*

Tour Tales | Janelle Monae's tour manager Jeff Cohran is a magician with caviar memories of Prince & Quincy Jones

Keith Nelson Jr

 // Oct 9, 2018

Derel Todd

Musicians are barely getting a slice of music industry revenue, largely eating off of live performances instead. For 'Tour Tales,' we dig into the rider requests, delayed shows, diligent preparation, and future of touring by talking with the multitude of people that move behind the scenes. Record executives, photographers, tour managers, artists, and more all break down what goes into touring and why it's still so vital to the livelihood of your favorite artists. What happens on tour stays on 'Tour Tales.'


Jeff Cohran has had one uncle that worked as a road manager for Ray Charles, and another who was an A&R at Atlantic Records and worked with Prince in his prime. Cohran himself has known about Janelle Monae since 2003 when she was performing in dorms at Morehouse College (while she was working at Office Depot), and was the unofficial little brother of her Wondaland Studios in Atlanta in 2006 (after graduating from University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and while managing fusion group Jaspects). He's now not just Monae's production and tour manager of nearly a decade. He's a magician, with a history of genius attached to him, helping to turn Monae's vision into the stage her queendom is showcased.

"My creativity comes from making happen as opposed to coming up with the schematics," Cohran told REVOLT TV. The 34-year-old South Memphis-born, Atlanta-raised creative director and partner of entertainment company Muddy Waters spoke with Tour Tales about the magic of touring with Monae, how one performance led to having caviar with Quincy Jones, Shania Twain, and Prince, and how a rumor about a rider got out of control.

How did you go from being a really good friend and collaborator to being her tour manager since 2009? In 2009, Janelle's manager at the time just had a kid, and was tired of being on the road. I went out to Bonnaroo [Music and Arts Festival] with them; I didn't know it was a job interview. At all. So, we rode up to Manchester, and when we get there, they handed me a camera and said, "George [2.0, the former stage manager] isn't here. Could you video tape?" I said, "Ok, sure." Now looking back at it, I realized that's what I was doing. I was like, "Anybody need any help with anything? You need me to push anything? You need me to pass out meal tickets?" I was just doing what I needed to do. That time passed, then maybe a couple of months later, Mitch [Martin, Janelle Monae's former A&R] hit me like, "Rico," Janelle's manager at the time, "Rico is about to get off the road, would you like to come out as our road manager?" I was like, "Oh, ok, cool. I'm just sitting at home working at Express." I went out and did my first show with Janelle, I want to say, August 2, 2009, in New York. After that, they hired me. I was road manager for a second, then they promoted me to tour manager, then I became tour production manager.

Janelle's music so expansive and experimental. How difficult is it to translate her music onto the stage? It would be a lot harder if we hadn't been doing this from 2009 until now. It's really weird watching her show now like, "Wow, this is a big show." In my mind, we started with everything you saw and have seen at Afropunk. All that shit fit into one bag [laughs]. We've always wanted to do stuff. We just never had the budget, or the stage, or things like that. It's not like anything that we're doing is unusual [laughs]. Janelle is a regular ass person, and I don't mean that in a bad way, at all. We're not trying; we're doing. The magic comes from the music, from Janelle, and the performers. Janelle and the performers make the stage look amazing. If we were to do the same show in the middle of a regular stage, it would feel the same type of way. It's easier, because Janelle is such a visionary, she knows exactly what she sees in her mind. She has her hand in all parts of the ideation.

What has it been like over the years, especially on the 'Dirty Computer Tour,' being on the bus with Janelle? [Laughs] I mean, it's cool. I don't ride the bus with her. I ride the other bus. But she likes to have a lot of fun. She can kind of be random, but I don't see it as random because I know her patterns or whatever. Like last night, [September 22] she wanted to go skating. When we were in Brussels, she wanted to go from the venue to the hotel, and stop at the club in the middle of it. Being on the road [with her] is like kicking it with your homie. We just get paid to run around the world and make magic happen. We're magicians.

Janelle seems like a fun, outgoing person. Are there any stories you have over the last 9 years that can illustrate just how much she is? [Laughs] Yeah. What's a funny Janelle story? Oh, last night [at Bustle's Rule Breakers event]. She crowdsurfed twice. I knew she was going to crowdsurf once. She took off her uniform, because she was hot. She jumps in the crowd, does her crowdsurfing thing. She comes out the crowd. Dances some more. She hype, so she's like, "I'm taking off my jumpsuit." I'm waiting for her to come off stage, and I'm like, "What is taking her so long?" She jumped back into the crowd. So, now I'm like, "Oh, ok, cool. You got jokes now." The thing is, 30 minutes after she gets off stage, she turns back into Janelle Robinson. I'm like, "Janelle, you understand what just happened, right?" She's just super random. Another story: they had a skating park at the venue, and she's like, "I want to go skating. I haven't gone skating in a while. Let's go skating." She's spontaneous. I always tell security guards when she comes alive and has everybody go down they need to have a sense of humor, because she will jump on their back, and try to make them laugh. What you see on stage is really her. That's her safe space.

Y'all have done some huge shows together. Maybe none bigger than her performing at the White House. What was it like working on that show? I think I've done five shows with her at the White House. I think it's five. It was cool. [Former President Obama] was a really cool person. Of course you feel the enormity of what you're doing, but each time it got a lot more familiar. You have to be very meticulous, and very flexible within the rigidness of the system. You're not just going into a venue. So, they had to [perform a security] sweep of the car. If the President wants to go outside and have a conversation, it means everything on the property has to stop. We had to make sure we had clearance for photos.

What is the most memorable show y'all have done together? We've done over 2,000 shows, so let me think of it. We did a string of Prince shows. The stage was set up as the Prince logo. The problem we had with the Prince logo is that it takes up the whole arena. There's no backstage, because the stage is exposed. So, the "backstage" is under the stage. When you come in, you're kind of exposed to the crowd or whatever. Janelle was opening up, and we're getting ready for the show to start, and we hear this uproar. We heard Prince was in the crowd walking around. But, typically, that would be a Prince impersonator walking around. So, we're waiting for the show to start, I'm looking at the monitor, and out of nowhere, Prince is next to me. I'm trying to figure out where Prince came from. I've been down here. Where did he come from? Basically, they put him inside of a road case, and they pushed him up under the stage. That was the most hilarious thing ever. That was memorable for that reason. One show, he brought us on stage and we got to dance with him, all 30 of us.

That sounds like a pretty memorable— Oh, shit, that may be the second most memorable show. I forgot about Montreux, when we had caviar with Quincy Jones, Prince, and Shania Twain.

What?! [Laughs] Yeah. We did the Montreux Jazz Festival, and Janelle headlined that night. Quincy showed up, and was watching from stage left, while Prince was watching from stage right. As fate would have it, our keyboard stand falls. Boom, just crashes. We run out there, and we got this egg on our face like, "Oh my god, we really fucked up." After the show, Quincy comes downstairs and we meet him for the first time, and he's super cool. Prince disappeared, of course. Next thing we know, Quincy is like, "There's a performance going on tonight. Would you want to go to this performance?" We get there and go to the VIP, and there's caviar, champagne, blah, blah, blah. And there's this white woman that I didn't know. We apologized for the keyboard stand falling, and Prince was like, "Oh that? That was my favorite part. That's rock & roll, man." Then we head to another spot. So, we walk out the door, it's dark outside, but it's light everywhere because everyone has their camera out. Now we're walking with Prince. Across the street. In Montreux. We walk across the street to this gorgeous restaurant that looks like it's out of The Godfather, it's packed. It's a small packed restaurant, and there's no tables. Before I can blink my eyes, people have gotten their asses up and they done put tables down in front of us [laughs]. There was a band on stage. We kicked the band off stage, and now our band is performing on there in front of Quincy Jones and Prince. It was a cool ass night. At some point, I'm talking with that white woman I told you about. We're talking and she says, "My birthday is August 28." So I said, "Oh, my birthday is August 28th, too." I asked, "What's your name?" She said "Shania." I said, "Oh, ok. Wait, Shania? Are you Shania Twain?!" She said, "Yeah!"

These are the sort of stories Tour Tales is all about. How have your views of touring changed since working with Janelle? They kind of helped me get out of my feelings about tour. When you start, you think, "Oh, it's a thankless job." But, that's kind of the point of it. I remember when I first started, I screwed up. I left the instruments in another city, or something. I remember talking with Janelle, and she told me, "I didn't hire you because you were good. I hired you because you are a good person. You can figure out how to become better at your job, but it's hard to fix somebody's heart."

Going back to Prince for a minute. He's always been a huge supporter of Janelle, and they've recorded and performed together. Those shows must've been electric. I remember we did a show in Copenhagen at the NPG Festival. Janelle performed and she did "Tightrope." At that time, I used to wear a tuxedo and I would put the cape on her at the end of the shows. The thing with Prince is he would just pop up out of nowhere. He's standing next to me and I'm like, "Um...I have this cape. Want to put it on her?" He said, "Nah, nah. I don't want to do that. Are you sure she'd be cool with that?" I was like, "Are you asking me if you can go and put the cape on her? Yeah, you can do that. That's cool." It was the most, not un-Prince moment, but the most fan Prince moment. He ran out there. He wasn't really smooth. He ran out there. Put the cape on her and ran back. It was so quick that later on that night I asked her, "Do you remember the cape moment tonight?" She's like, "Uh, it was nothing unusual." So I told her, "Oh, you don't know what happened tonight? Prince put the cape on you." She was like, "No, he didn't." I was like, "Yes, he did." [Laughs] Had I not mentioned to her she would have not known.

These are the stories you don't get the context of when you see them live or on YouTube. One of my favorite questions to ask is about artists' riders. [Laughs]

See, that's why. Everyone has the same reaction when I ask. What is usually on Janelle Monae's rider? How has it changed over the years? [Laughs] Let me be clear, Janelle's part of the rider is very, very simple. She don't ask for a whole lot of shit. There's this one story. There was a typo in the rider, from years ago. We got chided in the British media, because on the rider it said 150 chicken wings. That's not a lot of wings if you got some Black people. I think somebody got the wrong information and there was this big uproar about Janelle Monae ordering 10,000 chicken wings. Who the fuck asked for 10,000 chicken wings? Nobody did this. It was literally in the news like, "Janelle Monae asks for 10,000 chicken wings. What are they doing with all these chicken wings?" It was a damn story about these chicken wings. There's nothing crazy on the rider. The reason why I try to make it as normal as possible is because I've been a runner before. I've done hospitality before. I've been a PA. So, we really try to be empathetic and understanding that there are really people out there going to shop for things. So, if I'm sending you around the world to go shop for things, then that's not cool, not fair, and not productive. Janelle's really disciplined, so her dietary needs don't really change a whole lot. She eats the same meals every day.

She's signed to Bad Boy Records. Is Diddy involved in any of the touring? Nah. When he first started working with Janelle he said, "I don't know what this is, but I'm going to support it." As the years gone by, it's 100% Janelle. But he's an amazing guy. He's always been an advocate of hers. He's always been someone you can go get advice from. But I'm glad she can get the freedom to do what she wants.

According to a Citigroup report, artists only made 12-percent of the $43 billion in revenue the music industry earned in 2017, with most of the artists' earnings coming from live performances. Janelle's never had the big smash single, or album, although you could argue Dirty Computer is that for her. How has that lack of overwhelming commercial success affected her view of, and commitment to, touring? I don't want to speak for her, but Janelle is a real down-to-earth person. We have this saying, "Even if you weren't watching, we'd be doing this." She's always been a live performer. Performing on the steps of dorms. Doing dorm parties. When she was making no money and she was working at Staples or Office Depot, she was performing outside. I think, to her, touring is her getting paid to do what she wants to do, and that's liberating. I know she doesn't judge her success by record sales. We've literally seen people, over the years, have their lives changed. People that were depressed. Fans that have become friends. When you see people's lives change, then that makes it so nothing is going to stop you. Janelle not having this No.1 record is a testament to how divine this whole thing is. In a lot of respects, she is the exception of the rule. It's hard to even equate what Janelle is doing to what other artists are doing.


Come back next week for another installment of 'Tour Tales'!


More from Keith Nelson, Jr.:

Video
From the top