JR Rotem has spent years making assorted pop and tough-as-nails heaters for the likes of Rick Ross ("Push It," "The Boss"), Rihanna ("S.O.S."), Nicki Minaj ("Fly," "Girls Fall Like Dominoes") and others. These days, the Los Angeles-based and South African born producer is using his Beluga Heights Records vehicle to help steer the careers of Sean Kingston, Jason Derulo and more fledgling talent. In an interview with HipHopDX's Producer's Corner, JR Rotem talks about working with the artists on his label, and how philosophy can be just as important as having a signature sound.
HipHopDX: First off, what have you been working on?
JR Rotem: The latest is primarily focusing on the artists on my label. We're wrapping Jason Derulo's second album, that should be out in the summer. At the same time, working on my new artist named Mann, who's got a song called “Buzzin'” that's starting to heat up and finishing his album up. We've also got an artist called Lyppie Frank who's from Barbados. We're getting into her album right now. Beyond that, we still have a few other artists we're getting it in with. We have an artist named Auburn, and a couple other things. But we're trying to slown down and get focused with one artist at a time. We just put Jason's album and Mann's album pretty much behind us, so the primary focus of what I've been doing is Lyppie Frank. I'm still working with the Cash Money [Records] clique. I did a few tracks on Nicki [Minaj's Pink Friday] album, and I'm working with them, but it's all stuff that's pending.
DX: I've heard Mann's name, but I haven't gotten to listen to his music yet. How would you describe him?
JR Rotem: Mann is a rapper from West L.A., really young cat. But he has a very particular style of rapping and style of music that we've created, and he calls is “old school fresh.” What he means by that, he's got this nostalgic style of the overall feeling of Hip Hop from the early '90s, the golden era. He takes influences that put you in a nostalgic kind of mind frame...but putting a new spin on it. He's got more of a positive message than anything else. He's got a few movements that he reps. One movement he talks about is the “B-Day Boys.” His philosophy is, “You've seen a lot of hard things growing up, but be positive and live every day like it's your birthday.” He's really about celebrating, being positive, having a good time, but the sound of the music has a real nostalgic feeling from old school influences. The song we did, “Buzzin,” samples this old '80s song called “I Can't Wait” by New Shooz, and the way he flips it lyrically and melodically, people are feeling it. It moves in a way that's new and contemporary, but it has that feeling of something from the 80's or 90's.
DX: You've worked with a lot of different types of Hip Hop and Pop acts. How do you decide who you bring into your label? What kind of qualifications does an artist need to have?
JR Rotem: I think that's a reflection of the fact that I love different styles of music. I started off as a Jazz pianist, and I grew up listening to a lot of Pop music and Beatles, Classical and Jazz, and Hip Hop as well. I love different types of music, and I believe that you can find true talent and creativity in any genre. You can find someone amazing on an island kind of vibe, Reggae kind of vibe, more Pop, more edgy, or more Hip Hop. If I'm inspired by somebody's talent, that, for me, is the criteria. I like to take whatever genre they're coming from, and see how I can make it as mainstream and worldwide as possible.
For instance, with Sean Kingston, when he came in, he started off just trying to rap, but he was singing his verses. There was a Jamaican identity there, there was a Jamaican accent. I work to figure out, how can I make sure the music is an accurate reflection of who he is truly—let's not try to make him into something he's not—and how do we take that now and make it music that people all over the world can enjoy? It started off from one genre, but we figured out a way to make it worldwide. The same thing with Jason Derulo. It wasn't island music, but he was from Florida...and he liked a lot of European influences. So let's say we figure out a way to take this indie, credible, UK image, but put it to a beat that's sort of urban, like you'd expect a T.I. beat to be, and let's put those together. The artist can come from whatever.
We're working with this female singer/songwriter from Australia. It's nothing like anything we've done, but the goal would be, how do we present her to the world with music that represents her but can translate all over. That's what we try to do, as opposed to doing just this style of music or that style of music.
DX: In general, that seems to be a lot of record labels' issues. They'll find someone they think has a lot of talent, but they'll have trouble molding that into something they're comfortable putting out. The longer they take, the unhappier the artist is, and he ends up getting shelved. How are you able to take something raw but not industry-ready, but craft it to getting that way?
JR Rotem: That's a great question, and it's always a challenge. There's no easy answer, there's a lot of trial and error. It's not like we get it right every single time. It depends on the artist. There's certain artists that come in and say, “What kind of songs, beats, or things with hooks do you have that I can fill in?” Other artists really resent that kind of process. They don't want you to give them a structured framework of a song, they want you to create it from scratch. Different artists have varying degrees, or might be in the mood for that one day and might not another day.
I think we do our best work when we focus on one artist at a time, and figure out a formula. When we signed Sean Kingston, he was the only artist that we had, and no other real responsibilities. Only time I was giving up to Sean was outside artists, and at that time, I was inspired by doing that. So we had all the time and focus to figure out, how do we get this formula right and get the right balance between developing—because obviously, when you sign someone for the most part, they're not just ready to come out, so there's a lot of developing their identity and musical sound—and make sure you're not just telling them who to be. But also, you're figuring out how you make this commercial. That balance is very tough to figure out, and it's a different process with each artist. It's literally the process between how you keep that person honest to who they are, but they meet you in the middle to find a way to make their sound and their message pallet-able and interesting to the rest of the world without selling out. A lot of times, it's trial and error. You might do a song that sounds really generic. It sounds radio, but it doesn't sound special, there's nothing different about it, and it sounds like a watered down version of some other artists' song that's already on the radio. That's not the way to make somebody shine. I'm guilty of that as a producer sometimes.
There's the other extreme, where if you don't give an artist any guidance or suggestion, you end up with something that might purely represent them, but there's no commercial appeal whatsoever. There's no catchy hook, even while the message in their head is clear, it's not clear to an outside person. You might really enjoy the song, and that's cool, but you aren't trying to make music that just you can enjoy on headphones. You're trying to make music that other people are going to spend their hard-earned money. The only way you can make them spend their hard-earned money is if you make them feel something. That's an ongoing struggle, and something that's hard to find…You always have to deal with that and figure it out for each artist, each song, and each album that they do.
DX: What you just said is interesting, considering the people you work with. You work with artists who people consider “real Hip Hop,” such as Talib Kweli and Mobb Deep. Was any of your work with them, or others who are more established, difficult to combine what each of you do best to make a cohesive final product?
JR Rotem: I play a different role when I'm producing an outside artist, than an artist on my label. For instance, when I work with Game. Some of my favorite songs I've produced have been with him, because I love his artistry. I love how he raps, I think he's got an amazing power in what he says. My goal at that time, since I wasn't the person who signed him, was just contributing to his project and to his vision. I was just making music I thought he would feel, and he took the reigns and wrote the type of song that he felt to it. There wasn't a lot of me saying, “How do we make this more radio.” That was more on the raw side. He's going to do him, and I'm going to contribute my music. Sometimes, you're not thinking, “How do I balance this as commercial as possible?” I have more control and more say in doing that with an artist signed to my label. What I'm contributing to someone else's thing—in the case of Game, I'm just proud to have a song on his album, just to make a song that's dope, not necessarily going to come out on the radio—it's a little bit of a different thing. There's less constrictions, it's freer, in a sense. You're not doing the balancing thing, you're just concerned with what's dope.
With Rick Ross, I was lucky. Two of the songs I did with him ended up being singles: “Push It” and “The Boss” . In those cases, it's a little bit of luck. I made a beat that was felt by him and everything like that. With “The Boss,” they gave me back T-Pain's hook, and I figured out a way to flip it and stutter it to make it more commercial. I did the best I could with what was given, and somehow, there was sort of a magic on that. In anything, when there's a magic, you can't really take credit for it. It just ended up that way. I didn't set out like, “I'm going to do Rick Ross' single here.” I was just a fan of Rick Ross, and I wanted to make the best possible music, and it ended up working out.
But again, there's a difference of the process when I sign them, and I'm responsible for figuring out their entire formula and developing them, as opposed to working with an established artist or someone who has a deal already who says, “JR, I want you to contribute to this.” I always make the analogy of, when I'm signing an artist, it's like I'm building a house, and each song is a brick in that house. So I'm responsible for the bricks, but also, how those bricks turn into a full house. When I'm producing on someone else's album, I'm just giving them bricks. They're using them in the house that they built, or the record company they're signed to, but I'm not being invited to say, “Hey JR, how do we build this house together?” It's more like, “I want some bricks from you to build this house,” which I'm happy to do. It's just a different process.
DX: You've given hits to some artists early in their careers. One artist I think it's particularly interesting with is Rick Ross. You had songs on his first couple of albums, when he didn't have his own sound yet, but now he's respected as one of the best beat selectors in the business. What is it like for you to have songs with them early on, and then see them develop not into stars, but into stars with their own sounds?
JR Rotem: I guess I don't stop to think about it all that much. I just think it was amazing, it was fun to have made those songs with him, and what he becomes and where he grows. I just look at it like I was lucky to be a part of what it was, and if I was somewhat important at the beginning, that's great, and hopefully I can continue making music (with him). I did Rhianna's song “S.O.S.,” and it wasn't her first song, but it was her first number one. Since then, she's obviously one of the biggest stars in the world. But I never look at it like that's because of me or something like that. I just look at it like it was amazing to have worked with her at that time, and I would like to work with her again.
Everybody has their own path. I think there's a lot of e-business, and sometimes I'm guilty of it too, probably of my own artists who I sign. You sign somebody from the beginning, and you see them blow up, and then you had a really big part of their career, because you worked on a whole thing together. It's easy to be like, “I helped make you,” and all that. Those attitudes never lead to anything positive; they only lead to pain, when you take too much credit or too much pride in someone else. At the end of the day, you work hard and put out positive energy, and a lot of it is luck. I'm lucky to have been born to create music like that. I'm not saying that I'm able to lift that attitude at all times, because it's really easy to get caught up in the feeling of that kind of stuff. But I just try to take it day by day.
Also, for me, musically, I'm looking at it like, “What's the next song I can do?” I never really look back too much like, “Remember when I did that song?” If I'm thinking about Rick Ross, I'm thinking about what can I do for his next album instead of the songs we did in the past.
DX: You said that you don't look back on what you did before, I think that reflects your music. In a previous interview, we discussed how you don't really have a distinct JR Rotem sound to me. You adapt to other artists so well that I can't easily identify one of your beats unless I hear your tag. What do people have in mind when they come to you, if you don't have a distinct sound?
JR Rotem: I think that's a good question. I would like to hope that they're coming to me for quality music. My philosophy is to figure out who this artist is, and how to make them shine as bright as possible. Not so much, “There's a sound I have in mind, so let me go to them for that sound.” Just, “I heard he's good at making a dope song, so the sky is the limit.” Rick Rubin had his sound with Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys in the late '80's, but since then, the guy has produced a Red Hot Chilli Peppers album, he's produced a country album, he's worked with Jay-Z. If you go to Rick Rubin, it's not a Rick Rubin sound, but the philosophy. I'm not trying to compare my body of work with his, obviously he's a legendary producer that's been doing it for decades. But from that same family of, you're going with him for a certain type of experience, quality, or to bring something out. In my mind, I see similarities in my beats, but maybe it's not so obvious to the outside person. There's a dark harmonic thing I take from classical music, and my ability to produce vocals with harmonies and my knowledge of music. But like you say, it's not like you're going to get a beat that moves a certain way or a certain snare drum sound or anything like that.
For more on J.R Rotem please check out Beluga Heights TV at BelugaHeights.com.