Over the last few years, we’ve seen some of the best creatives make huge names for themselves because of their constant hard work and dedication to what they love. We’ve also witnessed some of the best creative talents pop because they just so happened to be in the right place at the right time. In an era where everything is based on connections and/or hard work, you have to make sure you and your craft fall on either side of that spectrum. The reason why this is important to note is because when I look at people like Yusuf Muhammad, I not only see someone who put the work and time in to gain the recognition but I also saw someone who took his craft and made sure at all times he put himself in the right positions and the right places to show off his creative talent.
From being on the scenes of Philly with his camera to programming some of the best shows the Atlanta-based A3C Festival has given, Yusuf continuously puts himself in areas where he can constantly showcase his genius. The Philly native has lent his hand and knowledge in multiple music festivals throughout the country such as Made in America, Roots Picnic, Governors Ball and more. Although his festival resume is extensive, he recently accepted a new role in artist management which he deems will be challenging but also very exciting.
I had the opportunity to talk to Yusuf about his upbringing and music inspirations, how he landed his Program Director role with A3C, why the festival is so important to hip-hop, his new role in artist management and what’s to come for 2019. Read the full interview below.
1 – What got you involved in the music industry?
It’s the funny, typical story of growing up and being surrounded by music and different cultures. Growing up, my mother was a music connoisseur so to speak. She had this huge CD collection and this was back when CD cost a lot of money. She would always say “don’t touch my cd’s.” Naturally, as a kid what did I do? I went and touched her cd’s haha. I just loved music as a kid. Growing up my mother used to take me to go see The Isley Brothers and other legendary soul, funk, and hip-hop artists. As an 80’s baby, I remember all of this stuff. I really remember when Tupac was around. I was 10-11 years old. My childhood was really full of memories. It wasn’t like music that I just Googled. I remember seeing Biggie videos and Puffy videos and such. But, the real discovery for me was when I use to make these mixtapes of my mom CD’s and this was back when you had to listen to the radio the entire day to hear a song played twice. You wouldn’t hear a song played more than once unless you listened for an entire day and I had found this little college station and they played nothing but underground hip-hop. I remember the first time I heard Nas’ Illmatic and the first time I heard AZ, first time I heard Wu-Tang and the music was just incredible to me. I really didn’t know much about it but something about the feeling of hearing De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest was a different level of music being played. This was a different discovery for me because I was controlling it. I would make these little mixtapes for myself and I would play them around my friends and my friends loved them and it was just dope. It was a really dope time. So for me, that’s probably when I really started to fall in love with music without sounding too corny about it.
2 – As you started getting older was your love for hip-hop still the same being that music began to evolve?
So, I went through my “fuck the mainstream” phase. I always loved hip-hop but like purist hip-hop. I was always into that. That’s what I grew up on so naturally I would gravitate towards that sound. So, when Souljah Boy dropped I wasn’t fucking with it. I was like this shit is trash. I was hype when Hov did the ‘Death to Autotune’ haha. I would say I probably missed all mainstream music from about 2005 to about 2013 or 2014. I just was not interested in mainstream. I was out discovering MF Doom, People Under the Stairs. I was listening to Tanya Morgan. I was listening to a lot of these guys who are superstars now and that era from 2007 to 2010 was an amazing era of hip-hop. I’m talking Wiz Khalifa, Wale, Dom Kennedy, Kid Cudi, Kanye West although Ye was mainstream out the gate. We’re talking Stalley, Curren$y, Murs, the Hieroglyphics… it was such a phenomenal time in hip-hop, a really good era. There should be a documentary on that era. All of that stuff was super underground and that’s how I got involved in the festivals that I was a part of in the past because of my love for the underground hip-hop scene. But, around 2013-2014, I don’t know what happened but I was just like “yo, I want to listen to some new stuff.” I went and did my own discovery and started listening to the young kids and began to really like that music. It was really good. I could listen to KRS One and then Playboi Carti. I can listen to Uzi then Jadakiss and then listen to A$AP Rocky. I could listen to Ferg and then go listen to Method Man. What I did overall was take a more philosophical approach to music. I began to relate everything to Africa. I think we’re American Africans, not African Americans. We deserve the right to claim this country more than any of these people here outside of the Native Americans because we built this country. I think when you flip it and call yourself an American African it solidifies the African in you. But before I get too deep, I grew up with the mentality that different rap styles are like different languages from different tribes. I’m not from Houston but I understood exactly what UGK was talking about on Pocket Full of a Stones. I’m not from where Kendrick Lamar is from but I know exactly what he was talking about on his record called ‘Far From Here’, a really underground record from him that a lot of people don’t know too much about. It was actually one of the first records that Schoolboy Q rapped on. But, I could feel him. I could relate to him. It’s tribes. It’s different dialects. That’s how I always looked at hip-hop.
3 – Although you’ve involved yourself in a lot of projects, it seems like you’re mostly the “behind the scenes” guy. Why did you decide to go that route?
Now, I gotta get into my upbringing. I didn’t go to high school. I skipped high school and went straight into college very young. This is not something I say to brag. But, to make a long story short I entered college at 14 years old and my career path wasn’t even suppose to be music. I was actually going to school for engineering and a lot of life stuff happened and I ended up going to film school. When I got to film school I was like “wait a second, I can combine my love for music with film and get a good grade?” School was really annoying to me but maybe because it came easy to me. I had to find a way to make it exciting and I needed an organic way to be excited in school again and that was my way. I was doing music videos and working with different companies and doing a bunch of these cool things and that led to me doing shows. Throwing events is not something I thought I would be doing but when I was in college I was an R.A. and as an R.A. your duty was to throw events for your students. So, I started putting together these events and they were popping. I looked at it as a quick cash grab, it was never something that I thought I would be doing for life. And then it turned into something way bigger than that. I have this saying that sometimes you have to slow down enough and allow your blessings to catch up to you. I would put myself in certain rooms and things would happen. A lot of these things that I’m experiencing now in my 30’s started from seeds planted in my 20s. The artists I used to listen to or record on my little tapes, I started to work with or booked them for a shows. One of the guys that really inspires me and I don’t know if he knows he does and he’s so humble I don’t even think he understands how much I look up to him even though I’m older than him is Devin Cobbs. I talk about him a lot cause he’s just a guy who operates on a high level and someone I admire because I really appreciate him. I study my peers and I don’t look at them as competition. I study them to be inspired by them and to root for them. I like rooting for them to continue being great and Dev is one of those guys. I want to see him running a multi-million dollar company one day. So, that’s why I like working behind the scenes because that’s where most of the work gets done and I get to meet guys like a Dev.
4 – Let’s get into A3C, one of the most popular music festivals out there for hip-hop. How did get involved in that and becoming the program director?
A3C is one of the wildest stories and I’m a give you the whole story of how I end up at A3C. In 2009 I was in Atlanta filming for an artist by the name of Danny Swain. I came down there to work with Danny Swain and J-Live. These were two guys in the underground rap scene that were buzzing around that time and I was the film guy. I was around working and Young Chris from State Property calls my phone and says “Yo Yusuf, are you in Atlanta? We’re shooting a video for Meek for a song called ‘House Party’ and you should come to the video shoot.” I was like “Yeah, I’ll definitely come.” He said they were going to send a car for me and I was like yo, this is amazing. I go and when I’m there Lil Duval is there, Rick Ross is there, Karen Civil is there, DJ Drama is there, Don Cannon is there, Wale was there. It was crazy. I’m doing video and I’m filming the behind the scenes of “House Party” video and this was at Lou Will’s mansion, def a life moment. So, we ended up taking a break in the middle of the shooting and there were two exotic athletes there. I don’t like to call them strippers, they’re athletes to me haha. They were sitting on the couch and we just started having regular conversation. We talked about hip-hop they said to me “Yo, you look like an A3C guy.” I was like what the does that mean. They said, “You just look like the type of guy who would go to A3C.” I’m sitting there wondering what A3C is and they told me it was next week. I was like okay cool. So I go back to the crib that I’m staying at with my homie J-Live and I say to him “Yo, have you ever heard of A3C?” He said, “Hell yeah I’ve heard of A3C before.” He told me I need to go check it out. Long story short, I go and I totally hustled my way in and I ended up meeting great promoters and staples in the culture Hustle Simmons and Sickamore. This was way before he discovered Travis Scott. It was crazy how many people I was meeting. From there I was just building relationships with people. It became safe to say that A3C at this point is blowing my mind. I was totally blown away. I go back to Philly and I’m hype, telling everybody about A3C. I then go back the next year to check it out. I ended up doing some more filming and meeting even more dope people. I’ll never forget meeting 2 Chainz before he was 2 Chainz. I even got a classic pic of Dom Kennedy, Schoolboy Q, and Kendrick Lamar. Truly classic moment.
Back in Philly, the shows were starting to pick up and by 2012 I became an ambassador for A3C. I was an ambassador for 2012-14′ while continuing to gain a name in Philly for doing concerts and shows. I only did one showcase with the festival and that was a show called Philly to A3C. Sold out, packed out event! It was crazy and super dope. I had Don Cannon, Freeway and more came through. It was popping and by this time I’m buzzing as one of the younger curators on the scene coming out of Philly. I was known for doing a few things in NY as well but really coming out of Philly. Mike Walbert, the festival director at the time in 2014, calls me and when he called me he says “Yo, where are you at?” At the time I was in Japan for my birthday and he was like “What are you doing in Japan?!” He was like “Yo, when you get back call me because we need to talk.” I get back to the states and we hop on the phone and he’s like “Man, I’ve been following you and watching your movements and the show that you did at A3C was so dope.” The reason why the show really stood out is because I was one of the first curators that made the event into like, a bus trip. I rented out a 50 passenger bus. I rented out like 30 hotel rooms. I bought like 50 passes haha. He was really impressed and asked me to come on board and the first line up that I did was in 2015. I wanted to show him I had true relationships. I had a really good relationship with Wiz Khalifa’s manager and Curren$y’s manager for a long time. I was a huge fan of the mixtape that they did together, it’s probably one of the greatest mixtapes of all times. They did this mixtape together but they never performed together. So, the first A3C that I did was Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y. They were headlining and playing the stage at the same time. They did a dual set. That was my introduction and really put things into perspective. I just kept it going from there, kept learning, booking and at the start of this year they bumped me up to Program Director. So, I went from attending in 2009-2010, being an ambassador and booking for the festival for a few years and then being blessed with becoming the Program Director. Honestly, I kept trying to tell people I didn’t fill out no application, submit no resume or anything. I literally placed myself where I needed to be and the rest worked itself out with hard work. The greatest thing about the A3C move is it was all based on discovery. The same way I discover music on a daily basis is the same way this happened.
5 – What are your main duties as the Program Director?
So, program directing means you’re in charge of the final result. You’re taking things off the plate of the festival director so they don’t have to worry about the music side. So, my job is to work with my team to curate the festival lineup and book the festival part. I work with an amazing program manager and our programming A&R to put together our lineups and find the best showcases. We want to put together the best MUSICAL experience for people. We had about 100+ plus shows that we brought in, reached out to curators, reached out to partners, reached out to venues and helping book lineups, putting artists on certain lineups. For the actual festival though, that’s where my job comes in. I’m doing everything from the contract, reaching out the artists, striking the deal and so on. That all goes through me. I do that for a number of festivals. A3C is probably one of the more popular ones but in some way, shape or form I’m typically involved in about 8-10 feats a year. I’ve been blessed to work with SXSW, Afropunk, Roots Picnic, Art of Cool and more. I also did my own festival in Las Vegas called Jam Fest. I did it with this amazing group of guys called Jam Nation that I met during my time in Vegas. It was amazing.
6 – What makes A3C different than other festivals or conferences out there that are currently in the same realm?
I don’t think there are any that compare directly. The only one that I think comes close to it is SXSW but SXSW isn’t strictly hip-hop. That’s why A3C is it’s own beast because it’s strictly hip-hop and it’s been around for 14 years. So to me, it stands alone. The conference is by far one of strongest conferences I’ve ever seen. But specifically in the hip-hop space, there’s nothing I think that competes with it and that’s not even me being biased. I don’t think there’s another conference that pulls together the number of names, companies, and entities that A3C does. I love what I do with the festival side but the conference side is amazing. My programming is nothing compared to that. Then on the music side, it is literally historic lineups. It’s lineups that you would never see. You would never see Master P. and Rick Ross on the same stage with Bone Thugs N Harmony. You would never really see a Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y or Nas and Wu-Tang and the entire Dipset.
7 – Why do you think consumers have gravitated towards A3C over the last few years and why do you believe a festival such as this is important for hip-hop culture?
We call it the hip-hop family reunion and that’s the space we wanted to create. I would hope we’ve created a space where every year folks are excited to come to the festival because they know they’re going to see their hip-hop family in every aspect of the business from the production to the managers and artists, songwriters, journalists, tech, lawyers, venues, bookers, programmers, DJ’s, hosts and so on. I think that’s what we’ve created. This year right here has been one of the best and smoothest years of A3C ever. I’m very proud of this year. I would hope that consumers understand the significance of it and I definitely would hope A3C will continue, whether I’m involved or not. I will always support it, I will always be a part of it and I will always champion it. There are people, that have been attending 6-10 years and I think that if you can create a product where people are coming back then that tells you that you’re doing something right.
8 – You mentioned that you’re venturing off into Artist Management. Will you still lend a hand in A3C or are you leaving for good?
A3C will still have me. I’m 32 now. When I got involved with A3C I was 25. Where I’m at right now with my life and the other things I want to do, I have more goals and the artist that I’ll be working with is a day-to-day role. That mean’s I’ll be traveling all over the world with this artist but I’ve made it very clear that A3C is family. Anything that they need from me I will always be involved and I told them I would even take something like a consulting role. As long as A3C is around, I would love to be involved with it. I’m excited about what I’m getting into now because it’s something that’s going to challenge me. That’s not to say booking festivals isn’t challenging because it definitely is but this is going to be something different. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt uncomfortable and going into this artist management space created that unfamiliarity. I don’t know everything about it and I’m learning daily. When you do things that you know how to do it’s super easy but this right here is going to be a learning experience. I’m super excited to see this particular artist grow and be as successful as they need to be.
9 – With everything that you’ve done and still doing, what has been the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given, whether related to your profession or in general?
I’ve had so many conversations with so many people and all of these conversations resonate with me for different reasons. One of the most profound lessons that I’ve gotten was from my mentor. Not only did he teach me that there’s no such thing as job security but he taught me the power of knowing your value and the power of getting all the value that you can out of relationships that you’re involved in, especially when it comes to business. Also, not allowing brands to use you without you getting something back. I think that might’ve been a throwaway for him but it was something that really resonated with me. That’s probably one of the most profound pieces of advice that were given to me from him. He was the first person to teach me about a retainer. He was the first person to teach me that if a brand is approaching you and they see value in you, they should be paying you to use what you’ve created. I never thought of that. I was simply excited to know a brand was hitting me up and he taught me that if they’re reaching out to you then they see value in you. For example, he said if it’s an RSVP type of event and you’re promoting it, make sure you’re getting all the emails. If you go to a venue, make sure you connect with the manager and whoever runs the space so that way you can use that venue one day. My mentor’s name is Tayyib Smith and he’s based in Philly. He has a company called Little Giant Creative and he also won one of the biggest grants to use hip-hop in school curriculums as a positive. He’s a phenomenal guy. One last thing, he also taught me is that payment isn’t always in the form of money. If you’re just following the money, you’re going to miss out on a lot of money. You’ll literally miss out on more bread trying to chase the money instead of allowing the money to work for you.
10 – What advice would you give to the aspiring creative?
My advice would be to create for yourself rather than waiting for someone else to come to you. I would also say create in unconventional spaces and to realize that any room is a venue. To stop thinking so linear. Stop thinking so vertical and start thinking horizontal and to realize that your network is your net worth. People tend to only see what’s in front of them and never take a second to look at what’s around them. Also, to fully realize that your 9-5 is your first investor and to protect your peace with everything that you have in you and know that you’re blessed every day that you wake up. If you’re not taking a second or a minute to research something, write down an idea, or be creative, you have wasted an entire day that you’ll regret later. We’re not promised tomorrow so you shouldn’t be wasting any of your days or any of your seconds. That’s the gist for me. To me, these things are the most important things.
11 – Being that we’re coming to the end of 2018, any big plans for the remainder of the year? Also, what’s coming for 2019?
So, for the end of this year, I have a bunch of shows lined up. I’m still doing shows and concerts so that’s great. I have DANILEIGH at the end of November. That’s going to be the last #HeinekenGreenRoom of the year. I also have Art Basel. I’m doing my first ever event there. Think Footlocker but as an art exhibit. I found a really creative sneaker artist and I’m going to create an exhibit, party, and mixer based off of his art. So, we’re going to have his dope sneakers on the walls and we’re going to have a mini concert in the back. We’re going to have drinks and cool giveaways. I’m really excited about that. Then, New Year’s Eve, I’m doing a party where Teyana Taylor is going to be performing in Atlanta. It’s going to be a huge event with an open bar and a special guest performance. She’s going to do her thing, call in the new year and then it’s going to turn into one big party. Then for 2019, it’s going to be mainly artist management and of course some festival pieces but from the consulting perspective. 2019 and the next two years is really going to be me being on the road with this artist so that’s pretty much it. I’m extremely excited to announce it because I think this artist is really slept on and I know when they come back it’s going to be really dope.