Staying on the Edge: An Interview with Damon Elliott

Damon Elliott knows his pop music.

As the son of R&B legend Dionne Warrick, Elliott got interested in his mother’s industry at a young age, and, after spending years hanging out with songwriters like Burt Bacharach and Quincy Jones, made the leap to professional producer in 1996 when he worked with Bone Thugz-n-Harmony’s Flesh-n-Bone on the hit song, “T.H.U.G.S: Trues Humbly United Gatherin’ Souls.” Since then, he has built an enviable career producing tracks for movie soundtracks as well as a who’s-who list of contemporary music superstars, from Destiny’s Child to Pink, Mya, and Alicia Keys.

Elliot kindly talked to PopMatters about his career, his role as a producer, and his recent work on the soundtrack to the remake of the 1980 classic, Fame

+ + +

So you have a big project coming out with Fame. How did you get involved with that? What was the mindset you had going into it, knowing that it was at once a remake of something many people consider a classic, but also something that had to be relevant today? What can we expect to hear?

Well some of the challenges were obviously … you don’t want to destroy the feel or the brand. You know what I mean? Like, Fame is an Academy Award-winning movie, for the music — you know what I mean. It’s like, you’ve got to kind of walk carefully. But you also have to be brave because you have to know that, you grew up watching it. And my generation would probably want to see that, in 2009, the updated version, would maybe hit a little harder, maybe the music would have different sounds. The ‘80s music was electronic as well but it was more … it had a lot of live musicians as well, it was kind of … [makes noodly guitar sounds], and my sound, what we were creating, is more what is going on today. More remixes, for lack of a better word.

I’m not a big sampler actually. In all of my years I’ve never really sampled. Musically I like to kind of pride myself … not that there’s anything wrong with it, but I’m kind of a player, a musician. I’m more of an old school producer. More of a Quincy Jones, where I come up with the sound, you know, create the sound. For example, the “Hot Lunch” number, you know the cafeteria jam, that’s a totally different feel now that I came up with. There are sampled drums, but not loops. But I’m using my MPC3000 [Akai’s popular sequencer], getting different sounds, putting them together in a layer, with guitars and different instruments and live drums and stuff like that. And that’s kind of how the whole soundtrack came about, you know. And what a wonderful inspiration to have. Everybody knows the original. It’s so popular, and you really don’t want to mess it up! [Laughs].

How did you get into producing and songwriting in the first place? At what point did you know “this is what I want to do?” What did you listen to growing up? Who were your idols? As a kid, were you thinking anything like “I want to be in a punk-rock band” or “I want to be a rapper?”

You know, I always wanted, since I was probably a little kid, I never wanted to be anything but a producer and a songwriter. I mean, I kind of had a great childhood, my mother, you know who she is. She had me in the studio since I was … probably birth! I heard a story the other day that I was in the studio while my mom was pregnant with me. So since I can remember. But what I do remember is being a child and sitting next to like Quincy Jones or Burt Bacharach, who were the producers that influenced me. And I knew that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to touch the console and I wanted to direct people. And that’s kind of what a real producer is. Kind of more like a director.

How do you feel about the way titles like “producer” and “songwriter” have changed over the years? Do you feel like it’s still pretty much the same as it was when your mother got started, or has it changed. How would you choose to title yourself?

I think nowadays, a lot of people take the producer as, you come up with the CD, 20 beats on it, you drop it off and the artists write the song, and an engineer records it. You get producer credit. And in my world, a producer and a songwriter, you know, can be even just one person. Or usually, the producer will get together with the songwriter, so the lyrical content … in my world the producer comes up with the music, produces the vocals, which means they work with the artist while they’re singing or rapping, and produces the album that the world will hear. And I speak for Timbaland, and I speak for Pharrell who are both very good friends, when we sit in a room and produce records, that’s exactly what we do. We sit in the room, we produce the record and we show up at the mix. We would sit through the mix and approve the mix, it was a bit more hands on than what it’s become nowadays. Nowadays it’s become … you’ve got kids with either the loops … you know what I mean. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, you know, times change and things evolve but I’ve had discussions where we’ve said “that’s not really producing …” you know what I mean?

I have an artist named Hobson who is coming out. And he, like Soulja Boy, he produces his whole entire album and truly his style is defined by him sitting in his studio using Fruity Loops. And in the hip-hop game, that’s pretty awesome, when you can have someone that talented create their own beats and write their own stuff and record their own stuff. That’s pretty awesome. And I’ve got to give it up to Soulja Boy, and Hobson and all the other guys out there who have done that. It’s pretty dope.

What kind of equipment do you use? Is their a certain setup you need to have in the studio to put your stuff together?

It’s funny man, I’ll pick up anything. I do kind of have a sound. There is kind of a Damon Elliott sound, like there’s a Timbaland sound, there’s a Pharrell sound. We have things that we tend to lean towards. Like, you know me and Tim we like our drums real heavy. And so we have our samples of drums that we’ll tend to back to and we’ll tweak. We’ll have our stuff in the box.

I use the MPC3000, I have for years. That’s my baby. You know, I have four of them, two that travel with me and two that stay stationary, because those are my kids, you know what I mean? But like, I’ll usually build the drums, but it depends on the music. If I’m producing straight hip-hop, then yeah, I’ll use my box, you know, MPC with some samples and stuff like that. But if I’m making an R&B record then I probably need to go over to my Triton and load up some sounds, and I’ll play bass-lines and stuff like that.

One thing in particular, when I was working with Beyonce’s and Destiny’s samples, I sampled a vaccum cleaner. It’s funny because me and Tim were laughing because back in the day he was sampling babies and crickets and I was sampling a vaccum cleaner, and I used the vaccum cleaner [Laughs] like as a bassline, you know, and it tweaked in and worked out really well. A song called “Sexy Daddy”… [sings the bassline]. And I didn’t know if I’d have to pay Hoover the rights. So hopefully Hoover don’t come after me. I’m joking!

What’s your songwriting process like when you’re actually working with an artist? Do you and an artist have a melody or a few chords on the acoustic guitar or something, then layer it up, or do you start with an idea with a sound or a sample?

Sometimes. Like, I bring in Alicia [Keys] and she knows what she wants. Nine times out of ten she shows up with the melody she shows up with some ideas, and then we just vibe it out. Whether it’s playing on a guitar or tapping on a piano or grabbing a glass and hitting a glass! I think the thing that I love to do is … there’s no … I don’t have a set way. I just walk in the studio and let the music speak to me, I don’t come up with it and say “Okay, I have to put a drum, I have to put a bass a guitar.” That’s not me. I mean you listen to my work through the years, sometimes a song has no drums, or [it] don’t even have guitars. I think that’s the Bacharach influence mixed up with a little bit of N.W.A., mixed up with a little bit of Quincy Jones, you know mixed up with some Janis Joplin. Rock stuff! You know! And that’s just kinda where I come from.

You seem willing to throw elements from any kind of genre into a song if you think it will make the track that much better. Why weren’t you concerned with staying within genre lines?

Well I don’t have any fear, when it comes to music. I don’t really categorize music. Like I don’t say “This is rock” or “This is punk.” But my thing is like, music is music. I think the result is what people categorize. But I think when you’re writing it, you don’t really know what you’re creating. If you listening to Pink, and you listen to some of her songs, you could almost say that some of those songs have a country feel. If the drums weren’t so heavy they could be down in Nashville singing. Or if she had a little twang to her voice … I could totally hear “Please Don’t Leave Me” as a country song. So I think people categorize because they have to, but pop music is popular music. That’s across all genres, and I am know more so a pop producer than anything.

I’ve had success in the hip-hop world I’ve had success in the R&B world, but I’m known as a pop producer, more so I think I’m not afraid. I don’t have any limitations. I just love music. I’m working on a country album [Laughs] and it’s real, it’s not a joke, it’s like a country album! I’m working with some great players and musicians from out of Nashville. I’m here in New York right now I’m working with some songs and I’m also going to Pink’s show tonight [the last US show of her Funhouse tour]. But people are going to be really surprised when this record comes out. First-quarter look for the album!

More and more I see a lot of these producers being less fearful. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting. That’s why you’re in a room with no 90 degree angles, and no windows, and no one else can hear you outside your door. You can just go crazy! And that’s where the sound comes from man. I hope people will just stay that way, stay on the edge. I’ve always been on the edge, and what people were laughing at me for back then, they’re paying me for now.

There’re a few original tracks on your MySpace which feature you singing and rapping. Any plans to release a solo album, or is that just for fun?

No man! I’m one of those guys who like, if I had a son I’d be watching him play baseball … that’s how I kind of am with music. When I get bored I come up with my little songs, and I have kind of a fantasy of “Yeah that’s kind of cool, I’m going to throw it up on my MySpace!” and that’s about as close as it ever comes to “coming out!” [Laughs]. I did have some songs come out in a movie called First Daughter where I was the “artist,” and that was one of my really good friend, he was like, “you sound good man, just let me put it out!” and I was like alright, and I don’t have to deal with any artists so I’ll just sing the song and put it directly in the movie [Laughs]. That was kind of interesting. I’ve got like eight or nine songs in that movie, and about six of them I’m singing on.

What else are you working on? Around the time Malibu’s Most Wanted was coming out, you said in some interviews that your work schedule was nonstop. Have you got more free time these days?

Nothing’s changed man, I’m just at different studios now. When Malibu’s Most Wanted came out, I remember I had Jessica Simpson and Pink and Mya, and each in one room. Now I have the girls all in different studios so it’s a bit more traveling. But it’s still just as busy.

Right now I’m working with Mya, she’s on Dancing with the Stars and we’re gonna do a huge campaign for battered women, the Battered Women’s Society. It’s gonna be awesome. I don’t know if I can talk a lot about it, ‘cause they want to do a big announcement, but you know I’ll give you a little taste of it. She’s on a couple of songs that I’m producing with her for this campaign. And it’s all the way up to the UN, I mean this is big. Because everybody focuses on cancer research, which is wonderful, and all the other things that we focus on. But Mya, she wanted to focus on some stuff that she even dealt with, with battered women, and that side of the world. Where if you’ve ever been abused or ever been hurt, you can get help without getting to deep in it. There’s gonna be a single coming out soon. And there will be a CD to follow, as I know Mya is working on some other stuff that we’re putting together right now to follow. Because, she’s been around for a long time, and she’s got kind of a cult following. And her fans — me being one of [them, as] I’ve been the one producing her for eight years — we’ve followed her closely and watched her grow. And now she’s a woman, you know, she’s not a child anymore. She has a lot to say. And she’s managed to keep her nose clean and stay in the lane. And now she’s earned her right to be … coming up in that young, young … I hate the word diva. [She is a] high-profile, household name! So she’s garnered a lot of respect and we’ve got great opportunities, not for money, but for the cause. Which is a beautiful thing.

You work with a lot of female artists. Is there something about your songwriting process or musical inspirations that make working with female performers the best fit, or is it something that happened just because some of your earliest successes were working with women?

It’s just because I’m so handsome! I’m the Brad Pitt of the music business, they all just flock towards me! [Laughs]. No, I’m just playing. I don’t know, I think I’m Dr. Phil, you know, I’m like a psychiatrist. I chose, actually, to work with females when, right after I was working with Bone Thugz and everybody was getting shot and I was getting kind of scared. And that’s the truth! I’m from Beverly Hills and I’m not from … I’ve never carried a gun or did anything like that. I’m more of a gentle person.

So I chose to work with females back in the day. And the music was screaming to me, I mean my mom’s a female artist, and I relate, so one of my first artists that I worked with was Mya, after all of that working with Bone Thugz and Puffy. And through her I got introduced to, when I was working on “Lady Marmelade” for Moulin Rouge I met Pink and then the next thing and the next thing I knew we were working on an album called Mizundastood and while I was doing that I was working with Jessica Simpson, and then I got managed by Matthew Knowles [Beyonce’s father and manager] and so I started working with Destiny’s Child and the rest is kind of history. And then Gwen Stefani, and Christina Aguilera came around a couple of times and then before I knew it, my resume, I looked at it one day and I said “Oh my god!” — I’ve worked with every female artist that I wanted to, and I remember sometime someone asked me “Who do you want to work with?” and I said I got to work with J.Lo, and the next thing I knew I was working with J.Lo on a song. So I just kind of started throwing it out there! [Laughs].

Any artists you haven’t had a chance to work with that you’d like to?

I’m scheduled to work with Adele. She is awesome. I’m so excited too. I met her in New York at the MTV awards, and she said she wanted to get together. And I mean, my god, she is just super, super talented. And that’s one I’m looking forward to. And I want to get back with Gwen, we had a lot of fun in the studio. I’m gonna reach back out to her. I’m not sure where she’s at with what she wants to do. I know No Doubt did their thing again, and they did tour for a minute. I’m gonna call Tony [Kanal, No Doubt’s bassist], cause he’s a friend of mine also. See where they’re at, and see what’s up. Cause I really want to.

So how happy are you with where you and your peers are in the industry at this point in your careers?

I’m having fun. It’s at the point where like, it’s kind of cool. Cause now we’re grown up and we have relationships of, like, years, you know where it’s like, before it was like the rat race, we were all racing for pole position. But now we all just are wanting to put out good music. I just saw Timbaland at the MTV Awards, and we looked at each other, and we’re so competitive [Laughs], but we look at each other, and we’re like “we kind of did a lot of good things.” And he said “yeah dude.” But 15 years ago, at the studio, we were so into trying to beat each other with our “hot sounds.” And now it’s like, “Hey what are you working on?” “Oh man, I’m chilling, I’m working on this and that.” And it’s cool! And it’s about relationships, it’s about you [not burning] people, because you want to be around for a long time …