Interview with Andreao 'Fanatic' Heard, producer for Michael Jackson, Beyonce, Will Smith, Lil' Kim, Anthony Hamilton - Nov 25, 2008
"Michael Jackson was great to work with, because he’s a real perfectionist vocally"
Hailing from North Carolina and conquering the music industry with his attitude, originality and sense of enterprise, Andreao 'Fanatic' Heard is credited for producing King Of Pop Michael Jackson, as well as winning a Grammy for producing Beyonce (No.1 US), and working with Will Smith (No.1 US), Lil' Kim (Top 10 US) and Anthony Hamilton (Top 20 US).
He talks to HitQuarters about some of his big projects, about his advice to beginner producers, and about the need to carry a CD with your music at all times!
How did it all start with The Bizzie Boyz back in the day?
Eli Davis, who now manages Anthony Hamilton, and Ski Beatz were some of my best friends. Eli and I took an electronic music class together. He introduced me to Ski and we decided to form a group together, which was The Bizzy Boyz.
We started doing shows around the Greensboro, NC area. It wasn’t so much that we were better than a lot of the rappers that were in the area. But we were very organized. Where other rappers would freestyle over beats, we actually had song structure, verses, choruses and we made our own productions.
At that time everybody was just rhyming over instrumental records, but we purchased a drum machine and made our own actual beats and songs. And it kind of separated us from everybody else, because we had a stage show and we had actual songs that we would do, while everybody else was just freestyling.
We used to do shows with Biz Markie, Heavy D & The Boyz, Salt-N-Pepa. We were the biggest thing in the local area so we would play with those acts when they came to town.
And I actually saw Eddy F, who DJed with Heavy D & The Boyz, and he used the SP1200 first. I was talking to him backstage about it and he was telling me all these great things it did.
So I was like: “If I can have this machine, it’s definitely going to separate me from everybody else in this area that is doing production.” I was one of the first ones to have it down here. And I used that machine to actually make our first record that we made with Payroll Records.
What was significant in learning your producer skills?
I was already producing, but didn’t even realise that that’s exactly what I was doing. At that point, Ski was doing all the rapping and I was just programming the beat on the drum machine. And I was actually in the studio arranging the songs, coming up with verses, and programming on the SP1200.
With hip-hop anyway, producing didn’t really exist. There wasn’t really a producer in the forefront. At that time, Larry Smith was the only one that was producing. He was doing Whodini, Run D.M.C. and people like that, but it still wasn’t known as ‘this record was produced by such and such’.
How did you develop into your own style of producing?
Through talking with Biz Markie, who was a close friend of mine. We did a lot of shows with him. After the shows we would go back to his hotel room and Biz would just talk about Beat Break records and producing for hours and hours.
He was always telling me about arrangements and how to set your songs up so that the intro grabs the listener as soon as they hear it. He just gave me so many pointers on producing and how to actually construct songs.
I took a lot of his input and then applied my own technique to making records. At that time, I was sampling a lot of James Brown records from my dad’s record collection. My dad was in a band with Maceo, playing guitar and bass.
So before everybody had really caught on to James Brown we were having a New York sound but we were from North Carolina. Then everybody in New York started sampling the James Brown records. So we were doing it simultaneously with them.
And at that time, New York was only playing New York records. It wasn’t playing anybody outside of New York. But we were getting airplay there, because our records sounded like they were coming from New York!
So the kids from New York would come to school down here. They would bring the mixtapes down and our records would be playing on the radio up there. It gave us a lot of respect because we were from Greensboro but we were played in New York City.
How did you start Sixthboro Entertainment inc.?
We started out in 1994 with an artist called Omniscience. He was a rapper from Bear Creek, NC, but he had a very New York sound. We started producing him. We went to the New Music Seminar.
He was in the MC battle up there and did very well. Then we had a lot of labels interested in signing us. I did a six song EP with him. Eventually we landed a deal with Elektra Records.
You understand the elements that made records from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s special. What's your take on re-using breaks from the past?
I know that with producing records, a hit record in general, there are certain elements in a hit record that will never change. If you know those elements, then you can consistently use those elements and you’ll never be outdated, and your records will become timeless.
My thing as a producer has always been to create special moments for those artists that I work with. Take them to places that they normally wouldn’t go, and apply those elements there to make the record stand out.
I tried to achieve that with Michael Jackson, Beyoncé and all the different artists that I’m working with. The aim is always that when people hear your song on an album, it stands out among all the others.
Is there always a whole new market to target with beats from the past, as there’s a real fine line between backpack hip-hop and what’s acceptable to the masses?
There’s only a few artists like Kanye West that know how to ride that fine line between using classic hip-hop and the way to make it current with what’s going on today.
And when you can do that, you can sell a lot of records and you’ll become very acceptable to everybody. Because it’s something that has the touch from the past and the rawness and authenticity of hip-hop but at the same time it’s a mix with what’s contemporary.
What’s the secret of the ability to do that?
You need to be able to reminisce on what was hot back in the day and apply it to what’s going on now. It’s more about studying hip-hop and being a part of that culture.
Most of the artists that are really good at that are those who grew up around the late ‘80s, early ‘90s when hip-hop was in its rawest point, and was very creative. You had artists from the same region and none of them sounded alike.
You could have three different artists in New York City but their flows weren’t similar and they all had a different style, whereas now, if you’re going down south all the rappers sound just about the same.
You want to write something that is going to have an affect on someone’s life twenty years from now. What is a song like that made of?
I started off in hip-hop and then I started doing R&B, and I’m now doing a lot of pop and rock. But I’m a recording artist myself now. I’m actually singing, writing and producing my own album that I’m completing now, entitled ‘The Alpha Big Mama Project’.
My record is a mixture of Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, and John Cougar Mellencamp. It’s a crossbreed of everything that I was raised on in the late ’80s, early ‘90s, when pop music consisted of George Michael, Culture Club, Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna.
It was all those iconic artists that came out at one time that were able to mix music and include R&B, dance and pop elements in it. And I think that the music industry is getting away from that now.
That’s the key of being successful and being able to cross genres and making your pitch acceptable to everybody. Stone, Hendrix and Prince were able to do that, and they became iconic artists at the end of the day because they were able to bring people together with their music.
That’s what I want to do with my records. I want to bring elements of soul, R&B and rock together. And in a way, it all goes back to blues and gospel.
Lyrically, I want to carry a message, but not in every song. My songs are a mixture of positive messages. The influences society has on the world today, the demise of the black woman, substance abuse as well as relationships and erotic encounters.
I feel like the general direction lyrical content is going now is really going to kill R&B, because nobody is talking about anything with any substance, especially with the state of the world right now.
Back in the ‘60s you had Bob Dylan doing protest songs, you had Marvin Gaye talking about what was going on in Vietnam. Nobody is singing about the times right now. Everybody is singing about club records.
You have sixteen songs on an album. You don’t have to party on the whole album. You can clip a message into it. That’s my thing. I want to bring that back. I’m going to write that record and it’s going to be relevant 20 years from now when I’m going to hear it in a grocery store.
I have a song called ‘The Black Girl’s N Trouble’, which I just did with Anthony Hamilton. That record is about stereotypes of how African-American women are portrayed, not letting society dictate what the definition of beauty is.
And it’s not just for black women, it’s for women of all colours. Just being happy and satisfied with your ethnic features, because your ethnic features are what defines who you are.
I have a record called ‘Andy Go Home’ about the exploitation of black artists back in the days of Pat Boone and Elvis. And another one is called ‘Jesus Fell Off My Cross Today’, where I talk about society and I kind of play the role of the devil, and we talk about everything that’s going on in the world today.
I’m not necessarily preaching about it but just bringing it to light. These things are going on in the world today where everybody has gotten away from their morals and their values just to sell and be successful.
When was ever making a sex tape a way to become famous? We talk about all those things, but at the same time it’s very good music and it’s a crossbreed of all the different genres together. It’s very accessible to young people as well as older listeners.
What makes you different from today's typical cut-and-paste producers?
I studied music. I grew up on pop music and classic rock music. I’m interested in studying forms of music that came before us. I just recently took six months and intensely studied blues and traditional gospel music. I study country music now.
Another artist I look up to is Kid Rock. I love the way he is able to ride the fence between country, pop, rock and rap. He has iconic country artists that want to work with him. They have a sense of resonance with his sounds.
Do you consider the No.1 hit ‘Crush On You’ (1996) for Lil’ Kim and ‘Y’all Know’ (1997) for Will Smith's 10 million seller ‘Big Willie Style’ your first successes?
Lil’ Kim was just getting into the game. Eli Davis was managing me at that time, and we were venturing back and forth to New York City. We ran into Biggie at The Hit Factory just downstairs in the lobby on West 54th Street.
He told us to come upstairs. We said we had tracks for Lil’ Kim. One thing I learned in music school in Atlanta was to always be prepared with your music.
And when I lecture now to different universities like Alcorn State University, I always stress to the students the importance of having your music on you at all times, because you never know if you’re going to run into that right connection.
At the time we were putting tracks on CDs and nobody was doing that. Everybody had deck cassettes that they were putting their music on. So we had a bunch of tracks on CD, and she picked one of the tracks and that’s how we got that placement.
I wanted to take both Lil’ Kim and Will Smith back to classic hip-hop.
Then, as one of P.Diddy's Hitmen you produced records for the Notorious B.I.G. and Ma$e…
That’s actually how Puffy ended up signing me as a Hitmen producer as well, because I had so many tracks. I was just making tracks every single day and I always had them on a CD where you had fifty different tracks to go through.
You produced the song ‘Heaven Can Wait’ (2001) for the largest recording artist on the planet, Michael Jackson…
Michael was really great to work with, because he’s like a real perfectionist vocally. He warmed out for like two hours with his vocal chords before he came in and even sang the song.
I was trying to take Michael Jackson back to ‘The Lady In My Life’. That was a classic record that Michael made and I wanted to take him back to that same feeling and vibe again.
I got together with Teron Beal, who I knew was a Michael Jackson fanatic. He would write the right record for Michael that would bring that vibe across.
Michael queued the vocals down in Miami with Teddy Riley and the next thing you know the record came out and I was like: “Wow, this is an incredible record. Michael hasn’t done a record like this in a long time.”
You won a Grammy for producing ‘Speechless’ (2003) for the superstar Beyoncé…
That was a big moment for me, because that was the first time Beyoncé had ever been that candid about a sexual experience on a record. Previous to that, all her records were just about love and relationships. And this was the first erotic record that she had ever done.
The day I made that track with Sherrod Barnes, the first thing I was thinking was “This has such a sexual erotic Isley Brothers vibe.” I was really studying Ernie Isley’s guitar solos at that time.
When I got the track to Beyoncé, she interpreted exactly what I wanted to say where I was going with it. It automatically connected, and that’s why the record came out like it did.
What’s The Alpha Big Mama project?
Alpha Big Mama is about bringing back fashion and personality to rock ‘n’ roll and to music in general. If you look at the bands that are out now, everyone wears jeans and T-shirts. Nobody is like over-the-top with the fashion like it used to be.
You would see Michael Jackson with this jacket on in ‘Thriller’ and be like: “I want a jacket like that, but I can’t find it anywhere.”
Everybody was doing something different that was a part of their image. Prince with the trench coat. Madonna with what she was wearing. We want to bring it back.
Also with the personalities; now you know who Adam Levine is in Maroon 5, but you don’t know who else is in the band. They’re insignificant. Where back in the day, it was Keith and Mick, it was Axl and Slash, it was Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth. We want to bring the personalities back.
Even down to the R&B groups; with Jodeci, you knew who K-Ci and JoJo was and you knew who DeVante Swing and Dalvin were. And those are the artists that blew up because people would come to the shows because they liked what this or that guy would bring to the table.
It wasn’t like everybody was just coming to see the lead singer. They would come to see every thing that the band had to offer. The Alpha Big Mama revue is about that. Putting talented musicians on stage together where they all possess a special talent that stand out.
We have Terri Robinson in the group, who wrote records for Total and Soul 4 Real. She wrote a bunch of records in Bad Boy’s heyday. She brings a certain gospel bluesy tone with her ad-lib in the background. She’s an incredible arranger.
You have all these different elements; male, female, black and white all on stage together creating this great monster sound of eclectic R&B, soul and rock.
Being a recording artist now, do you still have time to produce?
A while ago I decided that I was going to produce out of passion more than I was going to produce out of trying to keep up with the trends and of what’s going on in pop music right now.
Everything sounds so watered down and simplistic. The producer is not what a producer was when I started.
The producer now is the guy from Arizona or Kansas that has the Trident and MPC in his house and is making beats that’s like the record that you just heard on the radio. They’re making records that have four sounds in them.
I come from the school of Quincy Jones where you have changes in your record, you have choruses and arrangements that are different; it’s real music.
I only come out and produce when it’s an artist that I’m really passionate about working with. Somebody that can take my records to the next level.
I decided to be an artist because I come from a school of being in groups. I learned so much about showmanship from Ski, how to keep the beat and work the crowd and how to make records in the studio, and delivering the goods, and having character in the vocal booth.
I just applied everything that I’ve learned from people that I’ve worked with and put it into my career. Because I felt that musically nobody is doing anything different. I have nothing to lose at this point by going against the grain and trying to do something different musically.
I would much rather lose doing something different than trying to fit in to what’s going on in music today, because I don’t feel a lot of diversity in the sound of the music that’s coming out right now.
Which artists are currently on the project?
Right now, it’s just Anthony Hamilton, but everybody that I’ve worked with from Beyoncé onwards has agreed to come in and be a part of the project, whether it’s a guest appearance or playing on the record.
We just started putting the record together and Anthony was the first one that I connected with. He amplified his whole image and what he’s all about in ‘The Black Girl’s N Trouble’.
We’re going to bring other people into it. We’ve got the MySpace page up now. It has my discography on it. It has all the credits on it. And it has the new music from Alpha Big Mama on it. You can get a taste of where we’re going musically and what the songs are about.
What’s the ‘Fanatic’ mode when it comes to map out a project?
The ‘Fanatic’ mode actually starts in my head. I listen to a lot of pop music from the ‘60s and ‘70s. The Beatles, Rolling Stones. I start out singing my ideas into the dictaphone. I may sit down at the piano and come up with some basic chords. Then I bring Sherrod Barnes in.
Everything on our album is strictly bass, lead guitar and drums. I made all the beats on the SP1200 drum machine. We start off like that, then I’ll sit down and write a song. Then I’ll have Terri Robinson coming in and add backgrounds and arrangements to it.
We’ll just vibe and add so many layers to the song. That’s basically the process that we go through when putting our records together.
What gear you can’t live without?
I’ll use the SP1200 until the day I die. Every record that I’ve ever produced is on the SP1200. It’s like the grittiness of the SP1200 that makes it so raw and that makes it stand out. The MPC is just too clean. I love the SP1200.
I’m actually in talks with guy that used to work at E-mu Systems to start developing my own brand of SP1200s that have just that same sample dirty gritty sound. It’s like updating the machine so that it’s relevant to stay with the disc time and have more sampling time and things like that.
How do you stay ‘musically refreshing and lyrically thought-provoking’?
I actually write a lot of my songs from everyday conversations that I have with people. I keep a log in my BlackBerry of song titles and song lyrics.
I’m always in a conversation with somebody and I say: “Hey, that could make a great song.” Whether it’s a phrase, whether it’s a situation that they’re going through. I try to write songs that are relatable to different people around me, universal topics.
Are you signed to a publishing company?
Right now I’m with Jellybean Music Publishing. I’ve been with them for over a year now. They’ve been very instrumental with helping us get our music out there and move it around. We’re looking to license a lot of the records in movies, TV commercials and film.
What advice would you give upcoming producers entering the market?
You definitely have to take the time to learn how to play an instrument. Even if you just take thirty minutes a day. That’s number 1.
You have to look at examples of producers from the past. Study everybody from Phil Spector to Quincy Jones and onwards. And study what their message and techniques were. I’ve been reading a lot of things about Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and Prince. They used unorthodox techniques with recording and sound.
Definitely understand what song structure is. And what elements go into popular music that are making records hit records.
If you’re a hip-hop producer, study other genres than hip-hop and learn from those records, and then apply them to what you’re doing as well.
And I have people in my rollerdex that I want to meet. I could be watching TV or see something on the web and want to meet this guy. I put it in my BlackBerry and I type beside it what my conversation would be. So if I would run into Russell Simmons in a club, I could look at my Rolodex and say, “Now, what did I want to talk with Russell Simmons about?”
In New York City you run into people everywhere. In the clubs, on the streets, in the studio. You’re always running into somebody that’s in the music business. Networking is so essential. And it’s best to have your music on you at all times.
Will you be staying in NY or will you return to NC?
I eventually wanted to go to North Carolina, because there’s a lot of talent down in that area. And there’s a lot of raw talent coming out of the churches, which is where the best singers are.
But nobody has really blew up this area yet. There are so many successful artists from Jodeci on to have come out of there.
Ski made ‘Shoop’ for Salt-N-Pepa. I made ‘Crush On You’ for Lil’ Kim. Mike City did the Sunshine Anderson record. Jodeci was huge. We all started together and we made classic records.
We worked with some of the biggest artists on the planet collectively; from Jay-Z to Michael Jackson to Beyoncé to Will Smith. And we’re all from this small place in North Carolina.
I would like to eventually come back and set up a shop and nurture some of the talent in this area. You’ll find the real singers in the churches in the South.
Do you have a consulting service?
No. It’s more like a lecture series. We go around to different colleges and we lecture about the music business and give them insight on how to get in.
When you go out there, you see the energy and the hunger in the students who are starving for information on how to get into the music business.
And I just wish that like when I was coming up, we had that same type of thing whereas somebody would come and mentor us and give us information and insight on how to get in. But I see they don’t have that.
So that’s my whole mission. Every chance I get I’ll go to a college and speak to the music students about how to get into the music business and what to look for and what pitfalls to expect.
And will you be selling clothes via your website?
Eventually yes. We’re going to take it to fashion as well. We’re designing a line right now called Austin Shawnee, which is high-end exclusive pieces, very rock ‘n’ roll fashionable pieces that all coincide with the music.
You’ll see us wearing them in videos and photo shoots. We’ll set up a boutique in New York and one in LA as well, where you can get exclusive pieces that not everybody have access to.
What is it you would still like to achieve in your music career?
At the end of the day, I just want to make that classic record that when I’m in a grocery store twenty years from now and that record is still playing in the loudspeaker above me. That’s my aim. To make a classic record that will play forever.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
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