Sam Taylor On Driving Kobalt’s Presence In Hip-Hop
In this wide-ranging interview, Taylor walks us through the seminal moments of his career—like connecting the dots on Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and Black Panther’s “All The Stars”—the challenges Black executives face in music, his distaste for the word ‘urban,’ and why he believes in the mission of Kobalt.
As you step into the office of Sam Taylor (Senior Vice President, Creative), you immediately begin to grasp his stylistic approach. From the Eric Buterbaugh Rose & Musk candle quietly burning in the corner, the weekly assortment of fresh roses or lilies sitting atop his low-rise credenza, to the abstract portrait of the iconic Muhammad Ali placed behind his desk, it’s clear that creativity, authenticity, and form are themes which he gravitates towards.
Born in Heidelberg, Germany, Taylor is a military kid whose family relocated multiple times. By his sophomore year of high school, Virginia was home, basketball was the priority, and music was his refuge. Thanks in part to his dad (a retired Major) believing himself to be the sixth member of The Temptations, and his mom crooning to Anita Baker and Luther Vandross, R&B became the formative genre to Taylor’s unique musical ear.
Then came Hip-Hop. LL Cool J’s “Radio” and Tyrone Brunson’s “The Smurf” were game changers for Taylor. He quickly became enamored with reading the credits on vinyl, relentlessly searching for the executive producers and A&Rs behind his favorite records. But it was a chance sighting of Puff Daddy sitting courtside at a celebrity basketball game that cemented his dreams of working in A&R. Taylor vividly remembers Puff, adorned in an all-white outfit, holding two phones up to his ears, paying hardly any attention to the game that everyone was excited to see. That sense of influence and responsibility had Taylor thinking “Yo, I want to be [like] that.”
Taylor stepped into fatherhood at 19. The accompanying sense of responsibility led him to join the Air Force as an Information Specialist. Being stationed back in Virginia, after basic training, afforded Taylor the opportunity to pursue his A&R dream, as he was able to make bi-weekly trips to New York to hang with an A&R friend who worked at Elektra Records. Soon after, Taylor met Mayhem (Greg Taylor) who A&Rd for Capone-N-Noreaga and, helped in part by a mutual sneaker obsession, began interning for one of the best in the business.
It wasn’t much longer before Taylor left the military and moved to NY, working numerous administrative jobs (in addition to his internship) to keep things afloat for his young family. His talent eventually caught the attention of Merlin Bobb at Elektra. The latter — who signed Tamia, En Vogue, Missy Elliott and more — soon became Taylor’s mentor, and Taylor became Bobb’s assistant. It wasn’t too long before Sam’s first signing at Warner Chappell, Kevin Cossom (KC), was in the books and his first placement and hit, Keri Hilson’s “Knock You Down,” was on the charts.
The untimely passing of the mother of Taylor’s daughter (who was only four years old), left Taylor a newly single-father juggling parenthood and his promising career (he credits the unwavering support of his family during that difficult time). One year on, things took a further unexpected twist: Taylor was laid off from Warner Chappell. Dusting the dirt off his shoulders, Taylor started afresh and ended up landing roles at ASCAP and EMI which then merged into Sony, and eventually here at Kobalt.
Despite the ups and downs of his personal and professional story (which he has been kind enough to share), Taylor chooses to focus on the relationships he’s built which has led him to become the one of the pivotal contributors to global hits like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and Black Panther’s “All The Stars.”
So, here it is, straight from the source. Best part? It looks like he’s just getting started.
Tell me about joining Kobalt. Had you known much about it before leaping?
Yeah because it was like the thorn in everyone’s side. They [other music companies] didn’t know how to battle what Kobalt was trying to do. I just saw something for me at Kobalt that was going to be able to give me a shot to be the executive that I felt I was stepping into. So, I decided to leave. It’s been one of the best decisions in my career.
I think because I was such a company dude for so long, I stayed quiet for so long. Because I came from the school of ‘you do your work, and you’ll be congratulated.’ Through all these companies I thought I was putting up points, but because I wasn’t vocal or in everybody’s office jumping up and down, my work flew so far under the radar that it didn’t make any noise. Kobalt was the first place that I felt like, “You know what, I can make some noise here. I can try and add to what already incredible stuff they have and bring in a new flavor.”
What’s the difference at Kobalt?
Kobalt always does right by the artist. I loved that because it gave me something to be able to say to my parents, “I’m apart of something that’s the standard, where all of our competitors should have been.” I felt like I was doing a good thing. At my old jobs, I knew that our deals weren’t right. I knew that they were screwing people over to a certain degree. I felt like Kobalt was honest. What you see is what you get.
What’s the one record or song that’s particularly memorable for you regarding your career?
I think your first hit is obviously your baby, so Keri Hilson “Knock You Down” and “Alright.”
Tell me about “Alright.”
Where were you at this point?
I’m at Sony and Pharrell had been a friend for a while, and this other gentleman by the name of Kendrick Lamar, I met him very very early in his career. When I met Kendrick, I asked him one of my most famous questions, “Who are your top 5 producers you want to work with?” He said Neptunes, Just Blaze, and a couple of others. So I thought, “Oh Neptunes, I’m cool with Pharrell, I can get this going.” He was coming off of Overly Dedicated, going into Section 80 and I hit Pharrell and a friend between us that I had to convince for P [Pharrell] to meet Kendrick.
At the time, LA was starting to surge, but it still wasn’t crazy. After a while, Pharrell started to trust my ear so I finally I told him, “Yo, you have to meet this kid Kendrick.” So I gave him Section 80, and I think he really liked it, but I don’t think he knew what he was about to see. I asked if I could bring Kendrick through. He came with Top Dawg, Dave (Free) and Sounwave to the studio. They start working, but I don’t know if P was like, “Okay, this kid is the one.”
They do a session, and then they go to Miami and do a few more songs and then Kendrick takes a beat for good kid m.A.A.d. City and makes the album. Then, he’s going into To Pimp A Butterfly, and at this point, I’m trying to introduce him to other producers because he’s a real friend now.
I go see Pharrell and every time I see him he’s like, “Yo I’m going to play you some shit.” He was working with Snoop at the time. So, he plays this record, and there’s an artist (that I won’t name) on the record, and I’m like, “This beat is crazy.” I let him play everything but at the end, I’m like, “Yo is he keeping that beat? I want it.” “For who,” he asks?” “I want it for Kendrick.” I get the beat — because the artist decided not to put it out — and I’m holding it because I’m getting ready to take Sounwave and Kendrick to see Pharrell.
While they’re working I grab Wave and the engineer to play them the beat. And Wave is like, “This is hard.” But, the artist’s voice is still on it. I tell the engineer, we have to get the instrumental because if Kendrick hears his voice on it, he’s not going to like it. So Kendrick hears it and is like, “This is dope.” So I’m thinking, “I’ve got another one!”
Butterfly was such a tight-knit album that there were no real outside beats. Months go by, and every time I go to see Kenrick at the studio, I’m not hearing the “Alright” beat. The making of Butterfly was probably one of the most beautiful experiences for me because I’ve never heard anything like it. Just raw and black and just a different world. So, the “Alright” beat didn’t fit everything that was going on with Butterfly instrumentation wise, but I’m like, “Damn I think Kendrick could still love this type of bounce.”
So, you don’t think “Alright” is going to make it onto the album. Then, what happens?
I walk in the studio the day before mastering, and I hear the beat start and run out. I was just grateful knowing that he did it, even if it didn’t make the album. Then he sends me the record. I have a different version; there’s another verse that he took out. I remember when I heard it, I don’t think I knew how special it was going to be. I didn’t. It’s to all of their credit [Kendrick, Pharrell and Sounwave].
Obviously, to me, Pharrell is one of the top 3 producers ever, but, what Kendrick did to that song…the song was initially a hustlin’ record. It was like a street, dope dealin’ record. For him to change that into an anthem for Black culture, and for eventually, I hope for all the people in terrible times, it was before it’s time. It happened during a time when Black communities were being targeted and going through. It’s funny because these things that were happening in the Black communities have been going on since the dawn of time, but I think at this point it started to get notoriety. And, for him to capture and make something so uplifting. I remember the first time I saw a march, and they were chanting it, I teared up. I thought, “This isn’t what I thought it would be.” I was just hoping that the beat would make it. For the song to become a universal anthem that’s used in protests for something that’s horrible to make people feel good, I don’t think you can write a better script for that. That’s what makes Kendrick so special.
In the industry, as a Black male and senior executive, how do you feel day in and out? Is that on your mind regularly? Has it been on your mind throughout the years? If so, how has it changed through different positions?
I think my issue lately is this whole resurgence of Hip-Hop and R&B as a huge genre. There wasn’t ever a time Hip-Hop and R&B weren’t huge. You can’t name in the last 10–15 years where every year there wasn’t a number one album from Hip-Hop. And I can confidently say that because you can go off of every Jay album was number one.
DMX dropped two number one albums in a year. Ja-Rule, 50 Cent, Em, to now Drake, Kendrick, and Cole. So, I hate the notion of “Oh now that Hip-Hop’s hot we all of a sudden want to start making Black executives the focal point.” That should’ve been a focal point from the start. And that’s not to alienate any other ethnicity, but I feel like the Black executive wasn’t a hot commodity as it should’ve been back in the day and as much as it should be now. And I think you have to start making sure publishing, label, whatever, is indicative of what’s successful.
I hate that it’s race-based, but it is to a certain degree. It’s tough for you to sit there as a company and to be profiting hugely off of Black music and not have any Blacks in senior roles. That makes zero sense. And some could even go more deep with it and say you’re using…you’re profiting off of a culture that you don’t represent at all. You know, culture’s become an overused word, but it’s exactly right. These companies can’t keep doing that, and I think in the last year it’s finally come to a point where people are vocal about it.
Talk to me about the word ‘urban.’
I hate and despise the word urban.
The word urban to me feels like a project. It feels like something that needs to be built. It’s basically like, “Oh this urban neighborhood.” It means it’s low-income, not safe, etc. So when you say urban music, to me, it’s letting me know that you think it needs to be rebuilt. Nothing about Hip-Hop and R&B needs to be rebuilt. Nothing. Hip-Hop’s been running for 40-something years, R&B’s been running for however long, if not longer. And, it’s been successful every single year. So, to me, the word urban is not synonymous with the words Hip-Hop and R&B. Is it a quick ass way of not having to say Hip-Hop and R&B? Sure. But, let’s think of another word.
What would you like people to use instead?
Hip-Hop and R&B. Because Hip-Hop is its own genre, R&B is its own genre. Call it what it is. It’s tough because when someone says, “The pop charts,” the Pop charts used to be quote on quote all Pop songs. Now, it’s Hip-Hop and R&B songs. Not all, but it’s a heavy mix depending on what chart you look at. My point is, Pop means popular music, so we need to make sure it means popular music.
Speaking of Pop Charts. Black Panther. “All the Stars.” Walk me through that.
We signed a producer named Al Shux, and at the time, I’m thinking about who would he be dope with. He has a certain production style that’s just abstract and again, my relationship with TDE, me and Sounwave are really close. I asked Wave if he would mind collaborating with Shux. So they go, they collab, and then I want to say we were all in Jamaica — me, Kendrick, Sounwave — Sounwave starts messing with the beat that he did with Shux. So, you start hearing it in the making, and you’re like, “This is dope.” I’m like, “I don’t know where this is going to go.” Let’s be real, certain productions, only certain artists, can pull it off and that record, I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. So they’re making the record and then Kendrick takes it and again he does some magic shit to it, and it becomes “All the Stars.”
So, do you feel like you have two anthems?
Think that’s saying a little much?
Man, I never thought of it like that. I think because of my relationships I’ve gotten very fortunate and very lucky. And, because that kid [Kendrick] is just a different level of special, he makes me look like I have two anthems because again, you hear the original person on “Alright,” you’ll never think of that song ever again. “All the Stars” obviously no one had it first, but like, he is just able to give you the room to be able to say, “I have two anthems.”
But, “All the Stars,” because of how big and how influential and timely the movie was was, to then, you add in a soundtrack that almost matches the hype of the movie, it’s amazing. Let’s be real; there have been many times where you have an incredible movie and a terrible soundtrack. I got lucky on that soundtrack beyond “All the Stars.” Our great producer Teddy (Walton) did the other single, “King’s Dead.” Kurtis (The Arcade), another great producer we have, that was a similar situation. We had just signed Kurtis, and I put him with Teddy, and they make a record, and we all sent it over to Kendrick, he fell in love with it, and it became “Redemption.”
What is it about you that’s drawing people to you? What’s allowing you to maintain these flourishing relationships, that are leading to hits like these?
An artist is very very private. So, as soon as an artist feels like they can trust you, that’s the most important. My parents taught me well. You don’t need to be jumping around and hollering to get people’s attention. So, probably one of my better assets is knowing my place in the room. I know when I say something, I want it to be something that’s heard. It starts with that. You build that relationship; you build that trust. Then after that, it goes to trust of your ear. I think the people I signed do so because of a relationship. When you start signing people for a check, you have to understand that’s not a real relationship. It’s a money relationship. Being able to call anyone that I’m working with and kick and then we get to the music or whatever, is great. Being able to be trusted and not think that the spotlight is all about you is key. You do it for the artist.
What’s the difference between a one-hit wonder and a long-term career?
A one-hit can afford you to take care of your family for a year. A long-term career can afford you to be able to take of your kids’ kids. Especially in publishing. There are probably writers in your neighborhood that go to your grocery store, and you have no idea, but they could probably buy that grocery store if they wanted to. One-hit wonder to me is a tough thing for any artist because it’s a high that’s so quick, and then you have to get back to reality. If you have a hit record in 2018 your life changes, so you get a new house, new car, live in a certain area, and maybe you can’t walk certain places because people notice you. But, when that goes off, you might go back to Lowes, and that high that you were on is gone. I almost feel horrible for people that get that one hit because if you’re not smart with it, you’re chasing that stardom for the rest of your life.
Ideally, when someone says the name Sam Taylor, what would you want to be followed by that?
“He was a good guy with great ears,” I think. Yeah.
As told to Cortney Riles.