Interview with EDDIE F, producer for Jaheim, Donell Jones, Angie Stone, Usher - Nov 19, 2002
“One of the cons of being self-published is that it’s harder to get paid”
Edward “Eddie F” Ferrell is a New Jersey-based songwriter and producer with credits ranging from Donell Jones (whom he discovered) to Angie Stone, Ruff Endz, Jaheim, and Usher, among others. He is a former VP of A&R at La Face and Motown, and continues to run his own production and record company, Untouchables Entertainment, started in 1989, while managing his studio, Playground/Mini Mansion Recordings.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a producer?
I used to DJ at clubs, house parties, and roller-skating rings. I decided to go into production just because I really wanted to make a record. I teamed up with Heavy D (to form Heavy D & The Boyz – Ed.) back in the late 80s; it was when we made our first single, “Mr. Big Stuff”, which I co-produced, that I discovered what producing was all about, and that’s when I officially became a producer.
What experiences have been important to you in developing your production skills?
Working with Teddy Riley and as a DJ, I acquired the ability to know what people want to listen to at a party. And when I was in A&R, I gained an understanding of the internal workings of a record company: how they put together budgets and the whole process that follows the recording and mixing of a record. That experience in particular was very valuable to me.
How did Untouchables Entertainment get started? How is it structured at present?
It started as a production company to represent me as a producer. A bit later, Pete Rock and Laurel Hyde (Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth – Ed.), two friends of mine, asked me to manage them and that’s how it started.
Untouchables Records has gone through different phases. There was a point when it was a full-blown production company, then I did A&R at La Face in ’94 and ’95 and then later at Motown. During that period I scaled down my company. More recently I just wanted to get back into the studio because I love making music. The main focus of the company right now is producing, publishing and running the recording studio. We have a small staff of about five people with three people working full-time.
How did you discover Donell Jones?
I went to a convention and, as I was about to leave, I saw a group of guys and Donell Jones was one of them. He came up to me and asked me if I would listen to them sing, which I did, and I remember thinking that a lot could be done with the vocals. I brought them to New York and, although the group situation didn’t pan out, I ended up working with Donell. His vocals hit me and at the time there were a lot of gospeley singers like R. Kelly, Jodeci and Aaron Hall out there but a definite lack of melodic, smooth singers. So I felt there was an open market for that, for a younger version of that Babyface-type of melodic singing.
How did you come to work with Ruff Endz?
We had a Donell Jones song out at the time, “U Know What’s Up” which was a really big hit. I had worked with Darren Lighty, my production partner on that song and Epic came to us, through Dave McPherson, and told us they had a group who needed a first single, so we went into the studio and wrote “No More” on the spot.
With hindsight, what are the key lessons or skills you've learned that have helped further your career?
I’ve improved the polish, the fine-tuning. The rough ideas were always there, but making a record sound like a finished mix is an area where I’ve improved. There are many skills you acquire over time, simply by working on different projects and with different equipment.
My strength as a producer is my A&R sensibility, which comes from my background as a DJ and my knowledge of what will work in the clubs. Even when I produce songs and I'm pleased with the results, I try to listen to the song as if it was my first impression. I leave the room, come back the next day and the first ten seconds of listening to it tell me whether it’s hot or not.
Playground/Mini Mansion is your studio?
Yes, and there’s a website for it: www.playgroundstudios.com. It was founded in ’92 and, over the years, it’s gone from being a tracking room to a mixing studio, to a full-blown recording facility with automated board and Pro Tools.
What is your most important piece of equipment?
One of the most important is Logic Audio, which we use to create our songs.
Do you have your own publishing company?
I actually have a couple. One is called Nitty & Capone and is a joint venture with Warner Chappell. We hold all kinds of songs, everything from Destiny’s Child and Madonna, to Mary J. Blige and Run DMC. Then I have my own publishing company, Eddie F Music, which holds the songs I have contributed to in some way, songs by Luther Vandross, Donell Jones, Angie Stone, Ruff Endz, etc.
What are the pros and cons of being self-published?
One of the pros is that you get to keep more of the money! The cons are that sometimes it’s harder to get paid, even though the situation is improving as the technology gets better. But just the administrative task of knowing where your records are playing can be difficult. Every once in a while there’s confusion over splits etc., something a company would handle for you if you weren't self-published.
Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned songwriters, with regard to publishing contracts?
If you need money to enable you to be in a position to write songs, then you probably need to make a deal that will get you off the ground. Lots of people are trying to break into the business so you have to give and take. You can make a deal and then, if you are successful later on, renegotiate.
What productions are you currently working on?
I’m working on Tyrese, and a project with Kay Gee on a Red Star Sounds/Def Jam compilation called “Impossible.” We've just finished three Jaheim tracks, Next’s first single “Imagine That,” and there’s a new group on Columbia called Strong whom we’ve recently worked with.
What do you think of the current R&B scene?
Musically, it’s good, and business-wise, it’s bad, because the economy is really tight. A number of business issues surrounding record companies are affecting the way people make music. At one point, two to three years ago, it felt like R&B was in a rut, but now there’s a much wider variety out there. I definitely see it becoming more live orientated, and the hip-hop elements are always going to be there, because hip-hop is a staple of American culture now.
Who are the other Untouchables producers and how do you work together?
Darren Lighty is my main production partner and we co-produce everything together. But we also collaborate with many people, as we are doing right now with Kay Gee of Divine Mill.
We have what you might call a "producers alliance", where everybody works with everybody else’s projects. When I was in high school, you either deejayed or you were an MC. Often somebody had a hot rap or knew someone who could rap, and you’d invite that person to come over and make a tape. Then you'd make copies of it and pass it around at school. Copies would turn into copies and it wasn’t long before everybody knew about it.
We’re trying to get back to that but at a production level, where it isn't as much about business and money. Of course you still want to make money and handle the business side of it, but the focus is more on making music and being creative. You’re doing what you love as opposed to really stressing out about how many songs you’re doing for this or that artist. It’s more of a creative endeavour.
What artists are signed to Untouchables Records?
Right now I can’t really say because I’m in the process of signing a few acts. But I will definitely put out new artists. After I was an A&R and went back into production, I just wanted to focus on producing and not signing a bunch of artists and doing too many things at once. I wanted to keep it small and just focus on producing and putting out one, no more than two, quality artists every year.
Do you have a deal with a major record label?
I have a deal with Arista, but that’s only for Donell Jones. For everything else, I’m a free agent.
What do you look for in an artist?
Some sort of uniqueness; musical qualities like tone of voice, song structure, subject matter; and then the artist's persona.
Do you accept unsolicited material from unsigned artists?
Do you think contacting and sending demos to producers is a good tool for unsigned, aspiring artists and songwriters?
Doing that is almost like playing the lottery. If somebody has free time, they might listen to it. But if you just randomly send a package off to somebody, you’ve got a fifty-fifty chance of anyone hearing it at all.
Do you think artists are knowledgeable about way the music industry works, or is it something they need to learn more about in order to stand a better chance?
Once an artist has made his or her first album, they probably know what’s going on in the business. But the business is changing and the business we know today won’t be the same in five years. With the Internet and new technological advances, it will be a completely different industry.
How would you advise unsigned acts to build their careers at an independent level?
Don’t try to do everything at once: first of all, try to get the support of your town, of the parties and clubs, then expand to your region and state and then just branch out from there. If you’re in Texas, then start with Texas and don’t worry about New York or L.A. Many people think that if you release a record you have to become successful across the whole country, and it often doesn’t work like that.
Do you think it’s fair that artists pay for promotional costs like, for example, videos and the making of an album?
With the first album it’s hard to say what’s fair, because somebody puts up hundreds of thousands or a million dollars for you and the failure rate is more than ninety percent. From a record company’s perspective, with the first album it’s probably fair, because it really is a gamble. You may be hot and your music may be good, but that’s not what makes a hit record. There are many different variables at work and they could very well spend a million dollars just to lose them.
But once you've gone platinum, for example, the record company shouldn’t fully charge the artist when they’re making sixty or seventy percent of the profits.
If artists share record labels' expenses for making an album and videos, do you think they should also share ownership of the masters?
At some point, yes. It’s easy to say you should own your masters when you've sold five million records, but to expect somebody to put up a million dollars for you and then hand over the ownership of the masters when you’re trying to get into the game, is as realistic as thinking you can go to a bank and not pay interest.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would create an outlet where good new music could be heard. The way it is with demos and people sending you music, there’s no real way of telling whether it’s something that the public is going to like. You know how they had the Amateur Night at the Apollo? If you’re hot, then the audience applauds you, but if you’re wack, the audience boos you off the stage. I would like a musical version of that. Right now it’s a gamble, and you’re behind the scenes trying to figure things out. Then you release the record with marketing, promotion and everything behind it, but still it may or may not work.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
When we released “U Know What’s Up” with Donell and it really started picking up. Having been through the whole cycle of being in a group, being a producer, managing people, and doing A&R, and coming out of that to see him do his first show in New York, where the whole crowd sang the song word for word, made me feel really good. It was a gamble because I could have stayed in A&R and gone from company to company, but I said to myself, “You know what, I’m going to go back to my studio and be a producer again full-time.” To see it come full circle felt really good.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years' time?
Hopefully still making music, and definitely being involved in some aspect of the music business, whether it's publishing, recording facilities or a record company.
interviewed by Jean-François Méan