In a lot of ways, Sammie Bush's music career is akin to a cat who has nine lives to live. Since his 1999 debut, From the Bottom to the Top, Sammie's life has repeatedly alternated between the "real world" and the "music world." Over the course of a decade, however, through all the ups and downs, Sammie made a seamless transition — from an adolescent boy into a young man — and developed a loyal fan base around the world.
At the age of 13, Sammie secured his first Top 10 hit, "I Like It," which was followed by "Crazy Things I Do," a sentimental ode that crossed cultural and age-defined boundaries. Even so, just as the young singer's star began to shine bright, he took an abrupt hiatus from the music industry. Nearly five years would pass before the world would be introduced to Sammie again.
In 2006, Sammie reappeared with his self-titled sophomore set, at the age of 18. The album aimed to shed the "kiddie" persona of his gold-selling debut and danced a delicate line of maintaining Sammie's youthful vibe, while covering a wider range of "grown-up" topics. Of the fifteen tracks, "Come With Me" was the most personal. During the winter of 2007, the single would eventually become an underground R&B smash that re-defined his overall image and prepared Sammie's fans for his third studio album, Coming of Age.
In preparation for the release of Coming of Age, Sammie managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Dallas Austin, "Come With Me," and his new company, StarCamp Music.
Few artists have the luxury of making it big in the industry once, let alone twice. And as fate would have it, in spite of multiple departures from the music scene, you have been able to have — and maintain — longevity over the course of your music career. What factors do you think have allowed you to do so?
First and foremost, I thank God. I have a strong spiritual inclination and a wonderful relationship with God. I know that He brought me this far. Without Him, there is no me.
On top of that, I just have a strong family foundation. My mother raised me to always stay humble, establish good relationships and keep those relationships. That's very important and significant in this industry. I like to think the industry is 90% political – sad to say – and 10% talent. It's about who you know and who actually knows you and is willing to open doors of opportunity for you. I'm actually blessed to have that throughout my career. And then my parents raised me to always go above and beyond, be an overachiever.
So I have some type of drive in me that keeps me innovative and gives me the ability to reinvent myself. I think that in and of itself has helped me along to where I'm at now. The world saw me when I was 12 years old through 14, the 4-year break. I was 18 and now I'm 22. So I was able to evolve and allow my fans to grow with me and for them to really embrace the growth that I've been going through in this industry.
Exactly one decade ago, you made your debut in 1999, with the #1 smash "I Like It." As you matured and evolved, from a boy into a man, so have your die-hard fans, who have grown — over time — with you. Over the years, you have also garnered a new fan base, with your sophomore album, Sammie (2006), and guest appearance on Soulja Boy's "Kiss Me Thru the Phone." For those fans that just recently discovered you, what kind of insight can you give them about your musical beginnings?
Man, I've been singing since the age of four. I started off in church, cliché as that sounds but it's true. I got my biggest break in 1998 at the Apollo in New York in the kids segment. I made it to the finals in '99. From there, I was discovered by Dallas Austin. I got my first major recording deal when I was 12 years old with Capitol Records/Freeworld Entertainment. From then on, life changed for me.
"I Like It" was the biggest record thus far in my career – number one in the charts for four and a half weeks. I had my album at the age of 13 – From the Bottom to the Top is the name of that album. It kind of just took off from there. Then I took a break to have a sense of normalcy – went back to school and graduated in '05 and returned back to the industry with my sophomore album entitled Sammie under Rowdy Records.
I reunited back with Dallas Austin. Here we are now 22 years old with Coming of Age album coming soon. It's just a new me. I have finally grown into myself, so, like I said, it's like the evolution of Sammie thus far in my career.
You mentioned Dallas Austin as a key figure during your early years. Do you recall your first meeting with him? If you do, what was your initial impression?
Oh, yes. Before we first met, I was already familiar with his work with TLC, Monica, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Boyz II Men. So it was really a pleasure, especially at 12 years old, to go in the studio and work with someone of his stature and caliber. My first time meeting him, he was amazed by me and my talent and my ability to really sing at such a young age.
He was in awe of me, which was really confusing to me, because I was just a young boy from Miami who was just happy to be in the big city of Atlanta meeting Dallas Austin. I think both of us were really excited to meet each other, which was a good feeling. Dallas is one of the most talented, creative guys. And he is such a genius. What a lot of people don't realize about Dallas is that he does films, he has a clothing line, he's an entrepreneur. He's so talented and not just in music.
What do you consider to be the best professional advice that Dallas Austin gave to you?
To take control of my own career. I started my own company and surrounded myself with people that complement my situation. That's the best thing that I could have ever taken from Dallas, because I was so young and I was on auto-pilot, with everyone doing the work for me. For awhile, all I did was sing, even when I came back to the industry at 18. But in this day and age, with all the changes the industry has gone through, you really have to be your own boss.
I don't mean that in the sense that you boss everyone around, but in the sense of just having control and knowing which direction you want to go and putting together those pieces in the puzzle to help that vision come true.
Earlier you made mention of the fact that you took a break from the music business to focus on school. What kind of backlash or pressure did you feel from others, since you ultimately put your "success" on hold?
It was a very weird situation. One thing that I did not want to happen — and I see this happen to a lot of artists my age — is miss out on my childhood years. I see so many people grow up and they have insecurities and they go through identity crises, so to speak. That's something I didn't want to go through nor did my parents.
It was kind of hard to adjust because even when I was on tour, I had to deal with them after school. I would go to school three times a week – like Monday through Wednesday. Thursday through Sunday I would tour the world. To go from being a star Sammie to your everyday average 12-year-old was kind of hard to juggle. Once I finished touring – I think I was touring for like two, two and a half years, it wasn't an easy decision to make because I love music. I live and breathe music but I just wanted a sense of normalcy. I went to school. I played basketball for two years in high school. I was homecoming king. I was in the choir. I got to do things that everyday average students get to do but I know a lot of artists my age miss out on. So it was kind of a luxury.
Did you feel that since you were so young, it was worth the risk, since you would probably have enough time to grow and still be young enough to make a relevant comeback?
I always knew one day I would attempt to come back. I'm not going to say comeback because it's kind of hard to leave for six months and stay relevant, let alone four years. So it was never really a thought-out plan.
The plan was to be a kid, that's all it was. It was never like "I'm going to be a kid and then when I graduate, I know I'm going to come back and I'm going to re-sign with Dallas and everything's going to be perfect." It never was that way at all. You know what I'm saying? When I was in high school, I was truly in high school just living high school life – actually filling out college applications, taking SAT and things like that.
The hunger didn't come back until my junior year going into my senior year. You have to make a decision: do you want to go nine to five or go to trade school or go to college? One thing I've always been good at was music. That's when I decided to attempt to come back. It's scary now actually saying that – when I stopped singing I took a big risk because there was no guarantee I was going to be able to come back.
When you returned to the music business, what did you find to be the most drastic change?
On a personal level, I realized business means money. When I was 13 or 14 singing, it wasn't that for me. It wasn't about money. I didn't know about the label recouping and trying to make a profit and all that. I was just singing, having fun. I was in a world where I knew girls were screaming my name. I just became business-oriented when I came back to the industry.
On the industry note, there was just so much more R&B singers. I was the first young act out to succeed before the Chris Browns and the Marios and the Ne-Yos that you see. To start that young generation movement and feeling I had to catch up was kind of crazy. Now, there are so many different R&B acts, you have to really, really master your craft and become dedicated everyday to stay relevant. But I kind of want to be on top. I don't want to be in the mix of the R&B crooners that we have right now. I want to be number one.
When I came back, I told myself everyday, "I'm going to work on my craft vocally, my swagger, putting time in rehearsals, write and co-write songs in my album." I just challenge myself to be the best Sammie I could possibly be.
In 2008, you founded your own management and production label, StarCamp Music. The venture also has Big Reese and Jasper Cameron's Street Love label on board. How did this arrangement come to be?
Well, I've known Jasper since I was 11 years old. We started with Dallas at about the same time at the beginning of our careers. He kind of took me under his wing and taught me how to write and make simple music, not to make it so complex and make it relate to everybody and not just my situation. So I was a student and I'm still a student of Jasper Cameron and Big Reese along with the Street Love family.
Like I said, the music industry is a business now. And I wanted to form a team that I feel can take me to another level as an artist, as well as a writer, as well as a young boss and entrepreneur. It was a situation to me that made sense. And if it feels right, I go out on faith and see what happens. Thus far, it's been a great experience. It just feels good in the studio. It's like we're making magic. It's just something that I'm really passionate about, starting my own company and collaborating with mega-producers, like Jasper and Big Reese.
And what about your recent success? How did you wind up singing the hook on Soulja Boy's "Kiss Me Thru the Phone"?
Well, I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. I was talking to him at a video shoot. And he was like, "I have this hook and it's the last one I'm doing for my album. I don't know if it's going to be a single but we can see what happens." He actually tried to do it himself, put the auto-tune on but he didn't like how he sounded. So we knocked it out in 20 minutes.
Fast forward three to four months, it was number one on the charts. God is good and I thank Soulja Boy for even choosing me to be a part of that with him. I'm happy for the both of us. It's the second single from his second album and the track has picked up substantially in sales. It's my biggest single since "I Like It," so it was just a great situation for the both of us!
Several days ago, I came across an old review for your sophomore album, Sammie, that was written by Andy Kellman of AllMusic. In his review, he noted that "[you] might as well be considered a new artist, not a returning one, despite [your] past success." What's your take?
To me, with every new project, you're a new artist. Do you know what I'm saying? Even more so now. It's so scary the way the music industry is going and music being so accessible in the internet. You never know what's going to stick, if you really have fans of Sammie or fans of Sammie's music. There's a substantial difference.
My goal is to make my fans fall in love with me, the person. That way, they'll take the journey. Whatever I want to talk about in my album, whatever I'm going through in my life, they're along for the ride. So I do feel like I was a new artist. It's not about what you've done, it's about what you have next. It's cliché but it's kind of really how the industry, in my opinion, operates. It was cool that I went platinum in 2000. All right, but what's next? And then, what's next? That's how the industry looks at you.
So I appreciate those times, those two projects, but once it's over, it's over and you have to move on to the next. I feel like every time I come out, I'm a new guy. I'm never the same. I got to reinvent myself. I got to catch up to what's hot right now. That's just how you create longevity and you stay around, reinventing yourself and keeping people interested.
As you pursue this longevity, is there a certain pace that you try to maintain, so that you don't "burn out," or do you just go with the flow?
I try. I'm not saying I try to keep a pace, but you never know what kind of cards you're dealt. So you'll have some setbacks, whether it's on the business end or on the personal end or you're getting the label to move and you don't get it. It's kind of like you do have a plan but it doesn't always go the way you want it to go.
In a sense, it's kind of like you do a little bit of both. You have a plan and you have a format and a structure but in the same sentence, you kind of take it how it turns, too. You never know. I try to stay structured as possible but, like I said, in my career I've been dealt with a lot of setbacks that kind of put it in pause or hold. Therefore, I just roll with the punches.
In a recent press release concerning your forthcoming album, Coming of Age, you stated that you felt that you were coming into your own for the first time. I really liked your last album, Sammie, so what key differences do you see between your sophomore set and Coming of Age? Where does your sophomore album stand, in terms of your personal growth and development?
On my sophomore album, we had to play it safe. That was my first project out of my four year hiatus. Although I was 18 turning 19, I couldn't really talk about certain things that maybe Chris Brown could get away talking at that time just because I was looked at, to some degree, as little Sammie when I was 12, 13, 14. That just comes with the territory of being a star since you were a young boy.
I felt it was a good re-introduction. It helped me grow. It was a mature record that didn't just reach the young kids but older people liked the record as well. It was that bridge for me to evolve into the young man that I am today. For this album, from the artwork that's going to be done, the photo shoots, to what I want to talk about, I just have so much freedom that I never really had on my first project, of course, and even my second. I just feel comfortable with who I am and what I want to talk about.
So far, my favorite track in your catalog is "Come With Me." When you think of that song, are there any thoughts that immediately come to mind?
"Come With Me" was taken from real life. That was really who I was in high school. I was the guy that went for the girl who got hurt or who felt like all the guys were the same. That was me trying to be like a "superhero" to show girls different. It makes me appreciate writing so much more, especially when it blew up like it did. To be in a show and watch 20,000 to 30,000 fans in an arena singing the words that you thought of and sing words that you really lived, it makes you appreciate it that much more. I just want to establish myself as a singer/songwriter as well and not just an artist.
"Come with Me" was produced by Bryan Michael Cox, and you collaborated with him several times. How would you describe the chemistry that the two of you have in the studio?
He is one of the true R&B producers. I'm a true R&B artist. So I think when you put that together, you just get this chemistry that equates to greatness to me. He knows what Sammie wants to sound like, where I want to go. I pretty much know what B. Cox is going to give me. It's not even forced. It makes sense as soon as we get it. We made like three or four records on my last album and I'm going to get back with him in this album as well. It's just certain producers and certain artists have chemistry and he's definitely one of them.
As you reflect on the difficulty you had transitioning from childhood to adulthood, marketing-wise, what struggles do you think you will have to go against, as you continue to define yourself? What do you think is going to be the hardest thing for you to get across, marketing-wise?
The only thing that I want to get through to people is that I just want to be concrete in stamping that I want to be in the top five vocally in this industry. I say this because I'm a crooner. I'm not really going to woo you with Michael Jackson moves or things like that – that's more a Chris Brown or Omarion thing. The one thing that I want to come across to people is I think there are so much auto-tunes going on.
There are a lot of things that are taking away from the music and what music used to be. Hopefully, I can get that across. When I sing, I sing passionately and actually sing. It was a gift that God has blessed upon me that I'm able to share to the world. That's really what I want to get across. As far as me growing up, that's not the biggest obstacle.
Like I said, my fans when I was 12 are right now in the same age bracket as I am: they're 20 to 23. My biggest thing is to somehow break that gap and get people to realize and appreciate natural talent. In this industry, I think we can all agree that you don't have to be talented to be a superstar.
For more information on Sammie, visit his official website.