Jimmy Ness only loves a winner
From LA to the Bay, multi-platinum production team League Of Starz are helping to define the new sound of West Coast rap. Since being assembled just four years ago, the collective has been fundamental in the new generation’s popularity, releasing hundreds of records along the way. Their discography includes E-40’s “Function,” Problem and Bad Lucc’s “Like Whaaat,” as well as a growing list of work for 2 Chainz, 100s, Ty Dolla Sign, Snoop Dogg, Lil Wayne, T.I, and Game.
Passionate and determined, Tavon “Pun” Alexander founded the group after noticing the overlooked potential in local producers and scored major placements within just weeks of bringing them on-board. It’s no overstatement that Pun has the potential to become a mogul in the making. League Of Starz began as a modest conversation between friends and despite becoming a million dollar business, they remain independent and focused on the success of the team as a whole.
Between handling the affairs of seven different beat makers, Pun also manages Problem, King Chip and Bad Lucc. He rarely gives interviews, but blessed me with a lengthy conversation where he energetically discussed his introduction to music, E-40 giving him life changing opportunities, receiving a surprise call from Snoop Dogg, and his plans for global success.
What neighbourhood in LA are you from?
Compton. I went to high school in Long Beach. I didn’t take up college. I pretty much took the street route after high school and did that for a while. Eventually I got into music through a friend, Glasses Malone, who was signed with Ca$h Money at the time. He kind of took me off the streets and put me into the music game underneath him.
Do you still keep in touch now?
Yeah, that’s my brother. That’s my boy, so we still talk and we still hang out from time to time. I did his new record that’s coming out actually called “Step” produced by League Of Starz. So we still working, we still cool. Everything’s still good.
How did you get the nickname “Pun”?
[laughs] Oh that’s just from the streets man. My mom named me Punch as a kid. I used to be a little local kid that was in the neighbourhood and any of the older or younger cats that had a problem, you know they would come get me for the younger cat. They used to call me Punch because I would fight a lot. As I grew up man, the homies started calling me “Big Pun” or “Punisher” so Pun is more friendly and the ladies like it too. They could call me “Punny” or “Pun.” The ladies like it so I just roll with it. [laughs] Yeah, I just rolled with it. I don’t wanna scare nobody.
Tell us about the discussion that first inspired the creation of League Of Starz. It was in your house?
Yeah, it was in my living room with two of my buddies, we were just chilling one day. When I was working with G Malone, I would talk to a lot of producers because he used to have them send beats to my email. I was listening to hundreds of beats everyday and building relationships with these unknown producers. Then eventually, I was telling my boys one day like “yo, I want to start me a production company man. Just get a gang of dope producers and just shop the beats to the relations I’ve built like with E-40 and different cats I’ve met along the way with G Malone.” I targeted the Jerk movement, all the producers who had that going, and that’s where all my producers come from. There were more at first, but it didn’t work out so it ended up only being seven as it is right now but at first it was like 12 -13 producers total.
That’s like the Wu Tang of producers.
Haha yeah! That’s what it is man. You know what I’m sayin? I’m going to keep it going, my plan is to get 6-7 at a time and get them all to the point where they’re popping then go grab more and I’m just going to keep doing it. I’m going to have a whole roster of them motherfuckers man, dope producers. I still got a way to go with these so I’m not moving right now on that.
Did you have any contacts in the industry at the time or were you doing it on your own?
I pretty much did it all on my own. I didn’t have no major Rolodex. I had a couple here and there. I really built it up as I went along. The biggest contact I had at the time through G Malone was E-40. I used to just send him beats. He picked two of the first beats I sent him “My Shit Bang” and another on his album called “Gunz.” From there, “My Shit Bang” opened up doors with other artists reaching out. It was a domino effect from there. Even when I got with Problem we were building him from the ground up, with that more connections started coming when I went along. We built it from scratch.
How did Glasses Malone introduce you to E-40?
I was with him and he was on a Tech N9ne tour, which had him, E-40 and Jay Rock. That’s when Kendrick Lamar was Jay Rock’s hypeman. From that tour I met E-40 and did like six or seven shows with G Malone. Jay Rock has always been a homie of mine too. He [E-40] was asking me to send him beats and beats.
E-40 must be a cool guy to ask you to send him beats, as you weren’t well known at the time. That’s pretty humble of him.
Yeah, that’s E-40 though. That’s my big bro. He’s cool like that, he’s not cocky. All he wants is you to have the beats. If the beat slaps, he’s going to fuck with it. He doesn’t care if you’re a new producer, A-list or unheard of. That’s one thing – he gives all unknown producers opportunities, still to this day. His last single that’s out right now “Episode” is with a producer from Inglewood called Disko. He’ll give anyone a shot.
How did it feel when he chose “That Shit Bang” and it was successful? That must have been an amazing moment.
Still to this day, I look at it like there’s work to be done. Over here, you can’t get comfortable. We still have to out work the competition because we’re still independent, we don’t have a publishing situation where these motherfuckers are putting us in the studio with these artists. It’s like 10 times harder because with a lot of these situations they just put you in the studio with these artists and they get you placements, but nah we’re going against them. I have yet to get a placement with my producers. All my placements I’ve never went through an A&R. We had to go through the manager, or the artist directly.
Do you still have to force your way into the industry a little bit?
Yeah, yeah, still. You can’t let up, cause there’s always a producer out here trying to replace you. If you get too comfortable you’re going to have a situation where one of these new motherfuckers come in kicking the doors down. I tell my producers every day man, keep them beats coming. Don’t get lazy. We got to keep this shit going.
So you have to be determined to put yourself out there?
Yeah, you got to be man. The thing about this business is nobody believes in the beginner. They all hop on your dick once you take off like “I knew you were gunna do this!” and it’s like – no you didn’t motherfucker. Nobody believes man, so I’m out here pushing a lot. Like I tell my team, you gotta be humble but you gotta be cocky at the same time. It’s just crazy, nobody believes bro. Like with Problem, everybody just wanted him to do hooks. I was like “yo, his verses are sick. let him put a verse on there” and they’d be like “nah we just want him for a hook.” Then as soon as they start putting Problem on their shit, now you see Problem is snapping. So everybody is like “give me a Problem verse, give me a Problem verse.” But now I’m like “I don’t know, I’ll let you know.” So you gotta kinda stretch your shit and let a motherfucker know that what you got is quality A1 product. So I hit these A&Rs up like “who you working with?” Then I’ll pop my shit like “Ok, I’ll just go to him directly.” Yeah, I be fucking with the A&Rs man and let them know because some A&Rs act like their shit don’t stink. But much respect to all the great A&Rs out there man, shout to Jeff Vaughn at Atlantic. That’s my boy man, Jeff holds us down. But I don’t know, it’s cool man. It is what it is.
At the moment, you guys are focusing on West Coast artists. Do you plan to expand eventually?
Yeah, that’s the plan. I have more West Coast connections because that’s where I’m at, but we work with South artists. We’re working closely with T.I, we have a new song on his album coming out. We are working with Trae The Truth. Ludacris just reached out for some shit, Jeezy just reached out for some shit. As far as the East Coast – Jim Jones, Fred The Godson. I would like to work with the A$AP Mob, I like the work they are doing especially A$AP Ferg. French Montana, I send him beats all the time. I have his direct email so we’re going back and forth. It’s building man. We’re actually going to take the producers down to Atlanta for a week. DJ Drama wants us to come down there, he has his studio down there – Mean Street Studios. He’s going to bring artists in to work with us so that’s the next play we’re going to do.
Why did you name your production group League Of Starz?
I wanted to take people with talent that nobody believed in, who everybody was overlooking. Like the whole Jerk movement, as much of an impact as those dudes made for the West Coast, they still never got the credit they deserved. They literally brought back the West Coast. You can say whatever you want but that’s where YG sprung from, that’s where a lot of the club music is from. You would never have heard any of that shit on the radio at the time. You would never have an artist outside of Power 106 going crazy, because they weren’t playing any of our music. The Jerk movement came along and they brought back the West Coast fun side, in the clubs. Everybody was against it because these dudes were wearing skinny jeans and all that shit, but fast forward now and everyone is wearing skinny jeans. You know what I’m saying? They really brought this shit back. But they never get the credit. So I’mma take these dudes who nobody believed in and I’m going to turn them into stars, then I’m going to put them together so there’s a league of these motherfuckers.
I want to find talent that no one else believes in, that’s with everything I do. Even when I got with Problem that was someone who everybody counted out, but he was one of the dopest rappers on the West Coast. I knew that. Nobody believed it because he had a song in 2006 called “I’m Fucced Up” and after that you really didn’t hear much from him, but that was my boy so I was like “what I’m going to do is put you with my producers and ya’ll going to build each other up.” Therefore you got Mollywood 1, Mollywood 2. The Separation. Million Dollar Afro with Iamsu! If you look them up, they’re produced mainly by League Of Starz and some production by Problem. We just wanted to keep it in house and fast forward to now and you see where Problem is at. He’s being labelled as one of the dopest on the West Coast right now. That’s what I’m saying. I see a star in these motherfuckers and I’m going to bring it out and put it in front of the world.
You told them to give you one year to prove it could be a success?
Yeah, it was like I know my hustle so that’s what I was telling them. “Just give me a year and see what I can do. Give me a year and watch me work, just give me what I need and in a year ya’ll can have it cracking.” So I got with Tone Bone and he got a placement in his first two weeks with E-40’s “My Shit Bang.” That was his single and my first placement ever. From there I found Dnyc3, and the whole “Faded” situation came along and that went platinum within his first four months with me. Then so on and so forth. Trend had “Function” with E-40, then Dupri started coming along with Tyga records like “Hijack” ft 2 Chainz. Different shit started coming along and now it is where we do a lot of stuff for these artists. We got one on T.I’s new album coming out. Dupri has “Walk Thru” with Rich Homie Quan and Problem, Dnyc3 has “Good Day” with Tyga, Meek Mill and Lil Wayne. We got records in rotation, and we still working.
Is there a lot of competition between the producers?
Nah, they work good together. That was another thing that I had to make sure of – that they all got along. They all knew each other from the Jerk movement. I had to make sure they were all cool with each other. I didn’t want to have two enemies. We have sessions where I’ll bring all seven of them at the same time and work on beats. Right now we’re working on a new project called Respect The League and it’s production where they are all collaborating. It’s not a single producer, it’s all of them on one beat or like three or four of them on one song.
Do you also send multiple producers when working with artists?
Sometimes in sessions I send like two or three producers. I don’t want to send seven because it’s kind of hard for an artist to work with seven producers. The only one is Game. I sent like four producers with him at one time. With Game we ended up doing like 22 songs. He’s put out about four of them so far. We got some crazy shit with him, but he’s one of the few that can adapt with so many producers in the studio at the same time. He’s like a machine, you load up a beat and he’ll go straight in the booth. Then you have artists who will take all day with one producer so I don’t want to send all seven there.
Did you ever produce or have you always stuck to managing?
I actually produced on Problem’s first project Mollywood. I did the “Foolies” record on there with him, Skeme and Bad Lucc. But nah, when I was younger I wanted to produce when I was 14-15. My older cousin used to make beats and I used to go over to his house and he had the MPC. You know I really didn’t take it serious, I was just doing it because I saw him doing it. I always loved production though. From day one, I was a Dr Dre fan. When I was a kid, my momma will tell you, she would say “who do you want be a – firefighter, police?” “Nah, I wanna be be Dr Dre.” I always looked up to him when I was a kid. That’s a true story. But I never had the time to go through beats, that was frustrating for me so I was like fuck it, I’m going to get in one way or another.
People describe your music style as Function. Can you describe the sound?
The content of it is Ratchet, what people talk about, I get it. But our shit from day one, we just started to call it Function music because that’s the music that you can play at any party, you can play at any function, you can have fun with it. Now what the artists choose to rap about when they get on there, that’s on them, but we’re going to make sure even if it’s an R&B beat you can play it at the club. That’s just our thing. We don’t really sway away from it. We still do that, but it’s something they can do with their eyes shut. Right now, we’re just showing ya’ll a different level. Like the Rich Homie Quan “Walk Through,” – we’re going to show some other sounds. It’s not trap, it’s not West Coast club, it’s still Function, but everyone was trying to say we were one-dimensional and all we did was stuff that snaps and claps on the one BPM. We’re independent so it’s going to take a longer time but they’ll see real soon. We’re working with a lot of artists this year.
Is there one of your records that you’re particularly proud of?
All the records are cool to me man, but I have still yet to find that one that amazes me like I’m happy with all of the records that come out, but we still aren’t at the point we need to be at. All of that is cool, but I need that motherfucking top 10. My goal is to see three top 10s on the Billboard 100 at the same time. That’s my goal.
Yeah, yeah man. I need that, you feel me? It’s going to be ten times harder but that’s the job we signed up for, we ready man.
How did you start working with Snoop Dogg? That must have been a big moment.
Yeah, you know, that came from the “Function” record. E-40 called me one day like “hold on, I got someone on three way” and then he clicked over and it was Snoop Dogg.
Yeah [laughs]. I was like “Oh shit!” He was like “What’s up nephew! I need some of that heat.” So I was like “Oh shit yeah man, whatever you need. You’re Snoop Dogg…” Know what I’m saying? Ha ha. He was like “matter of fact, what ya’ll doing on 420? I was like “nothing man we chilling.” He was like “I want ya’ll to get your producers and spend 420 with me.” We ended up spending the whole 420, all day, with Snoop. He had a BBQ, we smoked, we made beats. We recorded records. It was fun man and that came through E-40 man. Shout out to E-40 again. He’s a humble dude, E-40 always looked out for us from day one. I always say that all the time, I always thank him all the time, like E-40 never changed man and he looked out for us. That’s one dude who wants to see the West Coast win. All the West Coast acts wherever you are, Snoop the same way.
You’re also a manager, how do you find the time? Your schedule must be crazy.
Yeah… [laughs]. It’s crazy man, but shit you know I can handle it and that’s what keeps me moving. I wake up every day for this shit. That’s what I do. I wake up at seven o’clock every morning and get straight to work. I’m making these calls, seeing what Problem’s up to, see what these producers got going on, what they wanna do. Shit, we got to keep this going man. It’s a hustle and I love it. I had a job before where I used to wake up and dread every morning going to that motherfucker to check in.
I used to do security man, for like a year. It was the worst shit. I’d wake up like “awww fuck.” I didn’t want to go bruh, ugh. So now with this, I wake up and it gets my blood rushing. It’s good when you sit down with your team, you plan something out and you see that shit come to life with the world respecting and talking about it. That’s what keeps me pushing. Right now with Problem working on his album, we know what’s going to happen. These records he’s working on here are crazy, the world has yet to hear it but I know when the world hears them it’s going to be fucking crazy. Problem is going on some next level shit with his new album and it’s definitely going to shock the world with what he got. Even the producers with this Respect The League project, it’s on some whole other shit.
Did you research moguls like Diddy, Clive Davis, Russell Simmons etc and take inspiration from them?
I didn’t want to copy anyone’s blueprint. I know their stories, I’ve seen and read about it but I wanted to be original and do it my way. I wanted to come with a whole new approach to the game. So this is really me with my story. If you look at Russell Simmons, how he built Def Jam, and then look at Pun, how he built League Of Stars – I didn’t really copy nobody else’s shit. I was inspired by it, I loved seeing them like yo that’s what it takes, the hustle and the ambition. That’s what I took from that, that’s what I need. The hustle and ambition that they had. That push they have for their shit, that branding for their shit. Know what I mean? Like Diddy still to this day, he makes what ever he will touch feel like it was elite.
Do you hope your story will be one like Diddy’s or another mogul who people will look back on one day?
Hellllll yeah bruh, I aint gon’ lie. I want to be legendary you know? I’m trying to show that I made the impossible possible because I didn’t come in this shit like everybody with a musical background or with connections or my mom or dad is this or that. This is straight organic shit from the streets, you feel me? That’s why I’m hustling and building up as I go along. I just want to show motherfuckers it’s possible, because a lot of people don’t believe this shit is possible. They feel like “I can’t make nothing happen in the music business.” But you can get in this motherfucker and change the game. Anything is possible, you just gotta believe in yourself and your team. We push independent. We ain’t got no major support, we ain’t got no one helping us, but we’re making some major moves. Like Problem is on records with some of the biggest artists and he’s independent as a motherfucker. We ain’t got no one helping us and at the same time we ain’t looking for nobody to help us. These labels come at us all the time. Everybody has come at League Of Starz trying to sign us, but we cool, this is what we do and we’re going to keep on pushing. This is what is going to make our story better than motherfuckers that are popping right now – we’re independent as fuck.