Spike Lee on Finding ’12 Gems’ From Unsigned Artists for His Kickstarter-Funded Film

Il Gioco Serio Dell'Arte - Spike Lee Meets Audience

Spike Lee meets the audience during the ‘Il Gioco Serio Dell’Arte’
at Palazzo on Dec. 10, 2014 in Rome, Italy.  credit: billboard.com

credit: billboard.com

From Radio Raheem pumping “Fight the Power” in Do the Right Thing to the “Baba O’Riley” montage in Summer of Sam to New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s score to When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee has provided plenty of unforgettable music moments over the years.

For his latest film, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Lee did something no other director has done before: He asked strangers on social media to provide him with new music.

It might seem like a crazy move, but it’s fitting that Lee’s latest should feature a soundtrack of unsigned, unknown artists hoping to get a break. After all, the film itself — which is inspired by the seminal 1973 indie horror film Ganja & Hess and available on Vimeo a month ahead of its theatrical release — was funded on Kickstarter. It makes sense that musicians outside the traditional industry should provide the soundtrack. (The exception is R&B stalwart Siedah Garrett, who’s unsigned but hardly unknown — she co-wrote Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” received two Oscar noms and won a Grammy for her contribution to the Dreamgirls film.)

Billboard sat down with Spike Lee to talk about sifting through hundreds of song submissions, his aborted original plan for the soundtrack, and why he turned to Kickstarter for this film in the first place.

The way this soundtrack came together is unlike anything else. You just asked people over social media for submissions. Why?

As I walk the streets of New York, people are always sticking headshots in my face. Filmmakers are pushing DVDs in my face and rappers are giving me CDs. I’ve always known there’s a ton of talent out there. Even when I audition films, when I’m casting, I get 10 good people to do the part, and I only gotta pick one. So in keeping with the spirit of the film, I thought, “Let me utilize my social media — Instagram, Twitter, Facebook — to put out a call for unsigned artists to submit their songs.”

And you got a ton of submissions.

Over 800 submissions. I listened to every one of them — it took a weekend. I don’t want to make it seem like a chore, listening to 800 songs. I’m the one that put this in place, so it was my duty. Somebody is taking their time to send this [to me], and I gotta follow through. The soundtrack is 12 gems.

On some songs, did you get halfway through listening and think, “Nah, this isn’t gonna work”?

I’m gonna admit, there’s some stuff I didn’t listen to all the way through. Not necessarily because it wasn’t a good song, but I was trying to get stuff that would fit within the movie and what the movie is about. Once I made those song selections, I sat down with my editor, Randy Wilkins, and we played around and tried to find the right fit — the picture was already cut. So we had 20 songs, and we were jockeying them around. There were a lot of good songs that didn’t make the cut because they just didn’t work for the film. Then I went to my good friend L.A. Reid to meet. I didn’t tell him what the meeting was about. I told him about the film, that the money for this film was raised on Kickstarter, and I played him the songs. And he said, “Let’s do it.” [Note: Da Sweet Blood of Jesus soundtrack is on iTunes now via Epic Records.]

Was this always the idea for the movie’s soundtrack?

It wasn’t the original intention. I don’t want to name anybody, but I had a great artist who was going to do the songs, and unfortunately the record company couldn’t. … There was no example how to do this with a Kickstarter film. We just couldn’t work out the terms, with this budget and the Kickstarter film. When that didn’t happen, I got the idea to just see what’s out there.

I was surprised for a collection of unsigned artists how professional these songs sound.

We have to redefine the word professional. A lot of people who are professional don’t have, or want, record deals. Why give it away, your first seven albums?

After selecting the songs, did you ask the musicians for any changes?

No, that never happened. We had to make edits to fit it into the picture. And on the Dana Hilliard song “All Night,” we added a horn section and Vernon Reid [of Living Colour] on guest guitar. With Siedah Garrett, I had the track, so I sent it to her, and she wrote the lyrics to it. I like how there’s a variety of styles on the soundtrack. It fits the mindset of the film.

How did you turn to Kickstarter in the first place?

For the past 15 years I’ve been a professor at NYU Graduate Film School. My students were the ones that hipped me to crowdsourcing. I did not know what indiegogo was, I did not know about crowdsourcing or Kickstarter.

And I’m guessing you liked that it allowed more creative control.

Yeah, because I wanted to make this film but I knew no studio was going to make this film. It wasn’t going to happen. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but I’m just a realist and I wasn’t going to spend a year knocking on doors and stuff like that. Then there was the prospect to raise this money independently, and I knew we could do it for a price, too. So I got to meet with Perry [Chen] and Yancey [Strickler], the two of the three co-founders of Kickstarter, and they gave me a crash course to make this work. Because this had to work. A lot of people did not want me to succeed in this, so it had to work. So it was harder to raise the money on Kickstarter than it was to make this film. We took 30 days [on Kickstarter]. Our goal was $1,250,000. We raised $1.4 million. Then we shot this film in 16 days between Brooklyn and Martha’s Vineyard.

The album is out now on iTunes, for a good price. I hope that people give these young artists a listen. I think I’ve curated an interesting piece, and it’s not something you’re going to hear on radio, where you got computers programming playlists. For me, it’s a very interesting mix of different types of music, but I think it’s hip. It works in the movie and as a standalone album.


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