Critic's Notebook: Pop music producers catch global beat, Grammy attention
Groundbreaking music producers RedOne, Alex Da Kid and Ari Levine — in the running for multiple Grammys — embody the competitive and future-focused spirit that’s now a part of pop music’s DNA.
Nadhir Kayat’s journey from obscurity to fame is the tale of a global wanderer. Born the youngest of nine children in the Moroccan port city of Tetouan, Kayat realized early on that his ambitions required him to leave all he knew.
“I grew up in Africa,” said Kayat, now better known by his nom du studio, RedOne, in a recent Los Angeles Times-sponsored roundtable discussion at the Grammy Museum in downtown L.A. “And America, the dream, is very far.” Luckily for Kayat, his particular dream — pop music — has a closer power center. In Sweden, he found the route to becoming what he is today: a Grammy-winning producer behind hits for Enrique Iglesias, Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga, nominated this year for his field’s most prestigious nod, that of producer of the year.
RedOne’s Scandinavian period was tough at first. “I knew no-bo-dy,” he recalled. “I didn’t know the language.” He found his way by trying everything. He played in rock bands, helped out aspiring pop singers and hung around recording studios, picking up the amalgam of languages he heard in pop’s various home environments.
Finding focus even in the most rapidly shifting landscapes, the producers who are the real powerhouses behind most mainstream hits thrive in circumstances that more traditional music-makers might consider chaotic. Genre is dead. Allegiance to a particular subculture is counterproductive. Old-fashioned values about “real music” don’t factor in when you’re reaching for the next unexpected sound.
“I’ve been traveling all over the world, and to me music is one, you know? The universal language,” said RedOne. For him, that’s not a cliché, it’s a lifeline. Linking African rhythms to Arabic melodic systems, adding in rock drums and post-disco synth lines, RedOne has hit upon a sound that seamlessly spans genres and historical styles: the hyper-mobile, transnational sound of post-millennial pop.
He’s not alone. In front of a delighted crowd at the Grammy Museum RedOne shared stories, opinions and tips with Alex Da Kid (born Alexander Grant) and Ari Levine, two other producers nominated for multiple Grammys this year. (This writer served as moderator.) The conversation confirmed that in 2011, pop’s world-spanning character resides not only in the increasingly diverse identities of its stars, but in the frequent-flyer beats and Esperanto tunes crafted by its producers.
“Kids, especially, with the Internet, they’re more open to things in general,” said London-born Alex Da Kid, whose powerfully emotional approach has resulted in hits including Eminem and Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie” and “Airplanes” by Atlanta rapper B.o.B. “Now, once they’ve heard something, they can go and investigate. Before, they might hear something once and that’s it. All the information is at their disposal. We’ll see more of that as well as time progresses.”
The 26-year-old was one such kid not long ago — an aspiring footballer who started making tracks after a friend showed him the digital audio workstation Fruity Loops. (He now uses Apple’s music production suite, Logic, which he calls “my instrument.”) A childhood spent listening to his Jamaican dad’s dub reggae mixes fed his sense of rhythm, and hip-hop, he said, is his home genre. But more than identifying with one scene, Alex Da Kid likes to keep on the move.
“I actually made that track on the subway in England, going to a session with [the American rapper and songwriter] Sean Garrett,” he said as Nicki Minaj’s “Massive Attack” burst out of the sound system at the Grammy Museum. Riding the crosscurrents of urban life inspires him.
“Not just the music but definitely the culture,” he explained. “London’s so multicultural. I went to school with so many different types of people — different religions, different races. That definitely influenced me. I like to try and bring everything together, and use hip-hop as a foundation, but build on that.”
The urge to discover new worlds, even in one’s own backyard, has been a key motivator in pop since its beginning in roadhouses and traveling vaudeville shows. But now more than ever, success comes to those who have no particular comfort zone.
“A lot of it has to do with technology nowadays,” said Levine, who is one-third of the writing and production team the Smeezingtons, experts in crafting cyberspace-age urban pop for artists such as Cee Lo Green, Travie McCoy and Bruno Mars. “Alex can sit on the subway and make a hit song. Back in the day, you had to work your way up through these large studios. Now anyone can put a studio in their house and make hits there. Or on a laptop.”
Levine dropped out of his New Jersey high school to find studio engineering work in L.A., but ended up pretty much penniless, applying for work in a local laundromat before he hooked up with Smeezingtons teammates Mars and Philip Lawrence. Levine stressed that even the most advanced computer whiz still needs to keep the human element in mind when aiming for the top of the charts. “You can sit around making songs all day, but you have to find the right person to sell it,” he said. “You at least have some sort of vibe on what an artist is looking for and what his or her strengths are, and play off of those.”
The classic recording studio scene, re-created in countless films and music videos, puts the artist right in the room with her collaborators: standing in front of a microphone while her producer twists knobs behind the glass. That’s not always how it happens now.
“I didn’t meet Hayley until the Grammy nominations,” said Alex Da Kid of Paramore singer Hayley Williams, who sang the indelible hook on “Airplanes.” “When I did ‘Love the Way You Lie’ with Rihanna, it was last minute, and as we were mixing the song — me and Emimen — she was recording the vocals in Dublin. We had met before that, but that’s how she recorded it. That song wouldn’t exist without technology, because schedules are so crazy.”
RedOne and Lady Gaga wrote the music for “Bad Romance” on her tour bus — the birthplace of many classics strummed on acoustic guitar, but not the first place you’d look to discover a club hit. Talking about the Gaga sound, RedOne hit upon another way that music now can’t stand still. Few major artists attach themselves to one style or even evoke only one era. Producers must be like safecrackers, practiced in finding perfect combinations.
RedOne’s productions reflect his Swedish past, when he played in a metal band but also produced Abba-ish artists such as the A*Teens. “If you listen to my music, a lot of it has a rock feeling,” he said. “‘I Like It’ (the chart-topper he produced for Iglesias) or Gaga’s “Just Dance” — those songs have rock drums. The only thing is, I replace the guitars with synths.”
Interrupting each other frequently to bestow mutual admiration, the three innovators at the Grammy Museum embodied the relentless focus on the future that dominates the changing pop industry, in which old values like authenticity and purity have thoroughly given way to the pursuit of the next big thing. Such competitiveness and focus on innovation could seem antithetical to the meditative mood often associated with the artistic process, but these groundbreakers are shaping sounds that speak powerfully as part of our frantic, distracted lives. It makes sense for them to constantly keep moving.
“The most important thing is having a vision, and being able to see something before anyone else can see it — before the record label people, before anybody else,” said Alex Da Kid. “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.”
There is always time, however, to pause and appreciate the producer’s greatest reward: the experience of an audience loving your sound. That’s a global phenomenon too.
“Sometimes they connect to it more than you do,” said RedOne, with a laugh. “You love it, it’s fun, it’s cool, but then you go to Spain or Madrid or Paris, and you see people loving the song way more than you ever expected. They’re saying, ‘Oh my god, this is me, it’s talking to me!’ It’s amazing. That’s the beauty of music. It talks to every person differently; they can interpret it their own way.”
-- Ann Powers
Image, clockwise from top left, RedOne Eminem, Ari Levine, Cee Lo Green, Alex Da Kid and Lady Gaga. Credit: Francine Orr, Interscope Records, Francine Orr, Jeff Christensen, Francine Orr and Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images.