Behind every artist is a man directing him in the right direction musically. We call ‘em A&Rs. The men who don’t necessarily receive the credit they deserve but instead are blessed with the satisfaction of creating music that touches the world, whether in small or big doses. Not to mention a living in this business.
Irvin Whitlow is the A&R that stands behind Planet VI (formerly Rock City) and Machine Gun Kelly proudly. He’s one of the masterminds behind Lace Up and MGK’s growing career as a whole. In an interview with Sermon’s Domain, he explains how he started in this game, linking with Planet VI and MGK, working with Travi$ Scott briefly, what he looks for in talent and what’s in store for the future.
First things first, how’d you get into the A&R game?
When I was in college, I did college rep for Atlantic Records, and from there I moved up to an urban consultant and then a national urban consultant. I was under Amy Wiggins a long time ago and she pretty much just gave me the ropes. Whenever Trey Songz, Lupe Fiasco, Talib Kweli and others came into the city, we would link up.
From there, I just tried to build my resume up. I moved out to Atlanta, started working with Rock City and they were the first people who actually opened the door and listened to me as an A&R. I did both sides with them: I was doing their music and also looking for the producers, and looking for different things they could do for other artists like Justin Bieber’s “Runaway Love.” Then, I found MGK, blah blah blah and shit like that.
You’ve been with Planet VI (Rock City) for years. What’s the story behind you meeting them and eventually working with ‘em?
To be honest, it’s actually kind of funny. There’s two different situations. When I was in school, I had to make the decision on what I wanted to do with my life. Your junior and senior year you’re wondering if you’re going to find a job and the only reason you make that decision is because your family tells you that’s what you have to do. Either that or you follow your dream.
One day, I’m at the crib and Rock City’s “Losing It” came on TV. I was wondering if there’s anybody new in the game that I could work with and who it would be as an A&R, and also be on the same page as them. Maybe I need to go online and see where Rock City is located, so I noticed they were in Atlanta and I had been eyeing possibly moving there. I felt like staying in Boston, I wouldn’t have lasted long, motherfuckers is dying. I don’t want to go there, and I don’t want a job.
I saved up $2,500, flew to Atlanta and hit up Rock City’s assistant. I went to the studio and met with their manager. I was pretty much like, ‘Yo, man, I’ll do fucking anything. I’ll fucking intern.’ I just worked my way up until they saw that I was an A&R. The other thing was my ex-girlfriend knew them and had told me about them before.
When those two are in the studio working on a demo for another artist, do you have any influence on the direction/concept of the records or do they just do their own thing?
Nine times out of 10 they’re going to do their own thing as far as writing goes. They make hits, so they don’t really need anybody to tell them shit. But, they’re definitely opened to my ears and my suggestions. They’ve taken plenty of ideas or decisions I’ve made and rolled with ‘em
How did you discover Machine Gun Kelly and what role have you played in his career so far?
MGK, that’s funny. A kid named Brett Pegler actually had reached out to me like, “yo this kid is fucking amazing, you have to check him out.” This is during the era when he was creating 100 Words & Running with [Mr.] Peter Parker. I responded back with, “yo, man, I think he’s alright. I don’t see what the big thing is. He’s white, I get it, but I don’t know about it.” But then again, when I was listening to the songs, Kelly had a lot of passion, so I thought to link him up with Rock City.
I got this record that was sampled by the Red Hot Chili Peppers called “Leave Me Alone.” I asked [Rock City] to get on it, and then sent it to MGK, who ended up recording it and putting the track on 100 Words & Running. From there, we built a relationship and would talk frequently enough to where he’d drive back and forth from Cleveland to Atlanta. He just kind of became my little brother.
How did it feel to see the first week sales for Lace Up?
Shit, man, I was happy as hell. I solely did the entire album with him from top to bottom. We could’ve sold 5,000 or 10 copies. I don’t really look at first week as the example of what we can become, it’s more of a head start to our journey, longevity and our legacy. There’s plenty of artists who are coming in the game and have been in it that’ve sold less than 50K first week. We could talk about people like Miguel, Lady Gaga, Akon or Bruno Mars. I want to be an icon. So, I don’t think first week is what you should be looking at. I look at it as a head start.
I was reading a Pill interview with Hip Hop DX where he says that the all original material mixtape is going to stop eventually when artists get tired of “wasting” songs that could be put out for purchase. What do you think about that? You believe it’ll happen?
That’s a great question. I think people getting sued when you’re making the music is going to affect the mixtape. I don’t mind releasing music and not getting paid for it. I believe it’s cool to sometimes give out music to your fans for free to let them know it’s not all about the money. Flat out, we make music for the people who feel like they don’t have a voice.
In the future, will you be doing work with more artists or is your sole focus on MGK and Planet VI? Are there any artists you plan on introducing to the world soon?
I’ve worked with various people but if I had to shout out anybody I’d shout out Johnny Rain, Forte Bowie and Dubo. I’m messing with the underdogs, the people you’ll see one day. Like, Travis $cott, I used to work with him and I knew what he was going to be before he even signed to G.O.O.D. Music.
How come you don’t work with him anymore?
We just had two different ideas on where we felt he should go with it musically. I also felt he deserved someone who could work with him 24/7, and my time right now is truly focused on Machine Gun Kelly. That’s my little bro, though. Whatever he needs, I got him.
My last question is what makes you decide to work with an artist?
We both can relate, we both feel each other and actually giving me free range to present my ideas before an artist is like, “this is who the hell I am!” I’m trying to create a story that people can feel. Your album and music represent who you are. It’s your resume. I try to give the people the best quality while giving them who the artist is. If you’re mad, you have mood swing, make music while you’re angry so you have music that they can feel like, “damn that nigga was angry in the studio” or this and that. I want to hear real music, not just ratchet and trap stuff. I want to hear that when I’m in the club but not 24/7.