Gaga for RedOne
- Last Updated: August 21. 2010 5:39PM UAE / August 21. 2010 1:39PM GMT
RedOne won a Grammy for best dance recording with Lady Gaga’s Poker Face in January. Lucy Nicholson / Reuters
Back in 2008, Lady Gaga’s anthemic Just Dance signalled the arrival of a genuine star. Her debut single was No 1 all over the world and rightly so: it combined gurgling synth-pop with R&B in a fresh, exciting way. It had an absolutely killer chorus. But what were the first words of the track with which Gaga announced herself to the world? Not “Just dance” or “gonna be ok”. In a voice mangled by electronics, she namechecked “RedOne”, this fantastic song’s producer.
Perhaps it was her way of saying thank you. Unusually, for multi-million-selling pop stars, Gaga writes her own songs – in fact, before the success of Just Dance she had composed tracks for Britney Spears, The Pussycat Dolls and Fergie. But it took working with the Moroccan-Swedish producer RedOne – also known as Nadir Khayat – to tease out the futuristic sound that immediately made her so distinctive. Khayat became so influential, he ended up with a co-writer as well as a producer credit on many of Gaga’s best songs. So Bad Romance, Alejandro, Poker Face... they all bear RedOne’s name.
And while Khayat is unlikely to be chased by the paparazzi any time soon, he’s become hot property. Named producer of the year by Billboard magazine and songwriter of the year by the music industry body BMI, it was announced last week that he is to launch his own record label – with backing from Universal Records. The imprint, called 2101 Records, will work as a one-stop shop for artists hoping for a sprinkling of the RedOne magic dust: he will find new talent, co-write with them and produce their records before one of the Universal labels (Mercury, Island, Motown and so on) compete to release the completed music.
The first signing is the Swedish-Congolese singer Mohombi. “Everyone’s going to go crazy about him,” RedOne told the BBC. The first fruits of their collaboration, Bumpy Ride, has all the RedOne traits – the pop hooks, the ravey synths, the curiously electronic voice – but, well, it’s not a patch on Lady Gaga. Khayat can’t be blamed for striking while the iron’s hot, of course, but he would do well to take heed from other super-producers who have enjoyed similar leaps to prominence. Success can easily lead to tiresome ubiquity. And being formulaic is one of the greatest crimes in music.
Ten years ago, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo were very much in the position RedOne enjoys today. As The Neptunes’ production team, their tracks, with their trademark punchy drums, sounded exciting and new. A browse through their credits from that time is a staggering list of the best in new pop music: Britney Spears’ I’m A Slave 4 U, Nelly’s Hot In Herre, and the repositioning of Justin Timberlake as an exciting solo artist. By 2003, a survey suggested that one in five songs played on British radio was a Neptunes production. Incredibly, in the US it was closer to one in two.
So the launch of their own record label, Star Trak, was the logical next step. Backed, like RedOne, by Universal, the hope was that The Neptunes’ Midas touch would bring further riches. But the Star Trak discography is essentially a litany of near misses – even Pharrell Williams’s own solo record was hugely disappointing. And that’s because The Neptunes’ sound had become so de rigueur, it was boring.
It’s a tale Mark Ronson can probably empathise with, too. Also a record label owner, as a producer, he’s been responsible for some of Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen and Daniel Merriweather’s best moments, as well as his own album Versions, featuring indie songs rebooted as dance-soul tracks. Winehouse’s Back To Black, in particular, is the record Ronson will perhaps forever be associated with – its retro soul sound also transposed on to Adele’s hugely successful debut album. From 2005 to 2008, he was easily the most famous music producer in the world, and certainly the best-connected. Judging by his new record – which features collaborations with the likes of Boy George, Duran Duran and Ghostface Killer – he’s also the canniest. He’s promised that there will be none of the horns and brass that became a byword for a Ronson production. Ronson is – and this is rarer than you might think – ripping up his hit-making template and attempting something new.
The reason such moves are so infrequent among producers is obvious; they get work because record labels like what they’ve heard and want it replicated. It’s like asking the eight-times Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country For Old Men, The Shawshank Redemption) to shoot your films – you know the kind of expansive, well-lit images you’re going to get. It doesn’t pay for music producers to have a confusingly diverse CV.
So it’s easy to surmise that producers turn up to the studio, listen to the rough demos from bands or singers before twiddling some knobs and adding the usual sonic accoutrements they’re known for. Bingo, album done. It’s not quite as simple as that. Depending on the artist, the producer is a father figure, a headmaster – even a policeman in the case of a warring band. Paul Epworth, the current British Producer Of The Year for his work with Florence + The Machine, once admitted he’d often made his charges (Bloc Party, Friendly Fires, Kate Nash) cry in the process of making a record. “Paul was never afraid to push me and the boundaries of the music we were making,” confirmed Florence Welsh at the Brit Awards this year. “His methods may be unorthodox... but they were always inspiring.”
Of course, RedOne takes all this to another level; he helps to write the songs, too. He’s not quite the master of such an all-encompassing approach yet – that accolade has to go to the Xenomania and Stargate teams, which have consistently produced, composed and written some of the greatest and most innovative pop of the 21st century with Sugababes, Girls Aloud, Beyoncé and Rihanna. But he’s getting there. And, most impressively, getting the namechecks. One wonders why he needs the hassle of a record label at all.