Ray Romulus and Jonathan Yip were playing Halo 3 when they got the call that would change their careers forever. For a moment, they questioned whether they should even pick up. "It was an intense game," says Yip, laughing when he recalls the memory. "We were talking hella shit to these little kids with our headsets on." But when Romulus took the call, the voice on the other end opened with a question that made him quickly forget about his deathmatch score:
"Do you want to get your pockets fat?"
They did. A few days later, Yip and Romulus, who along with Jeremy Reeves and Ray Charles McCullough II (known as "Charm") make up the songwriting and production team The Stereotypes, were flying out to record with Diddy's girl group Danity Kane on the set of MTV's Making the Band. DK's second album was coming up. They had style, a TV show, and Diddy's impeccable marketing skills. All Puff needed now to complete the package was a guaranteed hit single. It was 2007, and The Stereotypes had the sound that was about to deliver it for him.
Nearly a decade later, The Stereotypes would get another call. This one was more eagerly received. The songwriting work had hit a lull in recent years and calls for new jobs were slowing down. There had been times when the group wondered if they could afford to return from their holiday breaks. Plus, the call was from an old friend: Bruno Mars.
The group had met Mars as a fellow emerging songwriter in the pre-Danity Kane days, and they had hit it off immediately. After "Damaged" made it to number ten on the charts, The Stereotypes suddenly found themselves with new opportunities in the studio. They shared their newfound access with their friend Bruno, bringing him to every session they could. Then Bruno Mars became, well, Bruno Mars. He took off into the heavens, their paths naturally diverged. They remained friends, but it had been more than six years since they last worked together on music.
Now Mars had a new record he was working on, and it was missing something. He’d been exchanging tracks with The Stereotypes for a little while through email, and the latest beat that they had sent sparked something in him. He wanted to get in the studio. On Monday, if possible.
A year and a half after that call, The Stereotypes were out of the studio and into their suit jackets. It was January 28th, 2018, and the team was onstage accepting a Song of the Year Grammy for their work on Bruno Mars' 24K Magic, having earned co-writing credits for the title track, "Finesse", and the world-conquering "That’s What I Like." It's an incredible leap forward for a group who told the L.A. Times that until recently, lack of work had raised the possibility of early retirement. It almost makes you believe that years of tireless dedication to your craft and support for your team might actually pay off.
Speaking to Romulus and Yip over the phone not long after their win, Romulus tells me that "it's bigger than music" for The Stereotypes. He credits their songwriting success to the real love they have for their teammates and collaborators, and over the course of our conversation, it becomes clear that the group's humility and openness have led them to many opportunities – and a few challenges. But after ten-plus years in the game, it's these defining character traits that, along with their now-undeniable talent, have brought The Stereotypes to the next level. It's impossible to say they didn't earn it.
Puff was like, “What the hell are you doing here?” I’m like “yo, I produced the song!”
Let me be the latest to say congratulations on the Grammy win. Has the high worn off yet?
RAY ROMULUS: Thank you. Every time I see a new person who hasn't said it, it starts all over again.
JONATHAN YIP: We’ve been through a lot together, which I think makes this moment a lot sweeter, because we're still together, and we’re able to be on this cool wave right now.
Going and struggling through all the other stuff together has definitely helped us appreciate this high together. A rollercoaster is definitely the summing up of we’re we’re at.
How did that rollercoaster begin?
YIP: Me and Jeremy met randomly at a Sacramento Guitar Center that he happened to be working at. I was living in L.A., working at Interscope records. So I would come home for dentist appointments or holidays or whatever. And one trip, I stopped at Guitar Center to buy some gear, and he overheard me say that I worked at Interscope. He came up to me and was like “yo, I got tracks. How do I get them to you?" And I was like "play some for me."
So he played some stuff for me right then and there, on one of the keyboards. I was impressed, so I was like, “Let’s keep in touch. Let’s try to work together.” So for years we would work together over the phone, and whenever we were in town. Until 2007, when I was like “if you want to make this work, you gotta just move to L.A.” And he did.
A couple years before that is when we met Ray though. He was working at Def Jam in NY, and he ended up signing the first act that we had signed to us.
ROMULUS: I wasn’t even thinking about taking the meeting, because it was my first week, and I was still trying to get my office set up. But I was like “whatever, just let them up.”
And in walks in Jon, the artist, and the manager. Jon showcases the artist to me, and I'm like "that's dope." I called in L.A. [Reid] and L.A. signs him to a deal on the spot. That started off our relationship. I would fly back and forth from L.A to NY [to work on the record]. It was an unorthodox relationship between a label and the artist, because I would be producing with them.
So fast forward to 2007, and I called John up, and said “hey dude, I’m no longer at Def Jam. What do you think about me moving out to L.A. and us teaming up and me being a part of the production team?
So I move out June of '07, and its crazy because Jeremy just moved to LA at the same time. So we teamed up in that summer of '07 and worked tirelessly just creating everyday, until six months later when we landed our first hit, which was Danity Kane’s "Damaged."
YIP: I had a condo, and the "studio" was actually Ray’s bedroom, because when he first moved down, he stayed with me. He would wake up, we would go to the gym, he would go back to his room and would work on music there. And since it was a condo, we couldn't really work like crazy hours, so we had to really use our time wisely and just work from 12 to 7, because when people got home from work, no one wanted to hear our bass through the walls.
Ray, what made you want to move across the country to join this group?
ROMULUS: Even working with [Jonathan and Jeremy] at Def Jam as their A&R, I just thought they were very high character people. I liked their vibe, just how they worked so hard to try to make things happen. I was like “that’s the kind of energy I want to be around. So that’s why I called Jon and said “hey dude, I think we are all likeminded and working towards the same goals. If we teamed up together, we could make this happen."
YIP: When we first met, we pretty much clicked right away. Like, we immediately started hanging out, and it was cool. I’d been down to go to NY to take a trip or whatever - Ray wasn’t even in NYC, and he let me stay at his place. For us to meet at the record label or whatever, to become such cool friends that quick - that was big to me. That meant a lot. What Ray says, "character."
ROMULUS: And that’s why it works. Because honestly it’s bigger than music for us. These are like my family members. Even when we work with Bruno or whatever, the reason that’s its so easy to make the music is because we’re friends. When we’re in the studio together, it feels like we’re not really working.
How did you end up producing for Danity Kane?
ROMULUS: We were actually courting a gentleman to possibly manage us, so we sent him a song. He goes “I’ll show you I can make things happen for you”, so he sends the song to Puff. Literally like 2 weeks later, called us back “Hey. Puff loves the song. He wants to fly you out to Miami and cut it on the show of Making the Band.”
YIP: I just remember jumping up and down. That record in itself ultimately helped us move out of the condo and into our own studio space.
ROMULUS: It was like full circle, because my first industry job was working for Puff, I was his intern for two years. Ended up running the marathon with him, just so I could build a relationship with him. I moved on into getting my A&R job with Def jam. When that moment happened, when we flew down to Miami, Puff was like “What the hell are you doing here?” I’m like “yo, I produced the song.”
At the time, we were always getting that stipulation that Asian-Americans couldn’t make it in music, couldn’t make it big. So for us to have Jimmy Iovine going “yo, you guys need to be here [on Interscope]” was huge.
After Danity Kane, you started working with a lot of different artists, but one that shows up over and over again is Far East Movement. What's your connection with them?
YIP: When I was working at Interscope, they were interning there. So we would see them walking around the halls, and we would be like “what’s up”. It was hard to not notice each other, we were literally the only Asian guys in the building. So we were like “oh, this is dope. What do you do? What do you do?” and so on. And they were like, we make music! We’re rappers!" So we were like, “ok, let’s work.”
One day, they invited us out to one of their shows. So me and Ray went out. And we noticed, because they were kinda rapping more backpack hip-hop at the time, they had this set where they started rapping over like Daft Punk, and all these EDM records. And the energy was crazy, their stage presence has always been crazy. After that, we were like “hm, maybe there’s something there.”
Fast forward a little bit, we’re in the studio with Bruno actually, and we’re working on this record, and he starts [singing the the hook to] “Girls. On. The. Dance. Floor.”
So we create this record called “Girls on the Dancefloor” and then I’m talking to Ray, and I’m like “maybe we should give this to Far East Movement. Their hustle is crazy, stage performance, all the things like that.” He’s like “let’s do it.” So we called them up, and they were down, so they laid down their verses. And shit, the song started picking up and playing like crazy out here in L.A.
ROMULUS: And you gotta let him know that we were rapping on the second verse.
YIP: Oh, and we’re rapping on the second verse! Cuz we were writing this, and were like, we might as well stay on this. And since I knew people over at Interscope already, I took it over to Martin Kirsenbaum, who I knew for years from working there, and I was like “yo I want to play you these artists, named Far East Movement.”
And he was like, “oh, I’ve heard of them!” Because he was hearing it on the radio. So he was like “I definitely want to meet them.” So we finally took them in, they met with Martin, he took us to meet with Jimmy Iovine at his house…and shit, it was crazy. That night was crazy.
Jimmy Iovine was pitching us. Because Far East Movement was signed to us, so that was our group, so when we went to Jimmy Iovine’s house, he was literally pitching us, which was so crazy because its like “This is Jimmy Iovine. He’s pitching us to not go anywhere else but here.
ROMULUS: It was also big too, because at the time, we were always getting the stipulation that Asian-Americans couldn’t make it in music, couldn’t make it big. So for us to have Jimmy Iovine going “yo, you guys need to be here [on Interscope]” was huge.
YIP: Whenever I’m asked what my proudest moment is in my career, to me it’s always having been a part of breaking Far East Movement. Because, as an Asian-American, to be in front of the camera, and being the star, let alone being behind the camera, or behind the boards, there’s not just too many Asians in the industry. And so for us to be a part of the first Asian-Americans to break through and have a number #1 on Hot 100 was just incredible to us.
You've been friends with Bruno Mars for a long time, but there was a period of distance. Were you staying in touch?
YIP: He’d be doing the Superbowl, we’d hit him up and be like “you killed that!”
ROMULUS: Then we’d hit him up the next year and be like “you killed that Superbowl, again!” (laughs)
YIP: Summer of 2016…actually even before that. 2015. Were would be talking, and he would be like “send me some beats!” So we were sending him stuff and he’d be like “oh this is tight, I’m going to try something.” Then we wouldn’t hear from him, and he’d be like “send me some more stuff!” Yo, we still haven’t gotten in [the studio]. And he’s like “we’ll get in, we’ll get in, don’t worry.” Time passes, and now it’s summer 2016 and I hit him up. I don’t even want to hit him about music, I just want to see how he’s doing, because we haven’t spoken in a while.
He’s like, “well actually I need another song.” And he was like “I need this tempo, this key, all this other stuff.” So we sent him over something. And he was like “yo, I think this could work. Why don’t you guys come into the studio on Monday?" And it was a Saturday we were talking on the phone. So we go over on Monday and it was like no time had passed. Immediately for the first two hours, it’s like we’re catching up, joking, talking about the past few years, what’s been going on. And we work on track and that track ends up being “24K Magic”. And that was the first one we did together.
Where does the sound of a track like "Finesse" come from?
YIP: From Bruno. The first thing he did when we came in the studio, he was playing some of the other tracks from the record, and he was like “I want to bring the feeling back of when I was going to school dances. And how everyone was having fun and dancing, and didn’t any worries.” So when it came time to do “Finesse,” he was like “Let’s do a Nu Jack Swing song. And we we like “let’s do it.
With 2 Grammy awards under your belt, what’s next for The Stereotypes?
ROMULUS: Tunes brother, tunes. We’ve been working with Meghan Trainor, Goldlink, Foster the People…we’ve got one that just came out with Foster the People. Normani.
YIP: We’re working with this girl named Destiny Rogers. She’s incredible, she just turned 18. She plays multiple instruments, guitar, piano, she writes. I think we’re getting close to something really special with her.
Experience in general, it definitely gave us the know-how to know how to not do the wrong thing again. How to handle a different situation when it presents itself to us. I think we’ve always had taste and we’ve always had ears, the “gut” that we choose stuff from. Experience just helps with that.
You’ve worked with so many diverse artists and sounds. Is there something that unites everything The Stereotypes create?
ROMULUS: Our makeup of our group is so diverse as it is, our backgrounds and our upbringings are so different that when we come together, it’s like you can kind of feel all of our tastes and all of our interests in one. We have a four-tiered system for filtering, where nothing really goes out until all four of us like it. Our tastes are all different - and yet they’re somehow also the same. When it goes through all four of us, it has this sound that just like has a little bit of everything influencing it.