*This article was first published in Fusion magazine and is reprinted here with permission.
At the beginning of the nineties Paolo Montagni already had his own recording studio “Great Mountain International Records.” Having begun his amazing career at age eleven as a DJ, he progressed to working with private radio and was live on air every week for over 15 years with his own radio show, specializing in R&B and Hip Hop and live interviews with US artists. In addition, he was linked to almost all major musician broadcasters and can proudly call Kurtis Blow and many other celebrity artists his close friends. As we chat with him about his role as a judge with JB Dondolo, Inc.’s “Music For Water” campaign we find out about his incredible outlook on life.
Maighread Ni Mhaonghail
F. Paolo, you have had an amazing career which spans over 42 years when did you begin your journey?
P. When I was a kid my parents had a restaurant near an army base, that’s how I became introduced to American funk and soul in the 70s. Artists such as James Brown or Commodores really inspired me first before rap music started. At that time, I had a little reel-to-reel and I was recording the American Top 40 with Casey Kasem back in the day. This got me into my own little system of presenting. At that time there were not many DJ’s around and no technology, no studios. Only really big studios that were unattainable
F. How old were you when you began?
P. I was literally 11 years old when I began as a DJ, I was hanging out at parties and just doing my own thing. By about age seventeen I was already a pro and I got picked up by a club. That kickstarted everything.
F. Age eleven is really young, how did other DJ’s react to you being there playing. How did you earn their respect?
P. No one respected me when I began. Naturally, they all thought I was too young, but I didn’t care. I just kept going. I just kept doing my own thing and eventually they began to support me because they could see my determination. There are a few army bases near where we lived, and I was playing in the only American club that was always full of soldiers. I had the advantage of having a lot of insight into some of the best American music because of some friends I had in America. I was in the club 24/7 and I was passionate about what I was doing and brought that energy to my work. My parents also really got behind me and supported me in what I wanted to do. I really wanted to live it to the fullest and I think as people recognised that the support just grew, and it evolved from there.
F. So you became a radio host. Was that a natural progression from the being in the club?
P. The transition to radio host was pretty organic. I worked at a couple of big radio stations and saved the money I made to open my own recording studio. Then I decided I wanted to create my own label and that’s how “Great Mountain International Records” was born. At the beginning it was mostly a promotional label, but then I was able to sign a couple of really good names such as Dante Thomas and a few Italian Reggaeton artists.
F. You have worked and collaborated with a lot of DJ’s and artists; how did that impact you?
P. Yes, I have collaborated with many, many artists, and some big names, but I don’t really focus on that. I am not really into name dropping or anything like that. People come and go, and I have made my own little history in my own way.
F. How did you become friends with Kurtis Blow, how did that relationship happen?
P. I met Kurtis in 1982 when he had first captured the Gold Records, he came to Germany and we just kind of collided and became friends. We are still friends to this day, and we talk every now and again just to catch up. And particularly I was ringing him about the situation in the US because I know it has been tough for a lot of people. Kurtis and I have seen each other through some very tough times.
F. So, what was it about the campaign that got you involved?
P. I am always open to supporting people. I come from an Italian family and sharing is just part of our culture. I grew up in a family that has a philosophy of, “My plate is your plate” and where everyone is important. Helping people is important to me, especially now during Covid-19. So many people are impacted by it and especially the music industry has been badly affected, and even people I know. People are suffering everywhere, so I think in times like this we can see who is open to sharing and who is not.
It’s important to me to know that I’m doing something good when I can and for those who may not have a lot of opportunities and are finding this time really difficult. So, when Beatrice Davis came to me about being involved in the project I said yes immediately. It is my way of being involved in offering someone an opportunity or just to be of support.
F. Were you aware of the difficulties the Navajo Nation is encountering especially now during Covid-19?
P. I was not really aware to be honest. I only became aware of the situation when Beatrice reached out and spoke to me about the campaign and the issues the people of the Navajo Nation face at this time. Naturally, I began to research further and realised the seriousness of the issues people were facing daily. For me this is not just about the Navajo Nation, it’s about our connection to each other as human beings. I know this campaign will not solve everything but it’s one step in the right direction. We really need to help each other as human beings. Today we help the Navajo Nation and tomorrow we help someone else.
F. That is a really beautiful philosophy.
P. Well for me, it is that I have a very simple philosophy. I am blessed in my life. I have everything I need; I have food, shelter, and I have water but not everyone has that.
I feel that today the media constantly makes us feel that we don’t have enough and for me to think that there are people out there who don’t even have water; well, that’s incomprehensible in 2020 and especially in America. Any project that can help make a difference to the situation, I want to support it to the fullest. If I can help spread awareness then you know, that’s what I’m going to do.
F. I respect your ideology. But where do you feel that your sense of compassion for humanity stems from? Was that like an experience of your own?
P. Well, I guess the loss of my father to cancer when i was young had an impact on me. The knowledge that there is nothing you can do to change the situation, and the realization of the fragility of life teaches you a certain sense of acceptance. It also gave me an appreciation and respect for life, and gratitude for the blessings in my life.
F. What benefit is there for people who enter this competition? What do they gain, Paolo?
P. By entering this competition people are not only getting something for themselves, but they are also doing something that benefits others. The winners get an international distribution deal and all the publicity that goes with that, as well as being part of the JB Dondolo, Inc. campaign for a year. Supporting such an important campaign by raising awareness and funds for the Navajo Nation and helping people who have been really affected during Covid-19 and getting them much needed supplies and sanitation, is what matters.
F. As a judge and the owner of a record company what are you looking for?
P. I’m looking for authenticity and a message of something that touches me, a sound that no one else has, something original. If someone has a real rubbish production but a great message that really touches your soul, that is what I care more about.
For instance, I would much rather, you know, listen to a track that sounds like it has a bad production but a really great message. Lyrics that touch my heart and give me goosebumps are much more preferable to a really polished, well done production that’s empty.
F. What would a distribution deal do for a young artist, Paolo?
P. Well, they will receive a deal for one year with an international distribution company, “Great Mountain International Records.” They will be distributed on all media platforms, all streaming platforms and they would be the featured song for JB Dondolo, Inc. for a whole year. That is huge exposure for an artist.
F. So if you were to say a short message to people who are entering the competition what would that be?
P. My message is simple and clear; You do not have to follow the rules. Be authentic. Be true to yourself, tell a story. Create a song that really means something to you, one that’s going to touch people’s heart and souls. In plain English, give me goosebumps.