Ayana Soyini (AS), Hip Hop artist and business-woman, provides a new vision to what has become a stale New York Hip Hop scene. Read for yourself how she differentiates herself from others in the biz. Sounni de Fontenay (SD) speaks to Ayana about her career and the state of Hip Hop today.
SD Tell me a little about yourself.
AS I'm an artist/producer/CEO of my own company and I am overall just a good person.
SD Where do you hail from?
AS I was born in New York. My father is Jamaican and my mother is American, so I guess I'm a combination of both.
SD Where in New York?
AS I'm from all five boroughs. Right now I live on the Lower East Side, East Village, but I've lived in Harlem, I've lived in Brooklyn, Bronx, and Queens.
SD The creative side of your music, how did it evolve and what are its influences?
AS I started off writing poetry and then people kept telling me 'Oh your poetry is really good.' I was always into Hip Hop since I was young. I was listening to the radio one time, an underground station, and there was these guys on there called 'Natural Elements' and they said that they were looking for a female and I thought, "Um what the heck, let me try." So I called the station and they told me to go to their studio which was in the Bronx and they liked me and I started recording with them.
SD From writing poetry was it easy to go on into rapping & freestyling or does it have to be something you have inside already?
AS I think that people need to be able to know how to express themselves through writing as well as, if you can't express yourself through writing, through freestyling. Its really about communication, how you communicate. I started writing poetry. I always, when I was younger, was able to make up little catchy phrases or little catchy hooks and things like that. I was always able to do that. To me it doesn't come that hard. Its not that difficult because I just wrote on my own and talked about life. I have a lot to say.
SD Do you have any particular messages?
AS I just tell it how I feel. I try and stay positive in my message but at the same time there's negative too. Sometimes you have to talk about the negative because that makes the positive even more positive.
SD Do you have any suggestions for those trying to become a rapper?
AS Don't get into the industry! (laugh) Too much drama. No, but you really have to want to do it. You can't be half ass, you can't be slacking. You really have to want to do it because there are a lot of people who are trying to do the same thing and its very competitive and very cutthroat. You're dealing with people's ambitions, hopes and dreams so the promotional is a big part of the music. It gets heated and it gets personal. My advice for anyone who wants to be a rapper is that you have to really know what you're doing and be sincere about doing this. Otherwise, you'll quickly find out that there is no room for you. You also have to learn about the business because 90% of it is business. Study it because its the music business, its show business. You have to know the business side so that, one, you get your money, you get paid. Two, you don't get taken advantage of. So many artist have gotten taken advantage of because they didn't know what their rights were as an artist. As an artist, pretty soon this becomes your life, you don't have time to do anything else like have another job. This is your life. So in order for you to eat you have to earn money. You have to make sure that you get paid. Try and formulate a strong team, family and friends that support you and then get business people: your manager, your attorney, your publicist if you have one.
SD You need all those things?
AS You need all those people and they have to be trustworthy or else you are going to get eaten alive, literally because that is the nature of the business.
SD You have to be strong in the mind.
AS It's survival of the fittest.
SD Once you started in 'Natural Elements,' how did that go?
AS That was an interesting experience. I did a lot of recordings and we did some shows, we did a lot of shows actually.
SD How long ago was this?
AS I started with them about five years ago. They were putting out singles and compilation albums because we were hooked up with this independent record label and then we released a record named "Shine". Shine did really, really well and I guess people seemed to like the combination of three guys and myself. It sounded good. We got written up in all the Hip Hop magazines. It did really well for an independent release. Record companies were knocking on the door. (laugh) And that's when drama started, as soon as the record companies came.
SD Did everything just fall apart? Did it come from within the group or from outside?
AS It was inside and outside. To make a long story short, I decided to break apart from the group. They are still together and I believe they just signed with a record company. We just went our separate ways but there are no hard feelings. It was only because what I wanted to do and the vision that I had was slightly different from the vision that they had. Instead of fighting about what to do, lets just break apart and do our own thing and then later on down the road we can come together and do a 'Natural Elements' project, an original Natural Elements project again.
SD Do you think its hard to work in a group and work with others and have that ease and interaction between the rappers?
AS The reason it didn't work with 'Natural Elements' was because we weren't really a group. We were all solo artists who kind of being around the studio wrote songs together and that was just one of the songs we decided to put out ["Shine"]. It did really well so people thought that we were a group as 'Natural Elements' but actually we weren't really a group. I think that was why there was so much confusion is because we all had our own agenda to begin with. To come to be kind of pushed together, people pushing us to be a group and that was not the original intention. Now everything is fine because the fellas are doing their thing and I'm doing my thing and down the road we will get back together and do something.
SD So after Natural Elements where did you go from there?
AS I was just writing and I went out of the underground Hip Hop scene for a while. I did a lot of writing, some traveling and then I came back in and started to record. Now I've begun to record and work with musicians. My solo stuff. It's almost time for it to come out, shortly.
SD You take care of all your own music business?
SD How did you learn it, like becoming an A&R for example?
AS I was working for Cory Robbins who owns Profile Records, and he had sold his half of Profile Records to his partner at the time and started his own label through BMG called Robbins Entertainment. I started off in production but the A&R meetings were open to anyone in the company. In the A&R meetings I just said how I felt, so he hired me as a Hip Hop A&R person.
SD What exactly does an A&R do?
AS Nothing (laugh)! It stands for Artist & Repetoire. I did nothing (jokingly). Seriously, I worked my ass off. Basically your job is to be out there and know what is going on, to be in tune with what's happening. To find talent, to find people who you think are talented, at least that's what I did. And to work with them and try to develop them. I was an A&R but I looked at the job more as artist development, when you find someone that you think is talented that would fit at the label. You work with them and try and guide them and give them ideas and suggestions on how to bring out there music. The trick is finding someone, see my boss was Cory so ultimately he had the final say, so the hard part, this is with any A&R because they answer to someone else, is finding someone that your boss likes as well. And 9 times out of 10 your boss is out of touch that's why he hires you because you're in touch (laugh). You're telling him about what's hot what's happening but they're out of touch or are still in the past thinking about the whatever group in the past they liked.
SD You are the go-between between the musicians and the record label.
AS Pretty much, depending on how the label is set up. But at Robbins it was set up that Cory was my immediate boss. So that's how I became an A&R and that was an interesting experience. I was doing it while I was doing the whole 'Natural Elements' situation.
SD So you tried to branch yourself out into the different fields in the Hip Hop/music industy business?
AS Yeah. I mean I love Hip Hop. But I have to do other things like I can sing and I play instruments, so why not do that to. I mean, I am still going to rap because it is something that comes natural but I want to develop some of my other talents. Developing those other talents brings me out of the immediate Hip Hop scene and into other different scenes.
SD How come?
AS It brings me out of my hardcore underground Hip Hop scene and brings me into a different Hip Hop scene and different type of mindset.
SD Going to the next levels.
AS Yeah, musicality.
SD What do you think of the way Hip Hop is evolving today?
AS There's a gap. There's room for a lot artist who, if they want to, can elevate it and take it to the next level. Except, there are not too many people who are really doing that. Everyone is kind of trying to compete with the next person instead of focusing on what they want to do. All that people have to do is take some time out and be creative.
SD Do you think that a lot of people are ripping off the styles and music of others or are they trying to create their own style and music.
AS Well I think that people are trying to create and put stuff out. Sometimes you can't help but be influenced by something.
SD But that is OK to a degree?
AS Yeah, unless you are like a hermit, just staying in one spot. But that is kind of impossible to do. To a certain extent you are influenced by your climate and people you know, it helps shape you. Some people actually give you songs; you may have a traumatic experience for example. We all touch each other some how.
SD Which artists were your biggest influences?
AS I like Jimi Hendrix, I like Janis Joplin.
SD Good one.
AS Yeah, she's a legend. Prince, Carlos Santana, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder and then Hip Hop wise like Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, Gangstarr, Queen Latifah; All different categories. I have an international style. I never thought that until just recently that I had an international sound. I thought that I was doing what everybody else was doing. but when I started playing my tapes to different people or letting them come over to my studio I was like wow.
SD You have an open mind.
AS To me music is music. I deal more with like lyrical content, what someone is talking about. Music to me, it's about how the lyrics are supposed to touch you and the sound supposed to move you somehow.
SD Do you usually start with the lyrics or the sound?
AS Depends on what I am doing. If its Hip Hop then I start with the hook 'cause that's the concept, for me anyway. But if its a song like a ballad then I always start with the music because I always hear the melody and then I write the music and the words kind of at the same time.
SD Hip Hop has become more popular,joining the mainstream. Very different from the old school days. Financially, that's great for those involved but do you think that something was lost in the transition?
AS I think that its lost something. Even though the underground is still there it's still has kind of lost something. I just remember when I was younger and growing up it just seemed, maybe because I was younger, exciting.
SD It was new at the time.
AS I guess that's what made it exciting because it was still developing. Now it's kind of developed.
SD No where else to go.
AS It has to be a new sound. Because Hip Hop right now is kind of predictable. You have these jazz based groups or you have the funk/gansta type groups. That's it. There was a time when it was kinda influenced by rock, they had that Hip Hop/rock thing happening like Run D.M.C. and Public Enemy but you don't really have that much anymore. The closest you had to that was the "Benjamins" by Puffy and that was nothing special.
SD Ghost Face Killer had a song on his latest album with that rock riff style.
AS There needs to be a new type of style.
SD They take a lot of Motown and jazz but not much else.
AS It is kind of limited and narrow.. There is so much music that is out there not even being touched. I try to incorporate the music I know, the music that I listened to when I was growing up. Because my parents were into Jazz but also into rock music. I grew up listening to different types of styles. I decided to incorporate that into my music which is why it sounds the way it sounds.