Claes Uggla is an A&R and label manager based in Stockholm, with an extensive history of working with Swedish rap artists during the late 90s and 2000s, from Petter and Timbuktu to Promoe, Maskinen and Afasi & Filthy. During the 2010s, he was instrumental in signing Alan Walker to Sony Music, and he’s currently running the RMV Grammofon label. After meeting him at an album release party, we agreed to do an interview about his career in the Swedish music industry, which you can read about below.
– Hi Claes. Thanks for sitting down to speak with me. I’ve been told that you got your start at Lund University as a producer in college radio. Is that true?
Yes it is. I went there in the 90s but was more interested in music than in my classes, so I spent a lot of time at hip-hop concerts in Malmö and Copenhagen. However, what I did like about campus was the radio station, Radio AF, and I was able to become the new host of their hip-hop show, which gave me access to lots of indie rap artists. Many of them were doing shows in the south of Sweden and Denmark, so it was easy to get them to our studio, and that led to me doing interviews with acts like The Roots. That job lasted two years and was my way into the music industry.
– What was your first major project that involved releasing music?
Compilation albums like Soundbombing were a big deal at the time, and I wanted to do something similar since I’d met a lot of American artists like Souls Of Mischief and Mr Complex during their shows in Denmark. I reached out to a number of them, as well as a few Swedish acts, and we put together an album. Once we’d finished eighteen tracks, I realized there wasn’t any release strategy in place, so I sent the album to whatever Stockholm-based record labels I could find. The only one that replied was Bananrepubliken, which was run by Petter and Peewee. They invited me over and we became friends, which led to us doing an album deal with BMG. Peewee handled most of the label work for that deal, and he taught me a lot about how the music industry worked too.
– You later made a name for yourself by working at Juju Records. How did you end up there?
Petter threw a party in his mom’s apartment for his 27th birthday, and that’s where I first met Jason Diakité, aka Timbuktu. I asked him if he’d do a track for the compilation and he said he would. In turn, he told me that he’d started a label called Juju Records and suggested I join, which I did. They had their offices and studio in Malmö, so I moved there to join the team in 2001.
– Was Mikael “Misan” Wadström already part of the label when you arrived?
Yes, he joined a little earlier than me. Timbuktu introduced us by saying, “You need to meet this guy who also studied in Lund and thought university was boring ” (laughs). So we began by working on Jason’s album and would sign other artists after that, like Organismen 12 and Mobbade Barn Med Automat Vapen.
– I believe your title was “Head of International”? How did you come by that?
I needed some kind of title because I was involved in multiple projects that had an international component. For example, producers like Breakmecanix wanted to shop their beats abroad, and we also wanted international features for some of our artists, like Chords. So I handled that kind of stuff.
– Do you remember your first solo signing to Juju?
Yeah, my first solo signing was Organismen 12, who now just goes by Organismen.
– Do you remember when Juju started to experience its first round of commercial success?
I do. We found some commercial success with Timbuktu’s “The Botten Is Nådd“, but things really took off with his next album, “Alla Vill Till Himmelen Men Ingen Vill Dö “. Once that album blew up, the label started selling gold and platinum records in Sweden and Norway.
– What was it like when Timbuktu went mainstream in the early 2000s? Talk about that period.
Prior to touring with Damn!, Timbuktu was playing shows across Sweden and Norway with the rest of the Juju roster. I traveled with them to help with merch sales and other business, and I could see the crowds getting bigger as we went along. Soon afterwards, Jason would start working with producer Måns Asplund on “Alla Vill Till Himmelen…”, which was inspired by their time in Ghana and the music there. When they presented the album to the label, we could tell it was different from anything else in the Swedish rap scene, and we liked it. The whole team worked hard on the release of the lead single, but it coincided with the 2004 Tsunami in Thailand where a number of Swedes died. The single had the same name as the album title, so it was pulled off radio because it seemed like poor timing to have it in rotation. We decided to try again in January and that’s when it took off; radio started playing it and so did ZTV, which was our version of MTV. So things were looking good until the truck carrying all the CDs from the pressing plant tipped over in Germany, throwing 50,000 discs all over the highway (laughs). But we didn’t let that deter us – we had our minds set on releasing the album and we had a good run with it.
– Do you remember how many albums Juju sold with that record?
We went gold in Sweden and Norway in the first week, which was 30,000 albums at the time. I think we sold a total of around 70,000 in both countries.
– What was the biggest challenge for A&Rs to overcome in the late 90s/early 2000s when breaking Swedish rap acts?
The main challenge was to find high quality music because the market was completely flooded. Hip-hop had become so big internationally that Swedish major labels started signing anything, and each of them suddenly had ten new acts overnight. The older A&Rs came from the rock world and didn’t really understand the scene, so they were releasing two rap albums every week, none of which were very good. In contrast, the people at Juju were young and involved in the scene, and it was easy for us to know which acts were good, but the challenge was getting them heard amongst all the crap.
– Before Petter came out with “Mikrofonkåt“, he was doing English raps with groups like Vanguard and Blacktop Dandelion. Was there any friction when it came to choosing between rapping in Swedish versus English in the 90s?
Hip-hop in Sweden was new in the 90s and a lot of it was copy-pasted from English rap in America. Only a few acts like Looptroop Rockers were able to establish themselves in English by touring internationally and selling 12 inches, but then Petter came along and changed everything. I think it was a case of his Swedish just being better than English, so he decided to go with that, and it paved the way for everyone else. He was also the one who told Timbuktu and a few others to start rapping in Swedish, which is why Timbuktu’s first Swedish verses are on Petter’s second album.
– What was the first major breakthrough album in Swedish rap?
– How did the smaller rap acts break through without the mainstream exposure that Petter or The Latin Kings received in the 90s?
A lot of hip-hop jams were taking place in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, and they often booked underground and up-and-coming acts. With lots of teenagers in attendance, it was a good way to get exposure. Other avenues were DJs, radio stations like P3 and guys like Tony Zoulias at ZTV who put hip-hop records into rotation on Veckans Hitvarning, which helped a lot.
– Since you brought it up, let’s talk about ZTV. How important was that channel in the growth of Swedish music?
ZTV was a fundamental building block for the Swedish rap scene, and was very important during an eight year stretch before YouTube came along in the mid-2000s. MTV had already drifted away from music to reality shows like Real World, so ZTV took on the role of breaking new acts. An hourly show called Veckans Hitvarning played a large part in that, and the artists who got featured knew their careers were on the right track. That’s why Tony was so instrumental – he chose what music to feature, so had he not been into hip-hop, things would’ve probably been different for a lot of acts.
– Do you know why ZTV shut down in 2010?
The viewership numbers were down and the parent company, MTG, didn’t see it as a money-maker anymore, especially once YouTube took over. It’s what happens when you’re owned by private interests, which is the opposite of a platform like P3. If you compare P3’s current numbers to those from 10 – 20 years ago, they’ve lost hundreds of thousands of listeners, but they’re still around because they’re state-owned. Had they been owned by the private sector, I’m sure P3 would be long gone too.
ZTV had a lot of cool and original shows, and I think the rights to those are still in limbo. A large part of the archive is gone because they threw it away, so you had to be around in the 90s to have seen those programs.
– Let’s talk about specific rap groups you signed in the 2000s. How did you get involved with Snook and the release of their 2006 album “Är”?
A few years prior to the release of “Alla Vill Till Himmelen…”, I’d been given a Snook demo by Mats Stenqvist, one of the members from Mobbade Barn. He said they were cool and encouraged me to listen, so I approached them after they’d released their first album and we began talking about putting out the second one. Unfortunately, not everyone at Juju was into the idea, nor had they been fans of the first album, so I started a new label with Misan called Pope, solely to put out “Är”. We ran that label alongside our work with Juju.
– Was “Är” a joint release with Playground Music?
No, they were only our distributor. Juju was selling a lot of CDs and vinyl back then, so we needed help with finding pressing plants, transporting the records to retail, storing our inventory, etc. Playground provided all that, plus they had a sales team who helped get our music into the stores we didn’t have access to. So when Misan and I started Pope, they agreed to work with us.
– Similar to the rise of Timbuktu in the early 2000s, Snook became the next big sensation in the mid-2000s. What was it like working with them?
It was great. Daniel Adams-Ray is very much into MCing and battling, whilst Oskar Linnros was a great rapper who also focused on music production. They recorded “Är” in a basement studio in Gärdet, and we let them do whatever they wanted because the outcome sounded good. Daniel was instrumental in the artwork, the music videos and the group’s fashion sense, all of which helped create a movement because the fans felt like everything was well-presented.
The album did well, winning a P3 Gold and a bunch of other awards, plus critics liked it too. MTV was on its last legs, but they won the MTV EMA for Best Swedish Act in 2006, and it was great for Pope because it proved that Misan and I could run a label by ourselves. We’d solely been associated with Juju until then, but the success of Snook showed that we could handle our own operation.
– The video for “Mister Cool” is one of the memorable ones from the Swedish rap scene of the 2000s. Who directed that?
Most Pope videos back then were directed by Magnus Härder, whose production company was called Kamisol. He’s a wild guy who always had crazy ideas, so we worked with him a lot.
– How much was Salem Al Fakir involved in the making of the album? Was he a producer?
No, he was a musician at the time and one of his bands was called PH3, which he formed with Eye N’I and Profilen. He and his brothers were instrumentalists who played on a bunch of early 2000s albums as session players. This was way before Salem became the artist we know today. They did everything from drums to keys and strings, and “Är” was one of the albums they contributed to.
– Do you know how many copies “Är” sold?
It came out in 2006 when CD sales were declining and The Pirate Bay was running the music industry, but if I had to guess, I’d say we sold around 25,000 CDs. It would’ve probably been triple that if The Pirate Bay wasn’t around. I have nothing against them, and I even worked with them at one point, but they did affect everyone’s sales in those days.
– In 2007, “Alla Som Inte Dansar” by Maskinen came out, which was another landmark release for Swedish rap. What was your involvement in that?
Following the success of Snook, Pope signed Afasi & Filthy and released their album “Fläcken“, which did really well on ZTV and radio. Both of those groups had made songs together and were talking about doing a bigger project. For whatever reason, Daniel walked away from the group, which left space for Frej Larsson from Slagsmålklubben to join, but prior to his exit, Daniel created the hook and title for “Alla Som Inte Dansar”, even if he wasn’t on the final release. It was actually recorded as a one-off single, but became very controversial when it came out, and a complaint was filed with the police that stopped it from being played on national radio due to the lyrics. But other than that, it grew organically and started doing well on college radio and in clubs. Then it caught fire in Denmark and went gold, which we didn’t expect since none of the involved artists had much of a presence there.
The next single was “Segertåget“, but Oscar soon decided he didn’t want to continue – he felt it had been a fun project that had run its course, so he stepped away from the group. When the time came to discuss doing an album, Filthy decided to work on other projects, and that left Afasi and Frej to carry on.
– You mentioned signing Afasi & Filthy to Pope. How did you learn about them?
They approached us in 2007 with their new album, “Fläcken”, and we offered to put it out. I’d known Afasi since he was fifteen – he’s both an extraordinary lyricist and good at finding melodies, whilst Filthy is an excellent producer who went on to work with Madonna and Swedish House Mafia. The singles did well at radio and on ZTV, and since they had similar fanbases, the album was like a second wave that came after Snook. I think we filled an important gap in the music landscape with both of those acts, plus we found good ways to market them. But none of that would’ve been possible without the type of music they made.
– Why was “Fläcken” Afasi & Filthy’s last album?
Because of Maskinen. “Alla Som Inte Dansar” and “Segertåget” took off and they started touring to support it. Meanwhile, Filthy started producing other rap artists and later got a deal with Universal Publishing. He then moved on to pop artists and the group drifted apart. They’re still good friends, but each one wanted to do different things after working together for ten years. It was the same with Snook, who were together for eight years. We talked about doing a third album with Snook and another one with Afasi & Filthy, but it didn’t happen. Oscar wanted to focus on producing other artists, which he did with Veronica Maggio, whilst Daniel wanted to make his solo album.
– Another notable release from Pope was Promoe’s first Swedish album, “Kråksången”. How did that one come about?
Pope had signed a reggae group in 2007 called Helt Off, which was made up of Chords, Måns Asplund, Måns Mernsten, and sometimes Timbuktu. We were all on tour with Promoe and for some reason I ended up riding in his tour bus, which led to us hanging out a lot. He’d been talking about making a Swedish album and had already started working with Tobias Jimson, aka Astma. He later did tracks with Filthy too, and would eventually release the album on Pope. For whatever reason, he wanted the Juju label on the cover, so it was released on there as well.
– The most famous song from the album was “Svennebannan”, which became an unexpected hit. What can you tell me about that?
Promoe had this thing on the tour bus where he’d make jokes using a popular children’s song called “Skala Banan”. As we were driving around in small cities and towns, he’d use the melody from “Skala Banan” to joke about the run-of-the-mill Swede, and decided to do a song about it. Filthy made the beat and the song blew up immediately after its release. Similar to Maskinen, it went platinum in Sweden and Denmark.
“Svennebanan” was our first project after signing a distribution deal with Universal, and I remember the label boss, Per Sundin, saying, “This is a great song. We should do a German version! “, and we were like “But it’s not gonna work. It’s a Swedish concept that won’t make sense in German…” (laughs). There was also the fact that the people who liked it were the same characters the song was mocking, so it wouldn’t have worked in another country.
– Given the success of the single, do you know how much it sold?
It did ok, but it didn’t go Gold. Like I said before, the mid- to late 2000s were difficult because of The Pirate Bay.
– Despite how they damaged your sales, you mentioned before that you’d worked with The Pirate Bay. What were you referring to?
The last Timbuktu album on Pope came out in 2008, and the first single was called “Tack för Kaffet” with Dregen. We knew the guys who ran The Pirate Bay, and since the platform was so big, we decided to release the single with them. As a result, the first thing you’d see after landing on their site was “Tack för Kaffet”, and it got downloaded 1.4 million times in the first few weeks. This was prior to Pope signing our distribution deal with Universal, and I remember Per Sundin getting pissed and saying, “You’re working with Pirate Bay?! You can’t do that! “. But the single reached more people through The Pirate Bay than what Universal’s top ten sellers did at the time, and our goal was to have our music heard by as many people as possible.
– Wrapping up on Promoe, he released a mixtape called “Bondfångeri” alongside his album. What was the thought process behind that?
Typically, an artist will record 20 – 40 tracks for an album and you choose the 12 – 14 best ones, which is what we did. The leftover tracks are what became “Bondfångeri”. When it came time to tour, we wanted a product that was quick to put together so Promoe could sell it on the road, so we made the mixtape and he’d pass it out in regular CD sleeves.
– Any other noteworthy albums that Pope signed in the 2000s?
– From having worked with multiple artists on Juju and Pope, how would you describe your primary contribution as an A&R?
I try to be honest. When an artist plays me their songs, I’m not afraid to say what sucks and what sounds great. So a lot of my job back then was just hanging out in the studio and offering my thoughts on what sounded good and what didn’t. But to be honest, Misan and I barely called ourselves “A&Rs”; we were just two music enthusiasts who ran a label. We had a little bit of experience in the industry, but not much, so we just winged it and learned through trial and error.
That was made possible by our relationship with Playground Music, who handled the distribution and marketing. We licensed albums from RZA, Wu-Tang and EPMD, and were supposed to get a DMX one too, but it never happened. He disappeared for a number of months and we learned he was living in the basement of a church in Arizona, so we only got two songs from him.
– From what you’re saying, it sounds like you have a good relationship with the US rap scene. Am I right?
Yes, I’ve had a relationship with them since the late 90s from when their artists would come through Copenhagen on weekends. Those shows weren’t that big, so I was able to hang out with the artists and get to know them. One of the most important relationships I developed was with J-Ro from Tha Alkaholiks. We met at a show and spoke a few times on the phone, so when the group came to Sweden to perform in 2003, he stayed with us in Malmö for some months. We did an album called “Rare Earth B-Boyd Funk Vol 2” that had everyone from Battlecat and Snoop Dogg to Method Man on it. J-Ro knows everyone in the US rap scene and they all like him, so if I needed a connection to anyone, he’d hook me up, and it helped me develop a lot of contacts in the US rap scene.
– You’ve mentioned a few times that Pope signed a distribution deal with Universal Sweden. It seems to have happened in 2009. What led to that?
After the release of “Är” and “Fläcken”, Universal wanted to work with us because Pope was doing well. Until that point, our only distributor was Playground, so to be courted by a major label felt like a natural progression and we signed with them. Part of our agreement was that Pope would have its offices in Universal’s building, with the reason being that we could talk to the sales and marketing teams. It’s always easier to push a record when you’re in the same building as those guys, rather than having a meeting every third week to get a progress report.
– In 2009, Petter’s deal with Universal came to an end and he signed with Pope to release his next album “En Räddare I Nöden“. How did those events unfold?
Petter’s deal with Universal was coming to an end and he hadn’t decided on his next move yet, so he reached out to me and we met in his Escalade where he played me some tracks from “En Räddare I Nöden”. That album showcased the version of Petter I liked most, and the first thing I said was, “This is really good “. We met a week later at a café and wrote the album deal on a napkin, sort of like Suge Knight used to do (laughs). Personally, I think it’s his best album.
– Do you know why Petter didn’t resign with Universal and chose to go with an indie?
Certain things happened at Universal that he wasn’t happy with, but since we had a distribution deal with them, signing with us might’ve been his way of not closing the door on that relationship.
A year after the album release, he was on the first season of “Så Mycket Bättre” which became a huge TV series, and we released a compilation album of his hits that included some new material too, and that sold well.
– What numbers translate to “sold well”? 20,000 – 30,000?
Something in that ballpark. But you also have to factor in radio play and winning awards like the Swedish Grammys and P3 Guld, etc.
That was because of Misan. We ran the company together, but my focus was on hip-hop and his was more on electronic music, and we’d help each other when necessary. So I wasn’t instrumental on the EDM stuff. Regarding Dada Life, that came from Maskinen having a studio next to them, which is why they did remixes for “Alla Som Inte Dansar” and “Segertåget”.
– You went to work for Universal in 2010 after being at an indie for so long. Why?
Misan and I were good music fans, but we weren’t the best when it came to running a company. I had just turned 30 and had been at Juju and Pope for ten years, so I wanted to try working for a major label. I went in to Per and said “Misan is gonna take care of Pope, so I’d like to work for Universal directly “. I started off as an A&R for Petter, but when Per needed someone to handle music for TV shows like Idol, I was put on that. I also had ideas for artist branding, so I helped launch a beer for a band called Graveyard.
– As someone who spent a decade at indie labels, what was the biggest difference between that and working for a major?
With a major, you have to work on the projects you’re assigned rather than the ones you’d normally choose. Working on Idol 2011 was a good experience for me, but I would’ve never chosen to do that if I hadn’t been assigned it. In extreme cases, a lot of A&Rs and Product Managers end up working on projects they don’t like. Also, a lot of decisions require approval from multiple bosses, which I found very frustrating. The more people who have a say in something, the more difficult it is for you to do your job.
– You left Universal in 2014 and went over to Sony. What led to that?
That was because of Petter; his first albums were released on BMG, a label that Sony had acquired. They wanted to do a deal with him, and he agreed to do it if they returned his masters, which they did. So the deal went ahead, and he told the Managing Director, “By the way, you should hire Claes to work for you “. That’s how I ended up there as an A&R.
– What was the biggest project you worked on at Sony?
I’d have to say Alan Walker. I have a Norwegian friend called Gunnar Greve, and we’d both become tired of the rap scene in the early 2010s. Things were shifting towards trap and drill music, and this became very apparent by 2015. We didn’t find that change to be interesting and were looking for a gap to fill with something new, which we initially found with video games. Streamers would spend hours playing games and blasting loud music, then upload the video to YouTube where it got millions of views. Gunnar had a song called “Play My Drum” by Sandra Lyng, so we signed it to Sony and had it featured on gaming streams, which helped it go platinum. Then Gunnar found another track on YouTube that he said I should check out. It was an instrumental of Alan Walker’s “Faded” with a decent amount of views, so we reached out to him. He was around seventeen, and we decided that Gunnar would sign him to a management deal while I signed him to Sony. I told the label, “Listen, this track is gonna be big all around the world. I’m telling you “, but they were like, “We don’t know..“. It was hard to get support from them at first, but I managed to convince them by pointing to the YouTube numbers.
– How were you able to build up Alan Walker from a teenager with a laptop to being a recognizable brand?
We had to figure out how to build his online presence, so the whole team had a meeting to brainstorm some ideas. A few of us had been watching Mr Robot, which is about a hacker who wears a backpack and a hoodie. We took that aesthetic and dressed Alan in a hoodie, a backpack and a mask, the latter of which was inspired by Daft Punk’s helmets. Then we talked to a songwriter in Oslo about adding vocals to the track. He had a good topline and his girlfriend provided the vocals for what became “Faded”. We released the track in 2015 and it did well on Spotify before reaching Top 100 in Sweden and Norway. It later went Top 50 and picked up steam in Denmark and Germany too – six months later it was #1 in 28 countries. It was also one of the first songs to reach 1 billion streams on Spotify and eventually went multi-platinum. I did A&R work on that single, as well as the follow-up “Sing Me To Sleep“.
– With such success, why did you end up leaving Sony?
Things were going so well that I told Sony I wanted to move abroad, and they let me relocate to Australia to be the Head A&R. I really like Australia as a country, but I didn’t like how Sony Music Australia was run. It was a toxic culture and you wouldn’t believe half of my stories. Plus, they weren’t progressive at all; they were still talking about CD singles in 2016. So I told my wife “Either we stay and I’ll be miserable at work, or I quit ” She said “quit“, so I did and we came back to Sweden.
– You’re currently running RMV Grammofon as the President and A&R. How did you get that position?
Despite receiving interest from different companies, I had to figure out my next move after Sony Australia. Ludvig Andersson lives above me in the same building and he invited me to Skeppsholmen where the RMV offices are. I was able to meet his dad, Benny Andersson, and they offered me the chance to run their label. They knew of my past work and gave me the go-ahead to do whatever I thought best. Ludvig and I also became close friends whose wives hang out and kids play with each other. RMV is a fun place to work, and I’d say Benny and Ludwig are the opposite of what my boss was at Sony Australia.
– What kinds of acts are you signing at RMV?
I’ve branched out to rock bands, pop artists and singer-songwriters, but I’m still involved with hip-hop. For example, I just did a deal last week to put out an unreleased album by King T, which was produced by Dr Dre.
– Will you release any Benny or ABBA material?
Nope. ABBA is signed to Universal, and Benny releases his material on Mono Music.
– As the President, what’s your goal for RMV?
Our goal is to make quality music that’s long-lasting and has an impact. We’re not that interested in chasing quick hits. Major labels do that because it’s how they make their money; they’ll sign 20 artists and expect only one of them to have real success. So in their case, quick singles lead to easy money, but we don’t have that problem because we’re associated with Benny and Ludvig. We do want success, but we don’t release music for the sake of short-term gains. There’s thousands of songs being released every day on Spotify and Apple Music, and hardly any of it has any quality control at all.
– What do you see in the future for RMV?
We have Maja Francis, who’s a singer-songwriter that stars in Så Mycket Bättre. We also have Kerstin Ljungström, whose EP is doing well and getting support from P3. We’re also putting out an unreleased King T album from 1998 called ”Thy Kingdom Come” which will be remastered. Lastly, we have a few touring artists and some new signings as well, so I think the future will be fun.
– Let’s end the interview with some quick hitters: What signing as an A&R are you most proud of?
Alan Walker, because that was the first time I had global success with one of my signings.
– What artist was the hardest to sign because of label pushback?
Snook; only me and Misan liked them.
– Best-selling album Juju and Pope album respectively?
“Alla Vill Till Himmelen Men Ingen Vill Dö” and Snook’s “Är”.
– Best Swedish indie label other than Juju or Pope?
– Best Swedish mainstream rapper?
It’s a fine line, but Petter has it figured out more than anyone.
– Best Swedish lyricist?
It’s between Afasi and Johan Hellqvist aka Organismen.
– Best Swedish battle rapper?
Daniel Adams-Ray. I remember judging a rap battle he was part of and the result wasn’t even close.
– Most impactful Swedish rap act?
– Any thoughts on a Snook reunion?
Maybe when they’re in their 50s (laughs). They’re still friends, but I don’t see it happening. They’re on different paths in life.
– Thoughts on Afasi & Filthy doing another album?
I think they will. Maybe not this or next year, but they will eventually.