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A long time ago, one of the biggest criticisms of hip-hop by music traditionalists was that the new genre didn’t use any “real instruments.” Condescending rock snobs thumbed their noses at early rap producers’ use of drum machines, samples, and turntable mixers, deriding them for using technology in place of honored tools like real drum sets, guitars, keyboards, and whatever other sounds could be used to make popular music.

We’ve come a long way since then; rap has become one of the most popular genres in the world and more often than not, the two styles have informed each other. As one incorporated new technologies, the other began to rely more and more on live instruments and musicians to embellish and build on the once-simple formula established by producers of old. And one group of musicians stands at the forefront of innovation in hip-hop: 1500 Or Nothin.

Established by musician/producer Larrance “Rance” Dopson and singer-songwriter James Fauntleroy in the early 2000s — along with Lamar Edwards and Brody Brown, as well as Kenneth “Bam” Alexander Jr., Alexandria Dopson, Charles “Uncle Chucc” Hamilton, Carlos “Los” McSwain, and Jeret “J. Black” Black — 1500 Or Nothin began as a band and quickly expanded into a do-everything collective of musicians, producers, songwriters, and videographers generating content for the biggest names in music, from Jay-Z to Justin Timberlake.

However, simply being one of the low-key biggest names in music wasn’t enough for James and Rance. Seeing a need not only for skilled musicians and producers in the music world but also for business-savvy ones, they decided to turn their double-decade level of experience into a curriculum preparing working musicians for the real world. They established the 1500 Sound Academy in their stomping grounds of Inglewood, California in 2018, partnering with entrepreneur Twila True and instrument manufacturers like Roland to provide state-of-the-art equipment, practice rooms, and recording studios to students participating in their six-month certificate program.

Students learn the business from working musicians like “Air” Jared Selter, an award-winning sound designer and producer, jazz revivalist Terrace Martin, production duo Mike & Keys, and Fauntleroy, who has written hits for Beyonce, Frank Ocean, Jay-Z, and more. The curriculum includes everything from networking to contracts — the importance of which has been highlighted several times over the past year. The building even has a performance stage, where students can jam out to their hearts’ content after classes.

The Sound Academy doesn’t just teach musicians the business, though. It actually helps them find positions within it and thrive. While many starry-eyed aspiring producers often see themselves accepting Grammys for producing hits for Kendrick Lamar, the Sound Academy shows them hundreds of other opportunities for lucrative behind-the-scenes work that mainstream fans may not even be aware of. The Academy is building, slowly but surely, a community of artists who can rely on each for support, even after they’ve completed their courses.

In an interview over the phone, Rance says his goal is to help make musicians “unemployable.” While that sounds counterintuitive, what he really means is he wants to ensure that they have all the tools and know-how to work for themselves so they can create their own opportunities and ensure their longevity. While some elder statesmen would rather withhold that information to curtail future competition, Rance, James, and the rest of the 1500 collective sees themselves as empowering artists in an industry where knowledge is power.

What was the process of beginning the 1500 Sound Academy?

I’ve traveled around the world. I got like three filled passports. So I’ve been able to pay attention to a lot of the problems around the world in the entertainment business. So I always kept notes of that. James, at that time, was writing for all the biggest artists in the world to where we were just gathering information and solving problems and seeing what was going wrong in the music business and how could people like us, as writers and producers, be treated fair. It was just a lot of things we didn’t understand about the business that we didn’t think was right.

We just wanted to create our own curriculum with expert opinions, because in the music business there really isn’t rules for this. Due to the fact that it’s a new day and age of technology, everything is new. So everyone does music differently and we just want to be a blueprint of what the music business is today in the fairest, high-level way.

What would you say is probably the most important thing for a young, up-and-coming artist to know about the music business?

We try to teach you how to be unemployable — as in, you’re your own employer. I tell people all the time, it’s really about being able to create a thought and for it to really happen. So I tell people all the time, the only thing people can do is license my thoughts and ideas as partners, just because I understand how powerful it is when you understand and know all the rules to break the rules.

Our school is the school for that, to literally teach you everything from the music business to emotional intelligence. We have songwriting classes, financial literacy classes. It’s everything at a high-level, so you can at least know how to do everything on your own and you’re learning from industry professionals that are really in the business today

What’s one thing that you’re surprised that people don’t know about the music business when they come in?

Publishing. Really understanding the music business, the publishing, the royalty system, and how it really works. And just learning how to be a good person. Ninety percent of the business is just being someone cool, to where you can do business with your friends when you get to a certain level. Also, not reacting to emotional and low-level things to where it’ll ruin your opportunity. I see a lot of that in the business. You’ll make an emotional reaction, where if you really thought about it and just took your time and relaxed, that could change your whole life. It’s really simple things.

Speaking of making music with your friends, you have one of the most impressive lists of friends in terms of people you’ve worked with and people who do business with you. Who was the first person that you worked with that you were just utterly starstruck to be sitting in as a musician or engineering or producing for them?

Well, when I first started, I got my first hit when I was 17. I’m 36 now.

But I would have to say, Snoop Dogg. Between Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z. They gave us our first opportunity. We were blessed to have the opportunity to work on “Show Me What You Got” with Just Blaze and Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg. They really opened the door and it gave us an opportunity. They were like our uncles that loved us, so they really protected us and taught us a lot about the music business and I just appreciate them for that.

What is the importance of having live musicians on deck? What do they bring to the production process that you normally wouldn’t get from a sample or a synthesizer?

It’s really like if you want food in a microwave or if you want food from the oven. There’s a big difference. Food from the microwave, you can hear it. Food from the oven, you can feel it. So it’s a difference. People could tell that you care. People don’t even realize when they hear music and when they move, it’s because they’re feeling it and not even realizing it. That’s one of the secrets to us being the producers we are. We know how to mix everything in one to make all genres happy.

What things have changed the most since you started?

Well, thank God, we really understood branding at an early stage, because one of the most powerful things for branding is word-of-mouth. So I was the guy, every day, wearing a 1500 T-shirt. Every award show. Every time you seen us, we really wanted to let everybody know who we was and create a brand for ourselves. And now it’s much easier. I don’t have to wear a T-shirt every day, because you know who we are.

Then, we were learning the rules. Now, we’re breaking the rules and helping other people learn the rules too, so they can break them. And that’s the most important part. That’s why me and James went through it, man. That’s why I wanted to build the Sound Academy — to have a place where we can really train these people because I’m getting calls every day.

There’s opportunities for movies and TV shows and award shows. Every single day that they’re calling me for business. But we have to make sure we train them right to where they can deal with superstars and deal with an emotional person and know how not to react and know how to just be a good person where you can stay memorable — for them to call you again for the next gig and just to keep favor with your name. That’s so important and that’s what changed.

To that end, I would really love to know where some of the 1500 Sound Academy students ended up.

They’re on fire, man. Some of them have been in Kanye West’s choir. They’ve been touring. We got some working for Young Thug. We got a couple of people working with Roc Nation. After you graduate, you’re one of us. So when there’s opportunities and we know that you could fit the job, it makes total sense for us to call them and hook them up. I still have sessions and bring our students to my studio sessions and just show them the real experience. Because to know is to experience and we just want to really teach them hands-on so they can actually see it and be inspired. All it takes is one time or one conversation to change someone’s life forever, so we want to keep building those opportunities.

Speaking about opportunities, what were some of your favorites from over the years and what drew you to those opportunities in the first place?

Roddy Ricch’s Tiny Desk concert. I just executive produced Trippie Redd’s album that came out. We’re working on Justin Timberlake’s new album. I know James is doing Bruno Mars’s album right now. Jeezy album comes out Friday. I worked on that. We’re pretty much working with everybody right now in the business. Today I have to do a show with Roddy Ricch and we’re doing AMAs with Lil Baby and I’m the musical director for that. We just did Megan Thee Stallion. All her shows and her award shows, I’m the musical director for that.

You’ve done a lot of interviews over the years. You’ve talked to a lot of different publications. I’m sure you’ve heard every question in the book. But every artist has that one question that they wish people would ask them that they never heard because it’s something they want to talk about, but nobody ever gives them that opportunity.

Why there are only like two superstars and why are there so many artists that don’t make it. I know the answer. You want the answer?

Go for it.

I learned this from one of my close friends, Big Bob. He’s a guy that taught me and Nipsey Hussle and a lot of other people about branding. You got to know the 22 immutable laws of branding. It’s a book. It’s called [The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding: How to Build a Product Or Service Into a World-Class Brand]. If anybody says they’re a business person, but they don’t know those laws… They have to know these laws.

If you miss number nine and number 16, your whole business can fail. You don’t even know why it’s failing. So it teaches you things like every brand has to own one word in the hearts and the mind of the consumer. So let’s say if I say FedEx. If I say FedEx, the first word in the mind that they own is overnight. So if I say your name, if I say an artist’s name, what is the first word they own? What is your cure for the world? Am I going to listen to your music when I want to work out or when I want to go to sleep or when I want to just chill or when I ride in the car? You have to figure out what is your cure.

It talks about stuff like a new brand never sells advertising. That’s the one mistake every label does when they tell their artists, “Say, ‘Hey, go buy my album, go buy my album.'” And that’s the number one thing you’re not supposed to do. It’s called favorable publicity. Favorable publicity is when you have other people talking about your album. That’s what you want to get people to do.

There’s a guy named Clayton Christensen I think everybody needs to really study. He created the word disruptive innovation. When you really understand that and figure out how to create your own category, your own words, your own market to where there’s no traffic in your own lane, that’s when you can really differentiate yourself and then have people talking about you. Because it’s about being the news seven days of the week and if you can’t be in the news, in the conversation of people, it’s not going to work. It’s about being a sensory brand. You have to cover all the senses. You got to be able to sell every sense. And when artists figure that out, then they’ll have some money and they’ll be successful. The end.