The Philosophy Of Mike Caren
You can tell a lot about someone by the people they choose to surround themselves with. For Mike Caren (Warner Music Group’s Worldwide President of A&R) one of those people is Latoya Lee, his new Director of Worldwide Urban A&R. She has been with the company now for 15 months.
Latoya is from Ellenwood, Georgia. She prides herself on being raised and surrounded by strong women, namely her mother Aneita, her Aunt Andrea, Grandmother Olga Wise and her two best friends back in Atlanta whom she met on her first job at Zaxby’s when she was 16. Aton Ben-Horin (@Aton) calls her LT$.
Latoya has two big aspirations: To produce great music, and to one day start a mentoring organization for girls in entertainment.
She is 25 years old and a very brave young woman.
Michelle Sullivan: Did you have a good weekend?
Latoya Lee: I did. I had fun this weekend actually … you know the producer Hit Boy?
Yes, not personally though.
I was at his birthday party yesterday. That’s something I did. Just hung out with some friends … How was yours?
Our team went out for a celebratory drink on Friday night, to a place called The Joint. It was cool. After the photo-shoot we were all so knackered. Damian was convinced he knew where we should go, and that we should walk. Don’t go walking to find a bar in LA. We walked for hours … it’s like New Years Eve when you're chasing the dream.
How do your feet feel?
Sore! How long have you been in LA?
Since August 2012. I moved out here to meet with Mike. Well I didn’t necessarily move out here, I just came out here like – “Oh I’m going to meet with Mike Caren." It turned into a week, and then another week and I’ve been here ever since.
I started in the industry when I was 10-years-old. That’s like about to be 15-years now. I was always that kid, ya know? I would watch TV then say- I’m going to be that person … Then ironically my step-dad (Daddy T) came into my life; when my parents separated and my mother met my stepfather. This was in ’98. Ironically he was building a recording studio and starting a record label. I remember every day after school going into the studio and just soaking it all in. By the time I was 15 I was practically running the studio. I had my own keys … I literally did everything by the time I was 15. I sang, I rapped, I wrote, I produced. Then when I was 18 I went off to college at Georgia State University. I started interning and I kind of realized that I’m more of a behind the scenes person. When I was a junior at college I became an assistant at Konvict Musik. From there I found an artist that they wound up loving and signing, and I was promoted from assistant to A&R. I was at Bu Vision/Konvict for about 2 years. I was grateful that I found out that Mike was looking for an urban person, ya know? We met and hit it off.
When two people meet and their energy clicks, then they do great work.
Man, it’s so exciting. I’m just so grateful, you know!
Was it hard to make friends in LA? It’s a really big transition.
I’m what you call socially awkward, ya know!
Really? I don’t get that from you.
Yeah it’s weird. I’m the person that – like – when I’m done talking to you, I don’t know what to say so I kinda just back out of the conversation.
Yeah. I will just backpedal out of the conversation and just go tweet in the corner somewhere. I’m the sort of person – when I rock with you and I like you – that’s just it. I’m a cancer so it’s already hard to get in my shell. But once you do…
It’s for life.
Yeah. Like Aton and I – we came in together. He calls me LT. LT$. Ya know! I’m like Wassup?
It’s inspiring to hear how passionately both of you talk about music -you really light up.
I love this shit man. I’m from the South and I have all these different areas of the world in me – Jamaican and Chinese. I was born in New York and raised in the South. All these different things really played into who I am and the type of music that I love. It’s like how people feel about country music. That’s how I feel about RnB music.
What do you think is your manifesto?
My family. Mom - you heard that? Family. Growing up and watching my mother; when she was married and then when she got divorced. When you have a two-parent household things just look so easy. Then going from that to one-parent in the house and she’s raising 3 kids by herself, while she’s working and she’s going to school. Just watching her. That’s why I am the woman I am today; watching my Grandmother move closer to us to help raise us, and then with my Aunt moving closer and for all of us to be together. I am very family oriented.
I want to start an organization for mentoring young girls who strive to be in the entertainment industry … That’s why I carry myself the way that I carry myself. I don’t want to be someone that is speaking on all these things, yet I am contradicting myself while I’m talking to young girls. I would never want to say - You don’t have to do this to make it, but then I’m looking at her and I’m lying, you know! I want to always feel like my last name - Lee - stood for something. I lost my father (Paul Lee) when I was 19. My name means a lot to me. My name symbolizes my Father and so I carry myself in that way.
Your name is your heritage. I love the way that you talk about who you look up to; having those sorts of role models in your family is important. Did you have people you looked to when you were growing up, who were outside of your family or in the industry?
My basketball coach. I remember she used to always tell me: “You have all the potential in the world, but potential doesn’t get you anywhere if it’s not greatness. You have to turn potential into greatness.” I found that very motivating. I will see all these writers, producers, artists and I think – you have so much potential, but where do you want to take this potential? I never wanted to be someone who had all the potential in the world, but couldn’t turn it into greatness.
With music it was like - this is one thing I know I’m going to be great at. I’m going to be one of the top female executives to ever be in this industry. One of the big turning points in me deciding to be an executive was this – when I was 19-years-old, the guy I was interning for, he told me “You’re going to be a Sylvia Rhone." I was like – who is that? I looked her up and I was like WOW. That was the day when I thought – "yeah! I’m going to be an executive”. Then as I was growing through those years she was one person on whom I emulated my career - also Julie Greenwald.
They are two very strong women.
Definitely … I remember I was still home in Atlanta, and on August 9th, 2011, I hopped in my car and drove to New York. I just hopped in my car; I was like – I’m going to figure it out. I stayed with my Aunt in Brooklyn. It was like January 2012.
No way, I moved to New York in that same January.
No way! (both laugh).
I remember lying there in the room and I see Julie Greenwald interviewed … and I’m like watching her. It was like 3 or 4 parts. I thought to myself - one day people are going to want to hear my story. I remember watching Julie and being like - I’m going to be like her. Then a year later - I’m a Warner Music Group employee and I’m at the Grammy party. Then I see Craig (Kallman) and I’m like – Craig, I want to meet Julie. He walked me up to her and he said “Julie meet Latoya Lee”. I was just looking at her and thinking – “You don’t understand! Last year I was watching your interview and now I’m standing here having a conversation with you!”
You know – I’m 24. I’m still young. So all these different things … I know where I’m going to be. One thing I always say – regardless of how far I am in my career, or how much I achieve, I will never stop being a fan.
You seem like you have a good appreciation of the people who have either directly or indirectly helped you.
I’m always a fan. I’m a fly on the wall you know. My friends have convinced me to go with them to places. I wind up at a studio, in a meeting that I’m not even supposed to be in, and I will sit there and say absolutely nothing. Then the person will ask me questions and they’ll be like - so what do you do; you write? No! You produce? No! You an artist? No! - and I will literally just say no, no, no, no, no. They’ll say – what do you do? I say “I live”. The end.
That should be on a t-shirt somewhere (both laugh). There is a massive difference between talking about doing something and actually doing it. What I hope for – is that there will be a young girl out there, sitting in her bedroom reading this, and your words will spark her ambition. If she knows that you are living it, then this can inspire her to go for it.
Exactly! And that’s why I do it. That’s why I won’t let my position define me as a person. People are like - that’s Latoya Lee from Warner Music. I’m like - No I’m Latoya Lee from Ellenwood, Georgia.
Going back to what you said before, that’s why I wanna start an organization for young girls, because no female mentored me. Of course I watched the Sylvia’s and the Julie’s indirectly, but I never had a female in this industry talk to me and say “I wanna teach you”. I wanna teach young girls and that is something I feel is so needed and we don’t have it in this industry, you know! Like before when we were talking about women just bonding, and coming together in entertainment in general; just all learning from each other, as opposed to tearing each other down.
Women can be so quick to turn on each other. We should bring each other up. We need to invest in the flow on effect; here you are in this office today. Then there’s the girl we spoke of earlier who will read this conversation and be inspired to follow you. Then one day she will be in your position, and you will be Sylvia Rhone.
I have a quote that I like to tell people - I don’t strive for riches, because riches are tangible and they can be gone tomorrow. I strive for wealth. Wealth is not only tangible, but also of the mind, and it can be passed down through generations; that’s what I strive for. I want my great, great, great, great Grandchildren to say “My Grandmother five times over did what she did and now I follow in that.” As women we already don’t pass on our name, so what we need to do is build legacy. We need to be willing to work for something to pass down. I feel that men have done that for generations, but women have never really had that opportunity. I feel like I wanna be that.
Things are starting to shift; one of my best friends got married recently, and she decided to keep her last name. As much as she loves her man, she felt like she identified with her name and everything she has achieved under that name. Women should feel the right to choose.
I’m totally with her on that one.
Let’s talk about people who have been critical to where you are.
I was first introduced to music, as far as I can remember, with my father. It was 1994. We were in Rochester New York and I heard a song come on the radio. That song was Boyz II Men ‘On Bended Knee’, and I’ve been in love with music ever since. My father was a big reason why I love music so much.
My Step-Father (Daddy T) - If he didn’t come into my life at the time that he did, I would not have learned about music and known where I wanted to be.
My Mother - she always motivated me. My Mother always said, you can do what you want, but get your degree. So me literally getting my degree and putting it on her bed, and us looking at it, was the proudest thing I could have done for her. My Mother is the biggest of the three.
As far as my career goes - I can definitely say my first boss - Bu. He was the first person to give me a position.
Isn’t that what you call a person you love? There was an old lady down the bodega who used to call me Boo.
No – Bu. Akon’s brother Bu.
He’s part of Def Jam and Chris Brown’s management team. He was the first person to give me a position and say – Ok, since you found it, let’s see what you can do. That was something.
Who else? Clearly Mike. Indirectly – Sylvia Rhone.
Tell me about a special goal that you want to achieve?
I can literally see your brain ticking right now.
(smiling) There are so many. You point them out, and I’ll tell you.
When you develop your first artist, when you sign your first artist - I’m not going to say a chart position, because I think it’s uncouth. Perhaps when you put your first team together – artist, producer, and songwriters, you mentor them from idea through to execution. I think that is going to be a really special moment for you.
Definitely (smiling). I meet a lot of writers and producers, and a lot of them are young like myself. When I meet them I’m like - I like you. I’m going to do what I can to help you. When we’re in our bosses’ positions, in 20 years - we’re all going to be like - remember when we were there? Now we’re winning awards! I want to grow with people. So our journey is that much more fulfilling. We’ll be like – damn ... I remember when that artist was brand new and no one liked them, and you brought them in. That’s way more exciting for me. You are absolutely right – I wanna be that person where they’re like – Latoya Lee - she believed!
If you truly believe in it; that’s the time where showing it really counts! When there are few supporters, sometimes you just have to trust that it will all work out.
I’m supposed to be an attorney right now.
From what I'm told, the whole team is supposed to be.
My Mother was like - just get a job! I’m like - no! She’s like - you’re so smart, why music?!
Oh my mum’s like that. She says - Michelle you could do anything, why music?
(laughs) It’s like a job in entertainment is so un-reachable.
She thinks it’s flakey.
Yeah. My Aunt was like - why music! You know why, because I want a challenge. What made me with music was because there was no guideline. What teaches you is going out there and actually doing it. My degree didn’t teach me this. Life taught me this; making mistakes and doing dumb shit. It was my network. Being like - I have your back if you need me. When I left my last position, no one was paying attention to me. They weren’t taking my calls, but now it’s exciting to me; because my whole thing was - If I did it once I can do it again. Proving to myself that I could get another position because of me - and I did. I think we should end the interview on that point - very good.