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Interview: Bei Maejor – Singer, Songwriter, and Producer

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For young emerging talents, who are often on the brink of a collegiate career, it is often thought that the sacrifice of one’s pursuit of higher education is a necessary step in the process of obtaining success within the entertainment industry. And while many artists have fulfilled their dreams without the possession of a college degree, those who manage to juggle the chaos triggered by their academic and professional careers tend to go unnoticed. Bei Maejor is a prime example.

In the midst of Bei Maejor’s undergraduate years at the University of Michigan, his production skills landed a life-changing slot on Trey Songz’ debut album. And the rest – as the saying goes – is history. With movie credits including Disney’s Princess and the Frog, along with the remix to “Ride,” Ciara’s chart-topping lead single for Basic Instinct, which featured Andre 3000, Bei has managed to capture the hearts – and ears – of a diverse array of music lovers.

Following the digital release of the Upside Down mixtape, and during the preparation of its highly anticipated sequel, uSd2, Bei Maejor managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on his college experience, his signing with Compound Entertainment, and “Never Knew I Needed,” his favorite collaboration with Ne-Yo.

Although you started producing at the age of 16, I found it very motivating that you were able to juggle this career during your time at the University of Michigan. How challenging was it to balance school work with your production work?

Well first, thank you, bro, for that. That means a lot. I’m working a lot on just trying to keep everything going, so it’s cool just to have these opportunities. So thank you for that.

As far as the college thing, that was the best time of my life. It was just the craziest experience, because on one end, I was at the University of Michigan, which is a prestigious school with all of these kids coming from around the world to go there. Then I had a whole other life of doing music. So I literally would be coming off a plane from Vegas to L.A. and going to midterms. Like leaving after school, going and working with some pretty big artists. So that was cool. I had to practice in my dorm room. I had all of that. It was like two worlds meeting at once, which was amazing.

Honestly, I’m trying to think if there’s anyone who has had that exact experience and I can’t think of it, because it was just so weird. Not that I was on the top level of either side, but just doing them at the same time was really strange. College can be like a full-time thing, and then doing music can be also a full-time thing, so I feel like I probably didn’t sleep at all for those couple of years. But it was cool. It worked out. I learned a lot about balancing. I learned a lot about discipline. I learned what it takes to really go after something that you want to do. That was the main thing, to learn from that and just being able to meet so many cool people all over, travel and just really be able to do it all. It’s awesome.

I had this interesting visual pop into my mind, as you were talking about getting off the flight from Vegas and heading to class. Do you remember how Clark Kent turned into Superman, and he has to do so almost immediately? Did you find yourself feeling like that?

No, but it was cool because I never switched to “College Bei Maejor.” I was always about music. Like if you look at my school, I was on the front page of the paper, but I had my hat to the side. I was still doing it how I was. There’s a music life in class. Like I would park my car on the curb and jump out. No backpack. Go in the side, and they were all cool with me. It was like a music video for like four years. I never really had to switch.

I remember my college experience, and there really was not a tremendous amount of space on-campus for artists to be creative. So, what is the craziest location where you made a beat?

Well, in college I had like a real different setup as far as producing. I had a lot of equipment and I would use it. Now, I can take my computer with me and figure some stuff out wherever I am. Now, I do beats on the plane. I’ve made beats in the waiting room of different places. Back then, I had a setup that was hard to move. It all kind of came back to my dorm. I never really had different places to do all of that. Now I do, but back then my setup was so weird. It was computers connected to equipment. I’m not sure even how it was. I just put it all together. And so that was kind of my beat, just like when I got in that room, when I had that dorm. And then when I moved to an apartment on campus, it was that room I needed to write.

Although your current life revolves around the world of music, what role did music play in your life before the age of 16, the age you started producing?

Before I really got into that, I would say I liked music, but I wouldn’t say more than the next kid. I think that music is something that touches everyone. I remember sitting down and listening to music with my dad, and I was playing with my mom when I was playing music, but I don’t think I had any stronger connections, really, to it than anyone else. Once it became a creative type of thing for me, that’s when I really caught on. I’m into anything creative. It doesn’t even have to be music.

I love doing music, but I’m starting to do videos. If it’s art, if it’s pictures, if it’s visual art, graphic art, anything like that, I’m into it. I think the creation of music at about sixteen is what really sparked me into really getting into it. Before I enjoyed it, and I liked it, but I had no clue I would ever be doing this. No way. I didn’t grow up singing or playing any instruments like that. I was more into sports generally. Once I got that creative aspect, I was like, Oh, man, this is it and I just ran with it.

So what was your field of study as an undergrad?

Communication and psychology. I had a double major.

Do you ever find that coming into play with your work?

I’m sure that somehow it does. I’m not sure if I can pinpoint it. All the experiences you go through, I think, impact it somehow. Most importantly for me, as opposed to actually learning was being a role model to show people who feel you can’t do music and do school. That was really my main goal because I did it and I think other people can do it. And so, that was really what I wanted to get out of that. I’m sure I learned some stuff that I still use, but I just can’t think of it off the top.

Was there anything else that compelled you to complete college? You got your first big break with Trey Songz in 2005 – contributing “Ur Behind” to his debut album, I Gotta Make It. Since you graduated in 2008, it would have been easy for you to just drop-out of college and pursue music full-time.

Oh, yeah. My mom! [laughing] Mom wasn’t playing. She didn’t like me to work. I mean, I could have left for sure. It wasn’t like she would say no, but when I first started, she was saying: “Promise me you’re going to do this.” And I was saying: “Yeah, yeah, cool.” I didn’t see it taking off. She may have seen it faster than me. She had me promise I would finish. I was like: “Yeah, you’re cool. Don’t worry.” Then I just started going out. I did have to start and I was like: “Man, forget this school stuff. I’m doing this!” [laughing] But I’ll always remember that promise.

I think Aaliyah said it best: “age ain’t nothin’ but a number.” Do you ever forget that you are only 23 years old? And when, if ever, are you reminded of your age?

Sometimes it’s hard to remember, because when I started most of the people I was around were older than me. And then you have an artist, like Willow Smith, who is only nine years old. So it all shows that age really is really nothing but a number. There’s so much going on that when you get caught up in the age of it, it kind of like becomes less of a factor as you just start seeing what works, what doesn’t work, what do people like. And there are times when I forget how old I am, and there are times that I remember it; like when I’m around people who are seventeen. Even Soulja, he’s like twenty or I think twenty-one. So I feel like, man, I’m old, compared to him.

I am still in awe of just how young you are, but at the same time, if you have  a gift, you have  a gift, and age does not  really matter. One project of yours that often goes unnoticed is “Never Knew I Needed,” which was featured on Disney’s Princess and the Frog. Talk to me about the significance of that project, or any special memories attached to that project.

Oh, wow! You’re the first person that has ever asked me about that. But that’s one of my favorite things, because a lot of what I learned came from Disney movies. I find myself hearing melodies and stuff that I heard from The Lion King. You know what I’m saying? Back in the day? Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and all of those other movies, when you go back and listen, the songs were just crazy. So I always wished that I could contribute something like that. When I heard that Ne-Yo might be doing something with The Princess and the Frog, I was always running around like: “Yo! Let’s do this Disney!” And he was looking at me crazy, like: “All right, cool. You don’t want to work on Mariah Carey? You want to work on Disney?” So after the song came out, his reaction was one of the main things I remember.

Do you spend a lot of time in Nashville? Some time ago, I remember you talking about spending time in Nashville with Rascal Flatts.

That was the same trip. I actually went there with Ne-Yo. We got to Gary’s house – from Rascal Flatts. We recorded the song on the same trip.

I see. As you know, country music has always been a big seller. So when you go to a place like Nashville, which is filled with so many great songwriters, what kind of tips and tricks did you find yourself picking up?

Well, first off you see that they’ve got money. They’re not playing! [laughing] You just look at the houses, and you start to think: “Wow, okay. Maybe I’m writing the wrong kind of songs!” [laughing continues] They just really, really, really are doing it. And just seeing how they write songs. Their process for those are different. Like we may go in the studio and play beats and play songs and do ideas.

They just go to the crib and have a duo with the guitar, playing the guitar. They just write a song like that. Then they tape record it, and then if they want to make it into a real song, then they’ll go produce. But their whole writing approach is different, which may contribute to a lot of the concepts that they come up with that are different. Like they come up with simpler, everyday concepts. And it’s maybe due to the fact of where they write it in the setting. It’s not so stressed and not so electronic and like corporate. It’s just chilling, writing songs. And it kind of comes across in the song.

In one of your recent press releases, I read that you regarded your production style as a “[kid playing] drums and synthesizers in a South American rainforest.” How so?

Oh, I was just trying to illustrate how I put different things together to make something. That was kind of like an example, but I don’t use a synthesizer in all of my stuff. I just like to put something you wouldn’t usually expect with something. That’s my thing. In a lot of my tracks, in a lot of my songs, in the traditional one like Upside Down, my album; in some of those things, it will be like drums from a jungle or something like that with some melodies with the piano; sounds that naturally usually wouldn’t go together in some sense, but that somehow kind of work out and look cool. Even number one, “End of The Night” on Upside Down, it kind of has the flow, like a weird drum pattern. Like some rain forest type of thing. But it all comes together and makes music which I don’t feel like can be defined by one sound.

And it all relates back to the “upside  down” theme, since you are literally turning musical conventions upside-down. When you are  producing projects for yourself, and then you are also producing projects for others, do you have this internal debate as to what you should hold for yourself and what you should give away?

No, because, I’ve made music. If you give me a cardboard box and some anything, I’ll be able to make music. So I don’t feel like I’ve got to hold this for myself. What I do find is that with different projects, when writing for other people and then writing for myself, one is just me just naturally flowing, what I would say. And then writing for one of them is me thinking: “Is this realistic for them? Does this make sense? How does this portray them?” It’s two different processes. So I don’t usually run into that problem.

From the production side, is there a particular artist with which you have developed or experienced a strong connection? Oftentimes, music is produced in advance, or separately, and an artist hops onto the track later. But is there a particular artist where you have experienced great chemistry live in the studio?

Well, I’ve worked with Trey Songz on all of his albums, so I would say Trey is really one I do a lot with. I learned a lot from him, just in terms of how he does it, how he records. I learned a lot from Trey. And then also Ne-Yo, truly, just because his talent is just so amazing that it makes it easy to work with. You can just do whatever. He’s just so dope.

In a couple of different pieces that I saw, you always mention Stevie Wonder. When you just look at his life and his legacy, what are some things from his life that you want to incorporate into your own career?

His versatility. He can play pretty much anything, sing pretty much anything, write pretty much anything. That’s just something I really admire about him. He’s not locked into one type of song, one instrument, one sound. He can do pretty much whatever, and that’s kind of what I aim for, too.

For more information on Bei Maejor, visit his official MySpace page.

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About Clayton Perry