Soaking Game With Michael “5000” Watts: Talks 360 Deals, Brand Expansion & Illuminati

By Niki Gatewood (@THENikiG)  |  03/11/2011

Michael '5000' WattsRobert Earl Davis, Jr., best known as DJ Screw, is personally responsible for creating a subgenre of music in the south called "Chopped and Screwed". His innovative style and creative tenacity inspired both MCs and DJs in Texas and far beyond. Houston native, Michael "5000" Watts, is personally responsible for helping to preserve DJ Screw's legacy.

A co-founder indie record label, Swishahouse (with Ronald "OG Ron C" Coleman), Michael Watts is part of the integral force that helped to introduce the world to Chopped and Screwed music. Among other Chopped and Screwed efforts, "Still Tippin'" by Mike Jones (a former Swishahouse rapper) commanded a national respect for the Texas-bred resource.

Having created history with a slew of distinguished Southern artists, Michael is anxious to broaden his sound and looks to the future welcoming possible collaborations. In an exclusive sitdown with Michael "5000" Watts, the esteemed DJ/producer/CEO talks about the 360 deal, brand expansion, and the Illuminati. How'd you accomplish transforming your idea of starting your own label into making it your reality?

Watts: Actually, man, when it came down to starting my own label, it kinda just fell into my lap. When it came down to doing a label -- actually my mind wasn't even on it. I was just deejaying and doing mixtapes for a living, right? Actually, for the fun of it, but I was making a living off of it. The mixtapes started getting so popular that Southwest Wholesale asked me if I wanted to do an album. They said if I did one, they'd put the money behind it and fund it. That's how I started out starting an legitimate record company. What steps should emerging producers take to ensure that when they're submitting tracks to different labels and artists that they're recognized and compensated for their work?

Watts: It's all about what you negotiate. The key to it is having your stuff copywritten. Plus, you need to have your name trademarked. If you see music out that's already copywritten before you see it out, then you can do something about it if somebody steals your music. So, that's the main key is having your music copywritten. It's all about what you negotiate. If you don't negotiate credit, then you're not going to get it. You can't say, "Well, I'll just cash out on it," then come back and say, "I want credit." You know, I don't care what kind of deal that they offer you. I don't care if you sign away all your publishing, which I don't suggest you do, but you need to get credit for what you do. That's the most important part, especially for beginning producers. You'll get more work if you get credit for doing your work. Even if you sell a beat to, Dr. Dre, at least get co-production on it. Get something. I don't care how bad that you need the money, get some credit for doing something. Sometimes, when folks enter into the music business, they're more focused on the creative aspect, as opposed to the business side. As a businessman, looking back on your experiences to build your brand, are there any instances that you look at as snake moves? How'd you learn from different experiences to improve your business savvy?

Watts: Actually, I'll take you what was a snake move, to me. When I put out my first real album, it was called The Day Hell Broke Loose, 1. Now, I went in with the whole idea of knowing that I was gonna get f***ed. I already knew this, right? Because, I'm green to it, and I have to get stuck to really learn it. So, the first album we did, it probably sold about 75,000 [units]. The only thing that we got out of it was like $100,000. Now, we weren't supposed to get paid as an artist, we were supposed to get paid as a label. You know what I'm saying? We were supposed to be getting $8 a piece, for 75,000 units. So, we got stuck really good on that. After that, I understood exactly what I needed to do and what I didn't need to do. You have the unique opportunity of being an executive and being an artist. When you're working with your different artists, how do you approach them? Do you try to cultivate their talent, or are you looking at them trying capitalizing on a financial come-up?

Watts: My thing is this here, I'll open the door to opportunity to the artist. I want them to be the best that they can be, right? It's all about opening the door for them to go out there and work. A lot of the people that we ended up signing, I didn't sign them because they were the most talented people, or whatever, or the best looking, or anything. I signed them because they work. I feel like if you're gonna go out there and work hard and you got some kind of talent, then you'll make it farther than somebody who has pure talent, but doesn't want to go work.

So, my thing is that I use my brand as an open door for people who want to work to be able to feed themselves. You know, they got to work for it. One thing that is different between us and other labels is that we don't give anybody a signing bonus. You're going to work for everything that you get, period. When I think about Swisha House, I think about hip-hop's independent spirit. What I want to know is, do you make your artists sign a 360 deal?

Watts: Well, you know what, nowadays, you do. Really? Do you feel some sort of way about that, or is it just a business move to keep the label afloat and make some money?

Watts: You got to look at it like this. This is serious business, right? Okay, when you sign an artist, it's a 95% chance that they weren't doing anything outside of their neighborhood. Okay, I get an artist, this artist wasn't doing any stage shows, or if he is doing stage shows, he might be getting paid two to three hundred dollars for it. When I get the artist, I'll invest a $100,000 into the artist. That's marketing, branding, getting radio play and all that type of stuff. I got to get his image up and get him exposed in all these different markets. So, if the artist is getting shows, they are solely getting them shows because of my investment. So, I feel like I should be entitled to receive some of the benefits off of my investment. If I got an artist that's now getting shows in Seattle, he wouldn't have gotten those shows if it wasn't for me paying for the video and getting it on BET. If we didn't make the investment of getting your music played in all these markets. From your perspective, it more of a symbiotic relationship? You give to them and they give back to you? So what happens when you recoup your $100,000? How do you keep this relationship from becoming parasitic?

Watts: It's an investment! If I invest in you and invest in what you're doing. If I give you a TV show, so now you have millions of viewers. With my investment of putting you on the TV show, why shouldn't I receive a benefit from my investment? When you want a piece of everything outside the TV show; that's bogus.

Watts: But, you wouldn't of never got any of that if you weren't on the TV show. You're getting all the extra because you're on TV. You're getting booked overseas because you're on TV. You weren't getting booked overseas before that. Now if you were getting booked overseas before that then, of course, I'm not entitled to it. You know what I mean? But, if you haven't done anything outside of the block where you grew up at -- you didn't do it yourself. If you could have done it yourself, then you would have done it. So, if one of your artists gets an endorsement deal by himself, do you still expect a piece of that?

Watts: Yes, because of my investment in the artist is the reason why you got that exposure for people to invest to get an endorsement to you. If you could have done it yourself, then you wouldn't have needed my investment. Okay. From your perspective, in hip-hop, who is actually making money?

Watts: Wow. I think that the artists that are performers, because, nowadays the performers are making more money than anything. That's one of the things that pushed a lot of the labels into signing the 360 deals. Record sales are slumping. Record sales are so small that you couldn't possibly fund a record label, or fund anybody's career if that's all you had to generate a profit off of. How are you working to sustain your brand's momentum? What projects are on the horizon that we should look out for?

Watts: You know what, one thing that I do to try to keep up the momentum for my brand is that I'll work with a lot of hot up-and-coming artists. So, I did a project for Big K.R.I.T. He's out of Mississippi; he's one of the biggest underground artists out that way. He's very talented. I worked with him and I did his project. I'm still working with the guys like Slim Thug and the guys like Devin. What are you doing with Devin? I love his music, he's one of my favorites.
Watts: I did Landing Gear for Devin. I remixed the whole album. What else? I did at least about three Devin albums. So, if it's like people that I'm fans of their work, I'll usually do a remix of their album. I've done remixes for Ludacris, Young Buck, of course, Lil Jon. Paul [Wall] did one for T.I. I attach myself to stuff that's hot and try to expose it. I don't keep myself limited to just Swisha House stuff. That leads perfectly into my next question. How do you diversify your brand without compromising its core elements? Have you thought about going to different genres of music?

Watts: What I do is get stuff that I like and put my seasoning on it. I'll probably do my own remixes to it, you know what I mean? So, even if I'm doing house music, if I do a remix to it, it's still a Swisha House remix. I did a Japanese project, the whole project was in Japanese. I did it and they love it out there. That's like the next step of my career. I plan on getting out of the States. Before I just did southern hip-hop and I was an ambassador to that. I'm working with other stuff like house, and dance music. My main goal is to expand my career outside of the United States. How do you view hip-hop? Is it a living culture; is it for mere musical entertainment, an amalgamation of both?

Watts: It's a culture! Hip-hop is more than just music. Hip-hop is a way of living. It's what you wear, it's how you act, you know? It's a whole culture. Right now, one thing about hip-hop is that people will say that "Hip-Hop is dead" and stuff like that. Right now, I think it's at a level to where the bullsh** is getting weeded out. When everybody jumped in and was trying to make the money, and now since the money is not there, the only people that are making money are the people who are really talented and the people who are really working. As you think about hip-hop's evolution, what do you think about the people who readily associate its superstars with Satanic practices? Have you ever witnessed any cult-like activities? Or, is it just small-minded people who think that if black people are making money they must be worshiping the devil?

Watts: It's just the small minded people. (chuckles) Personally, I don't know anybody who does that. I'm not saying that they don't do it. But, I personally don't know anybody. If you did, would you tell me?

Watts: I would, would, it would be very interesting. That's my number one industry question, right there. What is it about this Illuminati stuff? I don't know anything about it. Nobody ever came to me with that sh**. I don't know anything about it. I go to church at Lakewood. (erupts with laughter)

Watts: They ain't talking about no Illuminati stuff at Lakewood. You can catch them on TV every Sunday and every other night. So, we're definitely not talking about anything like that. There's reality rap, there's poetic license, and then there are those fairy-tale rappers. How do you feel when you're working with someone who's a complete fraud?

Watts: I don't work with whomever. I'm not one of them type of people. (laughs)

Watts: I've done a lot of people's projects. But, you can very rarely find anybody that I actually sat in the studio and recorded. With me, I can only sit in the studio with and record with people that actually have out-of-the-box talent. You know what I mean, because I have an out-of-the-box mind. I can't work with a straight square forward person. I can't do it. I just can't do it. This is an art to me. It's a business to me, but it's an art first.