Meet the man who discovered Amy Winehouse

President of Island Records Darcus Beese also spoke to Moncrieff about Hozier

Meet the man who discovered Amy Winehouse

Image: John Stillwell/PA Archive/PA Images

From South West London, with a father from Trinidad and a mother of mixed heritage – Darcus Beese grew up listening to a mixture of reggae, soul and calypso.

He finished school early and decided to become a hairdresser. He ended up working in a salon around the corner from CBS Records.

Hairdressing had taught him to converse with people outside his social circle, he explains, and he started chatting with the Artists & Repetoire people as he cut their hair, to find out more about what went into producing his treasured pieces of vinyl.

One of his clients was Lincoln Elias, who had signed one of Beese's favourite artists, Terence Trent D'Arby.

"It was the first time I'd met someone black who worked in the music industry and I thought 'OK, I can join the dots here,'" he explained.

Soon, he was invited to come into CBS to pick up so-called "blag [free] records" on a regular basis.

"I remember being invited to a few showbiz parties ... George Michael and Pet Shop Boys album launches. At that time in the 80s it was all extravagant – fairground rides, burnt-out cars, vodka fountains – and I said to myself: 'This is nuts! I need to be working in the music industry.'"

Tea boy to label president

Eventually, a job as a tea boy became vacant at Island Records, then an independent label.

"They call it work experience and internship now, but back then it was a tea boy. You made tea, you collected people's dry-cleaning. Car clamping had just been introduced, so I used to have to go and sit in their cars, wait for the car to be de-clamped and then drive back to the office."

He met the then founder of Island Chris Blakwell when he was 19, and tried his luck, reasoning "this was my opportunity to introduce myself".

"He asked me what I did and I told him I was a tea boy. He asked 'at what department?', I pointed at promotions. He said: 'That's the promotions department? That used to be Stiff Records.'" It was the first, but not the last, history lesson Beese got from Blackwell.

Beese has been at Island over 20 years, working up from teaboy to label president. In the 1990s, he shepherded into the spotlight artists such as Taio Cruz and Sugababes and was instrumental in signing Winehouse.

Darcus Beese was made an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) by the Duke of Cambridge at Buckingham Palace in 2014. Image: Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive/PA Images

Working at Island Records

Beese says it's impossible to predict the success of certain artists.

“I’ve never signed someone and said, 'We’re going to have a hit!' I’ve never signed someone and said, 'We’re going to make you famous!' I’ve never signed someone and said, 'We’re going to sell millions of records!'

"It goes back to what you stand for. If you’re going to deal with organic discovery then you’ve got to actually do that, and the acts you sign have to reflect that. That way, you’ll have to wait a while longer for the hits when they’re taking their time but, on the flip side, you’ve got to have some business that balances that off.

"While that is slow roasting in the AGA, you’ve got to have something popping off in the microwave. To get that process right can take a few years, but I’ve always thought of my career and my actions are always based on the long-term, and that’s looked after me."

Finding Amy

One of the hardest things that Beese ever had to do was sit through Amy, the 2015 documentary about the life and death of singer Amy Winehouse.

As Winehouse’s boss at Island Records, Beese had been friend and mentor to the young singer. When she died at age 27, he was devastated.

“It was a story that had to be told,” he says. “The audience saw a side of Amy people on the inside saw. Watching the final cut was very raw, very emotional. But I’m glad the story has been shared.”

He says that he recognised Winehouse’s talent the first time he saw her perform, but didn’t necessarily think she would become a superstar.

“As much as you believe something is amazing you’ve got to convince more than the people in your immediate surroundings [...] You have to, with the help of your team, convince the rest of the world. To think that I knew full-well a girl from Camden singing jazz was going to sell 15 or 20 million records… that’s all b***ocks.”

Amy Winehouse performing in the JJB Arena at V Festival 2004, in Chelmsford, Essex. Image: Yui Mok/PA Archive/PA Images

Island, now part of the Universal Music group, had its origins in the maverick vision of former president Chris Blackwell.

A wealthy white Jamaican (his family was heir to the Cross and Blackwell fortune), Blackwell made it his life’s mission to bring reggae to the masses. He founded Island in 1958 at age 22 and in the 1970s made a star of Bob Marley and the Wailers.

Blackwell sold his stake in the company in 1989, stepping down in 1997. By then, Island had reconfigured itself, with a roster that included U2, The Cranberries and PJ Harvey.

Today, it is multi-faceted with a vengeance, boasting names such as The Weeknd and Drake, as well as the likes of Bombay Bicycle Club.

The Irish on Island Records

In the 1990s, Beese tried to sign The Mary Janes, an early vehicle for songwriter Mic Christopher, who died tragically aged 32.

More recently, he was instrumental in bringing Hozier to the label, after seeing the singer’s Cork-made video.

“I woke to an email the first thing in the morning saying ‘You’ve got to hear this’. There was a link to Hozier’s video. In my job there are certain things that only require one listen and suddenly you know. With Hozier, it was like getting hit by a bolt of lightning.”

Darcus Beese is a keynote speaker at Music Cork, taking place at the Clayton Hotel, Lapps Quay and other venues, May 10–12. See www.musiccork.com for more info.