In 2001, Alicia Keys released her debut album Songs in A Minor. To celebrate the album, we spoke with the album’s main producer, Kerry “Krucial” Brothers, who provided a detailed account of how this classic album was conceived.
Born the daughter of a paralegal and an encouraging part-time actress, Alicia Augello Cook, better known to the world as Alicia Keys, began taking classical piano lessons at the age of seven. By the age of 12, she was writing her own compositions. Two years later, she enrolled into the Professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan. While studying there, her prodigious talent was on full display through mastering the styles of pioneering composers Frédéric Chopin, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Scott Joplin. During the same juncture, she developed an affinity for jazz and 1970s R&B and soul music by learning the works of Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, and Stevie Wonder. Her musical palette continued to expand through the influence of hip-hop music which led her to meeting her future producing partner Kerry “Krucial” Brothers for the first time. Within the same time frame, she became a member in a three-girl ensemble, EmBishion. Additionally, Conrad Robinson spent years working with Keys as her vocal coach, due to her involvement in his youth organization, Teens in Motion. Several times he tried to introduced her to his brother, Jeff, who took her under his wing to help manage her burgeoning career.
Her musical fortunes would change temporarily at 15-years-old. Through working with her new manager, she performed at artist showcases to give music labels an opportunity to listen to her talent. A bidding war ensued between record labels and eventually decided to sign a recording contract with Columbia Records. Besides excelling as a musician, she was a phenomenal student. As a result, she graduated from high school at 16-years-old, with an opportunity to attend an Ivy League institution, Columbia University. But after some introspection, she decided to focus solely on her musical ambitions. For the next two years, she worked alongside production partner Kerry “Krucial” Brothers on creating songs for her debut album. Once she turned in the album to the label, they were displeased with it and wanted to alter her image and sound.
Despite this setback, she and Brothers continued to work on music while her team tried to figure out another path forward. She contributed songs to the Men in Black soundtrack and So So Def’s 12 Soulful Nights of Christmas album while she patiently waited for her turn at R&B stardom. Fortunately, legendary record impresario,Clive Davis came to the rescue. Understanding her vision as an artist, he negotiated her release from Columbia Records and signed her to Arista Records. A year later, another obstacle was put her path when Arista Records forced Davis into early retirement, leaving her young career at a crossroads. Within a few months, Davis launched his new record company, J Records, and he brought Keys with him.
After years of working on it, Songs in A Minor was released on June 5, 2001. It peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. The album spawned two chart-topping singles, “Fallin’” and “A Woman’s Worth” and she would pick up five Grammy awards, including Best New Artist and Song of the Year (“Fallin’.”) In celebration of the album’s 20th anniversary, we spoke with Kerry “Krucial” Brothers, who provided a detailed account of how this classic album was conceived.
When and where did you first meet Alicia Keys?
It was mid-’90s in New York City at The Village in Washington Square Park during the summertime. The story was she still had a girl group at the time, and I was part of a rap crew. In the mid-’90s, in New York, from Washington Square all the way up to the Harlem and Bronx, we would always see artists having rap cyphers. Not just rap cyphers, just cyphers in general, where people gathered around and freestyled — tried out their ideas, pluck a guitar, banged on the bongos, banged on the buckets, and whatever. She was one of few people that I connected with. It was one of the things where I was just living life and networking with people. There weren’t any expectations. I remember doing cyphers with Supernatural. I met Talib Kweli and many different people back then. I used to invite a few people back to my apartment because I had a drum machine and a 4-track recorder. I tried to have cyphers with selected people at the crib and just record it on cassette. I would record a vibe session with no intent to make songs or anything.
How many years did you invite people to your apartment and how long did you collaborate with Alicia before she was signed to her first recording contract?
I would say maybe a year or two years. Eventually, she got a record contract with Columbia Records, but it wasn’t a constant thing, though. I remember getting back in touch with her and asking her how the deal was going. She basically said to me, “Hey, I don’t really like what I’m doing and who they’re putting me with.” I asked, “What do you mean?” She responded, “I don’t like what they’re doing. I like what we were doing.” I’m skipping ahead a little bit, but when we would do the cyphers, I knew she was a classically-trained pianist. She would play during the cyphers to my beats or whatever. We would do that a lot, just messing around and trying to do demos, and then we took a break. When she reached out again, she was like, “Man, I really liked what we were doing, and I would like you to help me with my album.”
I replied, “OK. No problem.” She said, “No, seriously. I want you to really stop what you’re doing and really focus on what I’m doing right now.” I agreed to it, but in my mind, I was like, “Oh, man. She’s on a major label.” All I knew was rap and hip-hop. I started making beats just for me to rap on. I knew nothing about making R&B records or whatever the case may be, but she believed in me and I believed in her. We just took our time to really start trying to figure out how we could make the records sound the way she wanted them. That took years. The process took a few years because a lot of people don’t know that by the time Songs in A Minor came out, we’d been working on ideas from 1996 and 1997.
It took five years for a lot of those records to actually see the light of day. I said to myself, “Man, how am I going to help her? She’s coming to me. I’m not a person to back down from a challenge. All right. We’re going to figure this out.” That really made me begin to think, “All right. Let me really study what I’m sampling and why I like what I like.” She did the same. The great part about it was we were both fans of Marvin Gaye, Wu-Tang Clan, Donny Hathaway, and Mobb Deep. We had that common taste in music. While we were making our demos, we had the drums, we had her playing piano, we were trying to play our MIDI, bass and guitar, and just coming up with songs. When we were listening back, we were like, “Wait a minute. Why does it sound so thin? It doesn’t have the weight of our favorite records.” Specifically, I remember growing up in a house where my parents loved music. Under the wall unit of the television, there were albums lined up in front of me. I had tons of albums to look through to search and steal my parents’ records to sample from and get yelled at for scratching a couple. [laughs]
I remember one time taking a Stevie Wonder album because it was definitely both of our favorites. It had a lot of our favorite songs on it. I took the album, and I began reading the liner notes. It said guitar played by this person and second guitar played by this person. Then, I was like, “Oh. Wait a minute, there’s three guitars on this track. I didn’t know there was three guitars, OK.” I kept reading and it said keyboard played by this person and Wurlitzer played by this person. I said to myself, “Wurlitzer? What’s a Wurlitzer?” So, we needed to get a Wurlitzer. Alicia and I were going through the MIDI modules, which is where we could get our sounds from and trigger with a keyboard, but the actual sounds are coming from the module, not the keyboard. We were searching through the knob, and sure enough, we got the piano strings. “Oh, we got a Wurlitzer. There’s a Wurlitzer in here!” It was all of that type of discovery. We were not only just discovering her sound but also discovering why we like stuff and how to make it sound that way to the best of our ability.
When you first started working together, and you heard her playing the piano, were you blown away by someone that young to have such command of their instrument?
I was very impressed. Alicia is an old soul, and that’s what blew me away. Just her taste in music and hearing her unique take on things. The first thing I ever heard her sing was an Anita Baker song, and I was like, “Wow.” Her hitting that low range, and then coming back up. I was just like, “Wow, this is dope.” I said to her, “You’re going to make it, girl. You’re going to make it!” I remember when her manager Jeff [Robinson] was telling her, “Hey, you should probably go solo. The girl group is not working out the way you want. You feel like they’re holding you back, and you’re not doing your thing. You need to go solo.” She didn’t really have the confidence in the beginning to go solo. I told her, “No, you got it. They’re right. You should go solo. You can do it.” When she came to me and asked, “Hey, can you help me?” I replied, “Yes.” It was because I believed in her so much. You know how we all go through little groups. It wasn’t a group that was signed or anything like that. It was a childhood group. I think Jeff [Robinson] met her at the time, and Conrad Robinson, who’s Jeff’s brother, brought Alicia to Jeff. Conrad always had youth programs and stuff, and she was in the group at that time.
When did you all first get together to work on this album?
Definitely ‘97 because she’d gotten the deal in ‘96. She had to go through the process of who the label wanted to put her with and stuff like that. By ’98, we turned in the album and got the response from Columbia.
What was their response?
They hated it. They said, “It sounds like a long live demo.” They didn’t get it because it didn’t sound like anything that was out there. It was done on purpose. We didn’t want to sound like anything that was out there. We were dealing with a major label with a young artist who hadn’t proved themselves. I think Columbia [Records] had new heads at the time, and they didn’t get it. They didn’t like it. I know that was a devastating blow for her, and I felt bad, too. I was like, “Damn. Man, maybe you should have got somebody better or something.” She responded, “No. We love it. All of our peoples love it.” It really took a lot of steam away, but fortunately for her and us, her manager, Jeff Robinson, at the time, asked her, “What do you want to do?” They wanted her to be more like a Mariah [Carey]. They wanted her to change her sound, run her through the machine, and make her one of the stars in the machine. They wanted her to just be pretty and sing, and not to worry about producing and to take the braids out of her hair. She didn’t want to do it. She stood her ground. Jeff Robinson, instead of doing what a lot of managers did back then, he told her, “We’re going to find somebody that gets you. Don’t worry about it.” That’s what led us over to Arista [Records]. Jeff went to Peter Edge and Clive Davis, and Clive loved it. It was literally the same album minus a couple of songs.
After she left Columbia Records, she signed with Arista Records and Clive Davis understands the vision. I remember when he left Arista and started J Records.
Yes. They were pushing him out. They were like he’s too old and whatever the case may have been, and they were bringing LA Reid in. That was another tough part of her career because she had Clive bringing her over and getting her out of the Columbia deal and believing in her, then LA Reid was coming in. He was offering all types of things. He was saying what he was going to do, how he was going to prioritize things, and offered us the opportunity to produce any top people on the label. They had Usher and so many other artists. She had a tough decision to make, “Do I go with Clive with this new label, or do I stay with Arista?” To her credit, they almost went with LA Reid, management and everybody. She asked me about it, and I told her what I thought. At the last minute, she said, “I’m going to go with Clive.” It was her decision, and it was just a testament of her being loyal to Clive. In my opinion, she hit it on the nose and really understood, “You know what? I got to be loyal, and not get caught up in all the promises, and whatever, because he got me out of one bad situation already.”
As you all were working together on her debut album, what was your collaboration process like in coming up with the songs for it?
I’ve always done beats for songs. I never did beats just to make beats. I always had a song idea or whatever, and then I made a track that I felt could fit the song as a rapper. When she came to me to ask for help, I took the same philosophy. I fell back and she took the lead. She knew what she wanted to write and sing about, she knew what type of sound she wanted to get, and I was being the support team and following her lead. I was doing my best to help her get those sounds and figure it out. Coming from my world, I had more raw feeling and emotion when creating music. She was a trained musician that was really big into musical theory. It made for a great balance between us. I remember working on a song one time, and we would get musicians to come in to play guitar parts and bass parts, because of studying those albums I mentioned earlier. Early on, we told each other, “Hey, we’re not going to get the sound we want from all this MIDI and just sampling alone.”
One day, someone asked me, “What’s the key to this song?” I replied, “What do you mean what’s the key to this song? There are so many keys on the keyboard. What are you talking about?” She’d say, “Oh, no. It’s A minor.” I replied, “Oh, OK.” I was learning from her, and she was learning from me. I was showing her how to program on the SP-1200 and the MPC3000. It was a learning process for both of us, but she always took the lead. Once in a while, I might have had a song idea, or she would have a song on a piano already written. I would come with some drums or drum ideas with that. For “Fallin’”, she had that all out on piano. She originally wrote it for Mario at the time. Mario was a new signee at J Records. They saw him as the new young Michael [Jackson]. There was always the time when everybody wanted to find the next Michael.
She wrote “Fallin’” with the inspiration of the Jackson 5’s “Who’s Lovin’ You” song. That’s how the chords came out and how she sang it. Her team convinced her to keep the song for herself. They said, “No. You better keep this for yourself. You’re buggin’. You can’t give this away.” Once we knew that was going to be for her, I told her, “You know what? We can’t let this sound like your typical ballad.” I wanted it to stand out. I said, “Man, I want this to be heard on HOT 97.” I found the chunkiest, most hip-hop drunk drums I could find. I even detuned the hi-hat on purpose just so it didn’t sound like a pretty ballad. That’s the relationship and trust we had in each other. We were just experimenting on how we could make something familiar but still make it different.
With your background in hip-hop and hers being a classically trained pianist, it was a match made in heaven.
Indeed. We had our own way of doing hip-hop and R&B that wasn’t copying the mode of everyone else trying to do hip-hop and R&B. Literally, during those years, whenever we worked, we never listened to the radio. We couldn’t pay attention to our flip phones or our pagers at the time. We didn’t have social media and all that yet. We were like, “OK. We’re going to focus. We’re going to get into these old records.” We always played the music that inspired us. We never played what were the popular hits of the time.
During the making of the album, what was your typical schedule to begin working on music?
Well, for that album, we did most of that in a bedroom in Harlem. We got started around 6:00 or 7:00 [pm] and end about midnight, then everybody would go home. It wasn’t like we went to the studio per se. We worked on ideas in a bedroom apartment, and then when we needed the acoustic piano or real instruments and background singers, the management would book the studio session. We used to go to Quad Studios and Unique Studios. That would have happened maybe once a week.
While you all were working out of the bedroom studio, how long were you all working on the songs for the album?
It took years. We started working from ’97, and we might have taken a break here and there, especially when Columbia [Records] didn’t like the album, and she switched over to Arista. The whole nature of it was, we were working on music regardless, album or not. It wasn’t like we were going to work on an album. It was like, “We just want to make some great songs, every day. Period.” I guess that led to the freedom of it, as opposed to the pressure of trying to make songs for an album. When you have equipment in your house, you’re going to make music every day regardless. It was a blessing that we were making it for a company that said they believed in us and helped us to be successful. We went through that process from ‘97 until 2001. I can’t say we worked on the album for a few months and turned it in. It was always an ongoing process. Time would go by, and we started going back to the earlier demos and fixing things. We were always learning, making things better, and getting tips from engineers along the way like Jerry Brown, Pat Viola, and Russell Elevado. We learned from them on how to make the record sound better. That was our main thing. We knew the ability and the talent was there; it was about figuring out how to translate it the best way and learning how to do it. It was really exciting.
What was the name of the first song that you made together?
In the beginning, when we did our first few demos, nobody really got it. Even our management, Jeff, didn’t even get it. After a while, they were like, “Wait a minute, you guys got something here. You guys got something special. Keep it up.” I think “Troubles” was the first song that really got everyone taking Krucial Keys seriously as a production team.
Did Alicia come up with the harmonies and the backgrounds for the songs?
Oh, yes. That’s all that piano and knowing harmony. That’s one thing that always impressed me. She always knew how to add these beautiful harmonies to her vocals and even just her inside of it, or even how she interpolates a song we know and change it to make it hers. She’s always been amazing with that. As I said, she took the lead. She knew what she wanted to do. She knew which direction she wanted to go in, and I just supported it. I added my two cents, my experience, and my knowledge of records that were similar to records that she wanted to do and ones she might not have known about. Man, I was just so happy. She loved my raw ass drums. I forget which song it was, but I remember we were working on a song, and she was stuck. She said, “I need some more lyrics to this one.” I replied, “OK. I used rap. All right, no problem. Let’s talk about this.” I wrote out my lines and whatever. I told her, “This is what I got so far.” She replied, “OK. I like it. That’s all we need.” I responded, “What? That’s all we need?” I was used to writing 16 to 20 bars. She said, “Oh, we need this, and we can repeat this.” I replied, “What? Oh, this is easy.” She carried the hard part of doing the melody already. So — that was always the process. This is how I got more into writing with her as well.
When did you have a sense that this partnership could really work?
It just felt like I was working with someone I knew my whole life. As I said, it was so rare that people from different backgrounds and age difference loved the same music. How often do you find that and you’re both open to listening to each other? There was no ego involved. She could have easily said, “You don’t know nothing about music. That idea is stupid,” or “You don’t know anything about chord progressions.” It could have easily been like, “Hey, you don’t know nothing about what the streets want.” It was none of that stuff. That is when we knew it was going to work. We also had people like Paul L. Green and Tenisha Smith come in. She was a key writer and the person we would work on these songs with during part of the sessions. She was a former partner of hers from the girl group she had in Harlem. When you get all these people together that vibe with each other, we really enjoyed what we were doing, even though we didn’t know what we were doing, but we loved the feeling of it and what we were trying. We loved the process, and we didn’t focus so much on the outcome. I think that was a key part of what made that album so special. It wasn’t like we were trying to make an album. We just loved that process of making these records.
Are there any interesting behind-the-scenes stories during the making of the album?
Even though it took so long to make that album, it felt like everything happened so fast. When we were making “Rock wit U,” we were trying to do our version of a Blaxploitation song because we loved the ‘70s. Then, the Shaft movie came out in 2000. We were working on this track, and we reached out to Isaac Hayes because it was mainly an interpolation of one of his songs. He definitely was the inspiration. When we got to meet him, we played the track for him, and he was listening to it. He said, “You know what? I don’t use any score strings for tracks that’s not mine, but I’m feeling this one. I’m going to score this record for you.” We were like, “Oh, thank you, thank you.” We left the room and said, “What? Oh my God. Are you serious?” [laughs]
Black Moses himself.
We were like, “Wow. Black Moses is scoring our little record,” We probably butchered what he would have done but he respected it. Even with the Prince remake, “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore?” We did a cover of his song, and she was playing it on a piano. She was actually using the MIDI piano, which I hate the MIDI sound now. I learned to hate it because of hearing her play the real piano for so long. I was dropping these hip-hop drums and there was no bass in it. The only bass was the 808. He got the remake, and he said, “Yes, I like that version.” He approved it. Those were the moments that stuck out to me as like, “What? Prince likes it? Isaac Hayes likes it?” Just the respect that we got from these legends was unbelievable. Back then, I was working security at Barneys New York. I was a guard in one of their buildings, and I also worked at UPS. I had a couple of jobs because I already had kids by this time. The album came out and it goes No. 1. When I got the news, I was working my shift in Barneys New York. Someone called me and told me, “Congratulations. The album is number one.” I said to them, “Stop playing, stop playing.” It was a surreal time. I told myself, “I guess I’d better really start learning how to do it now.” We done started something. [laughs]
Let’s go in-depth on the making of most of the songs from this album.
On “Piano & I,” the intro represented us to the fullest. She started off with the classical because she used to always play classical, and I liked classical, as well. I didn’t realize that because I remember trying to sample classical music when I was a kid but never really tried to make a record. We started off with having people think they were going to hear a recital, and then she began talking her mess like she did. [laughs] She was very confident in her stuff. Next thing you know, in comes the 808 and these chunky drums, D-2, and hi-hat. It was an introduction of how we were coming right off the bat. In my opinion, that’s what separated us from all the other hip-hop and R&B sounds out there.
Earlier mentioned how “Fallin’” was originally meant for Mario. How did the song come together musically?
It was her on piano. A lot of the song ideas would start with her at the piano, and once she got a basic idea of the course she was going to use, I would put down a hi-hat or a tempo, so she could play to it. Then, I would build the drums around her piano. That’s basically how I did it a lot. It was a subconscious thing. I think that one of the secrets to our thing was, I wasn’t into just doing the two-bar drum loops or four-bar bar drums like most people do in modern R&B. I always wanted to be a drummer as a kid. She would get the piano down to a click, sing down the majority of the song, and I would build the track and put these drums to it. I would play the drums literally sequencing down to the piano and her vocals and just do it like a real drummer would do. If she got emotional somewhere, I’d do a couple of drum rolls there. We were just trying to make it sound like the records we loved but still keep that grit to the sound.
How did “A Woman’s Worth” come together?
That was probably the first song where Alicia programmed drum-wise on her own. It represented where she came from being a young woman raised by a strong woman and having that independent spirit like, “I can do this. We’re queens, we’re warriors, we’re leaders. If you don’t know what a woman is worth, let me show you.” That’s coming from her upbringing from her mother and her nana, grandmother. She programmed it and played the track for me. She asked me what I thought, and I said, “Hey, that’s it. You got it. I wouldn’t change nothing.” The message was powerful and what needed to be heard. It was passionate and it translated well because she wanted to show the world what she was worth. She didn’t want to be anyone’s puppet. It definitely was a statement.
We were paying homage to Blaxploitation again and just the Harlem vibe because Tenisha was a Harlem girl. Just being around her, she always added that soulful yet jazzy vibe and energy to the song. With her being around, added that feeling and brought it out of Alicia as well. We were trying to imagine like we were in this film and riding around, because one of the things we did when we made our demos, we would walk around with our headphones on listening to them. If somebody had a whip, which she didn’t really need much in New York, but if somebody had a ride, we were blasting this and riding around to it and listening to it. The ’70s were both of our favorite eras in music.
How about “Why Do I Feel So Sad?”
Warryn Campbell and Alicia wrote that one. The song was done one way with Warryn and production-wise, it just didn’t really fit with what we were doing, but he inspired this song and definitely was a big contributor to it. It was one of those good songs. It was one of my favorites. It was saying how you’re a stranger to someone and things start to change. They say things are going to change but it still hurts. She captured the mood and the emotion of it. The bassline on it, the guitar on it, a punchy kick, plus the harmony she puts on that. She just had a special energy. The sincerity and the feeling in her voice made the record what it was. We weren’t the best musicians or drum programmers, so we definitely leaned heavy on the feelings and what the songs were about. We relied on feelings, real stories and emotions, as opposed to technique and trends.
She had this song for the longest, and that one was more straight forward piano and vocals. This was actually one of the first songs that got a lot of people understanding that she was a serious writer. This was one of her earliest songs that she wrote and played for me. I had nothing to do with that one. Again, it was just like you just leave it alone and let the musicians add to it but not take away from the piano. It was her and the piano. Again, that was her foundation.
What was some of the equipment you all were using for these songs?
We started out with the SP-1200 and a keyboard controller. I think it was a Yamaha keyboard and also the MPC3000, a Roland JV-1080, that was the module that had all the sounds. We also had a Roland JV-2080, which was another one that we accumulated over time, and we did all this on like DA 88 tapes. They were a small version of ADAT. This was before Pro Tools. It was the latest technology after the reel-to-reel tape. We had that. We had three of those. Then, we would rent stock. Whenever Alicia worked with other producers, I would go along. Even if I wasn’t involved, I’d just sit in the back and she would ask me what I thought and I’d give her my opinion. We’d be checking out what they were using and ask, “Hey, what’s that? We like that. We need to get one of those.” We started learning from other people and started realizing, “Oh. That has a nice sound. We need a couple of those things, too.” But the basic foundation was the MPC3000, Roland sound, Roland JV-1080, Roland JV-2080, and maybe the Motif keyboard on a couple of things. Roland and Akai were our go to sounds, besides the acoustic instruments: piano, guitar, bass, and electric bass.
As you look back 20 years later, what are your feelings about the impact that this album made on popular culture?
I am grateful. It was a real blessing. It’s a lesson that I’ll always remember and one I’ve always shared with aspiring creatives and young artists that I’ve met over the years. Even to this day, I’m working with a young artist, and I love the process of creating, ignoring the noise, the trends, and all of that. Deal with the people who vibe with you, deal with people who get it, and fall in love with the process and everything will work out.
A lot of people will say, “Oh, that’s easy for you to say. You had Alicia.” I was like, “No, you all don’t understand.” When I was working with Alicia, it was, “Alicia who?” I remember I used to intern at Def Jam and in like ‘99 telling everybody about her, but nobody was saying anything about us. It was just a fact of believing in yourself and having tunnel vision on what you want to do. You have to keep studying to be better and create your own lane. It is much better than trying to do what everybody else is trying to do. It makes you stand out more. One of our main goals was we wanted to make timeless music because we felt like everyone we loved from the Marvin’s to the Stevie’s made timeless music. As I said earlier, we were talking about music from the ‘70s and the ‘90s and 2000 that resonated with us. We said to each other, “That’s what we want to do. We wanted to make music that was going to be good forever.
Chris Williams 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.