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The Score: Salaam Remi Talks Amy Winehouse & NaS In Exclusive Q&A

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.renowned producer (Nas, Amy Winehouse) Salaam Remi at home in Miami

Words by Jesse Serwer.

Yesterday LargeUp revealed one of the music industry's best-kept secrets, publishing an in-depth interview with Salaam Remi, the world renowned--yet notoriously press-shy--producer of hits (some might say classics) for NasAmy Winehouse, The Fugees, Jazmine Sullivan, Super Cat, Ms. Dynamite and the Bush Babees, just to name a few. Perhaps even more impressive than the list of artists he's worked with would be the titles of the songs he's produced for them--in almost every case the signature tunes with which we most strongly associate their names--and more impressive than that would be the emphasis he gives to molding not just songs but careers, empowering his proteges to be visionaries in their own right while he is content to remain behind the scenes. “Most people didn’t even know I exist, and I don’t want them to,” as he explains. “‘Know my name if you gotta write it on a check’ has been my motto for a long time.”

Today we unveil part two of that interview, wherein Remi goes deep on his involvement in Nas' #1 summer release Life Is Good and Amy Winehouse's Back Is Black, dropping some gems along the way, like the origin of the Big Kap intro on "Nasty" and the Amy sitting down at the piano to play "Girl From Ipanema" at their first meeting. Hit the link below to get Part 1 of this rare interview and read on after the jump for Part 2.

>>>Read Part 1 (via LargeUp)

LargeUp: Life is Good is one of the most talked-about (and best-received) albums of the summer. When it drops are you cracking a cigar and enjoying the fruits of this album, or are you not even thinking about that?

Salaam Remi: At this point, I’m kind of coasting, just because I’ve done a whole lot the first half of the year. The majority of what was done for this record has been done for quite some time, at least for my part. This isn't July 17, it’s probably two Julys ago. From the time we dropped “Nasty,” a lot of the records for me were done. We’ve done some mixes the last couple of months, but my enjoyment is seeing it see the light of day and people capturing and feeling the emotions that were put into it. The thought process was over the last couple of years, not now. We’re in 2012 now, the divorce started in 2009 and that song came up not too long after so it’s been a process. Nas repeated something in an interview, I had said to him right after we got the masters: this album feels like Back to Black or The Score to me. For me sitting on the other side of it I felt it had enough personal depth, and enough musicality. What a lot of people are talking about is, it's “an album.” There are a lot of songs that are hitting them in ways that they like, but more than anything else they are accepting it and talking about “the album,” and that’s really an artform that’s been lost in the singles-driven world.

LU: I think Nas fans have been waiting for that. His last two albums had these huge concepts but not the continuity you get from this album...

SR: The last two albums were concepts but...on Hip-Hop Is Dead, none of the songs I produced are even on the album. I helped him out with “Where Are they Now,” he wanted the James Brown sample and I had to ability to make the track sound good, and I just re-did Will-I-am’s orchestra on “Who Killed It,” cause he was on the road in China or something. Those two albums, if you look at the credits (which people don’t seem to read anymore) Dr. Dre, 3 or 4 Kanye West records, Scott Storch, LES and Wildfire, Stargate, Mark Batson--that album doesn’t really have me involved in it. I was around when he was doing it. Hip-Hop Is Dead was a lot of singles produced by Will-i-Am. That album was more about the concept than the actual songs, it’s about chemistry too, to actually get your point across and get it there, and then there is Untitled, I produced one song on there, “Can't Stop Us Now” and then the song we did earlier which didn’t make jack, which was “be a ni***r too.”  So overall what he had from that album was lyrically it was everything he wanted, so a lot of the songs I did for the album didn’t make it either. I think it was a culmination of Nas being in a place where he had a lot he wanted to say, and he was also able to get that across and not have to edit it down at the end to get what he wanted to say and edit the music at the same time.

LU: So how is the way you worked with him on this album different then the past?

SR: We always work the same, the difference with this album is, more songs I worked on made the album, rather than not making the album. That’s the biggest difference. No I.D did six, I did eight, and then a few other songs were done by other producers like Justice League, Swizz...Buckwild did a song.

LU: Were you involved with the conception of the project, becoming Life Is Good?

SR: Nas and I are pretty cool so we talk a lot. The realities of “A Queens Story” are like six, seven years old. It happens over years. The track on “Black Bond,” started during the Untitled sessions. This keeps happening over the years and I’m like what about this idea, what about that idea. I’m kind of like a storage for ideas. The biggest difference is the end result felt as it wanted to be felt from beginning to end. It took some time to get there. Nas is the kind of artist that he’s his biggest critic. I think most of the songs on this album he liked it, recorded it, had to step away from it like, “I don’t want to hear that, I’m not into it,” then came back to it later on.

LU: Did you have input in regards to the other tracks you didn’t produce on the album?

SR: I didn't hear Swizz's records until they were mastered. Buckwild hollered at me so I put him in touch with Nas’ A&R. I’m the dude that reaches out and hits up whatever producers, even if it’s dudes from the 90’s era I know. I’ll be calling Pete Rock 100 times about a track I heard 20 years ago, “Yo, Pete find the disk, it’ll work, I’m telling you.” If somebody wants to give something to Nas, they'll hit me up and I’ll put it right in front of him. I’m not in anyway saying I control it; I’m a contributor to the pie. If he tells me something he has an idea for, I'll roll through with it and keep feeding him ideas. This time, the positive reception to it was great, but it’s still driven by whatever he wants to do. And on the flip side it’s supported by myself and other producers that are able to turn that around. The track for “A Queens Story,” he wrote rhymes for Hip-Hop is Dead to that track. He told the engineer to pull up the Salaam track and the engineer pulled up the other track. So there are always moving pieces. He never used it, so I put it on my instrumental album, Pragnosis. I went to Prague working on film composing, and then he had heard that and said let me write something else to that. Cause we’ve been working together for the last ten years, there’s loads of ideas. At any given point I can spit out ten songs to Nas real quick. We have a chemistry, I would say. Most of the artists I have a working relationship with, we have a chemistry so we have a lot of material.

JS: When did you start to work with Nas?

SR: During the Stillmatic album, he was out in L.A and I was doing a song with Beenie Man for a FUBU album, Nas came, he saw me and was like "Yo, what up.” I went to school with Akinyele, and we knew a lot of the same people. I think we exchanged two-way numbers. And then out of us talking on two-way at the time, he inspired me to make what became "What Goes Around (Poison)" [from Stillmatic]. He told me a whole bunch of words like “murder, gangsta, soulful,” and I made the track for him, and sent it to him, and he was like, Yo I ain’t got no music on my album that feels like this. Nas is really musical. He listens and if you played a beat for him now, he’ll know if somebody 15 years ago flipped that same sample but used it differently. He's musically in tune. So I sent him that track he was like, Oh sh*t. We worked on a few other things for the Stillmatic album and that's the one that stuck but he actually wrote like several songs to it. The other verses ended up on the bonus album for Stillmatic or maybe God's Son but either way he recorded "What Goes Around" and "Poison" and I put them together, so that was the start of our released collaboration. It was tailor made to exactly what he said. He said he wanted something like that, I created something like that, and that became how we always worked. He would say I want a record like such and such, and I would go in and start creating from scratch.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.renowned producer Salaam Remi at home in Miami

LU: So you really started working with Nas after you moved to Miami?

SR: We made “Made You Look” between Miami and Orlando, but it feels like New York, so that opened me up— see, I don’t have to be in New York, my mind takes me to where I want to go. That energy of everything that we felt about it being New York wasn’t even created in New York. It was just two New Yorkers out in the world, doing what we had to do. The same thing now. Life Is Good, as much as it feels New York, was made in L.A. or Miami.

LU: But it doesn’t feel like now New York now, it feels like New York ’89 or something.

SR: But that’s the New York that we know. I made a lot of that, and I got a box with a cassette deck on it, and I was listening to it out of my box, seeing how this gonna feel, and the energy I got when I taped stuff off the radio. “Made You Look,” for me has been a staple like [Super Cat’s] “Ghetto Red Hot” is in my career. Are they necessarily the biggest hits that everyone in the world knows? The people on that level know, the people who are supposed to know those records, know them and hold them in high regard. For me that’s the biggest thing. Regardless of chart position and success, it’s great to have art in commerce like Fugees The Score or Back to Black Amy. Is it hitting the mark for those who want to get that, and for someone to discover it later and still go: Wow, this is something great. Like how I'll still discover a jazz record from the 20’s and go, This is incredible. Great, hopefully these things are marking time for now.

LU: How did you first get involved with Amy Winehouse. How did that relationship start?

SR: She came to EMI Music Publishing because she had liked "The Block Party," which was Lisa Left Eye Lopes’ first single on the album before she passed. The head of Sony/EMI for Europe called me and was like: I really want you to meet her. I had just moved to Miami so I met her two weeks after my 30th birthday. I kind of wanted to be left alone, and he was like, Just meet her. She sat down and started singing "Girl from Ipanema," then we wrote a few songs, some of which helped get her a deal with Universal/Island and ended up on her first album. I was really mentoring her, cause at that time they still had other people writing with her. I wanted them to hear her ideas of lyrics. Writing and being at the top of your game allows you to work with other artists well, from the Fugees, to Nas, to Jasmine Sullivan, Spragga Benz. I could just throw anything at them. They are all people that I could just say stuff to, or not say something to. With robots you have to program them. Artists you have to do something to inspire them and they give you back art that you could not have asked for, it’s bigger than anything you can dream of. That’s how that works. With Amy, I was just able to say stuff to her that made her think she could write what she wanted.

LU: What was the first record from that Frank album, where you know she was going to be the artist that she became to be?

SR: The first song we did. In the first session we did "Cherry," then "I Heard Love Is Blind," and that was like a whole other thing. From there, I was like if this is where you are at 18, where will you be at 25. She had a serious styling ability, a serious voice and she was serious on the writing, which was everything I felt it took to be able to push her.

LU: How did you get from that feel on that first album that was more up to the time, production-wise, to Back to Black, with a fully vintage sound.

SR: Actually from the first album. I had already been doing that, before I even met her, coming up with ways to definitely go into it. I was still putting beats with it just because. If you listen to "I Heard Love is Blind," you could listen to the music without the beats there, but they still wanted to keep her 19 or 20 so the first time around the label was like we gotta have the beats on there. Even some of the songs that I didn’t have hip-hop beats to they tended to lean towards the beats that did because they wanted to keep that hybrid, but musically she was really in a jazz zone, she was writing jazz. That album I say is a glass of wine. Her covers really feel like this is jazz music. If you ask her at that time, she’d be like I’m a jazz singer. That album has jazz and hip-hop, the best of both of those put together, smacked together, jazz and hip-hop sandwich put together; Eat that. Then she went through a thing where she started listening to other styles, and found the records like the Shangri-las that she wanted to do, and wanted to rearrange some of the songs she had. She wanted to include more soul and stuff. The 5 Royales and doo-wop type stuff, she was into that, and she introduced me to it. I knew of it, but she said this is what I wanted to do, so I found and started rearranging songs, then she took that same idea and energy to Mark [Ronson] and was like, This is how I want the chords. That's how she got accustomed to working with me. The songs with Mark were the latter songs, the ones I did on Back to Black were made around the first album, like "Tears Dry."  And then I wrapped up the album and pulled it all together. It was driven by Amy's musical ability and vision.

LU: Why do you think the songs that he did became the singles that everyone associates that album with. Was the stuff that you were doing more complex, more meant to be album tracks?

SR: With Back to Black, people don’t read credits, so they don’t really know who did what but they actually sound and feel different. With "Rehab," which was number one, it was more urgent, and it was done last, and it was a joke, how she did it. Amy’s album being great art is one thing, but secondly, she couldn’t have gotten away with it if she was someone else. The fact that she was around Kelly Osbourne at the time... “who is this girl walking down Camden High Street drunk with Kelly Osbourne!? Oh its that girl Amy Winehouse that cussed out the press and cussed out her label on the last album, and she has a beehive!” She’s like, Now they want to take pictures of me--now that I got the beehive. Then boom, “You tried to make me go to Rehab.” The fact that she had an Ivor Novello [award] for "Stronger Than Me" from the first album, she already had a bit of a buzz, something growing, and that coupled with the f**kery press, coupled with that song that was urgent, that’s what it was.

A lot of people liked "Tears Driving Me Home," or "Mr. Gentleman," and they don’t necessarily know that I did them, ‘cause Mark is also an artist. Most people when they know the producer's name, they know their name because they’re an artist. Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis were in the Time. DJ Premier. DJ Muggs was in Cypress [Hill]. Most people have an artistic persona as well, someone who was an artist but is now a producer and didn't get recognized now they're tagging heir name on every record, even though you didn’t even know they were there no matter how much stuff they did. So it’s kind of like them being marketed as artists. "Back to Black" was a single, "Tears Dry" was a single, but most people didn’t even know I exist, and I don’t want them to. "Know my name if you gotta write it on a check" has been my motto for a long time. I want you buy Amy, I don’t want you to buy Amy because it's that sound, 'cause to me it plays the artist out. We need the artists as vehicles to go for the longer way. Cause most producers have come and gone, quickly, unless they made an artist who was bigger than them. Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem. There's a lot of other people around. Those ones made a difference.

LU: Do you have a favorite record on Life is Good?

SR: For me it’s “Locomotive” right now. No I.D told me he likes “Black Bond.” We've heard our own records so many times, I’ve heard his records at different points. Once everything was mixed and ready to be mastered, we were listening to all the records together, that’s where we knew this really feels like a strong album togethe. I had 8 songs on there, and two of them were already out so I had my six and he had his six that were brand new for the album, and we listened to them all together and were like: Yo, this shit feels really tight.

"Reach Out" --that’s something that was personal to Nas cause [DJ] Hot Day's from his block, and that was something that never came out on a record, that was just in the hood. I was really working off stuff that came out on tapes. Even the intro on “Nasty,” was going through tapes of stuff that was going on in the 90’s. It's the Illmatic release party, the beginning of “Nasty,” and that’s Big Kap talking, saying “ya’ll ready for Nas?” I have a bunch of records that I’ll end up using made from tapes of stuff that’s never really been on record. I was going through them and No I.D was like why don’t you just make that the intro for the song, so I was like, Whoah. Dope. Same with that "Heartbeat of the people" with Super Cat on the intro to "The Don," thats off Yo! MTV Raps, which I never really remember seeing it, but when Heavy passed they put it online, and I was like boom and put that on there. Just finding other ways to expose culture, and with "Reach Out," I hit up Hot Day, we were going to put it out as a mixtape joint, but at the last minute now Mary [J. Blige] is going to get on. But just like recreating something we heard in the parks. It has another approach to what made it sound like radio or fun, or hip-hop but at the same time it’s Nas’s album and he’s telling the story from his perspective.