Schoolly-D Q & A: powerHouse Magazine Nov 2007
By Brian Coleman
You think you know Schoolly D? Don’t be so sure. Even his most devoted fans don’t have the full story.
Sure, these days you hear his distinctive voice and funky-ass beats whenever “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” starts to ooze from your Cartoon Network screen. And while he once sampled artists whose music he loved, younger cats today are now using ‘80s Schoolly classics like “Gucci Time” and “Saturday Night” as their own song fodder.
But the man born Jesse B. Weaver Jr. is more than just the original gangsta rapper (if you doubt this fact, do not pass go, and ask Ice-T and Dr. Dre). He makes bank doing scores to movies you’ve never seen, and has had a headlock on his own royalties and publishing for more than two decades, astutely leveraging his own musical equity to assure that he never has to say “Yes, sir” to one goddamn person in the biz.
POWERHOUSE [Brian Coleman]: I know you’re gearing up to score the next Abel Ferrara flick, tell me more about that.
SCHOOLLY-D: It’s for the prequel to King of New York. I guess the story starts before Frank White went to jail. I’m waiting on the script now, so I can start getting the music together. With the original King of New York , which was the first time I worked with Abel, I was brought in during the late part of the process. Abel didn’t have any music for the film because he hadn’t liked anything he had heard out of New York, and then somebody handed him a copy of [Schoolly’s debut album, from 1987] Saturday Night: the Album and he started calling me. I said no ten times [laughs], but eventually I went to New York and saw the film, and that’s when I started working with him.
PH: I assume it’s safe to say that most of your music fans don’t follow the work you have done with Abel.
SCHOOLLY: Yeah, people don’t really know that side. It’s pretty amazing, a lot of people think that I stopped making music around 1991. [laughs]. But I love doing film music. It puts me in a situation where Schoolly-D can just be Schoolly-D. I can make beautiful music, or the nastiest, dirtiest music you’d ever want to hear. In film you have the freedom to do that. You might not have the notoriety, but you can be free and get respect for what you do.
PH: Tell me more about how film music works, versus the way that artists put music out on a traditional record label.
SCHOOLLY: When I do music for a film, it’s a contracted thing. It could be one month or it could be six months. With Abel, my deal is that I always get to keep one song for myself. I keep all the rights and publishing. Because usually when you do a film score, they want everything. But I pretty much get to keep the lead song. And when they need to use it, they just license it from me for a buck. The music budget for a film is about two percent of the whole budget, but indie movies can be 20 million dollars. You have to compose the music, transpose it. Sometimes you have to be there until the end, and be available for any rewrites. It’s actually tougher than making a record for a major label.
PH: I’m assuming that you never thought you’d be doing movie scores when you were starting out.
SCHOOLLY: Actually, I was really influenced by movie music as a kid. It wasn’t like I never thought of it. I’m a movie buff. When I was ten I’d watch Oklahoma and Guys & Dolls for the music. It always intrigued me — why music made me happy or sad. Although I never actually figured I’d make movie music until Abel called me that first time. He told me, “You can make a lot of money in film, because the kinds of records you make [pauses, laughs], nobody’s gonna play that shit on the radio!” That was tough for me to accept, but he was right. I got a lot more respect and acceptance for what I do when I started making music for film.
PH: Do you have a favorite movie score from your childhood?
SCHOOLLY: I’d say that West Side Story probably had the most impact on me. To have music like that [composed by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim] in a hardcore gang movie was just intense. The songs are just so cool! [sings part of the soundtrack song “Cool”]. That shit just stuck in your mind.
PH: On a somewhat related subject, you’re best known to a lot of younger people today as the guy who does the theme song for “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.” Did you know that it was going to be a hit when they first contacted you?
SCHOOLLY: I definitely predicted well with “Aqua Teen,” I knew it was going to be big. With television they own everything [publishing-wise], so you can’t get shit. I told them I’d do it for a set fee, but in five years, when it became a hit, I get the rights back. They said yes but in the end they went back on their word when it came time to do the movie [which came out in 2007]. That was the bad thing about the experience, the movie. Because when you do a movie, everyone thinks you’re a millionaire, and you’ve got friends suing you and all that bullshit. Everyone involved in the show just let it go to their heads. I was really saddened by the whole thing.
PH: So, you didn’t make any money off “Aqua Teen”?
SCHOOLLY: I made money. With TV you lose writing royalties, but you still get your performance rights, and that’s worth a lot. A guy told me this about 20 years ago: “You get famous in movies, but you get rich on television.” I definitely agree with that. And on iTunes, the “Aqua Teen” theme is my second most downloaded song, after [1986’s] “Gucci Time.” I get a piece of that, the performance part.
PH: Moving on to another subject, tell me what you’ve learned about music publishing over the years.
SCHOOLLY: I’ve always paid attention to publishing, since 1985. My first publishing deal was with Arthur Mann [of Rykodisc] and that deal gave me the right to buy my publishing back in seven years for $35,000. And at that point it was worth about $700,000, so he was pissed. Basically, publishing is just a bunch of people sitting around and predicting the future. For real! That’s how they make all their deals. I mean, do you think that the dude who did “Kung Fu Fighting” knew that people would use it for commercials and movies 20 years later? Publishers make deals with hundreds or thousands of artists and just sit and fuckin’ wait. Because if you’re worth anything, music comes around every 20 years or so. If you have just one or two good songs, somebody’s gonna redo it or use it in a commercial or a movie.
PH: But how did you know about publishing back in 1985 when you were just starting out? Most young dudes learn about that side of the biz after getting screwed during their first couple deals.
SCHOOLLY: I remember when I was a kid I saw a movie about publishing, about selling sheet music. I can’t remember the name of the movie, but that shit stuck with me, about how you could make money if people played your songs. People thought I was weird because I was counting pennies that were coming in for royalties back in the early days. But that shit adds up. I have about 150 songs, and I’ve kept 100% of most of them.
PH: And you have people keeping track of who uses those songs?
SCHOOLLY: With publishing you have to have someone out there collecting for you, because there’s just so much shit out there. People use my music for so much shit. I just got a CD yesterday where Jim Jones & Lil’ Wayne re-did “Gucci Time.” I had no idea. You gotta make sure you get paid.
PH: When is it a good idea to actually give up some of what you own, to involve other people, like a record label, for instance?
SCHOOLLY: Well, 100% of zero is zero [laughs]. You can come up with a lot of great songs in your room, but if no one is buying them then it doesn’t really matter. If you’re a new guy, then you probably need a record label to get your name out there. You need somebody to put money up so that you can just concentrate on music. And when you do that, the second you have a fanbase and have someone helping you out financially, that’s when you don’t own yourself anymore. You have to satisfy the beast. And that can go well, or it can go badly. That’s why I never really flourished when I was on someone else’s record label, because I was so fuckin’ rebellious. I just didn’t want to work along with them. But now that digital music distribution is here to stay, this is the moment I’ve been waiting for for so long.
PH: How so?
SCHOOLLY: For somebody who has been around for 25 years, the digital world is just fucking amazing right now. The artist is supposed to have control of their music, especially the veteran artists. And now we can keep that, and go directly to fans. You still have to pay for promotion, but you’re making 80% on your songs instead of 20% like you were before. Digital is just the shit.