Running from Sane: An Interview with Adult Swim’s Jason DeMarco

Jason DeMarco is the man behind Adult Swim's Singles Program, was instrumental in getting Run the Jewels together, and still geeks out over Slayer. DangerDoom's album just turned 10, Singles Program 2015 just finished, and DeMarco looks back on all of it with PopMatters.
Various Artists
Adult Swim Singles Program 2015
Williams Street

Well folks, that’s a wrap.

Over the course of the past few months, Adult Swim’s annual Singles Program has done what it does best: bring great, random, and often inspiring new music to the masses, all from notable and daring artists, with all of it, as always, available for free. It started out in 2010 with a modest eight singles over the course of as many weeks, featuring a diverse range of artists ranging from Madvillain to High on Fire, but its acclaim and influence has grown with every passing year, making for an incredible bit of brand synergy for a network block that is routinely known as the haven for mature, bizarre, and otherworldly programming content (to say nothing of the fact that it routinely beats out your favorite late night network talk show in the ratings).

Yet Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim didn’t get there overnight, as evidenced by the fact that one day before the 2015 Singles Program concluded, the network celebrated another milestone: the ten year anniversary of The Mouse and The Mask, the one-off full-length by DangerDoom, a collaborative rap album between Danger Mouse and MF Doom that featured cameos from virtually every notable character from that timely bracket of Adult Swim shows. Since then, the network launched Williams Street Records in 2007, and have put not only soundtracks and albums related to Adult Swim’s programming block (think Dethklok from Metalocalyspe and the songs from Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!), but also collaborative releases with labels like Ghostly International and Defitive Jux, and even albums of artists they just plain like, like Killer Mike’s acclaimed 2012 release R.A.P. Music, which was produced by El-P and soon lead to the two headlining together in Run The Jewels, the game-changing group who put out 2014’s most acclaimed rap album. Hell, even Arizona’s heaviest psych-rock outfit, Destruction Unit, had their brand new full-length Negavitive Feedback Resistor see its release on Adult Swim’s website for the price of absolutely nothing.

Yet everything, from the Singles Program to Williams Street Records, can be traced back to one man: Jason DeMarco. Despite the very corporate-y title of “Vice President/Creative Director of Adult Swim On-Air”, DeMarco, who is a self-admitted metalhead, has helped usher in a new era of creativity for the network, telling Uproxx in a July 2015 interview that “Basically, if it’s on Adult Swim and it’s not a show, it’s my group’s responsibility to make. This includes show promo campaigns, network IDs, animated shorts, promotional content created with partners, and some bumps (the classic “text” bumps are made by a team that reports directly to the head of the network).”

DeMarco’s job is all-consuming, although he still finds time to respond to fans via his popular Twitter account and Ask.fm profile. In speaking with PopMatters, we wanted to go way back, all the way to The Mouse and the Mask, to ask how that project came together and how it got both Adult Swim and Williams Street Records to where it is today.

“That’s actually the project that we here at Adult Swim look at as a defining moment in our network’s musical identity,” DeMarco tells us. “It came together out of my friendship with Brian Burton a.k.a. Danger Mouse. I began working with Brian a few years before, when I grabbed a CD at a local ATL record store of one of his early projects, Pelican City. I reached out to him and started buying beats from him to use in a block of programming I was working on called Toonami. Over the course of a few years we got about 40-50 tracks from him, and eventually he called me up and said he was putting something together with DOOM. Turns out DOOM was a big Adult Swim fan, so I somehow convinced my boss, Mike Lazzo, that we should pay for this record and put it out (on Epitaph records) and that that would be good for us. Once the album came out it was a very solid success — over 300k albums sold — and this lead us to the concept of creating our own record label, Williams Street Records.”

Surprisingly, despite DangerDoom’s acclaim and visibility, it would take more than one hit for Adult Swim to gain traction. When asked if it was easier to reach out to artists following that album or if albums started coming to him, DeMarco admits that “Honestly, we weren’t approached by artists for a long time. DangerDoom definitely raised our profile though, and made it a lot easier to get to the musicians we were interested in working with.”

Although Adult Swim’s bumps were predominantly based on hip-hop beatscaping, one would imagine that a violent show like Metalocalpyse, about a heavy metal band so popular that the world economy is dependent on their every song, would be a tough sell, but as DeMarco describes it, coming from creators Tommy Blacha and Brendon Small (the latter of whom created the cult classic Home Movies and plays guitar and does vocals on Dethklok’s numerous songs), it wasn’t as difficult as one would expect:

“Well Brandon is an amazing musician and had his own vision for a heavy metal show, and the network knew it was something no one else would dare to make. The music being great was an unexpected bonus, and the records selling really well an even more unexpected bonus. Though our network’s identity has always been more aligned with electronic music and hip-hop, Metalocalypse and other projects like Metal Swim, our free online metal record, allowed us to move into another space and engage with another type of music we felt would speak to our audience.”

From the network’s perspective, having a custom-curated schedule of new, tastemaking music generates a ton of goodwill for Adult Swim as a brand, and although it’s cool to acknowledge those great vinyl singles clubs of old, one has to wonder whether or not there was any resistance towards releasing all of this 100% for free. “Initially, all of the music projects had to be for sale, or sponsored by a client,” DeMarco informs us. “That’s how we justified their creation, they made money for the network. Once we started getting a lot of great feedback from fans, and great press, the network began to see the value of the music projects as marketing for the network. This year, for example, both Adult Swim Singles and the Destruction Unit album we just released for free are not sponsored.”

As time has gone on, the sheer caliber of artists that have graced the Singles Program has been nothing short of extraordinary, with some releases, like Run the Jewels and an out-of-retirement Giorgio Moroder, serve as precursors to forthcoming major releases. When asked if it’s been difficult to secure any of these exclusive new releases, DeMarco admits that “It’s not been as difficult as one might imagine, because we give artists a ton of leeway: all we want is a track we can give to fans, in exchange for money.

“The artists own the tracks and can do whatever they want with them,” he continues, “and we don’t need more than a week of exclusivity, and we agree to promote the hell out of the track on TV, online, etc. It’s a great way for an artist to release a long lead single, or try something new, or do a on-off, or place a track that didn’t have a home. We put no aesthetic restrictions on any of them, because if we are approaching an artist in the first place, it’s because we are a fan of their work. And they are often fans of ours! It’s taken a bit longer for labels and publishers to see the value of the program, but after a few years they are starting to come around. As far as an artist I really want to get a new track from and haven’t been able to, my number one is Burial. I hope to get him one day!”

Of course, such a get of that nature isn’t too far out of the realm of possibility, as for the 2015 Singles Program, DeMarco was able to get one of his childhood idols, Slayer, to unleash a new song on an unsuspecting populace, to say nothing of his personal amazement of securing songs from LCD Soundsystem, Future, and Skrillex.

Ultimately, becoming an arbiter for good taste like this not only requires skill and patience, but also vision: who would’ve thought that an animated TV network would ultimately be responsible for some of the year’s most acclaimed rap and metal releases? When asked about his biggest regret and proudest accomplishment during his time with Adult Swim, DeMarco pauses for a moment and then notes that in terms of regrets, “There are a lot of little ones but nothing I can point to that I’d say is a big one. Same thing for my proudest accomplishment. I’m happy to say I work at a great place with great people and every year there’s a project I look back on and am proud of. This year isn’t over, but Adult Swim singles is looking like it will be up there!”

And with that, DeMarco will now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.