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Interview: Christopher “Tricky” Stewart – Songwriter and Producer

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Over the past decade, Christopher Stewart produced several of the industry’s biggest hits: “Umbrella” (Rihanna), “Single Ladies” (Beyonce), “I Look to You” (Whitney Houston) and “Touch My Body” (Mariah Carey). To date, his production talents are responsible for the sale of more than 25 million records.

As the co-founder of RedZone Entertainment, “Tricky” has established himself as a cultural tour de force, along with his brother and artist manager Mark E. Stewart. Since 1995, the company has produced a string of platinum and chart-topping singles that have drastically molded the contemporary music landscape.

At the close of 2009, in the midst of the successful release of “Hard” (Rihanna) and “Louboutins” (Jennifer Lopez), Christopher “Tricky” Stewart managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry—reflecting on the founding of RedZone Entertainment, the lasting influence of Lou Silas, and his transition from the football field to the production studio.

You were raised in a musical household. What professional lessons from your parents’ experiences have you incorporated into your own career?

My mother was a program director and so was my father. I think the one thing that I learned by watching the artists come to the station to visit my mother was that all the great artists really had great personalities. They went out of their way to make other people feel more comfortable about their stardom no matter how big they were. So that was something that I’ve noticed over the years, that great artists really know how to be on the spot. Also, professionalism. Professionalism was definitely something that I pulled from them. And being a person of integrity. I think those two things also lead to longevity. I guess that’s why my career has lasted so long.

When did you realize that you wanted to make music the center of your universe and pursue it as a professional career?

I was about fifteen, probably, when I guess the harsh reality set in that I wasn’t going to be a professional football player [laughing]. When I finally decided to get serious about the music, instead of splitting my time with other things, I put all of my focus and attention on it fulltime. And that was when I just got far more engulfed in the art form.

I know you play a variety of instruments. Walk me through your musical evolution. What gravitated you towards the drums, the keys and the guitar?

Well, my most natural instrument is the drums. I’ve played the drums since before I could walk. I always was beating on something. So I guess with that, it was really just the sound of it. Any time that I go to a show, or anything, the person I’m always watching is the drummer, no matter how big the star is, because that’s where my attention goes. I guess I started thinking about playing piano when I wanted to make music. I guess I tried being in a band. People didn’t show up. Then I started to realize when they didn’t show up, your instrument didn’t sound the same if the other people weren’t playing with you. That was when I started to learn how to play more and more instruments. That way, no matter how many people flaked out, I could still do what I needed to do.

Earlier, you mentioned that at the age of fifteen, the harsh reality set in about what you were going to do with your life. Once you finally decided to enter the music business, how long did it take you to realize that your profession was concerned about the “business” component as much as it was about the music?

I guess the very first time that I realized that was early on in my career. My brother protected me from most of that stuff. My brother, Laney Stewart, who really started the whole thing, was going into the music business. I did this record called “Color With Love” on the Zebrahead soundtrack. Somebody tricked me into signing some paperwork. That was the first time I realized that somebody could really lie to you, in your face, that you thought was being sincere.

Oh, wow!

But that was kind of early on. I was probably sixteen, seventeen years old when that happened. I want to say for the record that my brother told me, before I left. He said, “Make sure you don’t sign nothin’.” He did tell me that. Whether he was my manager then, or becoming my manager then, I think he was just calling the plays from the sidelines, or something, at that point. But now, he’s obviously one of the best managers in the world.

Well, that’s a big brother’s job [laughing]. I’d like to go off on a tangent, for just a second. In the Zebrahead story, you used the word trick, which got me thinking about your nickname “Tricky”? Was it given to you by a specific person, or is it attached to a specific life event?

“Tricky” just came from my playing football. I used to play football pretty seriously. So that’s why I said that the harsh reality of fifteen is when I realized that I wasn’t going to be growing as much as the players that were coming back from their sophomore growth spurt. I never had mine. Everybody else came back 6’4” and I came back still 5’8½”. The name “Tricky” came from me playing football. I was hard to tackle. I played quarterback, so that’s where it came from.

As the co-founder of RedZone Entertainment, along with your brother, [Mark E. Stewart,] tell me about the company’s origins. I read in one brief that you actually got pulled to Atlanta at the request of L. A. Reid, so how did the company travel from Chicago to L.A. and then L.A. to Atlanta?

Well, I guess from Chicago to L.A., that was just me leaving home at seventeen years old, going to live in L.A. with my older brothers to go make it in the music business. Obviously, that shook the family up pretty significantly, when you have young, black kids going across the country, away from their mom, to live on their own with a dream. So that was a very interesting time for our parents, and for my mom, because I know she was really, really scared about how we would even just turn out, as people. But it all worked out. Being out there, we kind of got put in the game a little bit.

Louis Silas, Jr. really started putting us on this project, because my brother Laney had a really good working relationship with Lou. So we started showing up on remixes and things like that. From that point, we did this group called Blackgirl. Blackgirl had this girl, [Nycolia] “Tye-V” Turman – who is actually the girl who really got “Umbrella” started, too. It’s like a real long, full circle. Tye-V used to sing backgrounds for L.A. and Babyface down in Atlanta, because, I guess, that group was based out of Atlanta. She was bragging about these producers that she had worked with, Tricky and Sep, out in L.A. Somehow, they came up to L.A.

Babyface was starting this new label called LaFace. From that point, what happened is, somehow we got in front of L.A. and his brother, who was the infrastructure at that time, I guess, when they were out in Los Angeles. So we played them some records. We didn’t even have a way to record the record. So we used to have to sing them live, like me and my cousin. We’re sitting in the car, right outside the Four Seasons on Doheny with L.A. Reid in the car, singing him this song that turned out to be “A Few Good Men,” for a single. And that’s how I ended up in Atlanta.

Was there a particular moment or offer that really sealed the deal, in terms of bringing you cross-country? Did L.A. have to pull your leg hard?

At the time — I think this was ’94 — they were building The Electric Company. He flew us down and just showed us what it was that they were doing, and then introduced us to this other producer. He had just got Darryl Ross and this other cat, this guy named Jermaine Dupree, OutKast and the whole Organized Noize situation, and we came down to be part of that. What ended up happening was that group, at that time, they just performed better than we were.

We were given the same amount of opportunities, but we weren’t writing hits. But we had the exact same amount of access. You know what I mean? So we were at LaFace. We were one of the teams that came from there, but we just didn’t have the success that Jermaine had, and that Darryl had, and that Organized Noize had. We had Sam Saltzer and “A Few Good Men” stuff and Dede O’Neal, the stuff that we were supposed to really be knocking out of the park. The stuff was good, and everybody loved it, but we weren’t really having connections.

What did that whole experience teach you about the nature of the music industry?

It took me a very long time to learn that lesson. That lesson is, you’ve got to write hits. That was the biggest lesson: good is not good enough.

You mentioned your mentor, Mr. Silas. When you think about his life and legacy, what immediate reflections do you have on your experiences with him?

I mean, Lou was our captain, for a lot of us, including L.A. I mean, L.A. and Babyface’s producing career had a lot to do with Lou Silas. Much of all the great stuff that people were listening to at that time was all done by him. That’s how we even found out about him. We were just reading the back of records. And we went and stood outside his car and just would harass him. My brother was working with him, but we were just fifteen year old kids trying to play records for the greatest record man walking the planet, arguably. He and Andre Harrell, at that time, were really just killing things.

Now, you are one of the industry’s most sought after producers, which puts you in a position to be a mentor to other up-and-coming producers. That being said, what’s the first bit of advice that you give to aspiring producers?

There’s so much advice you need. Is this person talented already? [laughing] Because it depends. Sometimes, the best advice is to let them know that they’re not talented in that way. You know what I mean? But if they’re talented — let’s assume that they’re talented. And let’s assume that they have something there. I would tell them to always make sure that they have a great song. You can’t flub. You can’t mess around with not having a great song. If you don’t have a great song, you don’t have anything.

At RedZone, you have fostered what some would call a “creative community.” What conscious steps do you take to foster such a community?

You’re always developing. You’re always looking for the next thing. You never want to get caught not having the next thing. The dream is the peak of the development, of when it works right. People like P. Magnet, the girl that did Britney Spears, and all that kind of stuff. That’s the reality of what can happen if the hit doesn’t really get written. But when the hit really gets written, and the cat can really recognize it, and really put the guns behind who really has the talent, that’s when it works beautifully. But if the cat can’t recognize the difference between each writer and each producer and who’s in the closest writing the hit — even though sometimes it may not even sound like it’s the best produced — you’ve got to really have your song evaluation on.

And RedZone – what’s the inspiration behind the company’s name?

The name Redzone is about always being on that quest to score. We’re football fanatics over here, so the red zone is the hardest part to score, but you’re always within striking distance. We want to just keep striking. That’s how we came up with that name.

There are several songs that I think not only defined your career, but also put you in a league of your own. For each, would you mind giving me some insight or some stories behind the scenes?

Sure.

“Just Fine,” in my opinion, is one of Mary J. Blige’s best performances. Although she was an established artist at the time, I think that particular song redefined her the possibilities for her career. What’s your take on that track?

Let me see. The real special thing about that track, the first thing that instantly stands out, is my man, Jazze Pha. I love Jazze, and that was one of our early collaborations that we did together. Just the energy that was coming off of him, with that up-tempo swag that he was on at that time. I remember Dream when he first came up with the record.

It was like when we first started. I don’t even remember how it all was really going on, but Jazze laid down the beat, and I was playing some keys, and played this bass line. Then he was like, “The bass line was crazy.” And by that time, Dream had already started writing the record and was ready to get on the mic. So that’s why the song was so simple: because it happened so fast, that I really only had a chance to put in those two little elements.

After the beat was done — we had that basic beat down — once the bass line came, the boom, boom, boom, we put the little guitar part in and Dream was ready to do his thing. So we kept that record real, real simple. The other thing that was great about that record is that we wanted to get Mary in the club, but the club scene at that time, I think Soulja Boy was really killing it. It was like, we wanted to get Mary in the club, but we can’t get her into the club trying to blend her in with Soulja Boy. We wanted a record like when the throwbacks that came on – like when they started playing Michael Jackson or playing Prince records and “Da Club.” So we wanted to make it sound authentic to Chaka Khan or something where it was a feel-good record. That’s why we put the live bass on there, and the horns, and the live percussionist to give it that old, good feeling.

When you are working with an established act like Mary J. Blige, how do you treat them differently than, let’s say, a newer act? Rihanna, for example, became an international superstar with her breakthrough performance on “Umbrella.”

Me, personally, I try to make sure that I treat them the same so that they can see that I don’t change. I really like to be consistent. The one thing as it pertains to the artist, as far as when I work with them, if it’s a new artist, the biggest difference is you’re trying to help them find a tone. You’re trying to help them find their space where they’re doing their best. Then they don’t sound like anybody else. But for somebody like Rihanna, that’s never been a problem because her voice is just so distinct. When she starts singing, it just sounds like that. But for some people, you’ve got to help them find their tone. You never know. Maybe T-Boz didn’t always sing low. Maybe she sang high, but didn’t find that tone, and you’re like, “That’s where you do your thing.”

Is there a particular artist that you are really proud of helping them find their voice?

I was really proud of Blu Cantrell. I thought we really locked in on something that was special with that half-gospel, half-jazz thing. That was very interesting to do. And to bring it to pop culture, a gospel-jazz twist, and still come up with hit-’em-up style. What was that record, that “Breathe” record, that she did with all that Dr. Dre beat? At that time, was really crazy, too. Those were some great albums, right there. That first album? That was one of my favorites.

Speaking about this gospel influence, I just recently read a book by Craig Warner, [A Change is Gonna Come: Race, Music & the Soul of America], that talks about three impulses in black music, which come from gospel, jazz and the blues. Is there a conscious effort on your end to incorporate those elements?

Yeah, to a certain extent. It depends. I would say on Dream’s albums, yes. It just depends, because sometimes I like to play on the other side, too, like on the more pop-y side. You can do that for a long time, too, and you don’t need any jazz or any gospel for that.

Right [laughing]. Over the years you have developed quite a relationship with The-Dream. What kind of chemistry do you have with him that you rarely have with others?

Man, it’s like Batman and Robin. He’s the perfect songwriting partner for me, I think. You can have success with other people, but I believe that David Foster is David Foster because most of the records that he did with Diane Warren. Most of the records that L.A. produced, Babyface wrote. The same goes for Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. You go down the list of all the great ones. Styles make fights and it doesn’t mean anything about anybody else’s writing or that you can’t do great things. It’s just that when me and Dream sit down to work, it just works. It just meshes. It seems effortless. We don’t really spend a whole lot of time trying.

You have so many accolades to your name. When you look towards the future, is there a particular accomplishment that still lingers over your head that you hope you achieve?

The thing that’s still lingering over my head is that I, in my heart of hearts, believe that “Umbrella” should have won song or record of the year [at the 2008 GRAMMY Awards]. And I still haven’t won that award! [laughing] “Single Ladies” is in the song category this year. And I really want to win that award. If we win that award, it can all be equal.

Gotcha [laughing].

But at the same time, I think “Umbrella” changed me. I think the Amy Winehouse record, [“Rehab”], was very well-done, but at the same time, it had already been done. What we did was kind of different. It changed how people listened to music at that time. I felt like we should have got it from an originality standpoint.

From now until eternity, one song that will receive heavy rotation, through parody or female affirmation, is Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” As a producer, is it hard for you take musical risks and create something that has never been heard before?

No, because we didn’t know we were taking any risks [laughing]. I believe that most artists – especially when you have a huge repertoire of music like Beyoncé’s and you look at the type of music she has gravitated towards over her career – I believe that certain rhythms belong to certain artists. When they walk in the room, it’s like that rhythm walks in the room with them. So that’s not a beat that I could make if Beyoncé’s not in the room. That’s not a track. That’s something that she’s bringing to the table. That’s what her swag makes you do and I think that’s why people compare that record to “Get Me Bodied.” But, at the same time, I wasn’t even thinking about that record. It wasn’t even in my mind. But then, obviously, when I heard it I was like, “Man, that does kind of have that vibe,” but then I went back and listened. That’s a vibe that she likes on her up-tempo records.

When you look out at the current music landscape, what parting words do you wish to share with me and the future readers of this interview feature?

I imagine not too much. The biggest thing about me is that I love what I do. I really love music. I’ll be here making music until the day that I die. If you’re not like that, I wish you would just get out of my business. There’s a lot of us that are like this. And I know a lot of them, people that really love what they do – Timbaland, Polow, L.A., Jimmy Iovine. But if you don’t really love this, and it’s getting down to the nitty gritty, you should just leave and just go. Do something else, because we don’t need people making mistakes right now.

For more information on Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, visit his official website

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About Clayton Perry