When you think of music industry heavy hitters, the name Shanti Das automatically comes to mind. Having pioneered the careers of OutKast, Usher, and Jagged Edge, Shanti was determined to make her mark in the industry early on. “I always knew I wanted to be involved with music,” she says. “I hustled in college to go to every event and be seen. I remember going up to Russell Simmons and introducing myself. I told him at an event, you don’t know me, but you will by the end of the evening.”
Fresh out of college, Das landed her first record label position at LaFace Records, which later promoted her to various executive titles and becoming VP of Marketing for Columbia and Motown Records. There she managed marketing campaigns for SoSo Def, Akon, Erykah Badu and Ashanti.
Applying her wealth of industry knowledge and experience, the former Exec recently published, The Hip Hop Professional, to not only chronicle her 20-year career in the music industry but to serve as a woman’s guide to climbing the ladder of success. We sat down with the author to chat about the obstacles of being a leading woman in the industry, building an empire, working with top artists and advice to young women aiming to succeed.
VIBE Vixen: Where did you develop this drive to become a huge success in the hip hop industry?
Shanti Das: On a personal note, my dad committed suicide when I was a baby and it was a tough life for us growing up. I kind of just developed a drive as a kid to want a better life, to want a better life for my mom and my siblings. And so when I was old enough to start working, which was like 14, and I just never looked back. I believed I could achieve anything I wanted to.
So what do you feel is the most powerful and influential chapter in the book?
Working in the music industry, I had to do things that most people, that normal people would never get to experience in a lifetime; extravagant trips and being able to make a wonderful salary, and not ever having to worry about bills. But I learned over the last 4 years since I’ve been in transition, that that’s not what life is about. It’s about having a relationship with God, and really treating others the way God wants you to treat them. And so I’ve began a lot of service in our community when I moved back to Atlanta in 2009 and it’s been more rewarding than any awards show, any Chanel bag, any Prada bag and anything I’ve ever done from a monetary perspective. I can’t tell you the joy, even when I feed the homeless. It’s been an extremely humbling experience for me, finding a new purpose in my life.
Your book is giving a woman perspective to making it in the industry. It’s so rare to find women helping other women, particularly in the entertainment industry. Why is that?
I think sometimes we as women, we get a little territorial or there’s a bit of an intimidation factor. Sometimes we’re jealous of one another and we won’t even necessarily speak about it but you can sense the jealousy. You know, everybody wants to be successful. Everybody wants the ability to do what they want to do, so sometimes there is jealous undertones, but it comes out in other ways. Like that we may not support each other on a project, or in a workplace, or with getting a promotion. My pastor said at church one time, “we spend so much attention guarding our position, then playing our position.” Don’t be afraid of someone taking your spot.
I wrote a chapter on that in the book. You have to be mindful of your surroundings, but don’t get caught up in it so much. Do you, be secure with who you are. If you’re really strong at what you do and you’re getting the job done, then let your work speak for itself. And don’t worry about anybody else. I for one, if you spend all this time establishing a rapport and great relationships with people outside of your company, then you shouldn’t be in fear of losing that relationship. It’s okay to pass that contact along.
What do you expect young women to walk away with from reading your story?
I hope that young women, particularly this generation, understand the importance of working hard and not expecting everything. I think sometimes, millennials have this sense of entitlement and they feel like they DESERVE a certain spot. And with the overnight success and sensations that you see on YouTube, or certain shows, hats off to those people but that’s not reality. Reality is that you still have to work hard, you still have to get in there and carve out a space position for yourself. Interning is still important. Sometimes you gotta work for months or a couple of years before you can figure it out. But I don’t want this generation afraid of working hard, and perseverance. Stick to your goals, you may have to take a job in another industry on the side, but work for what you want.
In this particular industry, do you think a degree is even necessary?
Absolutely. The music and overall entertainment industry is still a business. You know, I’ve learned a lot about protocol; even in class. There were certain things you needed to do and relationships you had to have between the professor and the student. I think some of those things we apply in the workplace. My major was television/radio/film, so understanding the relationships in radio helped me when I started doing promotions. So I was actually able to apply some of what I learned in my major in the workforce. I look at college and universities as microcosm of the real world. So if you can go and make it, work with your peers and teachers, you can make it in the real world. The industry is still about the bottom line, and it’s still about dollars and cents.
So what were some of the obstacles you had to overcome as a female in the game?
One thing I talked about in the book is it was tough getting what I deserved from a financial standpoint. Because a lot of my male counterparts were making way more money than I was. And I had to learn and figure out how to negotiate properly. Because even when you look at business overall, women in the workplace make about 20% less, the last time I checked, than the average man. That was a huge obstacle. A lot of the men that I was working with were low-balling me. Eventually I learned not to take “no” for an answer and make sure my salary was up to par with my male counterparts.
How did you do that? Were you not afraid to walk away if it wasn’t what you felt you deserved?
Absolutely. Because at the time when I was negotiating with several labels, I was at the top of my game. So one thing I did was do my market research. I checked to see what other men and women were making at other companies. And you have to stick to your guns and not be afraid to walk away if the offer isn’t right. There are other companies, that hopefully will want to hire you. One thing I would say to women, is always start high in your negotiation because they’re going to try to lowball you. So if you start high, hopefully you find a happy medium that will work for you and the life that you’re trying to have for yourself.
I read somewhere that women ask for salaries that they feel a company would be comfortable with instead of aiming too high.
Absolutely. And men do the exact opposite. Men will ask for the world, and we’ll ask for a city. Men aren’t afraid to ask for some abundant amount of money, just to see if they’ll get it. See women, we play safe. But we have to know what we’re worth, our value, and not be afraid to ask for it.
Did you ever show weakness? Or become emotional in such a male dominated industry?
I cried once. I had to excuse myself and after that I was like “that will never happen again.” Because I knew right then and there that I was going to be seen as being weak and I just let my emotions get the best of me. But that was before I made it to the VP level, and I was just getting used to the politics of the company.
So don’t show weakness at all?
Don’t show weakness at all! You know, men already think that about us. They think that we (women) make decisions off of our emotions, and sometimes maybe that’s true. But I think guys make emotional decisions too. They just don’t reflect on it. Really, for women, just be firm, stand your ground, and don’t let them see you sweat.
What was it like working alongside artists like Jagged Edge, Outkast, Usher and Diddy?
Oh my god! The 90’s was the best era. And it’s funny because Outkast has their 20th anniversary this year. Their first album, SouthernPlayalistic, was the first single I ever worked with. They were truly creative spirits. What’s so unique about Outkast is that Big Boy and Dre bring very different things to the table. I think they made some of the best music of our time. Not even for breaking open southern hip hip, but for sound in hip hop overall.
Being able to work with an R&B group like Jagged Edge showed me that they were just some talented brothers who made their mark in the industry. They were always prepared and eager and energetic. It was just real cool working with them.
And did you ever just have a fan out moment? Or did your professionalism always outweigh that?
Oh absolutely. I tried to always make it a point to where I didn’t play the groupie role. It’s obviously okay to admire the people you work with. But it’s a fine line there. You’re there to pretty much make sure their life and career run smoothly, and so they will respect you for the hard work that you put in.
But you’re telling me you were NEVER star struck?
(laughs) There was ONE time I was star struck but I still tried to handle myself very calm and professionally. I think it was in 2002-2003, when I was working with Columbia Records. I was VP of their marketing and the president of our company, Donny Lenner, called me up to his office. And so he had told me a few months prior that we were thinking of a doing a one album deal with Prince. And I was like “omg that is like my idol!”
He knew that was the one artist as a child that I really looked up to and admired. He called me to his office, and I’m thinking I was in trouble, but Prince was standing in the door. And Donny was in the background pointing a finger at me like “I got you! I got you!” and I was just in shock. Prince was like “are you going to come in?” It was such a freak out moment. He wanted me to watch his video and tell him what I thought. Crazy. That was such a crazy time. But as a result of that I got to market for his musicology tour.
Incredible! Would you say that was one of the best moments of your career?
What did a typical day consist of at the LaFace offices?
When I was in the office I put together our marketing plans, made calls, t-shirts, postcards, had to deal with a lot of vendors. I had to get travel books, make sure we were setting up meet and greets on the tour, and that we were doing radio station interviews. So to me, when you’re working at a boutique label, sometimes you wear various hats. I started in promotions and then ended up in marketing, so for me, I was dabbling with the marketing department and the PR team. A lot of what we did was constantly calling people in the business, trying to find new ways to expose our talent. I spent a lot of time on the road. I did the Crazy, Sexy, Cool tour. I toured a lot with Usher early on in his career. That’s when were trying to break him in the marketplace, same thing with Outkast.
And when I left the office it definitely wasn’t over. I was in the club, in the studio, going to dinners with the team. LaFace was like a family.
Your days were so crazy! Did you feel the pressures of slowing down, getting married and starting a family at some point?
It wasn’t a time for me to get married and try to have a family, although, a few people did. It just wasn’t in the cards for me. I was just so narrow with the idea of winning as a team. And I just wanted to do anything that I could to make that happen for my team.
When you landed a dream job at Motown, why did you decide to walk away from it all?
I decided to walk away in 2009 because that was a tough year for me. My uncle had passed earlier that year, and he was kind of like my dad; the one to help raise me. So I really felt like I wasn’t there for him during his final years of his health declining. My mother developed dementia, which is now full on Alzheimer, and I saw my moms memory slipping away. And I was like okay, I can’t be this far away from my mom anymore. And not see her when her memory starts to fade. Because you only have one mom. And then I had health issues that year. And on top of all that, something just wasn’t right in my spirit anymore, with the job, being in New York. I finally listened to that inner voice, which I now feel was the Holy Spirit talking to me, and I just thought it was time to go home. That I have to do things differently, and I’ve had a wonderful run, but now it’s time to embark upon the second phase of your life. I’m in the second phase of my life now.
And this phase has you going the entrepreneurial route?
Absolutely, I’m doing things for me.
You’re already accustomed to having a strong work ethic. Is there an entirely upgraded work ethic that’s needed in building your own empire, versus being the head of someone else’s?
Oh my god, absolutely. When you’re just starting out, you need a different type of hustle abilities. Honestly I feel like I’m back in my Syracuse days and I’m “shoestring,” hustling and trying to make a business for myself. because I never set out to be an entrepreneur. I had to learn the ups and downs of it. It’s pretty much you eat what you kill in the entrepreneurial route. It’s a different level of excitement, because it’s ME. I’m doing a marketing plan for my book. It’s my intellectual property.
What do you love most about being on your own?
The opportunity to give back. So not only am I fulfilling my personal dreams and aspirations of being an author, but I’m able to help people too. And it’s such a wonderful feeling.
What organizations are you involved with?
I sit on the board of Big Kids foundation, which is Big Boy foundation of Outkast. I’m also a board member for Hands On Atlanta. I like to start initiatives that have a direct effect on a specific part of a community. Like for the earthquake in Haiti, I was able to raise over $5,000 immediately to buy medical supplies to one specific village. There is a big dinner on Thanksgiving called ” No Reservations Needed where I feed the homeless men of the Atlanta Mission. Also I do a pampering event for moms at the Genesis Shelter.The pre-requisite is that you had to have been homeless, and they help the moms get back on their feet and find housing and hopefully find jobs for themselves. So we do a big pampering day for them, where I get all of my celebrity makeup artists and stylists to come in and pamper moms for Mother’s day, or Christmas. I’m also starting a new initiative next week called, “Turn The Page,” where I promote literacy for kids and teenagers.
What are some words of wisdom you give to young woman working towards climbing the ladder to success in this?
Be a woman of integrity. Your word is your EVERYTHING. Sometimes, we don’t understand the importance of that. And respect yourself!
So many woman now take the reality show route, or IG, for visibility and a branding technique to break into the industry. Do you think these new aged ways can work for getting a record deal or at least getting notoriety from execs?
I would be a hypocrite if I said to the young lady who had to strip to pay her way through college, or had a baby, was still trying to do the right thing. Life is about choices, so as long as the choices we make, we stand behind them and know that there are consequences or know this can be a means to an end. If that is what you have to do, just keep some balance in your life. Women who start in reality, parlay into something else and actually build an empire for themselves. I dare not sit here and be a hypocrite to say I don’t approve of that. t may not have been a route I would have taken but for some women, it’s a way in and hopefully it can lead a way out of it. For example Nene and Kandi Burress skyrocketed their careers and built great empires
But it’s important for women like us to give them some insight. I wrote a book so that people can know there’s more to life than this video model shit and this entertainment business. There’s a whole chapter that I dedicate to women in the game, where I literally list names of execs; whether it’s in music, film, whatever, just so that these young girls can go research and see what other careers are out there.
What artist from the 90’s would you love to see resurface the music scene today?
Jodeci! Oh My God, such a fan of their work. Jodeci or Jagged Edge—the male boy bands. I miss the harmonies. You look at it on the pop side, One Direction is HUGE, on a global perspective. So I’m like what’s going on with R&B boy bands?
What’s your relationship like with today’s hip hop? Do you feel like the 90’s is still this untouchable era?
I don’t think the 90’s is an untouchable era! I’m a fan of Drake and Kendrick Lamar fan. Kendrick is really helping the culture push forward to get back to where it used to be from a lyrical standpoint and battling other artists, but in the most sincere way of getting people excited in the culture.
You talk a lot about having a plan B in your book. If things didn’t work out for you, what would’ve been your plan B?
If it didn’t work out for me, I would have tried to become a sports announcer, because I’m a huge sports fan. I would have tried to infiltrate the sports world.