An Interview with Patrice Wilson
Without the benefit of radio play, name recognition, or a humming publicity apparatus, “Chinese Food”—as performed by perky tween singer Alison Gold and produced by Patrice Wilson—entered the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in late October 2013. The song captures the broad menu of Chinese American cuisine, rhyming chopsticks with potsticks. The video, which features Gold cracking open fortune cookies in a Chinese restaurant (actually a Mongolian restaurant passing as a Chinese restaurant) and Wilson dressed in a panda costume, was viewed on YouTube one million times in twenty-four hours following its release. It was Wilson’s biggest success since Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” a 2011 single widely dubbed “the worst pop song of all time.”
At ARK Music Factory, which launched Black, and later at his own label, PMW (Pato Music World) Live, Wilson has established a reputation as pop music’s most notorious vanity publisher. For a fee, parents can buy a packaged deal—single, video, image consulting, the whole schmear—in hopes of launching their aspiring teen idol to superstar status. Wilson has been called out for exploiting rich kids. He’s been called a pedophile (in his videos he often appears, rather curiously, alongside a cast of otherwise-parentless child actors). But haters, it’s well known, are gonna hate. Patrice Wilson has managed to short-circuit the whole flywheel of cultural appreciation. Like Tommy Wiseau, the savant-ish writer/director/producer/star behind the cult film The Room, Wilson has proved that people will buy (and maybe even secretly like) things even if they profess to hate them. To paraphrase The Simpsons, people will show up just to boo something.
Less interesting than Wilson’s role as a business-savvy producer making music that subdivides the lowest common denominator is his apparent delight in doing so. Talking to Wilson over the phone, it quickly becomes clear that he’s not some rapacious producer debasing a medium that’s already been plenty debased. Instead, all his songs about eating Chinese food, Thanksgiving turkey, jumping rope, or the day of the week actually reflect his personality: giddy, guileless, and willfully silly to the point of being self-consciously stupid.
I. OLYMPIC HOPEFUL
THE BELIEVER: You grew up in Nigeria?
PATRICE WILSON: That’s correct. My mom is actually Irish British. She went to Nigeria, where she met my dad. My dad is Nigerian. But he went to college and grew up here in the States, in Iowa, but he moved back to Nigeria. He ran a big factory over there. But we’d go back and forth. We’d spend half a year in London, half a year in Nigeria.
BLVR: There seem to be a lot of intersecting cultural traditions, and looking at your résumé, a lot of musical traditions. Did it all start in Nigeria?
PW: My mother worked at a school in Africa, a Christian school. I went to her school, so I took part in the choir. I was also the social prefect. I’d organize talent shows. It was my mother’s school so I had the privilege to be creative as much as I could. I’d organize different events: shows, rap concerts, stuff like that. And I’d perform. We’d have shows where we’d sing the songs of the day, like Boyz II Men.
BLVR: So, in a way, you were producing even at that age?
PW: I’d make my beats by taking the cassette tapes and using the empty space where nobody was saying anything. Then I’d copy the beat, loop it, and make it a full, complete beat. Then I’d take that beat and I’d go perform.
BLVR: Was this where you learned a kind of formula for what makes a pop song—a crash course in how pop music works?
PW: Pretty much. I was trying to create the beats really easily. I had no idea, as a kid, how to make beats from scratch in a studio. But I learned how to simplify. It’s a format: first verse, pre-chorus, chorus, second verse, pre-chorus, chorus, then usually the bridge. I had to keep it simple then. I didn’t have the luxury of my own studio. Over the years I kept on keeping it simple, and doing exactly the same thing.
BLVR: When did you start doing your own stuff as a rapper, and as a performer?
PW: I started doing it in Nigeria, in the church studio, a bit in London. They’d record me, but I had no idea how engineering worked until I went to Slovakia. In Slovakia I met Ibrahim Maiga. He was a Slovak superstar, from Mali. I saw him on TV and I was like, “Cool, a guy from Mali in Slovakia making music.” I never really thought much about it.
But then I was walking down the street and he pulls by me in his car. At the time in Slovakia, there weren’t many black people. There were maybe, like, six or seven black people in the whole country. So seeing another black person was like, “Hey, wow! How you doin’?” So we talked and he was like, “Do you sing?” I said, “Yeah I sing, I rap.” So he gave me his card and asked me to come to the studio.
BLVR: When you were performing in Eastern Europe, did you still have a sense that America was where you wanted to be, that you had to get there to do what you wanted to do?
PW: After working with Ibrahim Maiga and getting behind the scenes—touring with him, playing for, like, five thousand people, being on Slovak TV—I thought, This is pretty cool. I wanted to make it bigger. At the time I was going to school, and I was really into track. I was a hundred-meter sprinter and I was prepping to be in the Olympics, for Sydney 2000. I actually got approved to be in the Olympic Games. I had a Russian coach, and things were going perfectly well. Then I decided, OK, I gotta leave my school. I gotta leave track and the Olympic Games, and I gotta go to the States and pursue music. What do I want more? Music or staying here and being a track star, and making music in Slovakia? I decided in 1999 that I’d move down here, to the States. I was going to go to college here. That’s why I moved here.
BLVR: So, wait, you were in line to represent Slovakia in the Olympics? Or Nigeria?
PW: I was supposed to represent Nigeria in the Olympics. My coach was Russian, and he was a world-record-holder in the triple jump. I was pretty fast! Maybe I could have gone through with it, maybe won a gold medal. But I didn’t do it.
BLVR: It sounds like your heart wasn’t really in it.
PW: A gold medal’s a gold medal. But music is music. That’s always been my number one passion.
II. THE WRONG WASHINGTON
BLVR: Can you tell me a bit about how you went from moving to the States for college to founding the Ark Music Factory?
PW: When I got here I went to a Bible college. I attended that college for about two months, and I figured out it wasn’t for me. They were really strict with stuff like curfews. I thought, Patrice, you’re from a different culture, you’re from Europe. So I thought I’d go to New York and pursue acting and modeling. When I was in Slovakia I did some of that, I did Calvin Klein modeling. When I got to New York, it was not what I expected. It was just this big city. I was staying in an apartment in Brooklyn, sharing a house with five other people. I was not used to this life. I’m used to a more European kind of life. So I hated it. I applied to a different school, in Spokane, Washington. I couldn’t do it, live in New York and go to school and try to pursue modeling and music. I actually thought I was going to Washington, DC!
BLVR: Different coasts!
PW: I know! Totally different places. But I saw “Washington” and didn’t know that Washington State and Washington, DC, were different. I took a Greyhound bus and arrived in Montana and was like, “Where am I going?” Eventually I figured out I was going to a place close to Idaho and Seattle. So I got it.
I started going to college and working in a studio. But I was still focused on myself. After a while, I left college and realized it was hard to be a singer or an entertainer in a small town. I needed to go to a big town, but not New York, because I’d already been there and hated it. So I went to California. I worked a nine-to-five job in Spokane, and I decided just to make the move. I got in my car, I drove to California, I got a job. I started pursuing music for myself.
It was hard to get a record label to sign me. I sent out a lot of demos and got no response. I thought, I’m going to stop focusing on myself; I’m going to put my career aside for a bit and start producing people. I did some research. I learned about how publishing works, how producing works. I could make music, but I needed that back end to know how the industry works.
I quit my job. I hosted my first audition. The whole goal was to be able to work with American singers, then get them over to Europe to see if Ibrahim Maiga liked their songs, and try and promote them in Europe. I needed a name. I have a Christian background, so I made it Ark Productions. I had my first audition and, believe it or not, about thirty people came out, which is pretty good. I signed ten people. I was charging eight hundred dollars at the time. For eight hundred dollars, I’d make them a song and a music video and promote them.
BLVR: What is the price structure now? If I were to come to you, and I presented a kid and said, “Patrice, she’s talented. I want the song, the video, the whole deal.” What would that cost me?
PW: Over the years we’ve changed it. The videos have gotten better. Now it’ll be about $7,500 for the whole project. That includes writing a song with a songwriter, either me or another one of my songwriters. Now I try to do less writing. Things are getting busy, so I don’t write. I hand it to my songwriters. Once they find the perfect song, they record it in the studio. Then we have an image consultant. They take pictures and we start planning the music video. Once the video is filmed, we do a press release and peg it to the release of their video. Now, usually we want to release the video on the artist’s YouTube page. We don’t necessarily release it on my YouTube channel anymore, unless we believe it’s viral material. Then we release it on my page. If it’s just a simple, normal project, we open up a new YouTube channel.
BLVR: What is the formula for these songs that are “viral material”? It seems to me like there’s a lot of name repetition. Nobody would hear “Friday” and wonder, What’s the name of that song? Whether you want it to or not, the word Friday just kind of burrows into your head.
PW: All the songs I write have something in common. There are catchphrases. In “Thanksgiving,” there’s the “Oh, oh, oh.” In “Friday,” there’s an “Oh, oh, OH!” in the beginning part. You have plays on words, like “Ch-ch-ch-chow mein” [in “Chinese Food”].
The key to it becoming popular is to keep it very simple and have repetitive words. If you have a simple word, and you stay with that word, people might think it’s cheesy, like, “That’s the stupidest song I ever heard!” But subconsciously you’re singing the song in your head. Or you might be doing something and thinking, I love fried rice, and you don’t know why you’re singing the song. Keep the format of the song simple. Too many words and it’s too hard to remember. With fewer words, you can hear the song one time and kind of remember it the next day. I don’t try and make the songs sound simple and ridiculous. It’s just my style of writing.
BLVR: You say that it’s ridiculous. Would you confess that sometimes the lyrics and the hooks are catchy to the point of seeming like a bit of a joke?
PW: I got married six years ago. My wife is my biggest critic. She’ll look at a song and go, “Are you serious? This is ridiculous. It doesn’t make any sense.” I wrote “Friday,” and I was so excited, like, “I got a perfect song!” She was confused. She’s your standard Spokane, all-American girl. She knows when something doesn’t make sense. In the early stages, she’d get on it and go, “This is not a good song.” Since then, she’s realized it’s part of me. This is how Patrice writes songs. Sometimes she’ll say, “Why don’t you sit down with some writers, with a pen, and spend the whole day writing a song?” I don’t write that way. I write in the spur of the moment. I have something in mind, and I start freestyling, and the words are just there.
III. FAT USHER
BLVR: Is it true you wrote “Chinese Food” in thirty minutes?
PW: Pretty much. Thirty minutes. I wrote it last year, before my birthday. I was going to write it for myself. I wrote it, played it for my wife, and she said, “Are you kidding me? Rhyming broccoli with Monopoly? What kind of Chinese restaurant has Monopoly?” But that was based on a real Chinese restaurant I’d go to on Hollywood Boulevard. I loved their chicken wings. And I noticed they had a little play area with board games for kids. So when I wrote the song, I was thinking about that restaurant. I took the song to my team and said, “Hey guys, listen! This is the new viral song!” Of course, I’m their boss so they have to say, “This sounds great!”
BLVR: You obviously have a sense of humor. The “H.A.P.P.Y.” video opens with the sketch where you’re a villain and people are blaming you for ruining pop music. When you’re that silly about it, do any of the artists, or their parents, worry that they won’t be taken seriously? Is there any hesitation that you’re maybe going to turn their kids into a joke?
PW: I have met loads of parents who back out, and that’s OK. But after “Friday,” I had an option. I could have changed my style. I could have gone and done Top 40, more-serious stuff. But there’s no way. Unless you’re signed by a major record label, if you want to release a Rihanna-style song it requires millions of dollars. I had the option to go do something different. I decided, I’m already known for “Friday.” It’s impossible to change. So I’m going to do it more. And I’m going to do it the best. Even if I’m the guy who’s known for writing the worst songs in the world, at least I’m still known. As opposed to other producers who release one hit and that’s it. I’m never going to be a one-hit wonder. That’s why I get really happy, doing it three times in a row, doing the whole viral thing. Even if it sounds goofy, or people don’t like it, well, somebody likes it. People are still talking about it. It’s too late to change now. I’m not going to go work at Sony Music.
BLVR: The videos, for lack of a better word, are “clean.” The kids are having clean fun. They’re eating chicken wings. They’re dancing and playing Monopoly. Do you do this intentionally, to try and keep it sanitized and away from other music videos that might be a bit more sexed-up?
PW: I’ve always worked with kids. When I was in Nigeria I ran a youth ministry, so I have lots of people who look up to me. I decided I was going to keep it clean. I did one that was a bit sexier, but I pulled it down right away. I don’t want to compromise or go the way of what Miley Cyrus does. She does a great job! She causes lots of controversy! And that’s her. But I want kids to listen to my songs.
BLVR: Working with kids this young, you’ve run into criticism that you’re exploiting children. But to me you’re exploiting the parents. Or the parents are exploiting their own kids. Maybe the parents are forking over the money because they want to see their child’s dreams come true. But do you ever see parents who are pushing their kid into this?
PW: Many times! We have a conversation with the parents before we even record a song, before we even get into the studios. I tell them to do their research. You know: Google my name, check out the other videos, read the comments. You want to know that people are not going to say nice things. Whether or not your daughter sings a nice song, people are going to criticize her. Rebecca Black had to leave school. So you have to consider that. No matter what you do in the entertainment industry, it has its own issues and problems. It comes with the territory.
Most parents are like, “Oh we have tough skin! We’re strong!” They like the idea that Rebecca Black made a million dollars. They think their daughter is better than Rebecca Black, and so they can make more money. I don’t question them. I work with a lot of stage-moms and stage-parents. They just want their kids to get famous. Not everyone is going to go viral. I let them know: it may go viral, it may not. It may get tons of views. But if it gets tons of views, it’s going to get lots of hate.
Then the video comes out and they see comments and I get calls like, “Can you delete comment five? Can you delete comment six? Can you take the video down?” I warn them beforehand. You can’t just take the video down. It makes me look bad. It makes them look weak.
BLVR: The hate that your songs receive is interesting. Because on the one hand, it must be hard on the kids, or hard on the parents, or even hard on you. But on the other hand, you also rely on it for the popularity of the videos. If people weren’t hate-watching them, or sharing them around like “Look at how ridiculous this is,” they wouldn’t be viral sensations.
PW: In the beginning, once it happened, I didn’t really know what to think. When Rebecca Black happened, the next day I saw the comments coming in like crazy. It was all negative. I was bit confused and shocked. Should I have taken the video down? Was it a good thing? Was it a bad thing? People were saying, “He’s a pedophile,” or “He’s Fat Usher,” or this or that. If I can live through “Friday,” I can live through anything. I read my comments. I laugh at my comments. Sometimes, I’ll admit it, they do get to me and I want to respond. But I just brush it off.
BLVR: At the end of the day, if you were to imagine an alien hearing your song and then a Miley Cyrus song or a Justin Bieber song, I doubt they’d be able to tell the difference. Maybe the lyrics are a bit sillier, but the musical elements are basically the same.
PW: If Lady Gaga were to sing “Chinese Food” it’d be the number one song on Billboard and everyone would like it. But because you have an independent song with a no-name singer, people wanna judge. It’s fine. I understand that. But if Katy Perry made “Thanksgiving”?
BLVR: She’d probably wear a bra made out of turkeys or something.
PW: That’s correct! They’d say, “Katy Perry’s cool!” They wouldn’t question anything.
BLVR: One thing I wonder when I watch the videos that you appear in is how you see yourself fitting into the world you’re presenting. You show up in the “Chinese Food” video, and you’re playing Monopoly with the kids. It’s funny. But at the same time, it’s like, “Why is this guy in his thirties hanging out with these kids playing Monopoly?”
PW: It’s funny to me that with “Thanksgiving” people are like, “Why is the black guy in a room eating turkey with a bunch of kids, and no parents are there?” But then I think about it, and in movies for kids there’s always an adult. Like on Sesame Street. But people think this is for real! It’s being filmed by cameras and there are a whole bunch of parents standing around watching it. It makes me laugh when I see “Patrice is in the room with no adult supervision!” [I spoke to Wilson days before he began shooting “ABCDEFG,” the sequel to “Chinese Food.” The video is perhaps the plainest, and creepiest, example of Wilson trolling anyone who accuses him of having inappropriate relationships with his child stars. In the video, Wilson plays a Mr. Rogers–ish type in a red cardigan who invites Alison Gold into a black VW bus called a “Wilson Wagon,” then mixes “Love Potion” into punch at a party, which turns everyone into Muppet-like creatures. It is truly weird, and borderline unsettling. As of this writing, it has about 2.7 million views on YouTube.]
IV. EVERYONE LAWYERED UP
BLVR: To talk about more about specific criticisms, with “Chinese Food” you ran into people not just saying, “This is silly” or “This isn’t a good song.” You had people saying stuff more like “Well, this is actually a bit racist.” Like it treats Chinese people and Chinese Americans in a way that’s stereotypical. How do you respond to criticisms like this, which are a bit more serious than someone calling you “Fat Usher”?
PW: Honestly? We didn’t even see that coming. When you’re in the studio recording, and I was rapping, my engineer and my team were like, “Why don’t you say a word like an Asian person?” And I said, “No, no, we don’t want to give the wrong impression.” Now everyone’s like, “Patrice is being racist!”
People in the United States are hypocrites, honestly. Many people here have stereotyped what Chinese food is. You go to a Chinese restaurant, you see fortune cookies. You go to Panda Express, you see a panda bear. You have the Hangover [movies] with Mr. Chow, who makes fun of himself and other Asian people. And it’s OK for everyone to watch it and laugh and go “ha-ha-ha,” you know? They stereotype the Asian culture. But when Patrice does it? Everyone goes crazy. They’re being hypocrites.
BLVR: Going back to the clean-image stuff, and considering your background, would you say there’s an explicitly Christian undertone to your music? When people talk about cleanliness and values, at least in an American context, it’s usually assumed that there’s something explicitly Christian there.
PW: OK, the message around “Chinese Food” is worldwide community. There’s a Chinese church in Texas that wants us to come down and sing “Chinese Food.” I’m not going to go and make a gospel song. But I want to show what it is to see the whole world united.
BLVR: You mentioned earlier that when you started producing, it was as a way to launch your own career. After these videos it’s hard to imagine that you’ll remake yourself as a serious artist. Have you abandoned that ambition?
PW: Not at all. I’m actually working on my own stuff. My music style is a bit different from what I currently write. My old style is more like what Akon would sing. The lyrics talk more about love, more about life. I have probably fifteen to eighteen songs I’ve written for myself. It’s an album to be released. But I’m not going to release it in the States. I’m going to release it in Europe and Africa. People know me there. I can be very successful in Africa with music… Here people expect me to be some different person, like this Suge Knight kind of person. The first LA Times Magazine article that came out about me noted that there was this perception of me. But I’m just a simple guy! I go to all the video shoots and hang out with the parents. I never want to be too good for it. Never be prideful. Love what you do. When people meet me in person they’re like, “Wow, you’re a lot trimmer in person.”
BLVR: Are you that conscientious about your weight? You’re not that big of a guy.
PW: Honestly, I never, ever thought about having weight issues. But for some reason, after “Friday,” when everyone started calling me “Fat Usher,” I had to ask my wife, “Am I fat?” I think it actually got to me, subconsciously. I started actually gaining weight. I never worried about a six-pack but now, last year and this year, I’m like, Wait, why don’t I have a six-pack anymore? But now I work out, me and my wife do, and I’m happier now. So when I show up on set and people see me, they’re surprised.
BLVR: Still, being called “Fat Usher” is almost a backhanded compliment. At least you still look like Usher. I’d be thrilled if someone told me I looked like Fat Usher.
PW: Well, now it’s changed. Now, after “Chinese Food,” I’m the “Pedo Panda.”
BLVR: In the “H.A.P.P.Y.” video you pick up a newspaper and the headline is PATRICE SEEKS TO MAKE THE WORLD HAPPY. Is this your mission, regardless of whether people are laughing at you or laughing with you?
PW: Yes. Coming from a Christian background, my ultimate goal has always been to unite the world and make the world a better place. So I keep that passion that I’ve had since I was young, but I do it through pop music and working with tweens. With “Friday,” there was so much crazy stuff that happened. I had no paperwork. I sort of thought, Well, everyone is a nice person. I’d shake hands with people and work out the details later. Well, it wasn’t that way. Everyone lawyered up. I was the only one who didn’t have a lawyer. I wrote the song “Friday,” but I only received 30 percent of the writer’s share on a song I wrote.
So I decided to walk away from it all. I dropped Ark Music Factory. I decided to open up Pato Music World [PMW] from scratch, and open a new YouTube channel. I went from having one hundred thousand followers on the Ark Music YouTube to having zero. So with “H.A.P.P.Y.,” I thought, Well, let’s let the world know I want to make them happy. Even though they criticize it, everyone who sees that video will smile. No matter what anyone puts down as a comment, they’re going to smile.
BLVR: Do you see an expiration date on this, culturally? Or will there always be kids who want to be pop stars or parents who want their kids to be pop stars?
PW: There is a kid, every day, who wants to make a song, wants to make a video, wants to be in the spotlight. We could keep doing it. But I’m getting tired of all the work-for-hire videos. I want to do it next year, and show the world we can make one every year. But in terms of a business model, I have to switch it up a bit. We’re thinking of leaving the States, going to Canada and Australia and focusing on international countries and working with artists. We want a viral star from Canada, a viral star from Australia, a viral star from Poland. Everyone needs love. Of course, we don’t know the platform, and how much people would pay. We will still charge people. At the end of the day, they own the masters, and that’s where the artist makes all the money.
BLVR: I’m actually calling from Canada. Up here we have Justin Bieber, and everyone seems constantly in awe. Canada’s never seen something like that. We’ve never had a case of some fourteen-year-old kid becoming the biggest pop star in the world. There has to be a similar appetite everywhere.
PW: I think we get a little bit more love internationally. Not in America!
BLVR: Not to speak ill of America, but it seems like America loves to take down things that are popular or hate on things that people like. It happens all over, for sure, but it seems particularly prevalent in the United States.
PW: I think so, too. You look at “The Fox” music video in Sweden. Sweden supports that. You have “Gangnam Style” as well. Everyone in Asia, Korea, Japan, and China supported that. Because Psy is an Asian singer. But in America when you have a viral song that is not mainstream, you have trolls taking it down. It’s time to spread our wings. We also want to do a reality show that shows our production process: our auditions, my life, my wife, everything. Like American Idol but in a crazy way. People will see what goes into these songs, and they’ll appreciate them in a whole new way.