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.