Interview with KOOKIE, producer for 411 (UK Top 5) - Feb 14, 2005
Kookie made his international breakthrough through HitQuarters.Kookie made contact with his manager through HitQuarters, which lead him to produce the UK Top 5 hit ďOn My KneesĒ by 411 and Treysongz Ft. Twista at Atlantic Records US. Here he tells the success story.
What was your musical background before becoming a producer?
I started to play classical guitar from the age of 12, and practiced for four years. I also played the piano for a while. I listened to a lot of different music, mostly rock and metal. After some time I got interested in hip hop, and bought some old studio equipment, including an Amiga computer. In the beginning producing was a hobby, something I combined with playing guitar in a band. But the more I listened to R&B and hip hop, the more I became focused towards that.
To be a good producer, how important are musical skills?
It depends on what kind of producer you want to be. As a hip hop producer I donít really think you need any instrumental skills at all, besides a good ear. But if you want to do R&B or pop oriented music, then you definitely need to be able to play some keyboard. Some basic music theory is also a must, because R&B and pop is more about a great song than a good backing track.
How did you develop your sense of listening?
Iíve always listened to a lot of different music; itís very important to be open to new forms of expression. As a sample-based producer I started out sampling classical music, but after a while I got more into 70ís soul music. If your goal is to be a good all-round producer, the key thing is to have an open ear. Listen to what is out there, what is popular and what actually works.
What artists or producers have had an impact on your work?
DJ Premier from Gang Starr has had a great impact on me as a hip hop producer. It was because of him that I got interested in producing, by listening to his beats and trying to do the same - which I couldnít at first. The way he chopped the samples, arranged the whole structure of the songs and the beats; that was my first inspiration.
You met your manager through Hitquarters. How were the contacts established?
Since Iím based in Norway, a small country with a small market, itís difficult to make a living on music here, even though we had a big hit with a group called Petboys (their single ďBarcelonaĒ is one of the all time bestsellers in Norway). So I started to send out demos to managers and A&Rs I found through Hitquarters.
I sent fifteen CDs with beats to managers and got replies from three of them, one being Michael Mavrolas at Genuine Representation in L.A., who is my manager now. He has a lot of connections and handles all my stuff. He visits A&Rs, managers and different people at record labels to submit my tracks. Through HitQuarters, I also made contact with Nick Raphael, A&R at Sony Music UK, who gave me the opportunity to produce 411 and their UK Top 5 single ďOn My KneesĒ.
When you make beats for artists, what exactly does that mean?
Everything. The melodies, the beats, the drums, the arrangement, the bass; everything besides the vocals.
Do you send the beats mixed, or as separated files?
Never separated; always just one file. I send a regular audio CD, with between ten to twenty beats on it. At the moment Iím building up a catalogue, spending all my time in the studio, just making beats. When someone wants the material, they record a rough version of the track and then decide if theyíre going to keep it. After weíve got a contract, Iíll send the separate files.
If the artist wants the beats, how do you get paid?
The record labels decide. If they want to buy a track, we handle the paperwork and then I usually get a one time fee for the track; half of the fee is paid upfront, and the other half is paid when the master is finished. Besides that, I also get royalties from sales and publishing.
What is the usual royalty rate?
Itís around three to five percent of the distribution price. Though, since I use a lot of samples, a lot of money has to be spent on clearing the rights.
Does it often happen that you have to rework beats?
Itís very rare that I have to rework material - itís either Ďyesí or Ďnoí. If the A&Rs are happy with the music, they donít tell me to rework it. If they donít like it, it usually wonít get cut. Sometimes it happens that they call me and request a certain kind of beat that they want to cut with an artist.
How did you get to submit beats for Charlotte Church?
Nick Raphael, would call me from time to time to ask for beats for different artists, and one of them was Charlotte Church. We recorded a track that was a kind of R&B/pop style. The song is on hold right now.
Do you use live instruments?
I donít use live instruments in my beats, but work with Brian James, an American producer, who is a very good guitar player. I send him beats, basically just drums, or drums with bass, and he plays some guitar on top, to make it more R&B. Heís the only instrumentalist Iím working with.
Do you ever get contacted by the artist in person?
In Norway it happens all the time, but in America and the UK Iíve never been contacted by an artist in person.
How did you get Twista to be on one of your tracks?
My manager sent some tracks to Mike Caren, A&R for Twista at Atlantic Records US. He liked the beat on one of them and wanted to cut it with a new singer called Treysongz. Itís an R&B track featuring Twista. They did the recordings by themselves, so there was no need for me to go to the States.
Though, I would like to work more with artists in the studio, because thatís how you come up with the greatest songs. I think itís really important for a producer to be part of the whole process.
Do the artists take an active part in the production?
Itís kind of a split process. When it came to the Treysongz track, I think both him and Twista were in the studio when they produced the song. I did all the music, but there was a vocal producer who produced all the vocals.
What information do you get from labels when they request a track?
They usually say something like: ďWe want a track in the same vibe as ĎOn My KneesĎĒ, and thatís it. They donít give any specifics about style and tempo, and now when they know my style, they will call me if they need it.
What are the most important characteristics of a hit?
It definitely has to have a strong melody, and be simple enough for most people to sing along to. All the hit songs you hear on the radio have a chorus, or a hook; it has to be easy for people to remember.
When you start writing a song, do you usually have a specific artist in mind?
Sometimes I write with a specific artist in mind. I know which artists the labels have, so I try to make tracks that could suit the artists. Though, most of the time I just go with whatever idea is coming up.
What advice would you give to aspiring producers?
Most important is to have a unique sound, your own style, and being comfortable with it; donít try to copy other producers. When you have all the basics covered, the knowledge of how to structure a song, then itís important to develop the production and the sound picture.
That could mean anything from programming drums to chopping samples. After that, itís just hard work. Labels and artists are always looking for new things, and will probably be interested if they hear something theyíve never heard before. Some labels even buy tracks from producers who are not technically good, but have an own style, a certain talent.
With regards to publishing, Iíve been advised by my manager, not to do any deals right now. A publishing deal is basically just an advance; you get a certain fee, and you have to recoup it from your royalties in the end of the day. I would say to any new producer: keep the publishing to yourself until you have at least four or five hits. Itís only worth it, if you need the money right now.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would it be?
Iím quite happy with the way it is right now. But it would be nice if A&Rs could listen to a backing track and imagine how it would sound with vocals on it. There are a lot of producers with strong beats who are unable to sell their productions due to this fact, and there are a lot of producers that make good backing tracks, but have to find a songwriter just to make a full presentation of the track.
I think there are a lot of people that complain about the music industry on how itís built up, but I think itís actually quite good; if youíve got a great song, you will sell it eventually. Out of a hundred A&Rs, there is always one that will see the big picture and actually give it a chance.
What was your greatest moment in the music business?
Itís definitely having sold the track for Twista and Treysongz. Itís not out yet, but itís going to be a big single in the US, and that will probably generate a lot of work for me. But among those tracks that are already out, the best moment is seeing one of my beats become a hit outside of Norway. The first time was with ďOn My KneesĒ by 411. I didnít really know how people were going to respond to it, so when it went to No. 4 in England, it was a great moment.
What do you see yourself doing in the next 5-10 years?
I will be a more complete producer, when it comes to doing complete songs. My goal is to be in the studio with artists, working out whole songs and being a part of the whole process. And, of course, to be a respected producer and to have an established name in the industry.
Iím thinking about doing an instrumental album as well, more electronic with big beats, like Fatboy Slim. Just to expand beyond the hip hop thing. To be able to be part of the changes and to set some trends, that would be nice.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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