Usher on Justin Bieber: 'When he sang, I realized we were dealing with the real thing'
The story behind teen sensation Justin Bieber’s rise to fame has, at this point, become almost as famous as the mop-haired singer himself. After competing in a local talent competition in his native Canada at the tender age of 13, Bieber and his mom posted videos of him singing online to share with his distant relatives.
Those videos were noticed by Scooter Braun, a 28-year-old Atlanta-based manager who had previously worked with Asher Roth. Eager to meet Bieber, Braun tracked him down, persuaded him and his mother to fly to Atlanta — on their first airplane flight — for a meeting. That was where Bieber famously ran into Usher Raymond in a parking lot, an occurrence that led the R&B star to go to bat for the then-unknown, helping him land a professional deal and forming a joint-venture label with Braun and Antonio "L.A." Reid, the chairman of Island Def Jam Music Group.
In a story in Saturday’s paper, we spent a day with Bieber to find out what it’s really like being in the spotlight at age 16. It’s something Usher, who also found success at a young age, knows a lot about. We talked to him about his relationship with Bieber, including the advice he dispenses to his young protégé. Here’s what he had to say.
What initially appealed to you about Justin?
I think it was, first and foremost, his charming, winning, timeless attitude. It’s as though he had been here before. When I met him, his personality won me over. When he sang, I realized we were dealing with the real thing. His voice just spoke to the type of music I would want to be associated with. And it wasn’t a gimmick — we had to teach him how to dance and be on stage, but he really had a good voice.
So you really ran into him for the first time in a parking lot?
He was there in the parking lot of Jermaine Dupri’s studio, so of course I knew that Scooter [Braun], his manager, was there meeting Jermaine. And Justin offered to sing for me. But I didn’t want to intrude on anything going on, and I thought it would be disrespectful to have him sing for me there. I wanted to arrange a meeting at another place and time so we’d have an opportunity for us to really talk and not just rush through it. I told him to come inside, because it was very cold outside and he wanted to sing for me right then, right there! Which is so funny, because I can remember being that same kid. I’d speak to Keith Sweat and other artists when I was a kid.
And obviously, you followed up on your offer?
Yeah, I reached back out to Scooter, and we arranged a meeting. After watching his videos online, I thought, man, this kid has an incredible voice, I’d like to see him in person. To my surprise, he was everything I thought he would be. Being able to play guitar and all of those things were a great foundation for him. I thought, given his confident understanding, that we could teach him how to play to a large audience and get ready for videos and that this could be a success.
But you were almost too late, right? Wasn’t Justin Timberlake already interested in working with Justin when you came along?
It was Justin Timberlake first. I’d almost missed the boat, and Justin was scheduled to meet Justin Timberlake in L.A. with Jimmy Iovine. So I said, “I really believe in this kid’s talent, and I have what it takes to introduce him in the right way. I want to give a wealth of information to him. I understand the process you’re gonna go through and going through vocal changes. I understand what it is to go from scratch and his passion and how to nurture who he is.” And, luckily, he trusted me -- was enough of a fan of mine -- to take a shot.
How much do you and Justin communicate? What kind of relationship do you have?
Aside from Justin being my protégé, we stay in contact with each other by way of iChat or Blackberry, just to stay in the loop with him. But when we’re working on the album, we work very close-knit in the studio. There were sessions I could not be a part of, but having my hand as an executive producer over the project, I wanted to make sure it was working in the right direction. This album is successful, but it only speaks to the beginning of his story.
There’s so much more we have yet to be able to show you of Justin. I think the fans obviously adore him — now it’s a matter of making his story. It’s giving him truth that will make up his legacy, and really it’s up to him.
As someone who became popular as a teenager yourself, what advice do you give to Justin about not letting fame go to your head?
Man, I tell him like I tell any artist, either be passionate fully about what you do or don’t do it all. And understand that the perception of what you build is the reality of what they will believe.
But he’s 16. Isn’t it all hard to handle at that age?
As I said, I think that Justin has been here before, although he’s 16. When you talk to him, it’s like you’re talking to a well-seasoned young man. It’s almost like he’d already mapped out in his mind what his story could be, and it’s up to us to navigate him. There couldn’t be anybody more proud. He’s like a son to me. And never too much — because this is only the beginning. His story has yet to truly unfold.
Photo: Justin Bieber with fans. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times