We spoke with newly-minted Oscar winner D’Mile about working with H.E.R. and his production on the upcoming Silk Sonic album.
Producer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Dernst Emile III, known by many as D’Mile, has been contributing to R&B for more than a decade. His sound is infectious, led by hazy-sounding drums, funky beats, and carefully strummed guitar strings.
D’Mile cut his teeth in the industry in the mid-2000s as an apprentice for Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, the household name who is well known for his work with acts like Destiny’s Child, Brandy, and Monica. Under his tutelage, D’Mile placed a plethora of songs, including co-producing three tracks on Janet Jackson’s album Discipline. Bootstrapped with the lessons he’d learned from Jerkins, D’Mile went on to produce for Mary J. Blige, Ciara, Trey Songz, Ariana Grande, and more.
The release of Lucky Daye’s Painted in 2019 was when things began to move swiftly. Before this album, D’Mile had grown tired of the industry and considered quitting it altogether. And D’Mile and Daye, who was also at a crossroads, bonded over this notion. What followed was a robust album inspired by the height of ‘70s soul music fused with modern R&B.
Last year, D’Mile was tasked with creating music from an artist he enjoys working with, H.E.R., with who he previously collaborated on the project I Used To Know Her. Amid the George Floyd protests, H.E.R.’s team reached out and the two recorded “I Can’t Breathe,” a song inspired by the words Floyd uttered during the final moments of his life.
They soon followed that up with another politically charged song, “Fight For You,” which was created specifically for Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah soundtrack, a movie that centered Fred Hampton’s meteoric rise within the Chicago Black Panther Party. D’Mile recalls watching a screening of the drama before writing and producing the track alongside H.E.R. and songwriter Tiara Thomas. On Sunday, that song beat the odds and won Best Original Song at the 2021 Oscars. This is the first Oscar for both H.E.R. and D’Mile.
“I’m still waiting to wake up,” D’Mile shared with us via email the morning after winning. “It still hasn’t hit me.”
The Oscar win caps off the hot streak he’s been on, which includes producing on Lucky Daye’s Table For Two and Joyce Wrice’s Overgrown and being involved with the funk-centric, Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit “Leave the Door Open” with Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak. The soulful track is the entree to an upcoming album the duo is preparing to release under the Silk Sonic name in the coming months.
“I think literally, you’re going to hear every side of them or every piece of them on this project, even down to the jokes.” He said, “They’re two of the funny guys in the studio. They’re always joking and cracking up and all that stuff, which makes it cool work-wise because it lightens up everything, nobody’s too serious.”
We caught up with D’Mile hours ahead of the 2021 Academy Awards, where he talked about working with H.E.R., how it feels to be contributing to the R&B canon, and his production on the upcoming Silk Sonic album.
As told to Robyn Mowatt
On recording H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe.”
Every time I work with H.E.R., it’s pretty easy. I don’t want to give the wrong impression, like we’re just know everything that we’re going to do and it’s an easy job to do, but because we have a musical connection, I would say, it just makes the job easier and more fun to be able to work with a peer like that who can also think of an instrument and play. She’s an amazing writer already and then we teamed up with Tiara Thomas on both of these songs.
When “I Can’t Breathe” came about, I heard it started from a conversation that H.E.R. and Tiara Thomas were having about everything that was going on at that time. This was in the early pandemic, during the riots and all that stuff. She felt compelled, of course, during the George Floyd [protests]. That’s really the main thing that inspired her to write this song.
It was really all the emotions from there. She had sent me a voice note or somebody from her team had sent me a voice note. I heard it and I got a tingle when I first heard it and I started hearing stuff in my head — how it should go and I just took it from there and built around the voice note that she gave me and then, later on, sent it to them and she cut it afterward and then added that [spoken word element] at the end.
The message is there. It shouldn’t be too overproduced or anything like that. It was just really, it’s about hearing what she’s saying and where she’s coming from and just conveying that emotion.
On recording “Fight For You.”
We got to get together on that one. She was out in Los Angeles at this time already working and she got the call and they decided to reach out to me and help them with it. The day that I pulled up on them we were able to watch [the movie] in the studio. They sent us a link or something and so before we even started creating something for it, we were blessed to be able to watch it. Then right after we finished it, we got into it.
That one was also [a] little tough because, I know you saw it, so you saw how it ended. It just left on that note. I was nervous about that, especially because the only reference that they had given us was that they wanted something positive and uplifting and not sad. They wanted something a little more upbeat. We took a little break and then we just started listening to things to keep us inspired to come up with something. Once we put that down, H.E.R actually picked up a bass and started playing something that inspired me. They wrote it on the spot.
On his impact on R&B.
When you’re working, you don’t really think about… what I’m doing or how I could possibly be impacting, I mean, any type of music, let alone a genre of music. I had my head down and I was just working with my friends. We got it to the finish line and it came out and the responses to all of those records [has been] “wow.”
I saw a tweet the other day… literally asking me if I realized what I’ve done for R&B or something like that. I was just like, “Man.” You have to sit back and think about that. People are really looking at me like I’m an important part of today’s R&B, but I never looked at it like that. I’m just doing what I love.
On working on “Leave The Door Open” with Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak.
It probably was the longest process I’ve ever had on getting one song right, let alone a whole album. I started working with Bruno — I met him officially maybe a year and a half ago. Since then, we just started working. If I can remember correctly, the idea might’ve started somehow in some way from the first session that we had together. Fast forward to now, we finally got something out of that, so you can just imagine, we were probably working on something that ended up being this song and others like that, so really the process and the way we get in and work, it’s really just like, we just pick up an instrument and jam between me, him and Anderson and then see what we come up with.
The Grammy performance was great. I wish I was there for that one. I didn’t know what they had planned. I didn’t know about the suits that they’re going to wear. I didn’t know the crazy double spin that they did. All that was crazy.
I have a friend of mine who keeps saying, “A hit song with 43 chords in it.” For [the] song to be as musical as it is and it reached number one of the Billboard Hot 100, let alone the top ten as an R&B record… it’s still like, I can’t believe it.
It’s proof that you never know, man. Just try. If you feel like this is the type of artist that you are, just do it. You might not have to conform as much as you think. As long as you have a good team behind you, you can do any type of music. For someone like Bruno and Andy, it’s just really like, what you hear is basically a result of just who they really are and even me being a part of it, we resolve who we really are. I think that matters more than pleasing somebody else.
On recording the upcoming Silk Sonic album.
There’s always laughter. I’ll start by saying that. They’re two of the funny guys in the studio. They’re always joking and cracking up and all that stuff, which makes it cool work-wise because it lightens up everything, nobody’s too serious, overly serious, but when it’s time to get serious, we get serious, of course.
I think literally, you’re going to hear every side of them or every piece of them on this project, even down to the jokes. Even “Leave The Door Open,” I noticed a couple of funny lines in there, which probably really came from them just joking around, but it was just a good enough line to be like, “We gotta keep that.” It might be a couple more like that here and there.