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Category: Envelope Music Producers Roundtable

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.

Notebook2story 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

Related:

Envelope Music Producers Roundtable: The complete series

Pop & Hiss: Predictions, analysis and behind-the-scenes at the 2011 Grammy Awards

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.


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.

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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:

Continue reading »

Envelope Music Producers Roundtable: Producers would rather be heard -- not seen

Producers have, in a sense, become big stars on their own. However, not every producer is comfortable with close-ups in the media, and that seemed to be a common thread among the producers on last month's roundtable.

Ari Levine of the Smeezingtons (Cee Lo's "Forget You,") couldn't care less about a public persona; Alex Da Kid (Eminem's "Love the Way You Lie") just wants respect from his peers; and RedOne (Lady Gaga's collaborator) would rather make history –- goals all three seem to be achieving rather effortlessly.

Despite none of the producers looking for fame, they aren’t afraid to hustle to get their music heard.

“[The hustle is] such a part of what I do, it’ll never get in the way,” Alex Da Kid said. “You can have amazing tracks without the ability to get them to the right people.”

RedOne, who traveled from Morocco to Sweden in order to chase his dream, said it’s all about doing everything you can. “Use all the possible tools you can to make it, if you want to make it,” he said.

In the clip above, watch the three hitmakers talk about staying on the grind.

Check back daily until the Grammy Awards on Feb. 13 to see more of this conversation on pop music.

RELATED:

Check out all the Envelope Music Producers Roundtable videos here

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy

 


Envelope Music Producers Roundtable: Hitmakers discuss magic behind frequent collaborations

Behind most every successful artist is a producer (or team) responsible for helping the artist construct that certain cohesive sound that fans come to associate with him or her.

In hip-hop, Eminem plays quite nicely with Dr. Dre; Aaliyah took the Mary J. Blige/Diddy brand of R&B/hip-hop hybrid productions to another level with the aid of Timbaland and Missy productions; Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis shaped a young Janet Jackson; Rodney Jerkins helped Brandy trademark a sound that shaped late-'90s R&B; and Max Martin and Dr. Luke anchored quite the pop coup d'état with Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson and Ke$ha.

That sort of indelible pairing is something that two-thirds of our panel knows a thing or two about. Ari Levine of the production trio the Smeezingtons made his mark by helping Bruno Mars (he too is a part of the Smeezingtons) sniff out a sound that led to four nominations, including record of the year for both B.o.B.'s “Nothin' on You” and Cee Lo Green's “[Forget] You.”

Nadir Khayat, the Moroccan-born producer known as RedOne, is best known for his work with frequent collaborator and muse Lady Gaga.

In the clip above, watch the group discuss Grammy-nominated magic.

Check back daily until the Grammy Awards on Feb. 13 to see more of this conversation on pop music.

Related:

Check out all the Envelope Music Producers Roundtable videos here

— Gerrick D. Kennedy

 


Envelope Music Producers Roundtable: Hitmakers look forward to new year of bigger hits

Lady Gaga's “Bad Romance,” Eminem's “Love the Way You Lie,” Cee Lo Green's “[Forget] You” and B.o.B.'s “Nothin' on You” and “Airplanes” not only proved to be major game changers for the artists performing them, but it put the three hitmakers responsible for crafting the singles (Alex da Kid, Ari Levine of the production trio the Smeezingtons and RedOne) on the map.

After spending a better part of 2010 blanketing airwaves and filling headphones with indelible hooks and melodies, the three are now duking it out for Grammy gold in some hotly contended races.

Levine, as part of the production trio the Smeezingtons (with Bruno Mars and Philip Lawrence), has four nominations, including record of the year for both B.o.B.'s “Nothin' on You” and Cee Lo Green's “[Forget] You.” Alex da Kid too has four nominations, including both record of the year and song of the year for “Love the Way You Lie.” RedOne received two nominations this year, capped by an album of the year nod for his work on Gaga's “The Fame Monster.”

With February barely making a notch on calendars, the producers have wasted no time with their next hits. RedOne is riding a wave of buzz for producing "On the Floor," the leaked lead single from Jennifer Lopez's upcoming album; Alex Da Kid crafted Dr. Dre's heavily anticipated comeback lead single, “I Need A Doctor,” which features Eminem and Skylar Grey (Alex's own artist, by the way); and although Levine is mum on what he is working on, we've heard he is cooking up another year's worth of hits.

In the clip above, Times pop music critic Ann Powers asks the three what they are most excited about in 2011 after their respective breakout years.

Check back daily until the Grammy Awards on Feb. 13 to see more of this conversation on pop music.

Related:

Envelope Music Producers Roundtable: Does genre matter anymore?

Envelope Music Producers Roundtable: Sampling from the past versus composing in the present

Envelope Music Producers Roundtable: Has mobile technology stripped away emotion in pop?

— Gerrick D. Kennedy


Envelope Music Producers Roundtable: Has mobile technology stripped away emotion in pop?

Technological advances in today’s evolving digital age have allowed music producers to venture from behind the studio soundboards and into the realm of endless mobility. 

During last month’s Grammy roundtable, the three hit-makers responsible for Grammy-nominated songs (Alex Da Kid, Ari Levine of the production trio the Smeezingtons, and RedOne) by Eminem, B.o.B., Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga, among others, spoke at length about how these advances have helped make their job more accessible despite rigorous travel demands.

Alex Da Kid said he crafted the hyperactive beat for Nicki Minaj's “Massive Attack” while riding a subway on the way to a studio in England; RedOne remembers writing the epic opening chords of “Bad Romance” while on a tour bus traveling with Gaga. “Love the Way You Lie” was mixed with Eminem in Detroit as Rihanna recorded her vocals at the last minute in Dublin.

“They can just send files from across the world to get stuff done,” Levine said. “Like [Alex] could sit on the subway with his laptop and make a hit song.... Now anyone can buy a studio in their house or on their laptop and make hits there.”

In the clip above, Times Pop Music Critic Ann Powers asks if anything is compromised by this sense of mobility –- especially whether the raw emotion of a song is depleted if the producer and artist never actually meet face to face.

Check back daily until the Grammy Awards on Feb. 13 to see more of this conversation on pop music.

Recent and related:

Envelope Music Producers Roundtable: Does genre matter anymore?

Envelope Music Producers Roundtable: Sampling from the past versus composing in the present

— Gerrick D. Kennedy


Envelope Music Producers Roundtable: Sampling from the past versus composing in the present

The question of original melodies versus sampled ones is a debate no pop producer is immune to.

At last month’s Grammy roundtable, Times pop music critic Ann Powers quizzed three hitmakers responsible for Grammy-nominated songs (Alex da Kid, Ari Levine of the production trio the Smeezingtons, and RedOne) by Eminem, B.o.B., Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga, among others on how they strike a balance between borrowing melodies and ideas from old songs and crafting tunes from scratch.

“I think everything we do is almost borrowed from the past,” said Nadir Khayat, the Moroccan-born producer known as RedOne, one of the most in-demand producers in the world. “Just talking about myself, I grew up in a family with a lot of music and a lot of influences. Everything I’m doing in music, I’m trying to get that feeling back of when I was a kid.”

Though Khayat is best known for his work with his muse, Lady Gaga, he scored a massive hit when he used Lionel Richie’s 1983 party classic, "All Night Long (All Night)," as the foundation for Enrique Iglesias’ Pitbull-assisted "I Like It." The club banger hit No. 1 on both Billboard’s Latin Pop and Hot Dance Club charts and logged more than 3 million downloads.

In the clip above, the three producers discuss the art of sampling and if they feel it’s possible to go too far.

Check back daily until the Grammy Awards on Feb. 13 to see more of this conversation on pop music.

— Gerrick D. Kennedy

Recent and related:

Envelope Music Producers Roundtable: Does genre matter anymore?


Envelope Music Producers Roundtable: Does genre matter in pop music anymore? [video]

 Last month at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles, Times pop music critic Ann Powers sat down with three of the world's most successful music producers of 2010 for a conversation on hit making. The producers, all of whom are nominated for Grammys this year, included Alex da Kid, best known for Eminem and Rihanna's "Love the Way You Lie" and B.o.B.'s "Airplanes"; Ari Levine of the production trio the Smeezingtons, whose 2010 smashes include Cee Lo Green's "[Forget] You" and Bruno Mars' (also a Smeezington) "Nothin' on You"; and RedOne, who's riding high as Lady Gaga's go-to producer ("Bad Romance," "Poker Face," "Alejandro") but who also hit this year with Enrique Iglesias' "I Like It" and Jennifer Lopez's "On the Floor."

In front of a sold-out crowd at the Clive Davis Theater, Powers and the producers participated in a fascinating, lively talk that touched on the characteristics of their music and the paths that led each of the three to nab Grammy nominations and chart-topping songs. In the clip above, Powers discusses the notion of genre in the artists' music and whether their international pedigrees have affected their sounds.

Check back daily from now until the Grammy Awards on Feb. 13 to see more of this fascinating conversation on pop music.

— Randall Roberts


The first Los Angeles Times Music Producers Roundtable: Hit makers RedOne, Alex Da Kid and Ari Levine discuss Grammy-nominated songs

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On Saturday evening at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles, Times pop music critic Ann Powers sat down with three of today's hottest music producers for a freewheeling conversation about the state of pop music in 2011. Over the course of an hour, the Grammy-nominated hit makers RedOne (Lady Gaga, Enrique Iglesias), Alex Da Kid (Eminem's "Love the Way You Lie," B.o.B.'s "Airplanes") and Ari Levine of production trio the Smeezingtons (Bruno Mars' "Nothin' on You," Cee Lo Green's "[Forget] You" spoke about the state of pop music, their influences and the stories behind the songs. This first Los Angeles Times Music Producers Roundtable offered revelatory glimpses at the way in which hit songs get made in 2011.

The Times filmed the conversation, and in the next few weeks Awards Tracker will be rolling out video highlights, and Ann Powers will be chiming in with a Critic's Notebook on her impressions of the Grammy-nominated music and the people who make it.

Times staffer Gerrick Kennedy wrote an overview, as well, in which he relayed a comment that Nadir Khayat, the Moroccan-born producer known as RedOne, made about the way in which he and Lady Gaga started working together:

“I just saw the vision,” he said of Gaga. “I just saw this girl that could be this [huge] thing. We went to the studio and talked about Queen, Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen, and I'm thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, she knows music,'” Khayat said. “She was inspired. I've always thought of music as one; it's a universal language. That's what we did with the sound of Lady Gaga.”

The three, Powers noted, have diverse upbringings. Levine was born in Teaneck, N.J., and Grant lived in London until recently relocating to Los Angeles. And though he was raised in Morocco, Khayat found success after he relocated to Sweden. Powers illustrated this global trend with snippets from their repertoire, which offers international rhythms and sounds that cross borders. The result? “Love the Way You Lie” hit No. 1 in 25 countries, and “Bad Romance” did the same in 19.

Read the entire story over at the Pop & Hiss blog, and check back on Awards Tracker starting next week, when video excerpts from the conversation will arrive.

— Randall Roberts

Photo: Alex Da Kid,  left, Ari Levine and RedOne take part in the Los Angeles Times Music Producers Roundtable at the Grammy Museum's Clive Davis Theater on Saturday. Photo credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times.  



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