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