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DOPE: Coming of Age

Four years in the making, DOPE, a premiere NYC music showcase presented by Central Booking, is betting on themselves as opposed to industry hoopla. And lucky for its founder, Shawn Lawrence James, they’ve already won.

Words by STAR KENNEDY
Images and video RAY KAIROS

For those who remember having to dig in the crates at local record stores, sifting through mounds of music is no easy task, although cathartic. In today’s age, that process of finding the right music is pretty much obsolete. The information superhighway consistently bombards us with all that is “new”: new collabs, new releases, new artists, new genres. Platforms like iTunes, Spotify, Pandora and the once innovative, Rhapsody, have all had their share in turning most of us, if not all of us, into playlisters. By default, they have collectively removed the need for us to search relentlessly for tunes that move us with their one-click algorithms that aggregate “recent hits”, while serving up “if you like this artist…” functionality that save us on time and act as virtual A&R’s. And yet, interestingly, despite how integral these digital music sifters have become in our day-to-day exploratory existence, none of these platforms have unlocked the code for presenting a live experience (Could it ever be that simple?) and nothing beats feeling like you’ve “discovered” an artist first.

Enter Shawn Lawrence James. The proverbial Brooklyn cat with three first names; a music journalist-cum-music supervisor and talent finder; the man behind DOPE . Under the company banner Central Booking, James selects a handful of artists to perform at his weekly music showcase (better known as DOPE) to a slew of 20-somethings, industry insiders, artists, creators, hipsters and all those who simply want to be in the room. They’re usually set in some Downtown Manhattan or Brooklyn locale, most usually, in an untapped dive bar that features a heavy-handed bartender and the one true caveat; a killer sound system.

It’s an idea that is not new in the least, when it comes to presenting new musical acts. Much like earlier winners—Amateur Night at the Apollo, Lyricist Lounge, R&B Live or Live at the Loft—that once conquered the Apple, DOPE ushers in a fresh crop of talent that is rarely afforded the opportunity to perform anywhere else in the city. But what makes this musical movement different four years later is that, while it steadily builds up steam, former acts, who were once hungry to perform live, sometimes for the first time ever at DOPE, are blowing up one by one from Theophilus London to Zoe Kravitz, to Bridget Kelly and J. Cole; and it’s not genre-based nor is it pretentious, so you never know what eclectic mix of musicians, singers, rappers, dj’s or personalities you will find once you step onto a DOPE set. Lenny Kravitz and Questlove blessed one of his events. When a performance venue fronted on him on show night, Dame Dash looked out and let him use the former DD172 space as a venue. And it’s because Shawn has that “it” factor that the major labels are so desperately trying to return to; that thing that allows him to truly know what a great artist should sound like and the ability to identity the next batch of artists who can change the game.

I had the pleasure of watching DOPE come about in it’s early days, having known Shawn (We endearingly call him SLCool James or SLJ) for years. He was a 19-year old intern at Trace magazine way back when, when I was the rag’s Managing Editor. He is a Bed Stuy, Brooklyn native, who grew up just blocks away from the infamous Notorious B.I.G. streetside summer battle, and a hop, skip and a jump away from Roosevelt and Marcy, the projects that gave rise to Yasiin Bey (the artist formerly known as Mos Def) and Jay-Z respectively. His Trinidadian roots made him a natural born hustler and restless entrepreneur. And SLJ always knew that music was his rock, so his objective rested in finding the best way to sling it—he once told me that in a manner of shared words as we walked home together one day after work. He lived right around the corner from my place, and whether he was working or not, whenever I saw him, notepad and pen in hand, he would be scribbling down ideas, random thoughts, strategies and the things that inspired him—everything, including the things he learned during his stint in Queen Latifah and Bruce Willis’ Art Start program, that would lead to now.

It’s kind of weird interviewing you, Shawn [Laughs].

Yeah, I know. It is what it is. [Laughs]

You know, you sent me an email the other day… I never knew that you were 15 when you started in this business. How?

My best friend Carlton found like a flyer on the floor to become a street team member of Murder Inc. So once I started doing street team [work], a lot of the interns, you know, were college kids or late high school, and they were not taking it seriously. So I decided to basically live in that office if I wasn’t in school. And I went from doing street work to doing actual intern work, that’s the way I found out about Soundscan and BDS, and really just understanding the business. That’s how it started; they used to give me sampler CD’s to give out and I would just sell them because they were full of new Ja Rule material, and he was hot at the time, you know. I would have other people selling it, giving me back $1.50, just finding a smart way to hustle, you know.

The original hustle! [Laughs] But you said street team, which kind of threw me off because it feels so ’90s. Street teams are pretty much non-existent now.

Yeah, it’s not [alive anymore], but it was a very effective way of marketing, and I try to use that mentality when I promote my stuff now by having flyers and passing them out on the street, after shows or going to industry parties, or just hitting people up on the train. We live in a viral age, but still, in order to be successful you still have to do the same street approach so that they can go online and see all of that material [you have] online. You can never forget the personal interaction. That’s very important.

I’m glad you said that because I know you very well. We have a personal interaction and I know what I’m about to say is a bit cliché now, this whole idea of being a “cultural curator”—everyone is using it and calling themselves that. But I know you, and I know that you really take time to craft every element of your show. So with that sensibility in mind, how do you maintain the balance between keeping it creative and appealing to the industry set?

What I’ve learned is not to appeal to the industry because when you try to appeal to them, they always front on you. And that kind of cold shoulder that I’ve gotten from the industry has allowed me to really just incubate and develop myself as an executive. You can go to a Jay-Z concert or anybody’s that’s really popping right now, 99% of the crowd are people that have regular jobs and students who just have a natural passion for listening and enjoying music. I rather appeal to them straight and create my own industry. I have my own set of photographers. I have my own set of really creative people that I work with, you know. If the industry is not going to give us a job, we’re not going to appeal to them; we’ll just work together and do our own thing because the people are what’s important. The industry will ride with you one day and be done with the other. And you really can’t stop the people. I love when I do shows and people are thoroughly entertained.

Right, and you have a talent for breaking acts too, who have become your long-term friends that you can call on at any moment—both of which you don’t see often. Like you said, the industry has this sort of disposable complex, where you’re good one day and out the next.

And that’s just from people believing in that system instead of creating their own system. You know, people forget that Jay-Z went to every label and couldn’t get signed so he had to hit the streets. He created his own system; he started off independent and then signed to a major—even though his imprint is distributed by a major, he’s still independent. He still owns all of his masters; he still owns most of the revenue that comes from sales. So I feel like we apply that same mentality into what we’re doing at Central Booking. We don’t care about what anybody else is doing. I know a couple of people who are like, “I want to get cool with this guy, this guy and this guy,” but you know, it’s a bunch of flakes. And I’m not saying the whole industry is fake or whatever; the people who have good jobs like yourself and other people that are really putting it down, ya’ll earned ya’ll space, you know. I respect that and you got your own imprint, which is more important to me. So I just respect the entrepreneurial spirit, you know.

You’ve mentioned Jay-Z a couple of times during this interview and we’re only a couple of minutes in [Laughs]. Who are some of the other people that have influenced you or have said things that kind of resonated with you and stayed with you as you’ve embarked on your entrepreneurial hustle?

Wait, what was the question?

[LAUGHS], I said, that you’ve mentioned Jay-Z a couple of times and we haven’t even gotten deep into this interview yet. And I’m wondering who are some of the other people that have influenced you or have said things that have resonated with you or fueled your entrepreneurial hustle?

Definitely Lyor Cohen. Actually Lyor Cohen is my greatest influence. He believed in getting your hands dirty, and he really believed in doing great work before expecting great revenue. You know, that right there is the blueprint for really becoming a great executive and being brave enough for making as many mistakes as possible. If you make a mistake, then you automatically know how to do it right the next time even if you’re under the big watch of someone else. You learn that you can really perfect your craft and your hustle. So definitely Lyor Cohen, that’s basically it.

So how do you make money in a recession? How do you get the people in the building to spend money?

You just have to make them believe. You really have to be a stand-up individual. You have to be known as a person of integrity. You really have to be able to articulate yourself and what you believe because more than anything, people smell passion. And if they smell passion, they’ll be curious as to what you’re so passionate about.

And you’ve made some tremendous artists believe. I know I touched on that before, but we didn’t really talk about the artists that you’ve discovered. We could talk about J. Cole. We could talk about Zoe Kravitz. We could even talk about Theo London, technically.

Yeah. That’s my guy, man. Shouts to Theophilus, man. That’s my guy. I fuck with him hard body.

Do you think these artists smelled your passion and that’s why they decided to rock with you so early in their careers?

The thing is, the thing that separates me from everybody else is that I’m the only entity that offers artists a consistent outlet for them to express themselves and express their talent. You know, because a lot people are concerned with getting signed and getting raped as opposed to building up brick by brick. And I’m there at the very first brick, you know. I really care about building something that’s long-lasting, and I think people really respect that because everybody wants to jump on the bandwagon, but nobody wants to do the work for somebody to get there, you know.

I’ve always been never afraid, whether it was with my style of dress or my musical taste or anything. Nobody could tell me anything. I always stood up for what I believed in. I also gave people around me confidence as well, to do what they wanted to do. Smart people know to fuck with that, you know.

Let’s talk about the do-it-yourself generation. I feel like you’re part of the generation of young people like you said, it is about if someone is not offering you something, you create it yourself. But in that frame of thought, with everyone doing it themselves, there oddly seems to be more room for dilution, repetition and sameness. Thoughts?

I can’t really speak on that. But my do-it-yourself approach just really comes from necessity and me having to make something happen. All of my flyers I design. And I do that because at a point, I had a graphic designer that cost some money that I couldn’t afford. So I really had to teach myself to design my own flyers. I am a one-man staff. I do my own PR; I do my own marketing. I do my own booking. I do my own A&R; I do my own artist development as far as artist’s performing. I do everything, you know. As we become bigger then, I will be able to have some assistance. And I’m not going to let anything stop me, and I feel that’s what a lot of up and coming entrepreneurs need to get. You have to do it yourself because no one else is going to do it for you, and you can’t use the fact that no one is going to do it for you as an excuse for not getting it done. It’s going to have to get done somehow. It’s like a natural thing and once you find out that you’re really good at it, you know what, fuck it.

[Laughs] And your flyers are very dope actually…

Yeah, literally. [Laughs] And it’s just not me, I deal with an amazing photographer and one of my close friends, Ray Kairos. He’s one of the most disciplined and just skilled photographers of our generation. He’s done a lot of amazing work and I feel so blessed to work with him. Without him, the flyers would not be as innovative and forward-pushing. Cause we’ve seen a lot of whack flyers; there are a lot of whack flyers in the game. And we make sure that artist, from the visual representation, from the experience —everything has to be top notch for us to even compete. That’s that.

How do you go about finding talent?

Really, I just thank God. It’s really God, you know, because each situation just happens so organically. Like Katrina Bello, she was the door girl for a listening party for one of the DOPE alumni that I had worked with. She was just a door girl and she was telling everybody that she was an intern at Def Jam, but when I spoke to her she told me that she sings. And she actually came to one of my events, you know, and actually enjoyed one of my events. And so did everyone else that I’ve worked with, so everything just happens like that. Like J. Cole I know through his girlfriend, you know. So she put me in contact. Things just kind of come to me and I just kind of like live and let things happen. I just live. I don’t have a direct technique.

Isn’t that the opposite of hustling though?

What do you mean?

I don’t know. I guess when you think of the word hustling, it feels more aggressive or assertive, or at the very least being proactive in a search for something or an attempt at something.

Well, one thing that I learned from Lyor Cohen, he said to wait for the hits. Be patient enough to wait for the hits. And I feel like I have to be patient enough to wait for these artists, because I just can’t put anybody on my stage, you know. In all of four years that I’ve been doing DOPE, I can honestly say that I’ve only had two bad performers. So I just really believe in being patient. That’s the one thing that takes time, finding great artists. And then when I meet them, then I can hustle and push. When it comes to my hustle, it’s part of promoting, doing the networking and getting the exposure. But finding the artists, I just kind of let that happen organically.

Any shout outs to your other artists? I feel like you’re being super humble right now.

Meridian, they’re awesome. Charly & Margaux, who I met—what’s crazy, my boy Royce told me about them about three years ago. He was like, “There are these chicks man that play the violin by my job and you gotta check them out.” And I just happen to see them last summer, while I was hoping out of the train and that’s how I met them. I just really sat there and watch them play and was blown away. And once I get blown away, I know other people will get blown away. Steeve Sam, who’s one of the greatest performers that I’ve ever worked with. Sophia Urista, she’s like the fucking new queen of Funk and Funk is not even a live genre anymore. She really brought the Funk back. Blind Benny are like stupid talented. I can’t even put into words how talented they are. Stickz Greenz. Dreamshow is just like fucking sick. And my girlfriend DJ’s the shows and she’s excellent at that. I work with other credible DJs as well, like Hannah Bronfman. Maya Nicole is fucking awesome too. Just really cool and amazing artists, man. Every artist that I named are going to be well-known.

For someone who is looking up to you wanting to get in the game, what words would you share?

Just don’t stop.

You sound like Diddy. [Laughs]

[Laughs] Don’t stop, can’t stop. Hehe, heha. [Laughs]

Don’t stop. Always be curious and keep the number of your close friends low, you know. Don’t get caught up by the bitches, the scene—none of that. Don’t get caught up by none of that shit. You know, just invest your time into doing excellent work and God will attack those other things for you. That’s why those great artists that I’m working with now are attracted to me. I attract them and they attract me, and we make great work.

Tickets for tonight’s DOPE show are available now. Visit Central Booking on their tumblr page for more information, HERE.

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