I did this interview with megaproducer Rich Harrison (Amerie, Beyonce- you know what it is) for MTV / URGE (RIP) almost a year ago. For whatever reason, I just found the transcript. We talked for like an hour about his process, Beyonce, and female empowerment. Like to hear it? Here it goes.
JSHEP: Are there any songs that you can point back to as really affecting you as a producer?
RH: Oh yeah, yeah, shoot, how much time we got?
JSHEP: [laughs] As long as you want. [both laugh] Maybe start with what you listened to growing up.
RH: Well my mother’s Dominican, so Latin music was always around. But she also became a big funk fan when she came into this country, so she would always play Earth, Wind and Fire; she would always play the Doobie Brothers also. She would switch between Blue-Eyed Soul and soul music… a lot of Al Green… So my mother really gave me a well-rounded musical sense growing up, because it wasn’t just one thing that she listened to. She turned me on to the Police. Big Police fan. Not so much Sting now, but when they were young and disagreeable. [both laugh] All those things I still play today when I want to feel a certain way or get in a good mood: Stevie Wonder, Marvin, a lot of that stuff. So just really, when I think about it, I don’t think about it much, you’re making me realize just saying the groups it was really a lot of stuff that she used to… Hall & Oates, huge Hall & Oates fan. Really huge, I love listening to their music today, just really interesting melody choices. When I started producing, when I first, first started, I tried to educate myself further because I quickly realized that… When I was really young, when I was 15, I got this little radio gig. Somebody got me a radio gig. It wasn’t for me, but one of the things that I learned was that the program director of this place said, “You don’t play what you like; you play what people like.” So that gave me a whole… It sounds obvious, but it wasn’t to me at that point. So when I started producing, I always remembered that lesson and I tried to educate myself in different genres of music that I hadn’t really thought about before, like the blues were always kind of around me just growing up in music, but I didn’t really know what it was about. So I started studying the blues, people like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, and then from studying the blues and really kind of getting into that, it led me to classic rock, which I hadn’t paid any attention to, really. And that was really when the sound of “Crazy in Love” kind of spearheaded, that type of primal, visceral, just drums and horn blast, or drums and guitar, or just really simplistic grooves, really evolved from looking at blues and classic rock.
JSHEP: You’re known now for your horn blasts. Do you remember any specific songs or grooves that had horns that you really paid attention to? Why did you go from piano to trumpet playing?
RH: That was really more luck, more chance when I picked up the trumpet. But it definitely gave me an appreciation for horns. I remember thinking that, when I made Amerie’s first album, there was just a thought, it wasn’t even a huge epiphany or anything, but I just remember thinking, “Nobody really uses horns in R&B music anymore.” It’s more Rhodes based, piano based, strings based, groove based, but I didn’t hear many horns. That was one thing that was always about all the funk shit, like Rick James had incredible horn arrangements; Earth, Wind and Fire had ridiculous horn arrangements; those type of people. And I think it was… I’m trying to think of a song I can give you that really… I don’t think there’s a song, Julianne. I can give you one, you want me to just give you one?
JSHEP: Yeah, sure.
RH: OK. Umm…
JSHEP: You don’t have to, actually. It’s alright.
RH: OK. [both laughs] I can’t really trace it back to a song. It’s so weird.
JSHEP: It’s hard when you have to pull it from your memory on the spot.
RH: It’s strange. I can’t think of a freaking song, dude. I’ll have one for you before you finish.
JSHEP: OK. So you said that you just thought of that, and that’s when you started making Amerie’s first album?
RH: Well, when I was making Amerie’s first album, I just remembered it just being a thought. Just a thought, it didn’t push me in any direction particularly, but I remember thinking throughout that album, because I was listening from the lesson I learned in radio, just kind of trying to see what people dug and what worked and what didn’t, and it was just something that I picked up, like no one really uses horns. But I didn’t use them on Amerie’s album. I didn’t use any horns. And I hadn’t really used any horns until the creative stretch that “Crazy In Love” came out of. But it was totally just experimenting and having fun. It wasn’t like a concentrated effort to use horns, it’s just listening to stuff that I thought was interesting. And something about that one particular horn blast was just really aggressive and really just something that I hadn’t heard before, and that’s the cool thing about sampling, you’re really co-writing with those people, you really are dealing with music that will never be created again. I’m not saying played again, you can play the stuff again, but when you sample something, like you’re sampling the temperature in the room, you’re sampling the taste of the engineer, of the sound guy, you’re sampling the argument that they had before or the hag over that they’re playing with. [JSHEP laughs] Yeah, man, hitting all that stuff. That’s really cool for me, because I play what I think somebody in that environment would play, or maybe…I was a history major in school, and I’m not working in my field, obviously, but in a sense I am whenever I sample.
JSHEP: So you’re thinking about that when you’re making music?
RH: Sure, absolutely, when I sample, particularly when I sample. I’m thinking about, what would the drummer do if he had the equipment I had, or what would I do if I was back there, with my personality and who I am and what I like to do and what liquor I like to drink. [laughs] I just try to blend in with it, and it’s a lot of fun.
JSHEP: So how does that fit into how you actually produce a song? What’s your process like?
RH: I write a lot of the songs that I make, some times by choice, other times by request. I don’t have to write to all the beats that I make. It’s just not a requirement. I remember when I did Amerie, apparently that rumor kind of spread that I have to write it, but that just wasn’t the case. So the process now is that it always starts with the beat first. Some people, especially people who don’t make tracks, they may write a song first, and then somebody make a track to their song. For me, it always starts with the track. I try to listen to where the gaps in the track are. To me, the voice, especially on the up-tempos, the voice should just be another instrument in the track. It has to start with the track, and then you watch for the gaps where the vocals can fill to keep the groove going. So it normally starts with the track, and then if I’m writing, you know I write the song, and I can’t sing, and I really can’t sing…
JSHEP: You can’t sing at all?
RH: No, I’m bad.
JSHEP: [laughs] Really?
RH: Real bad. Yeah, and I’m not being modest. I remember my first meeting with Matthew Knowles, I tried to tell him. He wanted to hear some stuff, I said, “Well I have some songs, but I’m a very bad singer.” And he thought I was just being modest, and then he heard it and he was like, “Wow, you really told the truth.” [laughs]
JSHEP: [laughs] Well you can’t do everything, right?
RH: You know what I mean? [laughs] So that’s kind of the process. Then you get in with the artist, and the cool thing about people like Beyonce and Amerie and Usher is that you not being able to be a great singer or interpret the song great actually kind of comforts them because they’re not locked into anything. This is just kind of a rough idea, and then it’s totally open for you to put your interpretation over it or on it or whatever. And I’m very open about if you want to change anything, if you want to change the melody, if you want to change some words, like, “Let’s do it. Let’s make the song yours.” And maybe… hmm, maybe that’s the same process that I use when I’m sampling. I try as best to blend in with the band that I’m sampling to make the track theirs to keep the integrity of the track and when I’m working with the artist, that’s paramount, that’s really important for me to make sure the song is theirs. I don’t want them to sing… you know, I’m Rich Harrison, I’m not an artist, you know what I mean? You know, in the literal sense. So I want the song to be theirs. So I guess, yeah. Wow, you really pulled a lot of stuff out of me.
JSHEP: [laughs] I want to know everything.
RH: Things I don’t think about.
RH: Not really, I mean, I wouldn’t think to make that parallel, but I guess so.
JSHEP: How do you know when the track is done?
RH: I know a track is done when I don’t stop moving my head. That’s really the test. If something stutters in the track, or the arrangement isn’t quite right, like the bridge to the hook or the hook to the verse, just instinctively it’ll stutter. My movement will stop.
JSHEP: Your physical…?
RH: Yeah, my physical movement will stop. And then I gotta go back, and you don’t necessarily catch… it’s totally subconscious. I may not catch what’s wrong with it on the first time. Then I gotta rewind it and see why I’m not liking this, what’s the problem, and maybe it’s missing an ad lib from the vocalist to bridge the two parts, the hook or the verse, maybe it needs ad lib to intro it, or maybe not enough is happening. I remember, I listened to the first Amerie album today, and I realized really how much of an amateur I was, because none of the songs had bridges. Maybe a couple, but none of the songs had bridges, and I just knew that. I was really happy with them, always wished, “Why don’t we fall in love with a longer song?” even though back then, I was always glad that it was short because I remember reading something about Hank Williams, how he made a song intentionally short because it increased his radio play because they would play his song. His song was the only song short enough to be in the playlist before the commercial. [JSHEP laughs] Yeah, it was a certain two minutes forty second gap, and all the songs were three and change, so this guy made a two minute… [it was the same song — 15:10] so I can’t remember it, but I remember that story, and his song got really popular, which it’s worth technically. Also, when a song is shorter, it makes you rewind it.
JSHEP: Right, you want to hear it again.
RH: Yeah, you want to hear it again, so I was thinking like that. But now I’m kind of placing more value on making the song the best it can be rather than the little things of, “Hey well at least they’ll rewind it.” Why don’t we make the song as great as we can? [both laugh] Stop worrying about those little tricks, because if a song is a smash and it’s great, you won’t need any tricks and they’ll rewind it anyway.
JSHEP: When did you first realize that you wanted to make bridges like that?
RH: When I wanted to make what?
JSHEP: When you said there’s no bridges…
RH: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Just kind of learning more and… On one sense, it might have been laziness. Verse, hook, I’m really happy with it, she’s really happy with it, everybody that I’m playing it for is saying it’s cool, why mess with it? But now being a lot more seasoned, and I’m not super smart, I’ve been doing this six years, which is not a huge amount of time, but working with the people I’ve been blessed to work with, just getting more experience, you just know better now. [both laugh] I guess I just know better. Every song doesn’t need necessarily a musical bridge or a musical change, but there needs to be a place for them to regroup, and it doesn’t have to be eight bar, it can be four bars, it can be three bars, it can be two bars, but there has to be a break in the action, just for a second for the listener. I remember when my musical mentor used to always tell us, he used to say, “The ear can only hear so many things at once.” That’s the reason for the bridge. It just changed when I just got to know more, I mean really got into the craft, and then there’s nothing like a cool bridge, to be honest. I remember I was doing a song one time, and I went to see the president of the label, and there was a song that everybody was really liking but it didn’t have a bridge. So a bridge got written to it, and then the president was like, everybody was applauding the song, and the president stood up and he said, “That bridge! That bridge is amazing, isn’t it?” And I remember thinking to myself, “What, the hook and the verse suck? That’s what people are going to sing.” But now I know what he means. The bridge is the frame to the picture of the hook and verse. It frames it, so it is a big deal.
JSHEP: It makes the hook and the verse memorable.
RH: Yeah, it makes it pop out, just a little more.
JSHEP: What about contemporary R&B in relation to rap? Do you have thoughts about how hip hop has changed the game?
RH: Well, in a sense, rap has helped R&B, in a sense, because now that rap is kind of… it’s still huge, but it’s loosening up, there’s an opportunity for others forms of music to become prominent. But when rap was king, it not only gave R&B the shaft, it gave rock the shaft. It gave almost every other form of music a problem. And for real, that didn’t upset me, because I loved that, like I started out being a rap producer, and I remember how society used to shit on rap, and it wasn’t fair. Everybody had something to say, and just because it doesn’t fit into your world doesn’t mean it’s less valid. But it got so big, so huge, that I think people kind of forgot about other forms of music, even me. There was a period where I was listening to some old stuff, but not really much R&B, but also because rap early on was very sample-heavy. It continued a musical consciousness among its fans that would never have been exposed to that music otherwise. So it still helped. But I guess I was trying to say because it was so prominent, new R&B acts, it kind of threw those people a curve.
JSHEP: So were you studying… I mean, as far as the samples, what you said, could have it continue the consciousness… did you study that? Did that have an impact on how you…?
RH: Yeah, definitely. I was reading something, and this guy was using music as an example of how we’re all connected. You come out of the womb from your mother, and you’re a baby or you’re a kid, and if you listen to something that your mom or dad plays, instinctively you’re going to nod your head, and we all kind of do that when we’re kids. So I guess it’s just genetic, melody is genetic, and rhythm and that stuff is genetic. So when rap or those samples were coming through in whatever form, you may not know what that song is, but because it’s so good and classic and undeniable, you’re going to nod your head. Knowing that, when I used to listen to samples, sometimes I would pick things that I think people have forgotten. Sure, definitely, nobody… I didn’t even really know who the Chi-Lites were except for certain TV oldies commercials. I mean, I knew who they were, but I didn’t know who they were. And it was really probably one of the coolest moments of my life was when I was winning a bunch of awards for that song, and I came into the BMI awards, and this older woman, really beautiful woman, ran up to me and just threw her arms around me, and she was nonstop kissing my face. And I had never met this woman before, but it turned out to be the wife of Eugene Record, Chi-Lites’ producer. And she was telling me how active a roll my using that song had in their life. I love the money that I made off that song, and the Chi-Lites got a bigger percentage than Jay-Z or I. So I thought it was real cool because blacks… we got schooled a lot back in the day, and they were making all the records and it wasn’t a fair split, so it was an honor to be a part of giving back. So definitely, when I sample, that’s kind of in my mind. What’s first in my mind is, does it make a cool record? Is it banging? If it is… I mean, that is first in my mind, but the reason I try to sample obscure things is for your question, because I think that people… there is a lot of forgotten music out there.
JSHEP: So you wouldn’t really go in for something that everyone knows already?
RH: I don’t think so. Maybe… only if one group of people really knows that song, then it can be a double whammy because you will get the respect of people that know and love that song, and you get to reintroduce that song to the musical consciousness of the people that never heard it, so that’s a cool gift, too. But, more than likely, I’m trying to do really obscure things.
JSHEP: So in a way you are using your history degree.
RH: Absolutely. The greatest thing I liked about history was I used to like to see really rare books, or very old books from the 1700s and stuff like that. I used to really… You get children to touch those things, because who else has touched that? You’re in a weird way connected with people who lived hundreds of years before you, and that’s real cool to me, and sampling is kind of similar.
JSHEP: That’s deep.
RH: Yeah, that is deep. [both laugh] It is deep, it is pretty deep. It’s crazy.
JSHEP: Now that we’ve gone there, can we talk about Beyonce’s “Freakum Dress” ? [laughs]
RH: [laughs] A slightly less deep topic.
JSHEP: Yes. What’s the backstory?
RH: “Freakum Dress,” OK. When I write, I write from titles a lot of times. And that’s something… I read that out of a book. If you’re having trouble writing songs organically, start with a title and work backwards from it. So B and I were in the studio, and this is a beat that she’s always loved. But she was filming Dreamgirls, and I was in Miami doing something, I can’t remember what I was working on, but we were just really busy and we were both forcing the song. She would the write the song, send it to me. I would write the song, send it to her. And it was just feeling forced and rushed, it wasn’t coming. So when we sat down together, she really loved that beat. If you know me or if you know my friends, if you hang out with me, fun is a huge part of my life. I really like to have fun and laugh and joke and talk a bunch of trash. So I try to bring that to the records that I make. And that’s one of the things that’s so much fun about making records for girls, because girls like to party, you know what I mean? We like to party too, but just in a different way. So you can write really fun records for girls. The title actually came from a Martin Lawrence stand-up. I was watching it one day, and he said, “Put your fuck him dress whenever you get in an argument with whoever you’re seeing, you put your dress and you go to clubs and you go, ‘Fuck him, girl, fuck him.’” [JSHEP laughs] Of course, you can’t say that, but I thought that was real clever.
JSHEP: And true.
RH: Yeah, and true. [both laugh] And true. And that was one of the cool things about Beyonce, how she’s able to really mobilize hordes of women… maybe that’s a bad… groups of women…
JSHEP: Hordes is probably… [laughs]I think “hordes” is probably right.
RH: She can really galvanize, with that “Independent Woman” thing. So I said, “Listen, let’s write a song called ‘Freakum Dress.’” And she said, “‘Freakum Dress’? What’s that?” So I explained the concept, and she loved it. I wish it were a single. I think it was like… it wasn’t heavy, it’s just fun, just a fun record. And the momentum in that song, I’m really proud of how that came off.
JSHEP: Tell me a little bit about your label, Richcraft, what you’re doing with it.
RH: Richcraft, OK. We were on Sony. My deal with Amerie is still on Sony, but it’s just pretty much downgraded. They didn’t have to let me out of the contract, but they did, so I got a lot of love for them. Craig Kellman, among others, but Craig was the one that I kind of got along with the best, Craig being a DJ, and me making songs for the club or enjoying that or doing that. He really saw the vision, and I ended up going to Atlantic with him and Lyor Cohen, and got my venture over there. We finished the deal in August, something like that. And I really wanted it to be like a mini-Motown, the next premiere urban label, but R&B based, which hasn’t been done in a long time.
JSHEP: So you’re released an all girl band called Rich Girls.
RH: No, it’s Rich Girl, no S. What do you think about that name?
JSHEP: It’s cute.
RH: It’s cute right? Mmhmm, mmhmm. Rich Girl is still cooking, still in the kitchen with that. But basically it’s a metaphor for empowerment, it’s a metaphor for fun, it’s a metaphor for empowerment, it’s a metaphor for like… you can be rich in anything, you can be rich in spirit, you can be rich in intelligence, you can be rich in ambition… you know, anybody can be a rich girl, and that is what the album is going to exemplify, girls who are doing their thing. [both laugh] Girls are taking it by the horn and handling it, and also again fun is going to be an element, because it’s fun to be rich. [both laugh]
JSHEP: Both rich and you?
RH: [both laugh] I’m a little more complicated, but… I’m really excited about that.
JSHEP: Where did the idea for that come from?
RH: I was just trying to… I don’t know… Actually, I can’t even front. It came over a discussion with one of the girls that’s in the group, and I was really just explaining the vision, and sometimes when you talk about things, you’re reiterating it to yourself once you say it out loud, and that would open doors that you wouldn’t think about, just like you making me think about the parallels between history and how I work. And it just kind of popped into my head.
JSHEP: The whole concept?
RH: No, the name itself. The concept was something that I had been thinking about for a while, just dealing with so many female artists, and knowing what I like to write about, the type of piece that I like to make, and what’s worked and what didn’t, what’s cool and what hasn’t worked so well, stuff like that, the trial and error of everything, I just kind of came up with this concept of empowerment and fun, and also I think there are not enough of those images, you know what I mean? Now, I don’t want to get too philosophical about it, I don’t plan on saving a bunch of people. I mean, it’s not my plan, I’d love to help, but I think there’s really room for a group such as that. When we come, it’s not going to be heavy, at least at first. We’re going to talk some trash and have some fun with it, but the themes in the album will be evident that little girls like y’all can make it. It sucks out here, no doubt, but you can do it, and we’re going to show you what we’re doing, and you can come with us. I’ve actually slowed up on a lot of my outside production, just to really focus on this label because it’s kind of what I came into the game doing. In fact, at that time, my manager was telling me the other day, nobody was doing whole albums, writing and producing a whole album on some unknown girl, and it came out and it did well. It did well. So, that’s where my heart is. There’s nothing like being a part of somebody else’s career, saying, “I helped that.” And I like that. I think I got that because somebody taught me and helped me, to be honest.
JSHEP: The mentor?
RH: Yeah, my mentor, Brother Ah. That’s what we call him, Brother Ah. He’s still around, I just saw him about a month ago. He’s this serious music cat, man. He studied in Vienna and Berkeley and all these places, but then every summer… I don’t know if it’s summer or winter, he would go and live in a different village, like in India or in Africa, and learn the musical traditions of the chief in the place. He’s this serious cat man. He was a professor at Brown University, and actually he’s how I chose my manager.
JSHEP: How did that work out?
RH: When I met Dorsey, I knew about all of his accolades. Dorsey was a general manager at LaFace, right under LA. I knew all that stuff. I knew he was brilliant, a genius. But I was very wary of managers, plus I was on the cusp of so much that I hadn’t experienced before. It was a big publishing deal, it was a big label deal, all the stuff was happening fast, and I was in a weird place, like I don’t know who to trust. When I met him, we got along immediately, but what really sold me was he asked me about my influences, and Brother Ah came up. He said, “Did you say Brother Ah?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “You know him? He taught me at Brown!” Dorsey went to Brown undergrad. I said, “Get out of here!” And he described Brother Ah to a tee, and we had an hour conversation on how cool he was and his message and all that stuff, and I was like, “You’re my manager!”
JSHEP: Yeah, you can’t knock that.
RH: And I’m really happy. Dorsey’s great.
JSHEP: You’re working on 50 now?
RH: Yeah, 50 reached out. I’m supposed to see him next week, and I was really surprised and excited, and it may not go all the way, sometimes it doesn’t happen, but yeah he reached out. I was surprised. What’s interesting to me about 50 is that he’s from the east coast but he has a real sense of country shit, of what they’re doing down… well, not country, country’s probably the wrong word, but he has a real sense of what’s happening outside of New York, you know what I mean? And only a couple of rappers can really say that. So that’s interesting to me about him. Plus, he’s a good writer. So looking forward to just trying. We’re both like, “Listen, let’s just see what happens.”
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