James Poyser


Call James Poyser’s college experience pragmatic or even a repudiation. Twenty-five years later, he still seems unsure which is more appropriate himself. When he arrived at Temple University, after beginning at Drexel University, he knew at least that he didn’t want to study chemical engineering anymore. But he couldn’t bring himself to formally pursue music, his first love, either. “The common sense part of me was insisting, let me study business just in case music doesn’t pan out,” Mr. Poyser says. “But I still ended up hanging around the Boyer College of Music. And I even took some classes there. My parents were sticklers about education, so in a way, by majoring in finance I was able to keep them happy and still set myself up with a career as a musician. Life is never a straight line. You have to be flexible.”

From the onset, the knowledge Mr. Poyser carried with him from the Fox School of Business informed his career choices, big and small, and gave him a distinct advantage. “Even now,” he says, “when I talk to other musicians, most don’t understand how to position themselves for financial security.” It also helped Mr. Poyser navigate technology’s hostile takeover of the music industry. When everyone from major-label executives to the headlining acts were wondering aloud where the revenue was going to come from in a model that seemed to change dramatically by the month—and always to the listeners’ advantage—Mr. Poyser could see the writing on the wall. “An album now is just a business card,” he says. “You have to be a performer. Everybody’s out on the road. But there is money to be made. It’s about being smart.” You’ll find him now on your flat screen most weeknights as the keyboardist and pianist for The Roots, the iconic rap group that originated in Philadelphia and currently serves as Jimmy Fallon’s house band on The Tonight Show. It’s maybe his most famous act, which is ironic because he’s played an integral role in the ascension of some of the biggest stars of the modern era: Adele, Rihanna, John Legend, Jay-Z, Mariah Carey, Nas, Lauryn Hill, Norah Jones, Common, Amy Winehouse, Badu, and The Roots. And, really, that’s just scratching the surface. Mr. Poyser began to come into his own when he formed his own production company, Axis Music Group, with Victor Duplaix and Chauncey Childs, a fellow Fox alumnus. The three of them quickly found themselves sharing studio space at Philadelphia International Records, the renowned label founded by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. Mr. Poyser says that simply being in close proximity to them on a regular basis shaped him in profound ways. After years of aspiring to be a chart-topping musician, songwriter and producer, Mr. Gamble and Mr. Huff provided him with walking models of what that looked like. Their names and all the ones cited in the paragraph before that, along with many others not mentioned here, come to mind when Poyser reflects on the part of his star-studded career that’s already behind him. But his reason is more personal than you’d think. “The thing that gives me the most joy is the relationships I’ve developed in this business,” he says. “With so many of the people I’ve worked with, it’s felt like a family. The Roots, those are my blood brothers. I’m not sure if I can quantify it, but it feels almost tangible.”

Temple University Degree
Bachelor of Business Administration ’93, Fox School of Business

Title & Company
Grammy-winning songwriter, musician and multi-platinum producer

What I wanted to be when I was 20 years old
I really wanted to be a musician, but not just a musician; I wanted to be in the music business. So, I wanted to have some business savvy and know how to handle my personal finances. I met a lot of musicians growing up who were living paycheck to paycheck. I didn’t want that for myself. I wanted to financial security. I wanted to have ownership in whatever I ended up doing.

Best piece of advice anyone ever gave me
“Pay your taxes!” Leon Huff, the legendary songwriter and producer and a man of very few words, found me in the studio shortly after Erykah Badu’s debut album came out and said, “Erykah Badu’s doing good. Pay your taxes.” That was it. He turned and walked out.