Duwayne “DaDa” Mills has his way of leading you in a trance, engaging you and captivating your imagination when he speaks on subjects he loves, music and technology. The music executive and entrepreneur has worked as vice president of A&R for Epic Records and as partner and senior executive vice president at music management company DAS Communications before becoming the chief creative officer of EscapeX, a tech start-up that develops advanced mobile solutions to provide celebrities and social influencers like athletes, actors, models, comedians, and other creators with a direct connection to their audiences, with greater control over their content, and for monetization of social engagement through e-commerce and in-app advertising.
Under his leadership, EscapeX has signed music superstars like Akon, Enrique Iglesias and Ricky Martin. He recently developed an unprecedented deal between renewable-energy entrepreneur and international star, Akon and one of the largest companies in the world, Shell Oil Company. This brand partnership, which uniquely merges the music and energy industries, is the first between a major oil company and a music superstar. As part of Shell’s “Make the Future” campaign, they developed Africa’s first football pitch powered by renewable energy at the Federal College of Education in Akoka, Lagos.
So it’s not surprising that Monica, Prince Royce and Akon entrust him for creative consulting and A&R services.
Mills’ first venture into entrepreneurship happened when he was just 12 years old. He opened his first “comic book stand” on Fordham Road in the Bronx, New York, and even had one employee on staff. “I purchased the books for a dime then invested in covers that made them look prettier. I spent a total of 15 to 20 cents and turned around and sold the comic books for a dollar,” he says.
“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. When I was 17 years old, I decided to get into the music industry to escape a life that wouldn’t have been good for me. I decided to be a personal manager. I found an artist, named Ques, and got him a record deal. It was a great time, taught me a lot.” Ques’ contemporaries were Big Foot, The Natural Elements, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Coolio.
On his move from New York to Atlanta…
“Leaving New York is something I got a lot of flack for. I saw groups like Outkast … Jermaine Dupri and Dallas Austin were doing their things. I felt like New York was on top, but there was something coming out of the south. The tipping point for me was seeing more acts out of the south gaining recognition, as well as producers and songwriters. Hip-hop and R&B were thriving.”
As an A&R at Epic Records, he’s collaborated with many artists, including Ciara, Sean Kingston and Future. Mills achieved his first Billboard No. 1 single in 2012 with “Cashin’ Out” from rapper Cash Out, which was Epic’s first No. 1 single during L.A. Reid’s regime.
While at DAS Communications, Mills discovered many talents. There, he worked with artists such as Prince Royce, Fergie, and Sean Paul and created a new producer/songwriter division of the company. He brought in rising young stars like singer-songwriter Taylor Parks, aka Tayla Parx, Lindsay Gilbert, aka Mavelle; Bianca Atterberry, aka Blush; Brandon Hesson, aka B Hess; and producers Brandon Green, aka Bei Maejor; Ronald Ferebee Jr,. aka Young Yonny; Dominic Gordon; Rune Westberg; Phalon Alexander, aka Jazze Pha; and Philip “DJ Hardwerk” Constable.
“I started the producer and songwriter division as DAS Communications as well,” he enlightens. “We had a producer-songwriter Toby Gad, who co-wrote John Legend’s ‘All of Me,’ a No. 1 hit. We had Blush who worked on K. Michelle’s album [Anyone Wanna Buy a Heart] and Fifth Harmony’s single, ‘Boss.’ There were a lot of good brand partnerships with Fergie.”
Mills’ powerful network extends throughout all three coasts, his home state of New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles, and across all music genres.
He currently manages Skip Marley, the legend Bob Marley’s grandson. “I am moving toward being an agent.”
On why A&R is so important for music artists…
“A&R is a lost art. It is important part for someone who is a overseeing the development of a project to have experience and training, no matter the business. Its about finding your niche and learning from other people. The young A&Rs aren’t being trained by anyone who is skilled, they simply put songs together. Like Larkin Arnold who did the Thriller [Michael Jackson] album and Darrale Jones who was the A&R of the album Confessions [Usher Raymond]. Those were great albums. L.A. Reid taught me how important the art is. It’s priceless to have someone working with a new project who understands how to put an album together.”
Tell us how you landed this deal with Akon, DJ Hardwerk and Shell Oil Company.
“I have a company called GlueMen LLC, an agency filled with great minds and problem solvers. We find solutions for corporate needs: product launches and penetrating new demographics using entertainment. Shell has an initiative #MakeTheFuture to inspire innovators and innovative ideas to help create alternative sources for energy. To me energy is more important than a lot of topics the press spends time on. There are over a billion people without energy who don’t have electricity. There are more people who die as a result than at the hands of terrorism, but it’s not a hot topic people are talking about. My friend, Akon has a company called Light Up Africa which supplies electricity to African countries in need. They install solar panels to light up communities. It inspired me to have the conversation with Shell. DJ Hardwerk produced and Akon recorded the single ‘Tell Me We’re OK’.”
What kind of impact will you leave in technology?
“We are not taking advantage of technology as much as we should. I am working to be on the forefront of technology in the music industry. Digital sales outweigh physical sales. We’re seeing digital streaming more than anything. The future of the music industry is in your mobile device. I also think the future of music is about fan-to-fan and artist-to-fan engagement. It’s engagement that’s the value. Having technology that meets that need is the future. Monetizing it properly is extremely important. Technology is the key to artists controlling their own engagement. Fans want more engagement. They would love to have Taylor Swift message or mention them on social media; they yearn for the engagement. They want options and variations. The key is to give them an intimate experience with a plethora of music choices. EscapeX is a freemium model. The artist gets the lion share of what’s monetized. Every artist has their own app and analytics within the network. It’s seamless for the customer to go from Akon’s app to Bob Marley’s app.”