Matt McNeal has seen two producers set speakers on fire in the studio. The culprits behind the audio arson were Grammy-winning producers No ID and Rodney Jerkins.
“The speaker popped, there was a flash and I smelled smoke,” Matt said. “It’s something you never actually think would happen in a studio.”
When it comes to the process behind making music, he may have seen it all. As the A&R under Dreamville Records, he’s had a hand in overseeing the development of songs and albums for the label’s roster, as well as other multi-platinum artists.
But a career in music was plan B. After realizing he wouldn’t be able to play sports beyond high school, the idea of sitting in studio sessions with rappers was the only comparable option. His new vision led him to St. John’s University.
“I never went to school with the intent of graduating, to be honest,” he said. “I just wanted to get to New York.”
Because of his Los Angeles roots, he earned the moniker Cali Matt around campus. During the summer orientation before his freshman year, he met another out-of-towner from North Carolina named Jermaine Cole.
Aside from playing occasional intramural basketball games, Matt didn’t develop a relationship with Jermaine or his two friends, Ibrahim Hamad and Adam Rodney (the three would later spearhead the founding of Dreamville Records).
It was after Matt left St. John’s and enrolled in recording school that he found out his former orientation partner had a passion for carving out a career as a rapper. While scrolling through social media, he came across Jermaine’s music via a link to his MySpace page.
“I hit him up like, ‘Yo, I never knew you were taking this s*** seriously.’ He had done little rap s*** around campus like open mics. I never knew he was recording songs and trying to figure it out. Once I found that out, I told him that I was in recording school and if I could introduce him to anybody or set anything up for him, I’d figure it out.”
Matt still uses the same simple approach when scouting new talent.
“I don’t care what you look like. I don’t care about your social media. I don’t care if you were cool in high school. I just care about how good your music is.”
He says his value as an A&R is centered around his ability to direct a room of creatives without dishing out orders. The key to his success has been to refrain from telling artists and producers what to do. Instead, he guides them in the direction he thinks they should go but allows them to realize the benefits on their own.
It’s a tactic he’s perfected after years of trial and error – one of his most trusted sources for professional development.
“Trial error is the biggest thing you can learn from in this industry,” he said. “You have to be willing to make those mistakes, own up to them, and correct them immediately.”
Still, he yearns to help the next generation of A&Rs avoid too many mishaps. He says he’s actively looking for an understudy he can impart his wisdom into. He even hopes he or she will surpass him one day.
Matt McNeal has enough accomplishments to create a multi-page resume. He can hang his hat on the title of Dreamville’s A&R. He can proudly say he’s friends with and works alongside one of the most successful rappers in recent history. But when he imagines his future, he looks to live by a straightforward philosophy.
“I want to do things that make me happy, around people that make me happy, and get results that make me happy.”