rappers, complete with combat boots and group chains.

By the ‘90s, commercially successful black bands were basically defunct. There were only two still standing. (For the purposes of this discussion, The Roots are solely hip-hop.)

THE FINAL CLASS

The last class of successful male R&B groups debuted in the mid-late ‘90s, and carried over into the early ‘00s. The shift in the landscape was clear early in the decade. The neo soul movement, while triggering a brief return to live music production, spawned mostly solo stars. And hip-hop was like the new fish you add to your lively aquarium, only to wake up each day and discover it’s eaten another of its fellow tank-mates, until it finally had the tank to itself. R&B songs were rarely sent to radio without a version featuring a rap artist. Contemporary R&B got less mainstream airplay; songs needed to have some bounce. A staccato flow. Something other than standing flat-footed and singing over melody. For the past decade, the lines have become even more blurred between the two genres, leading to the R&B debate mentioned earlier. These bops went out of fashion, but they went out with a bang. Shiny suits and leather, big budget videos, 25 dancers. Sigh…I miss those days. #BringBackVideoBudgets

So, what happened? On the business side, the rise of digital piracy hit the formerly recession-proof music industry unexpectedly, and then it was slow to adapt to digital downloads and streaming, which very quickly upended a long-standing business model. The cost and effort of developing a group, paying for vocal training, choreography, styling and travel, plus dealing with headaches from group dynamics (the term “herding cats” could be changed to “herding recording artists” and still be a perfectly apt analogy) was netting an increasingly diminished return on investment.

On the talent side, infighting between group members has always been a problem; resentment towards whomever was being groomed for solo success, fighting over name ownership, fighting over money, or just getting sick of each other. It’s broken up families: Raphael Saadiq and brother Dwayne Wiggins seemingly don’t rock with each other - or, rather Ray doesn’t rock with Dwayne. (Editor's note: Raphael Saadiq told VIBE why he doesn't see a Tony! Toni! Toné! reunion in the cards.) It’s broken up childhood friendships – the members of New Edition hashed out their differences and reunited for a tour and BET’s The New Edition Story, just to fall right back out and split in two factions, with Ralph and Johnny holding the name New Edition hostage.

The mid-00s featured a big youth culture moment thanks in part to 106th and Park, and black boy bands – like B2K and Mindless Behavior – were central to that. Even with R Kelly’s pen game on “Bump Bump Bump,” however, B2K were bigger at crossover radio than R&B, which was probably the desired result. Puffy tried to restore the feeling with Day 26 in 2008, and they landed a #1 Billboard 200 debut, but had no hit singles.

The shift was even visible in music recognition. From 2003 to 2011, the Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group was awarded to collaborations. Destiny’s Child was the last group to win, for “Survivor” in 2002, but the last male R&B group to take home the trophy was Blackstreet for “No Diggity” in 1998. The recording academy eliminated the category altogether in 2012.

Shout out to Teddy Riley, by the way, for having three successful groups in the ‘90s (even though he can’t perform under the name Blackstreet anymore because Chauncey Black owns it. I told you, messy).

There’s been a nostalgia-driven ‘90s revival in music and culture for the last few years, and R&B groups from the era are having their moments. BET’s The New Edition Story was a ratings bonanza and a generated buzz and marketing moments for over a year. Anniversary pieces about classic R&B records and singles from 20 and 25 years ago seem to hit every other week. DJs who were babies in the ‘90s have added new jack swing and hip-hop soul classics to their sets. The last few male R&B groups to release albums to any fanfare were – wait for it - ’90s R&B groups. Jodeci’s reunion album The Past, The Present, The Future in 2015, and Bell Biv DeVoe’s Three Stripes plus 112’s Q Mike Slim Daron in 2017.

These groups still tour. Hell, you can catch almost every group listed above in some type of iteration. It might just be one original member and three strangers at a supper club, but you gonna get them hits. The audience is there for the classics and the nostalgia, but mainstream labels still aren’t interested in new music from established groups, or sinking the money into developing new talent. It hasn’t made sense, financially, to the powers-that-be. The label mantra for the past decade has been “R&B doesn’t sell.” Ballads or mid-tempos with no rap features and no autotune are usually only programmed on Urban Adult radio, which is a slow-moving format listened to by mostly physical album buyers. And oh, look at that, there’s almost no place to buy physical albums anymore! Digital streaming hit R&B hard. Streaming is a singles and playlist format, R&B is an album game. Brick and mortar record stores have closed (except for specialty shops), and big box stores pull albums from the shelves because CDs don’t sell much. But then they don’t sell because fans can’t find the music. Thankfully there is, finally, a shift back to contemporary, soulful R&B in progress – about a decade later than music cycles usually happen – led by artists like H.E.R and Daniel Caesar. Artists who play instruments! And write songs about love instead of sex! And sell records and win Grammys doing it! But it remains to be seen whether there’s room for the eventual return of the group. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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Don Cheadle On The Good Insanity Of 'Black Monday' And Battling Twitter Trolls

Don Cheadle isn’t insane; he just acts like he is, really well, on Showtime’s Black Monday. On the Wall Street dramedy about the 1987 stock market collapse, Cheadle has made fun of the AIDS epidemic and snorted cocaine off of a video game accessory as Maurice “Mo” Monroe, star trader on the show. As offensive as Mo is, Cheadle joined the cast after he “read the pilot, it made me laugh and I thought it was insane...in a good way,” according to the actor speaking with VIBE.

The 54-year-old Grammy-nominated director wasn’t rocking the Jheri curl and polyester threads like his character does in the show when the actual 1987 stock market crash occurred. At that time, he was a broke, struggling actor who admittedly could fit all of his worldly possessions in his car. Black Monday lets Cheadle experience the cocaine binges, robot butlers, and Jheri curl juice he never had in his past. But, fake or not, Cheadle doesn’t want to be on camera saying all of the absurdities Black Monday creators Jordan Cahan and David Caspe think up.

“Jordan and David are always pushing it and it's often up to us to say, 'Yeah, that's a bit too far. If you're going to say the line on camera, that's fine. I'm not going to say that on camera' (Laughs).”

With VIBE, Cheadle recasts Black Monday’s lead roles with rappers, talks smuggling blackness into a show about Wall Street, and why he doesn’t back down from Twitter exchanges with trolls.

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VIBE: What are some things you share with your character Mo?

Don Cheadle: That's a good question. I don't know. I know I'm nowhere near as intense as he is. I'm not as ambitious at all costs as he is. My sense of humor can kind of be on that level. But, never in public. You know how you could go in with your friends and be like, 'Please don't ever tape this' (Laughs).

One of the characteristics you two share is being confrontational. Do you ever worry that your personal opinions on Twitter could affect TV ratings?

Naaaahhhh. I've never had anybody of any position come to me and say, “You're really risking something and you got to knock that off.” No employer has ever said anything to me. There's a lot of bots on there, for one. A lot of people -- presumably people -- that come at me and say stuff like, “You just lost a fan.” I’m just like, “You were never a fan. Let's be real.”

On the show, Mo and Regina Hall’s character, Dawn, are the only prominent Black characters, yet their blackness has yet to be the focal point of an episode since the series’ premiere. Was that intentional and will the show explore blackness in the ‘80s?

It comes up in the second episode when they're in the store. Mo is telling her, “Those white boys will f**k you, they'll date you, but they won't give you a spot.” We want to pepper that stuff in, kind of smuggle it in and not lead with it. That's not something the characters talk about every day. They know who they are, they know what they're dealing with, and it comes in and out of the show. It's not the focal point of the show, which I like. They are black and it is front and center, but it isn't the subject matter.

The second episode has the classic back and forth negotiation scene between you and Dawn. Were there ever scenes where you and Regina couldn't get through it because y'all kept making each other laugh?

We would crack each other up a lot. Both of our desire was to always get it on camera, so we never really lost it during a shot. Maybe once or twice. But, most of the time we would get the take and then we would crack up. I'd always be like, “When you said this line.” She would be like, “When you said this.” We kind of improv a lot on the show and some stuff gets in there. When she said, “Who wants to titty f**k Keith” [in the series premiere], Regina just improv’d that.

So it was all Regina Hall's idea to mount Paul Scheer and thrust in the air as if she was titty f**king him?

Yes, that was her (Laughs).

The third episode starts with the most ‘80s scene we'll probably see on television this year: you snorting coke off of a Nintendo Duck Hunt gun while talking about Michael Jackson and Brooke Shields dating.

(Laughs) Yeah.

Are those moments intentionally put into the show to show that Black Monday is set in the ‘80s?

I think, absolutely, we're trying to juxtapose that time period to now and see the things that remain and the things that change, and see how far we've come in some instances and how far we still have to go. Absolutely, all of that cultural stuff is very fun to play with. We always want to make it a part of the show. We don't want to full out do something that has no bearing on anything just to make fun of the ‘80s.

The music for the show has been great. Knowing what you know about Mo and the ‘80s, what would be his morning playlist before a day of kicking a** on Wall Street?

Oh, he would definitely listen to Run-DMC. I think he's into all of that early hip-hop with [Big Daddy] Kane and LL Cool J. He's deep into that. He probably also listens to some of the stuff that was coming out of Europe at that time. Stuff like the Eurythmics, Annie Lennox, a lot of that stuff. UB40 (Laughs). At one point in the show, he's like, “Don Henley's coming to play. I don't really f**k with his music, but he's number one, so I'm listening to it.” He likes what's popular.

You once said you wanted to cast Kendrick Lamar for the role of Junior in the film Miles Ahead.

Yes.

If you had to cast the roles for Dawn, Mo, Blair, and Keith with rappers, who would they be?

Oh, wow. Who would Dawn be? I think Dawn might be Queen Latifah. I like Dawn as Queen Latifah. I don't think Keith and Blair would be any rappers (laughs). I can't think of any rappers Keith and Blair would be. Not that there aren't some. I mean, they might be 3rd Bass. Who would Mo be? That's a good question. Who do you think Mo would be?

Mo is so out there I was thinking…

Ol’ Dirty Bastard?

Or a really animated Leaders of the New School Busta Rhymes.

Yeah. Definitely, a young Busta Rhymes. Kool G Rap also.

If they're going to be doing as much cocaine as Mo does on the show then it has to be someone from Wu-Tang.

(Laughs) It has to be O.D.B.

I did a little bit of IMDB digging and saw that Kevin Arnold is listed as your stunt double for 5 episodes of the second half of the season. Is Mo about to get crazier in the second half of the season?

No comment (Laughs). Things get crazy.

With a show titled after and centered around an event that it appears will be reached by the season finale, is there any way this show could come back for a second season?

Fingers crossed. I think the jumpoff is Black Monday, and the show is still going to still be about the stock market, Wall Street. That one day was just what started a lot of stuff. Things kept going on from then and are still going on.

Catch 'Black Monday' on Sunday nights at 10p/9c on Showtime.

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Stacy-Ann Ellis

Meet Koffee, The Rising Jamaican Star Who Is Hot Like A Thermos

Back in 1962, a 17-year-old Jamaican singer/songwriter named Robert Marley recorded a song called “One Cup of Coffee” and went on to take reggae music around the world. Fast forward 55 years to 2017, when a 17-year-old Jamaican singer/songwriter named Koffee dropped her first record, “Burning,” setting her on a path to become the most talked-about new artist in dancehall reggae right now.

Koffee got her big break when veteran singer Cocoa Tea invited her onstage at the January 2018 edition of Rebel Salute, Jamaica’s biggest roots reggae festival. “She name Koffee and me name Tea,” he quipped, calling her the “next female sensation out of Jamaica.” The artist born Mikayla Simpson doesn’t actually like coffee though—she prefers hot chocolate.

After graduating from Ardenne High, the same school dancehall star Alkaline attended, Koffee turned her focus to music. She shot a live video with new roots superstar Chronixx at Marley’s Tuff Gong Studios, then dropped her breakout single “Toast,” produced by Walshy Fire of Major Lazer fame. That video has racked up 10 million+ views and made the artist, who stands just over five feet tall, a very big name on the island. Now signed to Columbia UK, Koffee will release her debut EP Rapture next month.

“Mi only spit lyrics, don't really talk a lot,” she states on the track “Raggamuffin.” But when Koffee turned up to VIBE’s Times Square headquarters, bundled up against NYC’s February chill in a hoodie, thermals, and Nike x Off-White sneakers, she opened up about her musical journey, the power of gratitude, her surprising inspirations, and how she plans to spend her birthday.

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VIBE: I haven’t seen you since your EP listening in Kingston. Congratulations on an impressive body of work. Koffee: Thank you. I feel humble and proud at the same time. I really put a lot of thought into the EP, the way I structured it, and the content, the lyrics. It really means a lot to me, so I appreciate you saying that.

It’s amazing how much you’ve accomplished since Cocoa Tea brought you out on Rebel Salute. Yeah, and that was only a year and a month ago!

So how did the link with Cocoa happen? Actually, it happened through Walshy Fire. After my very first single “Burning,” Walshy reached out and sent me some riddims, in hopes of us working together, which we ended up doing. We were supposed to meet up at a studio in Florida and when we went there Cocoa Tea was already in the building. We were like, “Wow, Cocoa Tea!” Because Cocoa Tea is a reggae legend for us in Jamaica. Walshy actually introduced Cocoa to some of my music, and Cocoa was like, “Wha? Mi gonna bring her out on Rebel Salute next month!” This was in December, and Rebel Salute was in January.

Timing is everything. Rebel Salute made a huge difference. It opened me up to a lot of opportunities. Even today a lot of places that I go, people remember me from there. I was doing music before. I’d done a few shows here and there, but the audience at Rebel Salute is very important. It’s an epic stage to present yourself.

Were you nervous? Just before going out on the stage I was backstage pacing back and forth. I was trying to keep warm as well because it was chilly that night. But I was really nervous because it was my first time being in such a light.

Do you think being so young has helped you? Like, you may not overthink everything. I think you have a point. Because I’m young, my mind is a bit more pure, or uncorrupted. Experiences do have a way of taking away your mental space and the things you’re willing to try. Staying in “the comfort zone” is the most comfortable thing, but sometimes pushing yourself to step outside of that will help you overcome your fears. That, and just the drive and motivation. I definitely try to keep challenging myself.

Reggae has always been a male-dominated industry, but female artists are definitely on the rise. How do feel getting catapulted into that category? I feel like it’s a big responsibility, and “to whom much is given, much is expected.” So I don't look at it as, “Oh, I’ve made it.” But I acknowledge that I’m in a position where I have a responsibility now to fulfill and to pull through. It just pushes me to work harder, make more things happen, and just keep it going.

I love the line in your song “Raggamuffin” where you say, “Mi give them heart attack inna mi halter back.” Was that inspired by Althea & Donna’s “Uptown Top Rankin’” from the ‘70s? Yeah, I love that song. That’s the thing, I would say that every artist is an influence to me. Growing up, I would hear these songs being played by people next door, down the road, all around. Just in the Jamaican environment on a whole. So those songs definitely do have an influence on me, the messages from those times. Once you hear it, it’s in your head. You know it now and it really makes a difference in how you think, how you speak, and everything.

When people think of a female dancehall artist they usually think of colorful hair, long nails… But you seem to have your own swag. How would you describe your style? I would definitely say unique, but at the same time, it is natural to me and not calculated. I don't put a name to it and say, “I’m gonna be this way.” I just kind of flow and whatever you see is me doing what I feel. Like, I’m not sure what these pants are, but I bought them in Berlin. I got this hoodie in the UK—I’m not sure what brand this is either. I was just trying to keep warm. My friend Ayesha from the UK styled me with this top recently for a shoot.

There’s a line on “Burning” where you talk about “Koffee pon di street, tank top inna di heat / Jeans pants an’ Crocs / No socks pon mi feet / Knapsack mi a beat / Well pack up an’ it neat.” Was that your real-life dress code in 2017? Yeah, I remember at that time that’s how I used to roll. You know in Jamaica it’s hot, so I probably had my tank top and my jeans on, or my shorts. And I had this one pair of grey Crocs that I just wore everywhere. And I always have my knapsack. So yeah, that was my reality at that moment.

How far away does that feel, now that you have a stylist and travel the world? That’s amazing. It’s a transition that’s really beautiful and something I really appreciate.

I have a feeling you’re going to re-introduce words like “appreciate” and “give thanks” into pop culture. I hope to start a wave of gratitude. Even by writing that song “Toast,” when I say “We haffi give thanks like we really supposed to,” it reminds me to be grateful. I aspire to be humble and I pray and ask God to help me be grateful. I try to maintain it and I hope that will inspire other people to do the same.

Let’s talk about “Toast.” On the chorus, you say “We nah rise and boast.” But then again, a lot of reggae and dancehall artists are very “boasy.” That’s part of the culture. When I say “Wi nah rise and boast” it means that no matter what happens along the journey, we’re still gonna remain the same. We gonna big up we friend and hold a vibes. I’m just making it clear that we never come fe hype.

You can spit pretty fast, but I feel like some people may be missing some of the things you say. But if you listen carefully you’re talking about real things. Thank you for noticing that. When I wrote “Raggamuffin,” a lot of my musical influence came from artists like Protoje and Chronixx. Chronixx has basically been an advocate for the youths, so his message had an impact on me. When I was vibing to the beat, I wanted to cover myself, cover my country where I come from, good things and bad things, and the music, reggae itself.

Growing up, did you see inner city kids not being looked after by their own government and their own people? Most definitely. I wouldn't say that the government is responsible for the lives of everybody as citizens. But there are some general things that need the government’s attention and they don't pay the attention that they should. They'd rather focus on things that can garner income. There are roads that need to be fixed in places that tourists don't necessarily visit. And nobody cares about those roads. Minor injustices, major injustices—just things that really need to be spoken about so that people can think about it and look into it.

BDP used the term Edutainment—education and entertainment. Is that something you present in your music? Yes, it’s definitely something I aim for. I think that it’s important to keep people interested enough to want to absorb what you are saying. And then it’s equally important to present something that is worth absorbing. Something productive, something inspiring, motivating. Just mixing both so that you have their attention and you’re also delivering something that’s worth their attention.

You were still in school when you did your song “Burning.” As a new artist did you have to convince the producers to work with you? Gratefully, no I didn't have to convince them. Because I did a tribute to Usain Bolt before that. I wrote a song with my guitar titled “Legend” and posted a video of me performing it with my guitar on Instagram.

Usain came across it and reposted it, so that garnered a lot of attention. People from the music industry reached out to me, and in that group of people was Upsetta records with their Ouji Riddim. They sent it to my first manager like, “Let’s see what she can do” and so forth.

There’s this thing in Jamaica called Sixth Form. It’s like you graduate high school and there’s an extra two years that you can do as like a pre-college. I applied for it and didn’t get through. Right after that, I did the tribute to Usain Bolt and then Upsetta sent me the Ouji Riddim. I was in a state of mind where I felt disappointed. I felt the need to motivate myself, so I was like “Come with the fire the city burning!”

How does your mom feel about all of this? I started writing lyrics at 14 years old, but she didn't find out until I was 16, when she saw me perform at a competition in school. I invited her there and she was taken aback, like, “Wow! So this what you've been doing?” (Laughs) She wanted me to do academics like every parent wants. And she was little disappointed when I didn't get through to Sixth Form. But over time, as I wrote more and performed more, she began to trust my talent and just trust the process. So she started appreciating the music and now she's fully on board.

What did your mother think of “dancehall pon the street,” like you sing about in your song “Raggamuffin”? As you know I’ve been living with mommy since I was a baby up until I was 17, so being under her roof I didn't go out much. I was always in the house just chilling and stuff. I know that there’s a dance on like every corner. lf you are driving, you always hear music playing. You have the oldies dancehall, you have the new dancehall—everybody just hold a vibe. That’s basically where that line comes from.

Do you go to dances now? I’ve been going to a few parties and getting out, but I haven't been to like a dance dance. I’ve been to Dub Club, you get some really good music there. But Dub Club is like a relaxed kinda vibe.

You recently performed at Bob Marley’s 74th birthday celebration in Kingston. Do you still listen to his music? Most definitely! Bob has set such a great and amazing foundation for the music, the industry, the genre itself, the country, the youth... He’s set such a great example that you haffi really learn from it and take a lot from it so that you know where you’re coming from. You haffi understand how to execute in honor of such people.

What are some of your favorite Bob songs? Well, I performed “Who the Cap Fit” that night, so that’s one of my favorites. And I like “Is This Love” and “Natural Mystic.” That’s just a few.

I know that’s a hard question. What about a dancehall legend like Super Cat? Hmm… “Mud Up” woulda be my favorite Super Cat.

Really?! Yeah, because of the flow he has on it, not necessarily the content. See, I’m from Spanish Town. Jamaicans on a whole, we like vibes. We like lyrics that, as we would say, “it slap!” It touches you, and really hits that spot. So I listen to a lot of different things, and the lyrics that I listen to aren't always conscious. But what I derive from music is not necessarily the message. Sometimes the flow that you’re hearing, that’s the wave for the moment. It may not be the best for the youth, but that’s what people like to vibe to. So you take that vibe, put a positive message to it, and that’s the spin. So I listen very widely.

One of my favorite songs on your new EP is the “Rapture” remix. It was dope that you got together with Govana on that. When I first wrote “Rapture,” Govana had recently done a song called “Bake Bean” that took off in Jamaica. When him drop that, it’s like the flow really resonate with me. I was like, “This is dope.” So when I did “Rapture” I was listening back to it and thought I should probably try to get Govana on this track. And it turned out so sick!

That’s cool to have the credibility where other artists respond to you like that. Because I'm sure it’s not always that easy. No, it’s not always easy. Me haffi give thanks for the way people have been responding.

So no one has kissed their teeth and said, “Nah man”? (Laughs) No, not yet. (Laughs) But what I have to appreciate is just when another artist really listens and pays attention. Sometimes an artist can be good and they don't get the response or the attention that they deserve. Some people don't want to listen, so I give a lot of respect to who is willing to listen.

Well Govana has given you that “crown” in his verse, which reminds me—how did the song “Throne” come about? I remember Walshy sent me that riddim in the first batch of riddims that he sent me. The riddim for “Toast” was also in that batch, but I started with “Throne.” It was basically like a challenge for me. I was like “How am I gonna spit on this?” Because the riddim sounded so dynamic. I was like “mi haffi mash this up!” Hence the fast spit-fire kind of vibe.

What music are you currently listening to on your phone? I don’t listen to my own songs that much. I’m vibing to Mr Eazi. I’ve been going in on the Afrobeats. Burna Boy. Smino the rapper. And I’ve been going in even more on Bob Marley.

Well, it’s reggae month right now. So there’s lots of legendary birthdays—Bob Marley, Dennis Brown. That makes the month even more significant! By the way, I’m born in February also. (Laughs) February 16th.

Happy Earthstrong! Were you keeping that quiet? I just remembered. I’ll be 19!

Wow—you’re gonna be out of the teens soon. What you gonna do on your 19th birthday? Wowwwww—I dunno. I’m gonna see when I get to Jamaica which party. I’ll probably just try and go to a dance or something. That ah go be mad!

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