The Making of Brandy's Timeless Self-Titled Debut Album, According to Producer Keith Crouch
On September 27, 1994, a 15-year-old Brandy Norwood released her classic self-titled debut on Atlantic Records. We talked to one of the main forces behind that album, Keith Crouch, who wrote and produced five tracks, including the all-time classic "I Wanna Be Down."
Born the daughter of gospel singer and musical director Willie Norwood, Brandy was destined to pursue a career in music. At the age of two she began singing at her father's church in McComb, Mississippi, By the age of four, her family relocated to Los Angeles. As a child, her fondness for Whitney Houston heightened the young songstress’ interest in becoming a recording artist one day.
Brandy began performing at local talent shows as part of a youth singing group. While still attending grade school, she received her first chance to sing professionally; she signed a contract with Teaspoon Productions, contributing background vocals for fellow pre-teen R&B group Immature. At the age of 12, she auditioned for Atlantic Records' A&R director Darryl Williams. She didn't get a record deal offer. She went home and started practicing, working on her alto range. She returned to Williams a couple of years later.
“I went back to Darryl when I was 14 and I sang 'Greatest Love Of All’ and ‘Vision Of Love’ for him and Sylvia Rhone,” Brandy told Billboard in 2014. “Of course, it was about 19 keys down from what Whitney and Mariah were singing, but I gave it my all and they signed me. And the rest was a moment. My dream.”
She was offered a recording contract in 1993 and, shortly thereafter, she began working with an assemblage of upcoming R&B writers and producers for her self-titled debut album, Brandy.
One of those producers was Keith Crouch, who spent his formative years under the tutelage of his legendary uncle and gospel singer Andrae Crouch. Keith also collaborated with Tony, Toni, Tone, El Debarge, Caron Wheeler, and Nona Gaye. After completing a four-year stint as a songwriter with Michael Jackson’s publishing company, he met Williams. During this time, Williams was searching for more songs to complete Brandy's self-titled debut album. Upon hearing the Crouch-produced track for what would become “I Wanna Be Down,” Williams decided it would be her lead single. Crouch went on to produce four more songs to complete the album.
On September 27, 1994, Brandy was released by Atlantic Records. The album wasn't a runaway success, but would eventually go on to go quadruple platinum and spawn three top ten Billboard hits: “I Wanna Be Down,” “Baby,” and "Brokenhearted." We sat down with Keith Crouch, one of the architects behind the album, about his role in crafting this timeless R&B classic.
What was meeting Brandy for the first time like?
I was just trying to get my feet wet when it came to working and getting songs placed. I had just completed my three-year publishing situation with Michael Jackson. As soon as that was over, the first project that came to me was Brandy. When I met her in the studio, I saw this young 15-year-old girl that was in love with music and in love with the art of vocals. She got it at an early age. It was just like meeting some bubbly kid who was just fun. Immediately, we clicked. I service the artist. I don’t care how old you are, if you are established or brand new, my job is to service the artist. After the first 15 to 20 minutes with her, I realized all she had to offer. We were going back and forth and just being in that creative zone as far as the music. That was the number one language in the studio. It was an immediate connection when she and I met.
You mentioned before you started working on her project, you were under contract with Michael Jackson.
Yes, I had a publishing situation with him for three years. Actually, I consider it four years. It took me a year for them to even accept me because at [age] 17 I decided I wanted to be a producer and not just a drummer. I just started going through that journey of figuring out what it would take for me to get some songs placed and getting my sound and creative ideas together in the way that it would be digestible. That’s where I got the understanding of developing songs and stuff. I was super musical when it came to my tracks. I was one of those type of musicians that felt like if you threw everything musically in there then that was bad. But I realized during that time with Michael’s company that it wasn’t about throwing every musical idea into what was supposed to be a song or a format to a song. The first project I really felt like I got it was working on Lalah [Hathaway]’s second album [A Moment]. After that, I worked on Jason Weaver’s album with Motown [Love Ambition], and a couple of other things for Motown.
By the time Brandy came around, I realized my mentality was, “Let me just strip this down and make whatever I put in there count. Just give it a whole bunch of space.” I was just trying out that mentality in my mind. I won’t call it a formula, but I just figured, “Hey, let me get to the basics and strip it down.” When I did “I Wanna Be Down” — and Darryl Williams was freaking out over the track — I honestly felt like I was cheating because it was so freaking easy. I came up with the track in like 10 minutes. Out of all of those songs that I did on that album, “I Wanna Be Down” wasn’t my favorite. I understand, to a certain degree, what people gravitated towards, especially when it came to a young girl singing something that felt so real.
Did you go through any demoing of these songs before presenting them to Brandy?
[Singer] Kipper [Jones] did a rough lead of “I Wanna Be Down” at my apartment. I think it was my brother [Kenneth Crouch] and I, and maybe somebody else in the room. We were just singing backgrounds in the room when it came to the hook — when “I Wanna Be Down” was supposed to come in. That was it for that demo. In regards to “Brokenhearted,” Kipper sang a rough lead with the hook. On “Best Friend,” I had Rashaan Patterson sing a scratch demo to the lead of that track. Then, “Movin’ On” was the first song of the album. When I came up with the track, that was the one track that I came up with half of it at my apartment and the other half in the studio. By the time that song was written, as far as the lyric and melody on top, Kipper was at the studio. He sang a rough lead in front of Brandy to give her a guide of how it went down, and then that was it. We would just refer to that when necessary, just so she could learn the lyrics and melody. On “Baby,” Kipper sang a rough of the lead, and then Rahsaan wrote the hook. He sang one track down on the demo just singing the main note “baby, baby, baby” and that was it.
Did you also demo these songs with Brandy?
No. As soon as she knew what the songs were, she and I went into the room. Sometimes, her dad would be there. We started with the background, and then it would just be myself producing her leads, except for “Brokenhearted.” Kipper and I produced that together. There were no demos as far as Brandy. When we went in and cut everything, what you hear is what we did.
When did you all begin recording songs in the studio for this album?
I was the last producer to come to the table for the album. I did “I Wanna Be Down,” and then Darryl Williams told me, “There’s four more slots for the album." I wasn’t so determined to say I got to do the next four songs. But the songs just started coming out of me. Every track that I came up with, I played them for Darryl, and he was like, “Yes, that’s it.” I was the last to be added to the project and all of the songs that I submitted and played for Darryl, they wound up being all the singles for that album. Darryl Williams had been working with Somethin’ For the People’s camp and [producer] Damon Thomas from The Underdogs camp. They had been working with Brandy for a year or so, and then I came in like around the summertime of 1994.
Can you talk to me about your process of coming up with the music for those specific tracks?
I’m the type of person where I’ll study different artists for a minute, especially in my younger years. Besides my uncle, there were things that were relatable to me, musically, through my uncle, like Sly [Stone] and Stevie [Wonder] and Prince, of course. Besides listening to them, I would go into my world and just come up with all kind of things. As much as I’m considered an R&B/gospel cat coming from a gospel family, I would go to those underground hip-hop clubs in the ‘90s, and I would just see what people were gravitating towards when it came to them being on the floor dancing. Then, as soon as I was done, I’d go to the apartment, and I’d just come up with my version of what I felt like was happening out there. Besides that, as far as a formula goes, that’s the one thing that I can say is that I don’t have a formula. When I’m actually starting off working on a track, and when I listen to it when it’s complete, I don’t remember what I did. It’s almost like a haze. I don’t remember the whole process of what I did first, or what I did next. I have no clue. The formula, really, was I went into my room, turned the gear on, and let’s see what happens.
What was the typical studio routine when you were working with Brandy?
She’d come [Studio 56] around maybe twelve or one in the afternoon and leave around five or six in the evening. Once I had access to a studio like that, I’d be at the studio for a couple of weeks at a time before I even went home. There was a shower in the back and stuff like that, because I would be touching up things. I didn’t rent out that room while I was working on the Brandy album because I was there so much, and I knew that I was going to probably move into that room. I spent a lot of time at the studio. She would come in. Her dad would be sitting behind me on the couch, and she’d be in the vocal booth.
Did you go through the process of showing Brandy how to sing certain parts when you were in a studio with her?
Yes, definitely. As a producer, I’m always keyed in to things. With my uncle being such a vocal phenomenon, I always keyed into the peaks and the valleys of a song. If Brandy didn’t already go there on her own, I could guide her, singing some stuff to her. “Sing this part like this, or go up right here.” I’m hands-on, but really just enhancing what was already there with her. One of the amazing takes that we had while working on that project was when we cut “Baby” maybe from the bridge out to the end of the song. The bridge is right before she goes into that chant. From that point on to the end of the song was done in one take. She was going for it, and Kipper had stopped by the studio. We were just looking at each other with chills on our arms in the control room while she just took the reins. It was a moment. Just knowing someone who had that vocal vocabulary to be able to ride a song and go with that feeling at 15-years-old, was amazing.
What was some of the equipment you used?
I just bought some ADAT (Alesis Digital Audio Tape) at the house. My main thing was I had analog gear. Whatever I ran my equipment through, as long as it went through some analog, and then it hits digital, I was going to get that analog feel.
I used the Minimoog on everything when it came to the bass. I used the MPC-60 and a Roland MKS-50, which worked like the different version of a Juno 2, which was an analog board. Then, I think, I was still using a Roland D-50 and also an Oberheim Matrix 1000. Then, some extra sampler, like an Akai 1000. It was basically like another MPC, where I was just playing the stuff on a keyboard, as far as how can you sample it. I used a few samplers and one or two digital keyboards back then. I also used the Roland MKS-20, which was a digital piano that had a piano sound on there, and it also had an electric piano sound on there that I used for “I Wanna Be Down.” I used another unit called a Roland TD-77 that I used for when it came to the wind sounds and the harpsichord-type sounds and stuff on “Brokenhearted.” The drum sounds on “Best Friend” — I used an E-mu SP-1200 drum machine and sampled my drums, sampled my kick and snare. Actually, I had just bought that SP-1200, and the first thing that I came up with was “Best Friend” on that drum machine.
What was it like recording her voice?
It was amazing because I had never heard something that special coming from someone that young before. To this day, there’s a lot of talented and successful singers out there, but I still feel like Brandy has something that no one has. It’s just a soul that comes from Mississippi. It’s like someone who grew up idolizing Whitney Houston, but then at the same time, without her even knowing it, she sung the blues. She could do all these runs and, of course, everybody was really into that, especially in the '90s. It wasn’t about the runs that really got me, it was where she went with it in her soul that really made her stand out from the rest.
I want to get a little bit more in-depth with the songs that you produced or wrote. Let’s start with the “Moving On,” especially when she got involved.
When we were recording “Moving On,” she was learning it on the fly. She probably heard the song from top to bottom one time, and then we had her go in the booth and listen to Kipper's reference track, so she knew what she was about to sing. Of course, she had a copy of the lyrics just so she could know them. Honestly, this stuff was so fast. It wasn’t like this long, drawn-out blueprint. She heard what Kipper was doing, and she was into it. She jumped right on the bandwagon when it came to the vibe, and she wrote it. When it came to her laying down vocals, it wasn’t like she had a copy of the reference track, and she lived with it for a few days or a week or something like that until she came in. No, she heard it when she came to the studio. I would say, “OK. This is the song we’re going to be doing today.” The only thing that took a long time was doing lead vocals. When it came to doing the lead vocals, that lasted for like four or five hours, maybe. I was a stickler when it came to leads and making sure the soul was there and the notes were on point. I always made sure that a singer’s pitch wasn’t crazy, or they were flat or sharp, or anything.
All the other songs were basically the same type of vibe, except for “I Wanna Be Down.” That was the first song that we did together. That song took two days when it came to recording and producing the vocal. Part of it was because I knew that I was establishing something with her. She was learning how I put a song together and how I got those vocals laid down. That was the one song where the lead vocal was double. There’s plenty of tricks that people may use now just to get that double sound. We went section by section. We did the first half of the first verse and laid that down, and then we turned around and doubled that first half of that verse. Then, we went to the second half of that verse and did the same thing from top to bottom, so that took two days. It really didn’t take her long to double her voice. That’s not the easiest thing to do. Either somebody as a singer, they get it, and they ride that wave when it comes to hearing themselves, or sometimes they even need the first track and they don’t hear themselves and they sing exactly what they did. So — that one took two days.
What was your budget for this album?
Back then, when you established your fee, a record company would pay the producer such and such amount of money and then the record company was responsible for recording costs. When you were establishing yourself as a producer, there where funds, meaning a producer was given a certain amount of money per song, and they were responsible for turning in a complete mixed song. They had to budget the whole situation and then whatever was left, as a producer they kept it. My budget for Brandy was $17,500 per song. I did whatever I had to do with the $17,500 and then the rest I could pocket.
During the recording process, where did you have the instruments positioned in the studio?
One of my best friends, Glenn McKinney, a preacher’s kid from San Diego, would come to my apartment. He was a guitar player. He was playing some things that I wound up sampling into the Akai 1000. That’s how I grabbed the guitars for “Baby.” There wasn’t a lot of live musicianship on that album. When it came to Glenn McKinney, he was playing guitar stuff at my apartment, just sitting on a chair. I had him plugged into the board. When it came to the horns on “Movin’ On,” I had my boy Derrick Edmondson who was a saxophone player, and he was one of the producers in my camp. I just had him mic’d up and saying the parts that I wanted him to play on sax, and we laid that down. Also, he played the flute on “Best Friend.” He really didn’t want to play the flute. He had a real deep raspy voice. For some reason, the way he was playing, the way that the air was blowing out, it sounded raspy, and he didn’t like it. He wanted to sound real clean and stuff. I told him, “No, that’s dope right there. I want that right there.” When I think about it, they were the only musicians, if I’m not mistaken, that played on the album besides me.
Were there any interesting behind-the-scenes stories from a musical standpoint that you can remember during the recording process?
The only thing that I could say that was a behind-the-scenes thing, was just my thought process. What I did for the melody line in the beginning of “I Wanna Be Down” that sounds like a guitar was a unique chord progression. When I found that sound and I played that line, I was like, "OK. This sounds Isley Brothers-ish. That’s cool.” I just left it. I didn’t second guess that. I just left it. When it came to “Baby,” I just got back from hanging out at Dublin’s, listening to some hip-hop, or whatever. The drum pattern for the song has a sample of one of my tracks that I did a month before. It was up-tempo. I sampled it and slowed it down. You know the baseline of Stevie [Wonder’s] “Too High?”
My thing was to never copy. My responsibility to music was to give back and not try to take. There are people who sample and they have a gift with sampling, but that’s never been my niche. My mentality was, “Let me see if I could do my version of a funky “Too High” by Stevie.” That’s how the bass line came out when I was listening to that song and being on that vibe, along with everything else that was in my head, and how I always wanted to make a signature song from whatever I was inspired by. If you listen to the song by Cameo called “Keep It High,”you’ll hear... where [the] inspiration came for “Best Friend.”
On “Broken Hearted” my whole thing was, I used this upright bass sound from the Yamaha TG77, and I played it an octave lower than what I should’ve played it at. I always like incorporating things and it feels like outer space a little bit. It was almost like a space ship landing on the moon or something. The way I used the bass with a lead synth line, I just wanted it to sound like it had a Prince feeling to it. In the same way when I put headphones on, and I could see color when I listened to Prince’s “Condition of the Heart” from his Around the World in a Day album. Just all the little nuances and the little sounds and effects that Prince would use that most people wouldn’t really pay attention to. I just wanted it to be like some really stripped-down sounds using chords like my Uncle would use in his music from the church. Like there’s wind going, there’s a dark feeling but there’s still hope in there. I just wanted it to sound like Prince was in a back alley with me while I was working on that song.
Hw does it feel to be a part of such a classic recording?
Once the Brandy album was done, I knew something was special about it. Between the people around me and the record company, there was this buzz that I’ve never experienced before. Even during the mixing process, when some producers, fellow musicians, or people in the industry would come by, it was a totally different reaction and feeling in the air. I was not the kind of person who would do a song and [be like,] “Yeah, this is going to be number one.” I didn’t talk like that. I was just grateful for the fact that somebody allowed me to paint on their canvas. It was their album. I’ll never forget the feeling that things were about to take off. You could feel the support from the record company. You could tell that they weren’t going to drop the ball. It was just the perfect time for that album where I was just able to experience the combination between the creative and the business really happening right at the same time.
ChrisWilliams is a Virginia-based writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Red Bull Music Academy, EBONY, and Wax Poetics. Follow the latest and greatest from him on Twitter @iamchriswms.