The producer is one of the most crucial yet anonymous figures in all of music. Every now and again we aim to illuminate these under-heralded artists with Beat Construction. This week, we talk to Ricky Reed, who performs amorphous Auto-Tune as Wallpaper and produces pop hits with personality, like Jason Derulo's "Talk Dirty," Jessie J's "Sweet Talker," and the new LunchMoney Lewis EP that we can't stop playing. The Oakland native tells us what life is like after a hit record, and how the "Blurred Lines" case has rocked his field.
How'd you start music? It almost came out of necessity. I played in punk bands in high school and would produce my band's records from scratch. That was when I started to get into bass-heavy music. In the Bay at that time was when E-40 and The Federation had their major label looks, and I was so into it. So I started making it myself, with me as the vocalist, which was obviously an interesting juxtaposition of things. This big bass sound I started cultivating at that time ended up really helping when I got to L.A. and started working with other people.
What about that hyphy sound connected to you? It felt untamed and crazy, but with a crazy good energy to it. I don't know, there was a silliness to it that has been echoed in music that I've liked from generations back—also from the Bay, like Sly and the Family Stone. So much of the culture of this kind of music for the past ten, twenty years has been about being cool, being collected—being too cool sometimes. That music was just like, "Fuck it. Let's have fun." It's disarming. With production, it's important to have those elements in there that catch people off guard and allow them to have fun. I think it's cool to make the guilty pleasures for tasteful people.
How did you go from playing in bands to a full career in producing? It really started when "Talk Dirty" happened—and "Talk Dirty" happened. It wasn't like I was working on this beat idea for a long time and pitched it. Someone kicked me the sample, I flipped it and sent it in. A month later, an A&R was like, "Hey, we got a song. Jason Derulo is on it." And I'm like, "Jason Derulo? Cool, okay, great." Initially they asked about it for Missy, who I'm obviously also a big fan of. Then it was number one in Australia. Then it finally comes out in the States, and it's the first time I'm really hearing my music happening on the radio and on TV and everything. It's funny: you can grind for so long. I'd been making recorded music for thirteen, fourteen years. And you just get you foot in the door, and that's all you need. That first one, you don't even decide to make it happen. You just put yourself in the right positions, and the record descends.
The genre of "pop" doesn't signify a sound the way "grunge" does, for instance. Songs like "Talk Dirty," "Uptown Funk," "Bills," are pop, but heavily influenced by soul, funk, and gospel. The one thing about pop that is cool is, it's not about style, and then it's all about style. The fact that it's genre-less allows the most important thing to be the feeling it gives you. In sessions and writing, that's what we put on a pedestal. Then it becomes, what combinations of sound or lyrics or melodies could achieve that feeling? For me personally, it's been soul music that gives me the feeling. I don't think it ever really went away, but we're in a whole other renaissance of soul records happening. A lot of what we're trying to do with LunchMoney Lewis is find out what the next actual sound is.
"The fact that pop is genre-less allows the most important thing to be the feeling it gives you."
What made you want to produce pop music specifically? I really like people. The older I get, I realize that's a trait that some people have and some people don't have—I love meeting people, I love making people laugh. Watching two or three people sitting on a stoop, bullshitting, having a good time—it makes me happy. When I go to shows and I watch people electrified by a band or a couple coming out of a movie cuddled up and happy, it feels good. The whole thing about pop music is, it's all about spreading that feeling. I think that's the highest calling, at least of what I do.
Since pop has no real genre, how do you establish your own sound/identity in the public ear? This is central to the whole philosophy: you can only write the song that you feel like that day. if you feel sad, you write a sad song. If you're actually partying, you write a party song. But you can't go into a dark room with a bunch of writers at 9AM with your coffee and write a party song for Flo-Rida. So for me, as far as how the style changes and stuff, it really is who I'm working with, what feels good in the moment, what projects come through. We've had really interesting projects come down the wire. I started doing a lot of work with Robin Thicke. He's a musical genius—not a lot of people know that. He has all these ideas, and I'm like, how do we deal with this? What ends up coming out on record—what you're hearing is relationships between people.
What were your thoughts on how the whole "Blurred Lines" case played out? It sets a crazy precedent for guys that do what you do. I, and many other members of the creative community, were very upset with the decision. It's something that happens every day: You're in a session, and somebody sings a melody, and you're like, "That sounds like the Ace of Bass pre-chorus." We have to watch out for that all the time. It has to be this very rigid sense of rules: this is what's against the law, this is what's not. Stylistically, yeah—you can listen to those songs and see the stylistic influence. But if you want to go that route, then Chubby Checker should sue the Beatles. All through time, artists have taken influence from music twenty to twenty five years preceding them. So aside from the fact that I work with the dude, when I saw it happening, me and all the people that I work with were pretty sketched out. They're appealing it now, too.
Legislation against sampling makes sense. This seemed like an entirely different thing, but it's being discussed in the same way. Exactly. And it's honestly such a specialized field that when you have anchors on CNN talking about it to middle America, it's very, very hard for average folks to draw the difference between what is a sample, what's an interpolation, what's a cover. These things aren't even owned by the same companies. The song is intellectual property, the recording is a tangible property—they're owned by different corporations—and the song is made of these two parts. I remember talking to my mom about it, and she was like, "Boy, the news definitely did a good job of making me think Robin and Pharrell really screwed the poor family." I was like, "No mom, I don't think that's how it went." Also, sidenote: Robin is just such a diehard Marvin Gaye fan. If you can just imagine for a minute the Gaye family being like "Fuck you!" And it can be worked out ostensibly after the fact. For "Uptown Funk," Charlie Wilson and some of the Gap Band were just very quietly added as writers for that song. There was an interpolation. But there wasn't a lawsuit, and all kinds of crazy shit. They just went to the dudes and talked about it with their people. Trinidad James is interpolated, too—he got his, too. He's still on.
What's coming up next for you? The shit with Robin is very, very cool. Obviously, after all this he's in a very honest and great place. We've been making heavy-duty emotional and sincere records that feel very good, and stylistically just channeling the coolest shit: Bowie, Lou Reed.
The first Icona Pop single is dropping in a couple weeks. We're in the middle of making a punky, feminist super-pop album. It's great, I love it. They are two of my favorite people I've worked with. I did the whole record. My studio is in Elysian Heights, which is in Echo Park, somewhat east of Hollywood in L.A. The girls would come over every day, we would walk down to the spot to get coffee, bullshit, and talk about their love lives or whatever it is. They're fun. Go back up to the spot, full stomach, caffeinated, room full of synthesizers, and just start plunking while they're still being silly and having a good time. That's the pinnacle of the music work experience: it's human, but it's also productive. I never had the privilege of being in with artists that I respect so much.