Ten years ago, Stevie J was a teenager living in Buffalo, N.Y., with dreams of being in the music business. In terms of raw talent, he had more than the essentials: a great voice and an uncanny ability to play almost any instrument. Yet, performing was not his objective. Stevie J wanted to produce.
With that in mind, he started working in his attic with a 4-track mixer and a basic keyboard that his father, a Pentecostal bishop, bought for him. With friends, he formed a group and developed a unique hip hop/R&B sound. Eventually, he moved to New York City to seek fame and fortune. One day, while in a studio singing with the group Total, Stevie was discovered by Sean “Puffy” Combs, who was so impressed with Stevie J’s vocal ability and guitar chops that he signed him to a contract on the spot.
It wasn’t long before Stevie J asked Combs to give him a shot at producing. His first effort was with Lil’ Kim and Da Brat, helping them create their remix hit “I Don’t Need Anyone Else.” From there, the young producer/songwriter/musician had a major hand in productions of emerging hip hop/R&B artists such as Faith Evans, Carl Thomas, Total, Kelly Price, the Notorious B.I.G. and Combs himself; in all, he was a part of records that sold more than 30 million CDs combined. In fact, there are some who credit Stevie J with developing the hit-making sound for Combs’ Bad Boy Entertainment company. In 1997, Stevie and Combs even shared a Best Rap Album Grammy for Combs’ No Way Out.
Stevie’s success led to his becoming an in-demand producer for many non-hip hop artists who wanted to tap into his savvy, streetwise sound. The notables for whom he produced remixes include Mariah Carey, Dave Hollister, Sting, the Jackson 5 and Garth Brooks.
The project with the Jackson 5 began the transition into the current chapter of Stevie J’s career. The young producer’s style and energy so impressed Jackie Jackson, the eldest member of the Jackson 5, that he offered Stevie J a position as talent scout and producing partner for his new record label, Jesco Records. Stevie J jumped at the opportunity to work with one of his childhood idols, so he relocated to Los Angeles and put together a studio called Green Acres with Jackson in the Hollywood Hills. It’s quite a change from Stevie’s years at Bad Boy Entertainment. He says that he is optimistic and that his best years are still ahead of him.
What type of producer are you?
I try to keep my hands in all aspects, from dealing with the artist to the technical issues and songwriting. Even with well-established artists, I try to be in everything. But, it’s like a God-given talent; I didn’t go to school for anything. It just fell down to me.
What qualities stayed with you from your experiences at Bad Boy Entertainment?
Just to keep it in the realm of hip hop and have everybody dancing. [Combs] pretty much let me spread my wings and do what I wanted to do. He’d have a couple of ideas, too.
How big of an adjustment is it for you to be on the West Coast, and can your style adapt to it?
I love challenges and just plan on taking each day one at a time. So far, it hasn’t been that much of an adjustment. The weather is nice, and the girls are pretty cute. [Laughs] But other than those things, I haven’t seen much of a difference between the two. My goal is basically to come here, make some good music, find some hot artists and build up Jesco as a record company.
Of all the projects you’ve done, which are you most proud of?
That would be Notorious B.I.G. and the Life After Death album. I think it’s sold about 16 million at this point. We conceived most of the tracks in Trinidad; then, we came back to New York and put the whole thing together — that took about a year-and-a-half. Notorious made every situation seem better than what it was. He was very cool, cunning, very charming and into his craft. He wouldn’t get on the microphone till he had every lyric down, and he would never write anything down. It would be like five in the morning, and he’d say, “I’m ready to go, ready to get in the booth.” I’d say, “Where are your lyrics?” He’d say, “I got them in my head. Turn the mic on and give me a chair.” He’d sit down and rhyme for two takes, and it would be done. He was very serious about what he was doing and really loved his family. God bless him.
Who are some of your influences, and how have you adapted any of their styles into your own?
Quincy Jones. I listened to [Michael Jackson’s] Off the Wall album a lot, especially since I was more into live instrumentation. I wanted to use live musicians for my producing. [Jones] was always my idol, even though I used tracks with artists. I liked almost all of his productions. I’ll never forget when I first met him. I was at a Vibe show, and they called my name on the intercom: “Stevie J, come upstairs. Quincy Jones wants to see you.” I thought to myself, “This can’t be right.” But when I got up there, he greeted me with open arms and asked me if I wanted something to drink. I thought I was dreaming. But meeting him played a major role in my development, and I even stayed with him for a little while at his place in Bel-Air. He showed and taught me things, as well — an excellent and nice guy.
When I first started, I played a lot of live instruments for the projects I was working on. From being around Jodeci when I first came in, I listened to Avanti freestyle a lot, and the way he puts his notes together while playing his chords. I can add a little bit of that into my music, as well. I just try to be diverse and put a little bit of everything into it.
What’s your objective when creating tracks?
It varies depending on the moment, but most of the time, I try to keep the club atmosphere in mind and have the young kids dancing. Basically, creating an undeniable groove is what I strive for with the bass, drums and the shakers. You just got to make sure everything is laying in the right pocket. I used the [Akai] MPC3000 and -2000 extensively, with the 1200 for older styles.
What do you think sets you apart from other hip hop producers?
I just try to bowl in my own lane and keep it musical, but as danceable as possible. A lot of producers aren’t using live instruments at all these days, but I try to always use them. Even with samples, I try to play over them to give it a live feel.
You’ve mentioned that you want to expand the hip hop sound. How do you intend to do that?
I think if you play instruments, you’ll go into the country side of things or the pop side. Sometimes, you might do a little Spanish, with some guitar going on. As a musician, you tend to branch out and do it all.
How has your sound developed or progressed since you started producing?
I’d have to say it’s changed tremendously. When I was with Bad Boy, that was my beginning stages as a producer. Now, I really see what it takes. I know where I want to be now and what sound I want to have out there. Every day you learn something new. These days, I’m hearing the difference in the kicks I want to use to make a track bigger, and the snare I’ll use to make it calm down a little bit. Also, now I do a lot of EQ’ing just to make things fit in and sound good for your ears at 100-percent listening. Of course, everything is going to Pro Tools now. I’m just trying to make a hot track into a hot hit, and we’re just trying to make the new Dream Team over here.
What kind of equipment did you select for your studio and why?
I got the best toy in the world: a Digidesign board equipped with Focusrite Control 24. It has moving faders and is completely automated. It looked like a Neve board when we saw it at the showroom, and it does everything that a Neve can do. I love the Waldorf and want to give whoever designed it a big hug — this synthesizer is fabulous. We use the Korg for piano sounds and heavy strings; it’s kind of weighty and does certain types of fills really well. I control everything with the [Akai MPC] 3000 and just feed off of that. I work with an engineer, but I try to do most of the things, just so I know what’s going on.
Who seems to be making the most impact in hip hop presently?
We haven’t gotten our things out there yet, but women are really moving up the charts. They’re talking about what the world wants to hear right now. Guys seem to talk about what the guys want to hear; there’s got to be a median. But women’s stuff isn’t as funky as the guys’.
Do you have any interest in performing these days?
I’m working with various artists right now. I might do something from time to time; we’ll see what happens.
What’s your approach to working with vocalists?
I have the artist come in, and we start together early in the morning. We start throwing ideas out. I try to get their energy up once we’ve decided on something and make sure they’ve learned the song before reaching the microphone. To get the best out of them, you have to work it out sometimes and be patient. I don’t rely too much on rehearsing, but I’ll have tape or the disk rolling 24-7. I usually just go and see what happens — that’s pretty much the best way for me.
What’s your favorite microphone?
I like the [AKG] C-12 and the Neumann U47. I really love Neumann microphones, any one of them. I make them sound good going through the Avalon [mic pre].
Is the East Coast/West Coast rivalry still going?
I think all that was blown way out of proportion, though some of it was real. I mean, I was there, and I lost my friend Notorious B.I.G. Now most of that has died out.
Do you have any protegés that you’re grooming to be hot producers?
I have a couple of guys. Cold P and my brother Mike J are coming along real well.
Since you’ve moved to L.A., what area there do you find is the hottest for hip hop?
I’ve been from Compton to Bel-Air, just checking everything out and getting a feel for things. I try to figure out what kind of songs I can make from what I hear. Beverly Hills seems to be the most happening. [Laughs] That’s where it’s at, and it gets wild!
Has going to Pro Tools and other digital equipment been much of an adjustment for you?
Actually, I like [digital equipment] better; it’s much faster and easier. I thought I couldn’t get it when I was first exposed to it; it was like Chinese. Then, the next thing you know, it’s like one, two and three. Basically, it took less than a month for me to feel comfortable with it. So far, I’ve done about 80 tracks with it.
Have you ever run across an instrument that’s given you fits?
No, not yet. After church, when I was real young, I would play at the piano. But I never played during services. Actually, I never really tried to play until I was about 16. Then, I noticed I could play just about anything, from drums, bass, violin, saxophone, guitar and even xylophone.
Have you interacted with any of the West Coast rappers?
I’ve been letting them hear what I’ve been doing, and I’ve heard what they’re up to. We’re all just vibing. I like the West Coast.
Is there a new sound or style you’re trying to develop?
I’m trying to find a nice median [between the East Coast and West Coast]; in a way, bring them together. As Jackie says, “We want to make good songs, bring people together so that they have a great time, and make them smile. And if they can remember the hook, then you got them.” I just want to make a difference in the music. If I can touch somebody’s heart by putting a beautiful song on the radio, then I’ve done my job.
What was it like working with Garth Brooks, and are you interested in working with other country artists?
Garth was cool. You do have to get into the feelings of the artist’s music. Country is different from hip hop, but it’s still music. I gave Garth a little hip hop flavor but kept it along the lines of country music. That’s so you can just smell a little [hip hop]. I haven’t worked with any other artists like him since, but I’m looking to.
How’s the talent scouting going?
Well, you have to go out to see what’s happening. I was doing the same thing at Bad Boy, as well, so I’ve always been doing it. But the difference here is that Jackie has given me the authority to go ahead and make it happen. It’s just that everything closes so early in L.A. We did find this one 17-year-old kid who’s phenomenal. He sings, raps and wants to be in on everything. He’s hungry, so we’re letting him do it all. When I go to a club, I might hear something, but my thrill is coming in and turning on these new artists.
What should people know about hip hop that’s not apparent?
That it’s not going anywhere. The bottom line is, it’s here to stay. Most pop stars today like Britney Spears and even Limp Bizkit are going for hip hop, so you can’t get around it.
SELECTED STEVIE J. CREDITS
Stevie J. has produced tracks on all of these top albums:
Bone Thugs-N-Harmony:Collection, Vol. 1 (1998)
Boyz II Men:Evolution (1997)
Tevin Campbell:Back to the World (1996), Tevin Campbell (1999)
Mariah Carey:Butterfly (1997)
Deborah Cox:One Wish (1998)
Jay-Z:In My Lifetime Vol. 1 (1997)
R. Kelly:R. (1998)
Lil’ Kim:Hard Core (1996)
The Notorious B.I.G.:Life After Death (1997)
Kelly Price:Soul of a Woman (1998)
Puff Daddy:No Way Out (1997)