Interview with FOCUS... , producer for Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé and Dr Dre - Mar 1, 2010
"I try to be diverse - I don't want to ever be pigeon-holed. The moment they know your style you have to reinvent yourself."
If you've not heard of Focus… then that might be because he is a beatmaster that refuses to stay still long enough to become recognisable by his beats. What you certainly will recognise are some of the esteemed artists that Bernard Edwards Jr has worked with including Dr Dre (USA Top 3), for whom he was an in-house producer at Aftermath, Beyoncé and, most recently, Christina Aguilera (USA & UK No.1).
In this exclusive interview Focus… talks to HitQuarters about working with Aguilera on her upcoming album 'Bionic', the claustrophobia of the New York music scene and how his father, co-founder of 70s disco/R&B legends Chic, didn't want his son to pursue a career in the often unstable and hazardous music industry.
Your dad Bernard Edwards was a founder member of Chic, the legendary disco R&B band. What would you say you learnt from him musically?
A lot of my changes and the building up of my songs I learnt from my father - transitions, modulations, bridges, composing, arrangements … I learnt all of that from him. The best thing I ever heard was when they would put strings in their arrangements - just hearing how intricate everything was, and how it all fit together.
Compared with other hip-hop producers do you think you have an advantage in having this understanding of the mechanics of building and arranging songs?
I don't think I had an advantage, I just took what I saw. And I'm sure that everyone had someone to look up to. My dad just happened to be my dad, but we all found someone to look up to and learn from. I wasn't always with my dad, he didn't always have me around, but he was still an idol to look up to.
Is it true that your dad would have preferred you not to get into music at all?
Yeah he didn't really want me to do music at the house. Every time I would do a song and play it for him he would tell me it was cute … He didn't try to discourage me, he just didn't encourage me. But every time he would say that it just made me want to do it more and more. There was just something in my heart driving me.
So how does someone born in New York end up in Atlanta via California?
I got sick and tired of trying to work the circuit in New York. Everybody knows everybody and everybody in New York has a finger or toe in music. Everyone is rapper or doing beats or something. I had to get out of there. I lucked up and met a cat and he had some business going in California.
When I got out there the West Coast sound was just really beginning. They really loved what we were doing in incorporating jazz into our beats and they were cool with us doing that. I didn't want to leave but after I met Jason Weaver I ended up moving out here (Atlanta).
Speaking of young artists getting breaks - would you say getting picked up by Dr Dre was one of your big breaks?
Oh yeah, that was the biggest break of my career.
And so how did that whole Aftermath thing happen?
At the time I was out here being managed by Montell Jordan and his wife. That led to working with an artist by the name of Daks, and we did some stuff, and his people knew Dre, and they were playing it for him and he liked it. He liked the artist but he liked me as a producer too. So they wanted to sign both of us and for me to deal with Daks. And it all started to roll after that.
So he liked you as a person as well with what you were bringing to the table … ?
Well he never really met me, he just heard my music. When we finally met he just liked the work ethic. I showed him I was ready to work. We only met six months later.
And speaking of work ethic, he seems to be very much the perfectionist, we've been waiting for this new album 'Detox' for a long time.
Well everybody knows that Dre is a perfectionist - he's not going to put something out until it feels completely right top to bottom - he's looking for a complete project. He's doing the best work he's ever done, that's what he's saying.
And do you have some input on the album?
We're supposed to start working in February, and the Doc was talking about coming out to Atlanta, so I hope he does because I'm really excited about that. I definitely would like to be on Detox.
A lot of people look at Dre as a straight producer, so why does a producer get other producers to produce his stuff?
He has a sound that he has built and engineered from the ground up, but he still wants to get into different things, and to get into different things you have to have an open mind, and Dre is not afraid to work and collab with anybody.
He's always the overseer, and he's on it and always around to let you know what he is looking for. In a sense everybody has lost the true meaning of being a producer. He is still a true producer - he produces the record and makes it sound the way it should sound, and he'll guide you through it.
You've exec-produced the album from former Tupac proteges Outlawz - can you tell us what exactly the exec-producer's role is?
Well as far as the executive producer is concerned, I did it for the Outlawz because I believed there was a sound that they needed to have. This was right when G-Unit was popping and getting things happening, but this was coming from Tupac. He was really one of the first renegades in rap, and now 50 Cent taking that spot and doing a great job at it. What I'm saying is, Tupac was the originator and you were the three guys with him, just like Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo and Young Buck were right under 50.
The Outlawz should have been on the whole renegade trip, and shouldn't have wavered off that. So I guided them through their album when I exec-produced. But when Dre exec-produces he actually mixes every record and will add extra orchestration or take away - he does the whole job.
So why did you leave Aftermath and set up a.Fam entertainment
I left 'cos I was really working hard and forgetting everything else. I wasn't spending time with my family - I have two sons I love dearly and a daughter on the way, and I forgot everything. I forgot about life outside of the studio. And we weren't putting out enough music to do that, and so it just made sense for me to just say, “Dre thanks for everything, you taught me a lot and let me show you what I can do.“
So when I left I started building my company - well rebuilding as it's been around for a while. I'm just trying to take everything I've learnt from Aftermath and put it into my company and make it worthwhile.
So what were the dates involved there with a.Fam?
The original a.Fam label started late '03, early '04. I had built my label around eight artists. And instead of taking my time and going from artist to artist I was the only producer on the label. I was CEO, engineer, producer, and I was doing it for eight different artists, eight different entities, eight different personalities, and it just took its toll. I had a staff and employed people I trust and look at it as family, but every one was brand new so we weren't really moving anywhere. Everybody was just trying to learn what we were doing. It was hard, and it still is to this day, but now I'm building it on two artists and so I'm not stretching myself too thin.
And tell us about your artists.
Well I'm still open and still looking. I have two rappers - Al Gator from the South who I'm looking to have signed and do something big for before the end of summer, and I have Kida from Inglewood, California that I think is amazing, and we have albums out on them right now which are getting a great buzz. But I don't want to do rapping no more, I'm looking for a pop singer or a rock group and I'm ready to go on with that.
So you listen to a lot of rock?
I love it. Some of my favourite artists are Relient K, System of Down, Staind … Linkin Park was one of my favourites. I love stuff that is innovative and even integrates some of the software that everybody is using.
So you want to sign that sort of stuff and produce it too?
Oh hell yeah, I want to sign and produce. I'm putting out an album called the Avant Garde Project and on it I produce two rock songs.
So you're not more focused on the business side of things than the music side now?
I hate the business side of things! I can't stand it. When it comes down to it as far as a.Fam is concerned I have a competent staff now that I can believe in, and I have my brother PHD who I work closely with, and he's been with me throughout my career. It also looks like I'm about to take on management so I'm excited and ready to make big moves.
You've also got Christina Aguilera's new album Bionic coming up - how did you get involved with that, and what are you doing on it?
The greatest thing about that is that we share one of the greatest engineers in the US, probably in the world, his name is Oscar Ramirez - I believe in him that much. He's been a cohort in my career for years, and he's been her vocal engineer and mixing engineer for years. And it just so happens he was like, “She's doing an album and I'll get you a connection.“ So I did it, she took some tracks and it was amazing. We did a song and an interlude together - it's called 'Sex for Breakfast'.
So how do you work with her - does she provide a brief and you give her some examples?
Well, the track was already done, so my job was pretty much done. But she was also working on the track with a writer by the name of Detail, who is a new writer, a crazy writer.
Christina is a genius - she really is one of the greatest artists on the pop side 'cos she knows exactly what she is looking for and is not afraid to tell you. She's not afraid to show you some examples.
It was the first project I've ever worked on where someone sent me examples and showed me the exact parts in the song they were looking for. She's very particular and a perfectionist and I love it, and it's awesome watching her work. But as far as the vocals are concerned I try to keep my input to a minimum because she knows what she is doing - I'm just there if she needs anything.
And she's got some UK electro acts like Ladytron and Goldfrapp producing stuff for the record. Do you think she could be starting off a new trend for US R&B-based pop acts?
I believe that because her fanbase is so loyal anything Christina does is the start of a new trend. But no one's going to do it like she does.
I believe a lot of that stuff started coming in when people started going overseas, sampling it and bringing it over here. Like with Will.I.Am totally changing the sound of Black Eyed Peas, Kanye West changing his sound completely to what he is now. Now we're sampling that, and they're out there making new music.
Do you listen to electronic music yourself?
I just started getting into that to be honest. It's a little bit different for me because I come from the whole 70s 'real music' era, you know. I love the chords and structure and the fact it is so different, but it is a little 'different' for me.
What do you mean when you use this term 'sonic diversity'? Is it that with artists like The RZA or J Dilla you can put your finger on their beat, but you don't want to be recognisable like that?
I try to be diverse - I don't want to ever be pigeon-holed. The moment they know your style you have to reinvent yourself. Once you get set in your style it's hard to break down what you've been doing and rebuild up to what everybody else is doing. And instead of mocking everybody I just like to try different things.
What about these homage tracks coming up for people like Dilla and Pete Rock?
I did Premier, Pete Rock, Dilla, Dr Dre so far, and have three waiting in the wings that I need to get MCs on. I'm doing a track on their style to show it's because of them that I'm at where I'm at, and to show the new generation that what we listened to - not to lose the feeling for real music.
Everything is becoming retro electronica instead of retro music. I'm not disrespecting electronica - I love it - but everything sounds the same, the same chord changes, and it's about breaking that mould. I had to show people the originators of this hip-hop sound by shining some light on it.
Can you tell me what's the difference in approach between working with someone such as a lesser known hip-hop artist like Chino XL and working with Beyoncé, the Pussycat Dolls, or Jennifer Lopez?
The difference is the state of mind. Chino is like my brother, we fool around but we get the job done. But when I'm with Christina Aguilera or Beyoncé or the Pussycat Dolls you want to put your best foot forward. You want to make sure you're not the run-of-the-mill producer so they don't ever say "Who's Focus...?". I want them to understand that I will get the job done and I want them to remember that. Like, "He's humble, polite, he gets the job done. He's not about eating shrimp and wearing sunglasses in the studio like a superstar." I'm not that guy.
So you're thinking of your career - it would be the same approach if you were a bank clerk or something …
You're absolutely right.
So out of all those big names - Busta Rhymes, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera … - who is the best professionally that you've worked with?
I'm not going to lie, my favourite session to date has been with Marsha Ambrosius and Sterling Simms. I've been a fan of hers forever. She's just like everybody in that she clowns around or whatever, but we still get the job done. The way she arranges herself and knows exactly what she wants, she's a producer in her own right. And Sterling and her just took it to where it was so productive and so positive that it was the best I've done in my life - for six months we were just rolling.
And for a closing piece of advice to producers, would that be it, 'getting the job done'?
The only thing I would say to upcoming producers is, "Don't sell your soul". Make sure you have quality and not just quantity, and make sure you get the job done - stick it out. Learn how to make the track and see it through. Be there when the mixer's mixing so that you see them turn the knobs and see what happens, and so that you can turn the knobs on your own track. See it all the way through …
Interview by Bill Code
Next week: Producer and songwriter Steve Booker on the creation of Duffy's international hit album 'Rockferry'
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