Interview with JACK KNIGHT, songwriter at The Writing Factory/Bad Boy Entertainment - Nov 27, 2006
“Most music buyers don’t understand music theory, or play 21 instruments. Sometimes you got to make it simple for people to sing along. But sometimes it’s good to be a pioneer”
Jack Knight is a hit urban songwriter and producer whose credits include hit songs by P. Diddy, Usher, Biggie, Total, Carl Thomas, Faith Evans, Keisha Cole, Jennifer Lopez, Loon, Mario Winans, Christina Aguilera and others.
He was the first writer signed to Sean 'Diddy' Combs publishing company, The Writing Factory, a subsidiary of Bad Boy Entertainment.
In 2006, Knight published his book, The Art of Writing A Hit Song: The Urban Experience. He shares many of the book's insights with HitQuarters.
What was key in finding your own musical vocabulary?
My upbringing. My influences started from my granddad. He loved jazz music. Then I had a huge hip hop influence growing up in New York in the early 80s. Jazz, hip-hop and a lot of soul music influenced me early on to pursue music.
How did you approach the business with your songs?
I have a book that I just completed called ‘The Art of Writing A Hit Song: The Bad Boy Experience’ . It tells you in the first chapter how I first started. I went to some local producers in my neighbourhood. There was a local music studio. I would lease time and would go in and make a demo record.
If you’re trying to get your record to a record label, if you’re trying to get to management or you’re trying to get someone interested in you, you put together a demo tape. In 1995 I put together a 4-5 song demo recording, which has gotten into the hands of Joseph Simmons , which is Russell Simmons ’ brother, Rev Run from the group Run D.M.C.
That was my first professional experience, meeting someone in the music business.
What was your breakthrough?
In 1995 I was rapping and singing and got an artist deal with Def Jam . That was my first break into the business. Lyor Cohen and Russell Simmons signed me. I was about 18 years old.
We parted ways because their label was going through a major transition, but I still remained close with Joseph Simmons. He taught me writing a hit song, writing a good hook, good music, good lyrics, good melody.
I used everything I learned from him and I put together a second demo recording with 10 of my best songs. In 1997 I got noticed by Universal Records . That was my second break.
They had me do some music for two of their up-and-coming artists that were on their label at that time. I wrote Chico DeBarge a song called ‘Virgin’ on the ‘Long Time No See’ album. I did a big song called ‘Touch It’ using a White Horse sample for an R&B female artist named Monifah . They also signed me as a recording artist.
My next break came later on that same year when I was the first writer signed to Puff Daddy ’s publishing company Bad Boy Music Publishing.
What artists are you currently involved with?
Over the last two years I wrote and arranged lots of music on a Biggie duet album, which was his last album. I worked on Lil’ Kim’s new album, ‘The Naked Truth’. And presently I worked on P. Diddy’s new album ‘Press Play’.
I’m a featured artist and I also wrote Christina Aguilera’s part and Keisha Cole’s section. And I’m singing on a record called ‘We Gon’ Make It’, which is the same sample that Jay-Z used for ‘Show Me What You Got’.
Is there a certain style your name stands for?
Radio friendly but with deep lyrics. I wrote ‘I Need A Girl’, which featured Usher. It’s a simple melody, a simple lyric, but it’s talking about something deep. About having a girl that sticks by your side no matter what. My style is deep and introspective lyrics, but still simple for people to be able to sing along to.
And right now, I’m getting my book presented as a songwriting producer course in the US. That’s what I’m teaching now at a couple of universities and schools here. ‘The Art of Writing A Hit Song’, and the whole process.
How you can utilize music to not only make money, but you can utilize music to make social change. I’m teaching a lot of urban kids in the communities about using music to change their condition as well.
Do you favor co-writing or prefer just writing solo?
You don’t always want to reveal your personal life. When I write solo I write more personally. But I love co-writing precisely because you don’t have to be so personal. You have other people in a room working with you who have different ideas. If I had to pick, I love to co-write and work with other writers, and that’s how most of my songs are written.
I have a whole crew of writers. We call ourselves The Writing Factory. We have Makeba Riddick, she wrote Beyoncé’s whole new album ‘B’Day’ and Rihanna’s last album. Adonis Shropshire from Atlanta, he wrote Usher’s last big hit that featured Alicia Keys, ‘My Boo’.
Then we have Michael ‘Lo’ Jones, he wrote Mario Winans’ last hit, ‘I Don’t Wanna Know’ with a sample of Enya. We have times that we write songs by ourselves and times that we come together to write, and that’s the times I like the best.
When was The Writing Factory Club established?
It was established while we were on tour in Munich, Germany, on Puff’s No Way Out tour. He wanted me to form a group of writers similar to his group of producers. That was around 2001. When I came back to the States I put together a team of the hottest writers.
I signed them to the publishing company. Now all those writers are out doing their own thing. And we’re in the process of recruiting new writers with this program. It’s getting bigger and bigger.
How can an aspiring songwriter enter the professional level?
First and foremost, you’ve got to have a plan. You’ve got to have support from your family, whether it’s financial support or support from your friends or people in your neighbourhood. And always have the willingness to learn and read.
The first step would be to read books on what you’re about to get into. Anytime you’re about to get into a new craft, whether it be songwriting or a business profession, you always want to read a couple of books before you get involved and see if it’s really for you.
And then after that, your passion and your drive and your talent will take you from there.
Can you give an advice of how to approach the music biz with your demo nowadays?
There is always somebody in town that has a studio. And usually the people that own studios have contacts of all the local managers, DJ’s, and artists who are working on stuff. The best way is to contact your local studio and get yourself in the mix.
Get co-writing if you can’t write by yourself. Get to learn different aspects of the studio. Learn a little bit about melody. Networking in your own community first is a good way.
Secondly, it’s networking online. There’s a huge online presence of people who make beats and music.
You point out seven steps in your book. What is the John Knight formula?
The seven steps are primarily based on different strategies that I use to make the seven hit songs that I have listed. Each chapter is a name of a song that I wrote, that achieved some type of success in the States or overseas.
For instance, one of the chapters is called ‘Collaboration’ / ‘I Need A Girl’. It speaks about the collaborative effort that went in to making that song. One thing was having a great artist sing the hook, which was Usher. Second is having a good topic. Diddy came to us with a topic he wanted us to write about.
It was about a female sticking about her man no matter what life would put them through presented to them. Then just coming together with great music from Mario Winans, who’s a great producer and artist, and then me and ‘Lo’ coming up with the lyrics and melody.
I speak about the collaborative effort to making that one song such a great song. And I speak about several other songs, about utilizing your imagination, utilizing collaborating, and also studying other great songwriters. Not only urban songwriters.
Studying people like Billy Joel, Elton John, The Beatles, The Mamas and the Papas, The Eagles, Stevie Wonder, all the Motown writers. Making a masters list. Studying that list of writers and studying the things they wrote is a good way for sharpening your skills. The book is definitely very detailed and it’s a real life experience.
If you write a song, what is it that you tap into?
Most of the time it’s a combination of real life experience and borrowed experience.
As a songwriter, when I talk to my friends and listen to my friend’s problems I’m kind of listening to my artistic standpoint in terms of taking out what’s going on in a friend’s life, to put into my song.
But sometimes you don’t have things going on in your life. Your life can be boring. Then I borrow my friends’ experiences, stuff I see on TV, a magazine article I may read. A way I may be feeling about my girlfriend. A way I may think my girlfriend is feeling about me.
You can flip it too. If you feel that your significant other is feeling a certain way about you, you can write it in a song how you think they may feel.
What is your writing process like?
If there’s no one using a studio I can come up with music or write to some music that’s presented to me. It can take a few hours. The whole song can be done and I’ll sing it and prepare it for someone else. Sometimes it can take a week, depending on if the label or the artist want changes.
Do you stick to structures? Do you let the rhythm of the melody be the foundation to the lyrics?
Nine times out of Ten, I stick to a format, which is basically verse-chorus or verse- pre-hook or pre-chorus, which is the same thing as the chorus that comes before the chorus. Usually verse-pre-chorus and chorus. Usually I add a bridge. There are all types of other parts you can add towards the end of the song, which is called the vamp hook.
Every now and then I go off the format and try to make parts or sections that just speak for themselves. If it sounds like a hook it’s a hook, if it sounds like a verse it’s a verse. I leave it up to them. But most of the time I stick to a radio format for my songs.
Do you usually have specific tempos in mind to best suit certain songs?
Whatever the vibe is. I let the tempo of the song dictate to me what I write. But most of the time I try to aim at uptempo songs that can play where people dance.
Can harmonic richness be an obstacle to reaching a wide audience?
Yes, it can, because most music lovers and music buyers are not people that understand music theory, and are not people that play 21 instruments. Sometimes you got to make it simple for people to sing along.
Sometimes when there are too many different harmonic or instrument changes they can lose you. It’s good to make a song that people can identify with. Usually you save all the music changes and the real deep stuff for the album songs, not the singles.
But sometimes it’s good to be a pioneer. It’s good to introduce a new audience to something new. Combining different genres of music. Reggae with R&B, R&B with rock.
Why is the art of finding the right beat is as important, if not more important, than the actual songwriting?
In this day and time, it’s about maybe 60% if not more, of a hit song, because most of the times people remember the beat and they remember the hook. Sometimes the body of the song is an important aspect of the song, but if you have a hot beat half of your battle is already done, because you got something that people are going to dance to.
Do you ever disagree with the direction a producer is taking a song?
Yes, definitely. There are songs that I’ve written and produced and then someone co-produced with me and I might not hear it until it comes on the radio. Or sometimes it’s not even the actual music that I’m changing, sometimes the way the way the engineers are mixing the song can take away from it.
What has happened to me is not necessarily the producer direction but the person mixing the song, his direction different from how you envisioned it to be.
Can you offer some words of advice with regards to publishing contracts?
I was a kid from Brooklyn originally. I was presented my first publishing contract by several different publishers. I had a choice at the time because of my success. Not everybody is going to have that, but if you do, you just got to go with your gut.
Go with a company that you feel comfortable with, that you feel can get you placements on major celebrities and major acts.
If you put a 75,000$ cheque in front of a kid from Brooklyn who never really had much, nine times out of ten he’s going to take it. But the more successful you are with music and writing and getting records, you can always negotiate new terms to your contract. It’s a step-by-step process.
It’s like going to highschool or going to college. You don’t start with a Bachelor’s degree, you start as a freshman. You go through different stages. It’s the same thing with the music business.
What style of music would you like to see gain more popularity?
I would love to see African music become more mainstream. Akon is a good representation of African music from Nigeria. I would love to see Latin music come into more play. I like to see more dance and pop music. Music that talks about positive things in life.
Music is a way for people to go on with their regular lives. If you got a hard job or you live in a household that’s rough, sometimes music can take your mind away from that.
But more importantly, I would love to see a merge of all types of music. I like to see more merges of rap and rock, rock and soul, soul and reggae, reggae and pop. I like to see more fusions of different music.
How do you view the current music business climate?
The present climate of music is a product of what’s going on with technology, and by that I mean downloading. This is more of a singles market. There are more people online. There are more kids downloading whole albums.
The climate now is more of like a fast-food window. You get kids interested in a video and a single, get them to download the single and hope that they buy the album.
More and more people are putting less emphasis on the album. Pink Floyd, The Eagles and Michael Jackson put more emphasis on albums. There is more emphasis on singles because of ringtones, call back rings etc. Right now the climate is definitely that of ready-made, ready to go on radio, ready to go on TV. It’s going to pass pretty soon.
If you could dramatically change any aspect of the music industry, what would it be?
A lot of times people complain about the industry they’re in. And I was one of the complainers, about radio and about what’s out. A good friend of mine told me, if I have the ability to change I should try to change it. And that’s what I’m doing with the seminars, with the workshops, with the books that I’m writing.
Planting the seeds of change into new songwriters and new producers around the world. I’m teaching them the art of making good music that’s classic and that can last a long time.
Dramatically changing it is not something that I want to do, but it’s something that I’m contributing to. I would love to see more schools and more organisations popping up, utilizing music in a better way.
What will be The Writing Factory Club’s future projects?
We’re working on an educational clothing line for some of the kids we’re working with here in the States. It’s a line based on different aspects designed to arouse the mental side, as opposed to just celebrating urban life.
We’re also doing a pilot project entitled ‘Finding Your Way through the Art of Songwriting’, where we’re teaching kids the same techniques that go into great songwriting but being the same techniques that you can apply to your life and any business you want to be successful at.
After we get the infrastructure down we’re going to re-adapt the same program in different states and in different countries over the course of three or four weeks in each place and give workshops, seminars and clinics on music, and utilising music to make social change.
You can find me and watch some of my clips from my classes in Stockholm and in Brooklyn, and check me out on YouTube, or MySpace.
Do you consider yourself a songwriter still, or more of a teacher?
I feel more as an educator. I still write songs. I’m still working on groups. But I just feel with all the knowledge that I have about music, combined with all the knowledge I have about being an entrepreneur and being successful coming out of the urban world, I think that’s something where my passion is at now.
A lot of kids don’t finish high school, a lot of kids don’t live to be certain ages, and a lot of kids don’t get a chance to buy their first house or to get their first car. It’s more passionate for me at this point of my life to teach and educate urban youth throughout the world on how to make it and how to use music to make it.
Which song you wrote you are most proud of?
There’s two. ‘Touch It’ by Monifah. That song featured me talking on the song, and people remember my name from that one song to this day. And that cemented me in as not only a songwriter but as a producer.
That was my first record that went platinum in every country. Usually you have a song that was platinum in the US but not in Europe or vice versa, but that felt good because that was a song, something that I wrote at my kitchen table, that went platinum worldwide. That’s one of my babies.
‘I Need A Girl’ is a favorite song. It was a huge worldwide hit for me. Having Usher, who’s the biggest star, sing that song was big for me. Those are the ones that highlight my career.
What’s your definition of a great song?
That’s in the second chapter of my book! But the biggest definition of a hit song is up to the artist. All of Picasso’s paintings were great to him. Van Gogh loved all of his paintings.
Whatever you feel is great or whatever you feel your art best represents what you’re trying to get across, then that’s a hit song. It’s not always dictated by radio, billboard or charts. It’s dictated by how you feel about it and what you think is great.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
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