Grammy Awards: Nominated producers sound off on pop music
Alex Da Kid, RedOne and Ari Levine give advice, discuss their backgrounds and reveal what goes into the making of a hit record.
In January, The Times invited three of this year's Grammy-nominated music producers to participate in a conversation on the state of pop music, the changing role of their job and the ways in which sound and melody crossed borders in 2010. Though the artists are less known than the singers who turned their songs into hits, their résumés speak for themselves.
London-born Alex Grant, who works under the pseudonym Alex Da Kid, is nominated for two of his 2010 tracks: Eminem and Rihanna's “Love the Way You Lie” and B.o.B.'s “Airplanes.”
The producer known as RedOne was born Nadir Khayat and is of Moroccan descent. Best known as the producer behind Lady Gaga's impressive string of hits over the last two years — “Poker Face,” “Alejandro,” and “Bad Romance,” among them — RedOne is nominated as producer of the year (non-classical) for his work with Gaga and others.
And Ari Levine is one-third (along with Bruno Mars and Philip Lawrence) of the L.A.-based production trio the Smeezingtons, also nominated for producer of the year, whose 2010 songs included Cee Lo Green's “[Forget] You,” B.o.B.'s “Nothin' on You,” and Mars' “Just the Way You Are.”
In advance of Sunday night's Grammy Awards, Times Pop Critic Ann Powers moderated the public discussion and played some of the producers' hits at the Clive Davis Theater at the Grammy Museum.
Here are excerpts from the conversation:
What advice would you give young producers?
Alex Da Kid: The most important thing is having a vision and being able to see something before anyone else can see it — before the A&R, before anybody else. And being able to work with the artists. Most producers nowadays, they write, they make the tracks. Before any of that, you have to have a vision. Most of the songs you're working on, they won't come out for three or more months at least, so you have to be able to think about what's going to be able to be a hit record in six months, a year, two years. You have to kind of get away from listening to what's on the radio. You want to be thinking ahead. That's what great producers do today.
Ari Levine: It's also the right song for the right artist. You can sit around making songs all day, but you have to find the right person to sell it. Usually the artist is in the room, you at least have some sort of vibe on what they're looking for and what their strengths are and play off of those.
RedOne: I always made sure I listened to the artist and study them, to make sure I know what they're all about. To consider my knowledge, my musicality, what I can bring to him or her, mixed in with what they are, to do them justice and take them to the next level.
When it comes to Lady Gaga, when I met her, she was Stefani Germanotta, but she was called Lady Gaga too…she'd just been dropped by Def Jam. I didn't care about that. I met her, we talked about music and everything, and I saw the vision. I saw the girl could be that thing, you know? And we went to the studio right away. It took us five minutes to talk about Queen and Rolling Stones and Springsteen, and I was like, “Oh, my God, she knows music!” It was inspiring, she had these glasses, she had this look, you know? So we went to the studio, and she was open. She said she wanted something global.
I've been traveling all over the world, and to me music is one, you know? The universal language. So with her, we just did what we did, and suddenly that became the sound of Lady Gaga.
She told me you were a metalhead.
RedOne: I'm a musician, a guitar player, I used to sing in a rock band, and that was my thing, rock. If you listen to my music, a lot of it has a rock feeling. “I Like It” or “Just Dance” — those songs have rock drums. The only thing is, I replace the guitars with synths. But still it's a rock song. The chord progressions, big drums, and open high hat and stuff like that. So yes, I'm a metal guy.
I grew up in Africa, in Morocco, and America — the dream — is very far. Europe is closer, you can get to it, but in Africa, it's just no way. Especially around the '80s growing up. Artists didn't come to perform there. They would go there to get inspiration, like the Rolling Stones. Led Zeppelin ... the other day I met Robert Plant and he was telling me they wrote “Kashmir” in Marrakesh. So the dream was very far, you know. To me it was like, I gotta leave to make it. So Sweden was the closest to me, not as a country but in my heart. There was ABBA, and a rock band called Europe, and a guitar player called Yngwie Malmsteen, who did the kind of theatrical classical guitar? So I was like, I gotta go to Sweden and study music more. So that's what I did. And I learned a lot.
But I come from a big family — I'm the ninth child, and the youngest — so I was always listening to all kinds of music at home. From Julio Iglesias to Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, all the superstars. Bob Dylan. My brother was crazy about Bob Dylan. And Middle Eastern and African music. So the music, I had it in me. I just had to learn in Sweden how to realize it. Sweden's very organized. So I just had to learn how to get it in my head … and the rest is history!
[Powers plays the Alex Da Kid-produced song “Massive Attack,” a recent hit by Nicki Minaj.]
Alex Da Kid: I actually made that track on the subway in England, going to a session with Sean Garrett. I played it for Sean, and he wrote the song, and later I gave it to Nicki, and she kind of tweaked it, and that's how it became what it is.
She's really cool. A lot of pop artists don't really get involved [in how a track is made]. She'll really get involved and know what kind of snare she wants or whatever. And she's really focused. I didn't get the multiple personalities; I just got focused on Nicki when I was in the studio. She's very professional and direct and to the point. A lot of the other stuff may be for show, which is great, because it works.
Is there a tool or musical instrument that each of you finds essential for your creative process?
RedOne: In my case it's the guitar. Of course, drums are important, whatever … but the guitar, that's essential to write a song. It's like the body. And then you can make it rock, or more hip-hop. Depends on the clothing, the styling.
Levine: Mine would probably be my MP3 player. Because I would miss it if it was gone. I can't get on a subway without my MP3 player. I guess I could, but people would just stare at me funny.
Alex Da Kid: For me it's definitely [Apple Computer's music-production software] Logic. I structure my songs around my program. I'm not a great musician. I play guitar and keyboards a little bit, but I'm expert on Logic. That's my instrument. I grew up on Fruity Loops, I've tried everything, Keybase, all those ones, but for me Logic is the best.
Alex, how did you get started?
Alex Da Kid: I started falling out of love with football and I really fell in love with music. I've always had a good understanding of what my goals would be, long term, short term and medium term, and I just cut everything else out of my life. No friends; no girls; no nothing. No going out and just really focused. That's what it takes. We're in a competitive industry, and we have to do our best. I'm competing against a guy who'll come from Africa, who doesn't speak any English — I'm competing against that guy's hunger.
Levine: And that's how I did it. I dropped out of high school to do it. I remember I went and tried to get a job at a laundromat, and they denied me. I was like, OK, if I can't get a job in a laundromat, this music stuff better work out.
I had a place to live but I was really, really broke. I got one check once and then I went and bought a really, really fast car. And then I had no more money! So I pulled up to get a job at a laundromat in a really nice car.
-- Ann Powers
Image, from left: Ari Levine, RedOne, and Alex Da Kidd.