AN INTERVIEW WITH
Sometimes, the curator is just as impactful as the artists themselves; Such an aphorism is perfectly apt to describe Johnny Blacks’ influence on Vancouver’s burgeoning music scene. He spoke about his origins growing up in London, and his experiences in Vancouver thus far that run the gamut of a stint as NCAA soccer player living atop SFU’s campus all the way to organizing and executing Breakout Festival.
Johnny’s innate understanding of the nuances of appealing to youth culture, combined with a natural ability to engineer a functioning infrastructure for a burgeoning music scene, leave him poised for be a relevant name for those in the know for years to come.
It's rare you get a chance to have a conversation with someone where you can tell within minutes that they just get it. Johnny meets that criterion, in our eyes anyways.
C: Who are you?
JB: Johnny Black. I never know how to answer that question.
C: So what made you want to choose to come to Vancouver?
JB: I had never heard of Vancouver before I came here for school and to play soccer. Two months in, I decided to drop out. Following that, I decided to stay in Vancouver for the rest of the semester.
C: What discipline were you studying?
JB: Communications, I remember we were just like learning about the history of Canadian media in print. I knew that none of it was ever going to be relevant.
C: How did Vancouver become an option? Did your parents want you to come to Vancouver or was it a personal choice between a couple of places?
JB: I had two options to play soccer in school and it was either Florida or here. But the school in Vancouver was in a better division, NCAA wise. The coach sent me an online .pdf brochure and I just liked the scenery so I decided to come here.
When I first arrived, I was living Burnaby, on top of SFU and I immediately regretted it. (Laughing) It was just far away from everything.
Then I didn’t actually come to downtown Vancouver for like two weeks, and I thought Burnaby was it. Then I started coming downtown start going out and I started to get into the vibe of the city a bit more.
C: What’s the first thing you did when you went out in Vancouver?
JB: I got on the bus and headed straight downtown and walked around. I walked everywhere; to the beach, to Gastown, to Coal Harbour. That’s how I got to know the city, and how different it was
C: I remember you popping into 017 literally the week we opened and now we’re here talking.
JB: (Laughing) Yeah, I was just saying to Jenny outside I remember when you guys opened. That was 2 years ago.
C: What’s one thing that’s different between Vancouver and London?
Jb: The people in Vancouver are a lot nicer.
C: That’s just Canada!
JB: One thing, Vancouver looks a lot nicer, as a city, than London does.. When I’m in London I’m not looking to my left or right and seeing mountains.
Life out here is also much easier. I’d say London’s way more expensive even though people here complain about how expensive Vancouver is.
London has a lot more culture than Vancouver.. There’s more stuff going on in London, straight up. I feel like people here are waiting for the weekend for something to happen.
C: Describe a day in the life of Johnny Black.
JB: Every day is different, but I work everyday. I wake up there’s something different to do, and that’s why I enjoy doing what I’m doing.
C: Just like that French Montana party. How sudden was that?
Jb: Yeah exactly. They literally emailed me last week and we solidified it six days later.
C: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
JB: My music taste was different growing up. It wasn’t until I was 13 or so that I started choosing my own music.
When I was younger, I would just listen to whatever my mom or the radio was playing. My mom would play Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, and I like that stuff.
The first American Rapper I listened to was 50 Cent, back in 2003. I went into the record store and saw the cover for “Get Rich or Die Tryin'” wondering who's cover this was that’s so hard. At the time, I wasn’t even old enough and my homies had to buy it for me.
I also got really into Outkast, and Lil Wayne around the same time. When I saw Lil Wayne, he was still a kid and he had these tattoos, and that’s when I knew one day I was gonna get tattoos.
And then Grime I’ve basically listening to since I was making my own musical choices.
C: What’s your perception of Vancouver now after 2 -3 years of living here and starting what you have.
JB: Well, I quickly realized that it lacked a hip-hop and R&B scene. Since since no one was building the Vancouver Hip-Hop/R&B scene that someone needed to. I thought someone needed to and it might as well be me.
C: That’s true, Vancouver didn’t have an extremely strong rap music scene compared to other genres.
JB: They didn’t, and not even to disrespect anyone who was here before I started doing what I’m doing but no one was trying to create a movement for the whole city before I got here., There was nothing like what we're doing now.
It was odd to me because where I’m from we have a developed ecosystems and infrastructures for random people from the block becoming rappers. That’s why the music scene in London is crazy.
"No disrespect to anyone who was here before but no one was trying to create a movement for Vancouver. There was nothing like what we're doing now."
C: What are some of the basic things you would need in this infrastructure?
JB: Number one, there are a lot of free studios in London, so we would need a studio that everyone can visit. I understand that people that own studios need to make money, but there also needs to be an understanding that most artists start out struggling. If we all help each other out now, there will be a time in the future where everyone starts cooperating, and everyone benefits I’ve seen this happen in London.
When I started working here, I saw that everyone was mostly working for themselves and not collaborating. This even applied to artists who lived in such close proximity to each other, and there was no real sense of community. It's essential that artists break out of cliques, and start to really form a community.
The third thing is that the DJs in city need to be playing the music from their city. It’s definitely changing now, shout out to Kal Capone, DJ Marvel, DJ Seko, Sailor Gerry, Floetic, Icy Touch a few others I’m forgetting. At first I had to be in everyone’s face and ask them to play songs. Now some of those DJs I mentioned ask us to send them music to play.
There was no bridge between the music the artists were making and the general public/consumers. Artists had to generate their own audiences, organically, which is difficult coming out of the gate. There had to be a space for these artists to get heard beyond just limited interpersonal friendships and word of mouth.
There was no infrastructure for artists to glow up in their city. The problems are honestly much deeper and numerous than what I just mentioned. I could go on for hours.
C: So do you think Vancouver has its own sound. If it does, can you describe it?
JB: No it doesn’t but it will. That’s inevitable.
More artists have to drop music and what will happen is let's say we have 3 or 4 artists blow up this year – you’ve seen Manila Grey starting to blow up yeah? You might get an artist from Vancouver in a year that looks up to Manila Grey and wants to sound a little bit like them. They decide that works, and now I’ll add my flavor. That’s how a sound is born.
"If we all help each other now, there will be a time in the future where everyone benefits, I’ve seen this happen in London."
C: How did you start CRESCENDO1?
JB: So I was going downtown and I started as a promoter at the clubs. I saw how easy it was to access these artists that were visiting the city, like anyone can basically walk backstage.
So first I was thinking how come there isn’t anybody capturing footage and photos of these events? When these photos and videos get promoted and recorded for the public, it builds a sense of community even if you aren’t there. Someone told me Drake pulled up to Bar None out here a few years ago but I’ve only seen like 1 little video about it.
If that was London and someone as big as Drake was going to a club, there would be so many young people on their hustle, with their own little blog or own little video recap page. But here, everyone just wants to be backstage to put it on their personal Instagram.
So I thought, if no one is doing it, I’m gonna try and do something with all this access. I bought a camera and didn’t even know how to shoot. I was doing that for awhile, and then I just started building a team. I was like okay, now I need a graphic designer, a photographer and a videographer. I still don’t really like going to shows, but I had to take the initiative to get it started.
C: Yeah, who are some of the people on your team right now?
JB: Hannah, she’s the intern, she basically does a bit of everything. I got Kass, she’s our editor on the website. Parm is our photographer. Josh, graphic designer. There’s a few and then there’s like people who aren’t technically staff of CRESCENDO1 but will shoot for us whenever.
C: How did you get into managing?
JB: I was doing CRESCENDO1 and I started to see a lot of progress. A lot of opportunities started coming up and I knew if I had an artist, I’d be able to get them opportunities too and we could just grow together. Some people believed and some people didn’t.
C: What’s a skill that makes a good manager?
I wouldn’t say I can answer that properly quite yet. I would say one skill that’s important for a manager is to be able to listen to and understand your artist.
I just ask the artists what they want to achieve and I help them do that. And if I don’t think that’s the right move I’ll advise them on the right move and we can have a conversation.
C: How do you keep your artists motivated and inspired?
JB: New ideas, which keeps shit moving. If there’s nothing happening, your artists aren’t going to get motivated. You have let them know your game plan as well.
For example, I told my artists I was throwing a festival 2 years ago. So they knew in their head that in two years they better be ready for this festival or else they won’t have the opportunity to perform.
C: How do you keep updated in your industry?
JB: Instagram. Instagram is a my main newsfeed for music related info. I find out everything from there. Because I don’t have twitter. I’ll go on Akademiks Instagram. If I wanna verify something on rap, anything on rap, I’ll go on Akademiks Instagram.
C: Tell us about Breakout. What were your thoughts on it, and what did it mean to you?
JB: I just knew Vancouver needed that. Not an all hip hop festival but a festival where we could put on a ton of local artists. Other festivals have Vancouver artists on them, but they might only put one or two on.
If you go to Wireless Festival in London, the biggest festival, they have so many artists from their own city. We need something like that in Vancouver to motivate artists to make better music and have better standards for what they’re releasing and the like. We need people to be like motivated to up their game.
C: How did you get connected with Timbre to throw the festival?
JB: We used to do an all ages series and would get artists every month and change the lineup and about 300 kids would attend. One time we did a show on Granville Island and 500 people there, the place only had a 250 person capacity.
After the events, I would show Timbre what we were doing and they were keeping an eye on us as well.
I was surprised that we were the only ones capturing events in general. It didn’t make sense to me, because it was only us who focused on making this kind of content.
We know our demographic and these kids don’t want to read a review of a show, they want to see how lit it was through quick media.
C: How did you pick the date for the music festival and why PNE?
JB: I’m not too sure about the date, I think it just fell in place.
With the PNE though, David who runs Timbre, his dad use to throw shows there like ages ago. He suggested that location, and I just went to go see it by myself with nothing set up, smoked a blizzy, and visualized how sick it would look.
C: Sweet. So how did your team handle the Migos situation with A boogie and things like that.
JB: I mean there’s nothing you can really do, except damage control.
They literally let you know a few hours before they’re supposed to be there and tell you they aren’t coming anymore.
The first thing to do is announce it as soon as possible, and figure how to do so with the least amount of detriment to your brand. We made every effort to deflect the negative energy, so we got them to tweet that they loved Vancouver and it was them that couldn’t make it.
C: So what’s next for you?
JB: We’re planning the next one. The next Breakout.
C: It’s only going to get better for sure.
JB: We just confirmed our headliner 2 days ago so. We have a big announcement coming soon.
Introduction and Edit: Aaron Gray
Interview: Clayton Chan & Kai De Torres - Hironobu
Styling: Jenny Choi
Photographer: Kai De Torres - Hironobu
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