Now that we know what an A&R does, let’s take a look at a few that really shook up the game.
Any hip-hop head will be familiar with the bearded wonder that is Rick Rubin. He and co-founder Russell Simmons established Def Jam Recordings as the first label with hip-hop music as it’s main source of talent output. In a New York University dorm room, the new label hoped to sign artists that would bring a raw and authentic energy to hip hop. Prior to that, people were still writing off hip-hop as a novelty music, much like jazz before it. Rubin’s worked with some of the biggest early names in the genre, including Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys.
Rubin built out an extensive musical network, and his signees dropped tips on other acts he should check out. For example, it was Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys who first put LL Cool J on Rubin’s radar. Clearly, it wasn’t enough having a handful of good acts and calling it a day— Reuben understood that to stay relevant, you need to find artists that are at the vanguard of the procession of sound.
Rubin’s career was not limited to hip-hop, and this willingness to expand ultimately sealed the fate of his and Simmons’s partnership. Rubin wanted to work with heavy metal acts, but that sound didn’t really have a place at a label where hip-hop was the established force. So, he formed another label to focus on metal. But he didn’t abandon hip-hop completely, bringing acts like the Geto Boys to his new label.
As Rubin’s career progressed, he moved into roles beyond A&R. He has produced countless hits, and worked with popular acts like Kanye West, Weezer, and Eminem.
Hip-hop had been around for several years by the time Sylvia Robinson got her first experience with it. However, it had yet to be channeled in studio and shown to people unfamiliar with the the burgeoning music scene. Through her efforts, she cobbled together an entirely fabricated studio crew, the Sugar Hill Gang— and produced their first hit “Rapper’s Delight”— on her new label of the same name.
Robinson’s story is interesting because she fulfilled the role of A&R in more ways than one. During a time where many rappers felt that their new music was only meant for live performances, she had a bit of trouble finding artists that were willing to participate in a studio session. Although it was still in it’ earliest stages, she understood that you could make a business out of hip-hop, and that is wasn’t some passing fad with kids and young adults in New York City.
Furthermore, Robinson took her rappers and paired them with grade-A studio talent, including Chic’s Nile Rodgers. Contrary to popular belief, that iconic bassline isn’t sampled from Chic’s “Good Times” or even looped. Instead, it’s played continuously from start to finish. While it was definitely a grueling feat, it paved the way for the samples that would become a staple of hip-hop music production.
Although her business practices did garner their share of controversy, it’s hard to deny Robinson the credit that comes with building a house from the ground up and sharing a new style of music with a huge new audience.
Pharrell danced onto the radars of many casual music fans with 2013’s “Blurred Lines” and 2014’s “Happy”, but for most he had never gone anywhere at all. He’s been heavily active in both performance and production since his earliest days with the Neptunes, a production crew he formed with friend and future N.E.R.D. bandmate Chad Hugo. He represents the side of A&R that deals mostly with working and developing an artists talent. Because he is so widely sought after, he is behind some of the biggest hits of artists across various genres, including Gwen Stefani, Daley, Jay Z, Prince, Backstreet Boys, and Kendrick Lamar.