This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Salaam Remi, composer, producer, musician and label executive.
Salaam Remi is walking on sunshine these days.
This week the 41-year-old Miami-based wunderkind hit “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” with Akon performing “One In The Chamber,” the title track from his new solo album.
Released digitally on Sept. 30th, 2013, "ONE: In the Chamber" will be repackaged in a deluxe edition, and issued in March through Flying Buddha/Sony Masterworks. The album features guest appearances by Ne-Yo, Corinne Bailey Rae, Stephen Marley, Jordin Sparks, Estelle, Liam Bailey and others.
Remi is also nominated for four Grammy Awards, including one for his solo set for Best Urban Contemporary Album plus others for his work with Miquel, Hiatus Kaiyote, and Mack Wilds.
Meanwhile, Sony chairman/CEO Doug Morris has given Remi, also a Sony Music -- exec. VP of A&R, an unique opportunity to discover and market new artists with last year’s launch of his Louder Than Life Sony-affiliated imprint that includes the sub-imprints, RemiFa and Flying Buddha.
Louder Than Life is an artist development-focused imprint targeting youth and urban culture through multiple genres--pop, hip-hop, R&B, jazz, blues and reggae, with releases by Mack Wilds, Collie Buddz, and Liam Bailey.
During his two decade career, Remi has been behind the board for an astonishing number of classic recordings including for: Nas, Amy Winehouse, the Fugees, Shabba Ranks, Kool G Rap, Jazmine Sullivan, Super Cat, Lil' Flip, Jurassic 5, Toni Braxton, Ini Kamoze, Ms. Dynamite, Left Eye (aka Lisa Lopes), and many others.
Much in-demand in the film and TV soundtrack world, he has worked on the soundtracks of “After The Sunset,” “Office Space,” “Zoolander,” “The Departed,” and “Blood Diamond.” He scored last year’s film “Sparkle,” and the Mike Tyson documentary, “Tyson,” and was executive music producer for “Sex and the City 1 and 2” and “Rush Hour 3.”
The son of the celebrated musician and studio owner Van Gibbs, Remi grew up in Queens After graduating from Thomas Edison High School in 1989, he embarked on a music career full-time. He had first appeared on record assisting his dad on Kurtis Blow's “Kingdom Blow” in 1986.
Remi was already an established producer before he met the then-unknown Amy Winehouse in 2002. Not only did he produce the lion's share of her recorded work, including her remarkable 2003 debut “Frank,” and its mega-hit “Back to Black” follow-up released in 2006 ) but he assembled the tracks for the posthumous "Lioness: Hidden Treasures" which serves to remind us that Winehouse was an astonishing talent.
Considering that you have four nominations are you looking forward to Grammy night on January 26th?
I’m looking forward to it. I have never won a Grammy, but I have been involved with many artists who have won many Grammys. I just look at it as it’s a part of the process of the development thing. If I win a Grammy, great, but, at this point, I am just happy to be there, and be part of it. I do understand that these accolades mean that your peers see something in value in what you do.
Does your A&R position at Sony include duties other than operating your own labels?
Definitely. I report to Doug Morris (chairman and CEO of Sony Music Entertainment) so I work across the company with whatever initiatives that Doug may have. Listen to things. See if I can help with the overall. I work alongside the chairmans of the other major labels, and associated labels. I work with everyone (within Sony). If the UK company has an artist that they want me to look at, or to help with, or give an opinion on, or include some effort, then I do it.
You can work with practically any Sony act.
It’s the best thing that could happen (to me). Doug is the best executive that I could ever work for. I have learned so much in the first year here. He’s empowered me to make some mistakes, and get some things right. I’m looking forward to everything else. Most every other chairman in the (music) business has worked with Doug, and this is the best space I could be to learn a lot.
A lack of A&R development has long been a bone of contention among artists and producers in urban music. Traditionally, there’s only been a handful of mentors available. Still a problem?
As far as not having the development, and the mentors?
Being able to offer newbie artists the tools to evolve.
I think that there’s something to that. I certainly had core mentoring. Not only from my dad but from others. I talked to Marley Marl recently, and he was looking at my Mac Wilds’ production. He was like, “I hear you. Just keep your records very street. Keep it 53rd Street. Keep it to the studio where he met me at my dad’s place, and I was sitting there doing beats until he said, “Hey, I’m going to let you co-produce Craig G.” Then watching him take my music, and finish it into a real record that was radio ready. He taught me so much in those two or three days that he didn’t realize what he taught me.
I’ve remained a student to this day because whether it has been (veteran composer/arranger) Lalo Schifrin scoring something or Jim Gaines, the engineer when I was working on Santana, I took from everything from everybody that I could--people that had been around the block before, and know something—and I apply it, and I work hard at it to figure out what it is.
When I doing dub, I hire Scientist (aka Hopeton Brown) to do mixes. He’ll say, “What did you call me?” I will reach out to everybody to get some knowledge.
There’s plenty of talent around today, but few great songs.
I feel that what is missing is that we have a lot of people who have a lot of vibe—they have learned how to make their movement; they are on line; and they have a lot of things going on--but they are not focused on how to make a great song that sticks, and makes someone’s career for the next 50 years. There’s a lot of movement, and a lot of things that are developing, but there are only certain people who know how to make a great record. When you have a great songwriter, someone who knows how to put structure to something, that’s invaluable.
What is missing is the development of songs. We came from the day where you got to know somebody by the song that they made. Not because they were everywhere. Right now, people are doing 60, 70 to 100 records and doing mixtapes and getting money. It doesn’t make a difference because you can’t figure out what song that they singing. I don’t know what to point to.
I get more music sent to me today, but I hear fewer songs.
Exactly. Whether it’s a hip hop song or whatever, it still has to be a song. It has to have a point. I’ve worked for some time with reggae, and it’s the same thing. There will be 90 people on one beat, but guess what? When you think about that beat, you think about the best song on the beat, and the voice that is there. Within the first 30 seconds, you know the person’s agenda. You know who they are; where they may be coming from; and, if you want to continue to listen to their conversation.
For a record, it has to be something that really puts together what you are hearing. That’s the art of making records that I think may be missing today. There are a lot of people in the digital age that can make great beats in their living room, but those aren’t anything unless they have somebody who knows how to make a great song or finish a great record. And that’s what we are missing: Record producers and mentors who can take those people to the next level. I try to do as much as I can with the artists that I work with. Many have gone on to produce other artists, and that’s what I always encourage. I’m going to show you what I know, hopefully with what I know, you will make it better, and you show somebody else.
Classic reggae artists like Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, and Toots and the Maytals always had great songs, and distinct production.
You could definitely hear the sound, and get into it. In many cases, they had two weeks with the producer and they weren’t going to waste studio time. Some people have too much studio time. Stay focused.
Many artists in the ‘70s and ‘80s would take months recording albums.
They would take a lot of time, and get into it. A lot of times, they passed the mark of being able to do it (make a good record) At this point in my career, if I don’t hear it, and get to it right off the top of my head, then I leave it alone, and go onto the next thing.
At (my dad’s studio) Palm Tree Recording, I watched most of those records being made. They made them in two or three hours studio time. Recorded and mixed. I watched them make a beat, say the rhyme, and then get a DAT. If it doesn’t come out like it was supposed to that night, there was a lot period where he (my father) wouldn’t keep the song. If he couldn’t go in and make it, and it was done, then what’s the point?
What did you learn working on "Michael Jackson: The Remix Suite" that featured remixes of Michael’s classic Motown material as a solo artist, and with the Jackson 5?
I did two remixes of “ABC.” That was me listening to these songs, and marveling about how the Motown records were put together. How the Funk Bothers were slamming into it. I had already been loving (the 2002 documentary film) “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” but I’m a big student, and I love listening to how records that I love are put together because it gives me insight when I am putting things together myself.
[In 2009, Universal Motown Records released "Michael Jackson: The Remix Suite" that featured 25 remixes of Jackson's classic Motown material reinterpreted by such producers as Salaam Remi, Frankie Knuckles, Chris "Tricky" Stewart, the Neptunes, Polow Da Don, Rodney Jerkins, Stargate and Paul Oakenfold.]
Your production portfolio is musically diverse. How do you choose what artists to work with?
For whatever reason, I think that certain things are divine. I don’t think that I could have picked the level, and caliber of artists that I have been able to work with. It’s not that I worked with them when they were showing their talent. My best material has been the figures when people weren’t paying attention to them. I was able to work with them. Like the Fugees. Their product manager called me. I had a relationship with David Sonenberg who was managing them at time. So I was able to sit in a room and talk to them, and help them find their best them. Then by them being a better them, it made me better because I was able to uncouple that (talent). The same music that I would have made as a regular rap record now was “The Score” (the 1996 LP that is one of the best-selling hip hop albums of all time) because they were great. I was helping them find themselves. The same thing with Amy (Winehouse), who came to me through my publisher, Guy Moot (then president of EMI Music Publishing for UK and Europe) in London. Amy went to EMI because of the (2001) record that I did for Lisa Lopes called “The Block Party.” She was looking to get with me, and she ended up getting signed.
So I think that more ways than one so much has happened in that way but I just find whoever inspires me. Lyrically. Who has a voice? Who says something? People now say, “Oh, you can’t get him to work.” But I have always been selective, and because I work through so many different genres, I can’t do everything. I never could. I only take on what I think I can deliver. If I don’t know what I am going to do with a project, and I don’t know how to deliver it, then I don’t take it on. If I hear something, and I think I can do it, then I will usually go forward, horns down, and keep going until I knock it over.
Is it easier working with newer groups or artists when there’s not the demands of touring or label and management pressures rather than veteran acts who have both career pressures and strong opinions about recording? Is it easier working with the newbies?
For me it is. If someone’s kid walks in with something that is really good, they (label executives) are going to go, “Wow. This kid is good.” They are going to give them the extra chance to be that good. For someone who has been around for awhile. For example. Mac Wild’s “Owns It,” we added a verse. Ne-Yo originally wrote “Owns It” as a demo for himself. Only one verse, and the chorus. But he wouldn’t necessarily keep it for his album. Mac added the second verse, and the bridge, and sang it. Ne-Yo had things that were selling platinum off the top and it wouldn’t have done for me what it’s done for Mac Wilds because of the fact that young artists now get a chance to be really good. “I never heard of you. How are you getting so good?” Whereas some other artists have so many pressures marketing wise that it gets to be a whole other pressure that is sometimes over the top.
In today’s fast-paced and chaotic music marketplace, even superstars have difficulties taking artistic risks.
(Last year) Justin Timberlake went on a ledge, and did a very R&B different thing where every song was 10 minutes long, and it was overwhelming his fans. It was him saying, “I am making a great effort. Whether you are into my songs or not, I going to let you know that I came here and I’m flattered that you are here, and I’m going to give you enough appreciation back.”
The same with Beyoncé dropping a (self-titled) record out of the blue. Seventeen videos and 14 songs and they are all pretty good. It was, “I want you to know that I’ve come here for you. Are you here for me?” Yes, they showed up. Hundreds and thousands of them (fans). So I think that it’s the same approach that with new artists where you do have the wide open field of drawing what you are going to do. With any artist that is established, there is so much expectation that they really have to fight the whole system in order to really stay creative, and push the envelope at times.
It depends on how big the artist is if they or their manager have enough clout to fight the system.
Exactly, to get away with not doing just what it is. A lot of artists have come and gone just because of the fact that they didn’t keep up with the times or didn’t push it forward.
Now that you are a major label executive, what’s your view from the other side.?
I’ve come into situations now as an executive where artists have a hit record, and they don’t want to put it out. They don’t want to use that (recording). They want to do something more artistic that might not hit it home the way it is. In the long run, artists aren’t always right, and labels definitely aren’t always right. It’s about being able to keep that balance, and having everybody able to stay functioning. Many artists don’t make it past that third album with the same success that they had with the first couple of albums, if that’s where they got to. Even now, a lot of artists are being signed, and dropped before they have hit the mark that they wanted to hit.
You worked extensively with Amy Winehouse. What was your first impression of her? I found her refreshing.
It was the same. I was just turning 30. I had had a rough couple of years. I was just moving to Miami. I was like, “Leave me alone unless it’s something good music or good money or good people. Go away.”
When it’s good music and good people, I’m not worried about the money.
I had heard some demos, but it just sounded like she was Erykah Baduish, and I was like, “whatever.”
I was encouraged to meet her by Guy Mooten.
The first day that I met, she sat down, and she started singing “The Girl from Ipanema” and playing guitar. I looked over, and said, “Oh, you can sing.” I looked at her like, “If this is how you are at 18, what can you be at 25?” That’s what I thought at the beginning. What she had naturally, which a lot of people don’t have, is absolute phrasing. She would sing the same song 7 different times 7 different ways. Different melodies that you couldn’t edit or put together. It wasn’t an issue of the vocals being off. It was whether she wanted to use it this way or no of singing it. When I went back to the tapes when she passed she only had two or three takes of most songs. If that. Sometimes one or two takes. She might take a week to write what she wanted to say, and then she’d knock it out in 4 1/2 minutes. Bye bye.
As a natural talent, she was able to take chances with her singing.
Definitely. She had the chops and things that you cannot buy. She absolutely had that. On top of that, she worked hard on the other parts; making sure that lyrically she could say something that was really strong.
Was Amy aware of her own talent?
She knew she could sing anything. She could sing standards. She was like, “I would be happy sitting in a bar.” In a period when her label and publishers weren’t sure if she was going to make another record after “Frank” (2003)—“What is she up to? Will she go into the studio or is she sleeping?”--I was like, “I don’t care. You can send her to me. I will pay for her to sing in my house.” That’s where we started the “Back to Black” album (released in 2006). Her singing in my living room which had a true story feeling, and just hearing her voice. She’s the person that I would like to hear just singing. Period. She was able to sing so well. Some people just have that.
Where were you when you heard she had passed away in her home in London’s Camden district in the early hours of Saturday July 23rd, 2011?
I was on my way to her house. I was picking up jerk chicken.
Someone called you?
The security guy who found her called me. I had been in London. We were going to a weeding on Sunday of Nick Shymansky, her original manager. I got to London on the Thursday. I called the house, “What’s going on?” Well she’s drinking. “Really?” She had (recently) stopped drinking, but had started because she got mad at somebody. I said I’d come on Saturday just so I could make sure that she was good for Sunday. And then she died.
After her death, you pulled together the "Lioness: Hidden Treasures" album. I take it that there wasn’t a finished album.
It was close. We had most of that album written. She had books with all of the lyrics. We knew what we wanted to do. We just didn’t record it, yet. It was just a time for me to go back and listen to what we had. No one else would have really done it. People were really skeptical. No one else believed that we had enough to put together a record. I was the one that pushed it. The label was being very considerate because they didn’t want it to look like they were just going for a money grab. It was really me saying, “I really need to get this out of my system. This is what it is. Instead of hearing you talk years and years about how drunk she was, listen to music and talk to me about that.”
Working on the recording was therapeutic for you?
For me, it was a wakeup call of, “What if I’m not here tomorrow? What happens? Why am I doing this?” I met Amy right after my 30th birthday, and she passed before my 40th. I was really hurting because I had met her right after my mom had passed on my birthday before that. I met her the next birthday. Cool, I get to know you. Ironically, her funeral was on my mother’s birthday.
What’s really happening right here?
It was also a wakeup call that I could have gone and seen her the day before. Maybe if I did, who knows? Maybe if I did, certain things might not have happened. I just waited until the Saturday rather than going to see her on the Friday.
You returned to London, and started pulling that final album together.
I just needed to get it done. I wanted to get it out of my system. It was, “This is what happened in 2011. Put a bookmark there to say this is what happened and start 2012 with fresh energy. It meant a lot to me. It still means a lot to me but I want to delete that (event), and that year.”
["Lioness: Hidden Treasures” was released Dec. 6th, 2011 on Universal Republic. It debuted at the top of the UK albums chart with the biggest first-week sales of Winehouse's career. It debuted at #5 on the Billboard 200 in the U.S. The 12-track collection featured original or alternate versions of classic tracks, and previously unheard songs, including two tracks, "Between the Cheats" and the Nas-guested "Like Smoke” intended for her Winehouse’s third studio album.
There’s considerable pressures working in film and TV where so many diverse voices have to be heard. You seem to feel comfortable in that world.
I guess the last one for television for me was “Being Mary Jane,” working on the pilot for the opening episode. At the same time, I was scoring “Sparkle” and it was the same director, Salim Akil. The way that I have broken it down is that the movie studio is the label, and the artist is the director.
TV networks, and film studios are teeming with people with opinions on creativity.
Definitely a lot of opinions, but I have that anyway (in the music business) so I am used to it. I’m diplomatic enough to not make it (a project) about me. I understand that it’s about this artist, about their vision, and what they are going to have to wear for the rest of their life. And that it’s about this movie company or label’s investment. So ultimately, I’m trying to get the best possible product for the artist for their career and for the label for their dime.
Understanding that’s the balance.
I have taken the time to be in LA, and be in all of the meetings and to know what the processes are in-and-out for a movie. Whether it’s the pre-records or the supervision parts; understanding everything from script onward, and how that turns into the film. I have put a lot of time into that. To me, it’s just another avenue that I can always explore. I have done a lot in the last 10 years since I worked on “After The Sunset” (in 2004). I really got into knowing the entire process; knowing all of the cue sheets,; understanding where the holes are; understanding why some things never hit the mark; and understanding different edits and things that turn up.
I usually find more solutions than problems with any situation. I really look at it with a level head, and leave egos to the side. I’m trying to do the best job that I can do for everyone involved so now we get onto the next phases. That attitude is what keeps me working.
What are your expectations for your own album?
I just want the opportunity for people to hear it (the album). Who cares if it sells 5 or 10 or 15 million. If I can transmit emotions from my house to your house than I’ve done something.
Was it a record that was fun making?
Overall, it was. Really, the record was….Right now, I’m sitting in my record room (in my house in Miami). I have a thing that when I’m going to make music, I listen to stuff for awhile. I will go, “Hey, I want to make one of those.” Then I will figure out piece-by-piece, block by block of how I can make that sound. So this record for me is exactly what I listen to on my time off. The span of the music—I have my playlists. I have my jazz playlist. I have my reggae. I have my soundtracks. I have my Marvin (Gaye) playlist. This is the music that I unwind to. All of these songs are things that I worked on mostly for those artists with albums at the time. They just didn’t necessarily fit with what they were doing with their project. Maybe, it was too retro or it was too this or that, but it was still a great song that myself and the artist loved. With this album, I was able to pull together this body of work of where my heart beat is, and where that keeps me going. “Look, this is volume one of what I actually do aside from what may be commercially successful for most people in their pop star land.”
Are these older tracks recorded when you working with the individual artists?
I wouldn’t say that they are older tracks. They might be ideas that came up. A song idea that started here or there. I did an instrumental album called “Praguenosis” a few years ago, and I had some strings and then Ne-Yo l started writing a song for the strings and then years after that I thought, “I can put a beat behind this.” Then that became the first verse of the song, and then he finished the second verse. So it all kept evolving basically. he song on “Praguenosis” titled " Emancipation Inauguration” became "Everything To Me" on my album.
When I decided that I wanted to put together another recording, first of all I was going to do a vocal version of “Praguenosis” but my stuff from “Praguenosis” became “Windows” and “Tigers” (Jazmine Sullivan’s “Bust Your Windows” and “Lions, Tigers & Bears”) and became half of Nas’ last album "Life Is Good” (2012) Different things were used on that level.
So I was like “Rather than rehashing it (“Praguenosis”), let’s see what else I have.” I had started experimenting with recording all these experiences in 2007. Since then I have been doing a few sessions a year. A lot of times, I recorded things that I didn’t know what they were going to be. I recorded “Eleanor Rigby” because I wanted to get the gist of work in different sizes of rooms and with different arrangements and how I could re-achieve the sounds that I heard and loved on records. So I simply did.
You just wanted to mess around with strings.
Exactly. Ultimately, I’m going to do a Beatles’ inspired record called “Give Chance A Peace.” I decided to include “Eleanor Rigby” because I wanted to make sure my reggae element was covered as far as me laying out the land where I may go with my other records. It is part of what I do.
I love the funky piano intro to “Cup Of Tea.”
That was something I was playing around with. (English R&B singer) Estelle walked into the studio and we just started talking and we came up with “Cup Of Tea.” I came up with some chords, and then I sat down with Vincent Henry who serves as almost my soul mate musically. He plays on a lot of different things that I do. But we had been listening to Dr. Buzzard’s Band (Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band) and some of the different clarinets, and different pieces. So I told him, “Maybe we can put the Dr. Buzzard’s flavor. He heard it ,and said, “Oh, that might be fun.” So we ended up adding that type of flavor against what it was.
I also love the samba feel of “Levi’s Place.”
Last year, I scored the film “Sparkle” which resulted n two songs, “Levi’s Place” and “Chocolate Brown Eyes” which is basically the love theme from “Sparkle.” Every time that Jordin Sparks and Derek Luke would get together as the love interest that gets powerful play. So I wrote the song around the guitar riff trying to make it fit for the movie but, politically or whatever reason, it didn’t come out. But it sounds like this is a song that every young girl needs to hear. “Levi’s Place” was that Levi (the character played by actor Omari Hardwick) had a theme in the movie where he was a little more menacing toward Derek Luke’s character. In that case, we had a theme we had a theme that got cut out of the movie. It was one of my favorite cues. I figured, “Okay, if that’s what it is, cut it but this piece of music has to live somewhere.
[Directed by Salim Akil, “Sparkle” was a 2012 remake of the 1976 film musical of the same name. The film was the debut of “American Idol” winner Jordin Sparks as an actress, and also marked Whitney Houston's final feature film role before her death on Feb. 11, 2012, three months after filming ended. The film is dedicated to her memory.]
Your instrumental take of Keni Burke’s old-school R&B anthem “Keep Rising to the Top” reminds me of those great black exploitation soundtracks of the ‘70s.
Exactly. “Keep Rising to the Top” was symbolic. In Queens when I grew up, that was pretty well the Queens’ anthem. Funkmaster Flex is a close friend of mine. When he had to DJ his first gigs in Queens, I said, “Make sure you play “Keep Rising to the Top.” I showed him how to start it. Boom boom da-boom. Letting the bass come in and out. I was basically growing up this stuff. It just felt like that was like the Queens’ anthem. It was a Queens’ hustler anthem. It was just something in the ’80-s that reminded me of Queens.
Wherever in the world I am, I will play Keni Burke’s “Rising to the Top” or (Billy Joel’s) “New York State Of Mind” just to give myself a refresher. “This is what I am. This is where I’m from.” It really important to do that piece because it reminded being a kid in a time when Chuck Mangione’s “Feel So Good” was also the theme of Ed Koch’s New York. I love New York, and that instrumental of “Keep Rising to the Top” made it. “Well, this feel like my Queens back at home with an orchestral version of an instrumental.”
Takes you back to the intersection of Springfield and 116th in Queens?
Exactly. On the corner riding my bike toward McDonald’s.
Which is on the corner.
Exactly. That was the corner that I grew up on. I lived there from ’76 to ’86 on that block with my mother in the Garden apartments, right next to McDonald’s. Eventually we moved up to 226th and 115th in the Heights. I grew up in that area. My grandfather had a church at 225th and Linden Boulevard.
Your grandfather was a pastor.
Yep. He was a pastor. A reverend.
Did you attend school at Queens’ Thomas Edison High School?
Yep, Thomas Edison. I graduated in ’89. From ’85 to ’89. that was my school.
You would have seen RUN-DMC, LL Cool J, Salt-n-Pepa and other hip hop stars in the neighborhood
Definitely. Where I lived was on the corner, and right down the block I could see Andrew Jackson High school (closed down in 1994). That was a school that a lot of rappers went to. LL Cool J, and Run-DMC. It was the school for that side of Jamaica, basically in Queens. The McDonald’s on my block was probably the only one in the area in the ‘80s. So I saw most people coming into that area to go to McDonald’s or passing by to go to Andrew Jackson. I saw them as a kid on my bike. I knew where LL’s grandmother’s house was. It was all part of growing up in Queens and seeing that. These people could be from the area. but they could be stars.
Growing up, that’d be very inspiring. It’s often hard to believe a local can become a celebrity.
I understand that. I had two sides of it. One I definitely saw things from the hip hop generation growing up around me. Hearing Run-MC on the radio while they drove by in a (Buick) Riviera past my house. Meanwhile listening to “Here We Go” or “Perfection” or whatever that was on the radio. It was definitely a reflection of “Wow!” Such and such from college school right there. You could see them. But also my dad being in the business, I grew up knowing a lot of people that were famous. I saw so many different things from Deodato and Kool and the Gang, and Broadway stuff my dad was doing. And working closely with (Harry) Belafonte, and knowing him. I was living with my mom in Queens, but also my dad was in that whole (music) world. He’d pick me up in a car that looked like “Nightrider,” wearing a “Beat Street” jacket. “Really, okay?”
How many people get a drum kit at age three from jazz icon Elvin Jones? That’s pretty crazy.
It totally is. The way I see it is that I have some divine guidance that is allowing me to be in the position to meet the level talent of talent and experience and also able to meet the levels of talent that I’ve been able to get into different places. I couldn’t have asked for a better set of people that I have had the opportunity to work with. and help out in that way that has ultimately helped me become a better producer.
[When Remi was three years, jazz drummer Elvin Jones, heard him hitting things with drumsticks. A family friend, Jones made him a miniature drum set out of a cocktail drum kit. Later, Remi took drum lessons with jazz drummer Steve Reed. He also played in bands and orchestras in junior high school, and high school.]
Your dad Van Gibbs is a famous studio guitarist who also had a studio when you were growing up.
Yeah, he had a studio in Manhattan. He was born in Trinidad and came up in the business where his father said, “Go drive cab or work in the hospital.” He did the rebellion thing in his family, although his brothers are musicians as well. He became the successful one that did the musician thing, but also went through being in the music business. Being a manager to having the label to publishing companies, and everything else on the business side. He worked with Belafonte and other (mainstream artists) but he was the first one to take Doug E. Fresh into the studio. He set up a contest that the Fat Boys won, and he ended up producing them. He wasn’t genre specific. He kind of went from hip hop to R&B to jazz to everything else. So my musical span is also a reflection of his career and extending it in a whole other way for the next label. Taking what he started as A. and making it A-B-C.
[Born and raised in Trinidad & Tobago, Van Gibbs has worked many major artists including Harry Belafonte, Esther Phillips, Stephanie Mills, Sarah Dash, Gloria Gaynor, the Spinners, Josh Stone, Rupee, Patra and others. As well, he played for many Broadway shows, including: Chorus Line,” “Don't Bother Me I Can't Cope,” “You Arms Too Short to Box With God,” “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” and “Eubie.” He started arranging, recording, producing and releasing records independently in the late 70's. In 1987, he joined the marketing / promotion staff at Polygram Records, and also produced the Fat Boys, Kurtis Blow and others. He launched his own company, Palm Tree Enterprises in 1987.]
Your dad was managing the popular soca singer Allison Hines.
He still does. He’s in his “sunset clauses,” as I call it, where he’s working on that level and enjoying his life in Barbados. He’s still in the business in that way. Sometimes, he will play on a record if I ask him to. He played on the first Amy Winehouse album.
Does he still jokingly call you “Looper Vandross?”
Nahhhhh (laughing). That was in the ‘80s when he’d say, “Why don’t you just play some music, man?” What happened for me was that it wasn’t just the music being played, it was understanding the sonics. Understanding how they get the sound of it. The thing about my records is that it’s not only the music that is played but sonically it also hits you the way that those (classic) records hit you. That was my biggest challenge. I can still do many different things and there are people who can play better than me but I think that sonically I able to achieve whether it’s ‘80s, ‘90s or ‘60s or ’20 I can get close to what I’m hearing in my head. That was the biggest thing for me just being able to step away from just looping all of that time even though when I do it I think that I do it pretty well because I am really utilizing all aspects of the record.
Heavy metal musicians talk about being in school and drawing speaker set-ups. You were dropping beats in the 7th grade?
Yeah. When I was in the 7th grade I had this little Yamaha PortaSound keyboard. I still play it on some records. This keyboard had the ability for me to program little organ drum-type beats. I started programming whatever the beats were at the time on this thing on the school bus. I would bring it to school sometimes and I was in band class so I would have an excuse to play it there. But on the bus, I would be sitting there making little beats, coming out with stuff and people would be like, “What are you doing?” (Now) we laugh at it. People say, “You were making beats easily in high school, right and you are still doing it but you were there.
Last year, Doug E. Fresh hit me on his 45th birthday with, “The first time that I went into the studio you were there, and you were touching every instrument in there. You were playing drums, messing with the keyboards, and messing with the guitar. You were doing what you are doing now.” I’m like, really Doug E. That’s what you are thinking about on the morning of your 45th birthday? I’m on it. That the first thing that hits you on the head was the fact that I was there in the studio messing with instruments.”
You got a Roland 707 when you were in the 9th grade. Then you had a Yamaha DX21. In ’87, with an Akai S900 S-900, you were able to start sampling.
Yeah, the 707, and DX-21, those were the things I was working with. I was like, “If it doesn’t sound like funky drummer then I’m not getting it.” Then I got a reverb and a bunch of little things. When I got my first sampler (S-900) I was able to come up with things that sounded like records.
[The Akai S900 was the first truly affordable digital sampler. It was 8-note polyphonic. and featured 12-bit sampling with a frequency range up to 40 kHz and up to 750 KB of memory that allowed for just under 12 seconds at the best sampling rate. It could store a maximum of 32 samples in memory. The operating system was software based, and allowed for upgrades.]
How did you come to own an Akai S900 while still in high school?
Basically, my dad was doing an album for MC Rell & The Houserockers that was on his label through Mercury Records. I helped out and programmed some things. I helped make a beat. He was like, “Okay, you are going to get $1,000 for this beat. What are you going to with the music? I pretty much had produced the record at that point. I was 15 or 16. Basically, he said, “Okay, $1,000. I’m going to sell you my 900, and I’m going to buy a 950. So I got his 900 for that $1,000. I manipulated it utilized the (studio) school as much as I could to get to the next step.
You played on Kurtis Blow sessions in 1986.
I was helping my dad out. It was, “I was here. I guess I helped on this.” That was their record more o less. My first career (Blow) record was “Back By Popular Demand” (in 1988). They werewere looking for a concept, and Kurtis Blow ended up using “Back By Popular Demand” as his album title, and the key for the single and whatever else there was. That was my first true Blow imprint. An imprint more than (playing on) what was going on.
Your intros in your production grab me within seconds. I’m locked. Is that something you consciously do?
I am usually conscious of how a record starts, and what emotion I am trying to get out of someone, and how that emotion wraps around a lyric. So that’s my main pocket there, and it’s usually in the strings.
Plus you use strings on a lot of your records. How did that come about?
When I worked on “Rush Hour 3” (2007) with Lalo Schifrin. I did the rhythm track for the opening title song that was “Less Than an Hour” with Nas & Cee-Lo Green. Then Lalo added orchestra, and I decided to go to Prague and start experimenting on my own doing different things with orchestras.
So that’s what the “Eleanor Rigby” and the strings on Ne-Yo's “Everything To Me” originally started from me having that idea. If I can control strings things, then I can write music until I’m 80, and have young people play it. Lalo was 75 at the time. He was getting old, but he knew what every note was, and he knew what every musician was supposed to be playing, and he conducted it, and he went there.
Your future depends on challenges?
My “sunset clause” is different from my dad’s in Barbados. I might be in Miami and I might have a trio come by, and play some great jazz music with equipment set up in my living room like I do now. I’m sure it will be 50, 50, 70 year old music, but it will be something that I love. I just feel that I can be recording two to three times a week, recording sambas, recording boss nova, recording anything that I really feel relaxed, and inspired by.
You continue to love music.
Right now I’m talking to you, and I have some (jazz guitarist) Grant Green playing in the background. That’s what I like to do. This is where I am comfortable besides making those commercially viable, whatever is going on now, records. Just sitting down here, and enjoying the musical processes.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.
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