Speak softly and make big hits. That’s musician, producer and Sony Music executive Salaam Remi‘s approach to the music business. You’ll never hear a Salaam Remi track branded with a signature sound bite or his name at the beginning of it. You’ll rarely see him featured in the music videos of the artists he works with. He’s never on Twitter venting, or arguing with fans. But that’s just now how the 42-year-old musician rolls. He’s content to stay behind the scenes developing artists and making music that you’ll remember even if you can’t recall the name of the guy who did the track.Those who need to know his name, however, know it well. Take Doug Morris, CEO of Sony Music, for instance. He’s known Remi and the quality of his work for years, in addition to his work under the Sony Music umbrella — he runs the Flying Buddha label, RemiFa Music as well as the Louder Than Life label. The Recording Academy also knows his name — his ‘One: In the Chamber’ album is nominated for a Grammy in the Best Urban Contemporary Album category where, coincidentally, Louder Than Life signee Mack Wilds‘ ‘New York: A Love Story’ album is also nominated for an award.The Salaam Remi-related nods don’t stop there — Hiatus Kaiyote, the Australian progressive soul band he signed to his Flying Bhudda label, are nominated for a Best R&B Performance Grammy. Salaam Remi, the music producer, is up for a Grammy for his work on Miguel‘s hit ‘How Many Drinks.’Then, of course there are the other artists he’s worked with in his 26-year career in music: the Fugees, Nas, Amy Winehouse, Nelly Furtado and CeeLo Green are just a few of the major artists he has helped make timeless songs.
Sitting in Remi’s office in the Sony building high above Madison Avenue in New York City, we discuss his recipe for success, the role of a music executive in the 21st century and how the diverse cultural landscape of the city helps him make music that crosses boundaries of culture, nationality and even language.
Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
The Boombox: Let’s start by talking about all the stuff you have going on right now. Tell me about the record.
Salaam Remi: My own album, ‘One: In the Chamber ‘ is out now. It’s basically my first vocal type of album I’ve done. I’ve done an instrumental album digitally a couple of years ago, but for me this is pretty much [my first album]. For me this is about music. Sometimes we don’t get the chance to make music for music’s sake: Not music for charts, not music for how many, whatever [awards] this is going to win. I listen to music to put me in a mood. It’s part of my therapy, it’s part of my day, it’s part of my life in that way. I make music for the same reasons; it’s just that within that arc that it’s created, it becomes a job. A lot of times the job might take over the exact reason why we’re here in the first place, having music that has a human connection [to it] without words being said.
You’re responsible for a lot of record sales and success for this company [Sony], but now you’re talking about doing music for music’s sake with ‘One: In the Chamber,’ why now and not before?
[There are] a couple reasons: No. 1 was that just in my own personality and the way that I flow, it wasn’t something that I wanted to do [before]. I spoke about doing it when I created my — I call it my “composers mixtape” — [when] I worked with Lalo Schifrin on the ‘Rush Hour 3’ [score/soundtrack]. So I made ‘Prague Nosis’ [an instrumental album released in ’09] spending my own money and then investing into my art, as any great artist would do, whether they’re buying spray cans to do graffiti, whether you’re buying canvases and paint to be a painter, buying an instrument to learn how to play it to become that type of artist. I felt that me, going in working with orchestras was something that I wanted to do and within that process, from that [album] came [Jazmine Sullivan’s] ‘Lions, Tigers & Bears,’ the ‘Bust Your Windows,’ [Nas’] ‘Queens Story’ [and] The ‘Black Bond’ — the many records that have come out.
At first I was going to do a vocal version of that [‘Prague Nosis’] and that’s what I toyed with, but then I realized I’ve done it so many different times over the last few years that I actually had a lot of songs that had that element to it on a classical level and when I was looking at launching the Flying Buddha label — which is one of our labels at Sony that is partners with Masterworks, which is typically the jazz and classical department of the building — it was like, you know what? I have an idea. Let’s combine what you’re doing [at Masterworks] with what I’m doing musically, then this [joint venture] can also be for young people. This is also music that inspires young people. When I worked on the first Amy Winehouse album when she was 18, she would describe herself as a jazz singer.
You put me on to Amy Winehouse! I remember we had that conversation at Complex magazine many, many moons ago. You said, “You gotta check out this girl, her name is Amy Winehouse.” You sent the first record to me and I thought it was pretty amazing and then low and behold, superstar Amy Winehouse.
Right and that was the thing. So my thing is understanding where I’ve had my success, wanting a label, now I’m saying OK, if I had an artist that was potentially to have the success of Amy Winehouse at the peak, what are the first steps? We have to have a place to put music that’s very musical and feels right, that still young people enjoy because there is a huge audience of people on that level so, Flying Buddha, that’s my label.
You know I have Hiatus Kaiyote, that album that I put out already, they’re working on their second album. [With them] it’s the same thing; I’m just mentoring and guiding them to the next phase of their career and then my record is kind of filling in the void … here’s some music that I have that people want to hear. So it’s nothing more than a flyer to what you will expect to get from my direction and in conjunction with what you have been getting.
Flying Buddha, why that name?
When I initially got to Sony I went through a list of copyrights of names that they owned already, so Buddah Records was one of them and originally I said, “OK, can I bring back Buddah Records and make it the musical label?” because I loved the [music of] Norman Connors, Cecil Holmes, everything that I would’ve sampled. [The label has] the Curtis Mayfield connection, the Isley Brothers [and] T-Neck/Buddah Records [association], all those things that happened historically. As a company in the ‘60s or ‘70s, whenever they first got that Buddah Records [name], they [Sony] only had a trademark for the U.S., and being that we are a global business right now, I was like, “OK, I need to think of something a little fly-er,” then here comes “Flying Buddha,” which is also a wink at Flying Dutchman, which is another old jazz label, so you know, Flying Buddha.
A little nod to the crate diggers.
That I am, so it always works out that way.
Listen to Hiatus Kaiyote’s ’10 Nakamarra’
You mentioned Hiatus Kaiyote, I saw them perform a few months ago in Brooklyn at this spot called Free Candy. I was blown away. Thinking to myself, “Where did these people come from?” “How did they develop this sound?” What was it about that group that made you want to work with them and help them develop their talent?
I’m just impressed by what they’ve done. You know, in general, once again it’s music that transmits across the globe. They could have not been speaking English and I still would’ve felt it. The difference with my career as a producer is one thing, because it’s still about not the talent I have, it is about that when you’re a beat maker, the talent you have, but then as a producer it’s about the talent that you can recognize and how you can see how to develop that into what it needs to be. So that’s really the root of my career; I’ve made a lot of beats in the early part and different things but really my success came in knowing how to help people who had ideas, bring their ideas to life and that’s with the Fugees [was], that’s what Amy [Winehouse] was and everything else.
So once again, this is a band not just a vocalist, or someone who plays one instrument. A band who have been able to put together a piece of work that I’m impressed by, that I would’ve paid my own money to invest into or to buy, or to actually see them perform. During their last round of trips, I saw them perform four times in one week. Every one [performance] is a little bit different, they continue to grow onstage, so I sit down and say, “Wow, I love the fact that they are able to transcend borders within themselves as musicians.” So that’s a little bit of the fusion jazz space, but also at the same time, this is what they are now, what’re they going to be in five years?
In the music industry a lot of times people see what’s hot now and they want to jump on that so they sign an artist because they’re hot at the moment. What you’re saying, however is: “Yes, I like what they’re about now, I like what they’ve done in the past but I feel that like they have the potential to do even bigger, better, greater things and develop as artists.” Correct?
I mean, that’s what my career is really rooted in, the fact that I’ve worked with so many artists that became the influential people of their generation and what was going on. But not when anyone else could see it.
Watch the Fugees’ ‘Fu-Gee-La’ Video
When did you realize that you could identify a person or group as not just having the potential to make a hit record but to be a genre-defining or culture-shifting artist?
I probably realized it after the Amy Winehouse era when she was doing a lot. It made me really look back, at first when I worked with the Fugees and up to their success, I was a part of the band. I was lookin’ at it like, “Wow, this is how far this beat that I made for Fat Joe, that is ‘Fu-Gee-La,’ could actually [go and] sell this many units?” This set of talented individuals, who I met as talented individuals, if they’re set on the right train tracks, they can actually go that far. And then also by the time I got to Ms. Dynamite and Amy, they were influenced by Lauryn Hill as, to me, every vocalist that came out in our genres post-Ms. Lauryn Hill’s emergence [are]. They took a little page [out of her book] somewhere, whether it was writing, musical styles, something, a lot of them took something out of that, some concepts … if it wasn’t a direct bite it was a nibble. Once again, it’s inspiration.
I look at the fact that Wyclef could inspire an Akon, a T-Pain and a will.i.am. Did those types of characters exist in our genre prior to Wyclef? Being musically different, looking different, it didn’t happen. It just kind of flows into it, the way I looked at it … by the time I’m now in the early 2000s and then my ‘90s stuff is influencing people who were in 2000, I’m like, really? So you’re 18 and you like that? Now they’re in their 20s and by the time Amy gets to a certain age and there are girls who’re like, “Yeah I’ve listened to ‘Frank’ since I was 11!” Before she passed I was like, “Amy, I met you at 18 and there’s a girl who’s 18 who says she’s been listening to you since she was 11.” She’s like, “Oh wow, I guess so!” It makes sense, the cycle just comes around so for me at that point, that’s now, as I’m looking back.
What is my job here? Is my job to make a funky beat? Is my job to put my name in front of something? Is my job to stand up or is my job to empower that [artist]? Look at Miguel’s current success. I did the title track on both albums, I did ‘All I Want Is You’ but realistically, I just helped him get to where he was already going. ‘Sure Thing’ and ‘Quickie’ was Top 5 records — he had those already. All I did was help push it into the track it’s going. Every time I hear ‘How Many Drinks’ now I laugh, we did that before ‘All I Want is You.’ But we started it that same day and he said, “No, I don’t want that,” “It sounds too this,” “I want to go here.” But the fact is that most of all, Miguel produced ‘Adorn’ himself. He wrote ‘Adorn,’ so it’s not about if I’m actually part of the actual song that happens or that product, am I part of the process that helps that artist be inspired to do them. That’s a whole ’nother thing, that’s what an executive would do. I feel like I’m just extending officially, what I’ve been doing for many years.
Listen to Miguel’s ‘How Many Drinks’ Remix
I definitely get that. I really feel that you’re one of the elite producers out there. Unlike some others, Salaam wasn’t always trying to be the most visible or the most vocal about what he did, he lets his work speak for itself. You listen to the album cut and look at the liner notes and think “Oh s—, Salaam did that.” I think there is a through line between that and your approach to being executive, as you are now. But now that you have ‘One: In the Chamber’ out, what takes priority in your existence? Is it Salaam, the musician? Salaam, the beat maker? Salaam, the producer who’s trying to bring this person forth as their musical mentor? Is it Salaam, the executive who says, “All right, let’s make this great and make it make sense at the same time”?
First things first, is it’s always about the song, it’s always about the music. The music has to find a place that actually locks in with an emotion and that emotion being locked in music speaks to humans. That’s first things first. Also, I’m working for Doug Morris who is one of the greatest executives of the last 50 years, as far as being a mentor to other executives and his thing is all about the song and I agree with that, so now I’m back looking at my songs, looking at the emotional connection people have to them and then how much that works on things being timeless.
I work on records and people tell me it’s timeless, but I’m sitting there going, how can I lock time in a song? I’m not thinking about time, I’m thinking about the emotion. If the emotion is there, you always will feel that. If you listen to a blues record, you feel that, no matter what — if it’s there you’re going to get that emotion, if you want to hear something that feels happy, maybe that sound might be different, but you’re going to feel a happy vibe to it, you’re going to get that. That’s first things first, as far as the lyric and the music actually locking in something so when you hear it you have a reaction, good, bad, the hip-hop that I make, it feels [like the] ‘80s but that’s also what it felt like. I grew up in the late ‘80s of the PE [Public Enemy].
You grew up in Queens?
Yeah. So for me it was a lot of Jamaica Ave, Hollis [Avenue] versus Southside [Jamaica, Queens], Hollis versus Southside on Hillside [Avenue]. ‘88, ‘87, that energy that I saw, coupled with watching BDP in the ‘My Philosophy’ video rushing to Union Square, that’s the ‘Made U Look’ energy that’s the hip-hop that I listen to. That’s the hip-hop that I actually get my emotion from if I’m going to do it. So I just feel in every different aspect it’s the emotion in the music and that takes precedence and then we have an idea how to market it, how it can sell and everything else.
If I can’t talk about artists that people remembered, instead I’m talking about great records. So it’s also that artist development factor that has to happen. A lot of artists back in the days were developed over having a dope record, a dope record, a dope record. One, two, three, now you knew them, now you’re waiting for the album, Ultramagnetics, Rakim two, three singles into a record. Now you have somebody who’s like, “I’m really dope, I put out three free mixtapes with 20 songs a piece” and now you can’t find a song within them.
That deals a lot with artist development. You have this diverse body of work, you work for artists across the board in different genres. Now you have your own label here, what types of artists are you looking to sign? Is it that you just want universally good music?
I don’t think there’s any one thing that I’m trying to sign. Once again, my eyes and ears are open. I’ve had different imprints that are different genres. Flying Buddha has something rooted in jazz, blues, classical, ReMiFa music is kinda in it’s own R&B space, Louder Than Life is straight up the middle — there will be all types of records coming from me. Once again, I’m a music listener, a music lover. There’s no other way to shape this.