A few blocks north from Apple Music’s headquarters in Culver City, Los Angeles, there’s a another music company quietly masterminding one of the most essential and future-forward independent labels out right now. An unassuming one-story grey house serves as the home of rising record label Mind of a Genius and its enigmatic artists. An open lounge area drowned in natural light opens up to three dimly lit production rooms where all four artists signed to the label create. Step outside, walk three steps to the neighboring building, and you’re in the office of David Dann, the 26-year-old founder and CEO of MOAG who opened up shop in 2013 in the same space that reportedly served as David Geffen’s old studio in the ‘80s.
ZHU, Gallant, THEY., and Klangstof all call this studio on South Robertson Boulevard their musical home. As a collective, Mind of a Genius’ sound is organic and emotionally piercing. Each artist takes cues from respective influencers and lands in a place where the nostalgia of cult favorites like Radiohead meets the innovation of the transcendent electronics. They’re united in their ambiguity; you’re as likely to hear the artists descending the depths of an abandoned warehouse party in Brooklyn—which ZHU did back in 2014—as you are to hear them on Beats 1 these days. All of these artists have singles to their name that have earned them much-deserved buzz along with swelling fan bases. However, none of them have released full albums just yet and remain well below the showy surface of their Instagram-dominating counterparts. For Mind of a Genius, being invisible is not a problem—it’s the solution.
Each artist’s focus on their sound and work ethic earned them a contract with Mind of a Genius. Dann and his head of A&R, Azad Naficy, understand that ethic more than most. Dann was a DJ for nine years before his obvious love for other genres conflicted with his strictly electronic persona and caused him to make a career change that would incorporate all the music he loved. ”I basically said, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to quit the DJ thing and I’m going to start this vision for a label that was going to reflect all of my favorite taste of music growing up,’” he says. “I didn’t grow up in a traditional fatherly and motherly home, so music was my guide through life. I want to be able to give the fans and listeners that same outlet if they’re growing up in a similar setting as I did.”
Dann knew Naficy for years before starting Mind of a Genius in 2013. The two met around 2009 when Dann, who was the head of dance A&R at the time at Thrive Records, wanted to sign Naficy. The two ended up working on Naficy’s track “Spiderwebs” and his full project The Time Is Right. In 2014, the friends’ paths crossed again when Dann heard songs that Naficy and a then-unsigned artist named Gallant were working on. That’s when he offered to bring Naficy on board with MOAG. “[Dann] gave me all of that creative room to bring in the talent I wanted to work with and work on my own stuf, as well. It really is a label by artists for artists,” Naficy says. “At that point, it was just him, and in the past year, it’s turned into a seven person company.” Dann looked to iconic labels XL Recordings (Adele, the xx) and Motown Records (Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson) for ideas on how to put content ahead of capital and foster music of all genres under one roof. Motown’s iconic founder Berry Gordy owned a lavish Italian renaissance home in Detroit—nicknamed the “Motown Mansion”—and opened the doors to parties where Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin performed, and Stevie Wonder played piano. It was a warm, family environment that pulsed like the golden bloodline to entertainment, and it was the creative freedom for all that inspired the MOAG compound of today.
Finding artists to fill that compound space was a whole different task. Dann doesn’t believe in scavenging through the dark crevices of the Internet for the next big thing. “We believe that they’ll find us because we know exactly what kind of acts we want to work with,” he says. This is how Dann found the label’s first signed artist, ZHU, who joined the MOAG team in April 2014 after Dann heard his debut track “Moves Like Ms. Jackson” that enticingly blended OutKast songs together. That same month, the enigmatic producer debuted The Nightday EP, melding trap with bone-chilling house, incendiary synths, and celestial vocals. The EP’s track “Faded” went on become the No. 1 dance song on Billboard’s Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart and earn a Grammy nomination. Then, Dann heard Gallant’s brand of unbridled, emotion-soaked R&B online and signed a deal with the artist after seeing him live. In Gallant’s words, the label earned his trust “because they told me everything I didn’t want to hear.” Gallant emerged a year later with a new fully formed sound. Zane Lowe handpicked his track “Weight in Gold” as his inaugural “World First” single during the week of Beats 1’s launch. A recent collaboration with Jhené Aiko for Red Bull Sound Select catapulted Gallant back into music’s consciousness.
Next, came THEY. Before the duo began, Dante had worked on pop tracks for the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Chris Brown, and even did some work for Nickelodeon. Drew got his start songwriting for artists like Jeremih. Dante stopped by ZHU’s place to play him some new THEY. tracks where Dann happened to be hanging out at the time. About a week later, a deal was signed. Most recently, Dann discovered Klangstof off of his recent single “Hostage.” His music struck an immediate nerve in both Dann and Naficy because it reminded them of one of their favorite bands: Radiohead. Soon, the two were on a plane to Amsterdam to check out his live show and eventually sign a deal.
The label operates under the banner “Hearing is believing.” Dann admits he’s not the most visual person. Instead, he truly relies on his ear to find his artist. “The best bet to identifying an artist—whether it’s their voice, whether it’s the way that they produce music, whether it’s their songwriting—is being able to capture that feeling in a single take,” he says. “That’s something we can build a career off of.” His first rule of house is that the artist side of MOAG wouldn’t talk to anyone in the label offices until the album was finished. There are no artist conversations, artwork conversations, or touring conversations until a full record is finished. This, he says, is how he prevents any outside pressures from contaminating the artist’s very pure product. The label’s studio is intrinsically intertwined in the fabric and foundation of the label’s hitmaking oasis.
This year, Mind of a Genius will properly introduce themselves to the world through debut albums from each of their artists. Gallant’s debut album will arrive in April around the same time that he heads out as an opening on ZHU’s first North American headlining Neon City Tour. The tour kicks off with performances by both acts at this year’s Coachella. ZHU’s album will arrive this summer, while THEY. and Klangstof’s debut full lengths will follow soon after. “My biggest goal for this year is to hopefully get everyone attached to my acts via their albums,” Dann says. “They all have such incredible stories to tell.” THEY. is currently dominating cities every night on tour with Bryson Tiller. For Klangstof, Dann is working on a deal that will allow him to open for one of the biggest acts in the world. Success for the label is not defined by streams or money. As Naficy explains. “It’s more about impact and giving the youth the same experience that we had. I want that 13-year-old kid to feel the same way the first time I heard Nas, or Sade, or Pac. They deserve that.”