JONATHAN 'JR' ROTEM, producer for Jason Derülo, Iyaz, Sean Kingston, Rihanna - Apr 5, 2010
"I know [the samples] work because they're already hits familiar to people. Familiarity works. That's why advertising works - when someone sees something a few times it starts getting into their system. The same goes with getting hits … "
As the mastermind behind #1s for Rihanna, Jason Derülo, Sean Kingston and JLS, producer Jonathan 'JR' Rotem is certainly a certified hitmaker, but under the guise of Beluga Heights, the label he created with manager Zach Katz and brother and A&R Tommy, he is also a formidable starmaker too.
Beluga Heights boasts an extraordinary record for recognising and rewarding young talent, having discovered and developed Jason Derülo, Sean Kingston and Iyaz before unleashing them on the charts.
In the first in a series of interviews that will attempt to unravel the secret of Beluga, HitQuarters speaks to Rotem about how he moved to LA without knowing anyone and broke into the industry through sheer determination, about how the familiarity prompted by using samples of popular songs is a secret weapon.
Are we interrupting any production work today with this interview?
Today I'm actually mixing the Iyaz album and it's all going well.
So, how did you first get into music in general, and how did that lead to production?
I got into music starting off as a classical pianist at a really young age. I took a lot of private instruction and always knew I wanted to be in music but didn't know it would be production. I then went to Berklee Music College in Boston because I wanted to study film scoring, but actually I got into jazz instead.
I moved back to the Bay Area and was a jazz pianist, and after doing that whole thing decided I wanted to get more into the composing and producing side as opposed to performance. I always had a love of pop music and hip-hop and so I decided to stop performing jazz and start producing in the studio, making beats.
I had some luck in the Bay Area with a Destiny's Child placement and so I decided to move to LA full time so that I could meet people and get into the industry. It took a few years but I finally got the manager, got some hip-hop placements and moved consciously towards pop and R&B.
It just went on from there. I began getting singles. With my manager I started Beluga Heights, and with my brother we concentrated on signing and breaking artists.
Your musical training is certainly not a traditional path towards pop production, but do you think the classical and jazz background has come in useful with your pop production?
I would definitely say that my particular style utilises my knowledge of classical and jazz - harmonies and melodies are all part of it. It's not a prerequisite to study jazz or go to Berklee College of Music, but with my personal style I'm a very hands on producer who plays stuff, so I rely on the training I've had.
One perhaps more recognisable aspect of your style is the crucial role samples play in many of your hit singles. How does the process work - do you produce a track and add the sample, or hear a hook you like and go from there?
The process definitely varies, but for the most part I hear the original song and feel like there's something in it, whether a hook or melody or a sonic quality.
In most cases it's a familiar song to people from a certain era or genre that I want to do an updated spin on, and I'll sample from that and build a song around that as opposed to already having something and dropping a sample in.
Sometimes I add a sample for texture, but for the most part, whether for 'SOS' for Rhianna, 'Beautiful Girls' for Sean Kingston, 'Whatcha Say' for Jason [Derülo], I usually hear the sample and base the track around it as I want it to be the nucleus of the song.
With SOS, co-writer Evan Bogart (HitQuarters interview) said a lot of the lyrics were inspired by his favourite 80s songs - was it a coincidence that it sampled 'Tainted Love' as well?
I wouldn't say it was a coincidence, the track came first. I heard 'Tainted Love' and wanted to take the bass line and update it with a new swing. When I gave the track to Evan, the 80s feeling was already in the track.
Do you think sampling is a good way for young producers to learn the craft?
It depends, I wouldn't necessarily say it's a good way.
I started off with classical and jazz. I never started out to sample. One of my strengths is that I can actually play everything, so why would I need to sample? But as a producer my focus became, "How do I make hit songs? How do I make songs that connect with a world audience?" I realised that just playing songs is not necessarily the best formula for that.
If I hear a song that is already familiar to people and I can flip it, give it a new thing, and move it to a different genre, and in the end just make people happy by entertaining them, then that is what I lead with first.
It's not a matter of whether sampling is better or worse, it's a matter of, "What am I inspired by at this moment?"
Sometimes I may just compose a chord progression at the piano, like when I do piano ballads such as 'Better in Time' for Leona Lewis. That started off with me at the piano writing a progression, and ultimately starting to produce it and then adding drums to it, and then writing to it. That just happened to be what I was feeling at that moment. Other times, it might be a sample that inspires me. I wouldn't say one thing is better than the other ...
Sometimes people might not want to sample, whether they feel, "I don't think that's credible enough for me" or, "I don't want to split the publishing with someone else ..." Whatever the reason, that's their decision and I respect that.
There are other people who are only samplers. Maybe that's more true in the hip-hop era of production, where producers have come from more of a DJ background and are not necessarily pianists or composers, so they've relied on samples because ultimately they were either gonna sample or rely on musicians to play a track.
For me I feel comfortable making what inspires me and what connects with people.
Let's talk about your business sense and entrepreneurialism. Is that important aspect to your role in the industry?
The entrepreneurial spirit means you just want your songs to get big. Some see it as selling out but you're trying to make pop music to connect with people and for them to enjoy and not just for yourself. If your goal is reaching a worldwide audience, while you want the music to reflect you, you also want your music to entertain other people who are spending their money.
In the end, any kind of business, music or otherwise, you have to provide a service to the world that the general public will want to spend money on - whether it's selfish music or music for other people.
There are extremes - completely selling out and not doing the music you want to do and then there's the other extreme of just doing very weird, ambiguous and artistic music that doesn't have a commercial appeal.
Tell me about Beluga Heights and the joint venture with Epic Sony?
Our label is our own independent label where we can take artists anywhere. We started off with Sean Kingston as a partner of Epic Sony, and had some good success.
Then we decided to move it over - we have Jason Derülo as a partnership with Warner. We also have a new artist, Mann, who we have on a partnership with Def Jam.
Right now we're most closely associated with Warner Bros where we have a 'first look' situation. Our primary focus is finding new talent and breaking them. At this point, Sean, Iyaz and Jason are the artists people know about, but other artists are about to hit the marketplace through major distribution, like Mann and also Auburn.
Is that right that MySpace has been very useful for you as a place to find new artists? You found Sean Kingston via MySpace for instance …
All of the artists we've found were found by my brother Tommy through MySpace.
So is he still scouring MySpace for potential artists now?
Anyone can look on MySpace, but Tommy has a rare ability to spot artists in their most rough form, and he can figure out what would be a good fit for us.
For instance, Sean Kingston was a rapper when we found him and it was a development process to get him more melodic. At Beluga we essentially refine the talent so that it's more of a marketable product.
With regards to your own career breakthrough, what do you think was the key turning point in your own development – was it the Destiny's Child placement?
There are two incidents that happened which were big stepping stones.
The Destiny's Child moment was a big deal for getting a major label place - it felt like it was saying, "There might be a future for you in this." Having got the 'big break' I thought it would be really easy, but it wasn't that way. I had to put in a lot of work. But having that beginners' luck kept me going through the hard times.
Meeting my manager Zach Katz was also a big break. One of my biggest goals for years was meeting a manager with a good reputation and with connections to get my music to people.
Other significant events were signing Sean Kingston, and having the success of 'Beautiful Girls' and also 'SOS' with Rihanna because that's when people recognised me as a pop producer instead of just a hip-hop producer.
With regards to working across the genre spectrum, is it ever difficult to produce Chamillionaire one day and then Anastacia the next?
For me the difference in genre is not difficult. In fact I actually find it refreshing switching genres because I get fulfilled from working with different types of music.
Regardless of genre you're clearly someone that just has a great sense of what makes a hit record, is there a conscious method behind the knack?
The fundamental ingredient is that the song has something innovative or fresh, but at the same time not so innovative that it's over people's heads.
In the cases where I've sampled, I know they'll work because they're already hits familiar to people. Familiarity works. That's why advertising works with people - when someone sees something a few times it starts getting into their system. The same goes with getting hits.
So it's a subconscious thing. Like with 'Beautiful Girls' sampling 'Stand By Me', listeners recognise it and respond to it without immediately realising why?
So many people know and love 'Stand By Me' and so when they hear that bassline sample … It's been given a fresh spin. There's also something different in the lyrics - a slight edginess in talking about beautiful girls but using the word 'suicidal'.
There are a lot ways to put something together and see how they work. In general if it sounds pleasing but tells a story in a different way.
Most songs are about love, it's not a new concept, but it's something timeless and universal and there are an infinite number of different ways to talk about it - comparing love to different analogies, showing different aspects of love, different song titles … That part isn't innovative, but it has to have that core to connects with people.
If it has a good beat then that's good too but ultimately that is secondary to the song and the lyrics.
I've read in print that you also place a lot of importance on image, is that still a crucial factor for you in the success of your own artists?
Well for me, the components that are most important are to have faith, give out positive energy, and to work hard.
What important qualities do you recognise amongst the talents at Beluga?
To use current examples, Jason Derülo has one of the most impressive work ethics I've ever come across - he just keeps knocking out songs in the studio. That's an amazing quality.
Iyaz doesn't necessarily put the same number of hours in the studio but he has such an ear for perfection in terms of the lyrics and melodies. Whereas others might work on several songs in one day, he might sit there and work on one song for days. The end result that he gets is usually an absolute gem, so heartfelt and genuine.
Sean Kingston has a different talent, he can just come in, hear a beat and a melody immediately comes to him.
Do you have any tips for young up-and-coming producers?
I feel blessed with what I have and know what it's like to have the dream but be completely the outsider. I didn't have connections through family, I didn't grow up in LA. I was blessed to have parents who supported me and to go to Berklee College of Music, but that didn't get me into the industry.
I moved to LA not knowing a soul and broke in, and it took years of hard work. For me the component for achieving success is having faith, being positive, and working hard relentlessly. You may not achieve the exact dream you set out to, but you will be rewarded with a bigger dream than you thought of.
My goal was to move to LA to play keys for Dr Dre. I heard Scott Storch did it, and I thought, "Wow, a white Jewish kid who could get in there and do that!" I thought I could do the same … So I moved to LA and got a couple of sessions with Dr Dre, he bought some beats, but ultimately that dream didn't get realised. So it was disappointing but I never dreamt I could become a producer and get my own label. While keys for Dre didn't work out, my dream took a different route.
Interview by Bill Code
Next week: Britain's biggest hitmaker Steve Mac talks Susan Boyle and Simon Cowell
Read On ...
* Beluga Heights interview series continues with A&R Tommy Rotem
* Lady Gaga producer RedOne on his long struggle to reach the top
* Rotem's manager Zach Katz talks cultivating artists at Beluga Heights