Epic Records EVP, Head of A&R Ezekiel “Zeke” Lewis has been instrumental in Sylvia Rhone’s big successes since his arrival at the label in 2017, working with stars like Future, 21 Savage and Travis Scott as well as signing such acts as R&B phenom GIVĒON, breakout rapper BIA, hitmaking writer-producer Southside and Black Eyed Peas, with whom he mapped a new career chapter marked by huge action in the Latin world. Rhone, upon announcing his promotion to EVP in 2018, called him “a creative force of nature.”

The Montgomery, Ala., native broke into the biz as a songwriter, getting in early with the likes of P!nk and Trey Songz before becoming a founding member of influential writer-producer collective The Clutch. His imaginative approach to business, much like his pragmatic oversight of his songwriting career, made him a natural for the world of A&R. He entered that side of the business at Motown, rising to SVP, but moved to Epic in 2017.

How did that happen?
I wasn’t planning to leave Motown. Obviously, I knew Sylvia from when I was a songwriter; I met with her because I heard she was looking for senior staff. I wasn’t not going to meet with her—it’s Sylvia! We had a great macro conversation about business and life. Then we met again, and she says she’s looking for someone like me. Then we had another meeting. I wasn’t really planning to leave my job and I wasn’t actively pitching myself. In that third meeting, the real Sylvia came out. She’s like, “Listen, man, can you go meet with Rob [Stringer] at least?” I had a good meeting with Rob in New York, and they made me an offer I thought I shouldn’t refuse.

What did you see as the opportunity there, and how has the job changed you?
I saw the clear gap in senior-level A&R after L.A.’s departure, so I thought I’d accept that challenge to build something at a bigger company.

Sylvia Rhone has polished me to the point where, as an executive, I’m ready for anything. I feel like there’s no job I couldn’t handle at this point.What is it about her leadership that has made you feel that way?
She’s very passionate and energetic; she keeps you on your toes. It’s a happy chaos at all times, so you’re forced to stay on top of things and pivot on a dime. She’s challenged us to be nimble, flexible and sharp. It’s been an absolute blessing to be challenged as I have.

Besides oversight of the overall A&R team and working with artists like Future and 21 Savage, there have been great artist development stories like GIVĒON. We brought G Herbo in and had success with him, including his biggest record, PTSD. We’ve had success with Tyla Yaweh; we’ve got our first couple of hits from BIA, a big new female breakout, including a double-platinum single. DDG caught his first hit. I signed Black Eyed Peas and put out “RITMO (Bad Boys for Life),” which was the biggest Latin song of 2020; we’ve had 5b+ streams worldwide on the project, and a new single with Shakira and David Guetta, multiple hits worldwide.

Who else from the team would you like to shout out?
Rick Sackheim, he and Sylvia are my partners on this, of course. Jennifer Goicoechea, Randi Razzano, Jermaine Pegues, Tyshaun Johnson and Patrick Afeku from my team.

What A&R skills are most valued today?
That depends who you ask, but I would say what is most valuable, always and forever, will be instincts and record-making. Any person on the planet who decides to pick up a computer can find data. And data is important, but that wouldn’t be the primary skill I’d note because, again, anybody can do that. If you decide tomorrow that you want to be in analytics, you can pick up a computer and do the work to do that. I don’t think that makes you special; I just think it means you made a decision to do that. Having musical instincts, artistic instincts—those are the things that are truly valuable.

Would you say that artists seeking record deals now need to have already started their careers on SoundCloud or YouTube and generated huge social-media followings?
Well, if you play basketball, you’d much rather have a layup with nobody in front of you than a layup with Shaquille O’Neal in front of you. But at Epic Records, we actually buck that trend; we signed GIVĒON with no analytics and no social-media following. We also signed [U.K. breakout] Mimi Webb with no analytics and no social following. She got a deal when she was not hot—we got hot together. She’s already a star in the U.K.

I’ll give you another example: We were able to identify this JNR Choi record, “To the Moon,” early through analytics. But we would have never signed him just because he’s got this song. We loved the song, and the song is a global hit. That’s wonderful. But there are still layers to that; there’s something under the hood there. There is more than a single to this guy. So I wouldn’t say you need to have already started your career on SoundCloud or YouTube and generate huge social-media followings, but if you do happen to be a great artist who has a song that’s buzzing—I’m not mad at you for that. But I wouldn’t say you need to.

You’ve been working in L.A. and spending weekends in Atlanta. How are you achieving work-life balance?
I am not achieving work-life balance. I’m horrible at work-life balance, so I’m not the poster child for that. Most people who do this work successfully, do they have a great work-life balance? No! Let’s be honest.

Read the complete Q&A here