JAY WILLIAMS, HOST:
Was there ever a time in your career, Steve, where you doubted yourself or your vision?
STEVE STOUTE: No, I’ve doubted the people around me that didn’t support my vision. I measured three, four times before I cut. I mean, that’s just how I am.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WILLIAMS: Welcome to THE LIMITS. I’m Jay Williams. And that voice you just heard, the man who measures three or four times before he actually cuts, that’s none other than the great Steve Stoute. If you think you don’t know who Steve Stoute is, I guarantee you – guarantee you – you know his work. As a music executive, he skyrocketed the careers of artists like Nas, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige and Will Smith. Is that good enough for you? As a branding genius, he’s the man behind the McDonald’s I’m Lovin’ It jingle with Justin Timberlake.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) I’m lovin’ it. Ba da ba ba ba.
WILLIAMS: Endorsement deals for Jay-Z.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “REEBOK (INTERLUDE)”)
JAY-Z: (Rapping) S Dot’s taking off, G-IV’s ’bout to land. See how we cross brand. We boss about it, man.
WILLIAMS: And a recent “NBA Lane” campaign commemorating 75 seasons of the league.
(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT, “WELCOME TO NBA LANE”)
MICHAEL B JORDAN: It’s been 75 seasons and counting. One thing’s for certain.
BILL RUSSELL: This game just keeps getting greater.
JORDAN: Game don’t stop.
WILLIAMS: That may not seem like a natural pivot from producing records to advertising. Luckily, Steve’s never really faced the limits of self-doubt or imposter syndrome, like many of my guests on the show that we have talked to. Steve’s bigger challenge instead is that his vision is often ahead of his time, and he has to convince others around him to buy in.
When he was an executive at Interscope Records, he went toe to toe with none other than Jimmy Iovine, trying to convince him that the next frontier of advertising was in hip-hop and pop culture. When Interscope wasn’t sold, Steve founded his own firm, Translation, in 2004 to intersect pop culture and advertising. That company now has a net worth of over $30 million, with clients like HBO, Nike, Apple Music and Beats by Dre. Now, that would be the endgame for a lot of people, but Steve – he’s always looking to the next thing, and his heart remains in music.
So in 2017, he launched UnitedMasters to help artists get better profits from streaming platforms. That company was founded with $70 million from investors like Google, Andreessen Horowitz and 20th Century Fox and now is the home to over 1 million independent artists. He’s a true visionary, the man behind so much of entertainment as we know it today. So let’s get to it. Here’s my conversation with the great and legend Steve Stoute.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WILLIAMS: Steve, first off, how you doing, man?
STOUTE: Well, there’s no air conditioning. For some reason, the air conditioning went out. And it’s – so it’s hot.
STOUTE: So I’m trying my best to stay cool.
WILLIAMS: So, Steve, I want to provide context to our audience here. I met you a while back ago through my brother, a guy named Rich Kleiman, who manages all of Kevin Durant’s business affairs. And I’m just curious, with KD being one of the biggest things happening right now just not in sports but in entertainment and business in general, what are your thoughts on the way things are going down with the Brooklyn Nets?
STOUTE: Well, you’ve one of the greatest players in the history of the game, one of the most talented players deciding to leave. And, you know, they haven’t even gotten going yet. So, you know, he’s leaving before they got going. And, you know, it’s going to be difficult. It’s going to – it’s definitely going to be a problem. But it would be a problem for any team if you didn’t have it going already. They were building the culture around them. And yeah, it must be a tremendous setback for the organization. It’s probably a setback for him on what even made him decide he wants to leave. I mean, but I guess that part of it is not even being told. When an athlete leaves a team, everybody just thinks it’s the athlete, you know, chasing a championship or the athlete being a selfish decision-maker. But there are reasons. There are organizational things that can lead to that.
WILLIAMS: Steve, I know you’ve dealt with so many brands – right? – Fortune 500 companies, Fortune 100 companies. And I always talk about when I interview athletes or entertainers, I often find it fascinating. Some of them look at themselves as brands. Other look at themselves as, you know, artists, not really like a brand but more of an anomaly. But do you see any comparison between the two?
STOUTE: Athletes and artists are brands. There was a period of time where the team was the only brand, and the athletes were a facilitator of helping that brand move forward. Over time, the athletes themselves – not only just the star athlete, the MJs and the Magics and the Bird – but over time, many athletes, you know, on the team have become popular brand names themselves. And because there’s brands, there’s brand guidelines. There’s implications that have – that can affect the brand negatively or positively. Same thing with music, the same thing as consumer brands, where the impact – what it requires for you to stay true to your brand and what those brand guidelines are are very important. Specifically with athletes and artists, they become brands but don’t realize what the implications are because they’re a brand. They don’t see it.
WILLIAMS: What’s an example of that, Steve?
STOUTE: It’s artists early in their career. You know, they make good music, people love their music, and then they decide, you know, let me slow down. The cadence of putting out music slows down tremendously. Or they put out a – they don’t realize this is the kind of music that the fans really want from me, so they try something completely different and miss badly. And yet, their response to that is either slow to make more music or, you know, not even responding to the awareness of the audience saying, look, we’re going to move on, we don’t like that. We see it in music all the time, where you expect something from the artist you love because that’s on-brand for them, and then they show up completely off-brand. And you move on from them because you’re like, let me go find and fulfill that need somewhere else.
And athletes, they have brands, and they have narratives around them. Like, you know, LeBron went to Miami, he was – his great brand had gone to a very dark place. And people did not want him to win. And people didn’t like for him to win. And people thought that that was a horrible decision, and the – and the way he did it and all that kind of stuff. That was not on-brand for him. And then when he went back home to Cleveland and won the championship, that was not only on-brand, it made him the most beloved athlete in the world. And, you know, that’s what everybody wanted him to do in Cleveland in the beginning, obviously, was turn that organization around and win it. But with him going away created animosity and really put his brand in jeopardy, just as the person that’s beloved by everybody, the athlete that everyone admires to be become and admire. And he went back to Cleveland, and he put that thing right back where it needs to be.
WILLIAMS: After the break, Steve talks about his early days in hip-hop and how he worked to take the career of hip-hop legend Nas to the next level. And later in the conversation, we talked about what Steve has seen as a Black entrepreneur in the post-George Floyd era. This is THE LIMITS for NPR. I’m Jay Williams. Stay with us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WILLIAMS: Steve, I want to take it back to the beginning with you for a minute. I know you’re from Queens, home of some of the most iconic names in hip-hop, right? You said Jam Master Jay of Run-D.M.C. would drive past your house when you were a kid. And you had an early love for hip-hop. Take me to that place.
STOUTE: The neighborhood I grew up in is Queens Village. If you take a – draw a circle five miles around it, you wouldn’t believe, you know, from Tribe Called Quest, to 50 Cent, to Run-D.M.C., to L.L. Cool J, obviously, Russell Simmons, Ja Rule, Nas, as you start to extend it, Mobb Deep. Like, it’s literally a five-mile radius in which it was dense with people who contributed to the art form and what it is today. And back then, it was all about block parties and, you know, two turntables and a microphone and rollerskating and breakdancing. And, like, that was the neighborhood I grew up in. And I was completely enamored with rap music, and that’s my cultural DNA, man. I was born in 1970. In 1982, when I was 12 years old, it was MTV, it was wrestling and rap. All three of those ideas were in their early stages. MTV had just gotten formed. Wrestling was that Vince McMahon had just taken over for his dad, you know, taking the business over. And, you know, rap was starting to get – make its way. Russell Simmons was starting to put together, you know, what became Def Jam.
So that is what’s built me, is understanding that wave of culture and the profound effects that it’s had across changing the world. And I wrote a book about this called “The Tanning Of America,” Jay, because I didn’t want it to be lost that what we seen early on – the breakdancing and the rap and the graffiti and that kind of stuff, although it was shunned upon, became something that’s been culturally impactful that helped shift the world forever.
WILLIAMS: Look, man, I know you work with Nas, obviously, and Nas had his legendary debut with “Illmatic” in ’94. I call Nas “It Was Written” – I almost call it, like, the rap Bible. It was my rap Bible, man. It was – that follow-up hit No. 1 on the charts and brought Nas to a more so-called, quote-unquote, “mainstream sound,” right? What went into the process of making that happen, and how did you get him to buy into that, quote-unquote, what the “mainstream sound” would eventually become?
STOUTE: My relationship with Nas – I didn’t know Nas. I was a fan of his first album, and I was breaking into business. And in order to meet him, I literally went to Queensbridge projects and started asking, does anybody know who Nas is? I mean, it was very, very dangerous.
STOUTE: It was dangerous and not advisable. But that was my way of – you know, like, that’s me. I’ll do whatever, whenever, however we got to get it done. So anyhow, I ended up getting to him. And we instantly became – we got it. Like, we had a – we could speak in shorthand very quickly, and we spent a lot of time together, just talking about the business in general. And he wanted to make the next album and it – for it to be an evolution. And, you know, the game had changed.
The music – hip-hop was getting much more radio-friendly. Radio – they were playing it. Biggie had had – Notorious B.I.G. had his album debut, and he had gotten, you know, successful. And, like – so this idea that you could be, like, a great artist and write the best lyrics as well as get on the radio – which was always, you had to pick one or the other prior – was something that we knew we could do and needed to do. And he knew I had a clear vision of what it needed to be, and he trusted that I would steer him in the right direction. And that led to, you know, 27 years of friendship.
WILLIAMS: Was that your first break in the industry, Steve?
STOUTE: That was my – that was not my first break. My first break was with Kid ‘n Play as their road manager many years ago, right when they finished doing “House Party.” I went on the road with them. That was my first break where I got a chance to see what it looked like behind the stage and, you know, what it looked like for an artist behind the scenes in general. And that first whiff of the industry got me sort of passionate about what I could get done. And, you know, that ultimately led to me meeting Nas and becoming a manager and, you know, holding several roles within record companies over my career.
WILLIAMS: I’m curious – back then, what were the opportunities that you saw? And we’re talking about – is that – that’s the early ’90s with Kid ‘n Play?
STOUTE: Yeah, yeah, ’91, ’92. What – well, what you seen was, when you left New York and went to different cities, you realized how much they loved rap music. Like, we thought being in New York, you were making rap music for a bubble of people in New York. You didn’t realize back then specifically how big it was outside of New York. And then you started seeing all these other guys that were rapping in different pockets of America and that they had a different sound. And then as you started to travel and tour, you started to link up with them, and you realize that it was like-minded folks. And that’s what led to all of these regional labels and, you know, opportunities that ultimately led to the growth of the industry as a whole. But those were opportunities that I realized just, like, how fragmented the business was and how big it was. No matter where you went, you would see these big audiences. It was not just a New York thing.
WILLIAMS: Well, it feels like during those times, it had to be difficult to navigate because when you start thinking about the ’90s, I know for me, I start thinking about the east side, the west side and, like – and this competition that was starting to occur. And almost in a way, like, it produced a version of hip-hop that steered away from the culture and proved to be more about, I can do it better and bigger than you. I’m just curious, Steve, like, what was it like being an executive during that time, managing all those stereotypes while still trying to move the business forward?
STOUTE: What I got a sense was that there was camaraderie, man. It was – there was camaraderie around the business. There was – because we realized we were like-minded people. So, like, we – I remember Kid ‘n Play went down to Houston and seeing Jay Prince who was – owned Rap-A-Lot Records at the time. And he was doing well, man. He gave them Rolexes. I was like, what? I mean, this was ’92, ’93. He put Rolexes on these men like, yo, this is what it is. Like, no strings attached – like, that type of thing. So it was like, you met people, and you realized this – we are one.
And there’s always going to be dumb s***, of course. But generally speaking, it was that understanding that led to the growth of the business and where it is today for sure. If that – if the business would have only been about New York fighting Atlanta versus the West Coast versus thing, the industry wouldn’t be where it is today. It wouldn’t have had the mass appeal around the world that it has today if it was just steeped only in that nonsense. That stuff happens. But if it was just steeped in that, it wouldn’t be where it is today.
WILLIAMS: Plus, Steve, I feel like the music back then, like, it told me something. Like, I followed the narratives of the stories that were being told. And I know you were featured on HBO’s “The Black List” project in early 2000s, and you made mention of the fact that music back then was watered down in comparison to the music of the ’80s and the ’90s, especially in the hip-hop industry. Do you think this – does this remain true about today’s hip-hop music, or do you feel like it’s closer to what it was in the late ’80s and ’90s?
STOUTE: You know, Jay, that’s always going to be an ongoing argument. As we get older, we’re going to look at the next generation of music and go, you know, that ain’t the music that we used to listen to. The music we listened to was better. Your parents did that with you. Your parents heard you listening to all that stuff that you loved, and they thought that it wasn’t the [expletive]. They thought it was about Teddy Pendergrass and Whitney Houston and others. Like, they – it wasn’t about what you’re listening to because that’s just noise and nonsense. And then over time, you know, they seen that it wasn’t that. It was something that was actually very important and that these people were poets, and they were acknowledged as such.
I think now it’s very easy for guys that came up in our generation to look – you know, look at the music that’s out right now and write it off because we don’t instantly connect to the words, and they don’t tell our stories. Well, I’m 52 years old. They’re not going to tell my story – right? – because the music is always – music, like, it’s always going to be geared towards the youth. So they’re talking about what a 17-year-old is going through, an 18- or 19-year-old. That’s who rap music is – that’s who the majority of rap music is written for. It’s written for them. And if you can’t connect with those words or connect with the slang or connect with the beat, you’re not going to – you’re going to feel disconnected and call it a bunch of things because it’s not true to you.
And – but, like, that’s why you think about how young the art form is, and when you really think about how young the art form is, you realize that we’re the first generation to be this age that like that music. So we need Nas albums. We need Jay-Z albums. We need some of the older artists that we came up listening to and live vicariously through those words to keep making music so we stay connected to the art form.
WILLIAMS: After the break, Steve makes his move into advertising. He’ll talk about how he couldn’t convince the great Jimmy Iovine of his vision, so he set out to build and bring to life his own. This is THE LIMITS from NPR. I’m Jay Williams. Stay with us.
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STOUTE: And that’s the thing that became clear to me, crystal clear that the advertising business did not know when I got into business in 2004. And I’d reckon to say they still don’t understand it yet.
WILLIAMS: That’s my guest today, entrepreneur and advertising mogul Steve Stoute. Despite his wild success as a hip-hop executive in the ’90s, Steve was ready for the next thing, like he always is. He realized there was an opportunity in advertising to center great campaigns around hip-hop and Black culture. That guiding principle has been the foundation for Steve’s career over the last two decades with his company, Translation. And for us as consumers, that translates to artist and athlete-driven campaigns we’re so used to today. To make it happen, Steve did what he always does. He cemented his vision, put in the work and bet on himself.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WILLIAMS: OK, Steve, I need you to break something down to me. You’re a music executive in the ’90s. You’re behind some of the biggest acts in pop and hip-hop. How did you pivot and make that transition into marketing and advertising?
STOUTE: First of all, when I got into the advertising business and I started seeing that, you know, it was Black 18 to 24 and Asian 18 to 24 and multicultural and all this other stereotypical nonsense and putting people in boxes, I’m like, if they’re still running that playbook, they don’t realize that the world has passed by because I can find a 17-year-old kid, white kid in Greenwich, Conn., that has shared values with a 17-year-old Black kid from Compton.
Like, I knew I could come in – and this is why I called the company Translation because I could translate culture for Fortune 500 companies because they didn’t understand. They thought they had to put people in individual boxes. So, you know, Black people marketing had to be over there and white people’s marketing was over there and Latin over there. And, you know, look, listen to this. In the ’50s, ’60s, radio was – it was AM, right? AM radio set – AM radio have, you know, the limited amount of stations on it. You turn it, it’s one station. Keep turning, find the other station. And on AM radio, you would hear, you know, Sam Cooke, the Rolling Stones, then, you know, Bob Dylan, the Chi-Lites, right? So it would go in between – it was just good music. It was just the music that was working that was good music, that was successful, people liked.
FM is a technology that came in that could split a signal. So FM radio became this idea where you could put multiple stations because that technology allowed you not to have to turn so far to get the next station. You can put them all in a row. So when you had all those stations, the first thing they had to do was fill it with content. So how’d they fill it with content? They made Black radio. They made pop radio. They made country radio. They made – so they put everybody in these segments and then sold advertising against it segmented. But prior to that, you was listening to Motown and Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones and – right? – like, right in a row.
WILLIAMS: Whatever was hot, that’s what’s on.
STOUTE: Whatever was good was right there. And then FM – it’s no different than what happened in cable. You start setting up cable stations, then you’re going to have BET and this, that and the third, and this, that and the third. You’re going to segment audiences, and then you’re going to teach advertisers that these are the way to get to these audiences. But what’s devoid in that is the fact that I’m Black, but I also like something that you would put in the category of white kids. Or I’m a white kid, and I really like Black music – what you call Black music. And that’s the thing that became clear to me – crystal clear, that the advertising business did not know when I got in the business in 2004, and I’d reckon to say they still don’t understand it yet.
WILLIAMS: Steve, I got to pick your brain on this because there’s something that I’ve actually had a hard time navigating, and I know if I’m in this position, you’re levels above me, you’re in that position more so than I am. But, like, you know, post George Floyd, I’ve met a lot of executives, I’ve consulted for a lot of different brands. But it was hard because – and I’m sure you’ve had this happen to you, too – the amount of phone calls I got after that about, you know, how could our brand be more culturally sensitive with what you guys are doing with Black Lives Matter or what you stand for? How did you navigate that and how did you actually determine who’s authentic and whose goals are genuine?
STOUTE: My tenure in doing this actually gives me the wisdom of seeing all of the trailing data in which there were opportunities to do something before and you did nothing. And now you’re coming to me now. Like, specifically around diversity and inclusion, you know, people come to me, like, how could we have more diversity and inclusion? Like, you need to change your hiring practices. Like, you need to – if your board – if your senior leaders are not diverse, what do you think is going to happen in the company? Like, it doesn’t even make any sense that you don’t see that it’s much – it’s – your company’s driven by nepotism. And nepotism has a lot of characteristics, not – like racism. It’s not racism, but it kind of looks like it because if everybody you hire are people that look like you or that come from the same thing that you – then you – you’re going to end up becoming a company that is filled with the same types of people. Like – and it’s just based off of nepotism.
And then you got obviously, you know, the issue, which is the not hiring and not giving opportunities to African Americans and women and people of color overall, which is – we need to just get rid of those companies and the world just pass those companies by. You know, waiting to the new year to start losing weight, and you work out hard January 1 and the second, and then lose steam by the third, like, that’s what happens with these brands. You know, something happens in the press, and they want to show that, you know, we care about Black lives, and we care about diversity. So we’re going to hire a diversity and inclusion officer. Really? Unless that diversity and inclusion person is sitting at the C-suite and speaks to the CEO on a regular basis, then how is that going to be effective?
WILLIAMS: So I’ve read your book that you wrote in 2011. And for everybody listening here, it’s called “The Tanning Of America: How Hip-Hop Created A Culture That Rewrote The Rules Of The New Economy.” And basically, Steve, you talked about how multiple demographics have the same, quote-unquote, “mental complexion,” pretty much stating that they can’t be boxed into one set of tastes or values. And I’m curious, have you seen those principles or rules transform post the murder of George Floyd and everything that followed?
STOUTE: The rules have changed pre, post George Floyd. I mean, this specific aspect of it – I don’t want to mistake it with Black or African American. This is about a culture that have been – invited everybody in and taught people – have dictated fashion, streetwear around that fashion, sneaker culture, you know, $50,000 sneakers or crazy numbers around sneaker cultures, you know, Ebonics words. We speak about – when I talk about hip-hop and the tanning effect, I’m speaking about the things that happen in our lives day to day in which hip-hop played a direct role in making that shift, that perception shift. And that’s gone on nonstop. I mean, you know, not that this is the right thing, but you have 17-year-old white girls twerking.
I mean, this is – I mean, it’s everywhere. It’s deeply embedded in society. It’s much more than just a song, as you know. I do believe that, you know, hip-hop has done more to bring people together than anything since Dr. Martin Luther King. And I believe that – that hip-hop has brought people together. It’s never been, this is just for Black people, or just, this is just for Latin people. It’s been for everybody. It’s invited everybody in. And I think some of the kids know a lot of that. A lot of the kids who grew up white kids listening to hip-hop music and understanding the sensibilities of it have been much more open-minded in understanding Black people.
WILLIAMS: I’ve seen this even on the ESPN side. You know, five years ago, we used to play Metallica, like, heavy metal leading into NBA games. Now ESPN is actually, you know, finding their own artists to create content or lyrics for NBA lead-in games. It’s just – it’s…
STOUTE: By the way, they find artists with us. I did a deal with Jimmy Pitaro. What are you talking about?
WILLIAMS: That’s right. There you go.
WILLIAMS: What am I talking about? You’re the one that made the deal.
STOUTE: Yeah, UnitedMasters. We give the ESPN, like, a thousand songs a year or some number. Shoutout to Jimmy Pitaro and the team over at ESPN because they get it. Jimmy gets it.
WILLIAMS: Jimmy gets it.
STOUTE: I met Jimmy when I started Translation in 2004. He was a music lawyer at Yahoo! Music.
WILLIAMS: It’s always just fascinating how, like, hip-hop and sports have always gone together. And watching even ESPN take that twist and that turn – it just makes the package of the NBA feel so much more authentic because that’s what it always was, Steve. It just wasn’t showcased that way properly to the public.
STOUTE: Man, I did a commercial with Allen Iverson and Jadakiss, and it was the…
WILLIAMS: You talking about the one for Reebok back in the day.
STOUTE: The one for Reebok, that – yeah.
WILLIAMS: Oh, that was so tough.
STOUTE: And it was just so – I mean, I got goosebumps now because it was like – the premise was every rapper wanted to be a basketball player and every basketball player wanted to be a rapper and how those worlds coexisted. And we did that commercial for Reebok, and they started playing it on the radio like a song. And then right, you know, 20 years later, I just did a commercial with Ja Morant and Lil Baby that ran during the finals that was outrageously, you know, impactful. And, again, it’s like these worlds coexist, but the networks never got it. The networks would never get it. But they got guys like you and others and Jimmy now that are getting these jobs and being able to get a seat at the table and say that Metallica is not going to work before this dunk. I can just tell you.
WILLIAMS: So, Steve, this summer I talked to Maverick Carter and to Rich Kleiman about this, too. And I’m so fascinated by this because when you speak, you’re able to break things down so easily. And you have all the achievements in the world, man. But, like, how do you balance that line about you becoming the star as opposed to your business becoming the star?
STOUTE: I’ve always tried to do great work, have great ideas. And when you get me and my ideas such as UnitedMasters, or when you get my ideas such as Translation and UnitedMasters, you get me. I never – I’ve had to promote them because that’s what an entrepreneur does. I mean, and my strength is sales. So, you know, I’ve had to promote the brands, but I’ve never purposely tried to be famous. I wanted the idea to be famous. You know, Translation – when I got into advertising, everyone thought I was crazy. I left the most famous business. I left the music business to go into advertising when I was 29 years old, and people thought I was crazy for doing that. But I knew there was an opportunity in advertising, not that it was going to make me famous. And the idea that I did that and then what I was bringing to that market, you know, things like the Jadakiss that – you and I are talking about a commercial I did 20 years ago. Or we can talk about I’m lovin’ it for McDonald’s. It was 20 years ago. So the ideas became famous, and I come part and parcel with the idea.
When I started UnitedMasters in 2017, it was like, what do you mean artists are going to go independent? Like, what are you talking about? I mean, I got a clip of 2 Chainz telling me, getting signed is the dream, Steve. You don’t know. I mean, I was like, man, yo. I understand what you saying, but that’s going to change because these next generation of kids are going to want to own their stuff. You know, the evolution of the workforce, man – it moves. You go – it was an indentured servant. Then it was a slave. Then there’s an employee. There’s a owner. These things change over time.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. And it feels like you always have to continue to adapt as the times continue to adapt. And I don’t know, Steve. You know, one of the things – I kind of went through this process, obviously being the second pick in the draft behind Yao Ming and playing a year in Chicago. There was – and it still happens to me sometimes because I’m a very passionate person. I’m an entrepreneur. I have my pod. I do TV daily, own a production company, have investments. And I got lost a little bit in, I am not what I do – right? – because so many times in life, people ask you, what do you do? And you get into – like, your brands are your babies, right? Like, UnitedMasters is your baby. You guys went through a Series C raise on that. You guys had a hell of a valuation off that. Translation is your baby. But if you were to tell my audience who Steve Stoute is without that, who is Steve Stoute?
STOUTE: A father come from parents from Trinidad who came up with not much. I learned my values and my principles from my father. I learned my entrepreneurial ways from my mom. And I went to five colleges in two years, dropping out because I didn’t – I couldn’t find what I was looking for. And I don’t promote that. But I just knew that I needed to be an entrepreneur. It was – and I was willing to suffer to deal with the consequences of such. I’m a very empathetic person. I’m a teacher at my heart. I like to teach people that want to learn. And, you know, I care much more about respect than money. That’s who I am.
WILLIAMS: Was it always that case, Steve?
STOUTE: Always, always, always, always, always, always, always, always, always, always, always, always.
WILLIAMS: That’s a foundational principle, man. How do you deal with disagreement over new and innovative ideas when people don’t see your vision?
STOUTE: Well, that was part of starting my own company. When I was working at Interscope – I worked at Interscope under the great Jimmy Iovine, who’s a mentor of mine. And I knew that music and advertising should be one thing. I knew, I knew it, I knew it, and I could get him to buy into that. And we did one-off deals, which were basically paying for music videos, so, like, product placement in music videos kind of stuff. And this was ’98, ’99, so it was way before people were doing that. And I – trying to move that further up the ladder to do stuff at scale, nobody could – nobody would listen. Nobody would – you couldn’t get a team of people to support it. You couldn’t get bodies approved in order to build out a creative division that was really speaking to brands. I wanted to build translation inside of Interscope, and I couldn’t do it. And that’s when I knew I had to leave that business ’cause I knew I could do more for the business outside of it than I could in it, if they were going to limit me that way.
So how do I deal with that – is probably unconventional for most people because I left that industry, but I believe strongly in it. I – like, the one thing I will tell you is that, anybody who’s listening to this, if you have a burning desire to do something – I mean, burning – the one where you wake up in the morning and it’s the first thing on your mind, the one where in the middle of the night, it’s on your mind, that – like, that type of thing, businesswise, and you can’t get that off where you are, you have to leave. You really have to leave. You cannot – if you’ll make every excuse on why you can’t leave, like, oh, you know, I need the money now, but when I get it, then I’ll do it, all that other s*** – that never works. You got to – it’s going to hurt a bit. But, like, that’s the sacrifice. You got to do it if it’s burning – not the casual intuition. If you can’t get that off – ’cause you will never be able to live with the fact that you had an idea and you’ve seen it come out in the world somewhere else, and you’re like, damn, I ain’t even – I’m not even near that idea. And every time I – like, I’m not even near it. You – don’t be that person.
WILLIAMS: Steve, I appreciate you taking the time. I was going to ask you about if you have a cheat code, but that’s one hell of a cheat code right there. If you have a passion, you got to go for it. Sometimes you got to assemble the plane after you jump off the cliff. That’s the only way to go about doing it sometimes.
STOUTE: I say it all the time, man. If you have an idea that you – that’s rational and makes sense to you and you believe in it and most people don’t, you probably have a brilliant idea.
WILLIAMS: Well, this was a great opportunity to talk to you. I appreciate you taking the time. Best of luck in everything you’re doing. I know you move, and you’re moving quickly, and you’re doing a lot of incredible things. So we appreciate you taking the time. And thank you again, man.
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STOUTE: No problem, Jay. For you, no problem, man. Much respect and congratulations with all you do. You are blazing the trail in media, man. You keep doing your thing.
WILLIAMS: I appreciate you, man. I’ll see you around the way, Steve.
WILLIAMS: That’s my man, entrepreneur and advertising mogul Steve Stoute. We appreciate you coming on the show and, like always, dropping wisdom. On this week’s Plus episode, Steve and I talk about the state of cryptocurrency, why he calls the market a marathon, not a sprint, and why he still thinks the blockchain is the best way for artists to get paid. If you haven’t already, head to plus.npr.org/thelimits to subscribe. And as always, remember, let’s keep it positive and let’s keep it moving.
THE LIMITS is produced by Devan Schwartz, Mano Sundaresan and Leena Sanzgiri. Our intern is Danielle Soto. Our executive producers are Karen Kinney, Veralyn Williams and Yolanda Sangweni. Our senior VP of programming and audience development is Anya Grundmann. Music by Ramtin Arablouei. Special thanks to Christina Hardy, Rhudy Correa and Charla Riggi.
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