From an idea to a single: RedOne, Alex Da Kid and Ari Levine discuss making hits
Grammy-nominated producers discuss their lives, careers and pop music in general at a roundtable event.
In 2010, the songs were ubiquitous, even if the music producers who helped create them were less well-known: 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” blanketed airwaves and filled earbuds with indelible hooks and melodies.
But those hooks and melodies took work. Though they may drift out of the car stereo effortlessly, much sweat equity was spent crafting them. No one understands that process better than the music producers, whose job it is to turn an idea into a song. If the timing's right, the song hits.
In advance of the Grammy Awards, which will be held Feb. 13 in downtown Los Angeles, three of today's hottest hitmakers, RedOne (Lady Gaga, Enrique Iglesias), Alex Da Kid (Eminem, B.o.B.) and Ari Levine of the Smeezingtons (Cee Lo, Bruno Mars) sat down with Times pop music critic Ann Powers for the first Los Angeles Times Music Producers Roundtable, an intimate conversation with artists who helped shape 2010's pop-music landscape.
On Saturday evening in front of a sold-out crowd, Powers led a freewheeling conversation that sought to put into words the magic that turns a bunch of notes on paper (or, these days, a hard drive) into a hit song.
“I think the most important thing is having a vision. Being able to see things before other people can see it,” Alexander Grant — better known as Alex Da Kid — told the audience inside the Grammy Museum's Clive Davis Theater. “Most of the songs you're working on, they won't even come out for three or four months at least, maybe longer, so you have to be able to think what's going to be a hit record in six months.”
Nadir Khayat, the Moroccan-born producer known as RedOne, knows something about foresight. His best known collaborator, and muse, is Lady Gaga.
“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.
The producers credited that global feel in part to the increasing mobility of their tools. Grant said he crafted the hyperactive beat for Nicki Minaj's “Massive Attack” while riding a subway on the way to a studio in England; Khayat remembers writing the epic opening chords of “Bad Romance” while on a tour bus traveling with Gaga. “Love the Way You Lie” was also the result of an international mishmash: Grant mixed the track with Eminem in Detroit as Rihanna recorded her verse at the last minute a world away in Dublin.
All three are competing 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.” Grant too has four nominations, including both record of the year and song of the year for “Love the Way You Lie.” Khayat received two nominations this year, capped by an album of the year nod for his work on Gaga's “The Fame Monster.”
Though each is grounded in hip-hop, pop and vintage R&B, Powers noted that they all dabble in an array of genres and asked if musical boundaries exist anymore.
Grant credited the acceptance of more genre-bending singles to younger listeners who are able to explore different sounds while surfing the Internet. Levine, like the others, doesn't abide by boundaries.
“Music is music,” he said. “I think music nowadays is taking elements from each. Music is always changing. People are [maybe] getting tired of hearing the same stuff — and it's got to move to something else.”
--Gerrick D. Kennedy
Images: Ari Levine , from left, RedOne and Alex Da Kid. (Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times); Lady Gaga (Associated Press); Bruno Mars (Getty Images);