One of the key parts of any label’s success is having a closely defined identity. Get this right, or so the reasoning goes, and fans will return, time after time after time.
2019 has seen the Clash Inbox peppered with countless new acts – some brilliant, others less so – but one name kept cutting through the noise, a label that delivered impeccably curated new prospects that worked in the confluence between rap, R&B, and pop’s avant edge.
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b4 has just toasted its first birthday, with the singles-first imprint piecing together a fantastic, somewhat definitive compilation. “I guess it’s just music that makes me feel some type of way,” says founder Briana Cheng of the label’s ethos. “And right now that’s a lot of hip-hop and R&B, and some weirder, experimental pop releases.”
The label fits under the umbrella of 4AD Records, the esteemed independent where Briana works as an A&R. Combining her day job with this imposing side hustle, she flits between the two, with b4 very much a labour driven by love. “Everything has been a big learning experience,” she explains, “and I think that’s what makes it so special, is that I trust everyone here, and the music.”
The new compilation opens with the first b4 release - ‘Might Be’ by the exceptional teenage rap force HAWA. “She posted a story of herself on Instagram rapping and singing, so a friend sent it to me and said: you need to work with her! I was so excited by this teenage skater girl making music and no one has discovered her yet.”
“We took a meeting – one of the first meetings I ever had to pitch b4 to someone – and they basically just loved our energy together. Then after the meeting she sent me the demos, and we began building new music together. Everything just worked out from there.”
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Everything about b4 feels personal. Briana knows each artist personally, and they hit her up over text, sharing new ideas, fragments of melodies, and unformed beats. It’s A&R at it’s most intimate level, helping to bring provocative new ideas into focus.
“It’s text messages all the time!” she laughs. “I’m way more hands on with the projects, which is also because none of the artists I work with have a manager or a booking agent, so I become that person at the label to do everything with them! It’s really great because we have such a close relationship, and it also could be… exhausting!”
The work is paying off, though. b4 is gaining attention on both sides of the Atlantic, with its new compilation serving as a timely reminder that identity is key to cutting through the noise. Take Velvet Negroni’s distorted take on future-driven soul – real name Jeremy Nutzman, he’s a potent aspect of Minneapolis’ no-rules-followed underground scene.
“A friend sent me the SoundCloud I remember going crazy over it,” she recalls. “At the time I was looking at something different, and I was already familiar with the Minneapolis music scene, and everyone that I asked said how amazing Jeremy was, and how great it would be for the label.”
“I waited, and it took them a week to get back to me, and then they had some music that was ready to put out on b4. “When I met them for the first time they basically just played me 20 demos, and it sounded so right.”
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During our conversation there’s this sense that Briana is going with her gut, that each decision the label takes follows a very natural path. “I find A&R pretty easy because all the artists trust me so well,” she says. “I get some ideas on who to work with, and then they’ll go into the studio and send me demos, and that’s when we can find out which track we gravitate to more. They all have their own sound, really. I don’t have to give them any feedback on how to make the music.”
This new compilation marks how far b4 has come in a year, but it also finds the imprint gravitating towards longer projects. Singles-focussed, the label has some EPs slated for 2020, with Briana’s ambitions broadening with the continued excellence of the music.
“The reason b4 started is that I thought it was what the current industry needed, which is more singles and less long form deals with artists,” she says. “I think this year putting out only singles has made me realise that it’s really hard to do that. And then the artists become attached to myself and to b4, so it feels natural to be moving on to EPs. But who knows?”
“I’m excited for the label to grow more,” she continues. “I’m slowly building a bigger team, too, so I’m really excited for the future”.
Unlike her job at 4AD, this new venture is uninhibited by the past, by the legacy of an esteemed catalogue – with b4, the release schedule is open to all forms of possibility, a post-genre mosaic fit for a radically shifting cultural climate.
It’s a task Briana Cheng clearly relishes. “The best thing about my job – and also the most stressful thing – is that what we’re putting out is so important in terms of shaping the brand, and the legacy, of b4 that I just hope that people enjoy the music and understand why it’s good.”
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