As a young kid growing up in East Flatbush, in Brooklyn, NY, Felton Brown had always loved music. He interned at Def Jam in high school and ran a hip-hop blog called Pardon Me Duke. But his current role in the music industry as the vice president of creative services at Grammy-winning artist J. Cole’s Dreamville Records was not his childhood dream job. “I wanted to be a comic artist,” he says. Young Felton saw art as a beacon that would lead him out the not-so-great neighborhood he grew up in. His environment did not foster creativity in young people, there were no art programs available and he recalls seeing a dead body in his schoolyard at one point. Luckily, he had parents, teachers and a great-aunt who encouraged him to sit an arts test in order to transfer to another school. Felton prepared for his test by purchasing some binders and a hole punch, creating a makeshift portfolio of his drawings and sketches, which would feel out of place the following day, next to his peers’ easels and multicolored pencils.
Despite this, Felton was accepted into two different arts schools in New York, which he saw as his first step to getting out from his environment. Going to school in Manhattan, taking the train, seeing the city, and meeting kids of all races and backgrounds, opened up his world and led him to study art throughout high school and graphic design at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.
A true New Yorker though, Felton could not wait to get back to his home city after college. There, while working as a production assistant, he started a web design company with three of his friends. An encounter with music video director and filmmaker Director X led to Felton and his partners working out of the same building, where they were able to hustle up clients such as Def Jam, Virgin Records, Warner and Atlantic Records, creating flyers, posters and album artwork.
With the rise of music-sharing services such as Napster and the decline of the music industry in the early 2000s, the partners had to make the hard design to shut down their creative company. Then a friend asked Felton if he’d ever considered advertising. He had not. After being convinced that advertising was not that farfetched from what he was already doing with music art and album covers, Felton created a portfolio and started freelancing. Then got hired full-time at a company, working there for five years, on campaigns for the Chase app, Shark Electronics, and more.
On the side, though, Felton was working with a friend he had met through his music blog, an artist by the name of J. Cole. Someone had passed him the artist’s first mixtape, The Come Up; he liked what he heard and he reached out to him. They met and he wrote about the rapper for the blog, and they developed a friendship from there. Felton began pulling double shifts and worked with J. Cole on artwork for the album Friday Night Lights, on music video shoots and art direction for music tours. When J. Cole wanted to take his Dreamville Records company to the next level a few years ago, he asked his friend to come work with him permanently. Felton says it was “a hard decision” but one he does not regret; he has had great experiences traveling the world, collaborating on cool, interesting projects, and working with friends. Now, he heads a creative team at the record company, where he helps to communicate and bring to life the artistic visions of musicians including Ari Lennox, EarthGang and, of course, J. Cole.
In this episode of Our Folklore, we sat down with Felton Brown to discuss what it really means to be a creative director, communicating the visual ideas of musicians and what he finds most fulfilling about his role. Listen to the podcast here and on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, and read excerpts from the interview below.
“To be a really good creative director, or a real creative director, to me, you have to at least have an understanding of what it takes in the space… I just have to have an understanding of everyone’s job, to really understand how we’re going to execute this. Not just, I’m going to pick a photographer, I’m going to pick an animator, or I’ll pick a motion person or a sound person. Like, do it.”
“Because of technology and where it is now, people think everything’s doable and it might be, if you understand all the tools, and the scope of what you’re doing. Most people don’t really know. They just see things and just assume that it could be done.”
“You don’t know until you’re in it. And I spent that time really learning how to one, be able to delegate, and two, trusting in the people who are working on the project with me.”
“A bad creative director is the guy that hovers over every piece of the work… That person ends up being stressed out most of the time, two, he’s not fostering talent… A better creative director, you know, allows the people to do their job and is really just insightful.”
“I think working in a creative space where I get to foster bigger communities is the fulfilling part of my life, because I like people. So I think that’s my thing. Some people, they want to be, like, just in the space. I like collaboration, so the more I get to collaborate with people that I respect and also love and like, I think that makes this journey fulfilling for me.”