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Interview with MICHAEL 'MIKE CITY' FLOWERS, producer for Usher, Rihanna, Brandy, Anthony Hamilton - Feb 3, 2009

"Songs that contain integrity and pain tend to last long"

picture After entering the music industry with a No.1 hit record, ĎI Wishí (2000) performed by Bad Boy recording artist Carl Thomas, songwriter and producer Michael ĎMike Cityí Flowers proved his staying power in a big way. He boasts an impressive list of song credits and has worked with some of todayís most talented artists including Usher, Brandy, Rihanna, Yolanda Adams, Gerald Levert, Kelly Price, Anthony Hamilton and Mary Mary.

Currently credited for production on a Grammy-nominated reggae album (Heavy D's 'Vibes'), his streak of successes, based on his individual sound, shows no sign of waning.

He talks to HitQuarters about his best work created when he feels outside of the rat race, about the problem with producers working on too many projects after scoring a single hit, and about radio not being as good for hip hop as it used to be.

How did you become one of the hottest producers in hip-hop and R&B as a Philly native?

With a lot of hard work. I actually fell into producing by default, because Iím a vocalist by trade and a writer first. I was trying to get the music I was hearing in my head out, and I needed some kind of outlet, so I figured Iíd just try to go into producing.

I used to play drums and bass when I was younger and that led to doing different things. Then I started dabbling with a keyboard. This was all after my graduation in 1987.

You came into the game with a fresh, new sound and werenít influenced by what was happening at the time.
How did you manage to create your own niche?

I wasnít scared to take a risk. Itís going to come back around. When you do something that feels good to you, other people will think it feels good too.

Your style is described as a warm, soulful and grimy sound. What makes you different from today's typical cut-and-paste producers?

It may be because I caught the best of the A-Track and vinyl days. I grew up on stuff like Stevie Wonder, who I happen to know right now.

Itís unbelievable that I grew up on him and I know him now. And Donny Hathaway, Iím real good friends with his daughter Lalah. All this is unbelievable.

You grow up listening to great bands like Steely Dan and Earth, Wind & Fire. And then when youíre coming along you start hearing great hip-hop like A Tribe Called Quest and Dr.Dre, who I know personally. You never think it could happen.

You start putting a lot of influences in. Then you hear a little Wu-Tang. You hear different things. Thatís why Iím moving to London right now, just to get a different vibe.

Back in the day you didnít really have to be in a cookie cutter type of situation. How come that changed over the years?

A lot of it has to do with the people in the position of power, who maybe shouldnít be there. They donít really know anything about music per se. They supposedly ďknowĒ something about the business.

A lot of the times theyíre paving the way for what they think the public would want or accept, and thatís not really always the case. They may be doing a lot of search and research, but I donít know who theyíre calling out. Itís a little troubling at times, but we have to fight through it.

What were your studio facilities at that time?

I would just rent some time at different places. Back in the day, if you really wanted to be in the business you had to really spend money. Studio time used to cost. Itís so different right now because you can make a record on your laptop.

What was your vision for Unsung Entertainment?

Itís my production company, which I started in 1999. It was created out of a need to have complete artistic freedom, while bringing my unique platinum selling sound and vision to the public.

I have a new artist now but I canít say his name. Once the deal is closed with a major label, itíll be announced. So, Iím facilitating a thing like that, but itís basically my production company I produce out of.

Unsung Entertainment has various distribution options including Universal Music and publishing through Notting Hill Music.

Was ĎI Wishí, performed by Bad Boy recording artist Carl Thomas your biggest hit?

I donít know. It depends. I want to say ĎHeard It All Beforeí by Sunshine Anderson. Even though ĎI Wishí was No.1 in 2000, ĎHeard It All Beforeí was a worldwide hit in 2001.

How did you end up working with some of todayís most talented artists including Kenny ĎBabyfaceí Edmonds, Usher, Brandy and Rihanna?

It all came about through getting in the mix and circulating your music and building relationships. And a lot of it just panned out. Timing played a lot of it too.

A lot of the times these projects are presented to me. And sometimes Iíll search them out. Like I sought Brandy out. I wanted to work with her back in the day. That meeting was set up.

With Rihanna, first of all there was a record by Melanie Fiona that I was working with. We cut the demo. We wrote the record with a few other people and it came out hot, but she wasnít no way near coming out.

Rihannaís people heard the record and they wanted it. It was hard to let go of it at first, but we agreed because sheís a good artist.

Do you prefer working directly with the artists or just shopping some beats?

I prefer working directly with the artist. Thatís the problem right now. These days you donít really get to do that too much. Thatís why I do other avenues and different things.

Iíve done a record with Chris Brown that never came out. Iíve done records with Jay Holiday that never came out.

A lot of producers and writers do say Iím working with this person and that person, and start to propel their profile. I donít need to do that, thank God. Iíve done what Iíve done, I do what I do, and I just leave it at that.

Which artists are you currently working on?

Iím about to get back in the lab with a few people. Iím over in London right now meeting a lot of new artists. As I said, Iím getting ready to work with this British artist weíre getting signed.

But as far as major artists, I used to do millions of projects but a lot of that gets boring and old too. The problem with the States right now is that there are so many limited releases coming out. You have a thousand different producers trying to get on every record. So thatís not going to work.

Unless itís your artist and unless youíre directly involved with the project, it donít really mean anything. Thatís what the game has come to right now. A lot of it is that they donít really respect the music they do anyway. Itís a numbers game right now

Do you travel a lot to Europe?

No, this is my first trip over here.

Is there a real fine line between backpack hip-hop and whatís acceptable to the masses?

I donít believe thatís the case at all. You can say backpack hip-hop is not accepted by the masses but if the right song comes through then itís going to be accepted.

Like M.I.A.ís ĎPaper Planesí for example. That song is leftfield. Itís kind of more hip-hop than anything else, even though sheís Sri Lankan.

You canít really say backpack hip-hop is not accepted. When Nas said hip-hop was dead, he was saying that a little early, but to me right now hip-hop is kind of dead because radio wouldnít give it a chance. You dumb down your lyrics and only then the radio says Ok.

How would you make that original hip-hop flavor sound fresh again?

I still get inspired by all music. I get inspired by daily living. Last year my wife and I got married and had our first child. That was a big experience. There was a lot going on. Thatís why this year Iím ready to kick back up.

As you can see I started out the year by coming over to London. Iím on my way to MIDEM in France. Then back to London do some sessions with some major artists and writers.

I have a writing session set up with these cats Darren Lewis and Tunde Babalola of Future Cut. Just different things like that to have fun and make some good music.

How significant are conventions like MIDEM?

Iíll find out and let you know. From what Iíve heard, itís very significant.

What story do you want to tell in your songs?

Iím telling the story thatís happening. I want to paint the picture thatís going on in regards to everything. A lot of songs are about relationships. People want to hear that.

I had a meeting yesterday and we were talking about songs that contain integrity and pain. Those types of records tend to last long. You like to have those types of songs where people know where they were the first time they heard it.

What is important to keep in mind with placements for film and TV?

Iíve been fortunate enough that film and TV plugged some songs out of the catalogue that Iíve already written. But Iím actively trying to pursue getting more film and TV placements. Because thatís just a viable way to have your music heard.

Thatís the name of the game right now: how many outlets of media can your music be placed on.

What gear canít you live without in your L.A.-based studio?

Right now, I canít live without my 17 inch MacBook laptop. I switched over to Logic.

What advice would you give upcoming producers entering the market?

Try to create your own niche. Even right now with the stuff that Iím going to do this upcoming year, I want to put my own twist to it. Whether itís underground, house, dance music or reggae records, I want to put ĎMike City twistí on what Iím doing.

Iím fortunate right now that Iím up for a Grammy. I did a song on Heavy Dís ĎVibesí album. Itís nominated for a Grammy for Best Reggae Album.

Different things like that. Even in my down time Iím getting blessed.

Whatís that ĎMike City twistí?

My method is: if itís making me moveÖ because Iíve got a pretty good music sensibility.

Radio sucks right now, but I grew up listening to a lot of different types of music. I remember when I was young, on a same radio station they would play Run D.M.C., Luther Vandross, Wang Chung, Duran Duran or Ready For The World.

I come from that era, and it seems like itís getting back there right now as far as radio. But they have to open it up a little bit more because you donít want to hear the same records every hour.

How do you view the current music business climate?

Horrible. For the entrepreneur it could be pretty good if you get in where you fit in. With everything going digital a lot of labels fall back into the path.

And the urban hip-hop scene?

The urban hip-hop scene is one of the scenes that are hurting because of the downloading. Thereís no real fanbase, no loyalty to most of the artists.

I tell people all the time, when I went to high school it may have been five people there who were seriously considering doing music professionally. Now you probably can find fifty who are considering doing music. Thatís the difference.

Itís like, whereís the audience when everyone wants to be in music. Thereís like too many chiefs and not enough Indians.

What direction will you develop into musically?

I would like to bring soul music back to the forefront, but Iím delving into different types of music at the same time. I actually produced house before I did R&B. They started to call me ĎMike Cityí because I used to listen to Ten City a lot.

You made a living out of doing what you wanted to do. How do you keep the passion after twenty years of achievement?

Because music is in me. Last year, I needed that little break because it helps you appreciate everything that youíve been blessed with.

The birth of my daughter Riley did something to me. It makes you realise that thereís something else to work for and Iím responsible for her. And sheís my biggest hit.

Which artists would you still like to work with?

Thereís some great artists I hear out there. I wouldnít mind working with Beyoncť if the situation was right. I met her a few times. Sheís very cool.

Itís a rat race nowadays, of everybody trying to be on a project. Iím not upset that Iím not on every project. I can live with that. That might sound crazy, but thatís the problem with urban music; if you get a couple of hit records then youíre on every project.

I donít think youíre meant to work with everyone, because no producer or writer is going to make a hit every time they go into the studio. It doesnít work that way

What will be your new business ventures for the upcoming times?

Like I said, I will work with this new British artist, an incredible vocalist. Iím pretty excited about it. And then I want to work with new artists. I helped a few people to get signed.

Everybody is gunning for the established artists. Thatís not a problem, but you can get caught up into trying to do this for this person and trying to do that for that person, instead of just going in and making tracks and writing songs organically.

It becomes a rat race and I donít think I do my best work like that.

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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman

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