Salaam Remi will have a lot to celebrate about 2013 as he rings in the new year. He was recently nominated for four Grammy Awards, including one for his recent solo set “Salaam Remi One: In the Chamber,” for Best Urban Contemporary Album, plus others for his work with Miguel, Hiatus Kaiyote, and Mack Wilds. The producer, songwriter and studio instrumentalist launched his label Louder Than Life, too, for which he can hand-pick his collaborating artists.
Above, you can hear just one of his recently collaborations, with Akon “One in the Chamber” (directed by Robby Starbuck).
For 2014, Remi will be all over the next Jennifer Hudson effort, and will at least be taking phone calls with Nas; “In the Chamber” will also get the deluxe edition makeover for re-release in March 2014.
Below is an abridged interview I had with Remi, on his past – like working with the Fugees, Amy Winehouse, posthumous Michael Jackson material and “Sparkle” – and what it takes to have a successful future as an engineer and label head.
HitFix: Listening to album “One in the Chamber,” what does this album represent you? It is just such a diverse mix of things that seem to be dear to you.
Salaam Remi: Number one, this is all the music that’s there is a reflection of the music that I actually listen to and am inspired by. So it is over a period of time where I just listened to things that feel that way that has more of a musical meaning more than even a commercial meaning at times. And the collection for me is just really me establishing what I’m known for, which is music, you know, making things that have a musical edge coming left of the center into the center. And even for the things that I’ve done in my career that I guess have been the most commercially successful, they’ve also been the most artistic piece, the artistic piece that just represents my difference.
Speaking of the idea of art and commerce meeting together, rumor has it that it’s a tough time to have a label right now. And yet you started up with Louder Than Life. And I was wondering what went into that decision of wanting to work with your own stable of artists and making albums in that way?
I mean in general I think that when I’ve always done is artists development from the Fugees 20 years ago to producing Miguel’s first hit few years ago or whatever else it is, it’s always starting from the fresh level. For me it’s about continuing to do that like continuing to find the next set of talent that’s going to come out and do great things 5 or ten years from now. And at a time when a lot of superstars are in a different period of their own lives, much less their careers, you know, me making the decision to not just be a freelance producer as I’ve been for the last 20 something years and really to say Okay, cool, now let me work within the system and help develop a system that’s set up for artist development and attacking culture in places that things aren’t normally there. And doing what I do best, what I’ve been able to do best and continuing to do that. It’s really about me just saying Okay, you know what, I was granted the best opportunity a person could possibly have in this entire industry.
The work directly for Doug Morris who has had a long illustrious career of not only many artist falling through but great executives, and it’s a perfect time for me to have a label for me to come up with ideas and everything.
What is the mark of a good label, you think? What do you think you want to aspire to do that other labels fail at?
I wouldn’t say much on their fail but it’s just most of all what I’ve always done, be at the beginning part of the many great artists careers. Whether it was like Amy Winehouse, the Fugees, Jazmine Sullivan’s key records, Miguel, you know key records for many artists. I just want to continue to have great records and great artist flow through whatever doors I’m sitting there.
You’ve always had really great taste in working with vocalists that come with just a whole mass of talent. I was wondering if you know right away when a vocalist has “it,” when there’s just that superstar mark on them? Can you even tell when you’re talking to them — just talking to them, and not even when they’re singing?
I guess my taste is just at a certain place. So that really just kind of marks it. I guess two things, for me it’s a conversation of two parts. One is them having the voice, which is their tone, having a great instrument, and a great instrument doesn’t have to be the same type of voice but their own voice that actually speaks to me and I can hear the tone. And then secondly, what’s made all the artisst that I worked with standout is that they were also great writers. So where even if they weren’t that at first, by the time we worked through our process it was always about having a story, them telling the story, spilling it out and me understanding that and pulling it forward.
The first half of my career was really about me making beats and what instrumentals I did and me totally being able to have total control over whatever I had in my head or whatever the artist had in their head and being able to musically make it. But the second half was really focusing on songs to the point where a lot of songs I’ll do I’ll do it based upon one instrument and the vocal. I’ll turnaround and slip the arrangement later into 20 different ways. Whether it was an orchestra or whether it’s a laptop. It makes no difference because the strong was stronger than the music, which means the music has the ability to stand outside the box.
And speaking of instruments, you play so many of them. Has there ever been something that you wish you could play that you can’t?
I have a thing with setting realistic goals, so I don’t know if I’ve had an instrument I wanted to play that I can’t. For me the things that I can play I’ll play and if I can’t get what I hear out then I’ll get someone else to do it. So it’s kind of like an old Phife Dog lyric: “Lord send a hand. If you can’t send a hand, send a man. If you can’t send a man, then do it yourself.” So if I sit down and I hear something and I’m like “I like this,” I can just do it without even thinking about it. And if it’s something I hear someone else doing I’ll cast them in.
I think that’s just another tool like being able to say I’m going to hire a band to play this groove for me rather than me doing it, and then same thing with engineering and everything else. I feel like every experience every morning when I wake up, by the time I go to sleep I don’t want to know what’s going to happen.
Are you going to wake up tomorrow and work on any more soundtracks?
I haven’t done any of this year. I have a couple indie films and projects I’m working on I’ve been doing the last two years on my independent films. The last I did was I scored “Sparkle.” I also did “Being Mary Jane”; I scored and music supervised that. So maybe something in that realm wouldn’t be the same amount of intensity as far as having to do every bit of music in it. For me it’s just about having great opportunities come up. So anything can happen. I’m open to it all.
Are you able to talk about any of the indie stuff or any of the other stuff that you’re working on currently?
I mean mainly right now it’s just things I have out that I’m kind of pushing through really on my label, and a lot of it I’m not even actually producing full time. So I have Liam Bailey who’s an artist out of the U.K. who’s actually featured on my album. But his project’s a bit different than what you did on my album, finishing up his stuff. What else am I working on? I’m working on Mack Wilds actually just came out so that’s the first R&B hip-hop New York artist that’s out on my label on another front. And then way on the other side I have Collie Buddz with a different type of record called “Light it Up” we just put out. So I’m all over the place label wise and I’m excited about the whole flow through. I think that in general it’s just about me – it’s about the talent not that I have but the talent that I’m able to recognize.
You obviously have a great year for classic sounds, but what do you think is R&B’s biggest problem these days? What do you want to work hard to kind of abolish out of like current R&B trends?
I don’t want to abolish anything. I think there’s room for everybody to be as mediocre as they want to. So I have no qualms or I look down not upon anything else. I just feel like everything that I work for is options. I don’t work for money, I work for options. And when I’m doing music I’m hoping to inspire someone else to have a different option. They can go that way or they can go this way, go this way or that way. So I’m always looking for the positive opening.
I was thinking about how people’s relationship to the music of their favorite singers changes as that singer’s life changes. I was thinking about your work with Michael Jackson, and Amy Winehouse and working with [executive producer] Whitney Houston on the “Sparkle” soundtrack. How does your relationship to that music change after lives change for those artists, and with their deaths?
Honestly, I can’t really reflect on it until I stop. So when I’m able to stop totally – like I haven’t been producing as much recently and I do it as a tool more than a focal point. My goal isn’t to just get another production credit. So I think in general like I’m continuing to grow by the minute, but at the same time maybe ten or 15 or 20 years or maybe never. When I actually totally stop I’ll really be able to reflect on it in a different way.
I just feel like me putting even this project together and having my own album that’s just saying what I wanted to say, no filter, that’s a great start. And that’s actually what my feeling is.
So you’re saying with those artists who have passed on you feel like the music for you hasn’t really changed?
It’s not so much the passing on that’s making it, more or less just this is just when they were here. The music that they created will last way longer than everything else and that will make it all work.
I think about my own job listening to a lot of music at times, but I have to purposely go out of my way to create silence or something that’s quiet. How do you institute silence into your own life?
I wake up really early in the morning most days. So I’m usually up at 5:30, 6:00 AM and I’m usually listening to anything, don’t really want to focus on super early in the morning, and that’s usually when I get most of my ideas and thought in my day.
That sounds very peaceful.
Before the world wakes up. Some people get it in the dead of night because that’s when people are asleep already.
I read somewhere you haven’t worked yet with Nas on his new album. What’s the story there?
Yeah. I mean I guess someone asked me that. So, it’s funny how it gets like stretched into something else. I don’t know exactly what he’s going to do but he and I always get up and work whenever he’s really ready to do so. We have a chemistry like that and of course, we’ve already created so much music together.
You guys will always find time for each other?
Yeah, we talk. I mean that’s what the basis of most of my creative relationships are I actually talk to the people a lot. So by the time we go to make music it feels like oh yeah, music, but we’re really right there.
I am curious, how are things moving along with Jennifer Hudson, on a new album? Do you know what’s going on there?
Jennifer Hudson is almost done with her new album so I’ve been helping out with that as well. She has one song that Pharrell did for her that I think is out now that she’s kind of pulling together a whole ‘nother vibe, again, that will be sometime earlier in the year, but I’m helping out with that as well.
So you’re producing and you’re also playing on it?
Yeah, I produced some records for her and just help them pull together the whole vibe, kind of my role being with them.