Williams Street Records, Killer Mike Defy Music Business Model By Teaming with Adult Swim (Q&A)
Jason DeMarco, the label's founder and an executive at Cartoon Network, tells THR how a channel known for animated fare turned into the best place on TV to find new music.
Ask what are this year's best hip-hop albums and you're bound to hear the name Killer Mike. Atlanta’s Grammy-winning elder statesman of rap teamed with the Brooklyn underground producer El-P for a shining mesh of styles called R.A.P. Music, which has had critics fanatically singing its praises.
But perhaps equally surprising when it comes to the success of this collaboration is the label behind its release: Willliams Street Records, an offshoot of Cartoon Network's late-night oddball animation and comedy block Adult Swim. For the past six years, Williams Street has been releasing one-off projects like R.A.P. Music as well as show soundtracks and working as a boutique operation tasked with building a musical following from the devoted audience Adult Swim has been cultivating since 2001 (which Nielsen consistently rates No. 1 on cable in the key 18 to 49 demo).
This unique business extension has resulted in 21 releases or co-releases ranging from a made-up metal band to skate punk to afropop as Adult Swim has increasingly developed a reputation for being good home for artists looking to do something offbeat, new and cool.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Jason DeMarco, Williams Street Records' founder and Cartoon Network and Adult Swim’s vice president of strategic marketing and promotions, about how building a record label and turning a channel known for cartoons into the best place on television to find new music.
The Hollywood Reporter: Would you briefly explain the evolution of Williams Street Records from the beginning to where you are today?
Jason DeMarco: Williams Street Records started because we did a project called Danger Doom in 2005, which was born out of relationship I had with Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, and Daniel Dumile, aka [MF] Doom. I was friends with both of them and had been working with Danger Mouse for a number of years. He had been providing music for Cartoon Network for a show I worked on called Toonami and he came to me with the idea of he and Doom doing an album using all Toonami samples. I said I didn't think that people really wanted a Toonami album but I thought that Adult Swim seemed like the perfect fit. So we brought the idea to Mike Lazzo, who runs Adult Swim, and he very graciously gave us the money to make it. We made a deal with Epitaph Records, who put it out, and it was kind of a hit record that year. It surprised everybody, including us, and was just everywhere.
So based on the success of that we did another project with Stones Throw Records called Chrome Children that also did very well, and then the conversation turned internally to, “Well, if we can do this with other labels, we have the infrastructure, we're a big company, why don't we try starting our own label because we obviously will be doing more of this stuff?” So that was sort of the impetus to start Williams Street Records and it has been used since to put out the occasional record not related to the shows and then we also put out a bunch of records related to shows and soundtracks like the Venture Brothers soundtrack or the last two Dethklok albums, which have done very well for us, or the Tim and Eric record. And then we've put out stuff like Cerebral Ballzy and we put out a record by Cheeseburger. So it's sort of a mix of original one-off projects and these things that support shows.
THR: Why is it appealing for artists to involve themselves with Adult Swim?
DeMarco: Adult Swim appeals to anyone who stays up late at night and musicians stay up all hours. So when they come home from their show or off tour or are in their hotel and they get into their room at three or four in the morning, Adult Swim is on and it's sort of their friend. No matter where they are in the country, they can turn the TV on and Adult Swim will be there greeting them every night.
I have found through my time at Adult Swim -- and I've been here since the beginning -- that a lot of people have jobs that involve staying up late at night and they love Adult Swim. Cab drivers know Adult Swim, security guards know it, police knowir, strippers, musicians ... So it's very easy for me to call and say, “I work for Adult Swim” and get my foot in the door. Also, the kind of musicians we're working with are usually younger and they're already in the demographic of people who watch Adult Swim, so it's a loop that feeds into itself: We air music from young people, we have shows that young people like and, as a result, those young musicians out there watch our shows and then want to come back and make music with us.
THR: What other kind of opportunities come as a result of being linked to a television network?
DeMarco: The number one thing is, obviously, television exposure, which is something most artists do not get anymore. I mean, even MTV does not air videos very often anymore and the only other way artists commonly get exposure is through commercials or an award show, and then they're already big, successful artists.
And then there are just unusual opportunities, like T-Pain working with us and then ending up in the show Freaknik. It started out with him doing music for Aqua Teen Hunger Force and then we developed a relationship with him and the next thing you know he's the star of this musical and then he comes back and does a Squidbillies episode. We look at the music angle as almost as important as the visuals, so you will see reccurring relationships with musicians that return.
The Killer Mike record is another example. He first did voices in Frisky Dingo and then we brought him back to do a song for the Aqua Team Hunger Force movie soundtrack and then that led into this record. So it's not really planned out, it's somewhat organic and it's totally relationship-based.
THR: What went into putting that Killer Mike and El-P collaboration together?
DeMarco: Basically after working with me on the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie soundtrack, which I executive produced, Mike came back and said, “I want to do something with you guys.” I said to him, “Look, you're a Grammy-winning artist and you're probably used to a lot more money than we can probably pay you to put out a record.” And to his credit, he said, “I don't care about money. I just want to do a record that I can be proud of. I want to do the kind of record that my fans might not expect me to do. I want to surprise people and do something that is a different piece of work for me and I think you can help me get there. So I just want to work with you. So tell me what you want to do.”
He had been on the first year of the Adult Swim singles program and I interviewed him, and during that piece we talked pretty extensively about his biggest influences in hip-hop, which were of course Scarface, 8Ball & MJG, and he mentioned Ice Cube and AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted as a seminal moment for him. As it was for me, too, so I said to him, “If anybody's in the position to make that record right now it's you.”
We both keyed into that, the idea of him making something that is inspired by that but is definitely representative of now. Not a throwback record but a record that definitely is inspired by that passion that AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted kind of had put into it.
So in thinking about it, for me it was kind of obvious. It was like, “Well, you need to work with El-P.” When we first started talking it was going to be a bunch of different producers because we just assumed El would never be able to do the whole record so we thought maybe he would do three songs and we would have different people do different beats but once I got [Mike] and El together, from there they just took over and the train kind of left the station without me really needing to do anything. They just immediately clicked. They immediately had an effect on one another. They formed a very tight bond in an astonishingly fast period of time because they're both very different but they're both also very alike and I think they just immediately enjoyed working together.
So once they had their first session they got about three songs done and Mike said, “I don't want to work with anybody else, I want to finish this record with El.” And El told both of us, “No, no, I've got to make my own record. I've been making my own record for two years, I don't have time to make yours.”
Finally, we just bugged the crap out of him until he gave in. And then Mike flew up to New York and they did the bulk of the record there. There was one more trip to Atlanta, but it was really three long sessions of them together basically spending every waking moment together hanging out and vibing off of each other. And then it was done.
THR: Have you been surprised by the album's reception?
DeMarco: I'm gratified and a little surprised that it's taking off the way it has just because for years I was waiting for the walls to come down between what was considered major label or mainstream hip-hop and indie hip-hop. I'm an old school hip-hop fan and I'm one of the people who listened to everybody. I would listen to Anticon but I would also listen to Lil Wayne and I never saw a reason why those two worlds couldn't work together. I did this Adult Swim ATL RMX record where we got avant-garde producers to work with more commercial rappers just because I like the idea of bringing those two aesthetics together to see if anything magical could happen. So it's actually something that had been on my mind for a number of years and I just got incredibly lucky and found the two perfect people to do that together. And they got incredibly lucky and found something within each other that brought out the best in each of them.
But I am amazed with how well it came out and I'm glad that no one is rejecting the record for being too political -- not no one but very few people. And I'm really happy that Mike's and El's fans seem to be accepting it, and then people like NPR are calling it out and we're getting a lot of attention from outlets that don't normally talk about this kind of music and certainly don't normally talk about Killer Mike.
THR: With releases like this, which are not soundtracks but unique one-offs, how do you decide if they fit into the label’s aesthetic?
DeMarco: The key is that we want to surprise people by doing something different every time. In an ideal world, it's not another record by a band that's going to sound like all their other records. Mike's a good example: His record sounds like a Killer Mike record but it certainly doesn't sound anything like his other records, and that's what we want. We want the fact that it's on Williams Street to mean that whatever it is, whether you like it or not, it's not going to be the expected thing. And that's obviously a really high bar -- we don't always hit it, but that's the goal.